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Book of the Week: Selected by George Slade

Book Review Blue Violet Photographs by Cig Harvey Reviewed by George Slade "Throughout The Locusts, homo sapiens share the stage with various creeping, running, hopping, and airborne species. Our collective presence in these pictures has a very light touch..."
Blue Violet By Cig Harvey.
Blue Violet
Photographs by Cig Harvey

The Monacelli Press, 2021. 208 pp., 9¼x11¼".

Cig Harvey’s fourth book drowns you in sensation. She’s been evolving towards this since she published You Look at Me Like an Emergency almost a decade ago. Whatever reserve and decorum existed in those volumes has been shucked. Here’s my tip to get a head start on Blue Violet. Take a close look at the Old French verb ravir and some of its etymological derivations. “Ravish” and “ravage” came to me first. At its core, ravir connotes seizing, uprooting, hasty removal. And it’s an essential trope in Blue Violet. The deeper I got into Blue Violet, the more ravir enthralled me. 

First thought: the imagery on these pages — the book itself — is ravishing. I was entranced by the visions that swell out of the pages. The cover has a purplish blue velvet twinkle to it. The uncut pages insist that readers slow down; “flipping through” is not what you do with this book. Images overrun the pages, full-bleed style. Blue Violet is inordinately voluptuous for a photobook. One half expects to catch whiffs of the blooms Harvey describes. It also revels in the singular pleasures we derive from synesthesia (i.e. images that elicit taste sensations, or the colors of letters. More about that in a moment). 

Reading more closely and learning about the book’s dedicatee, Mary, brought up my second revelation: ravir as suggested in ravage; destroy, eviscerate. A disease like leukemia ravages a body. Can flowers assuage the deep wounds of loss? Harvey’s tale of wonder and beauty is underpinned with heartache and loss. Aren’t flowers about transience, after all?

Third ravir awakening, upon reading the back cover (“Eat Flowers”): ravenous, as in famished, extremely hungry, “intensely eager for gratification or satisfaction.” I’m reminded of Edward Weston eating his models: the peppers, eggplants, bananas, and cabbages that segued from studio to dinner table. Harvey is bent on ingesting her subject matter and calling out its characteristics. “Begonias are bitter. Carnations are sweet. Nasturtiums are savory. Hibiscuses are sour. Borage are slightly salty.” Once the flora has served its visual and symbolic purposes, it must succumb to the gustatory. “If you find your mouth watering over the idea of a hot pink geranium sandwich, then know that you are powerless against its force.” You must seize, uproot, and hastily consume these savory objects of desire.

In other words, you are ravished on your way to ravage a handful of flowers to soothe your ravenous appetite. Ravir is in full bloom in Harvey’s world.

I was taken by the seemingly oxymoronic task of quantifying the emotional and immeasurable; rendering, as Harvey does in her beguiling notes, the ephemeral via scales, graphs, and personal thoughts. She seems to have found wisdom somewhere between the ecstatic and the mournful. I imagined the job of creating and naming colors. From the Crayola apprenticeship to the Pantone master synesthete/alchemist, capable of transforming the chromatic spectrum into redolent syntax. Colors become words, become vivid feelings and lush things birthed by language. 

One could feel guilty about eating flowers. And one could love the ability to consume such glory. Just follow a witch’s advice about yarrow, cited in the notes: “If you have a fever, pick a yarrow leaf with your left hand while whispering your own name and then devour it quickly before anyone sees you.”

You’ve been warned. Open Blue Violet and prepare to be seized.

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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