Monika Orpik

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road

Essay by Natasha Christia

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road is the new body of work by photographer Monika Orpik set in the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site at the frontier of Poland with Belarus. Transcending the dramatic twists of the ongoing political actuality in Eastern Europe, it is a stark political statement that calls attention to the ethical double standards currently applied to asylum seekers, depending on political agendas and a refugee’s place of origin, writes Natasha Christia.

     Imprisoned by four walls
     (to the North, the crystal of non-knowledge
     a landscape to be invented
     to the South, reflective memory
     to the East, the mirror
     to the West, stone and the song of silence)
     I wrote messages but received no reply.

     Octavio Paz, ‘Envoi’

The borderland as an enclave of limbo, uncertainty, freedom and political oppression is the subject of Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road, the new photobook that Polish photographer Monika Orpik has edited with Łukasz Rusznica. Based on Orpik’s own photographs and a series of recollected testimonies, Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road takes the reader through the frontier of Poland with Belarus, where Orpik found herself in 2020 on a volunteer assignment for an NGO. In the course of three and a half months, she travelled through the Białowieża Forest, which straddles the border as an interterritorial natural boundary that separates and, at the same time, merges the two countries into one.  

The Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site described as Europe’s last remnant of primeval woodland, was by no means unfamiliar to Orpik. For her, as for the generations born and raised after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has been associated with long, carefree childhood summers. However, nowadays, few of these nostalgic memories remain intact.

As luck would have it, a chain of tumultuous events started to unfold upon her arrival to the area, with the situation deteriorating further ever since. On 9 August 2020, the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus sparked a wave of civic protest against the Belarusian government and President Alexander Lukashenko. The brutal suppression of the demonstrations led to an exodus of members of the opposition. Belarusian dissidents found themselves stranded at border crossings between Belarus and Poland, alongside thousands of refugees from the Middle East. The Belarus–European Union humanitarian crisis in 2021 resulted in severe ill treatment and unlawful “pushbacks” of asylum seekers by border guards on both sides. The Polish government declared a state of emergency, establishing a militarised no-go zone along the border with Belarus. In January 2022, it initiated the construction of a €353 million wall aimed at deterring refugee crossings. The wall was completed in July 2022, five months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, purportedly as an element of the “country’s fight against Russia”, in the words of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

‘Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth’, writes Lucy Lippard in The Lure of the Local (1997). Orpik’s narrative impetus seems to acknowledge this intersubjective width and length, that is, the way in which the territory she explores is directly lived in by its inhabitants and temporal users. To start with, it articulates how a supposedly nourishing and untouched natural reserve is relegated by jurisdiction to a national boundary, and an in-between no man’s land. It bluntly exposes how the millenary trees, the brushwood and the fallen leaves of a forest become the living tissue of a ghastly past of deportations, ethnic cleansing and Cold War dystopia – a past which, up until seemingly yesterday, Europeans considered consigned to a bygone era. What once stood as a cradle of hospitality, harvest scents and folk tales is now, in the best-case scenario, a temporary shelter to those who are waiting to move forward or recover their homeland, and, in the worst, a literal graveyard for those who are left to perish.

To decipher the unspoken histories of the Białowieża Forest and its neighbouring region, Orpik turns to the specific and vivid life experiences of two of the communities that currently inhabit it: asylum seekers fleeing from Belarus, and the remaining local Belarusian minority, whose ancestors endured, after the Second World War, oppression and linguistic discrimination by the Communist regimes of Poland and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. These are the protagonists of her narrative. Their stories are told in the first person, and together with hers, they orchestrate how they wish to be represented in front of the camera: with the exception of a few isolated scenes of gatherings or people engaging with the environment around them, primarily via the landscapes, domestic spaces and objects that surround them on a daily basis, and all of this in place of straightforward portraits that could potentially expose them to the Belarusian regime.

The forest as literal passage (to freedom or to exile) is the leitmotif of Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road. What was meant as a sentimental journey to the land of ripe apples turns into a murky psychological hinterland. The passage is invested with an encroaching greyish veil that seems to eclipse nature’s exuberant wealth and taint the soul with disorientation. There is no wanderer’s song; the wanderer does not know on which side of the border they stand.

It is difficult to conceive how violent the encounter with nature can become when one is forced to undertake a clandestine route on foot that may last for days, or even weeks, through dense vegetation, in the hope of eventually making it to the other side. In her visual recreation of such an experience, Orpik takes into account her condition as an outsider, and avoids making a spectacle of it. She instead chooses to insert in her narration a series of jump-cut spreads that feature sequences of horizon shots, taken mostly from the window of her car. As if suddenly reaching a clearing, or hinting at a path or a road, these intervals condense and accentuate a gaze unfamiliar with its environment, and its frantic quest for the correct coordinates – a way through and out of this prison.

As Orpik drives around and engages in conversations with locals, her lens obsessively attends to the minutiae of interiors and exteriors where time feels stagnant and inescapable. Once more, we are given only occasional points of reference. Half-built structures, decayed surfaces and industrial ambiences appear abandoned in a precipitate manner; others seem to overcome this palpable sense of weariness and confinement, welcoming anew a domestic warmth. Wood resurfaces persistently, in tree branches, architecture, library interiors, book pages and rolls of typewriter paper. It comprehends, as a living rhizomatic organism, past uprooting next to a legacy that can sustain the promise of a solidary and peaceful coexistence in a new homeland. For the ‘universal story of migration is not only about leaving a space’, maintains Orpik. ‘It is about entering one too.’

Text is a substantial component of the book. Reminiscent of the ‘wall of language’ intersecting Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe (1987), it contributes to the intensification of the overarching narrative experience. Extracts from recorded conversations with 15 people – devoid, to a great extent, of specific geolocations and ethnicity terms – are edited into a collective voice. The voice in question speaks in two languages: whereas English is clearly employed for reaching out to a wider international audience, Belarusian takes on symbolic and political connotations. Its insertion is equivalent to the restitution of a language that has been consistently suppressed over decades on both sides of the border, and is currently vulnerable to extinction.

It was pivotal for Orpik and Rusznica to produce a timeless body of testimonies, beyond the dramatic twists of the ongoing political actuality in Eastern Europe. Their stark political statement calls attention to the fact that this is only the beginning – forced migration will remain on the frontlines in the face of political unrest and climate change – whilst acknowledging the ethical double standard currently applied to asylum seekers, depending on political agendas and a refugee’s place of origin.

Dense and misty, the forest denies a reply to the wanderer. The forest is made to obey the law of the border and its spectral tentacles. In Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road, these tentacles are personified by the sequence of the orchestra conductor’s hands. The hands cut the book into two halves and establish a tempo of ambivalent gestures. And yet, in light of resurfacing division on European soil, the dim veil that enfolds them seems to slide towards the darkness of totalitarianism. The tentacles are infused with isolation and fear. Fear, above all – for even when the border and the regime eventually dissolve, the fear will not. From the Evros River in Greece to Spain’s Melilla border fence in North Africa to the militarised Polish border zone, the natural landscape – now tamed as a claustrophobic confined territory, a no man’s “zone”, or what Giorgio Agamben calls the biopolitical paradigm of the ‘camp’ – seems to offer no way through. ♦

All images courtesy the artist © Monika Orpik

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road is published by Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT).

Natasha Christia is an unaffiliated curator, writer and educator based in Barcelona. She holds a BA in archaeology and art history from the National Kapodistrian University of Athens, an MA in modern art and film from the University of Essex and a postgraduate diploma in publishing from the University of Barcelona. Ηer curatorial research and writings focus on the way photography, archive, film and the photobook interact with the 21st century artistic avant-garde.

Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski

Ghost Guessed

Book review by Natasha Christia

For her piece In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective for e-flux journal #24, 2011Hito Steyerl writes: ‘Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground. (…) Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating – or not even moving at all. (…) As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft.’

Ghost Guessed by Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski is a brilliant meditation on disorientation amidst a groundless world of increasing digitisation, expanded horizons and prolonged absences. In their book, the voice of a narrator is deployed to bring together two stories centred on the theme of loss: firstly, the tragic accident of a young pilot, Grigg’s cousin Andrew Lindberg, who crashed while on his way to a hunting trip in northern Minnesota in 2009; alongside the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, undoubtedly one of the greatest mysteries in the history of modern aviation.

Combining intimate prose with photographs, Ghost Guessed examines the after-effects of these unfortunate incidents. It looks through the multiple emotional strategies people employ to process absence caused by death in an era of high-tech visual media; images here are seen operating both as a means to validate facts and as cradles of comfort insulated from pain and self-delusion. Three chapters divided in subsections arrange the project chronologically. ‘Vanish’ awakens memories of the two accidents, their media coverage and impact; ‘Search’ focuses on the narrator’s failed attempt to reconnect with his family through an unsuccessful return to the crash site; and ‘Return’ is a flashback to a trip to Kuala Lumpur, presumably three weeks after the news of MH370 broke.

Ghost Guessed adds up to an alluring fictional essay on the visual culture with which Griggs and Kwiatowski grew up. Long passages of text alternate loosely with a variety of registers that encompass the visual archaeology of the last 30 years: Family photographs, stills extracted from home videos, forensic reports from the crash scene, press images, TV screens and aerial photography offer one level of imagery, in tandem with the authors’ own photographs or digital collages. On the one hand they set the tone for dealing with demise and pain, but at the same time, they address how media – from domestic video cameras to today’s online streaming – have been paramount in creating our rational and metaphysical understanding of the self and the exterior world.

Ongoing digitisation and its intrinsic technological and aesthetic modes have been at the core of the skilful intertextual construction of Ghost Guessed. What began as a sporadic Skype correspondence between the two artists turned into a poignant co-authored memoir of life interconnections and synchronicities. The revelation of Andrew Lindberg’s accident during the conversations provided the breakthrough from theory to life, triggering a series of strange coincidences and life experiences, such as an unexpected opportunity for Griggs to undertake a trip to Malaysia, and his decision to revisit the crash recovery scene. Project and life started to collide.

Ghost Guessed eloquently addresses the pronounced shift of our times from the zapping condition, where screen and spectator are still physically and ontologically separated, to a form of second life, where orchestrated reality literally takes over. As early as the eighties, Andrew Lindberg’s grandfather is the first of the family to step into an alternative reality. Enclosed in a flight simulator during an aviation convention, he manages to channel his frustrated dreams of becoming a pilot without any risk of failure. Later, it is the narrator who undertakes the same route as the MH370. Surrounded by a screen in a controlled airspace chamber at Pavillon, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most popular shopping centres, he is able to position the aircraft safely back on the runway, rewriting history and restoring hope. If simulators perform it explicitly, this euphoric re-enactment of fate implicitly undercuts the whole Ghost Guessed. In order to make sense of reality’s haphazard and heavy events, the protagonists resort to social networks, snapshots and amateur video cameras –‘their eyes wandering non-stop through floods of images’. Eventually what is real has to take place in the realm of the virtual.

And yet the very thing that gives the overall narrative its linchpin is that which is impossible to reach. ‘Located deep within the wilderness of the White Earth Indian Reservation’, the event has not been recorded. The day Andrew’s body is recovered the gathered family is not allowed access to it. The body cannot be seen; no image is produced. ‘Years later, on the drive to return to the crash site, the narrator is lost and unable to make the photograph. By the time he is almost there, it is too dark’. Arriving at the scene neither ensures the success of the experience nor does it make him feel closer to his family. Ghost Guessed deals with this paradox – the excruciating albeit redemptive resistance of the fact. In the aftermath of the accident, the narrator, ‘floating through time with no structure’, appears watching for hours the lives of family and friends through social media. There is always the screen mediating, as if the relieving pure truth lay unreachable in the blind algorithmic parts of the simulation cabin.

In her video essay In Free Fall (2010), Hito Steyerl examines how the paradigm of linear perspective today is currently supplemented by groundless vertical perspective. Likewise, Ghost Guessed is replete of ‘vertical cities that measure the distance to the horizon in blocks’, and of views from above or towards the sky. This condition of verticality is even further accentuated towards the end of the book, pointing to the ultimate fragmentation of experience in a hyper-reality devoid of foundational schemes as Kuala Lumpur evokes a claustrophobic glass shimmering dreamscape. Under its discoloured sky, any sense of orientation is disrupted and multiplied into a million pieces. Even the views of Hawaii from the pilot’s cabin end up looking as a simulated landscape; the horizon is melting before our eyes.

‘Blue skies, clear skies, everything is ok’. A fascination with birds, flights, and clouds – both natural and virtual – too is vividly apparently in Ghost Guessed. Different cognitive systems, such as astrophysics, meteorology and religious omens, hint at solutions to enduring questions but these expectations crash against the narrative’s disquieting mix of conspiracy theories and endless media speculations. Extracted from video stills of jet flight crashes, the collage of the four planes in the middle of the book signals the mediatised hijacking explosions as it was exemplified in Johan Grimonprez’s glorious Dial History (1997). The sky is consolidated as the sanctuary of destruction where our more precious memories are anchored to impossible images. Up there, aside from the unlimited time of fall, there is no stable paradigm of orientation onto which we can hang. As Paul Virilio once remarked, each technology invents its own catastrophe, and with it a different celestial insurance. Ours is the permanent vertical fall.

All images courtesy of the artists. © Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski.

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

Mathieu Pernot

Les Gorgan 1995-2015

Essay by Natasha Christia

A highlight of this year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles, Mathieu Pernot’s Les Gorgan 1995-2015 welcomed visitors with respectful silence. Hosted under the high ceilings of la maison des peintres, a new venue located near the calm premises of the village cemetery, the exhibition is presented as a multi-layered narrative comprising ten murals each dedicated to members of the Gorgan, a small Roma family from Arles living along the shores of Rhône. Spanning over two decades, it told the story of their individual destinies, and through it, the journey of photographic imagery that has accompanied them.

Importantly, Pernot’s gorgansiene universe created a precise and honest statement beyond visual and conceptual effects. In comparison to the noisy theatricality of Roger Bailen’s installation in the adjacent space wherein photography was unceasingly striving to find its place in the misty waters of contemporaneity, there was nothing redundant or unnecessary in it. Stretching exclusively across photography’s genres and practices – black and white portraiture, mug shots, Polaroids, iPhone and vernacular images – it was in many ways a slap in the face. A straightforward confrontation with photography and its evolution over the last twenty years, a prosaic testing of its normative modes, and, above all, an involuntary and yet consistently ruthless reminder of what straight images can do.

It was back in 1995, while still a student at L’École supérieure de la photographie d’Arles, when Mathieu Pernot first came across a group of gypsy kids in the area surrounding the village’s railway station. Pretty much everything has happened since his introduction to the whole family and the debut show of The Tsiganes (1995-1997) at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 1997. Seasons have alternated, kids have become teenagers, teenagers parents and former adults grandparents. Life has bestowed upon the Gorgan joys, farewells and irretrievable losses. Likewise, he ‘who once met those people as a photographer’ has found himself involved in a long-lasting relationship with them. By 2001, when Pernot left Arles for Paris, he had become godfather to their children, had inquired into the family history that extends over one century, and had funded Yuk, an association committed to the education and integration of gypsy children in the local community.

In the years that followed up until to the present, Les Gorgan has been continually revisited and naturally reflects how Pernot’s conceptual approach and strategies has evolved. The development of the project incorporated various chapters, distinct ideological and symbolic layers and diverse points of view. Over the course of two decades, the artist published different bodies of work in the form of seemingly disconnected series, yet all parts of the same puzzle. Unconsciously he was building a cartography, a universe, a whole.

The current assemblage, as displayed in Arles, is a remixed version after Pernot’s reunion with the family in 2012, a programmatic dismantling of the preexistent bodies of work that have been reedited and shaped anew. Many different projects and years have been spliced together in a new formulation. From the early children portraits in Tsiganes (1995-1997) – fusing a documentary approach at the crossroads with humanist photography and the detached observational documentalism akin to Walker Evans – to correspondent mug shots in Photo booths (1995-1997) in the tradition of anthropometric portraits; from their penitentiary choir, as teenagers, outside the prison of Avignon in The Shouters (2001-2004), to the whole family watching the deceased Rocco’s caravan burning in Fire (2013), photography here appears closely attached to a changing liquid reality.

Similarly, from the early Gorgan posing timidly before the camera to determining their self-representation in snapshots photographs of births, family gatherings, lazy afternoons that have been extracted out of their own albums and mobile phones into the sacred realm of the gallery space to Pernot’s fine art photography being re-appropriated by the Gorgan and serving as post-mortems on their family graves, these images reveal an infinity of uses, practices and dynamic relations between the subject and the photographer.

This sustained demystification of the photographic image, which both recovers its status as an extinct amulet and quotidian object bestows on the work an unforeseen authenticity. It is a level of authenticity achieved not out of fascination nor by means of attempting to build a bridge with the ethnographic ‘other’, but naturally, in an unhindered way. Here photography is actually about and for something.

As noted by both Clément Chéroux and Johanne Lindskog in essays from the accompanying publication by Xavier Barral, Les Gorgan project transgresses with wit the boundaries of the ethnographic, the cultural and the anthropologic. For those who wish to detect in the project folkloric clichés and ethnographic archetypes, gypsy matriarchy and palm reading, it is indeed all there. And yet crucially and suddenly the Gorgan turn from characters to people. Expanding idly on the surface of the image, their bodies are humanised under the weight of time and human destiny. At the same time, they are infused with an awareness of the confined territory they occupy between the lens and the world.

Beyond the personal, the familiar and various trappings of the photo community or art world, Les Gorgan resonates with history. While accessing the Camargue local archives as a historian for an exhibition in 1998, by chance he came across hundreds of police identification files of former Saliers gypsy camp inmates under the Vichy regime. He also discovered that Bietschika Gorgan, the patriarch of the family, was deported to Buchenwald in 1944. In this knowledge, the formidable face and side portraits of the children in Photo booths can inevitably be seen under a novel, dark perspective. They involuntarily awake memories of seclusion, deportation and extermination of these minorities during World War II. Likewise, they speak eloquently of the implementation of photography as an authority and means of control. In fact, they still do given the recent evictions of Roma migrants from France in 2009, turning the whole work into a cumulus of embedded history, memory and trauma.

Silence in Les Gorgan is suggestive. For the story remains untold and is crude and partial. The gaze is distance, and the ‘other’ a fabricated construct to accommodate it. Visually exuberant at first glance, Pernot’s narrative gradually reveals itself as a complex object of relations among subjects, gazes and modes of representation. By abolishing hierarchies between the artistic, the quotidian and the banal, and by dissolving the status of narration and voices, ‘it recreates’, in Pernot’s words, ‘the circumstances of each member of the family, and recounts the story that he and the Gorgans wrote together; face to face, then side by side’. As such, it daringly takes a stance to reconstruct the dialogical structure of history from the viewpoint of the ones who have not written it, recovering and ultimately surpassing the proper experience of photography.

All images courtesy of the artist and Xavier Barral. © Mathieu Pernot

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

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. 

James Pfaff

Alex & Me

Book review by Natasha Christia

Alex & Me is an intimate autobiographical account of a road trip and broken love affair between a man and a woman. Materialised as a refreshingly original scrapbook with a strong diaristic scent, the project is the outcome of the creative tandem between the author of the pictures, Glasgow-based photographer James Pfaff, and two women; Francesca Seravalle, who curated the concept and sequence editing of the book, and Alex, the protagonist in the story. Alex & Me reunites a series of photographs from Pfaff’s archive that were shot during a two-week roadtrip he and Alex took in September 1998 from Toronto to New Orleans and then back north to New York.

The book carries the aura of a charmingly imperfect journal. It emerges as a container of elusive feelings that seek to accommodate themselves in the present and is replete with a plethora of snapshots on the move. Car interiors, highways, gasoline stations, bars and telephone booths are all embedded alongside Alex’s vibrant portraits within the pages of a hand-painted journal. They are tainted with expressive paintbrush strokes and handwritten texts.

Pfaff originally conceived the idea for a publication back in 2007. However, his attempts to bring it to fruition had somehow not fallen into place. It was not until 2012, with Seravalle’s thought-provoking input, that Alex & Me took shape as a diary, emulating the aesthetic of a scrapbook. Seravalle encouraged Pfaff to harvest from his archives an assemblage of notebook pages and a cover originally made in 1998, yet which was never intended for publication. The journal was completed with additional material originally shot during the journey and printed in local snappy snap shops along the way. Painting and texts came afterwards as a means for Pfaff to mark his contemporary response to the work. Partially present in his previous practice, painting served as the pretext for an artistically challenging process, one that at first was met with hesitation and then with more confidence. Far from a mere illustrative companion to the pictures, colour turned into an autonomous expressive element chronicling the dust and time of a journey past: white for the fences of the American houses, blue for the packaging of the cigarettes, red for the neon lights, and black for the highway darkness and so on. The same applies to Pfaff’s evocative texts and poems. They could have been nothing but personal. Their inclusion in book renders makes for an authentic, quiet, yet totally confident universe of words and images.

Two books in one is how Pfaff likes to describe it, Alex & Me is both a book and a memorial – haunting experiences crystallised in images, colour strokes and words that claim for themselves a three-dimensional space the same way objects do. Similar to Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence – a novel and a museum created simultaneously – it fulfils its mission as an iconographical depository of artefacts, scratches, clichés and love. The print reproduction and the poem in the envelope that accompanies it confirm this worshipping penchant. Articulated in first person, it reproduces Pfaff’s gaze, subjective response and passion and as such, it instigates an intuitive, heart-felt response from the viewer. No conceptual schemes are to be encountered here; just a cumulation of raw human experience alongside infinite stories of love, sorrow and solace.

September 1998. In a parallel temporal dimension, we find ourselves on the road. The trip was destined to turn into a catalyser of stormy inner changes in our timeline. We have however no material leftovers of these stories in our drawers. But somehow, Pfaff’s pictures succeed in filling the gap; gradually, they burrow into us as our most cherished souvenirs. They invite us to think of the myriad of insignificant incidents around the world that become unexpectedly symptomatic of the changes we are going through and prepare us to confront the larger issues. From today’s perspective, both Pfaff’s intimate fictions and ours seem to have unfolded when everything was about to change. Two years later, in September 2001, the new millennium abruptly affected history’s panorama and to a great extent our faith towards Images and the way we perceive and consume them. Something was irrevocably broken. America in September 1998 offers the set for a minor story with unexpected larger connotations, before the crashing and demolition of expectations and the beginning of a new era of neo-conservatism when the two protagonists of this story followed their own destinies and paths.

From the black and white sequences of its early pages to the subsequent double spreads in colour that intensify feeling and temporality, Alex & Me reveals itself as an open-ended artistic project that defies conventional progression. As if emanating from a Jim Jarmusch film, its neo-noir aesthetic makes a contained albeit heart-breaking allusion to love without idolising or fetishising it. It also establishes loose connections with Double Blind (No Sex Last Night), a 1992 film in which Sophie Calle and Greg Shephard, equipped with separate cameras, recorded every moment of their road trip across America. But whilst Double Blind finds its raison d’être in a voyeuristic tour-de-force operated by two antagonistic cameras within the confinement of its filmic time, here the weaving of relationships, desires and fears shifts outside narration and its historical time, in a continuous real-time narrative of a life shared and in a living book-object.

Alex & Me was conceived from the beginning as an ongoing and ever-expanding project made to be repainted, re-enacted and relived not only by Pfaff himself but by many others who have been actively involved in the reshaping of its story: his muse Alex (“everything comes out of me and her”), Seravalle (“the second woman who has scrutinised the project”), the audience, and, last but not least, the book which seems to claim its own life. Pfaff now gives public performances, collaborating with it anew threw paint and words. He invests layers of his contemporary feelings onto a story in constant evolution and onto a book he describes as a painful one —“a book that took so long to make, one with real consequences for peoples’ lives”. What’s more, this ‘unfinished’ book was marked by the sudden end of a friendship. Two years before its finalisation, Alex, his muse and creative companion in this sixteen-year endeavour suddenly became reticent. She asked him not to publish.

Pfaff’s story conjures up the impossibility of letting go. It also speaks to a desperate attempt to hold on to what is relentlessly evaporating – that persistent memory that still haunts us as a ghostly manifestation of a past once lived. But it somehow manages to square up to it and enable its reincarnation in the present without falling into banal melancholy. Beyond what a conventional solid (photo)book can represent, Alex & Me is a tangible performative capsule of memory. A cathartic meta-fictional experience in tenor, it opens up the possibility of alimenting, appropriating and recreating the past, while suggesting and acknowledging new collective modes in the creative process. Alex & Me has certainly become the path for Pfaff to look back over his story and deliver it to others. Now it is no longer just his; it is here for us to see and to react to in our own way. And, perhaps this is where redemption is to be found in photography –even if only momentarily and restlessly.

All images courtesy of the artist. © James Pfaff

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

Dragana Jurišić

My Own Unknown (2014-)

Essay by Natasha Christia

In 1954 a farm girl disappeared from a village in rural Yugoslavia. She supposedly popped out for a doctor’s appointment but never came back. Rumour has it that she fled to Paris where she led a double life as a spy and a prostitute up until her death in the 1980s. Recovered from her few personal belongings, was a colour photograph in which she is seen striking a curiously unsettling pose – one that exhibits a hypnotising yet ambiguous charm. Heavy-lid and with her lips on the verge of pronouncing an inner score, she looks dotingly at the rose in her hand. In front of her a taxidermy of a bear’s head – its gleaming eyes and jagged teeth – destabilises the apparent harmony of the composition.

Almost a century earlier, in Paris of the late 1880s, the body of a young woman was allegedly recovered from the River Seine. Memorialised by means of death mask as a bid to identify her – a popular morbid fixture in the years to come – her breath-taking beauty was celebrated by artists and writers alike, including Man Ray, Rainer Maria Rilke and Albert Camus to name a few. Maurice Blanchot’s account perhaps describes the tragic figure best: “A young girl with closed eyes, enlivened by a smile so relaxed and at ease… that one could have believed that she drowned in an instant of extreme happiness.”

These two female characters serve as the protagonists of My Own Unknown, the latest body of work by Dublin-based photographer Dragana Jurišić, an on-going series comprising five fascinating chapters due to culminate into a fictionalised biography. Combining text and photography, appropriated imagery also intermingles ruthlessly with notebook texts, video and performance, across diverse creative processes and narrated through differing voices. Hybrid and complex, My Own Unknown defies classification – its overlapping of languages, registers and motifs reflect the eclectic and expansive aesthetic and intellectual world of its author, Dragana Jurišić.

Jurišić is a photographer, writer and video artist who came to international attention in 2014 with YU: The Lost Country, an emotive, first person account of her return ‘home’ to former Yugoslavia, which broke up in 1991, after a decade of living abroad. Presented as an installation and a book, the work draws upon the memories and aftermath of war. My Own Unknown, currently on show at Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin as part of Photo Ireland 2016, quickly reveals itself as Jurišić’s most intimate autobiographical confession to date. Here the journey is accentuated. Taking the tainted life of her long-lost aunt Gordana Čavić and the symbolic connotations of L’Inconnue de la Seine as a point of departure, it sets forth a highly personal tale that explores the turbulent perceptions of femininity and its ricochet through art and family history.

While Čavić and L’Inconnue de la Seine are ostensibly the subject of the first two chapters of My Own Unknown, their presence and actions determine much of the rest of the story. They function as two mirrors for Jurisic’s own re-enactment of self in a triangle of female identity. Both are imagined rather than experienced – in a manner similar to André Breton’s 1928 autobiographical novel Nadja that chronicles his brief ten-day affair with an unknown woman. Nadja, the protaginist in this seminal surrealist work, gains validity the moment she becomes approved by the author’s colleagues. As soon as Breton fixes her within his consciousness, he abandons her. Romance fades and Nadja is ultimately committed to a sanatorium where she sadly belongs.

Jurišić’s female protagonists seem to fall in the same category. Both haunt the fantasies of others – Gordana is a sexual muse whereas L’Inconnue is the new Mona Lisa for artists. Like Nadja, they are not entirely real but worshipped “souls in limbo”, grounded in absence as opposed to historicity. Unlike Breton’s treatment, however, Jurišić’s fable soon reveals with bitter melancholy and resignation that the essence of the story is violence, cruelty and oppression. Moreover, it goes further to negate the ideal of female beauty, suggesting the possibility of a quieter historical reading of femininity.

In the project’s subsequent chapters, Gordana and L’Inconnue become the starting point of something more subversive, something by and for women. The passive muse is resurrected as an active agent, unleashing a visual narrative of a different kind – the romantic fable rolls over to a political impulse.

Chapter 3: 100 Muses sees 100 women from Dublin, aged between eighteen and eighty-five, respond to an open call to be photographed nude. Jurišić invited them to pose as one of the nine Muses of Antiquity, holding a replica of L’Inconnue death mask and two props: an old, throne-like chair and a cheap curtain that could be used as a drape to cover their naked bodies should the subjects wish to use it. Upon finishing the shoot, Jurišić asked them to select the portrait that best represented with the intention to empower her sitters and reflect openly on their relationship with their bodies. The final portraits of these Deities of Fertility looking back at the camera possess a primitive, earthly beauty. Free from eroticism, their exposed bodies create a ritualistic typology that challenges iconographical clichés – physical manifestations and reinventions of the romantic ideal of the muse and by-products of the complicity between the author and her sitters.

In chapter 4, Her Mother and Her Daughters, Jurišić proceeds to digitally overlay the portraits of women who identified with the same muse, generating nine collective portraits in total. A stratigraphy of these layered portraits results in Mnemosyne, the daughter of Gaia and mother of the Nine Muses. What emerges is synthesised phantasmal taxidermy of skin and visages, the image of “The Mother” is the overlap of all. It condenses the maturity of different lives and skins, against the weight of immortality and idealisation.

Don’t be afraid to look into a shadow, the fifth chapter of My Own Unknown, plunges the viewer further into its remixing of female identity as a renewed collective meta-fiction. A video puts in motion the stories of all these women, with Jurisic placing herself in front of the camera. Here, her identification with her aunt Gordana Čavić is crystallised. They share, in her words, the same taste for adventure and braveness. They also share the awareness of an innocence lost in the depths of a river.

Jurišić used the Super-8 camera her aunt left behind to re-enact a life that was censored. The viewer is asked to access these short films through the holes of a series of black boxes. It is hard not to detect parallels between this diorama-like assemblage and Marcel Duchamp’s major artwork Étant Données. An unexpected and unimaginable landscape, visible only through the peepholes, communicates an intense experience of accessing a life shrouded in mystery, but imagined this time by women. In these rolls of film, women emerge as the ‘other’ – that which cannot be grasped, comprehended or penetrated, but only felt and sensed, the same way as war, displacement and tragedy. If male identity by normative modes operates as a solid narrative object (an object that “is what it is”, according to Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition), My Own Unknown resets femininity as a restless imaginative space for to open up thinking on micro-histories of women that were either mythologised or buried in the tomb of history.

My Own Unknown is existential attempt at self-knowledge, where female muses emerge and vanish like shadows against a veiled backdrop. Pulled ashore from a river of mystery, they partially regain life. When not covered by a mask, their gazes are firmly addressed towards the camera. And yet, despite their urge to overcome vulnerability, they slip once more into a tranquil death in the area of meaning. There is much sadness and latent resignation infusing these bodies. There is an awareness of futility amidst our turbulent, disappearing times. There is the acknowledgment that recession into absence is the final redemption. Bodies are deemed to vanish, to fade.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Dragana Jurišić

Natasha Christia is an independent writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. She was recently the Guest Editor at the Read or Die publishing fair in Barcelona during November 2015 and Curator of DocField Documentary Photography Festival, taking place during May and July 2016, entitled, Europe: Lost in Translation.

Vittorio Mortarotti

The First Day of Good Weather

Book review by Natasha Christia

Vittorio Mortarotti’s The First Day of Good Weather feels like one of those books that asks you to go back to it again and again. It is multi-layered and cryptic in tenor, and its sequence is constructed with sophisticated albeit uncanny couplings of seemingly disparate elements. It is a style that can be seen in other Skinnerboox publications, such as Alessandro Calabrese’s superb Die Deutsche Punkinvasion, where the juxtaposition of close ups of junkyard cars with archival pictures of punk revolts produces a chain of striking and effective connotations.

Impelled by a similar penchant, Mortarotti’s narrative takes me through a misty topography of devastation, melancholy and resignation. There is a bluish undertone to the book, a sort of mute score reverberating in the depths of an ocean. Night and day alternate indifferently in perennial circles of rising tides; views of semi-demolished houses, cracked cement blocks and smashed cars are paired up with flashy portraits of drained individuals and tormented night bar affairs. And yet, I can tell that beneath this rough, silent mood is a winding stream of emotions, a lust to hang on to life. This collision of distinctive visual and emotional registers within a low-spirited, obscure and industrialised environment turns into both a graphic and literal incarnation of an attempt to get access to a secret, to recollect its traces, to grasp how life can be after everything has been smashed into a million pieces.

Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of the book, a text has been inserted, dating back to May 1999. It is a letter written in French by a Japanese woman named Kaori. It is addressed to a man. This letter complicates the story. It makes it clear that there is much more in here – something deep, personal and intimate.

In the pages that follow, the story recovers its visual pace. But while Mortarotti’s gaze keeps safeguarding its distance from dramatic exasperations, it unleashes an unsettlingly emotional, almost existential register that drives me away from the letter and away from words.

In the colophon I read that the book brings together three unconnected moments: the fall of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the death of Mortarotti’s own father and teen-aged brother in a car accident on 8-9 July 1999, and the terrible earthquake and Tsunami that shook Japan in March 2011. All moments of historical relevancy; all massive, unexpected, unprecedented and utterly devastating in their after-effects.

In the wake of this data assemblage everything falls into place. Death appears here in capital letters and History intermingles with personal traumas. The locations shown in the book recover their names: Fukushima, Tokyo, Hiroshima … And as for the letter, it forms part of the correspondence between Mortarotti’s brother and Kaori, his Japanese girlfriend who kept on writing and sending postcards for months after the accident. Tracking this pack of letters and looking for Kaori fifteen years later became, for Mortarotti, a pretext to visit Fukushima and the area hit by the Tsunami in a cathartic search for what might have been in the aftermath of stories of loss other than his own.

I am aware now of many key elements of the story. Too many, perhaps, in the eyes of the purists still inhabiting our photographic community. Photographic purism would dismiss the book I hold in my hands as too dependent on words. It would dictate that sequence must speak for itself, that we do not need illuminating words; when these are needed, they say, it is because the images do not work for themselves.

But curiously, The First Day of Good Weather feels relevant precisely because it breaks these rules with its contaminated and versatile mood. Removing the limitations of visual storytelling or photobook-making is an option in its own right. But it cannot become axiomatic. It does not and should not exclude other options. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to”.

The First Day of Good Weather is a hybrid photobook in every sense of the word. By expanding its branches to apparently irrelevant storylines, its narrative adopts an elliptical style akin to cinema and literature. At the same time, it masterfully combines and balances the documentary, diaristic and conceptual modes with a marked preference for a “slow” inception of reality and its facts. The links between the photographer’s personal tragedy and Japan’s collective trauma play out the universal mechanisms of coping with grief and of moving on after experiencing a dramatic event. Mortarotti manages to tackle the delicate and private sphere of mourning without falling into cliché or an excess of autobiographical references. What’s more, he brings Japan to the foreground in an unpretentious and neutral way. It would have been easy to let it take up the entire frame for the umpteenth time, but he does not. He avoids temptation.

How can we approach an alien space? How can we cope with death and its remnants? How can we overcome it? The components of Mortarotti’s story are tied together by the intuitive assumption that the bits and pieces of our immense world are interconnected. During most of his journey around Japan, we feel attached to the ground. Then the bird’s-eye view in the small postcard pictures of skyscrapers and the portrait of a woman (Kaori, in the present) against the window and the blue sky introduce a soft, airy element – a parallel dimension to the journey. There is a climax of sensations that reinforces an awareness of the randomness of cosmic events – a volatile lightness, horrendous in many ways, as the title of the project suggests. The first day of good weather was the day life stopped in Hiroshima. “The first day of good weather” was the order issued by President Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. On 6 August 1945, it was raining over the other targets. It was sunny over Hiroshima.

We are used to conceiving of books – not merely photobooks – as static objects, but perhaps it would be useful to consider that they might not be. Books, after all, are elastic condensers of time. They exist in time; they grow with us. They stand for a sort of synaesthetic experience where we, the reader, have to contribute our imagination and intuition to fill in the gaps.

So I let myself drift into The First Day of Good Weather. I let myself add to its sequenced layers of experience emanating from my personal debris. Experience that adds more lines to the story as if it were an unfinished novel. I catch myself going back and forth. Especially backwards in a futile hope that this movement could restore something of the past. Rather than revoking the trauma, I seek to accommodate it in the present. I catch myself returning to The First Day of Good Weather for there is something in it that persistently resonates in my mind: an intense, sustained and profound force that replenishes its argument and makes me see it anew.

All images courtesy of Skinnerboox. © Vittorio Mortarotti

Natasha Christia is an independent writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. She was recently the guest editor at the Read or Die publishing fair in Barcelona during November 2015. She has also been appointed as curator of the upcoming edition of DocField Documentary Photography Festival, taking place during May and July 2016, entitled Europe: Lost in Translation.

Sara-Lena Maierhofer

Dear Clark, a Portrait of a Con Man

Interview by Natasha Christia

Erasing the past, tailoring a new identity, becoming somebody else; not just anyone, but a Rockefeller, the husband of a wealthy woman. The old, long-buried self used to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter from Bavaria. But he vanished a long time ago in a journey from Germany to the States. His initials were lost in a series of taken names; his skin appropriated a handful of aliases, all grandiose and luxurious in lifestyle. In 2008, after three decades of spurious identities, the lie collapsed and with it the man. Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, aka Christopher Crow, Clark Rockefeller to name but a few; to many a swindler, a con man, a crook; to others, a gifted storyteller, a man with a polished accent who dared to be whoever he wished.

Sara-Lena Maierhofer discovered Clark in a Süddeutsche Zeitung article in 2011. She became fascinated by the man with multiple skins and decided to approach him. After Clark refused to meet her, she decided to study him from a distance, to conduct her own criminal investigation based on the existing pieces of forensic evidence – the bits of newspaper, pictures, even Clark’s early drawings, and her letters to him. Still, Maierhofer needed to go further. In an attempt to penetrate the multiple layers of his lie and reach the core of his personality, she chose to approach him through fiction, following Clark’s lead. She imagined him in a world of clones and doubles, one where the borders of truth and lie collapse against the rigid confinements of the image.

Dear Clark grew into a multifocal installation and a book that carry both the rigorous yet awkward aura of an uncanny cabinet of doubles, Siamese twins, and the world’s most famous criminals. Departing from Clark’s case, Maierhofer took one step further and enclosed in her study a fascinating register of chameleonic apparitions and unresolved tales of hybrids and optical illusions, some real, others invented. Liquid definition and duplicity are omnipresent in this open-ended narrative that asks the viewer to join in piecing together the clues Maierhofer has collected.

Like other contemporary visual artists who use photography to explore the possibilities of fiction, rather than the forensic search for truth, Maierhofer seems not to consider her photographs able to tell her story on their own. She instead incorporates them in a systematic, non-hierarchical use of archival documents and resources as diverse as pure documentary, staged photography, texts and film studies, in order to unmask the subjectivity of vision and the fragility of perception. Her production process lies transparent on the wall and the page, inviting a series of playful and, at times, unsettling associations between images, words and media, in equal, democratic terms. As she explains, “it is all zooming in, zooming out, looking at different perspectives, reviving the joy I first experienced when compiling my material and browsing through it.”

Cinematic in pace, Dear Clark allows for mystery and intrigue. Maierhofer acknowledges her documentary roots and the influence of the German film director Werner Herzog who has extensively theorised about and mingled the languages of fiction and documentary. It is from him that Maierhofer draws her philosophy, one that defends tampering with the truth for the sake of storytelling. The elasticity that both the installation and the book possess reinforces this determination to engage multiple layers of meaning, interpretation and experience. “I was concerned”, Maierhofer recalled “about how much information I should provide without destroying the viewer’s imagination, without being didactic. The installation provides the opportunity to discover things. You can flip the pictures, read the texts underneath them or behind the glass vitrine. You can if you want, but you do not need to. I wanted to preserve this element in the book, hence the different paper layers and sheet lengths.”

The elliptical narrative in Dear Clark eloquently unravels the strong underlying parallels between the flux of fraudulent identity and photography’s unfulfilled promises of objective truth. The extent of the lie in Clark’s case – how he took it to its limits and imposed it on everyone – is another example of human credulity before the presence of a seducing image, imagined or real.

Says Maierhofer: “Identity seems to be after all a matter of persuasion. Clark did not just choose to be anyone; he chose to be a Rockefeller! He was not just like any other common crook out there who tries to make money out of peoples’ beliefs. What he was after was status. For months he studied the Rockefellers thoroughly, and managed to pass himself off as one of them. People bought into his lie and invested in it because it was so charming.

“All of us are drawn to storytellers, to people who make reality just a little better with their lies. In Germany there is a saying, ‘I will love you forever is the most honest lie in the world’. The same applies to photography. It wants to give us the truth but it can’t.”

Images direct our attention towards their confined surfaces; it is their unique, privileged bond with the real that renders them so appealing. They tempt us to believe there is more beyond the surface. The condensed meaning palpitating in one single photograph allows us the space to imagine multiple universes, a life of different options. And yet, when the hour of truth comes, it is so hard to specify the path to the final meaning. Charming and ambivalent, the Barthesian punctum resists being tied down to the norms of language. As does Clark. He becomes the punctum for Maierhofer: an exemplary subject avidly explored. A recollection of family pictures in the series shows him the way he was: blurry, unrecognisable, an awkward pose defying definition. Every time he had his picture taken, he would cover himself or make a face: he, the man of invention, chose to leave a weak imprint on film.

Clark is the man in constant rebirth. A series of chapters with Kafkaesque titles – The Promise, The Lie, The Transformation – allude to his duality and process of transformation, but also attempt to fully capture his complexity, to neatly outline him as the subject of a readable narrative. Maierhofer disposed of two portraits of him: a newspaper clip from the day of his arrest and the portrait of a smiling young man with sunglasses. This latter picture, which was taken in Germany when Clark was around seventeen, is the only photograph where we see him openly looking at the camera. “I love this picture”, says Maierhofer, “it delivers the naïve hope he had as a young man. When he first landed in the States, he spent some time in Pasadena trying to succeed as an actor. But he failed. When you travel to the US you just expect everything to be like in a Hollywood movie. The whole country is a particular setting of reality and fiction. This is what happened to Clark. He got the message of the American dream delivered by him in his living room in Germany, went there and expected that he could be anyone he wished.”

As an ideal, charismatic subject, Clark remains mysterious and blurry until the end. Still, Maierhofer confesses that romance gradually faded despite her initial fascination with him. The gloomy part of the story prevailed. “Inventing a fake persona and keeping track of the lie for thirty years takes a lot of calculation”, she explains. “Just imagine, Clark was never able to tell anyone about who he really was. I sometimes fantasise about him going out to these little drive-in bars, running across a stranger probably drunk, letting it all out and then going back home”.

Clark Rockefeller, or Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, is currently serving a sentence for murder in America. Sara-Lena Maierhofer carried out the project without meeting him; he never responded to her request. How would the work have turned out if he had said yes? “It would have certainly been less my project and more his”, responds Maierhofer. “Clark would have directed me. He is an extremely intelligent man who knows how to play the game of seduction. A con man is the perfect mirror. He gets into people’s heads, finds out about their desires and gives them what they want. In our case, it would have been the same. Clark would have sensed what I want and would have manipulated me. He would have been the rider and me the horse”.

All images courtesy of the artist © Sara-Lena Maierhofer

Natasha Christia is a freelance writer and curator. From 2005 until 2014 she was the art director and development manager of Kowasa gallery/bookstore in Barcelona.

Alexandra Catiere

Here, Beyond the Mists

Essay by Natasha Christia

In the photography of Alexandra Catiere there is a subtle light burning, something akin to a frail but persistent memory that cannot be fully restored. Through these pictures, shot mainly in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, we encounter the remains of an agonising perception – unfinished and rapidly consumed. Something intrigues us to return to her work again and again, relentlessly trying to recover now what it felt like before, and yet also strangely as if felt for the first time. Like a speech running after the lights are dimmed, Catiere’s photographs trigger within us a sense of something irremediably lost but still somehow present. An abrupt flash-bolt, they mark a primal moment of photographic genesis, in which everything surges forth from the depths.

Catiere’s photographs carry the audacious transparency of a glance that announces its own partiality. Far from being instantaneous shots capturing merely the mundane aura of a city and its people, they are loaded with a timeless, dignifying gentleness that successfully bridges the space between wonder and understanding. In the image that introduces her only book to date, a truck abandons the scene, rendering as its sole protagonist a slender male figure. Ethereal and almost reduced to a black spot, the man counterbalances the emptiness of the composition while reinforcing, in his staunch immobility, the impression that the meaning infused in the picture – essentially metaphysical at heart – is in fact encountered elsewhere, outside the frame.

By the same token, doors and windows are frequently left half-open in Catiere’s photographs. There is always a way-out drawn by a photogenic light, a vanishing point that marks the path to a spiritual after-world beyond apparitions. In a good many portraits, the subjects appear as if they are on the verge of turning into somebody else. Or moreover their awkward poses suggest the possibility of an inner transformation. In the scenes of natural surroundings, the light mixes with the particles of the atmosphere, diluted amid the falling snowflakes that draw a profile of trees, humans and cityscapes. It is precisely this very moment, when the picture seems completely devoid of content, when its surface becomes an indefinable blank surface, that intrigues Catiere. Paradoxically, this moment of indecisiveness bestows upon us a reminiscence, only to take it away afterwards. It offers us the past as a coherent and plausible whole, but then dissolves it abruptly in the midst of the image, consumes it like a flame, leaving it incomplete, vague, mute.

The famous fog that lies like a blanket over the Saône river couldn’t be a better backdrop for the dreamful but contained imagery of Alexandra Catiere. Here, Beyond the Mists, the title chosen for the work, serves as an apt statement of purpose. Far from being mirrors of the world, her images are sparkles, fugitive apparitions. They are blank reflections of missing idols – of what we long for from the past but are unable to recover in the present; of something that, in its painstaking departure and absence, becomes properly ours. Loss is not the question here, nor is there space for drama or free melancholy. It is rather all about a sort of decaying vital information we carry in our genes and about what we can make of it.

Light burns everything in these pictures. Light as evoked in the darkrooms of the first pioneers, light as the mystic force of the first heliographic experiments and their alchemical processes; glass negatives, plates and contact sheets. Even so, this young artist does not stick to the rules for her prints do not seek perfection. On the contrary, as if by a series of deliberate accidents, they push the limits in terms of contrasts, tonality and nuances, fostering a manner of expression that is distinctly contemporary.

While informed by the subtle and intimate lexicon of black and white imagery, her pictures conjure a space devoid of solid statement. Eschewing creative ties and affinities with her generation, her works go further to integrating the old and the new into an unvarnished map of personal sensibility. Catiere approaches her subjects, but also maintains an honest distance from them. The encounter between the photographer and the world around her is an ephemeral celebration steeped in empathy and honest exchange.

As a result, Catiere recollects, through her imagery, diverse emotions and moods, constantly evoking the circles of life, birth, childhood and ageing. The way she chooses to conclude her book – from Burgundy, France she goes back referencing her hometown Minsk, Belarus – reinforces this feeling of integration to the chain of an ever-changing historical reality. On the last page her book we encounter a tiny image that shows the statue of Nicéphore Niépce at a distance. Lost in the mist, could this represent a last homage to one of the fathers of photography ahead of a future that will be distinct photographically? Or is it, perhaps, the tangible record of a reminiscence diluting in the passage of time?

By turns gentle and haunting, Catiere’s photography raises awareness of the fact that memories do decay and that they lose their original shape and coherence. All that is left is to look at and discover the beauty beyond the mists – a beauty, proper to the living, pure and immaculate at heart, that will stand over the patina of time.

Born in 1978 in Minsk, Belarus, Alexandra Cartiere initially began experimenting with photography at Minsk State Linguistic university. As encouraged by her mentor Youi Kuper, Cartiere moved to New York in 2003 to complete a certificate programme at the International Centre of Photography. She then worked as an assistant to internationally renowned photographer Irving Penn.

In 2005, Cartiere was listed as one of the twenty most promising emerging photographers in New York, and as a result participated in the Art & Commerce Festival, a travelling exhibition that began its tour in D.U.M.B.O, NYC. Since then, Cartiere has been named as an emerging star of International Photography in American Photo magazine, 2005, and exhibited at photography festivals in France, Japan, Italy and Spain. In 2006 she received a Silver Camera award from the Moscow House of Photography.

In 2009, Pobeda Gallery, Moscow, presented the work of Cartiere at Paris Photo and went on to showcase her new series at VOLTA6 in Basel in 2010. Cartiere was the artist chosen for the first BMW residency, a liaison established between BMW Art & Culture and the Museum Nicéphore Niépce in France. The work produced here, with the support of the museum, alongside a publication published by Trocadéro Editions, was featured most recently at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2012. In addition to her art practice, Cartiere works as a fashion photographer, and has had her photography featured in Dazed & Confused, Liberty Magazine, The New Yorker and T Magazine (The New York Times).

All images courtesy of the artist. © Alexandra Catiere