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Book Review: Purity


Book Review Purity By David Magnusson Reviewed by Blake Andrews Purity is just a single book, but it might have two completely different meanings depending on your viewpoint. If you are the sort of Christian who believes that virginity should be preserved until marriage, this book is a wonderful tribute to that worldview. On the other hand, if you are someone who believes the exact opposite, this book will also confirm that belief system.Everything depends on the viewer, and the book leverages that fact to convey conflicting ideas in a way that is rare among photobooks.

Purity. By David Magnusson.
Max Ström, 2014.
Purity
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Purity
By David Magnusson
Max Ström, 2014. Unpaged, color illustrations, 10¾x13¼".


Purity is just a single book, but it might have two completely different meanings depending on your viewpoint. If you are the sort of Christian who believes that virginity should be preserved until marriage, this book is a wonderful tribute to that worldview. On the other hand, if you are someone who believes the exact opposite, this book will also confirm that belief system. Everything depends on the viewer, and the book leverages that fact to convey conflicting ideas in a way that is rare among photobooks. It's like one of those optical illusion posters. It's one thing at first, but after staring a while you realize it's something else completely.

Author David Magnusson is well aware of the conflict. He went into the project skeptical of his subjects, but shooting the photos made him openly appreciative. So it's no surprise the final product straddles both views. "I wanted to make the pictures as beautiful as possible so that the participants could be proud of them," he writes in the afterward. "At the same time I realize the pictures could be interpreted in a completely different way."


Purity. By David MagnussonMax Ström, 2014.

The pictures in question are portraits of fathers and daughters shot during Purity Balls in Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona. If you haven't heard of Purity Balls, they are what you might guess from the name. During a Purity ceremony, a young daughter pledges to her father that she'll remain "pure" until marriage. That is, no premarital sex. Vows are read, promissory gifts are exchanged, a celebratory dance, then the girls can be released into the wild, where they mill around intact and unblemished for many years until their wedding night. In some ways the ceremony is like a practice wedding, but with heavier Biblical, Oedipal, and sexual undertones than usual. And of course the women are much younger than a typical wedding. Generally they are slightly prepubescent, although sometimes ranging younger in age. One of the subjects in the book is two years old.

Purity. By David MagnussonMax Ström, 2014.

Purity Balls are a relatively recent American phenomenon, and thus caught the eye of Swedish photographer David Magnusson. There was nothing like that in his country. He was intrigued, so he hung around some of the balls and gradually gained access. The resulting portraits are gorgeous. Each portrait shows a father and daughter (sometimes multiple daughters) embracing. The subjects wear their formal Purity Ball outfits, generally black-tie and ballgown. Using pre-dawn daylight with natural backdrops, Magnusson has imbued his photos with an ethereal glow. The tones are low-contrast, over exposed by a few stops, and given a cotton candy pink/cyan colorcast. I've never seen heaven but if I had to imagine a photograph of it, these would be close.

Purity. By David MagnussonMax Ström, 2014.

The range of possible father-daughter relationships is vast and that diversity comes through clearly in the poses. Some couples hug passionately as if they've been locked together forever. Some couplings look stiff and unpleasant, as if the father and daughter had never before touched. A few of the fathers seem to be propping their daughters up for show, like a limp kitten or prize rabbit. The facial expressions are generally blank and hard to read, and occasionally eyes are closed as if in prayer. No one smiles. The comparison to Richard Rinaldi's recent book Touching Strangers is very inviting. Some fathers and daughters appear to be very much strangers, while some nestle as if they've always known one another. Overall the scenes are tranquil, pastoral. They are perfect photos if you believe in heaven. Or perfectly artificial if you don't.

Purity. By David MagnussonMax Ström, 2014.

Each portrait is accompanied by a brief written statement by father and daughter. These are enjoyable to read although surprisingly uniform in tone. Many of the fathers make comments about youthful indiscretions, and how they want to now set things right with their own children. The daughters usually make some reference to saving themselves for later. They view themselves as shiny new prizes that can only be unwrapped once. Generally the tone is heartfelt and earnest and, well, pure. Even if one doesn't share the same worldview, the devotion to a simple cause is admirable.

Purity. By David MagnussonMax Ström, 2014.

This is the first title I've seen by Swedish publisher Max Ström, and the production is impressive. Befitting the material, the book follows a traditional sensibility with cloth binding and tipped in cover photo. The scale is quite large, 11" x 13", and the reproductions and typesetting are extremely fine. The photos are large, each covering most of a page. But the spare text and roomy layout keeps the book from feeling cluttered. The cover is blank white, symbolizing either the purity of virginity, or an absence of discourse. The interpretation will depend on the reader. —BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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