Lucy Helton, Transmission

JTF (just the facts): Published by Silas Finch in 2015 (here). 9 pages and wrap with nine panoramic thermal prints, presented in a cardboard tube. In an edition of 350 copies, signed and numbered. Includes a short text by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Transmission is the title of a new photobook by the British photographer Lucy Helton and, as it suggests, it is a message. The project was inspired by her father David Helton, a committed environmentalist and writer. In one of his novels, he imagines a world without humans, where people live on other planets, allowing the Earth to become a wildlife preserve. The photographer used this utopian idea as a starting point to imagine her own, very different Earth, entirely without humans.

The format of Helton’s Transmission creatively reflects the idea of a message, going beyond the traditional book form. The production of the book was a tedious and time consuming process, as Helton used old fax machines to print all the photographs. Nine panoramic images (the longest of them is 31.5 inches) have been printed on thin paper and are held together by Japanese clip binding, presenting an elegant and fragile object that has a distinct tactile experience and pleasant feel. The book scroll is placed inside a cardboard tube, recreating the experience of discovering a message in a bottle or receiving a delivery via pneumatic pipes. The text on the cover insert mimics an actual fax transmission report, with its typical typography, symbols and terminology. It states that the communication was sent on April 22, 2215, the sender is identified as “978193063222”, and the result was recorded as “OK”.

Helton mixes appropriated scientific imagery of unknown origins with her own photographs, fully blurring the border between the two and carefully building a new narrative. Transmission is a visual construction of Earth’s landscape stripped of any signs of life (there are no humans, animals, bugs, not even a single leaf). Her black and white images, with strong grays and blacks, are cold and grim. As we open the roll, the first image depicts what looks like a lifeless hill in a deserted environment, and the fax printing adds additional distortions – lines, grey areas, and other unexpected markings (all of them might be unique for each copy). This affects the texture of the image but also reinforces the experience of transmission. The following images are printed on a papers of different length, so they overlay each other, reinforcing a sense of gathered continuity and interconnection. Dark, grainy, and blurry, some of the photos look like a close-up of an earlier hill, others show other geological formations and their details. Detached from their original context, these images resemble a lunar surface or some other outer space planet. Another image in the sequence, with a strong contrast of black and white, shows the edge of an iceberg and chunks of floating ice. The final picture again shows hills, this time of a different shape and size. Throughout the progression, Helton manipulates the scale and dimension of the photographs, playing with our senses and perception; some of the images look like they were stitched together, and these strategies force us to look closer and explore the details.

Helton’s visual narrative, with its distinct aesthetic and sensibility, mixes the unlikely beauty of almost post-apocalyptic imagery with a feeling of hollow emptiness and desolation. As Helton states in her commentary, this vision reflects her deep concerns about the future of the planet. Human activities, with their destructive propensities, are dramatically changing the landscape of the Earth and the idea of the extinction of life on the planet doesn’t seem that entirely insubstantial. In Transmission, Helton imagines how our planet might look and feel in two hundred years. Her doomsday picture of Earth bears little resemblance with our familiar landscapes and environment, as if we are looking at an entirely different planet. This communication, sent from a not that distant future, is a clear warning. Helton wants us to imagine that this cold, rugged and eerie rock can be our future (or a future without humans); she wants us to feel consciously uneasy and uncomfortable with it, so that we take the steps today to prevent the future catastrophe. Yet the book’s visual rhythm, with its mystery and unexpected beauty, almost takes us away from the urgent environmental issues of the moment, pushing the graphic and tactile experience forward. 

Helton’s book is an excellent example of using the photobook medium with ingenious risk-taking creativity – as an object, it is splendidly smart and exciting. The scroll form is particularly thoughtful and elegant, as it not only mimics the obsolete fax format, it reflects the larger philosophy that all things are inextricably connected. Transmission’s success lies in this tight integration of concept and execution; it’s not just a straightforward vehicle for showing off the photographs, but an original artistic expression that enhances the power of the included pictures. Her photobook is like a silent artifact, full of ominous foreboding.

Collector’s POV: Lucy Helton does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked above).

Read more about: Lucy Helton, Silas Finch

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