Brian Griffin


Book review by Gerry Badger

Brian Griffin making a conceptual photobook? What’s more, Himmelstrasse is an instant candidate for the year’s ‘top ten’ listings. It is a ‘conceptual’ book, I suppose, in that its overall conceit, or the idea behind it, might be considered to be more important than the photographs themselves. But in Griffin’s case, this is not to say that the images themselves are negligible – far from it. This, after all, is a photobook, so its meaning is carried by the pictures. Nevertheless, they are ‘simple’ photographs, without much sign of a stylistic signature or much rhetorical flourish by the photographer. Indeed, this is a one-picture book, a series of images in the Bechers’ mode, in each case looking down a railway track into the far distance from the same central viewpoint.

An important part of the book’s meaning is also embedded in its title, Himmelstrasse. This is a not uncommon street name in German-speaking countries – I know of a Himmelstrasse in Vienna for instance. It means ‘Heaven Street’, and “Gott in Himmel!” (God in Heaven!) was an expletive that occurred in the more jingoistic British war films – along of course, with “Achtung Spitfeuer!”

Put the railway tracks and Himmelstrasse together, and we come to the narrative and poetic core of the book. The tracks, shot by Griffin in Poland, represent the terrible realities of railway journeys during the Second World War, journeys that, in the Nazi occupied territories, frequently led to death: the ironic ‘heaven’ of the title. In particular, Brian Griffin is referring to the journeys so many innocent civilians made to the concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere – civilians selected to be transported to a far off camp to be worked to death, or sent straight to the gas chambers, just because they were Jewish, or Polish, or Romany, or gay.

Now the death trains, mercifully, have long ceased to run, but the tracks remain, some of them disused and overgrown, others put to use for different, more benign purposes. As remnants of a dark history, they exude a palpable sense of loss and poignancy, and yet Griffin’s imagery is also rooted in the present, thanks to recent events.

If the book memorialises, perhaps it also warns. Perhaps, as we look at a photograph of some disused track, Griffin is saying that it would not take much for it to be refurbished and pressed into service to take people to Himmelstrasse once again. Indeed, Griffin’s book seems incredibly timely, as we are currently seeing scenes on our television screens of a mass exodus across Europe, the likes of which has not been seen since the end of the war. An exodus accompanied by warnings from certain quarters that it could lead to future social, ethnic, and religious strife, with a recurrence of the kind of intolerance that led to the previous attempt to impose a ‘final solution’ upon Europe. Simple photographs then, but with a complex meaning, and possibly getting more complex by the minute.

In terms of the photographs, Brian Griffin is too much of an old-time photographer to completely narrow this project down. One can imagine how the Bechers would treat this subject. It really would be a one-picture book. But Griffin allows a certain variety within the tight framework, although he is rigorous enough. Some of the images are black-and-white, but others are colour. Some of the tracks are clearly out of use, while others are still in operation.

There are two near constants, and both are important. Firstly, this is a rural landscape book. There is an image where the tracks run through an industrial complex, an oil refinery maybe, and a couple of abandoned platforms, but no sign of cities, stations, or even villages. Of course, much of the transportation to the camps passed through major conurbations at night, for even the Nazis did not want their people to know what was really happening.

If the settings are rural, they mostly feature woods and forests, the great forest that once covered Germany and this part of Europe, and for instance, defeated the mighty Romans. And the most notorious camp of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was situated in the middle of a forest. Birkenau means ‘the place of the birches.’ The most enduring image of the Holocaust is probably the single railway track ending at the gatehouse to Aushwitz, a picture that is surely the conceptual template for Himmelstrasse.

And finally, there is the most important constant of all. There is no sign of summer in the book. This is a bleak, cold, midwinter book, as befits its sombre subject. It was the winter, ironically, that ultimately beat the Nazis, although it was also the winter that killed so many in the camps. At the very end, the railway stops, and we are faced with a narrow, track-free path through the woods in the penultimate image. The final picture is the only one where we cannot see the way ahead. A large concrete block literally bars our progress. It may have had railway buffers attached to it; it may have had some other purpose. Whatever it is, it exudes an ominous feeling of finality – it tells us discretely but firmly that this definitely is the end.

All images courtesy of the artist and Browns Editions. © Brian Griffin

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 30 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Peter J. Cohen

Snapshots of Dangerous Women

Book review by Susan Bright

I am writing this review in the wake of yet another public shooting in America. Flicking through Snapshots of Dangerous Women I am struck by the amount of photographs of women with guns. This, of course, is a symbol of a particular sexual fantasy, but these photographs are different from the ‘women with gun’ trope that may spring to mind. These are not objectified women in unlikely scenarios posing in order to validate fantasies – they are candid snapshots. They don’t feel dangerous in the way guns really are. Instead, the women here feel rather fierce and altogether comfortable with their weapons. Often, the pictures of them come across as elicit.

So the title Snapshots of Dangerous Women rankles. These women are not dangerous (and if they are then I would ask dangerous to whom? The answer, of course, is obvious – I don’t have to spell it out). Instead, these women are happy, free, strong, often goofy, and rather glorious. They are young Americans and the photographs of them range from the early twentieth century to the 1950s. They are women enjoying themselves heartily: drinking, smoking, dancing, driving fast cars, fighting, fishing or just posing with a free abandonment and glorious self-confidence. Or, to put it another way, it shows women behaving just like men.

I read that the collector, Peter J. Cohen – from whose vast collection of vernacular photographs these snapshots are sourced – wanted the title to be deliberately provocative. But it doesn’t feel that way; it feels more like a marketing ploy for sales. And this is a great shame as it is really a terrific selection of snapshots that say a great deal about the social and familial conditions of the time they were taken.

The scholar Geoffrey Batchen claims that “snapshots show the struggles of particular individuals to conform to the social expectations, and visual tropes, of their sex and class […] everyone simultaneously wants to look like themselves and like everyone else […] Before all else, snapshots are odes to conformist individualism”¹. Not so for these women. They have no desire to look like anyone but themselves and do the complete opposite of what is expected of their sex and class.

Batchen’s writing on snapshots, from only seven years ago, shows how much the culture of the photography has changed in this time. He states that snapshots have relatively little market or museum value. This has has shifted dramatically recently as museums reconsider their relationship with vernacular photography, both in terms of acquisitions and display. Auctions now regularly include more vernacular photography of the early-to-middle twentieth century, and flea market prices for albums and collections can be somewhat astonishing. The way we express ourselves in our own life narratives online has become an increasingly prolific part of photographic culture, too, and, as result, vintage snapshots have become all the more valuable. The very fact that books like this are made goes someway to illustrating this.

The book itself is perfect: it’s not too big. Snapshots need to be kept to near their original size in publications. To blow them up too big makes a mockery of their purpose and charm. To make them too small turns them into treasured jewels – which, by their very nature, they are not. The uncut pages take any preciousness away and the mix of full bleed and reproductions of the full photograph means the book has a good fast rhythm that doesn’t feel at all repetitive. The mix between the reproduction of image and object is beautifully balanced.

The introduction is formed by a series of quotes and facts about various women and events covering the period under examination. They are structured in short pithy sentences. This is just right for the book. Mia Fineman (Curator of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) has curated and written about vernacular photography and the range of quotes she has sourced shows she has spent time with the collection, and really understands the social conditions for women of the times, whilst simultaneously rooting for their more unconventional lifestyles.

The most beguiling images are those of groups of women together or two friends. My favourite is what looks like a sleepover. It shows four women lounging drunkenly together. They are bunched up to get in the frame at what feels like the end of the evening. They are all smoking; one holds a near-empty bottle up in a drunken yet triumphant gesture. The woman on the far left is dressed in dashing striped pyjamas and you have to look twice to see that she is a woman as her short cropped hair is at odds with her beautifully manicured nails. The room is a mess and it’s only too easy to imagine the awful hangovers that will haunt them all the following day. I imagine them smooching around together eating vast amounts, empty-headed, laughing, and napping whenever they get a chance.

But although the collection is joyous, it also left me feeling a little melancholic. How awful that women had to hide this side of their character away only to be revealed in the privacy of their own environment and to somebody they trusted behind the camera. In the photographic culture today, where vernacular photography can be understood in terms of the selfie and other online versions of self, the judgement of how women should and should not act in front of the camera continues, as evidenced by the vast amount of writing on the supposed narcissism and shallowness of (mainly younger) women. Wouldn’t photographic representations be all the more richer if women felt they could behave how they damn well pleased and not be shamed, judged, fetishised, or, indeed, labelled as ‘dangerous’ for having done so?

¹Batchen, G. (2008). “Snapshots.” Photographies 1(2): 121-142.

All images courtesy of Rizzoli. © Peter J. Cohen

Susan Bright is a curator and writer. Her published books include Art Photography Now (2005), Face of Fashion (2007), How We Are: Photographing Britain (2007: co-authored with Val Williams) Auto Focus (2010) and Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood (2013). The exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain was the first major photographic exhibition of British photography at Tate.  The exhibition of Home Truths (Photographers’ Gallery and the Foundling Museum and traveling to MoCP, Chicago and Belfast Exposed) was named one of the top exhibitions of 2013/2014 by The Guardian and The Chicago Tribune.  Bright was visiting scholar at the Art Institute Boston in 2014. She currently lives in Paris and is completing her PhD in Curatorial Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Michael Etzensperger

Normal Viewpoint, No Other Than The Direct Frontal View

Essay by Martin Jaeggi

The title of Michael Etzensperger’s series of photographs Normal Viewpoint, No Other Than The Direct Frontal View has a decidedly authoritarian ring to it, one that seems at odds with the photographer’s delight in pictorial invention. It is in fact a quote derived from an 1890 text on how to photograph sculpture by the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), a pioneer of formalist approaches to art history.

Wölfflin championed the assiduous study of artworks’ surfaces and formal characteristics in order to analyse art history as a succession of clearly delineated styles that take precedence over the individual artist. Most notably, he investigated the shifts of artistic vision from Renaissance to Baroque. His emphasis on the close, visual study of artworks led him to advocate the use of slide projections in teaching art history yet also instilled in him an awareness of the problems of photographic representation. In his essay on how to photograph sculpture, he lombasted photographers who took artistic license when instead they should, he said, be merely documenting and not using it as an opportunity to showcase their ingenuity. In short, he proposed a strict set of rules, based on rigorous formal analysis, which ultimately set out to curtail the creativity of the photographer. Etzensperger explains: “[Wölfflin] supported the thesis that a sculpture cannot be photographed from any given angle, but that it requires the correct viewpoint of its viewer – in general the front view. From this position, the viewer needs one single glance to see the sculpture’s shape, contour and proportion at its highest point of perfection.”

Michael Etzensperger developed an interest in sculpture during a stay in Brussels, where he discovered a book by the conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers and photographer Julien Coulommiers, Statues de Bruxelles, which showed the city’s abundant sculptures from unusual angles – coincidentally taking the very approach that Wölfflin so passionately attacked. The publication inspired Etzensperger to search for unusual and playful ways to register sculpture that would highlight the photographic illusionism at work via that very act of the representation – the slippery interplay of sculpture’s physicality and the flat, surface qualities of photography.

Hence, it is no surprise that Wölfflin’s dogmatic, yet persuasively argued essay piqued Etzensperger’s  interest when he chanced upon it as part of his research on interdisciplinary practice. Etzensperger picked up on the fact that at the heart of Wölfflin’s treatise was the proliferation of photographic art books that existed around the turn of the century – status symbols for a bourgeois audience keen to display their education and cultural sensibilities. Etzensperger began to collect early twentieth century photobooks on sculpture and used them as source material for collages that he would then rephotograph. Reinterpreting Wölfflin’s text, Etzensperger creates new, fictional sculptures from already ‘standardised’ reproductions, cannily shifting back and forth between three-and two-dimensionality and pushing photography’s illusionism one step further into the virtual.

In eight large-format black and white photographs, Etzensperger stages delirious variations on iconic sculptural topoi. In Clothing, he shows a headless figure submerged in a waterfall of folded fabric. Whereas in classic sculpture the arrangement of folds is a discreet sign of mastery, Etzensberger transforms it into an all-encompassing excessive swirl at odds with any classical ideal. The same happens to the limbs of lovers that resolve into a fleshy wheel turning upon itself. In Torso 1-3, classical torsos, epitomes of measured beauty, are cut up into strangely disfigured shapes that are reminiscent of Expressionism’s violent, fractured representations of the human body, while the edgily collaged fragments of the breastfeeding Virgin Mary seem to nod to Cubism. In Atlas and Stone, Etzensperger tackles the perennial question of the relationship between stone and sculpture. But whereas in a standard narrative the sculptor heroically masters the slab of stone, here its weight and materiality reasserts itself in Etzensperger’s collage, defeating the will to form. They expose sculpture as illusionary a medium as photography.

The illusionism of a sculpture’s photograph is always a second-degree experience that loses any vestiges of referentiality in Etzensperger’s collage. These questions also resurface in two mini-series, Nike and Discobolus. By partially cutting out several reproductions of the Nike of Samothrace and arranging them in a manner suggesting that the goddess is literally stepping of the page, Etzensperger refers to countless animated film scenes in which characters step off the stage set, thus cajoling the venerable Nike into a cartoon-like scenario. In Discobolus, Etzensperger approaches the question of reproduction from two angles. This relief of a disk thrower is considered one of two masterpieces by the ancient Greek sculptor Myron of Eleutherae, several copies of which are extant while the original has disappeared.

Before the invention of photography, sculpture was disseminated by means of copies, which were highly-sought after. The cult of the original enters rather late, further abetted by the rise of photography, which took over the function of the copy. In line with this, Etzensperger produced seven photographs of different copies of the disk thrower, which all conform to Wölfflin’s standards, yet are photographed from oblique perspectives and therefore suggest spatial movement as if to poke fun of the reproduction’s proper intent.

As a result, Normal Viewpoint, No Other Than The Direct Frontal View engages in both a dialogue with photography and art history, highlighting their points of intersection as first outlined in Wölfflin’s essay. It plays out sculpture’s simulcra against that of photography, creating a hall of mirrors where various means of reproductions reflect off each other. Yet by highlighting artifice, the original referent, the human body, comes back into focus. Since antiquity Western sculpture has defined our ideals of the body beautiful, which have frequently come under attack and reconsideration in various twentieth century art movements. Ultimately, Etzensperger uses photographic fragments of classical sculptures to create gently subversive counterparts, informed by modernism’s reframing of the human figure by way of fragmentation and distortion. Etzensperger superimposes the two contrasting approaches in his photographs and thus stimulates questions about this radical break in art history and, just as importantly, on the status of sculpture today.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Michael Etzensperger (Installation View: Michael Etzensperger & Sarah Hablützel)

Martin Jaeggi is a Swiss-based critic and curator. He is a lecturer in the Department of Art and Media at Zurich University of Arts.

Daido Moriyama

a room

Essay by Jean-Kenta Gauthier

Renown for his urgent, blurry photographs of street scenes, experimental approaches to printed matter and vast dissemination of images, Daido Moriyama has in effect been working on a room in his own apartment since the 1970s. These intimate, black and white photographs, with their strong erotic undertones, offer a glimpse into Moriyama’s daily life. Mixing depictions of female nudes — often pictured from angles in which the models’ faces are kept obscured — with shots of banal and ordinary domestic situations, this works suggests a voyeuristic approach in which the artist is simultaneously a participant and observer of his own intimate, private documentary. Asserting both a sense of control over the actions and containment in its rendering, a room represents the diary of an artist, now aged 77, who for over five decades has harnessed photography’s power to revive memories like no other.

On February 14-15, 2015, Daido Moriyama held a ‘printing show’ performance in Akio Nagasawa gallery in Tokyo, using the entire selection of 67 photographs included in a room. The event, during which 600 unique copies of a book of the same name were produced, marked the fourth recreation of Moriyama’s now famous book-making performance since the original underground exhibition from 1974. It was also the first time Moriyama would reorganise such an event in Tokyo, as the three other venues were located in the US (Aperture Foundation, New York 2011), the UK (Tate Modern, London, 2012) and France (Le Bal, Paris, 2013).

‘Printing show’, a term coined by Moriyama, puts the process of creating a photobook at the heart of the event. That week of March 1974, participants were asked to select a fixed number of his images from a grid displayed on a wall, determine their order and then have them printed on location using a photocopy machine before assembling and stapling their own unique copy together. Each would be signed and accompanied by a silkscreen cover and the book, entitled Another Country in New York, ushering in a brand of performance art applied to the creation of a photobook.

Daido Moriyama has confessed to me that his favourite book is Andy Warhol’s catalogue for his exhibition held in 1968 at Modern Museet in Stockholm. Less a traditional museum catalogue, this historical book conveyed Warhol’s aesthetics without heavy use of text. Made of a stream of black and white images with a colourful silkscreen cover showing Warhol’s famous flower motif, this publication shares many similarities, despite its size and pagination, with Moriyama’s 2015’s a room or the aforementioned Another Country in New York.

Daido Moriyama has also made appropriation, a core idea in Warhol’s oeuvre, a key concept in his work. Over the course of a long and prolific career, photographs of posters or television screens, i.e. images of images, have become legion. The work that is the most representative of this principle is probably Accident, a volume of 12 series published each month throughout 1969 in the Japanese magazine Asahi Camera. Each series, wonderfully titled Premeditated or not, consists of photographing magazine pages or television screens ranging from incidents such as car crashes to murder cases, and other instances of violence, unrest and depravation. The premise of a ‘printing show’ naturally extends the appropriation principle further by enabling not only the artist but the public to make Moriyama’s images their own. It closes the gap between author and audience, message and medium. One could also add that, as is the case with a room, Moriyama has reached his utmost level of de-appropriation by letting the participants appropriate and edit what can be considered as the artist’s most intense images of highly personal memories.

During his 2011 printing show at Aperture Foundation, one particular participant chose to repeat the same image throughout her copy, which was a surprise to Daido Moriyama who smiled wryly when he discovered the singular sequence. By transmitting images, the ‘printing show’ fits into the wider discussion on the nature of visual communication. Moriyama, himself, has said the following on the matter: “When I sign each book, I open the book and look at the image on the first page, and I think ‘aah… this person chose this image!’ I kind of see the person’s character and taste. I find it very interesting. To tell the truth, I would like to see every page of what everyone has selected. For example, even without seeing the person’s face or their daily life and work, I think there is a moment of communication with them through photography.”

Often referring to the idea of a photograph being a “fossil of light and time” that is updated or reanimated every time it is seen by a viewer, Moriyama has focused his attention on the moment when one of his single memories potentially encounter those belonging to the viewer. In this sense, his ‘printing shows’, given that they let the viewers recontextualise Moriyama’s memories in the most tangible way, ultimately consist in a form of confrontation with memories. They represent the most advanced formula of the artist’s intention, of which a room is the latest and most generous manifestation. Moriyama says it best: “A single photograph contains different images.”

All images courtesy of the artist, Akio Nagasawa Gallery and Jean-Kenta Gauthier. © Daido Moriyama Foundation.

Jean-Kenta Gauthier is the founder of a Paris-based contemporary art gallery. He has also partnered with Clément Kauter and Akio Nagasawa on Circulation, a new laboratory space dedicated to artists’ books, opening on 13 November with an inaugural show of Daisuke Yokota’s new work entitled Inversion.

Matthew Connors

Fire in Cairo

Book review by Max Houghton

The end is where we start from. This oft-quoted line from T.S. Eliot’s Little Giddings was an expression of philosophical, spiritual and, perhaps, aesthetic renewal after the horrors of the two world wars. It is also a deliberate conceptual strategy in the making of Fire in Cairo by Matthew Connors, a book which reads back-to-front. When many of us encounter a photo-book, this is how we flip through it, anyway. It’s a curious but pervasive quirk. Books in Arabic are ‘read backwards’ or, more accurately, they are read in the reverse direction to books in, for example, Germanic or Romance scripts. It is important, however, to note that language itself doesn’t have a direction.

Among Connors’ achievements with this work is that he has harnessed the energy of fire and revolution and used it as a charge for his own creativity, with this vivid green, cloth-covered book. It opens, at the ‘back’, with a short story which oscillates between sexual intimacy, the history of torture and the impossibility of knowledge, only to end in silence. This is our territory. He lands the reader in Midan Simon Bolivar, Cairo, a location which, like its eponymous hero, symbolises the people’s struggle and the possibility for change and freedom. During the heady days of 2011, when nearby Tahrir Square was the epicentre of the uprising to oust Mubarak, a bandage was placed over the eye of the Bolivar statue, after police had employed tear gas. As Pablo Neruda writes of Bolivar, “I wake every hundred years when the people are awake.” The story closes with its narrator detained, while the “bureaucracy of retribution” is adjudicated. As a description of what follows the fever and ferment of revolution, this chilling phrase conjures tedium, injustice and quiet threat of violence still to come.

We turn the page to a different kind of not-knowing: a portrait in black and white of an older man, in what I will lazily call traditional Arab dress. I cannot say if there is further significance to his attire – it may be clerical. Like the narrator, I am reminded constantly of my lack of knowledge. An extensive series of paired portraits follow this single image and, with a couple of disruptions, we are still seeing in black and white. Connors took two images of each person, seconds apart, and the editing process led to this effective juxtaposition, in which we can perceive subtle changes in light or expression. One pairing is of two different men – police not protestors – and is the exception that proves the rule. With this series, Connors invites the reader to question the nature of a photographic portrait, shown here to be always in flux. His doublings create a kind of binocular vision, without the illusion of depth.

These portraits begin a sustained meditation on sight and sightlessness, and speech and silence that courses through the work. The right eye of the first young man pictured is occluded. A few pages on, another young man sports a plaster on the delicate tissue just below his eye. Another man wears a scarf, creeping up to obscure his sight. A veiled woman has only a narrow aperture through which to see, curtailing her peripheral vision, as do the hoods of sportswear worn by others. A masked man’s eyes are open to the elements, his mouth a covered orifice. Then, on subsequent pages, fire ablaze in orange. Fire that seems to hang like a mushroom cloud in the sky, though the flames flare from tyres burning on the ground.

Next, another pairing is of a boy with an oversized sweatband concealing most of his eyes, as well as his nose and mouth. This seems to be the last doubling, as overleaf a vivid image of bright green laser lines engulfs the reader’s vision. This is the image on which the work turns. Now: riot police and tear gas trails. Then one final portrait pair (for now); this time in a full skull mask with upturned eye-socket slits, rendering the face underneath bug-like. Metamorphosis can indeed be a reasonable response to oppression. Questions of freedom of speech; the right to say what has been seen (another impossible task); the right to remain silent, hover over these faces, wary, vulnerable, fearless, hidden, exposed, altered.

During the uprisings – and since – thousands of people used laser pointers as an act of protest, shining their light at military helicopters in an attempt to knock them off course. In Fire in Cairo, the images they created in the night sky becomes a leitmotif, the most important in the book. They are images of protest, a union of technology and direct action, even, if we take the etymological light-writing definition, a new and potent photography.

Other images depict a city heading towards ruin — torn down posters, remnants of things destroyed by fire, shadows through trees, a young man clutching something that might detonate if thrown, a man bent double in apparent despair, military helicopters, birds in flight or fright. On seeing a found photograph of a bride, I am struck by the thought that it is in fact a lost photograph, unsutured from its family album. A graphic poster of a teenage girl has her face, especially her eyes, repeatedly and violently struck out. As the book draws to a close, a sinister portrait pairing reminds us of our compulsion to repeat. The figure is fully covered by a black garment, with a mirrored mask over the face, reflecting back a view of the contested landscape of the street. The revolution through masked and unseeing eyes. It is a mannequin, but such distinctions between real and unreal no longer make sense. The view thereafter is upwards. A sky redesigned by smoke and fire. Is that encroaching blood? Gathering darkness? New constellations have been created with green light, though we cannot be sure how long their luminescence will endure. They have, like pinned butterflies, been captured here.

All images courtesy of the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy. © Matthew Connors

Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.

Margot Wallard


Essay by Michael Grieve

Death is the night and the nocturnal space to which we all arrive. Margot Wallard’s photographic project Natten is a heartfelt response to, and an attempt to bridge, a massive chasm between the inner places of her emotional and psychological being. The sudden interruption of continuity was, for Wallard, caused by the experience of witnessing her brother’s slow and untimely death, an experience she described as a “violent process” for all concerned. In essence, in the wake of loss, Natten is a post-traumatic visual exploration and an attempt to reaffirm and claim life.

Wallard’s older brother had lost his way and had been an alcoholic for many years. In an attempt to come close to him, Wallard documented him and his partner, also an alcoholic and who died a year before Wallard’s brother. In the epilogue to the photobook that followed, titled My Brother Guillaume and Sonia, Wallard writes: “I find myself with these images and I feel overwhelmed by what has played out before me. There is no question of acceptance … [their] death is an unimaginable violence that plunged me into an abyss of sadness.” During this period, coinciding with her brother’s illness, Wallard found herself uprooted from her Parisian home to live in the natural splendour and open landscape of Värmland in Sweden with her lover. Constantly traversing Sweden and France during the critical time, enduring the disinfectant sterility of hospital, Wallard’s initial relationship to her new rural Swedish home was fragmented and ultimately disconnected.

After the experience of losing someone, the raw existence of life is existentially revealed. Life, for a time, can no longer be light but heavy as if a dark, thunderous cloud constantly hovers above. Nihilism becomes a serious challenge and you mourn not just the loss of a loved one but realise with a frightening intensity the fragile nature of life. On a rational basis, we understand that we will die, but until we are in close proximity and death seeps into our very soul we never really know. And so it takes tremendous courage to confront life head on during this difficult transition period where we learn not to drown in grief but swim up for air. With Natten, Wallard resuscitates her life via her creative process and, in a sense, resolves to reinvigorate and reinvent her identity by virtue of explorations into her immediate physical environment. Here, in the Swedish countryside, is a working development of the investigation into her relationship to this alien territory.

Natten has evolved into variants of representation ranging from the sensual to the forensic. The work contains a deep curiosity of touch, of renewed sensitivity, of a dialogue with reality. With a tactile examination during this pursuit, she tries to grasp from death the very essence of life. This sensibility combines with the quizzical tension of a furrowed forehead that asks with rational inquiry, ‘what is this?’ There are detailed examinations of insect life rendered on tracing paper. Snow and ice are removed out of context, placed on the scanner, melting all the while, and erupt into abstracted sculptural forms against blackness. What is close manifests into something cosmic and here our sense of perspective, recognition and distance are distorted as our spatial comprehension is confused.

Wallard further experiments with the scanned aesthetic by placing dead animals on the flat bed. There is something beautiful and brutal about this process as we see skeletal birds, the partially squashed hair of a mole, the head of young deer, and the almost bizarre red tongue of a squirrel protruding profanely from its mouth. There is something undignified in death, yet their lifeless forms are simultaneous here to our inquiry and admiration. The compressed feathers of an owl, its sideways profile and hooked nose is a macabre reminder of some figure from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. In terms of design, Natten is a rich compendium of ingredients that is reminiscent of eloquently illustrated Enlightenment-era encyclopaedias of Naturalis Historiae. Though, unlike the codified ideals of classification, her work subverts objectification in looking to subject the object to lyrical means. These are documentations though they go far to breathe meaning into an animal that no longer exists.

Though beautiful, the self-portrait nudes that punctuate the project cannot be accused of being fey or whimsical, as is often the case in female representations in nature. Indeed, the protagonist’s feminine presence does not entirely conform to the female natural form of an anthropomorphic oneness with the nature. Her body, set against the landscape of trees, grass and lakes, is often blurred as if to say she is present but that she is also absent. Wallard is not an earth-mother, she does not depict herself conforming to this romantic female stereotype, even though there is enough ambiguity in these nudes to cause a semblance of doubt, but what that doubt is cannot be, and should not be, understood. And, by a strange twist of fate, it is obvious that there is a startling new chapter in development to this Natten story.

This autobiography was inspired by the deep sadness of death, but in the nudes there is the scattered progression of pregnancy on Wallard’s body. There is a new life growing inside her. It is tempting to simplify this story with a thrilling conclusion that reads ‘from death is rebirth’. But such a cathartic end is disingenuous to the meaning of Natten. Rather, the work insists on the process, through her creative process, of the never ending cycle of life; that from not existing we are thrust into the world and then we die and no longer exist, and that the incomprehensible phenomenon of life keeps turning over. And, in between, we try to touch our existence, albeit, at times, from a distance. Natten is an admission of this, of the conflict between our awe and our impossibility to the fully embrace the mystery of our reality.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Margot Wallard

Michael Grieve is a photographer represented by Agence VU’. He also writes regularly for the British Journal of Photography and is creative director of the newly-formed Berlin Foto Kiez