Mimi Mollica

Terra Nostra

Book review by Gerry Badger

In what might be one of the most heartfelt moments on British television, in the middle of a feelgood programme about art and food in Sicily, star Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli took art-critic Andrew Graham-Dixon to a hillside outside Palermo, overlooking a motorway. He proceeded to talk about how the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, murdered the anti-mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, in 1992. This is “the hole in the heart of Italy,” he said with great feeling.

This is the subject of Mimi Mollica’s book Terra Nostra, published by Dewi Lewis. The hidden subject, because although the mafia is everywhere, its impact is felt rather then seen. It is woven into Italian society. In September 1987, the then Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, head of the Christian Democrat party that ruled Italy for decades, was alleged to have had a secret meeting with the ‘capo dei capi’ of the Cosa Nostra, Salvatore Riina. The fact that Andreotti was later absolved of any mafia association does not alter the fact that, as Peter Robb has written, the mafia was (or is) a state within a state, a “state that maintained relations with professional, political and judicial representatives of that other state, the Italian republic.”

The most notable body of work about the Sicilian mafia previously has been the photojournalism of Letizia Battaglia, who worked for the anti-fascist newspaper L’Ora, and photographed the results of the high years of mafia violence from the 1970s to the 90s. Firstly, she photographed the bloodied corpses on the streets, and then the mafiosi themselves, kicking and spitting at the photographer as they were taken to trial. A photograph in her files of the aforementioned Andreotti meeting mafia boss Antonio Nino Salvo, helped frame the indictment though it did not secure the conviction. And of course, though it is not Sicily, but most definitely related, Milanese photographer Valerio Spada photographed the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, making portraits of young mafiosi in the notorious suburb of Scampia.

But that is not Mimi Mollica’s way. Terra Nostra is much more indirect. There is not a young thug or a bloodied corpse to be seen. In a series of landscapes and street portraits, we see Sicily as one might see it as a visitor – an attentive and knowing visitor at least – or as a resident sees it every day. In short, Mollica is photographing the surface, that which you can see, which is all any photographer can do, but like any good photographer, is suggesting this recent history with metaphor and symbol. So there are images that suggest violence, others that suggest suspicion and secrecy, some that suggest great beauty, some that suggest ugliness and environmental degradation.

This book tells its tale in an oblique way. But one thing is clear. Sicily is an island apart from Italy, part of the country and yet not part of it. And there are different parts of Sicily. Mollica is dealing with the western part, from Palermo in the north, round the west coast to Agrigento in the south. The eastern part of the island, and cities like Catania and Syracuse, are somewhat different.

In a way the book begins at the end. Two signs on a wall read ‘uscita’ (exit) though the way out is not clear. The first metaphor. Then the final image is a barred gate, as if to say once Sicily takes hold of you it will not let go. Or is this a circular narrative? Are both images asking whether there is a way out for Sicily. As Mollica says, Sicily seems caught between “paradise and hell.”

The book’s portraits are also very strong. As Sean O’Hagan remarks in his text, they have this insidious sideways glance quality. And far from displaying Mediterranean exuberance, which is something of a myth anyway, many exude an air of self-containment that amounts to suspicion – and this in photographs that were taken more or less on the fly. The cover picture, of a scarred, gaunt old man standing at a vandalised bus-stop, clutching his briefcase like grim death, says it all. John Szarkowski once said of a Brassai portrait that it was “full of wormwood.” Of course he never saw this one. ‘If looks could kill’ was never more appropriate.

There is something terrible implied in this image. Elsewhere, the symbols of violence and machiavellian plotting are more overt. A wreath lies in a road. A group of politicians huddle together in a conspiratorial group. A price tag skewers the eye of a tuna on a market stall. And a man who seems to taking a picture on a mobile phone is crouched in the position they teach at gun school.

But the most obvious damage is perpetrated upon the landscape. The legacy of the mafia in the 1970s and 80s was a rampant boom in unbridled real estate development, much of it unchecked and yet funded by development grants. Little was finished, so Sicily, especially in the west of the island, is littered with abandoned, half-built construction sites. One particularly memorable image in Terra Nostra, of unfinished villas littering a hillside, looks like an aerial shot of the ruins of Hiroshima. And the jewel in Sicily’s tourist crown, the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, is not quite what it seems in tourist posters as a result of encroaching development.

This construction, so wasteful and unsightly, scars the landscape, the last invader to make its mark upon this much conquered island. It is so unnecessary, as so much Sicilian real estate has the ‘vendisi’ (for sale) attached. For instance, last year I saw three beautiful Baroque palazzi side by side, requiring attention on a grand scale, awaiting offers in the beautiful historic city of Noto, as well as many other time-worn properties both large and small.

There is a lot of explanatory text in Terra Nostra, essays by Roberto Scarpinato and Sean O’Hagan as well as captions to the pictures. This is necessary to fill in a complex political and social background. Nevertheless, Mimi Mollica’s photographs certainly stand by themselves. They are eloquent and poetic, and in an era where so much photography is trite and shallow, dense enough to feed both mind and eye.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Mimi Mollica

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.

Laia Abril


Book review by Natasha Christia

He was an ordinary man of small stature with a mildly effeminate face. He belonged to the privileged few of his time, those who knew how to read and write. He undertook traditionally female manual tasks – tailoring, knitting, weaving spinning and cooking were among his aptitudes. A widower from a childless marriage at the age of just 25, he became a peddler and a guide for travellers across the inhospitable mountainous area between Galicia and the neighbouring provinces of León, Asturias and Cantabria.

In 1843 he was charged for his first murder but escaped arrest. Under a false name he led a seemingly peaceful religious life in a remote parish near the village of Robordechao, where, having earning their trust and affection, he indulged in numerous idylls with single, separated or widowed women from the area. In 1853 he confessed to having slaughtered several of them together with their youngest children while transporting them to a presumably better life in the nearby cities of Santander and Ourense, but persistently defended his innocence. He himself was a mere victim of evil’s will; his inclination to vice was nothing but the result of a family curse that turned him into a wolf, he claimed. He was pronounced guilty of nine murders, acquitted of four, and sentenced to death by garrotte. A couple of years later, Queen Isabel II commuted his sentence to life imprisonment to allow doctors to study his clinical case as lycophilia.

The werewolf, or ‘lobishome’ as he was referred to in northwest Galicia, was Manuel Blanco Romasanta, Spain’s first documented serial killer. The atrocity of his crimes won him a place in the pantheon of 19th century notoriety next to Jack the Ripper and others. Manuel Blanco Romasanta, became widely known as the Werewolf of Allariz, or most commonly as the Tallow Man, for he would commodify the fat he extracted from his devoured victims as high-quality soap. Legends surrounding him have been amassed into an amalgam of genuine historical research, folklore and pseudo-history. And yet, there seem to be more mystery to his enigmatic story…

Born in 1806 in the village of O’Requeiro of the province of Ourense in Galicia, Manuel, son of Miguel Blanco and Maria Romasanta, was baptised and raised as a girl for the first six years of his life. According to recent forensic evidence, he lived with a rare intersexuality syndrome, formerly coined as female pseudo-hermaphroditism. Manuel was in fact Manuela. He possessed female reproductive anatomy but because of her intersexual state, she secreted an inordinate amount of male hormones that led her to undergo a process of virilisation.

Laia Abril tackles this puzzling possibility in her most recent photobook produced in collaboration with her creative partner Ramon Pez for Editorial RM, entitled Lobismuller. The tale of the lobishome who ended being a lobismuller (‘woman-wolf’) is revisited under this novel perspective.

In line with Abril’s previous projects, Lobismuller rests on a pastiche of documentary photography, archival sources, fictional reconstruction and a unique brand of folklorish journalism that also incessantly explores the interplay between image and text. The story oscillates between morbid criminal records, a gothic darkness and a loosely Thomas Hardy-inspired realism of rural hamlets, famine and impoverishment. Neutral and austere in tone, it invokes the modes of straightforward documentary and carries the aura of a vintage object. Multiple narrative threads are brought together to form a confluence of myth, witchcraft and science, one typical of an era that can be described as the crossroads between the twilight of superstition and the awakening of great rationality. Amidst this pastoral iconography, semiotics and symbolic connotations of the landscape in regards to the wolf-tale and to gender are present: from the rugged stone villages to the inhospitable Celtic forests; from the red-tainted inserts of remedies and spells to the howling of wolves under the full moon and the river tides; from the blood cells of the helpless victims to the underground world of catacombs, uteruses and human souls… All this alongside a text that punctuates the identity shifting aspect of the protagonist: man and woman, masculine and feminine, religious and womaniser, falsifier of love letters – at once bucolic and refined, feared and demonised.

As we descend into the universe of Lobismuller, we cannot help but wonder what the book is really about since it is practically impossible to categorise such an assemblage. The various clues gradually push the limits of narration and form to examine uneasy yet intimate realities of sexuality, akin to those Abril has narrated in Thinspiration, The Epilogue and Tediousphilia or in On Abortion (the first chapter of A History of Misogyny). From the first invisible chapter of the book on the murderer, through to the second focussing on the apparition of the wolf and the reconstruction of the crimes, to the more neutral and scientifically engendered approach of the third and final section, the line of enquiry takes on a dramatic crescendo of query and menace.

Similar to the veneration of wolves in Galicia, Romasanta’s case is a prelude to the media frenzy surrounding well-documented psychopaths of the Industrial Age. For a long time the police were incapable of catching the suspect that plagued their investigators with the eventual trial lasting several months and a subsequent transcript that covered more than two thousand pages. Thanks to journalists being able to visit Romasanta’s jail cell extensive media coverage was attracted both in Spain and abroad, bestowing a frenzy of notoriety to the condemned legend. What’s more, Romasanta’s activity took place between 1830 and 1850s, literally during the advent of photographic technology and culture. This person existed before the invention of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometry and mug shots that three decades later would epitomise visual identity, and bestow upon the camera apparatus means of power and control.

Yet unmediated by the lens, Romasanta’s image lies encrypted. When the photographic record is absent, speculation and imagination is what remains. To compensate for this absence and to conjure up the elusive identity, Abril imbues her project with illustrations, scientific collages and fragments of bodies. When it comes to humanising Romasanta, her pictures appear veiled in light and contourless, as if trying to glimpse of the world after a long night of insomnia. When narration enters the terrain of the wolf, film ends up blurred, image-less, with no beginnings and no end. Our protagonist remains faceless. This is the most apt solution in order to address the psychological complexity of a character existing beyond definition; beyond definition for the measures of his or her time, let alone for a rural society plagued with superstitions; beyond definition for the very character itself. Both back then and today.

After all, history has always been male. Male in every aspect: writers, myths, appropriations and recreations. Maleness is conceived here as the solid, substantial consciousness of being that Sartre once famously defined. Non-male (understood as embracing any identity beyond the realm of male) emerges as an amorphous, identity-less object (an object not devoid of identity but needless of it) – a ‘twilight zone’, like the very forests Abril visits to reconstruct the steps of this particular murderer. Previously defined as the Other, but even further than this established Other, Manuel and Manuela, inhabits a grey area where facts fail. In the museum of relics that history has become today, this state of the unknown finds itself at its best. As the waters stagnate at the end of the book’s narrative, as the collages and reconstructions of old archives lead to new readings, this mash-up of confounding evidence manifests itself as a naturalised condition – a reminder perhaps of the core identity that used to exist once upon a time before it was oppressively canonised under history’s masculine biases.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Laia Abril

Natasha Christia is a writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. 

TJ Proechel


Essay by Sara Knelman

In his 1985 book Suspects, David Thomson describes Smith Ohlrig, the deluded multimillionaire of Max Ophüls’s noir classic Caught (1949): “Unseen, he was imagined. Nonexistent, he was omniscient. Dead, or inert, he could be everywhere. He made a rare journey: uncomfortable as an author, he became a character for everyone, like the bogeyman or Santa Claus.” This is, as anyone familiar with the movie will know,  an account of an ending we never see, a demise never scripted nor filmed. Rather than rehash what we already know of Ohlrig, and many other such ‘suspects’ whose lives we’ve watched flicker and fade, Thomson contrives their perpetual pasts and unseen futures. As he surveys some of American cinema’s most memorable characters (from Victor Laszlo to Kay Corleone), shadowy psyches and deep-seeded motivations rise to the surface. Hustlers and con artists, dreamers and drifters, corruptionists and redeemers, we might be just as compelled by raking light as by stark moral ambiguity. Their illusions – about themselves, about their desires, and most urgently about the visible world before them – seem to echo the larger illusions of cinema itself.

Thomson’s quest to find these fictitious figures in the midst of living darkly is a kind of journey in itself, an imagined road trip of encounters. Inspired, in part, by the same cinematic memory and noir aesthetic, photographer TJ Proechel sets out to find Adam, a real and prototypical modern-day con-man making his luck on foreclosed homes in the aftermath of America’s devastating housing crisis.

The backstory is prosaic enough. A young student just out of college, Proechel worked construction in Minnesota to make ends meet. In the wake of the housing crisis in the late 2000s, the work he was offered was increasingly on homes recently lost or repossessed. An earlier series, 2008-2009, documents some of these experiences. These are affecting, upsetting pictures of the homes themselves – unsuspectingly innocent from the pavement – of abandoned or hurriedly forgotten possessions – a stray photograph, a stripped mattress, a hand-written prayer taped to the wall – and occasionally, of those recently forced out.

In 2010, Proechel became the victim of a con, losing two months’ worth of wages after an owner of a house he was contracted to work on – a man who went by the name of Adam Burroughs – abruptly disappeared, taking investor money with him. The experience stayed with him, and as others wronged sought legal recourse, Proechel’s curiosity about the figure at the centre of the storm grew. What really happened here? Who is the elusive Adam Burroughs? Is there a truth to be uncovered amidst all these sleights of hand? Made over five years, Proechel’s photo-saga ADAM unfolds with all the trademarks of a noir classic: a shadowy drifter, a man wronged, obsession and pursuit, a search for the facts lurking behind so many projections and illusions.

Proechel in fact ‘found’ Adam with relative ease, hiding in plain sight on the Internet, operating a real-estate blog and claiming to live in Southern California. Taking on the role of private detective, he set off on a series of road trips – a romantic vigilante with a car and a camera – to track Adam. Following clues and tips, Proechel finds stray traces across the country and ends, as American road trips tend to, at the edge, in this case the Pacific Ocean and LA. Proechel’s vistas of the journey feel cinematic rather than documentary, in part because of their careful cropping and saturated colours – a glistening quality of light that glamorises and seduces. Scattered portraits read like film-stills of unknown characters, and make use of jobbing actors standing-in for the real but absent stars. The mythic possibility and cinematic lore of Los Angeles, vivid here in explosions of palm trees lit like fireworks, provides a convenient destination, if not a tidy resolution.

But the narrative is confounding; tentative, incomplete, hanging somewhere in the darkness that pervades so many images. Gaps are filled in by miscellaneous documents – evidence of the original property’s chain of ownership; Proechel’s half-completed work list from the job (‘fix busted tile’, ‘adjust door lock’), and, crucially, a stream of emails, a real-virtual exchange between Proechel and Adam. The suspect surfaces, if only online, to confess his innocence: “It is not a set of bad circumstances. It is a set of others all trying to fuck over the other which in this circumstance was ‘me’. And I was the glue holding the project together so when it was obvious to me that all others involved were pulling shady shit, I told them all to go fuck themselves.”

Adam’s notes also express an acute anxiety about Proechel’s project – of this public interpretation of himself, a character, perhaps the villain, in this unfolding story. The exchange reads like a parallel fiction and a counter-plot, in which Adam seems completely unbelievable and deeply real.

Like Thomson’s musings, Proechel’s ADAM is neither fantastic speculation nor documentary truth. As evocations, both images and text draw on our collective memories of specific and archetypal places and lives, on our insistence on narrative convention, and on our inclination to believe and imagine. Suspects, intriguingly, includes no film stills – no recalling of iconic shots or lauded celebrity turns. The only two images in it are, in fact, reproductions of still photographs: on the cover, Walker Evans’s Torn Movie Poster, 1930; and tucked in opposite the inside title page, Wright Morris’s Reflection in Oval Mirror, Home Place, Nebraska, 1947. Truth, they both seem to suggest, may be less important than its telling. “Is there construction,” Thomson asks, by way of introducing Vertigo’s Scottie, “or do we live in unshaped turmoil? Is the mass of human creatures just random contiguousness, an impossible tottering pile or is there an elegant cellular pattern in human association…inspired by eternal forms of feeling and relationship – love, jealousy, curiosity, vengeance, desire, incest, ambition and fear of falling – flexing and pulsing through time and space, like the brain waves of sleep?”

Proechel’s ADAM is an answer, and a quest for an answer.

All images courtesy of the artist. © TJ Proechel

Sara Knelman is a writer, curator and Assistant Professor at the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University. She has worked as Talks Programmer at The Photographers’ Gallery in London and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. She writes about photography for Aperture, Frieze, Photoworks and Source: The Photographic Review. She collects pictures of women reading and lives in Toronto. 

Erik Kessels

One Image

Essay by Tim Clark

We see you, Susan. We see you adorning the side of a building. We see you on posters and at the bus shelter. We see you fly-posted to the wall. We see you stuck at the lamppost. We see you hanging in the gallery. We even see you in the local newspaper, without warning. We see you here, there and everywhere. Your image hurtles through our consciousness in this exploding and boundless visual world; half-registered but ever present. You are a constellation of small appearances and grand gestures. But it is silence that ultimately binds us, for this is your last photograph.

Aged nine, Erik Kessels’ sister, Susan was killed in a car accident while crossing the street. Following the tragedy, his parents frantically dug around for the most recent photograph of her, finding a typically banal snapshot that inhabited the family album. It was taken by a photographer at a small-town amusement park in The Netherlands, printed there and then and put on the gate for people to buy. They cropped the image in order to isolate Susan as the sole subject, freezing her into a moment of infinitude. This newly-fashioned portrait was then enlarged, printed in black and white and placed in a frame before being hung on the living room wall for posterity. In the process, it assumed an iconic status for these few, select people.

Though generic, the image is now an enigma multiplied, one whose meaning Kessels has rescued from oblivion by placing it in full view to the public across the Polish city of Wroclaw as part of his poetic and deeply-affecting meditation on love, loss and memory. He has done it as a commission for the Photography Never Dies project curated by Krzysztof Candrowicz, enabling this single, brief photograph to undergo a rapid journey from a personal document of grief to public spectacle, conjuring up an absence that perversely translates as momento mori. Because, of course, Kessels has reacted to trauma by behaving like himself – the trailblazing, Dutch artist-curator known for intervening with vernacular imagery and repositioning fragmented lives. In this case, it this life of his sibling, which passes into photography if it passes into anything. Eschewing the protective feelings one normally has towards family photographs, Kessels consequently stirs a curious cocktail of emotions in the viewer; intrigue turns to the guilt that we should not be looking. Even though we witness no drama, we are still gazing at a victim before she became so. She is pictured forever young yet is forever dead – existing outside of time.

As with much vernacular photography (or what John Szarkowski referred to as “oppositional photography”) the image has the appearance of a shabby, discarded picture-postcard that you might find at a flea market – artless, honest and without pretension. Often, disappointingly in visual culture, it is the distressed look that seduces when the old becomes new again. More importantly, beyond the material qualities, is the notion that even the most mundane kinds of imagery surrounding us can have emotional power and depth. The everyday can always become unique – as Kessels notes: “It’s a prescient thought in this digital age when the act of taking a photograph has, for the average person, been transformed from something done to mark an occasion or special moment to an almost daily habit. All of us walk around with thousands of images of our everyday lives locked away in our phones, collections of pixels that we seldom glance at, and on the whole they mean absolutely nothing to us. That is, until they do.”

The vernacular genre of photography is vital to our imagination not least because snapshot photographs can be and repurposed and interpreted variously; they can be recycled, clipped, cut, remixed and uploaded. Yet for transformation to occur they somehow always have to be demystified in order to remystify. That way images can be made to do anything, made into endlessly different narratives since they are ultimately ambiguous. They all have the potential for meaning in the hands of those with cultural or creative intelligence, and our relationship to them can change dramatically over time.

Kessels echoes this sense of a shifting relationship in his inaugural book from the legendary series, In Almost Every Picture: “And now we see the pictures in a way that was never intended. We have the chance to look inside a private collection of private memories. And, in so doing, our memories, or ideas for their memories, overlap, overwhelm and extend the existing memories in these images, these moments recorded on film …

What we photograph today can have continued meaning in a time and place somewhere else, to someone else. What we then find is that we are all involved in every moment. We are all somehow included in what happens to all of us. We are collectively having lives, memories and futures.”

Therein lies the feeling that we can enter the image, which is essential to the democratic virtues of vernacular or amateur photography. As it flies in the face of ideas of privacy and ownership, we suddenly find ourselves responsible for the passage of such images through culture and history, often undermining the concept of authorship as well as resisting the dominance of the market or reputation of the photographer as a result. Such practitioners, whose career is largely underwritten by print sales, are more or less part of a rigid commercial system that operates on the basis of name photographers, limited edition works, the importance of provenance and the vagaries of the gallery world. Politely existing outside of this elitist sphere is the empirical mass of photography, continually evolving as a dynamic and viable area of study, appreciation and even collecting, thus representing a significant challenge to the predominant history of photography. Here, in Kessels’ image, is an indication of the medium renormalised within the everyday aesthetic of culture, since everything and everybody is touched by photography.

The assertion that photography has become utterly central to how we represent, construct meaning and communicate in the world around us presses harder when we consider the upshot of Kessels’ decision to site the image of Susan publicly. In this realm, the unselfconscious display of an intensely personal snapshot throughout the city relies upon an ethical contract between him and society. Such an intervention not only certifies the existence of an otherwise invisible stranger but one whose likeness is now shared by choice and in turn overshared as a consequence. The past maybe gone but we cannot never escape the presence of the dead completely since photography never dies. And at this meeting point between past, present and future, we see you, Susan. We see you. Living among us, you are after all what makes us human.

All images courtesy of the artist © Erik Kessels
This article was originally published in Photography Never Dies and has been reproduced with kind permission.

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.

Sofia Borges

The Swamp

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The spine of Sofia BorgesThe Swamp reads: ‘REALITY AS MUD AS DENSE AS AIR’. Caught in the pursuit of something – unexplainable, authentic, actual, real. Inevitable though it may be, it evades us, repeatedly. It torments.

Borges stalks the spaces of natural history museums, zoos and study centres – sites of interaction with the specimens of the world. And what she encounters there are images: not objects, so much as the ciphers and projections of histories past. Display haunts the condition of the museum: it must show to us, but also more than that, it must explain and present. In its fervour, it wraps objects up in dialogues and scenarios, in narrative and facts. It produces elaborate fictions that appear like reality – dioramas that are spatial and textual.

The diorama of course is a technology, invented by Daguerre before he moved onto photography. Both the photograph and the diorama are markers of modernity – machine production meeting new sciences, emerging leisure classes, and the production of a culture obsessed with the visible – flâneurie, technological vision, spectacle, and an ever more emergent media and world of printed matter. It’s no surprise that Borges operates in these spaces – they are spatial analogues to the camera: modernity of course remains photography’s biggest subject. Borges wants to see if this can be shaken loose.

The images of The Swamp show the illusion of display whilst being set in a disorienting and discomforting arrangement, where an interest in surfaces and textures disallow a broader sense of context. In groupings, we move from what are clearly specimens and portraits to opaque surfaces and infrastructures, displays and details and to the strange, seemingly anomalous items and oddities that populate these sites. Our understanding is partial at best. A fragment of a model, a set or a label, taunts in its opacity; pipes and frames are detached from unknown and unseen trophies. Many of the photographs are elusive: images are unrecognisable, seen up close as details. Museum visitors might recognise a combination of fiberglass, natural fabrics, and paint familiar from lo-fi dioramas that pepper Borges’ project, but getting up close against those surfaces, details blur with the soft, matte and spotted paper and image grain. Even the paper seems to suggest a depth before flatly resisting such an illusion.

Amongst the occasional ruptures, the artifice of space shows itself. Borges captures the white metal nuts, which fix synthetic black stone in place, and sees the highlight reflected back in a vinyl photograph of two girls in traditional dress (strangely their backdrop itself looks painted, artificial – or does it?). But if this Brechtian turn usually promises a revelation of sorts – a realism – Borges refuses it. She also turns her lens towards objects that look increasingly unreal. Specimens of Opal, Opale Gras/Opaal Vettig sit next to each other, their labels a mixture of languages, one fatty, one greasy: in their reflections they look increasingly, tantalisingly synthetic, like fabricated Japanese model food, which is made to be eaten by the eyes but not the mouth. Suspicious under the glare of the light, there seems to be no exit sign beyond the illusion of the image.

If we despair of the confusion wrought by the treacle of images, we need to return to problem of reality itself. Would we know reality when we saw it? Thick and viscous, though evanescent, it is the product of what seems like contradiction. Borges acknowledges this when she points a camera in its direction. “I intentionally wanted to learn how to distinguish the difference between mimesis, meaning, image and matter. Paradoxically, I was seeking to do that by the use of photography.” Borges might lay representation upon representation, blocking rather than revealing the elusive real. But she suspects that moving toward that paradox might unravel it, reveal it for what it is. She senses that to untangle, we have to get closer but somehow distance ourselves – as if representation were a finger trap, which closes upon us, the more we attempt to extricate ourselves from it. We must try new strategies.

Borges finds a revelation in front of cave paintings: “we cannot signify reality. And we have been trying forever.” Just at that moment, it comes flooding back: Andre Bazin’s description of the ‘mummy complex’ of the image – its desire both to show, but also to wrap up; to display but also to cover over. It can be suffocating. At its origins, the image-maker builds a complex web of rituals, motives, and associations, concerned with the past but preserved for a future unspecified. S/he produces complex codes to disentangle, percepts and affects to absorb and sense. These are not reality, nor are they signs of it. We do not make images to show the world, we make them to show how we have responded to it; they reveal not the world itself, but what we are curious about and what we value. If we seek reality in the image, we displace our own reality for that of another. It is strange to think that we expect reality to show itself – to reveal itself to us. We need to find it. And so it is that representation replaces the world it claims to make visible. If we approach a representation passively, it remains a paradoxical object that confounds our understanding. But if we approach it with a sense that reality will not be ‘found’ within it, a sense of what the swamp is made up of becomes ever more tangible. Borges, by thickening the mud of reality and forcing us out to find our own way, strangely begins to show a path to try out.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Sofia Borges

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Edgar Martins

Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

You talk about death very flatly”, says one of Roland Barthes’ students disdainfully upon leaving his class. These words are Barthes’ own segue into his concept of ‘flat death’: the flat surface of the photograph and the ironic flatness of death itself, which the writer identifies by having, in Camera Lucida, “nothing to say” about the subject. Death is an ineffable thing. It’s very difficult to write about, and it’s even more complex to find anything new to say when doing so. Perhaps there is literally nothing to say; what do we, the living, know about it really? This ‘literally’ – one often heard and ambiguous colloquialism of our time – is, as we shall see, important in considering the connection between death and soliloquy. Or put simply, death and the language of photography, an idea central to Edgar Martins’ work here.

Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes is in fact several parallel projects, not least various iterations of the work in exhibition form, but also a substantial book project. As the introductory essay by Sérgio Mah tells us, Edgar Martins shot in excess of a thousand photos, and scanned more than three thousand from the archives in the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INMLCF) in Portugal. Displayed in complex and elegant sequences – visual testaments to the complications of thinking death, and to the idea of an interlude, be it between the world of the living and the dead, or in the space between ordered images.

The writer Laura Mulvey offers us a crucial scheme, in two parts, with which to think photography’s relationship to death. First, she suggests that there is a sense of intellectual uncertainty on the subject of death, which finds expression in Barthes’ stiflement in Camera Lucida (1980), and more recently in Thomas W. Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead (2015), which foregrounds the importance of, as he puts it, the longue durée – similar patterns and cycles of thinking about, and behaving towards, death that appear over and over again in its long cultural history. Second, Mulvey goes on to state that it is impossible to consider, at its fundament, that photography is a language and a system of meaning bound to expression through signs.

If one cultural history of death is the history of intellectual inconstancy, and the other is the difficulty in reducing the photograph to a linguistic system of meaning, where does that leave us, and indeed Edgar Martins’ project? It seems reasonable to assume that any intellectual endeavour on the subject of death in the context of photography should take stock of this. Returning to a discussion of the words ‘literally’ and ‘soliloquy’, we may find a partial answer as to how Martins goes about this.

We can’t literally talk of death because its expression requires figuration. In this sense death expressed through language is a ‘figure of thought’, which is an idea obvious enough to any poststructural linguist. However, it is important here as it speaks to our separation from death: a distance both in understanding its meaning, and inasmuch as we attempt to say something about it using words or images, failing as we go. The writer Roger Luckhurst, in another essay in Martins’ book, cites Jacques Derrida, a theorist key to understanding the complexities of language. In doing so, he reiterates one of the central tenets of Derrida’s theory of deconstruction: that writing – and therefore we might say photography, as it is generally understood to be at least a quasi-language – can never be “finally identified or exhaustively delimited.” The meaning of a photograph is flexible, figurative and best understood as operating within a system of changing tropes – metaphor and irony being the most familiar to us. Analogy, as we find in Kaja Silverman’s book on photography, The Miracle of Analogy (2015), is another literary expression of theoretical importance to understanding photography’s relationship to death. She writes, “a death mask analogises the face that shaped it.” We might similarly suggest that in more general terms, the photograph analogises the world that shapes it.

One history of photography is a history of literature; or at least a history constituted in part by photography theory importing literary terms from the subject areas of linguistics and literary theory. Equivalently, Edgar Martins engages the complexities of the language of photography by offering us a soliloquy – the literary and dramaturgic thing that it is – on death.

The soliloquy form is, simply and etymologically speaking, the act of talking to oneself. However, as with the study of most words, etymology proves near-on useless for reaching any sense of complex understanding. The other word often associated with soliloquy is ‘discourse’, and it’s here that we find an early Western philosophical relationship between soliloquy and death. In Martins’ book’s final essay by Timothy Secret – the most vivid of the three in the publication – he reflects on how, in an Athenian marketplace, Plato came to realise the “enigma of Socrates’ joviality on the day of his death”. This is the emergence of the concept of a ‘good death’. As is well known, Socrates drinks poison and professes that death is not a thing to be frightened of, but rather an experience to be welcomed bravely. Crucially, Socrates also considers how, as Secret writes, “a life dedicated to reason is itself practicing death”. A synonymic link emerges here: soliloquy is a form of discourse, discourse a form of reasoning, and reason a form of death. Death is here tied, in this Socratic reduction, to the nature of soliloquy understood in the transitions or separations between related literary or philosophical terms.

It is this sense of transition that is important, in my mind, to Martins’ work. The word ‘interlude’ in his project’s title offers a clue. The artist asks us to pay attention to the transitory spaces between his images, which, alongside the photographs as a form of soliloquy, which we must ourselves speak, forms a ‘discourse’ in the sense that the word simultaneously means relation, formation and expression. This is a discourse created by, as Timothy Secret suggests, “an investigation that contributes towards the task of learning to die.” Edgar Martins has, in some strange and profound sense, undertaken a research project that presents detailed visual documentation on the subject of death in the form of a series of fictional extrapolations. He starts with archival images, or ones of his own making; ambiguously appropriates and sequences them; and then asks us to consider two things: the figurative nature of the photographic image as it relates to the involutions of language, and the spaces or interludes between photographs inasmuch as they appear to us as a series of linguistic signs.

Laqueur tells us in The Work of the Dead about the process in which the body’s enzymes literally eat away at flesh post-mortem, thus beginning the process of corporeal decay. Figuratively – to enable one of the medium’s many changing tropes – the photographic study of death is a strange sort of autolysis with which images, as they circulate and propagate, eat away at their own meanings. We might therefore call this photography’s essential figure of thought: like death, photographic images have no inherent meaning, yet it is our task, as people learning to die, to attribute whatever meaning we find worthwhile to them.

It seems that soliloquies articulate the personal construction of a world of language: one speaks to oneself aloud or in the form of an inner monologue. I would hazard a guess that more than 50% of my experiences in life are accompanied by an inner monologue. Sometimes, although not always, that includes me talking to myself about death. I can only imagine a situation where, having spent some time looking at and thinking about Martins’ work as I have, that percentage will increase. That isn’t to say I know anything more about the subject than when I started, but that’s ok, because in the world of the living no one really knows anything about death, which is why we need joviality, soliloquy and analogy to distract us until it arrives.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Edgar Martins

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton.

I-Autopsy technique, circa 1950

II-The albufeira (bayou) of Borba (Alentejo, Portugal), where several suicides by drowning have taken place over the years. Figures published in 2005 showed that the Alentejo district of Odemira had the highest suicide rate in the world, with a rate of 61 suicides for every 1000 inhabitants, 2001

III-‘Bloody drama in a humble home: mother of six is stabbed to death by her husband (1968)’

IV-Personal belongings of a deceased individual, 1965

V-Personal belongings of a deceased individual, victim of a crime, circa 1920

VI-‘Man leaves a 1,904-page suicide note and then shoots himself as part of a philosophical exploration (2010)’

VII-Self-inflicted injuries sustained in a suicide attempt by a male involving a knife, 1968

VIII-Suicide by hanging by an inmate at Coimbra Prison in Portugal (2010)

IX-Othalanga nights, 2007

X-When a honeybee stings a person, it leaves a scent mark on its victim that smells like bananas. When one beekeeper had bananas for breakfast and then tried to stock his beehive, the insects poured out and stung him to death, 2016

XI-Albumen print from the collection of Edgar Martins by unknown photographer, circa 1915

XII-Untitled, 2015

XIII-Paper plane inspired by a suicide letter written by an inmate in the early 1900s, which was thrown from a prison cell window, 2015

XIV-Note written by a female who died as a result of suicide by poisoning through the ingestion of strychnine (1933), 2015