Pablo Lerma, A Place to Disappear

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Kris Graves Projects (here). Hardcover, 120 pages, with 91 color photographs, both taken by the artist and archival images. Includes a booklet, with text snippets, drawings, vernacular photographs, and other ephemera. In an edition of 300 copies (alternately available in yellow, green, and blue covers). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As human activities, with their destructive inclinations, are dramatically transforming the landscape of the Earth, the once remote prospects of mass extinction don’t sound so utterly imaginary anymore. Environmental issues of various kinds are getting increasingly urgent and extreme, and a number of book makers have creatively explored the twinned subject of humans’ presence and absence from the planet. One of most apocalyptic scenarios of this future was envisioned by Lucy Helton in her book Transmission (reviewed here), and Pablo Lerma, a visual artist and researcher, addresses similar issues in his work. His artistic practice is focused on such topics as time, space, extinction, and memory, and he adds another layer of depth to this subject by researching and collecting vernacular photographs, as well as drawings, illustrations, maps, and geological material, that he interweaves into his thinking.  

For the past four years, Lerma has been working on a project which was recently published as a photobook. A Place to Disappear imagines Earth as a primitive, unpopulated landscape, “a near future, where humans will once again disappear from this planet and return to Earth centuries later”. The book is a research-based project and it thoughtfully mixes the photographs Lerma took in Iceland, Puerto Rico, and the United States with vernacular photographs (from the collections of The New York Public Library and Cornell University) from expeditions that documented these same locations back in the 19th century.

The book has a cloth cover with embossed title and artist’s name; it is available in three colors (yellow, green and blue). In the yellow edition, the endpapers feature an organic formation and a light yellow cast over the image matches the cover creating a welcoming transition. Inside the book, Lerma eagerly plays with the sizes of the photographs and their layout, creating dynamic movement. Some spreads have both images placed on the opposite corners of the page, others offer a vertical sequence of three square shots, or a combination of vertical images (with one of them being extremely vertical and narrow). This approach brings energy and an element of surprise into an otherwise quiet and understated visual flow.    

A high contrast black and white landscape serves as an introduction to the pictures, and is followed by a sequence of sky shots that capture the moment when the light comes through the clouds. Lerma photographs, all shot on film, are carefully crafted, with meticulous attention to composition, framing, and available natural light. They usually capture a single natural element –  rocks, waterfalls, trees, mountains, glaciers, lava fields, sinkholes, deserts, cacti, etc. – highlighting the isolation, serenity, and unforgiving natural beauty of these settings. This utopian land is entirely empty, with no trace of human presence.

One spread pairs a small archival black and white image of a tree growing in a deserted environment, with a bigger square shot of a similar tree. This juxtaposition suggests a connection between time and space, and alludes to the small incremental changes that take place over time. A vertical sequence of three square shots appears in the middle of the book. The images are placed close to the edge of the right page and document the flow of the water as it breaks on the rocks as the tide changes. Watching the sequence unfold, we can almost imagine the photographer patiently waiting for this transformation to occur. The bold use of archival images smartly complements Lerma’s own photographs, creating connections on various levels: visual, emotional, and conceptual. The book’s rather open-ended visual narrative and the absence of descriptive captions encourages the viewer to bring his or her own interpretation and imagination to the flow.  

A separate booklet titled “Guide for Disappeared Places” offers a selection of archival images, drawings, maps, and texts, adding a more overtly archeological layer to the narrative. Among the visual elements are a map of Iceland dated to 1603, postcards depicting Mojave Desert (1898-1931), as well as definitions of resonant words like landscape, lost, and disappear pulled from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. This carefully curated collection of documents and tangential ideas reveals Lerma as an artist meticulously researching and connecting layers related to his project, making extensive links between archives and the human memories they represent.

A Place to Disappear ends with another perhaps optimistic sequence of several photographs of clouds in the sky. The very last photograph is a small archival black and white shot depicting a glacier mill, and there is a possible shadow of a man on top of it, as if hinting that there is still hope for this world. Lerma’s parade of sober natural observations invites us to slow down and “disappear” into this uninhabited version of our world, where we can consider the absence in the images and connect it to our collective memories, and perhaps imagine a different future.

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

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Skinnerboox (here). Softcover with Swiss binding, 24 x 28 cm, 108 pages, with 40 black-and-white reproductions and 14 contact sheet pages. Includes ... Read on.

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