Anni Leppälä, hyle | curtain | backdrop

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Kehrer Verlag (here). Softcover, 128 pages, with 71 color reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. Design by Anni Leppälä, Tuomo Rainio, and Liisa Seppo. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Anni Leppälä’s recent photobook hyle | curtain | backdrop is a sophisticated experiment in creating artistic linkages between photographs. Of course, most photobooks are carefully sequenced to generate connections and relationships between the images as the pages turn (at least to some extent), but Leppälä has chosen to explore a more atmospheric and expressive type of link building. Using her stand alone photographs as raw material, she has formed a mysterious, fictional almost-narrative, and has set this elusive visual flow in a charged world that lingers along an unmarked border with fairy tale.

While Leppälä’s photobook isn’t divided into discrete sections, it does seem to follow a progression that goes through loose narrative stages. The first handful of pages starts with a twisting thread of hair, that we chase through transparent light pink pages and torn outlines, before we are introduced to a young woman with fire red hair that covers her face like she is turning inward, hiding from us. Blank mirrors, thick curtains, and dark doorways stand ready as magical portals, just like the door in the back of cupboard that led to Narnia.

The sequencing of Leppälä’s photographs creates this sense of forward movement and open-ended story development. The dark doorway is followed by a puzzling group of tiny trees on a bedspread (like the change in scale that occurs when Alice drops into Wonderland), and then the red-haired girl stands in a doorway, looking out on lush greenery, as though she was about to step out into another world.

The next section finds the girl deep in a confoundingly dense forest, and Leppälä uses layering, overlaps, and different sized pages to disorient us. We see the girl’s red hair poking through the evergreens (the image mixing green and rusty red with lovely balance), and then a quick succession of flips dives deeper into darkness, pulls us through a doorway painted with trees, confuses us with flares of light across the trees, and then re-centers the girl among the same evergreens. This twisting magic continues through a veiled view, an outstretched hand in a mirror, the forest turned blindingly white and then roundly dark in succession, with flashbacks to memories of the forest of the past. Eventually, Leppälä brings back the issue of scale with an image of the girl crouching within trees which seem smaller and more claustrophobic now, and then goes back to the past once again with images of leaf raking across time. This secret forest is indeed a special childhood place, full of both mysteries and adventures.

A snippet of red drapery pulled back signals a transition, and we now move indoors. Leppälä draws us through softly empty rooms (reminiscent of a Bergman film), with windows and portals of indeterminate size – are we in a doll house or a real house? – and a small green curtain perched on a shelf further disorients our sense of scale. A lush pairing of the fall of the girl’s red hair and the whorls of a wooden plank creates echoes of texture, color, and shape, and then another curtain leads us to a series of spreads where the interiors are a combination of red and white. Leppälä repeats the motif again and again: from a red-sweatered arm of a wicker chair and a red curtained window filled with white light, to a series of views of a darkened room where a red blanket covers a bed and shadows dance across the wall, to a red tree covered in the whiteness of snow in winter.

A small board set across flowing water then offers us another bridge to somewhere new. The warm textures and weathered paint of intimate bedrooms give way to a series of doors – some false, some real, some leading who knows where. Darkly dappled secrets then lead to a series of images in gentle light blue – a close up of the girl’s eye, a veiled view of fjords or seas, a damaged seascape mural – followed by another sublime pairing of images, of a painted wall corner in white, light blue, and rusty orange, and the girl sitting in a white wicker chair partially veiled by a gauzy light blue sheet. A few more moments of misdirection then take us back through the dark forest, and a return to the balcony where the girl began her journey. The back cover shows us a lock of her red hair caught in a doorway, as if it got snagged on her way back to the real world.

Leppälä’s photographs touch on a range of familiar associations – childhood, a feeling of home, a place that we return to (perhaps in summer or at special times), the smaller intimate scale of a child’s world, the mixing of past and present, and the grand mysteries of nature (particularly the forest). She uses these connections to give her pictures potential linkage points, that she can then chain together into larger moments and narratives. This specific visual tale has a feminine quality, but she could have just as easily made one with a boy or young man at the center of the action – the essence isn’t necessarily gendered, it is instead a process of adding pieces of imagery together to make something more experiential.

The layered design of hyle | curtain | backdrop also contributes to its effectiveness. While the book itself is relatively small, the pages are of varying widths, so images overlap and intermingle as the pages are turned. Some photographs are full bleed, while others are placed against backdrops of white in varying sizes, creating lively movement. And transparent sheets in light pink add a hushed moment of slowness and delay, breaking up the flow just enough to manage its pace. Every page turn is different from the next, making our photobook journey as unexpected as the one taken by the red-haired girl in Leppälä’s photographs.

There is plenty of space for imagination in Leppälä’s world, and that openness makes her dreams and fictions all the more intimate and personal. Her photobook is like a series of visual clues or breadcrumbs, that we can follow if we dare.

Collector’s POV: Anni Leppälä is represented by Purdy Hicks Gallery in London (here), Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris (here), Galerie Taik Persons in Berlin (here), and Gallery AMA in Helsinki (here). Leppälä’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Anni Leppälä, Kehrer Verlag

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