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to Hans: Reviewed by George Slade

Book Review to Hans Photographs by Vivian Keulards Reviewed by George Slade Addiction is still a big taboo. With this photo book and project, Vivian Keulards breaks her silence around the addiction and death of her brother Hans...
to Hans. By Vivian Keulards.
to Hans
Photographs by Vivian Keulards

Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam, 2020. In English. 112 pp., 9¾x9½x½".

Keulards and her family have held a painful secret related to addiction and death. Her book contemplates that dark truth. While it represents a healing process of sorts, healing is seldom a completed act. There are many questions a grieving family, let alone a photobook, can never answer. Nonetheless, to Hans pokes pinspots into shadows. That quintessential phenomenon of the camera obscura, the puncturing and displacement of darkness, is effectively employed here. Keulards illuminates this mystery while respectfully perpetuating it.

A photobook like this addresses the conundrum in visual and physical terms. The tragedy of her brother Hans’ death resists head-on interpretation. Keulards builds a circumambulatory strategy, utilizing both descriptive and allusive images to arrive at a truth larger than the apparent sum of its parts. Her photographs are symbolic bits of evidence and intuition, gathered in hopes of fuller comprehension.

to Hans. By Vivian Keulards.

There’s the hotel room in which he died, and the view from the window in that room. She speculates on what he saw and how it affected his last moments of life. There are several archival photographs of the siblings (Hans several years older than Vivian) and the family in what might be called happier times. These are now shadowed by the knowledge of future despair. Who can resist parsing those pictures for the omens?

A passport-like head shot of a 15-year-old Hans appears in details, and in one fully realized version midway through the book. What does his sister see in those eyes? There are what appear to be contemporary photographs of a young person with closed eyes, floating in a tub or leaning toward the camera. These, along with other initially inscrutable vectors, may be more tangential inclusions. (Red herrings? False leads? Probably not, in this somber, intentional context.)

Diane Arbus suggested, “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” But you do learn more about the secret.

Keulards offers some rationale in captions at the end of the book and on her web site. If you, like me, are comfortable with ambiguity and happy to carry secrets for a while, don’t jump ahead. Linger in the images and the pages before turning to the explanations (not answers, just supporting facts and the photographer’s firsthand notes). Also, take time to absorb writer Ralf Mohren’s parallel narrative (“Looking into the sun” at the end of the folded pages).

Keulards, her designer, and her publisher have also fabricated an object that reinforces secrets and the difficulty of unravelling them. Pages sealed along the outer edge create an initial problem for the reader. What’s inside? You must peer into a paper tunnel to see. At first, assume there’s something. You can see ink bleeding through the paper. The actual content of those hidden images are fragmentary reiterations of the more visible facing-out photographs. This evidence contains multiple meanings and implications.

Why ask why? The truth, such as it is, remains elusive. To quote an Iris DeMent lyric that floated into my head while contemplating to Hans, “I choose to let the mystery be.”

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to Hans. By Vivian Keulards.
to Hans. By Vivian Keulards.

George Slade, aka re:photographica, is a writer and photography historian based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. He is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization TC Photo.

Image c/o Randall Slavin