KAILUA-KONA — With inspiration from his ancestors and native Hawaiian mythology, photographer Matt Shallenberger has created a collection of photographs that show what makes the land on the Big Island special.
Six years in the making, “The Leaping Place,” a large-format photography exhibit, pays tribute to Shallenberger’s long family history on the islands and Hawaiian mythology that brings Hawaii’s landscape to life.
“The photographs are kind of based on a few things simultaneously. One, my own family history here. My family immigrated to the Big Island in the 1880s from Portugal, and the loose map of my shooting is based on their recollections of where they first settled, and the pieces that I was able to bring together of that,” Shallenberger said.
“And then the other thread is the kumulipo, which is the Hawaiian long chant of creation. It’s a stunning feat of memorization, because the chant is more than 2,000 lines long. … It tells the whole cosmological beginnings of Hawaii.”
The kumulipo, an ancient Hawaiian chant originating in the 18th century that tells the history of the islands, is the perfect inspiration for a photographer focused on the more unique parts of the Big Island’s landscape, past the typical shots of beaches and palm trees.
“It’s an undeniably huge resource, but as a landscape photographer, it is particularly interesting because at least for the first half of the chant, it is very interested in the physical world around us,” Shallenberger said. “So, if you’re just looking for a source of how the Native Hawaiians viewed the landscape around them, there’s no better source than that.”
Titled “The Leaping Place,” after the mythology present in Polynesian cultures of places where souls depart the body after death, the entire series is 60 photographs shot around the Big Island. From now through Oct. 21, a portion of the series is on display at the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea. The exhibit was previously on display at the East Hawaii Cultural Center and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Born in Kailua, Oahu, Shallenberger’s father was a wildlife photographer who moved the family around the country before settling around Waimea on the Big Island once Shallenberger had left home. Shallenberger didn’t start following in his father’s footsteps as a photographer until he was living in Chicago in his 20s, and his transition to landscape photography was an accidental process.
“It was a slow progression where I was doing more editorial and portraiture kind of stuff and it seems like the people in my pictures got smaller and further away, and then to the side, and then they just kind of left all together,” Shallenberger said.
“And I had been an actor for a long time, and I’m not doing that anymore, but I was working pretty steadily as an actor and doing plays and TV shows where I would show up to work and there would be a 100 other people there. Photography kind of became the thing I wanted to do to get to be myself, and so landscape is how that happens. And then I found out that’s really where I’m most comfortable, is out in the woods taking pictures by myself.”
Shallenberger returned to his Hawaiian roots when he started his large-format photography project of the Big Island. Large-format photography allows Shallenberger’s landscape photographs to contain more detail than a normal photograph would, which Shallenberger believes is the perfect way to capture the island’s spirit.
“You can just capture a lot more variety of color and a lot more variety of detail, especially in the shadows and in the darker parts of the frame,” Shallenberger said. “And Hawaii is a place where there is an incredible amount of interesting stuff going on in the shadows. The mythology that this particular series is based on, the kumulipo, is concerned a lot with different types of darkness. As someone who takes pictures a lot in a lot of different places, Hawaii is the place that seems to have the most variety in the darkness.”
Shallenberger hopes to take the exhibit to the mainland eventually with the help of “The Leaping Place” book, to be published this fall, which contains all 60 photographs plus notes and essays by Shallenberger about the project.
Once the photographs do make their way to the mainland, Shallenberger hopes people are amazed to see what he was able to capture within a small area of island.
“I think anyone who isn’t from the Big Island, or hasn’t spent a lot of time here, will be surprised to find they’re all shot within a few 100 miles of each other,” Shallenberger said. “As people on the Big Island, we recognize the incredible diversity of the landscape here. But I think if you were from the mainland, you would be stunned to find these barren deserts next to rainforest.”
Shallenberger said it was important to him for “The Leaping Place” to debut in Hawaii, where locals will recognize both the locations photographed and the essence Shallenberger is trying to capture.
“I’m a big believer that local mythology is the most sincere description of any landscape. Those are the people that have built stories that take place in that landscape. Those are the people who are interested in how a place feels, not just how it looks is a particular moment,” Shallenberger said. “And when I’m going around taking pictures with that mythology in my back pocket, I’m going back to places over and over again. It’s more like painting than contemporary photography. I’m not particularly interested in what a place looks like at a particular moment. … I’m much more interested in finding out what a place feels like.”
Info: “The Leaping Place” is on display now through Oct. 21 at Kahilu Theatre in Waimea. The galleries at Kahilu Theatre are free to the public and open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m Monday through Friday. For more information on “The Leaping Place,” visit kahilutheatre.org or mattshallenberger.com.