Elspeth Diederix, When Red Disappears

JTF (just the facts): Published by Fw:Books in 2019 (here). Hardcover with dust jacket, 88 pages, with 40 color photographs. Includes an essay by Philip Ball. Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The visual artist Elspeth Diederix lives and works in Amsterdam; she was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and grew up in Colombia. Traveling and being immersed in different environments were essential in her development as an artist, and today she finds inspiration in the ordinary world around her. “When the usual meaning that you give these objects is altered and for a split second you are able to see them in a different light. I used this moment in time as a starting point for my images.” The birth of her children shifted the focus to her immediate surroundings, and in 2000, she started a project called “The Studio Garden”, which used the public garden near her studio as a place to get lost and observe; the constant transformation of the garden became a source of experimentation. She staged scenes to produce complex and unexpected images, ultimately revealing the beauty overlooked in nature and in other banal settings. Diederix is now considered “one of the Netherlands’ most original artistic photographers of nature.” 

Diederix is also fascinated with the underwater world. In her most recent series, she explores the waters of Zeeland, the westernmost and least populous province of the Netherlands. The area has an open access to the sea; the mix of salt and freshwater attracts very diverse flora and fauna, creating a dynamic natural world. This time Diederix has taken her camera underwater, and the series, published in a photobook earlier this year, documents a mysterious world where humans don’t belong. 

When Red Disappears is a vertically-oriented book, and surprisingly very light. An image of obscure underwater sponges, with a thin black border around it, appears on a black dust jacket; the name of the artist and the book’s title are placed on the spine in white. The photographs in the book are set against black backgrounds and have a thin black border around them, an elegant design element. The book is gorgeously printed on black paper, making the murky colors stand out. It also easily lays flat, ensuring an even more enjoyable experience.

The title of the book, When Red Disappears, refers to the drastic color change that occurs underwater – as one dives deeper, red is the first to go from the visible spectrum (due to various physical and optical factors). Diederix notes that “underwater you become aware of the phenomenon of color which you normally take for granted.” An essay at the end of the book by the scientist Philip Ball discusses this “way of seeing” in more detail. 

Diederix’s images are very different from most underwater marine life shots – there are no crisp blue waters or brightly colored fish. The water in Zeeland looks closer to green and grey, rather than blue, and while the visibility is relatively poor, Diederix’s flash brings the underworld out of the chiaroscuro darkness. Back in her studio, she adjusts colors to match the colors she encountered while diving. “I also accentuate some of the color that is already there but I never add new colors or make a collage of different images. What you see in photographs is really there.” 

The first photograph invites us to follow Diederix into the underwater world, capturing what looks like an entry, a path, or a cave, with a mist of beautiful light green color. This is followed by a close up of a grayish seascape, and then a colony of tan starfish, shells, and coral formations, and eventually, the book opens to a full spread with colorful shells, sponges, seaweed, and other marine life. These shots are mesmerizing. Diederix’ photographs give us a glimpse into the textures and surfaces of this graceful and mysterious world. An image of a light coming through a round opening (perhaps from a shipwreck) reveals the grey surface of the sea bottom, its illuminated presence seemingly even more remarkable.    

Diederix’s photographs are often inspired by Dutch still life paintings, and this series has some parallels to that style too – the lightning, colors, and delicately arranged compositions of her photos certainly resemble the genre. Unlike her earlier projects, rather than constructing scenes, here she is inspired by unaltered nature, documenting it as it is. Usually Diederix makes the familiar suddenly look unfamiliar, but in this project, the opposite happens. As we spend time looking at her underwater images, the abstract world of shadowy colors, shapes, and textures starts to look more recognizable: there are shells, sponges, jellyfish, soft corals, and other plants and organisms. Diederix says that “the main message I want to convey with my work is the importance of observing magnificence in our surroundings” and that exactly how her work makes us feel.

As a photobook, When Red Disappears stands out for its thoughtful and lavish production. It also brings to mind another book released this year, Deep Time by Lynn Alleva Lilley (reviewed here), which explored the wonders of nature through the fascinating world of the horseshoe crab. Although different in their approaches, both books remind us of the unparalleled beauty of our planet, and of the discoveries to be made when we stop to look with care and attention. 

Collector’s POV: Elspeth Diederix is represented by Stigter van Doesburg Gallery in Amsterdam (here). Her work has not found its way to the secondary markets with much regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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