Lament, published to coincide with an exhibition at the Freud Museum, London, is built around four pieces of work, visual and literary. The images come from two different series by Bettina von Zwehl, Laments and The Sessions. The psychoanalyst and writer Josh Cohen contributes the short story ‘The Arrivals’ and the essay ‘Invitation to Frequent the Shadows’, interwoven with von Zwehl’s photography in the book. Bettina von Zwehl is an artist living and working in London, who has exhibited widely, and her Freud Museum residency followed from her residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In Cohen’s short story, the protagonist encounters a photograph of a child, the same picture, again and again. The mystery unravels, as the main character struggles with identity and the impossibility of knowing someone else, or (un)knowing yourself. The design of the book guides the narrative and words become visual as the different typefaces and font sizes pace and bring dramatic emphasis to the text.
The black and white silhouette picture with jagged edges on the black cloth cover is from von Zwehl’s The Sessions series, which is filtered through the artist’s personal encounters with psychoanalysis and the work of Anna Freud. The portrait is repeatedly printed on torn photographic paper, but no two pictures are the same. She is seen over and over, but remains enigmatic, hiding in the gaps and rips of the picture. Miniatures and silhouettes, a running thread in von Zwehl’s work, are again echoed here. The ragged edges and missing parts suggest a kind of loss of self and the fragmentation of memory. The imagery corresponds to but does not explain or illustrate Cohen’s writing. The two take separate paths throughout the book, divergent but sometimes crossing.
In his essay ‘Invitation to Frequent the Shadows’, Cohen goes back to Plato and his war on shadows, exposures and obscurities of the object out of sight. The essay is woven into the Laments series, where von Zwehl photographs 15 different women in dark profile. The series is a response to personal grief, and the theme of loss is elegantly expressed. Darkness veils the women in the portraits, as the viewer wonders whether it is one person or several, or whether the images reflect the different sides of one person. They all wear the same cap and stand in the shadows, withdrawing from the camera’s gaze. The process of looking is almost frustrating, as so little is revealed. This withdrawal loops back to the way Plato talks about whether we should seek to eradicate the shadows, much like the paparazzi wish to do. These dark portraits are the opposite of paparazzo photographs. They are negatives of those images of famous women – and it is women, usually, too often – who have been caught in the over-exposed, destructive glare of the flashbulb.
“Can we imagine a photography that would protect, rather than banish, the hiddenness of the object?”
In its theme, light and dark, echoing the rhythm of life and death, the book goes back to the foundations of photography. Like in the photographic picture, light and dark cannot be separated – or rather, one cannot exist without the other.
– Reviewed by Riikka Kuittinen
Lament by Bettina von Zwehl and Josh Cohen was published by Art / Books Publishing in 2016.