Benedetta Casagrande, All Things Laid Dormant

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Skinnerboox (here). Softbound book with exposed binding, 24 x 32 cm, 80 pages, with 39 monochrome photographs. Includes a text by lee rae walsh. Design by Milo Montelli and the artist. Edition of 500. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Benedetta Casagrande is a young Italian photographer based in Milan. In addition to making pictures, she’s an active writer, curator, and teacher. She’s the founding co-director of Ardesia Projects, the manager of the Daniele Tamagni Foundation, and she runs an educational program called Show & Tell.

The fact that she wears so many photo hats has helped her to think outside the box, and remain creatively flexibile. That certainly applies to her recent book All Things Laid Dormant. One look is enough to suggest it won’t be decoded easily. The front and back covers are adorned with full bleed photographs of water droplets on translucent glass. The hues are desaturated and the subject matter is indeterminate. But careful study reveals that the same source photo is used front and back, with each cover offset and cropped to create a distinct abstraction, separated by an exposed spine. The book’s title is handwritten and debossed across the front, as if scripted by a finger dragged through condensation. As for what lies through the looking glass, we can only speculate. 

The mystery begins to clarify in the book’s opening pages. A double spread on heavy stock focuses narrowly on twig parts. The next page zooms out to reveal that these photos and the covers all document the same murky terrarium. A free verse poem on the next page by lee rae walsh might refer to its occupants—”we take to the field, milkpooling, some sky been left ajar…”—although it’s hard to say for sure. In any case, there’s scant time for sleuthing before the main body of photos kicks in with a wood paneled interior in dim lighting. This is a vertical black and white frame on page right, facing a blank counterpart on page left, and it sets the design motif for the next sixty-eight pages. One photo is shown per spread (excepting one double image spread), gradually unveiling a garden of earthly delights. Most peer inside one enclosure or another. Some are for animals, some for humans, and one catches a moon in a bucket. The mood remains subdued and open-ended throughout. All things are laid dormant, to turn a phrase. 

Facing this low-key barrage, the reader’s mental gears begin to spin. Perhaps the world of humans living in walled containers is not unlike amphibians or rodents trapped in a terrarium? Several early photos hint at the link. A chair post in deep shadow resembles a reptilian play toy. Another photo depicts an antique panel painted with anamorphic creatures, perhaps domesticated livestock of some sort? A natural cave might serve as a humanoid living space in a pinch, one which might be furnished with Nostromo props like nautilus shells or wax mushroom towers. In one of the book’s strongest photos, an eroded ceiling verges seamlessly into a jungled canopy of negative space. These images fall into an enchanting aesthetic ballpark, somewhere between Jesse Lenz’s faunal adventures and the fantasies of H.R. Giger.

If Casagrande’s subjects lean toward the ineffable, they’re no more vexing than any caged pet contemplating its predicament. Indeed, animals and their accessories make up the bulk of the book’s middle section. Limbs and features are generally photographed at close range, with open apertures and isolating crops. Entire frames are taken up by an owl’s wing, for example, or a dog’s nose or a human ear. We’re offered a snake’s cold shoulder, bees at their nest, foot prints in snow, and other natural scapes. Leaves, eggs, and tessellated impressions tilt toward pure abstraction before the final flurry of photos lands us back inside a human dwelling. This time the household objects are more surreal, with bouquets and trophies merging into soft shadow. Unfocused lens effects pull toward abstraction. The book closes with reversed counterpart to the opening sequence: two small black-and-white photos, a poem by lee rae walsh, and end pages of colored condensations. 

Designwise the book is a near palindrome. But its narrative arc is not so circular. What does it all add up to? Casagrande’s website is coy. “I take pictures,” she writes. “I get close to things to take pictures but never quite close enough. I touch stuff and test consistencies and textures. I look for gaps.” Hmm. If it’s the gap between reality and representation she seeks, she’s in luck.

When presented in exhibition form, All Things Laid Dormant is accompanied by a handwritten panel of text. It’s not quite an artist statement, but it does shine more light on her thinking. “The cabinet looks empty — I take a step towards it, my breath fogging the glass. Keeping my gaze fixed, something amidst the vegetation faintly moves. Crawling, the stick insects manifest their presence like an apparition, they manifest themselves as some pictures do, emerging from certain dark recesses where they receded to nest…The animal that I am longs for proximity, snouts touching, but something — the camera? — keeps getting in the way…are we able to preserve life only in its most mortifying form, petrified in museum cabinets and in photographs alike?”

The layered meanings in this statement are well suited to the images, which straddle the line between description and metaphor. The gift of photography is that it can do both at once. In fact it’s better at this than just about any other medium, as proven in recent years by a raft of young black-and-white shooters. A recent generation of photobooks including Plexus by Elena Helfrecht (reviewed here), Frequency by Cristian Ordonez, Sleep Creek by Dylan Hausthor and Paul Guilmoth, and Rabbit/Hare by David Billet and Ian Kline (reviewed here), have all pushed the monochrome envelope forward, blurring the lines of documentary and magical realism. Casagrande takes her place in this minor tradition which is still evolving. 

All Things Laid Dormant has garnered some recognition in the photobook community. It received the Fotografia Europea, FE + SK Book Award last winter, which paved the way for publication by Skinnerboox in April. The project won the Luigi Ghirri Prize for 2024, awarded annually to an Italian photographer under 35. The prize includes a grant and a 2025 solo exhibition at Triennale Milan. Finally, All Things Laid Dormant was shortlisted for a 2024 book award at Rencontres d’Arles, with a physical copy displayed at the festival. Casagrande’s star is on the rise, and future photobooks seem likely. Based on this promising foundation, I am curious to see what she does next.

Collector’s POV: Benedetta Casagrande does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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