Lottie Davies, Quinn

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 by Mutton Row Books (here). Hardcover, 215×155 mm, 160 pages, with 83 four-color and 33 duotone images, and 18 fold-out pages. Includes a separate text-only softcover booklet, 127×102 mm, with 60 pages of text; a QR code leads to audio narration of the text by Samuel J. Weir. Wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Dean Pravitt. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photographic storytelling comes in all shapes and sizes, from single frames that capture a moment to linked sequences and series of pictures that expand through time. But few photographers take on the kind of ambitious visual fiction making that is found in Lottie Davies’ recent project Quinn.

Made over a period of seven years, and including large format photographs, short videos, audio narration, texts, and physical objects, Quinn has taken form as immersive installations and exhibits, in online presentations, and now as a photobook. The project tells the fictional story of William Henry Quinn, a British soldier back from World War II in the summer of 1945, who embarks on a solitary walking journey from the south-west of England to the far north of Scotland.

Quinn is told as a straightforward narrative, essentially novelistic or cinematic in its forward progression through time. We follow along as Quinn walks, and can hear his thoughts in the form of a written diary (and accompanying audio voiceover) that is addressed to his wife Mary. As Quinn passes through various landscapes, walks along empty roads, encounters strangers, and settles in to overnight at boardinghouses, his mind wanders back through memories (of the war, of his childhood, and of his family), and wrestles with the traumas that still haunt him.

As told in the diary, Quinn’s life story includes a posting in the Royal Navy, an explosive mission on the coast of France where he was injured and left to drown, and several years in German prison camps, while back home, his wife and children seem to have been killed in a bombing, leaving him with a range of simmering unresolved regrets. His walking journey takes roughly four years (of fictional time, through to the spring of 1949), and geographically moves in line from one place to the next, eventually returning Quinn to his old house, which is now inhabited by another family.

Davies sets the fictional stage with a black-and-white “snapshot” of Quinn on shore leave, at a happy time at the beach with his wife and two infant children. We then move forward in time to the beginning of Quinn’s post-war journey, where he stands (now seen in color) on the rocky shore and looks out pensively at the roiling waves. In the photobook, the story advances through stills from videos (seen as smaller images, in sequential bunches) and large single frames that often expand to fill fold outs.

Again and again, Davies photographically returns to staged scenes where Quinn looks pensively out on the empty landscape, or is seen alone moving through the world, taking a rest, or walking down roads and paths. These setups recall Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” from 1818, and consistently place the lone figure of Quinn against the grandeur of the land around him. And while there is a linear backstory wrapped around these fragments of time, each of these singular frames can stand alone as a moment of introspection or contemplation. Quinn looks up into the trees, surrounded by large green trunks and a dappled floor of orange leaves; he traverses a misty valley filled with flat shards of rock; he stands at the top of a mountain pass looking down at the barren land and small lakes below; and he follows a dirt road through towering green trees. Along the way, Davies plays with rich color, in the redness of winterberries, the green of lush grass, the soft yellow of a fading boardinghouse wall, and the dark greys of wet paths and abandoned houses.

After being alone for so long, Quinn’s random encounter with a young girl gathering berries feels almost magical; set against the dusty rose of the heath, it has a stilted sense of awkwardness and miscommunication. And then he continues on, through more desolately beautiful British landscapes – rocky beaches, brisk snow covered sweeps of land, a glorious russet-colored valley (which expands to fill a four page foldout), and then once again to the shore, and a look outward to the sea from a steep headland. The last image in the series finds him standing on a dock with his suitcase staring at the water, presumably finally heading home.

At the back of the book, a selection of black and white still lifes provides a taxonomy of physical evidence to support the narrative. Davies shows us the rock that was in Quinn’s shoe, his pocketknife, his razor, the bunch of heather given to him by the girl, the beer glass he shattered, some seashells he gathered at the shore, and the charred teddy bear given to him by the new tenants in his house. These and other objects (including a newspaper clipping which provides the clues to the death of Quinn’s family) weave together with the photographs, the video stills, and the diary entries to fill out the contours of the story.

While some of Davies’ photographs inevitably have a staged or mannered feel, the best of the works expand with awe inspiring magnificence, with the lonely figure of Quinn set against the majesty of the land. We feel his insignificance and isolation in these settings, the quiet emptiness of his restless wanderings set against the scale of a much bigger and more imposing world. Such compositions feel like a throwback, but they’ve been executed with such consistent precision that it’s hard not to be seduced by their deliberate emotional breadth; we know Davies is manipulating our reactions, but that doesn’t diminish the power of her images.

In terms of design and production, the photobook version of Quinn is carefully crafted and surprisingly intimate. The book itself is small, giving it the feel of something special and personal, and the diary entries are pulled out into an even smaller pamphlet, where the tiny type draws the viewer into the story. When we go back to the page turns of imagery, the sequencing creates an in and out movement between the small video stills and the larger photographs that spill out onto the foldouts. This folding out process feels like enlargement or tumbling inward, as we suddenly move from clips and fragments to immersive images that feel expansive and enveloping. Passing through the book resembles the journey Quinn takes, as the page turns require effort again and again to reach a moment of quiet looking, with motion leading to stillness. The black and white still lifes in the back of the book are printed on matte paper, creating a tactile distinction between the journey and the artifacts. And then the entire package is wrapped with brown paper and tied with string, like a long lost parcel from the past.

As a parable of post-trauma, Quinn’s walking tour visualizes the process of using travel to fill space, of wandering when there is no place left to go. Like so many soldiers who came home from the war broken (physically, emotionally, or psychologically), only to find the lives they had left behind were similarly shattered or simply gone, Quinn doesn’t entirely know how to process his situation. His journey is a way to cope, where he can work his way through the memories, questions, longings, and “ifonlys” of his past. Often his diary feels like a trance-like state, where his confessions, angers, regrets, and reveries all intermingle, ultimately mixing with a bone-deep sense of physical weariness and exhaustion that is only slowly dissipated by the endless walking. The question of whether Quinn finds his way through the loneliness, grief, and loss to some kind of new meaning isn’t really answered, leaving his tale deliberately open-ended and unfinished.

In the end, Quinn is a deceptively powerful photobook, one that is anchored by a handful of almost timeless photographic compositions that form the foundation of a meditative narrative of nearly silent personal tragedy. It is both wholly understated and often visually extravagant, alternately turning us inward and outward, encompassing both the intimate and the sweeping. Plotted like a novel and photographed like a series of grand landscape tableaux, Quinn reminds us that photography can still be used for visual storytelling on a grand scale. By ambitiously embracing (and extending) the nuanced narrative possibilities of the medium, Davies has found her own path forward.

Collector’s POV: Lottie Davies is represented by Cynthia Corbett Gallery in London (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Lottie Davies, Mutton Row Books

One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    Excellent review . Working on something in a similar vein so looking forward to seeing this book. Sounds amazing.

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