Photographs by Lydia Panas, Essay by George Slade
Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to feature this gallery in support of Lydia Panas' The Mark of Abel, a monograph of the photographer's color portraits published by Kehrer Verlag in 2012. For more information about this publication and to order a copy for your personal collection, visit ArtBooksHeidelberg.de.
One of this medium’s naïve yet enduring tropes is that the photograph steals souls. That somehow, in the process of securing an image on film or pixels, the lens collects a bit of psychic patina, aural projection, or whatever you believe physically constitutes the soul. Most of us, today, would agree that this is unlikely. Our souls seem relatively safe from photographers. Agnostics, atheists, and avid believers of all stripes are immune from the shutter-snapping tsunami. Unless we determine that society as a whole is increasingly “soul-less” and start searching for causes, photography might actually be implicated — who really knows how we lose our souls, outside of Faustian bargains with Beelzebub at the crossroads.
All of this meandering about souls seems justified in the company of Lydia Panas’ photographs, which seem uncommonly laden with soul, more than their fair share. The striking thing about her work, however, is that she and her subjects seem to have turned the old trope on its head. Looking at these photographs may cause you to lose your soul. The mesmerizing gazes, frank self-presentation, and utter absorption in the photographic exchange propels Panas’ standers (can’t accurately call them sitters, can we?) from within their contained frame and through the fourth wall of spectatorship into a discomfiting engagement within our space of viewing. Another impossibility, of course, but who hasn’t felt the gaze of a portrait subject push through the photographic membrane and grab some part of us?
These are, then, empowered people, a condition Panas has bestowed upon them in the act of photographing. She has ennobled without hyperbole. None of these people are regal, and many seem profoundly self-absorbed. Even in groups, the sense of individuality prevails. But every person is esteemed by Panas’ photography, presented to us as the most exquisite visions of themselves.
It was said of Alfred Stieglitz that he exercised some mesmeric power over his subjects. That, short of hypnotism, there could be no other explanation for why his photographs seemed to reveal invisible truths. To debunk this notion Stieglitz responded by photographing clouds, subject matter over which he could wield no power prior to the exposure. Panas probably hasn’t hypnotized her subjects, either, but she seduces viewers into believing that unseeable things — life stories, emotions, even thoughts — are evident in her photographs.
While there is simplicity in Panas’ project, it has the kind of motive force that sweeps waves of meaning and density with it. Like the best fairy tales, they happen in the woods and are loaded with aspects of myth and dream. As noted earlier, these images have an aura of frieze (or, “freeze,” if you will) about them. They create a dwelling within the photographic frame, in that indeterminate space that is a photograph. It is a space of perception and intuition. It is a space that, instead of affording us the comfort of distance, draws us in to questions of presence — a personal space that enmeshes us in gaze. Having had these encounters, can we say we have learned anything? The lessons may be inchoate, hidden from view, but the experience of meeting Lydia Panas’ photographs is nonetheless vivid.
“State of Nature: Encountering Lydia Panas Deeper in the Woods” essay and excerpt copyright © 2011 George Slade. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission of the author strictly forbidden.