The phrase ‘old boys’ club’ might have been coined about California’s Bohemian Grove. It’s an adult summer camp established by the exclusive Bohemian Club, founded in 1872. Its membership is all male and has included numerous US presidents, plutocrats, bigwigs and what used to pass for influencers before that role was taken over by 14-year-olds with iPhones. Trump has never been invited, apparently. Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun was, though. It’s that kind of place – snobby. Its symbol is the owl (presumably because owls are wise, not because they have big faces and are murderous), which gives this show by photographer Jack Latham its name.
As much as Bohemian Grove is a secretive playground for men portly enough to know better, its existence is a metaphorical one for conspiracy theorists. Latham is attracted as much by the fascination it holds for people as the place itself. The Grove declined to let him in; the conspiracy theorists weren’t keen either. So what emerges in this show is a negative space, with Bohemian Grove the ever-present but unseen centre. Latham shoots the towering redwood forest and local people, but also suggestive scenarios: a glade with rows of school benches; a 1950s-style stage with silver curtains. If that sounds very David Lynch, Latham’s got there first, convincing a local cinema to put the ‘Twin Peaks’ quote ‘The owls are not what they seem’ on its marquee. Then there are nods to the wackos: cabins papered with reports of the Waco shootings, a man dressed as the ‘Phantom Patriot’ with a skull mask and a crossbow, the costume which Richard McCaslin was wearing when he broke into the Grove in 2002. Is it really him, though?
Many of Latham’s photographs are beautiful: their black-and-white serenity imbues them with an otherness. But it’s their collective impact that is so compelling. Whether or not Bohemian Grove really is the private members’ club that runs the world, its Oz-like theatricality remains elusive, and maybe that’s what real power looks like.