The galerie VU’ in Paris hosts ambitious shows in a bright, simple, labyrythine space on rue Saint Lazare. Last September I saw Graeme Williams’s generous exhibit of a career of photographing South Africa. Today I caught the tail end of a likewise provocative and beautiful exhibit of two women photographers, one capturing (like Williams) images of emptiness that remind us that people were there, in the landscape, and the other showing two sets of photos: one of boxed heads (people cramming heads and arms into wooden cubes) and the other, to me more evocative, of weird, formal, aesthetically beautiful photographs of children with mostly dead animals — or in one case, animals that look on the bottom half dead and on the top half alive.
After earning a medical degree and expertise as a cellist, the Canadian photographer Elaine Ling started shooting her global travels. She pairs her medical and photographic passions, works with First Nations and other indigenous people, and backpacks around with a VIEW camera, of all things. ( I travel on airplanes to Europe with a tiny little Panasonic and three tinier lenses, to save weight and space. I’m so ashamed.)
On offer at the VU’ gallery are copies of her silver gelatin prints of abandoned miners’ houses in the Namibian desert. Ripples in the sand dunes echo the stenciled trim of the utterly empty living spaces. The photos are black and white, untrimmed. Alas for film photographers today, these effects are widely available to any iPhoneographer, so their mystique has been somewhat diluted. Nonetheless, these are powerful images, technically and compositionally just perfect.
Ling is not the only photographer to discover and document the abandoned settlement, though her photos date back to 1997. Kolmanskop was founded in 1908, when diamonds were found lying on the ground. German miners quickly settled here, building houses that reminded them of home. In 1954 the company called it quits and the town emptied out. In 1980 de Beers restored a few of the buildings and established a museum. According to MailOnline, Kolmanskop has been used as a set in some paranormal television series. One doesn’t wonder. The photographer Michiel Van Balen shot a number of color photographs published with the Mail’s feature spread, and they offer a nice comparison to Ling’s black and white work. Which do I like better? The black and white in this instance are colder and more eerie. They are low contrast shots, for the most part, offering nuanced views of the sand invasion of these interiors. It is intriguing to speculate how the sand got into the houses. Did the departing miners’ families leave the doors open? Was the village attractive to squatters? The classic German houses plopped into Namibia, and the abrupt abandonment of the town, scream European invasion of Africa — just another white people’s capitalist fancy.
Maxine Helfman calls herself a “late bloomer” in photography, having come to it as an adult from design. Her stuff is even more gorgeously formal than Ling’s, just in the sense that she deliberately makes up and poses her subjects, who become objects in the photos. By that I mean that she plays with odd juxtapositions, and has the children stand with grim or impassive expressions as they interact spatially with the things Helfman puts in the frame. The kids aren’t always completely posed.
In another series, in her generous sampling online, she has young boys put on girls’ dresses and then photographs their reactions. In the two series at the VU’ last week, the set with young adults in boxes was less evocative than the set with children posed in often antique costumes and theatrical makeup wwearing animal heads, or holding stuffed dead animals, in their arms. She does a nice job copy protecting her work, while making it available to view online, so I was unable to show exhibit photos here, but below is a photo from the boys-in-girls-dresses collection, reproduced in an AtLength interview with Helfman. Check out the exhibit sets at Helfman’s web page.
I do love this gallery, which is also a photographers’ agency. Though in a prime spot, it is simple and unpretentious, and in its winding interior alleys, very much a Parisian affair. The curators bustle around, but it is a viewers’ space, with a small attractive librairie of photographic books — not at all as large as the Maison Europeene de la Photographie, but a lovely selection, mainly, one assumes, of their own photographers. There was not a catalogue for this exhibit, alas. The exhibit was culled from the photographers on view in Houston, Texas, for the Fotofest of 2014.
I need to say that I am completely weirded out, because after having published this entry once, I returned to view it online a second time, and it had completely disappeared. I have reconstructed the entry.