JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by TIS Books (here). Foil stamped softbound cover, 80 unnumbered pages, with 37 tritone images, 10.24 x 15.75 inches. Designed by Jenia Fridlyand and TIS Books. (Cover and spread shots below).
Comments/Context: One can tell she is a small woman, but still too large to fit the frame. Her eyes and elbows spill over. And with the warm sunlight holding on to her frizzled hair and the skin of her bare arms, her hands delicately bend in front of her. Placed like an afterthought at the very end of the book, this picture is the only self-portrait included within Jenia Fridlyand’s Entrance to Our Valley. Yet the photograph is not about her, but the fruits she cradles. Soaked with summer, the tomatoes are so ripe you can almost smell them. One wrong grip and they will burst. But they don’t. What speaks in this picture is an almost awkward sense of protectiveness that words can never quite describe – the kind of care one applies to things that are new or unknown, an emotional space that is claimed by choice, not necessity.
Most of Fridlyand’s intimate, monochrome photographs negotiate this threshold between the given and the chosen; that is, her family and friends and the land they live on. This land is an old, 200-acre farm in the Hudson Valley in New York state, which Fridlyand and her husband purchased in the winter of 2014. In her pictures we see fields and forests, grassy paths and vegetable gardens, a pond and a swamp, and the surrounding Catskill Mountains. Others show the main house, first built in the 1860s; the guest cottage; and the three-story barn – from the inside and the outside, with and without people. Fridlyand’s photographs are precise; stripped to their basic elements, both in aesthetics and content. They are not anecdotal, not even when they capture the tender moments of everyday-life, like the close-ups of her son and her husband sleeping, her mother-in-law putting on make-up while hiding behind her hand-held mirror, a game of chess unfolding between grandfather and grandson, or the family engaged in gardening and fix-ups. At times, I think they feel removed. Partly because of Fridlyand’s often physical distance from her subjects; partly for the pictures’ perspective, which is rarely at eye level, but slightly or significantly elevated – and most elegantly distilled in what seems to be an early morning photograph with a centered, misty view of the two houses, while the small figure of an elderly woman pushes a small cart along the path in front of her. But distance is not the only force at work in these photographs.
It is Fridlyand’s attuned attention to descriptive details – such as a pot of simmering blueberries, a young shrub crawling up a wooden wall, or the silent terror of two hanging flypapers – that imbue this place, and her images, with a sense of … home.
The notion of home is inextricably linked with that of belonging, both of which are contingent on subjective definitions, which are usually shaped by how we experience home and belonging at a young age. For Fridlyand, who was born in Russia and emigrated with her parents to the US as a teenager, changing cities and countries of residence has shaped a significant part of her life. And while she has “grown accustomed to the mental freedom of this circumstance,” the purchase of the farm was grounded in a more sedentary desire.
“Our main motivation […] was to establish a multi-generational home: for our parents, who are living now more than five thousand miles away from the place of their birth; for ourselves – first-generation immigrants; and for our children, so they could have the privilege of coming back to a place where they grew up.”
It seems important to linger on the context and connotations, within which Fridlyand uses the words ‘privilege’ and ‘place’, not only for her family’s biography, but the but the underlying tissues connecting the imagery of Entrance to Our Valley. Because, for once, privilege is not a synonym for mere wealth.
Fridlyand’s family are descendants of Eastern European Jews, who, among other discriminations, were not allowed to own land in Imperial Russia. The idea to reverse this history lies at the foundation of her body of work. Based on Anton Chekhov’s play Cherry Orchard, Fridlyand first sought to create what the hereditary Russian aristocrats in the play had lost: “an inhabited piece of land, a home, an identity.” But as it happens within a creative process, initial ideas are replaced by others or turn into points of departure. And despite the delicacy of Fridlyand’s photographs, we, ultimately, don’t learn much about the identities of her family members or friends; often I can’t even speculate about what they might have felt or thought, for themselves and about their home.
The longer I think about this, the less I seem able to find a definitive answer or explanation for this sensation. Only through comparison can I offer an observation. Among the works that first came to mind, when looking at Entrance to Our Valley was Sally Mann’s Immediate Family. And this makes sense, both photographers are women and document their children and family living on a farm in black-and-white and with a large-format camera. But unlike the subjects of Mann’s photographs, Fridlyand’s do not seem to be the people themselves – their personalities and performed roles in a domestic and protective setting – but the place they take and claim on and within their farm environment.
How does a photograph become a place? Place, as opposed to space, is always specific. Place is a setting. Or to put it differently, it is a space that has been filled with or occupied by presence, actions, and emotions. It expands and surrounds. It always relates to something, while also being a self-sufficient entity. In Russian, the word for place, mestopolojenie, implies site, but can also mean situation – and this seems important for Fridlyand’s photographs.
The situations of her images unfold within a specific light, one that pertains to the time of the day and the season of the year. Equally defining is the view through the 4-by-5 view camera for the range and depth of detail it captures. A smaller one would not have caught what I see now, and, hence, these details would have been lost or remained invisible. This matters not only for aesthetic reasons, but the perception of time. Time, both within the photographs and the one spent looking at them. In this, perhaps slightly displacing way, Fridlyand’s images connect with the atmosphere of photographs taken two centuries ago. But also resonate with more recent ones, such Nicholas Nixon’s Family Pictures.
More revealing, however, is design of the book itself, and the associations it triggers. Its ennobling size and photo-album green cover protect a cream-colored, uncoated paper that is so thin, it makes the images, or rather their varying shapes, shine through like memories, clear enough to be remembered, but too vague to be fully grasped. It is this vagueness where Fridlyand’s sense of place resides.
For Fridlyand, Entrance to Our Valley presents a point of departure artistically and personally. It is her first photobook and the first time she explored her relationship with a specific place, a feeling that she attempted “to unpack through photographs”. For me it unravels the sensation encapsulated in the book’s second image. Taken from below, an amorphous pattern of trees extends its gnarly branches towards the sky, almost like serpents mating. It is a gentle but also unbalancing image. The trees seem upside-down, as if falling. But their roots sustain them regardless. Roots we cannot see, but we know exist.
Collector’s POV: Jenia Fridlyand does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar.)