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It is surely one of the most inspiring photo projects of this spring: starting from an unseen photograph, mentioned by the author Roland Barthes in the book that has today become a standard of photography theory, Camera Lucida, Odette England launched a request within the photo community. The response was enormous, and the outcome can now be discovered in this complex and well-designed photo book.

The French literary theoretician, Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980), published Camera Lucida shortly before he passed away; it was a book that was to influence generations of photographers and photo scientists. It is not a dry book on theory, because the author combines systematic observations concerning the perception of photography, with occasional, intimate accounts. For Barthes, the associative book was also a kind of mourning process, as he had lost his mother a short while before, after spending most of his life with her. In the second half of his discourse on media theory, the author described a childhood photo of his mother, Henriette, that was to become legendary and known as the Winter Garden Photograph: “there I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it. The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days. My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother seven. [...] I studied the little girl and at least rediscovered my mother.” However, this is the only picture that does not appear in the whole volume.

Odette England, herself an artist and photographer, developed her brilliant idea while occupying her time with Camera Lucida, during a stay in the former home of Harry Callahan in Providence in 2017: “I knew that if I was going to do something about this image, it had to be a visual lead rather than textual one, because Camera Lucida has plenty of words to describe Barthes' object.”

Her request to colleagues, curators, critics and friends, to help her with the idea and send her visual interpretation or contemporary association with Barthes' Winter Garden photograph, quickly did the rounds. The responses were numerous: from still lifes, landscape images and many different portraits, of course; from Polaroids, snapshots and rediscovered photos, all the way to current pieces of work and reflective texts. Nearly 200 responses to the unseen photograph are presented in this photo book. The outcome is an extremely stimulating reflection on the medium of photography as well as its various forms and procedures. A collective tribute that is also housed in a noteworthy book design. Different paper sizes organise the sequence of pictures and texts. Which author is responsible for which contribution only becomes known at the very end: a who's who of today's photo scene. Even so the viewer will undoubtedly develop his or her own associations when browsing through the book.

In addition to the book, the outcome of England's great idea is to be turned into an exhibition as well. A first presentation of the Winter Garden Photography Project is planned for September in the Houston Center for Photography. (Ulrich Rüter)

Odette England (ed.)
Keeper of the Hearth. Picturing Roland Barthes' Unseen Photograph.
With a foreword by Charlotte Cotton, as well as essays by Douglas Nickel, Lucy Gallun and Phillip Prodger. Design: Cara Buzzell. 320 pages with around 200 images. 24 x 28.5 cm, English.

Schilt Publishing
© Kelli Connell
© Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber/ClampArt Gallery, New York
© John Houck
© Shawn Michelle Smith
© Terri Weifenbach/Blitz Gallery, Tokyo
© Grace Lau
© Rosalind Fox Solomon/Bruce Silverstein Gallery
© Andy Mattern/Elizabeth Houston Gallery

Odette England

The Australian-British artist was born in 1975, studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and got her PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra. She often uses family photos in her artistic work. She is an Assistant Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2015, she was a finalist for the Australian Photo Book of the Year Award for her monograph Lover of Home. She is the curator of her Winter Garden Photograph Project, which, following the publication of the photo book, is now planned as an exhibition.

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