Maria Lax, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire

JTF (just the facts): Published by Setanta Books in 2020 (here). Hardcover, 43 pages, with 46 color and black and white photographs. Also includes family archival photos, newspaper clippings, and selected accounts of UFOs sightings from local residents. In an edition of 750 copies (available in two covers, dark green and mustard). Design by Jan Hillman. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Maria Lax is a photographer and cinematographer, currently based in London, where she also attended the London Film School. She was one the 2019 winners of the British Journal of Photography’s Female in Focus award and was a 2020 finalist for the LensCulture Portrait Award. Focusing on portraiture and landscapes, her work is known for its strong use of color and its experimental camera techniques. Lax is originally from Pudasjavri, a small town in northern Finland, and her hometown lies at the center of her first photobook Some Kind of Heavenly Fire, which takes us on a dreamy journey through time and space, linked back to her own familial roots.

The idea for the photobook was born after Lax came across her grandfather’s journal, where he had chronicled a variety of UFO sightings back in the 1960s and 70s. He was a journalist, collecting people’s accounts of the supernatural sightings, and during that time, Finland was going through an economic restructuring, with rapid industrialization destroying the traditional agricultural lifestyle. This crisis forced many to leave the countryside in search of jobs in the cities, leaving sparsely populated houses in the beautiful but cold and harsh forests. It was during this time period that a surge of reports came in from local residents detailing strange supernatural events. 

Lax’s grandfather, who suffered from dementia in his last years, passed away shortly after she started the project. She then dug into family photo archives, researched old newspapers, and interviewed those who would still talk about the past. All of those findings came together in her surreal and striking photobook, which allows her dramatic use of color and light to shine throughout. 

The book has a dark green cover with the title engraved in black, with the blood red word “heavenly stamped prominently in the middle, bringing it into focus. Printed in a different, more evocative font, “heavenly” is suggestive of otherworldly connections and is almost devilish in its appearance, strangely evoking religious connotations. As we open the book, the endpaper is covered with old newspaper clippings of UFOs reports; they will remain a mystery to most of us who don’t speak Finnish, but they successfully set a scrapbook or hand-crafted album aesthetic.

Lax opens the photobook not with a photograph, but rather with a quote from one of the locals: “In this town we have always waited for someone or something – God, a millionaire, or aliens – to come and lift us from this misery.” The use of quotes throughout the book is sparse, but creates an undercurrent of foreboding. She then offers an old grainy black and white photo of the dense forest, followed by another of the trees, but now in a striking inverted, almost night vision color palette of red and green, an image that is immediately recognized as Lax’s own.

Lax’s photographs, shot mostly at night, are eerie, surreal, and often mesmerizing; the colors paint the world differently than a normal human could perceive. She captures scenes in ways that are well, “heavenly”, with flares of light, moody auras and shadows, and unexplained colors. Many of Lax’s photographs recall Todd Hido’s Hunting Houses, a series documenting lonely mysterious homes of suburban America shot at night.

Lax’s technical approach pushes the ISO high while slowing down the exposure time, making visible what otherwise is invisible at night. This strangeness draws us in and makes us question whether what we see is real or not. Yet, the places she captures are are all familiar to her from childhood, so it is her forest, not a dauntingly unknown one. 

The fact that Some Kind of Heavenly Fire has a cinematic look and feel comes as no surprise when we recall that the photographer’s background is in filmmaking. In addition, the book designer, Jan Hillman, is also a film director and video editor. Lax herself acknowledges that the project was originally envisioned as a movie, and the images were meant to be a storyboard, but, as many projects do, it evolved as it progressed and the photography became the main focus. The book has many layers to it, and some pages have old newspaper clippings covering the quotes, inviting the viewer to physically pull back and uncover the mystery; these are then followed by full bleed images of the empty roads on what looks like a cold winter night, the impossible blue of the sky shining through the darkness. 

The visual journey doesn’t end with the landscapes: scenes of empty rooms, with just a hint of light illuminating the bare space, are coupled with old photos showing similar spaces from the past. A black and white picture shows a life long gone, with household objects stored on top of the refrigerator and clothes hanging on the wall, but the centerpiece of the scene is a stuffed badger looming near the ceiling, looking pensively right at us. On the opposite page, an image of warm afternoon light is superimposed on a black and white portrait of her grandfather from 1972, with nothing but a piece of blue tape holding the two together. Another image shows a dimly lit room with a woman standing with her back to us in front of heavy curtains, with unexplained bluish light leaking in from the outside. Each page turn is a surprise – there is no uniformity in the size or position of the photographs, no predictability to what might be underneath a flap; each page is waiting to be discovered, a mystery to be resolved or maybe forever left a mystery. 

Light and color obviously play a key role in Lax’s images, and the mysterious lights seen and experienced by locals keep reappearing in their accounts of the past, so the two get smartly intermingled. We are left with a series of visual encounters without explanation – of what each is, or what it was, and whether or not it was even real. The only “real” thing is to be found in the way the scenes have been captured – streaks of light cutting through the woods, following roads, illuminating the sky. But the answers are elusive – could the sky really be this color or is this just a skillful manipulation? And does it really matter in this context? 

There are almost no people in this photobook, and the few images that do have humans in them either show them to us from the back, are covered by other images (asking the viewer to uncover them), or show the body with no face, as if was erased by the use of a long exposure or extreme flash. Individuals become silhouettes (or almost ghosts or “aliens”) suggesting a human form but obliterating any personal identity, or blank slates, as though they have been erased. One portrait of a woman shows her sitting awash in golden light, in a double spread as if she were doubled or had an identical twin next to her, with no face, no identity, just presence.

Lax’s project brings to mind another great photobook, Phenomena by a Copenhagen-based photo collective (reviewed here), an in-depth photo chronicle of extraterrestrial enthusiasts and UFO believers. But in the end, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire wants to believethis isn’t a “debunk the UFO sightings” book or a science-based survey of available evidence. It is instead an engagingly spooky monograph that invites the viewer on a startling visual journey with few if any real answers or conclusions. It leaves the door wide open, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the source of the shimmering light in the woods.

Collector’s POV: Maria Lax is represented by Open Doors Gallery in London (here). Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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