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A Closer Look -- In the Shadow of Things

from In the Shadow of Things
I first looked at Leonie Hampton’s In the Shadow of Things in December when it arrived as part of the influx of Best Book selections. I ended up not writing about it at the time, perhaps needing some distance to digest it. Months later, Hampton’s images have really stuck with me — some have become locked into my visual memory. The book was a little unnerving to get into; the images are so obviously personal that the book requires time, a chance to open yourself up and connect with it, to appreciate what Hampton has created. The causal observer will find a series of beautiful and always dynamically composed images, but the book invites the reader to move further inward with collages of family photographs and text of recorded conversations between Hampton’s mother and family during the time these images were being taken.

Hampton has a canny ability to make images that feel altogether surreal while being so grounded in reality that they feel almost familiar. The images are still, but the sense of movement is present in all of them — they imply action before and after the shutter has been clicked, giving them a cinematic quality. The colors seem both oddly pale and saturated, but in such a way that the redness of the blood on Hampton’s brother’s bramble-scraped arms feels all the more visceral. This book is full of memorable, captivating images, but while the photographs will stick with me, so will the profoundly honest nature of this work.

from In the Shadow of Things
from In the Shadow of Things
The project started when Hampton decided to help her mother who was suffering from debilitating OCD, gain control over her life and home, a space covered in boxes of belongings, waiting to be put away into special custom-made cupboards that were never built. She agreed to help on the condition that her mother allow her to photograph the process without interference. I anticipate that some may find this exchange disturbingly transactional — I find it a stunningly frank portrayal of the complicated realities of familial relationships. Hampton described it this way:
Taking the photography with me into this project to clear the house was the way of keeping with myself and my own pace in the world. I needn’t give up my life to support my mother. That was a unique, strange but special position to be in. I needn’t resent and she needn’t feel guilty for my time. It was a bargain, unsaid, tacit.  -- Leonie Hampton (from Time Lightbox)
from In the Shadow of Things
from In the Shadow of Things
Approaching the situation with such candor and presenting the complicated nature of the arrangement in transcripts of recorded conversations with her mother in the back of the book gives the reader a uniquely intimate perspective, and I believe makes for more poignant images. The images go right to the core because that’s where Hampton was to start with -- a heightened emotional state — one of connection, and the need to break that connection, separate oneself from the events by means of the lens. Hampton has spent time photographing other families, but here the challenge is different. There’s no need for introductions to her subjects, but shooting one's own family can be even trickier -- it requires a certain fearlessness. As told in the transcripts, it wasn't an easy process. Hampton's mother occasionally raged over the images, and the book includes one portrait that she defaced, scrapping away her own mouth and chin. But of course, it was also a collaboration, the house regaining order as the images added up, and that support is also apparent. The emotions captured in this book are complicated -- nothing is easy to define -- but there is a certain hard beauty to all of it. -- Sarah Bradley

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by:
Alec Soth
Marco Delogu