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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Dark Waters Photographs by Kristine Potter Reviewed by Brian Arnold "Before I say anything about the new Kristine Potter book Dark Waters, I want to remind you of the story of Laura Palmer, as seen in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, its cinematic prequel Fire Walk with Me, and the surprisingly brilliant Twin Peaks: The Return..."

Dark Waters. By Kristine Potter.
Dark Waters
Photographs by Kristine Potter
Aperture, New York, USA, 2023. 136 pp., 1x11½x¼".

Before I say anything about the new Kristine Potter book Dark Waters, I want to remind you of the story of Laura Palmer, as seen in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, its cinematic prequel Fire Walk with Me, and the surprisingly brilliant Twin Peaks: The Return. All set in a small logging town in Eastern Washington near the borders of both Idaho and Canada, Lynch tells the story of Laura Palmer, a teenage prom queen, coke addict and pornographic model. One morning, she is found bound in plastic and duct tape on the shores of the lake, clearly murdered. The FBI hears of the murder and thinks it is connected to another cold case they are struggling to solve. They send in Special Agent Dale Cooper, an entirely unusual detective schooled in the arts of forensics, diner coffee and Tibetan Buddhism. Over the course of the first two seasons of the original show, Cooper does learn who killed Laura, a metaphysical entity named Bob who emanates from an ancient ceremonial site in the woods just outside the town lines, a place called the Black Lodge.

At the end of Twin Peaks, in an effort to redeem Laura’s soul and save his true love (Annie Blackburn, a beauty pageant champion who recently left a convent) Cooper enters the Black Lodge. So many of the iconic images from Twin Peaks are from the Lodge, perhaps none more abundantly than the red curtains that surround the black-and-white patterned floor of this diabolical and puzzling place. Here we watch Copper and Palmer endure some of the gravest emotional and psychological horror imaginable, all the while the red curtain moves gently behind them. It appears as a light and diaphanous scrim with the saturated and intense color reminding us of the intense and heated stakes of their battles. It was also red curtains Cooper saw in the forest above the puddle of burnt engine oil and between the sycamore trees — curtains offering an ominous entry to the madness and evil inside.

The story at the heart of Potter’s new book Dark Waters has many overlaps with the world Lynch envisioned in Twin Peaks. Set in the rural American South, Dark Waters is a collection of small-town landscape photographs combined with studio-style pictures of young women on the brink of trauma. The real heartbeat of the book, however, comes from her source material; Potter based all her pictures on murder ballads, a genre of folk music prominent in the American South. Murder ballads are just as you imagine, Appalachian folk songs about the murder of young women.

Like Twin Peaks, Potter’s book is bound in a curtain, its wavy green folds wrapping the cover. This time, rather than marking the Black Lodge, it's the stage curtains of some honky tonk near the Tennessee River. Looking at the pictures inside, it’s easy to see the concrete picnic table bound in caution tape as the place Laura met her maker, the abandoned car as the place she was raped by her father and the deep woods off the river’s banks holding many dark secrets dating back hundreds of years. Interlaced among the richly executed black-and-white pictures are deep green pages printed with the lyrics of different murder ballads:
He kissed her and hugged her and turned her around,
Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew she would drown.
He got on his pony and away he did ride,
As the screams of little Omie went down by his side.
As a powerful indictment against the violence, Potter places the most gruesome lines under erasure, semi-transparent lines crossing out the harshest and most loathsome of words.

Included in Dark Waters are a collection of studio portraits of young women, each of them staged against a rich, black background, beautifully lit and acting out intense psychological dramas. For these pictures I want to back up to Twin Peaks again, this time looking at a minor character, Ronette Pulaski, Laura’s partner in crime and the one with her the night she died. Somehow, she escaped death but experiences shock and trauma too deep to fully narrate her own story. The portraits in Dark Waters don’t feel like they illustrate Laura’s story so much as they do Ronette’s, as the women in these pictures relate a broad state of traumatic emotions — anger, strength, fragility and an ability to persevere through historical emotional and physical violence. Most important, like my comparison to Ronette, is that all of them are survivors.

Despite creating such a historical narrative, Kristine Potter is clearly a photographer of today; the history recorded in the murder ballads offers an important mirror for our post-Roe v. Wade world. An intriguing short story by Rebecca Bengal called “Blood Harmony” completes the book. The opening line beautifully sets you up for the narrative to come, “When Charlie sings, her sister Audra’s voice follows, the voice of a grown woman inside a little-girl body, high and lonesome and worried at first, till it wraps itself around hers to become pure and whole, and then forks off on its own.” Bengal tells the story of two teenage girls and their abusive father, with whom much of their relationship is built on songs; at one time their father sang at the Constant Stranger Lounge with his brother in a band called the Missing Pieces. The story perfectly captures the timbre of Potter’s photographs, perhaps best summarized in one line: “She froze...thinking about how they were right here beside her in this room, always, inside those fibers, inside the asphalt and soil underneath.” Dark Waters illustrates troubling and violent histories, ones with enduring legacies that can’t be washed away, beautifully seen and articulated in Potter’s landscapes and portraits.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books, including A History of Photography in Indonesia, with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, Amsterdam University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.