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photo-eye Book Reviews: Los Jardines de México

Los Jardines de México, Photographs by Janelle Lynch. 
Published by Radius Books, 2011.
Los Jardines de México
Reviewed by Faye Robson
Janelle Lynch Los Jardines de México
Photographs by Janelle Lynch. Texts by José Antonio Aldrete-Haas and Mario Bellatín
Radius Books, Santa Fe, 2011. Hardbound. 80 pp., 41 color illustrations, 11x14".

Los Jardines de México is a meticulously crafted book, with every aspect of its production – from the choice of paper stock through to the finishing on the page and the choice of image printed on its endpapers – calculated to facilitate and enhance your experience of the work contained within. This care over the details of the bookmaking is particularly fitting, as Janelle Lynch uses photography to conjure up a very particular and rarefied world – she cultivates an atmosphere that you can’t help but think would suffer in less sympathetic conditions.

The particular quality of Lynch's work can be felt most intensely in the fourth and final series presented in this book: La Fosa Común. Here, 11 full-page images are arranged, one per spread, on large, glossy leaves of paper, beginning with Untitled 8 – a photograph of one, spreading, moss-encrusted tree, whose branches reach round and through each other and out of the frame into the surrounding foliage. Like all of the images in this series, the photograph is visually complex, the frame crammed with textural information, and, as with all of the works in the series, the subject is plant life, to the exclusion of all else - no animals, humans or signs of human civilization intrude upon the tangle of bushes, grasses and trees. The effect is claustrophobic and not a little repetitive, but also decidedly, intensely, eerie and otherworldly. The combination of abundant foliage with a lack of any other visual reference – even the sky is obscured – and Lynch's frequent use of soft, misty lighting conditions gives you the impression of stepping into a science fiction novel in which humans have receded and plants reclaimed the surface of the earth.

Los Jardines de México, by Janelle Lynch. Published by Radius Books, 2011.
This sense of animism and almost threatening fecundity is picked up by author and architect José Antonio Aldrete Haas in his essay for Los Jardines. He argues that Lynch's photography is informed by the notion that life and death are not separate but continuous and 'of the same reality,' and points to another series – there are four presented in this book, made by Lynch between 2002 and 2007 – to illustrate his point. Akna (translated by Aldrete-Haas from the Mayan as 'mother') is a series of portraits of individual tree stumps. These remains – dead or decaying matter appears throughout the book - are in fact now burgeoning with life, each of them sustaining communities of smaller plants and grasses. They are even given names by the photographer, 'Vladimir' and 'Albertina,' to go with the focused, individualizing portrait style of her photography in the work.

Los Jardines de México, by Janelle Lynch. Published by Radius Books, 2011.
Loss, through violence or through simple neglect and decay, is another theme of the book, drawn out by author Mario Bellatín in the fictional element he contributes. The fact that Bellatín's short story deals with the death of a child gives Lynch's work in the series El Jardín de Juegos added resonance, as it is the abandoned pieces of playground furniture in the overgrown parks photographed here that give them their special sense of stillness and absence. Again, this lack of human presence is made conspicuous by the way Lynch arranges her photographs, emphasizing the anthropomorphic qualities of slides, climbing frames and basketball hoops to somehow evoke the playfulness and liveliness that is now only present in this space as a kind of haunting.

Los Jardines de México, by Janelle Lynch. Published by Radius Books, 2011.
All of the above-mentioned elements are bound together in this book in a tightly-structured narrative, so that one has the impression of wandering from series to series like the last human survivor exploring a post-apocalyptic world. This idea is even made explicit through the foot's-eye view of photos in the Donde Andaba set, which show fragments of green foliage as they appear through the cracks in buildings and sidewalks in an urban setting. These images even seem to have been treated differently in production, so that they have a grainy, gritty texture subtly evocative of the dusty streets they depict. The overall effect is of moving through a world carefully constructed by the photographer, as if it were a stage-set.

It can sometimes feel, moving through Lynch's world, like a too seamless experience. The claustrophobia I mentioned earlier slips into tedium occasionally, and the book itself could feel a little overcooked for some readers. Why is it necessary for the cover of this book to be a close-up of the grass shown in countless photos within? Why use the same image again as a graphic theme within – monochrome and negativised, so that the washed-out feel of neglected spaces is stated yet again? These details can feel a little forced rather than poignant, as is perhaps intended. However, this is not to detract from the work within, which is a rigorous, yet affecting, statement on the natural world and its ambivalent beauty.—FAYE ROBSON

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FAYE ROBSON is an editor of illustrated books, currently based in London, UK. She has worked on photobooks for publishers including Aperture Foundation, New York and Phaidon Press, London.