Dafna Talmor, Constructed Landscapes

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Fw:Books (here). Softcover (24×28 cm), 210 pages (with 10 gatefolds). Includes texts by Olga Smith, Cherry Smyth, and Shoair Mavlian, and an artist interview conducted by Gemma Padley. Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Dafna Talmor’s photobook Constructed Landscapes delivers just what its title literally suggests – photographic landscapes that depict vistas that don’t entirely adhere to rules of strict documentary tradition, but instead have been “built” from an aggregation of image source material.

Across the history of the medium, going all the way back to its earliest experimental days, the instinct to construct a landscape has often come directly from feelings of frustration with what has actually been produced by the camera. When the resulting photograph doesn’t look like what the photographer thought he or she saw (or wanted to see), there is a follow-on desire to somehow manufacture a picture that does so more accurately. In the 19th century, long exposures led to overexposed flat skies, which photographers like Gustave Le Gray and Carleton Watkins “fixed” with combined negatives; others painted in the details, blacked the sky out with India ink, or used hand coloring to achieve the effects they wanted. In the subsequent years, as the medium moved to Pictorialism, Surrealism, and on to Modernism in its many forms, constructing photographs from multiple negatives, using collage, montage, and other techniques, became both more widespread and more accepted as a valid avant-garde approach to picture making.

Digital tools have now made such modification and compositing straightforward, but Talmor’s works intentionally pass up these advantages in favor of old fashioned darkroom-based cutting and re-assembly. Drawing from her own archive of successful and unsuccessful landscape photographs, taken in various locations including Israel (where she was born), Venezuela (where she grew up), the United States (where her sister resides), and the UK (where Talmor herself has lived for the past 20 years), she has used her own negatives as the raw material inputs to an increasingly complex and methodical artistic process.

Constructed Landscapes is very much a photobook rooted in process. As we would expect, it begins with selections from two distinct bodies of work made in the past decade, the finished works given ample space on the spreads and interleaved with explanatory essays and other texts. What’s different here is that after we’re been presented with these artworks, Talmor pulls back the curtain, systematically walking us through the various steps she took to construct the images. Different sections offer various test samples and color experiments, iterative step-by-step trials (complete with detailed hand-written notes), and reproductions of the original source images before they were sliced up. With all this background information, the photobook experience is transformed from passive observation and appreciation to active engagement and interaction with Talmor’s artistic process.

The first group of works are all constructed using the same underlying framework – two negatives from different locations in Talmor’s life are spliced together into one integrated composition. In some cases, the negatives are overlapped, creating unlikely combinations of topography; in others, the two are separated by a sliced area of blackness that mediates the interaction. Given that these works don’t document any one specific place, but come together to show us a non-existent or imaginary hybrid, it’s not surprising that the works have an ethereal strangeness that fails to resolve itself. The jagged areas of black are particularly disruptive, the edges of the surrounding negatives often allowed to drift toward orange as though singed or fading out. These are images filled with contradictions, and Talmor’s competing memories and flashbacks jostle for uneasy visual dominance, ultimately being transformed into something more open-ended.

The second group uses a different formula – in these works, Talmor has limited herself to images taken at the same location, but has allowed herself to use as many as eight different negatives to construct her landscapes. The resulting pictures have more of a jigsaw effect, with cut pieces fit together in interlocking positions and the negative space between the shards becoming a more active part of the compositions. Talmor applies this gathering approach to various geographies, including seaside views and waterscapes, rocky hillsides, and even more lush greenery dotted by palm trees. While there is a hint of Cubist thinking here (specifically, the multiple simultaneous perspectives of a single scene), Talmor’s works generally feel more like shifting aggregations or irregular mosaics, the individual image fragments broken up and re-arranged to fit together in loose but impermanent harmony.

Normally, a photobook might end here, but Talmor essentially doubles back, showing us the various intermediate, in-process versions that preceded the final works. We follow along as she makes an initial composition, runs it through a multitude of processing permutations, adjusts colors up and down, testing different exposure times and carefully tuning the alignment of the separate negatives. After many of these examples, she shows us the full original exposures that were used as raw material for the specific works, allowing us to see the separate pictures before they were cut up and merged. She then moves on to the works that employ many more negatives, and again, we watch as she tests arrangements and color values. The final two mini sections reprise the idea of showing us all the baseline images used in any one composition (i.e. the seeds from which the final work was grown), and then offers us the sliced and chopped negatives themselves in their final, taped-together placements. While much of this process-centric presentation is highly detailed, seeing it together provides a more sweeping sense of how Talmor has approached her artistic problem solving.

The design of Constructed Landscapes both reinforces Talmor’s process-centric mindset and organizes the information into well-structured groupings. The final works are shown one to a spread, with some extending out on multi-page gatefolds; the flow of these images is interrupted only by the various texts, which are printed on thinner orange paper. When we get to the process area, the iterative steps for each individual work are smartly shown as arrays of thumbnails, allowing us to see and understand the transitions and progression from stage to stage. Other clever design elements include the title printed across the open spine and back cover of the book, and the endpapers made from scans of the artist’s worn cutting mats, the individual cut lines clustering into dense clouds of abstraction.

What’s exciting about Talmor’s landscapes is that she has found a way to make the land wholly unstable, almost incoherent in a few cases. Her strongest landscapes are severed and broken, turned into a patchwork of fragments and approximations that refuse to stay quiet. And along the way, she’s honed and refined a repeatable image making process that could easily be applied to other kinds of subject matter. Her pictures offer handcrafted but sophisticated uncertainty, scattering clarity and intention into jittering movement.

Collector’s POV: Dafna Talmor is represented by Sid Motion Gallery in London (here) and TOBE Gallery in Budapest (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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