Diana Tamane, Flower Smuggler

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Art Paper Editions (here). Hardback, 22.5 x 30 cm, 178 pages, with 395 color and monochrome illustrations. Includes an essay by Martin Germann. Design by Jurgen Maelfeyt. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: September’s nearby wildfires caused me to consider what items I might tuck in a small to-go bag, if my home was threatened and I had five minutes to evacuate. I suspect most people of a certain age would prioritize as I did. The first things saved would be albums of old family photos. Tied inextricably to memory, loved ones, and personal identity, such keepsakes connect with their owners on a visceral level which surpasses the capacity of most other photography.

Fine art photographers are unexceptional in this regard. They create, collect, and treasure family photographs just as we all do, and those pictures would typically be first in the to-go bag. Where photographers differ slightly is that they sometimes leverage these private memories into artistic endeavors. To date, most family-oriented photographers have focused on their own children. Sally Mann, Christopher Anderson, Larry Towell, and Abelardo Morell come to mind, among many others; the list is enormous. A smaller segment—Larry Sultan, Richard Billingham, Deanna Dikeman, and Philip Toledano, for example—has directed attention in the other direction, toward progenitors. And among these is a still smaller subset of skilled women including LaToya Ruby Frazier, Elinor Carucci, and Charlotte Mano (reviewed here) who’ve focused on their own maternal lineage. In an ironic twist, these photographers have pushed the field’s vanguard while keeping one eye in the rear view mirror. 

To date, most such projects have embraced their material head on, depicting family relationships through, well, pictures of family. Diana Tamane has taken an alternate approach. Her recent monograph Flower Smuggler collects a baker’s dozen photo projects from the past seven years. All of them revolve loosely around her family in Riga, Latvia, in particular her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. But unlike her peers, Tamane does not document her loved ones directly (with a few notable exceptions, addressed below). Instead she addresses her subject with glancing blows. Bit by bit the book reveals family details, but in piecemeal fashion. We see croppings, letters, business endeavors, notes, collections, wallpaper, skin, and anecdotes. But actual portraits? Not so much. The resulting monograph is a tantalizing tome which feels at times intimate and revealing, but also strangely dislocated and impersonal. If the reader is left with mixed emotions, those feelings might hint at family dynamics everywhere.

Skirting literary tradition Flower Smuggler plunges right into the initial series, forgoing cover text, title page, or introductory statement. “Leafing through my family albums,” reads a short text, “I collected and highlighted moments of touch between me and someone else from the family.” The following photos, titled From My Family Album II, are tightly cropped snapshots from Tamane’s family albums. In each tiny window is a hand on another person’s body part. These images are sprinkled parsimoniously, one per page over several pages, floating mostly in a field of blankness. With content eliminated to the edge of abstraction, they supply scant information beyond the essential character of human to human contact. Coronavirus restrictions have unwittingly imbued this series with added resonance, and even a nostalgic quality, although Tamane could not have foreseen this when she made them. Pandemic or not, this initial chapter signals that unexpected treasure can be mined from family albums. Yet another reason to save them from the fire.

It’s in the next series that Tamane comes closest to direct revelation. Family Portrait is a short sequence of portraits shot during her home visits between 2013 and 2018. Each one shows the same ordered group sitting together over time: Tamane, her mother, her grandmother, and great-grandmother. It’s impossible to look at these without being reminded of Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters. Although that series covers a much longer period, Tamane’s plays to similar effect. Comparing photos over time we notice physical changes, most notably in Tamane herself. In one’s late twenties (as she was), even five years is a long period. The disappearance of her great-grandmother from the series mid-way through—she died in 2017—comes as a gut-punch to the reader, but it doesn’t seem to slow Tamane down, as the three remainders continue for a few more photos. Great-grandmother’s void is reprised a few pages later in the series Tetraptych, which simply documents the bare walls of family rooms. Here we realize that the wallpaper of her great-grandmother’s room was the backdrop for Family Portraits up until the point she passed away, and that afterward the location switched to the room of the new matriarch, her grandmother.

All well and good so far. But at this point the series take a left turn. On The Road is a bizarre cluster of film stills shot through a windshield, each one annotated with bits of mundane phone conversation. Like a long day’s road trip, these carry on for a while. An ominous anecdote by her mother, Letters From Mom II, is followed by another peculiar series. Sold Out documents hundreds of the various consumer goods trafficked by her father’s import/export business. These are splayed across the page with eBay-like efficiency, in large product grids. In the next series, Tamane’s mom gets into the act with logbook entries of some of her exports. These decidedly unphotographic texts cover a double gatefold which opens onto a panoramic photo of mom herself, proudly perched at the helm of her four page semi-trailer. Taken together the book’s middle chapters feel like an offramp to absurdity. Clearly long hauling runs in the family, as does the collector’s instinct. But Tamane’s observation of these aspects is so impassive and methodical it feels like satire.  

Which brings us to the title series Flower Smuggler. Although this is the largest chapter in the book and the most important, it’s not encountered until 2/3 of the way through. By this point the reader is not quite sure what to think, whether the book’s tone is sentimental or detached. The title chapter deftly synthesizes both reactions. A brief passage explains that in 2015, Tamane’s grandmother tried to deliver two pots of flowers to her grandfather’s grave in Russia, just across the Latvian border. Although initiated out of love, this action vexed the boundary guards, and she was accused of international flower smuggling. Tamane guards her grandmother’s feelings, but one can only guess how upsetting this must have been. But rather than dwell on tragedy, Tamane again takes an absurdist tack. Two broadsheets show what is presumably the smuggling police report, with text in Russian and a grainy security shot of two bouquets. After a few graveside photos of the plastic flowers that her grandmother deposited legally on a later trip, the title series commences: a long sequence of facsimile pages documenting her grandmother’s photo albums. 

Browsing these pictures the irony of the “flower smuggler” appellation becomes clear. Tamane’s grandmother was a dedicated collector of flower pictures, and her private albums are stuffed with them, one after another. If a fire ever came knocking, these would be first into granny’s to-go bag. Grandmother’s appetite for flowers was voracious. She shot them in parade floats, in vases, in gardens and in the wild. Pouring over these snaps, their sentimental value is clear. Perhaps surprisingly they are also strong aesthetically. Shot with daylight flash at close range, they fill their frames with bold swatches of color and little wasted space, a la Stephen Gill’s Hackney Flowers. Maybe it was the multihued arrangements which attracted grandmother. Or she may have just been possessed by the packrat instinct which motivates all collectors. It’s no great leap to extend this instinct to photography generally, and its sometimes irrationally acquisitive nature. Regardless, her pictures are gorgeous, the monograph’s star attraction.

After circling the subject of family in such a wide variety of approaches, one might expect the denouement to offer some resolution or clarity. Instead the final series Blood Pressure steps even further into the unknown. Tamane shows pictures from her great-grandmother’s photo albums. Finally, thinks the reader, here are the private memories we’ve been thirsting for. But in a perverse twist, they’re displayed in verso! It turns out great-grandmother used her old snapshots as scratch paper, jotting her daily blood pressure measurements on their backs. “When she couldn’t find the notebook, she wrote it down on what was at hand,” explains Tamane calmly, as if nothing could be more ordinary. 

Great-grandmother’s idiosyncratic handwriting provides some information about her, so there’s that. But it’s not much to go on. On the backs of these browning drugstore prints, her shorthand mixes with pharmacy codes and manufacturing imprints (e.g., “Kodak Paper”) to create a truly novel reality.  What treasured moments cover the front of these prints? Tamane’s curation infers that the answer is immaterial, and perhaps her grandmother would agree. “Apparently, the everyday ritual was more important to her than photographs—her memories,” Tamane writes, encapsulating a general attitude toward photography which is disconcertingly widespread. 

So perhaps the general fate of family albums is not so clear after all. Would they be saved in a fire, or merely discarded like a Post-it Note? Her great-grandmother’s feelings on the matter notwithstanding, the reprisal of these artifacts in the final chapter provides a sense of closure, and roots all of the book’s works in a relatable form. Clearly Tamane is concerned with maternal lineage, but her sidelong references dance around the subject, rarely hitting home with emotional plangency. She explains that “the constant measuring of the intimate distances, the exploration of the places where I belong and the questioning of my own identity are the processes that link my existence and my artistic practice.” So her detached style might signify artistic remove. Or perhaps it is more a function of youth? 

In any case, considering its heartfelt subject, Flower Smuggler adopts a surprisingly glib tone, closer in spirit to Ivars Gravlejs than Charlotte Mano. For the general reader, knowing nothing about Tamane’s family, the design is entertaining. There are all sorts of invitations and entry points to enjoy the work. But one wonders how precious it might be to those in the book. For, say, Tamane’s mother or grandmother, would Flower Smuggler be saved from an impending fire? Or would they salvage an old family album instead?

Collector’s POV: Diana Tamane 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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