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Book of the Week: Selected by Meggan Gould

Book Review Hulda / Lilli Photographs by Maija Tammi Reviewed by Meggan Gould "Here in my house, we spend a lot of time projecting human language and emotions onto our dogs. Anthropomorphizing is a fixture of our relationship with these patient canines (see?), doomed to inhabit elaborately spun personae and affectations..."

Hulda / LilliBy Maija Tammi.
Hulda / Lilli
Photographs by Maija Tammi

Kult Books, Stockholm, Sweden, 2023. 96 pp..

Here in my house, we spend a lot of time projecting human language and emotions onto our dogs. Anthropomorphizing is a fixture of our relationship with these patient canines (see?), doomed to inhabit elaborately spun personae and affectations. If I have reflected upon this daily banter at all, it has only been a glancing acknowledgement that it is often a coping mechanism, used to distract or entertain a cranky child, perhaps. But maybe there is more to this. Character development (even when mundane) + fanciful stories (even when unsurprising) = a greater purpose.

Meet Hulda and Lilli. Hulda is a very, very hungry chameleon, struggling with overindulgence. Lilli is a locust with a philosophical bent.

Our protagonists are introduced on the opposite sides of Maiji Tammi’s new book, Hulda/Lilli. They collide in the middle, with predictable results. That is not intended as a spoiler, only to say: it’s a nature story. Don’t get too attached.

The book functions as a diptych of two mirrored experiences. I happened to open the book via Hulda’s story, and I cannot but speculate as to the emotional resonance of that arbitrary initial positioning. More on this later.

Regardless, from either portal, we enter through the art book (mode 1) and exit through the nature-documentary pamphlet (mode 2). In the first mode, we experience the photographs as endpoints, singular moments of frameable visual pleasure, practically lickable in their sumptuousness. Action, or a story arc, in these first books, is tangential to the photographs, which deliver extreme visual pleasure but little narrative substance. The photographs are mostly still, pure celebration of Hulda and Lilli’s aesthetic wonder, in the context of the foliage that houses, camouflages, feeds them. Text (the narrative substance) is allowed visual isolation on individual spreads, and the large serif font, black on white, lends weight to the chronicles as they unfold.

And what chronicles! Each starts at birth, with an abbreviated plot arc to the present day — meeting day. Lilli moults, the shed exoskeleton blows away. Hulda regrets eating a blowfly. (“Hulda is a thinker.”) The scope of her emotional life is rich; she decides, begs, sighs, realizes. Lilli, similarly: marvels, desires, prefers, feels dizzy, experiences mortification. Grief over her siblings, lost at birth in tragic environmental conditions, is soothed by flowers. Mode 1 ends, from both directions, with the blissful discovery of a cherry tree’s pleasures.

Mode 2 switches visual language. Printed on black paper, the photographs are fragmentary, illustrative. We see the macro detail of Hulda’s roving eyes and Lilli’s spring-loaded legs poised to jump. The narrative, which is confined to the climactic moment of cherry tree convergence, is delivered via sans-serif matter-of-fact captions. I cannot but hear David Attenborough’s voice: serious yet conversational in tone, sprinkled with relevant facts about our protagonists. The very specific visual language of the nature documentary — lurid color, enticing details, hints at dispassionate grotesque — carries us through each iteration of the story, to a more explicit ending. Remember: don’t get attached.

At the center of the book, hidden under final, dramatic singular portraits of Hulda and Lilli, are foldout pages that contextualize this project. In dialogue with Tiina Rauhala, the curator of the Finnish Museum of Photography, the artist interviews a specialist in psychology and neuroscience, another in the nature documentary genre and a biologist. I read more about the life cycles and specific adaptations of chameleons and locusts, and I have my bubble burst about the actors in the photographs. I learn why I have been secretly rooting for Team Hulda (hinted at above: it’s how I entered the book, and now it’s my group identity).

This book serves as a reminder (always urgent) of how sensitive we are to the packaging of information, how codified our expectations of specific media. Caught up in the dramatized encounter between Hulda and Lilli, many questions are sparked: Do you identify with the predator or the prey? Does assigning a human name to any animal shift an empathetic engagement? How do we rationalize selective moral revulsion? Why do we empathize more with charismatic megafauna than most invertebrates? (Notable exception: an iconic and very hungry caterpillar.) Am I wrong to ascribe jealousy to be my dog, as he glares at the dog on the softer bed? Does this all come down to the power of a good story?

I show the book to my eight-year-old. Her emphatic (empathetic?) takeaway: “I want a chameleon.” I say no, I think the dogs would be too jealous.

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.