JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by Editorial RM (here). Hardcover, 192 pages, with 107 black and white photographs. Includes reproductions of various archival materials and ephemera, with explanatory texts by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: While it wasn’t at all obvious at the time, just five years ago, a new genre of archive-driven photography projects quietly jumped into the mainstream. Looking back, two moments from 2012 stick out as indicative of the widespread changes that were just getting started – Zoe Crosher’s personal rework of an appropriated archive was included in MoMA’s influential New Photography exhibit and Cristina de Middel released her self-published photobook The Afronauts, using the 1960s Zambian space program as the basis for playfully imagined recreations. In both cases, a photography project that leveraged archival material in wholly original ways was recognized for its place at the forefront of what was happening in contemporary photography.
In the handful of years since those two seemingly isolated harbingers, archive-driven photography projects have multiplied like mushrooms, particularly as executed in the photobook form. In many ways, this trend is a result of the “perfect storm” effect – the ongoing digitization of previously off-line archives, the broad connectivity of the Internet, and the burst of innovation in lower cost photobook publishing all coming together at the same time, catalyzing a flowering of artistic risk taking, experimentation, and new wave appropriation, particularly in extending (and reinventing) storytelling techniques driven by photography.
Laia Abril’s Lobismuller is a ready example of just how far we have come in such a short period of time. Abril’s photobook takes as its starting point the 19th century story of Manuel Blanco Romasanta, the so-called “werewolf of Allariz”. While the details are sketchy, Romasanta apparently led a modest life as a widower, peddling old clothes and discarded objects in and around the remote villages of northwestern Spain and aiding travelers who needed to cross the mountains from Galacia to points east. The catch was that he was also a busy serial killer, preying on trusting but impressionable single women, making them promises of better lives and then murdering his victims along the way, covering his tracks with faked letters sent back to the families. Apparently Romasanta also had the particularly gruesome habit of manufacturing soap from the fat of his victims, earning him yet another nickname “Homo do Unto” or Tallow Man. Romasanta was eventually captured in 1852, and his harrowing tales of being a werewolf came out during the trial; he was ultimately convicted of nine murders (the bodies of the others, perhaps another dozen, were never found, so there was no incriminating evidence), and was condemned to die by execution, only to be pardoned by Queen Isabel II so that he could be studied by various scientists and hypnotists. He apparently died in captivity in 1863, but like all good ghost stories, he may have escaped, continuing to wander the hills as a marauding wolf.
Abril takes this folkloric Jack-the-Ripper meets Wolfman framework and thoroughly makes it her own, building up a visual narrative that is full of conflicting layers, what ifs, and open-ended clues. The first third of the book is largely scene-setting, with Abril’s shadowy middle grey views of crumbing villages in dense woods providing the necessary context for the story. Worn stone walls, weathered wooden planks and railings, misty hillsides, and clusters of grazing livestock create a rugged pastoral mood, the craggy textures and dark corners offering just the kind of seemingly mundane place where evil might lurk. Romasanta is a faceless presence in these pictures, alluded to but never actually seen.
Starting with a rock wall image frenetically scratched with vertical lines, the middle third of the photobook swings toward seeing the world through Romasanta’s eyes. Still life images of a spiked iron wolf collar and a wolf skull, set against seething red backgrounds, point to where Abril is headed. Her landscapes then shift to more ground level views, where grasses and boulders cover the nearby surfaces and cows look back with watchful anxiety. Soon the mists roll over the land, the forest grows dark, and night invades the underbrush. At this point, we’re seeing the world through the wolf’s eyes, from the up close leafy detritus on the forest floor and the swish of the tall grasses, to the night vision stalking of unaware animals and the red tinted glow that turns the woods into a bloody killing ground. Like the spookily indirect approach of “The Blair Witch Project”, Abril’s red images are fragmented and peripheral, showing us only a few resonant details rather than the overtly scary whole and letting our now-racing imagination connect the dots.
After an overbright image that represents Romasanta returning to his human form, the final third of the photobook pulls back toward various forms of resolution. Abril shows us likenesses of St. Peter (a protector from spells, witchcraft and other enchantments), a spare stockade (representing Romasanta’s trial), various reproductions of handwritten accounts and newspaper clippings, and tangential references to hypnotism, the aggregation of archival material filling in the final gaps in the story.
But the last few pages hold one more bombshell – Romasanta’s gender may have been uncertain or non-binary. Abril offers several hints to this unexpected ending along the way – a mix and match collaged face, a birth certificate for a girl named Manuela, an interest in “women’s work” like tailoring, spinning, and weaving, and lingering questions about Romasanta’s masculinity expressed by villagers. So perhaps Romasanta wasn’t a wolf-man at all, but a wolf-woman (this is where the name lobismuller enters the picture), or maybe he was a hermaphrodite/had intersexuality syndrome. Close up images of pubic hair and genitalia follow, interspersed with more symbolic images of open wells, cavernous holes, and phallic bullets, the tantalizing gender questions left unanswered.
Many recent archivally-driven photobook projects have felt like scrapbooks or clipping albums, where the component parts have been thoughtfully collected, but making sense of it all is largely left up to the reader – in short, they are gatherings, not stories. Abril’s Lobismuller avoids this failure mode, using her own photographs and recreations as the backbone of the narrative, sprinkling in the found additions as further evidence or reinforcement, and using understated text captions to guide us along the desired path. The result is a remarkably sophisticated and tightly balanced product, even with the gotcha gender twist at the end. Like any well plotted horror story, it sets the stage, builds up suspense, explodes in wash of violent (offscreen) action, and then circles back to pick up the pieces and settle our jangled nerves, leaving just enough loose ends to keep us wondering.
Collector’s POV: Laia Abril does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As such, connecting with the artist directly (via her website, linked in the sidebar) is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.