Kingston, New York, sits two hours north of New York City on the Hudson. Refugees from Brooklyn have recently put down their version of roots in the historic and formerly abeyant small city—vinyl record shops, bookstores purveying the kind of coffee topped with microfoam tulips, lounges serving Instagram-ready handcrafted cocktails. In a less frivolous development, an LGBTQ community center now occupies a corner of uptown’s most prominent block.
If this Kingston of 2018 had been the Kingston of the turn of the millennium, the one that is the setting of Welcome to Marwen, the new movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is possible that its originating event might never have occurred. Then again maybe it would. Hate has no fixed address.
In that Kingston of yore begins a story about storytelling, revealed from multiple points of view in three different media. It starts in the first hours of April 8, 2000, when a 38-year-old restaurant worker and former U.S. Navy petty officer with a drinking problem was set upon by five men outside a bar. He was beaten so mercilessly that when a bartender found him in the street he was near death. She initially thought he was a garbage bag. Mark Hogancamp spent 40 days in the hospital, nine of them in a coma. The bone around his right eye required reconstruction. When he came to, he remembered nothing of life before the assault. He had to relearn how to eat, to walk. He returned home and thought the pairs of women’s high heels piled in the closet must belong to a girlfriend he couldn’t recall. In fact they were his, and they may well have provoked his attack. At trial people testified they’d overheard Hogancamp tell the men he enjoyed cross-dressing.
A heartbreaking story that might have stayed within the confines of a forgotten city, like the numberless tragedies that daily occur on a thousand other cultural islands, instead broke free because of what the otherwise unremarkable city of Kingston was becoming. And because this transformation intersected with who Mark Hogancamp already was.
He had long kept diaries—dubbed “drunk journals” because they recounted self-destructive behavior that to him was “like something Stephen King wrote”—filled with accomplished drawings informed by comic book illustration. These were neither the product of a trained artist nor overtly intentional artmaking: Hogancamp is the consummate example of an outsider artist.
It was pure chance that a photographer named David Naugle then living in Kingston witnessed a curious sight. A man, frequently dressed in Army drab, used a modified pool cue to pilot a 1:6 scale model jeep filled with costumed dolls down his semi-rural neighborhood’s road. He’d walk to the local deli and back, again and again.
Hogancamp was walking in search of verisimilitude. After his release from the hospital, he embarked on a project that was more like a need. Left with a right hand that now shook too much for drawing, he went about creating a new type of world. It would only look old, meticulously detailed and appropriately weathered. He named his fictional town, set in World War II Belgium, Marwencol. Hogancamp built it in 1:6 scale beside his rented trailer using scavenged materials and peopled it with an alter ego named Hogie and other characters of Hogancamp’s acquaintance. Under his obsessive attention it grew until the realest part of his existence took place inside its miniature precincts. The world reversed. It was women (some of them Barbies) who were the fiercest avengers; Axis and Allied soldiers respected a pact to peacefully coexist. The bar at the center of town life was named the Ruined Stocking Catfight Club. A tiny sign reassured patrons the vicious fights were only staged. Hogancamp’s Marwencol was a matryoshka creation, a hall of mirrors in which personal storylines set in motion by fate were reenacted by characters of his own making. He arranged and photographed figures that appeared to build the town church as he himself was building it. Sometimes a larger figure, identically dressed as Hogie but holding a camera, arranged the smaller figures in Hogancamp’s stead. He photographed big Hogie photograping little Hogie.
The true evildoers were handily provided by history. The SS was the town’s persistent threat. Five soldiers, the number of Hogancamp’s attackers, might appear at any time. In one of the recurring narratives Hogancamp conceived, the SS rampaged through town—desperate for drink. The soldiers attacked Hogie and savagely beat him. After being saved by a cadre of invincible women, as Hogancamp himself had been (the barkeep who found him, the mother who advocated for his recovery and strong penalties for his attackers, the neighbor and colleagues at work who became objects of desire and thus reawakened an essential drive to master destiny by picturing a narrative in which his affections were requited), Hogie was left with a dashing scar over his diminutive right eye.
Alone among the denizens of Hogancamp’s imagined world, the SS were revenants. They could never be killed except by supernatural powers. Their existence speaks to the issue of creative control even as they effectively personify post-traumatic stress, the ordeal that won’t stop.
After David Naugle introduced himself, Hogancamp gave him a packet of photos. They recorded moments—panels, really—of the staged action in Marwencol. If the essence of photography is its apparent capture of frozen moments, these were frozen moments of frozen moments. Everything Hogancamp did stood at a double remove from either life or its representation. His photos were pre-cinematic: film stills of a film that had yet to be made. Perhaps—or perhaps not—Hogancamp’s world was ripe for onscreen realization.
It could be that Hogancamp’s story is necessarily resistant to any effort to cinematize it. The pictures he took were the ultimate step in the creation of a self-enclosed new world through which he could comprehend, reshape, and re-present the past. Only by way of photography’s evocation of the permanent eternal was the creation sealed and complete. It would in effect be unmade if reeled backwards into action, into the recursive present that is film.
Action, along with special effects, is what Robert Zemeckis is known for. It is understandable that the director of earnest movies like Forrest Gump and Cast Away was attracted to a tale that on its surface appears about art’s ability to deliver personal salvation. By combining Mark Hogancamp’s story with animations of Marwencol that jolt the viewer with scale trickery, Welcome to Marwen ironically diminishes both. Not that it isn’t marginally fulfilling, to some degree; Steve Carrell as Hogancamp is affecting. At least when he has not been converted into plastic via motion capture. The film’s narrative, smoothed into the requisite symmetricality by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and Zemeckis, is a good one. It just isn’t about what Hogancamp has truly done: artistically transfiguring a complex, dark, and insular experience. It is about what popular movies do with others’ stories. It is, finally, about Hollywood itself.
As a photographer, David Naugle knew the rawly surreal art brut the man had shown him was unprecedented. Hogancamp’s work recalled that of David Levinthal, another artist who photographed toy soldiers, but without the self-aware guile that permeates the established artist’s pictures. Naugle alerted his friend Tod Lippy, the founder and editor of the arts magazine Esopus, to Hogancamp’s work, which the magazine then featured. A show at New York’s White Columns followed, as did an excellent documentary by Jeff Malmberg in 2010 and six years later the Princeton Architectural Press publication of Welcome to Marwencol, by Hogancamp and Chris Shellen.
It is worth making explicit that Hogancamp’s project spans both the making of his fictional town and the photographing of it. They are inextricable parts of the same endeavor. How to define “art”? Let me not count the ways. Out of infinity, though, I might pull the one that seems most germane to Mark Hogancamp’s singular achievement: an object or experience predicated on its potential for consumption by someone other than its maker. He could have posed his figures and then, alone, looked at them for a time. No one would’ve known about the secret act. Instead, the artist was compelled to make an enduring record. If he hadn’t taken that ambitious step, Marwencol might have remained a doleful oddity, a self-therapy of interest mainly to its creator. Instead, with the first snap of a shutter, Hogancamp imagined into existence a viewer. In that moment, when we were invited into this made-up village with its heroic plastic denizens, we became real too. His small world joined ours, his lens the bridge between the world of the imagination and the world at large.
Hogancamp’s photos speak to the line between believability and fakery, between simulation and the surprise inherent in finding “life” inside the obviously unreal. His photos capture weather and mud, sun filtering through tree branches, drops of “blood” on actual snow: Dislocation is the subject of these works. Shallow depth of field blurs what is in the distance, making it look realer than real, because it looks familiar from a thousand posters for movies we’ve seen. (In a caption in the book, Shellen explains, “The natural environment of Kingston is incorporated into Mark’s photos, with faraway vistas looking size appropriate.”) Then there are the figures, caught in “active” poses—carrying a wounded comrade through deep muck, checking a map unfurled on the hood of a jeep, running away, taking aim, dressing wounds. They bear permanent expressions, ones molded right into their faces, their very “beings.” The viewer’s brain is required to recalibrate basic notions of motion versus permanence. What hurts the head to explain is immediately grasped by the eye: Hogancamp’s pictures represent dynamism through picturing the clearly static.
Their sense of the surreal is not limited to their method. One of the most often reproduced of his photographs is a wedding picture, bride-doll in gauzy white dress and Hogie in black suit and shiny tie. The backdrop consists of the five SS soldiers strung up by their feet. An image of wartime brutality collides with a photographic convention, love’s happy future.
In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a book about photos that contains no photos, she writes, “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” Mark Hogancamp’s past was indeed beaten into unreality. And the space of which he is insecure is the one where he still lives, the Kingston forever changed into an ominously shifting landscape.
In Malmberg’s documentary, the photographer Hogancamp tells the camera that has been turned on him for a change, “I built Marwencol for me—now it’s everybody’s. It’s the one last thing I don’t want taken from me.” One is reminded of those innocents who once feared cameras would steal the soul of their subjects.
In Kingston, the dark and unadorned hobby shop where Hogancamp bought many of his models has become a store that sells a “beautifully curated” selection of home goods: modernist porcelain and cooking tools. In a nod to its predecessor, the shop recently hung some Hogancamps in the window. Through fictional eyes Hogie looked out on the streets of the city that is no longer his. It is the one where he almost died and came to life, again and again.
Image credit: Unsplash/Hanny Naibaho.