Melissa Lazuka, Song of the Cicadas

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2018 (here). Handmade, hardcover leporello, unpaginated, with nine black-and-white photographs and one Polaroid by the artist, as well as one tintype and six found photographs (all vernacular), 6 x 4 inches. Includes antique papers, text -, page-, and cover-fragments from vintage children’s books. In a series of twenty-five numbered, handmade, unique editions of 1. Designed by Melissa Lazuka. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One night, during the early summer months of 2016, at a depth of about eight inches, the soil in northeast Ohio exceeded the temperature of 64°F. When Melissa Lazuka woke the following morning, her family home, as well as its surrounding bushes and trees were covered with an uncountable number of caramel-colored bugs. Crawling out of the ground, where they had grown for the past seventeen years, these periodical cicadas had emerged to complete their lives as adults – to molt one last time, procreate, and, ultimately, die. For a few weeks, their buzzing sound permeated the air, while their shed wings and abandoned exoskeletons dispersed over the property.

Lazuka had been photographing her children well before the cicadas’ arrival – and their resulting walks in the woods to collect the insects’ strangely tender residues. The beauty of hindsight, however, is that it can bestow serendipitous events with purpose and meaning. More an allusion than a direct reference, Lazuka’s Song of the Cicadas captures and speaks to the fleeting moments of those summer months of 2016. It originates from an act of translation, when the cicadas’ left-behind wings became a metaphor for childhood.

Merging the bearings of a journal and a children’s book, Song of the Cicadas takes the form of a handmade leporello, combining Lazuka’s photographs with antique papers; old photographs, postcards, and ferrotypes – found at flea-markets and thrift stores; as well as actual children’s books, their dismantled covers and torn-out pages. With its creases and uneven margins, its ragged edges and rough texture, the book looks antiquated and worn, and has the feel of a family album, long forgotten and accidently rediscovered. Pulling it from its tiny jute-bag and opening its weighty accordion-folds, the request is gentle, yet obvious: “handle with care” – but more importantly, “handle with time.”

Beginning with the cover, each edition of Lazuka’s book embeds a unique visual and tactile experience. And while the series Song of the Cicadas draws from the same body of work and overall themes – such as time’s passing, fragility, childhood, and nature – the individual images, their sequencing, as well as the ephemera used, are singular to each copy. My copy (number 3) is subtitled “This bright beautiful earth”, an excerpt from a larger text that remains secret (not just to you, but me as well) and is paired with a small photograph taken from the ground-level of a forest. Like an opening curtain, fallen leaves frame the scenery and fade into the blurry path of a small clearing, with towering trees in the background.

Lazuka’s delicate black-and-white images make up the main body of “This bright beautiful earth” (as they do with each edition of the book). One to a panel, they are paired with or glued upon other photographs, found images, papers, and text fragments. My book opens with the close-up of a child’s face. I decide that she is a girl. Her eyes are closed and the sun falls on her bare shoulders, which seem so tiny they are at odds with her poised, almost grown-up, expression. I read “1. This burning log grew long ago as a tree in the woods.” The text continues across the next panel, but is blocked both by the girl’s image and a faded Polaroid depicting skinny trees; so, I return to the first panel and read “2. The rain fell softly upon its tender leaves”, the text is broken again and continues in fragments, “the air sprites called their . . . are! Come out, and . . . ”. I move on to other photographs, in-and-out of focus, including a boy and girl running across a field, arms spread as if they were airplanes; then they squat in a stream or on the grass; observing things that I can’t see; surrounded by leaves, or turned away. Yet, no matter how long I look, I can never fully grasp the little people these images capture. Intimate in size and quotidian in content – Lazuka’s photographs freeze everyday moments of children, exploring and playing, hiding and on their own – which is precisely why I like them. There is a softness to them that is as much part of Lazuka’s gaze as of her photographic techniques. Multiple exposures and free-lensing – the use of old lenses which she intentionally “broke”, then held them, disconnected from her digital camera, and focused manually – create the blurry, sometimes dreamy, effects.

Unlike many photobooks, the strength of Song for the Cicadas lies not only in the images themselves, but how they merge with the other elements, the resonances they create. There is, for instance, a tintype of a little girl, who sits so otherworldly on her chair that, somehow, it seems plausible that viewers of early photographs mistook their subjects for ghosts. Or the found photograph – a postcard, likely – of an old mansion standing stoically in a late-summer light. Even if I could, I am not sure I would enter, or rather remain outside to keep looking. And then there are images of unknown origin, obscured, covered by another – as if history was a sheet of paper, too close or too far away to distinguish from the continual layers of the present. Together these elements provide Lazuka’s images with a kaleidoscopic backdrop and context, converging the atmosphere of the Brother’s Grimm, Alice in Wonderland, and something unapologetically personal. As a result, Song of the Cicadas has no traditional narrative. Instead, like the leporello itself, the story meanders through sensations, memories and moods that feel as old as the urge to tell stories itself.

The importance of layering, both physically and symbolically, becomes more evident when Lazuka’s describes her “organic and intuitive” process of bookmaking. “The most difficult part is finding the right flow of images, texts, and vintage parts.” In part, because she does not first lay-out the sequence, but puts it “together like a puzzle.” As a result, Song of the Cicadas has no traditional narrative. “Trial and error until something triggered something and I saw it could work. I make quite a mess making these books . . . paper and photographs everywhere . . . but somehow it comes together.”

Lazuka came to photography on a backroad. Holding a degree in English and a passion for writing, she planned to be a writer but, in the end, in her early twenties, became a mother of three. For her thirtieth birthday, she was gifted a camera, and realized that one could also “poetry with photographs.” What started as “an obsession” slowly turned into an ambitious practice, while being a full-time homemaker.

Song of the Cicadas, or rather Lazuka’s photographs, have been compared to Keith Carter’s Fireflies – and to a monochromatic Cig Harvey. Another photographer who comes to mind, when thinking of mothers portraying their children, is Sally Mann – though, not for the correlation between Mann’s and Lazuka’s images, but for the bravery both women reveal in taking their type of images. While Mann lovingly pinpoints the ambiguity, sexuality, awkwardness, and, at times, even cruelty of daily-life, Lazuka directs her camera to ordinary, less conflicting moments – the pervasive, yet overlooked, treasures of the domestic.

What I find so compelling about Song of the Cicadas, especially considering its tender, dreamlike images, and its rough, handmade design, is that it Lazuka could have easily fallen into the trap of kitsch or the ubiquitous documentations of kids à la Instagram. But she doesn’t. Like Mann, yet different in sensibility, Lazuka’s images openly admit that they exist precisely because she is staying at home and with her children.  In doing so, her book pays tribute not just to motherhood, but to women who observe: their immediate surroundings, their offspring, as well as themselves. There is magic and mystery, secrecy and sadness, melancholy and love, all coming together into a marvelous little object, that, despite its efforts to preserve, stingily reminds you, that nothing is supposed to last.

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

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