JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Dewi Lewis Publishing (here). Hardcover, 172 pages, with color photographs by the artist and reproductions of family photographs, letters, medical records, and other archival ephemera, with multiple inserts and in-page gatefolds. Transcripts from interviews with family members/friends and image captions are the only texts included; there are no essays. The Epilogue has been shortlisted for the 2014 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation First Photobook award. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Inside the bubble of the photobook world, the past few years have seen a mini boom in deep archival interpretation. In book after book, photographers and publishers have seemed keen to outdo each other, the entire community actively searching for new and innovative ways to marry photographs with related ephemera. Creative foldouts, cutouts, resizing, mixed paper insertions, and other features have turned some photobooks into veritable scrapbooks, where photographers are asked to be both image makers and information curators and readers are encouraged to follow the carefully edited trail of breadcrumbs and to piece together the supporting fragments themselves. The inadvertent result of all this disruptive publishing experimentation is that we are now as a group thoughtfully rethinking the traditional structure of a narrative arc and opening up new pathways for how complex visual stories can be told in photobook form.
Laia Abril’s The Epilogue is a piercingly poignant example of this recent trend in archival exploration. Using an emotionally wrenching series of events as its structural framework (a daughter struggling with an increasingly debilitating eating disorder, the ultimate death of the young woman, and the gnawing mix of subtle traumas and unanswered questions of those left behind), her book methodically retraces the life of Mary Cameron “Cammy” Robinson, unpacking the mysteries of her story with the attention to detail of a forensic investigation. Reorienting the chronology of Cammy’s story to begin with the aftermath of her death (the epilogue) and then jumping back into the progression of her life via sequential episodic flashbacks, Abril makes smart use of an astonishing multiplicity of archival material to reconstruct her narrative. Insightfully open interviews and pull quotes from family (father, mother, brother, cousin) and friends (best friend, childhood friend, roommate, therapist) are interwoven with personal letters, family photos, news clippings, medical and school records, and even Cammy’s own diaries and journals. Like a detective assembling the clues, Abril hears from the eyewitnesses and pours over the scene of the crime, each shard of information a piece in the not quite assembled puzzle of Cammy’s life.
Photographically, Abril’s images are extremely understated, almost subordinate to the rest of the archival material that surrounds them. Family and friends appear in quietly haunted portraits, going through the motions of their lives but never far from the pensive moments of grief, guilt, and frustration that linger on after Cammy’s death. Grandchildren add a splash of liveliness to the proceedings, but the heavy weight of a lonely Happy Father’s Day sign or a blank stare is palpable. We see outside images of the family house (often enshrouded in misty fog and leafy woods), Cammy’s memorial, the various apartments and houses where she lived, and still life documents of her personal possessions (her scale, her daybook, her answering machine, her ID cards, a get well mylar balloon). The photographs are mood setters, gap fillers, and illustrations – they bring us into the scarred emotional landscape of the loved ones and give us something tangibly connected to Cammy to hold on to, adding breadth and contour to the larger story.
But let’s be honest – this is a hard book. It is filled with heart breaking suffering, hope for recovery repeatedly dashed by painful setbacks, and a sympathetic but confounded cast of characters continuing to work through the reverberating collateral damage almost a decade later. Spending time paging through its contents is like watching a devastating car crash in slow motion; we know exactly what is going to happen, we watch the roller coaster of ups and downs, we feel incapable of doing anything to stop the impending end, we hope upon hope that something good will intervene, but that doesn’t mean we can somehow avoid the tragic finality of the death certificate.
As sad as Cammy’s story is, there is a kind of catharsis in its telling. Its genuine honesty exposes some of the psychology of bulimia and anorexia, and with the despairing benefit of hindsight, points to some now faintly observable signs of what was going on. But to think that Cammy’s story is now entirely understood is mistaken; even with the best intentions of Abril and everyone who willingly cooperated with her to build this exhaustive aggregate portrait, the 26 year old Cammy still feels fleeting and elusive. There is no easy conclusion offered here, only a slow coming to terms with the anguished uncertainties and unknowable should haves that stubbornly remain.
Paging through The Epilogue, I very much had the feeling that I was experiencing conscious formal innovation, that the definitional boundaries of image-based storytelling were being implicitly tested by Cammy’s multi-layered portrait. Should this book be shelved with the rest of the photobooks, or with the memoirs, or with the journalistic studies of eating disorders, or the histories and nonfiction accounts of survivors? Is this book “about” the artistic merit of the photographs or the larger subject matter? Would a gallery show of Abril’s pictures even make sense without all of the supporting material? Reasonable people might disagree about answers to these questions, which further points to the flux taking place in the medium.
More broadly, I think this book and other publications like it signal a growing wave of “book first” thinking, where the pacing and structural devices of text-based novels, or mystery stories, or histories, or scientific studies might be better models than anything in the existing photobook library. In photobooks like these, the art is inextricably intertwined with richly varied content, not separated out for discrete or isolated inspection. Given its nuanced and sensitive visual and textual investigations, I think The Epilogue can be an innovative standard bearer for this new kind of archive-driven narrative building, and as a first photobook, it’s certainly a satisfyingly mature and tenderly complex meditation on one woman’s visceral struggle with an eating disorder and her family’s ongoing response to its tragic consequences.
Collector’s POV: Laia Abril is represented by INSTITUTE (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.