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Book Review: Umbra


Book Review Umbra By Viviane Sassen Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson Shadow, we are told, is the theme. Shadow accentuating people, objects, even concepts, and allowing them to emerge. But not just shadow — Umbra — which is the darker-most inner region of a shadow; in other words — the shadow’s deepest, even coldest, point.

Umbra. By Viviane SassenPrestel, 2015.
 
Umbra
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Umbra
Photographs by Viviane Sassen
Prestel, Lakewood, USA, 2015. 196 pp., 200 color illustrations, 10¼x13¾".


Shadow, we are told, is the theme.

Shadow accentuating people, objects, even concepts, and allowing them to emerge. But not just shadow — Umbra — which is the darker-most inner region of a shadow; in other words — the shadow’s deepest, even coldest, point.

Yet shadow in this book is not shadow, rather it is an absence. Most of Viviane Sassen’s images employ shadow as if to apply a negative space – not shadow, but the absence of color, of volume of form or some more socio- or emotional actuality (an actuality like a void such as the dead create).

A well-known image of Sassen’s is contained in this edition of Umbra; it shows a grave dug into an almost rust-colored earth. The grave is open, it is like an enflamed wound with the red earth that has been displaced by the gravedigger ridging its sides – the maw of the grave reminds us not of the rest of the dead, but of their absence, the void they create; the rich earth remains, but the world is different and less full.

Umbra. By Viviane SassenPrestel, 2015.
Umbra. By Viviane SassenPrestel, 2015.

And this photograph expresses Sassen’s use of something deeper than shadow; perhaps the coldness of shadow is a better description, the cold of absence. In landscapes she overlays colored transparent surfaces, creating red squares and black voids in the African desert reminding us of heat and, with the black, oblique synonyms for absence: hunger, thirst, inflexibility.

For Sassen color and dark and shade are tools to be gathered and applied; this material is something like a wattage that she uses to amplify, modify or control her images. In her fashion photography, startlingly painted bodies (bright blues, greens, reddish pinks) accentuate the model’s contours and highlight the clothing. The effect makes her models more like hangers or mannequins. In Umbra color is used to express the breadth of life — an absence to express life’s richness.

Umbra. By Viviane SassenPrestel, 2015.

The book’s construction encourages explorations of the hidden. Even the mysteriousness of the book’s form furthers meaning — images and poems are hidden between page that are only half-cut, the tops of the pages are still connected, causing one to lift them apart to discover their contents in a similar way to how one would lift up a stone to look at what lies beneath. Once a reader can move past the strangeness (and the desire to cut the top crease of the pages), the construction reveals itself to be clever in how it forces us to interact with the subject matter at a level almost on par with it.

Umbra. By Viviane SassenPrestel, 2015.

For those enamored with the previous edition of Umbra, a sort of loose-plate portfolio set by Oodee Books, this book may not satisfy you in the same way. That collection contained the poems found in Prestel’s edition, but only 11 images (whereas this new edition contains 200 images) and though both have a sense of intimacy within their engagement, they are very different. The Oodee edition makes you feel like you’ve got something precious and valuable in your hands; the Prestel edition (and this suits me more) is like having a mystery in your hands, or better yet a dioramic experience with depth beyond a two-dimensional photograph.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

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CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where is manager of photo-eye Bookstore. Aside from this he is a writer for the Meow Wolf art collective and book critic for The CFile Foundation. His first book of poetry, &luckier, will be released by the University of Colorado in November 2016.

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