Virginie Rebetez, Out of the blue

JTF (just the facts): Published by Meta/Books in 2016 (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 57 color photographs. With essays by Frédérique Destribats, Elisa Rusca, and Simon Karlstetter. Includes an additional booklet and poster insert. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.) 

Comments/Context: Virginie Rebetez is a Swiss photographer whose work is often focused around the concept of invisibility and the related meaning of absence. What are the traces and marks people leave behind after a death or disappearance? And how can one engage with unfinished stories?

In 2014, Rebetez was doing artist residency in New York City and decided to spend her time investigating the story of a missing person. After searching for a case located in New York state and active for at least ten years, she quickly came across the story of Suzanne Lyall, a nineteen year old girl who mysteriously disappeared on March 2, 1998, during her usual walk from the bus stop to a student dorm in Albany. After 18 years, Suzanne’s case is still unresolved.

Suzanne’s parents, Mary and Doug Lyall, have never stopped searching for their daughter, filling her absence with a combination of grief and hope. In their effort to channel their pain toward something more positive, they have actively worked with local authorities to pass new legislation to reinforce the state’s response when searching for missing persons, and in 2001, they founded the Center for Hope to provide support to the parents of missing children. In the intervening years, Suzanne’s story has become quite well known, and her parents were open to sharing the details with Rebetez.

Out of the blue is a conceptual investigation of Suzanne’s disappearance, delivered in the form of a photobook. It looks into how an archive of materials shapes the memory of a person who goes missing. This space, created by absence, takes shape and form through materiality. The book format helps to emphasize the multiple layers of this complexity, showing us how images function and can be reinterpreted in various contexts.

Rebetez spent significant time with the Lyalls, and they shared with her the trove of documents the family had collected over 18 years of investigation. The book mixes a diverse range of materials – family archives, notes, and helicopter images of the police search, along with extensive correspondence between psychics, family, and police in the form of letters, faxes, emails, maps, and sketches. Rebetez enters the mix with archival photos reprinted and altered by the artist and her own photographs of Suzanne’s belongings, the Lyall’s house, and the area where Suzanne disappeared.

The photobook’s black and white cover is Suzanne’s face as she playfully copied it with a scanner. It is abstract and mysterious, and reflects Suzanne’s fascination with technology; she had a reputation for being a computer wizard before she disappeared. The first three photos in the book are full spread archival images of aerial views from the initial search for Suzanne. They are followed by a backside of Suzanne’s portrait with her own handwriting, and a set of three passport photos of Suzanne with her face cut out, leaving just a fragile frame. Together with images of upstate New York and the Lyall’s home, an elusive, searching atmosphere is set.

Suzanne’s absence is visually reflected in the photobook by her face being constantly obscured – it is never clearly shown, often either cut out or hidden. As Rebetez worked on the project, she arranged the materials in various combinations on her studio wall, which she then rephotographed to create dense collages of archival images, notes, maps and documents. These fragmented selections from the family archive appear in various combinations again and again, and after years of handling, the evidence is worn out, torn apart, faded, and recopied. Each of these “wall images” creates yet another layer of relationships, revealing tenuous connections between the information. As these detail pile up, Suzanne’s absence ultimately becomes even more visible.

Rebetez uses a variety of photographic strategies to build up her narrative. Full spread landscape images around upstate New York and the interior of Lyall’s house add a cinematic dynamic to the visual flow. Formal portraits of Suzanne’s parents looking straight back at us remind us of the very personal impact of the whole story. And the only clear portrait of Suzanne appears outside the book – Rebetez worked with a professional forensic artist to produce three “age-progressed composites” depicting Suzanne’s possible features today at the age of 38 (each book has one of three posters). Placed in the context of the family memories, these images feel disturbing and mournful.

Rebetez is also interested in the conceptual understanding of an image and how its meaning shifts in various contexts. The Lyall’s photo archive went from being a typical family album to the evidence used in a police investigation and the imagery reused for press coverage. Images of Suzanne were also used by psychics, who saw them not as portraits exactly, but as objects that could help them to establish a connection. Over the years, the family was contacted by over 75 psychics offering their help in solving the case, and Rebetez lets that forensic angle spool out onto pink pages at the end of the book, via a selection of documents between psychics, the Lyall family, and police investigators.

Archival exercises like this one are always wrapped up in reimagination, recontextualization, and reconsideration, as the artist edits and molds the original story in new ways. Rebetez’s two year project takes Suzanne’s case beyond the police report and the media coverage, offering a layered approach to the story of a family whose lives are shaped by the absence of a loved one. It shows how we use fragmentary pieces of remaining information to reconstruct the missing identity, and this physicality plays an essential role in the gradual process of acceptance. Pictures and words act like a stand in for the real person, but the pieces of the puzzle never quite coalesce, leaving the central absence cluttered with memories but ultimately unfilled.

Collector’s POV: Virginie Rebetez 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 in the sidebar).

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