JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Void Publishing (here). Hardcover, 22 x 28 cm, 104 pages, with 72 photographs and numerous text excerpts. Design by João Linneu. In an edition of 750. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Sur la trace de la chouette d’or (On The Trail Of The Golden Owl) was designed as a mystery for puzzle lovers. The 1993 book was written by the late French author Regis Hauser under the pseudonym Max Valentin. It was illustrated with eleven elaborate paintings by Michel Becker, which worked in combination with Hauser’s text to form elaborate riddles. When all eleven were solved in the right sequence, they would reveal the location of a small owl statuette buried somewhere in France. The surrogate owl could then be exchanged for the real thing, a bejeweled chouette d’or fabricated by Becker out of precious metals and diamonds.
Or at least that was the idea. The book has been circulating now for three decades (today, May 15th, 2023, marks the 30th anniversary of the treasure hunt) and no one has solved it yet. Thousands of searchers—known as “chouetteurs”—have combed the book and countryside for clues. They’ve shared and compared notes in real life and online, developing a tight community of dedicated cryptographers. According to Hauser—who passed away in 2009—if they just put their heads together and share insights in the right way, the puzzle would have been solved by now. Easier said than done. The prize remains unclaimed. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the owl is still buried.
The quest for the mysterious owl is the subject of Emily Graham’s debut monograph The Blindest Man. Its title is taken from a proverb: “The blindest man is the one who refuses to see.” For wide eyed searchers that phrase which might come across as a cruel taunt. Are they really so complicit in their own failure? Perhaps not, but the owl still teases, as does Graham’s book. It’s cleverly designed by Void’s João Linneu to be as baffling as a Valentin riddle.
The goose chase begins immediately with a cryptic text-based cover. Rambling passages spill across four columns of small type, outlining a numbered series of clues, dates, journal excerpts, quotations, and French passages. They seem to refer to figures and dates, but the signal is fuzzy. Perhaps the content was culled from online chat forums, or from Valentin himself?
If the source isn’t clear, the obfuscating tone is: it’s a stream of insular hints and innuendo with the circular logic of JFK assassination theories or secret Coca-Cola recipe rumors. Clues continue across the cover and through the end pages before pausing for a long sequence of photographs. They provide a welcome break, but puzzle sleuths can’t rest yet. The conundrums keep coming with two mysterious sections on uncoated stock. The first shows potential burial sites with handwritten annotations by the notorious chouetteur Vvon Crolet. The second section features more inscrutable texts, this time from “Elisa”, followed by gridded snapshots of excavations, maps, and metal detectors. There are two pages of hidden text, with faint printing only viewable when slanted at just the right angle. The strange numbered clues pick up again in the final end pages and back cover. Scattered phrases are redacted or underlined. Tips and pointers circle back on themselves. If Graham’s purpose was to mimic Valentin’s perplexities, she’s done quite well.
Eccentricities aside, the bulk of The Blindest Man’s is comprised of straight photos by Graham, who accompanied and interviewed several chouetteurs on their unsuccessful searches between 2015 and 2018. As with all pictures, hers impart visual information as a matter of course. But they seem reticent to provide much in the way of concrete facts, and readers hoping for an answer key will be disappointed. Graham’s style is controlled and deliberate. She frames compositions cooly, with the care and lighting of a studio pro. There are few chance elements, precision is the rule, with a tight lid on unscripted revelations.
Her subjects range from shadows to street scenes to scraps of land forms. These might be potential burial sites, or not. Photos of a peacock, chattering teeth, a mirrored column, and a staircase to nowhere refuse to weigh in. Taken piecemeal all are beguiling. If sequenced into another monograph they might form the ingredients of another narrative entirely, perhaps the life of a small town doctor or a surveyor roaming a Bavarian castle. Or they might slot unnoticed into postmodern expositions like Redheaded Peckerwood or Le Luxe. As with those monographs and a good Valentin mystery, context informs content.
These inanimate elements serve as supporting cast. Meanwhile, the book’s primary roles are played by humans. There are a dozen or so portraits strung throughout. Each depicts a chouetteur caught in an exploratory mood. These begin with Yvon Crolet, 20 years into the search. He peers deeply into a solid red wall as impenetrable as the chouette d’or, which he’s beginning to suspect is a scam. Crolet is followed a few pages later by a chouetteur known colloquially as Funambula, or “tightrope walker”. Searching is a precarious act, and Graham’s picture shows him balanced on one foot. A close-up of the chouetteur Elsa depicts her in the reflective glare of a window, relaxing with a cigarette near a chateau, pondering where the owl could be. A searcher named Cedric Delepaut has gone to absurd lengths to disguise himself from other hunters, decked out in balaclava and clown nose. His approach contrasts with Meteor who is photographed openly at his desk with a thoughtful expression. He leans on a pile of diagrams, frustratingly unresolved. One chouetteur appears as a headshot vignetted in visual fog. Another fingers a yellow ball.
If the interminable search has stressed any of them, they hide it well. The visual tone feels closer to optimism than futility. As Graham told The Guardian, “The thing I found fascinating was that so many of them felt they were always on the verge of finding the owl.”
For photographers, comparisons to their own pastime is perhaps inevitable. The search for photos in the real world can be tedious, puzzling, and often fruitless. It might require long hours, with no guarantee of success. Dig in the wrong spot and you’ll unearth nothing. Worse, unlike a buried statuette, the goal is often unspecified. The target might be hidden in a shifting crowd, or accessible from only a certain vantage point, or require specific lighting conditions, or the prize may not exist at all, depending on mindset.
The Blindest Man seems a good metaphor for the medium. As Graham described her photo process in a recent interview, “I’d find myself going to places with specific ideas in mind of what I might find, either from prior research, or from books that I’d read (often fiction) that were set in said places…I was looking for a framework for these wanderings, and started thinking about how much of what I photograph was influenced by what I had in mind – what I was looking for.”
Graham’s personal search has been successful on some level. She eventually made a series of photographs and compiled them into this monograph. But The Blindest Man seems less concerned with that accomplishment than the hunt itself. With its many feints, false leads, and hidden easter eggs, this is a book which celebrates the search and puts the reader in the mindset of its hapless protagonists. Their determination is admirable, and their search makes for a compelling photo subject. If the resulting monograph resists easy resolution, it’s a reminder that the golden owl is still out there somewhere.
Collector’s POV: Emily Graham does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).