Reviewed by David Evans for Parenthesis Magazine
Lauren Henkin. Displaced. Portland: Vela Noche Press, 2010. 39 digitally printed photographs; text printed letterpress. Binding by John DeMerritt. Published in an edition of 60 copies.
Displaced is a beautifully realized book in which photographs—and very few words—describe the author’s changing emotional and physical states following her divorce. There are two parts to the book. The first documents Henkin’s escape from her home in Washington DC to Nova Scotia, but it is also concerned with an interior emotional space. She was immersed in feelings of loss, sadness, loneliness, and fear, and was alienated from the security of her family and even her own senses, yet the landscape and the people she discovered helped her to regain the clarity of her vision and a renewed sense of her own identity.
The sequencing of the images is effective and subtle, and helps us understand this process of renewal. At times the references are direct: in one spread, we see a mural painted on a cracked wall showing a honeymoon couple gazing from an ornate balcony; on the facing page is the interior of what might be an antique store. Dominating an array of tagged items and forgotten photographs is an empty wedding dress and a somewhat shabby tuxedo with militaristic headgear hanging over it in abject shame. A photograph of a woman with a knowing smile appears to peer out from behind the dress, her face seemingly lit by the warm glow cast by an old lampshade hanging on the wall. The message seems to be that Cupid no longer aims his arrow as reliably as he once did. This pair of images reminded me of the work of Walker Evans in American Photographs (1938). There are many other images that stand out individually while contributing to the narrative but limited space prevents me from discussing them here.
The second part of the book concerns the period following her trip to Nova Scotia. Once she returned home she experienced further shifts in her emotions and her sense of landscape. She writes about being overwhelmed by anger and her loss of control. The images here are smaller than in the first part of the book and are framed by thick black borders which appear to confine the violence within. These photographs were taken with a with a very inexpensive plastic camera and are less focused—the shaking and trembling lens conveys a desperate stumble through a blasted forest: trees and limbs are splayed, opening into a world malignant and decayed. Roots resemble animals writhing like Dante/Bosch figures—dead but suffering eternally. The final image in the book was taken while she lay on her back looking upward towards the sky with a feeling of total collapse and resignation—the sense that she may not survive another moment.
The printing of the photographs is stunning. The images glow from within the paper and although the surface is a soft and non-reflective mat, the highlights are crisp and bright, the shadows rich and deep, and the transitions smooth and natural. Printed by the artist herself using a professional Epson ink-jet printer with software adapted for black and white, the prints demonstrate that digital printing methods have advanced to the point that they can equal and even surpass traditional methods. When combined with fine bookbinding and letterpress printing, the result represents a breakthrough for photographers who in the past have been frustrated by the difficulty and expense of getting their work published in a form that has anything like the quality of an original silver-gelatin print, painstakingly crafted in the darkroom. In the hands of a skilled printer like Lauren Henkin, ink-jet printing is flexible and dynamic enough that colour can be managed exactly as the artist sees fit. And colour is an important element in a monochrome print; the precise shade of grey—warm or cool—is only obtained with great difficulty using traditional darkroom techniques. While she works with traditional cameras and film, Henkin uses digital printing technology not to create special effects, but to achieve the high standards she demands in her work.
It is rare that a book of photographs succeeds, as this one does, in conveying painful emotional states so vividly and with such beauty and grace. Displaced is also a notable and satisfying blend of letterpress and digital printing and will be an inspiration to other photographers who may consider publishing their work in this way.
© David Evans
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