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Book of the Week: Selected by Shannon Taggart

Book Review Some Kind of Heavenly Fire Photographs by Maria Lax Reviewed by Shannon Taggart Inspired by her grandfather’s book Maria Lax combines her own photography with family archive and newspaper cuttings to pass on the essence of the bewildering stories relayed to her throughout her youth. Using these elements the book weaves together a delicate and ambiguous narrative, about a small town with a big secret.
Some Kind of Heavenly Fire
Photographs by Maria Lax

Setanta Publishing, London, UK, 2020. In English. Unpaged, 8¼x11½".

Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is about ‘a little town with a big secret.’ The debut monograph by Finnish photographer Maria Lax revolves around a series of UFO sightings documented by her grandfather in the 1960s. In this petite volume, with an X-files feel, Lax remakes her hometown’s historical mystery by mixing her own work with her grandfather’s journalism. Using private and public material drawn from both past and present, she splices phosphorescent photographs of Northern Finland with eyewitness reports, press clippings, and family snapshots. The result is a photomontage of eras and impressions that questions whether we can access other dimensions in life and in art.

Lax’s twilight interiors, anonymous figures, and celestial nightscapes invoke the supernatural. In these scenes she confronts the countryside, as if petitioning the town to give up its secrets. Trained as a cinematographer, Lax credits her ‘inexperience’ and affinity for ‘old digital’ technology as the formula of her success. Surrendering control to her camera, she is in an unconscious conversation with the place and its past. Lax’s exposures suck up the atmosphere, allowing the ambient light to tell its own tale. This approach brings to mind the musician and composer Kim Cascone's concept of ‘Errormancy’: ‘In the hands of the right artist, a glitch can form a brief rupture in the space-time continuum, shuffling the psychic space of the observer, allowing the artist to establish a direct link with the supernal realm.’ Lax’s glow-bright photographs do manage to feel as if they connect to whatever happened long ago in that dark landscape.

Some Kind of Heavenly Fire. By Maria Lax.

Some Kind of Heavenly Fire was originally envisioned as a movie, and the book’s cinematic mood is consistent throughout. Lax transports the viewer to the extraterrestrial events of the 1960s through an aesthetic circa 1990, citing films such as ET and Jurassic Park as inspiration. Constructed like a scrapbook or storyboard, the book presents Lax’s otherworldly visuals alongside Finnish newsprint, cursive quotes, and B&W blow-ups, some of which are hand-tipped onto the pages with bright red tape. It’s a puzzling sequence that gives the sensation of entering into Lax’s thoughts and associations. It is appropriate that a sense of incompleteness and missing details pervades her sketch-up. Like any keen observer of the paranormal, Lax offers no definitive answers. Her cross-cutting edit amplifies the theme of unfathomable questions.

In the cult-classic ethnography The Trickster and the Paranormal, author George P. Hansen demonstrates that reports of supernatural experiences often accompany cultural points of instability. The incidents at the center of Some Kind of Heavenly Fire also play into this pattern. Lax notes: “The UFO sightings coincided with a time of great struggle for Northern Finland. People flooded from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs leaving abandoned houses scattered across this beautiful but harsh landscape. It’s no wonder that the UFO sightings embodied a fear of the future, the unknown and the inexorable shift in lifestyles and livelihoods going on around them. Some reacted to the mysterious lights with fear, some took them as a sign they were not alone.” Embedded quotes within the book bring to life the era’s angst: “In this town we have always waited for someone or something – God, a millionaire, or aliens – to come and lift us from this misery.” Our own era’s pandemic, social unrest, and economic uncertainty make Lax’s content ever more compelling.

Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is a supernatural saga that plays with the themes of time travel, outer space, and mind-to-mind contact. Although Lax was following in her grandfather’s footsteps, she was unable to seek his counsel, as he was suffering from dementia and died soon after she began the project. In her art, she merges multiple perceptions – her own, her grandfather’s, and those who witnessed the UFO mystery. One of the final spreads pairs Lax’s most radiant image with the quote drawn from her grandfather’s book that inspired the title. It ends the quest on a cliffhanger: “I don’t know what I saw that night, but it wasn’t from this world. It was some kind of heavenly fire.”

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*Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is currently Out-of-Print, at the time of publishing we have a few copies remaining. A second edition is also forthcoming.

Some Kind of Heavenly Fire. By Maria Lax.
Some Kind of Heavenly Fire. By Maria Lax.

Shannon Taggart is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been exhibited and featured internationally and has been recognized by Nikon, Magnum Photos and the Inge Morath Foundation, American Photography, and the Alexia Foundation for World Peace. Her first monograph, SÉANCE, was published by Fulgur Press in November 2019 and was named one of TIME’s best photobooks of the year.