Social Media

The Seraphim: Reviewed by George Slade

Book Review The Seraphim Photographs by Jesse Lenz Reviewed by George Slade "While reading The Seraphim I was struck by a sense of contingency and transition. All the life of Jesse Lenz’s family farm is seen in flow. The inevitable future is often foretold, yet the particulars of life in the moment are vividly compelling..."
The Seraphim. By Jesse Lenz.
The Seraphim
Photographs by Jesse Lenz

Charcoal Press, 2024. 144 pp., 9¾x12¼".

While reading The Seraphim I was struck by a sense of contingency and transition. All the life of Jesse Lenz’s family farm is seen in flow. The inevitable future is often foretold, yet the particulars of life in the moment are vividly compelling.

Let’s start at the end. The book’s last plate literally depicts the end of a life. Tracks in a few inches of snow tell the story of a small creature and a winged predator meeting in a very brief, one-sided battle. The victor left its feather prints in the snow, fringing a triangular depression where its talons seized the abruptly not-hopping rodent. Though the participants are no longer visible, this is as clear a narrative and as succinct a conclusion as a book can possibly offer. The moment between life and death is summarized in these traces.

The Seraphim is an extended contemplation of veils. There are numerous meditations on death. Animals of various species are seen dead (trigger warning), while humans are more subtly placed along the living end of the continuum. There is an exuberant boy band playing on one page while another image peers down on a younger child laid out next to Minnie Mouse. There’s something funereal and fantastic about the moment, as both figures wear the same benign grin. Another child (the second of a pair of twins) is seen entering the world wearing a veil, freshly delivered from the womb enwrapped in the amniotic caul, a rare and portentous occurrence in childbirth.

A couple of voracious praying mantises appear, one caught mid-monarch in a scene that is simultaneously biblical, comic, and horrific. Lenz retains dead creatures to teach his children about the continuum of life, offering evidence of the other side of the veil. Contingency is ever present; life is a series of chance operations.

The seraphim are a high order of angels, often associated with purity and light. There is ample suggestion in these photographs that humans and animals inhabit the realm. Children float in a tub and fly against the background of a rural idyll. One scene of a boy with his face in the sun is positively transporting, though the fact that his feet rest in moving water makes it incongruously earthbound. Owls populate the pages of Lenz’s book. Owls that have allowed themselves to be seen, peering from branches and cavities in trees, caught against skies that glow through the leafy canopies. Owls that serve as memento mori, brought home to provide evidence of life’s unstoppable journey toward death.

Lenz doesn’t dwell in myth or archetype. There is one awkward archer who might, in a stretch, be measured against Chiron, Diana, or William Tell. There are any number of innocents, from human babies — one who snoozes with a stuffed (toy) owl — to bunnies and raccoons. A hefty snake slithers out of a tree trunk, though it offers no apple.

The most bounteous crop seems to be a harvest of mushrooms, morels if my insufficiently trained mycologist eye doesn’t deceive me. Here’s another potential veil between light and dark; I would have to trust that Lenz and his pickers know what they’re gathering.

The photographer is a canny narrator who is expanding his skills as his long-term project evolves. (This is the second book in a planned series of seven extending over three decades.) He is increasingly using motion pictures, shooting 16mm film to produce a parallel visual chronicle. When reproduced in the book, the films overtly announce themselves, showing sprocket holes and adjoining frames. By integrating the notions of movement and elapsing time Lenz is exploring another transitional space and deepening our consciousness of photographic representation.

Overall, a quality of fluidity suffuses The Seraphim. All of the elements are mingling, moving from the first book’s skillful compendium of well-seen moments towards a more organic, contingent embrace of this unique and universal mise en scène in central Ohio.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

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