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Landin’s profoundly intense tableaux—most often featuring figures that might be herself, but are, in fact her daughter (“To me,” she says, “they’re self-portraits.”)—render a shadow world, a place on the verge of waking, where the self is most solitary, vulnerable, and open to realities of the spirit. Radically different than such Surrealist photographs as Maurice Tabard’s 1929 Hand and Woman or Man Ray’s 1933 Monument to de Sade, Landin’s images offer not instances of the eroticized male gaze, but rather one woman’s experience from within, captured with grace, tenderness, and sometimes, as Landin notes, “bone-deep sorrow.”
One reviewer speaks of Landin’s images in the context of New Age spirituality, but it seems more accurate to situate her photographs alongside those of such fiercely independent clairvoyants as Sally Mann (who has written, “When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths ‘told slant,’ just as Emily Dickinson commanded.”); French-Canadian Alix Cleo Roubaud (whose mysterious “self-portraits in a room” concentrate, as one critic puts it, “the inarticulate silence of the world”); and Guatemalan Luis Gonzalez Palma (creator of complex images – “tinged,” writes Rossina Cazali, “with the colors of the absurd”—that help us understand the deepest realities of life in Central America). But Landin can claim her closest kinship with two other photographers, both American, who succeeded in capturing on film truly singular visions: Landin shares with Kentucky visionary Ralph Eugene Meatyard a taste for the spectral (Landin’s ghostly figures, her wings and hearts rhyme with Meatyard’s masks and blurred faces; (the ability to imply a narrative, in poet Wendell Berry’s words, “as elaborate as that of any novel” but for which “the plot is not in evidence” (Landin speaks of her images as “stories without beginning or end”); and a love for settings that are, in Landin’s words, “desolate, peeling, abandoned.”
Like certain movie directors, Landin uses a small circle of friends and family to chart the grammar and vocabulary of her language, her cinema. Familiarity with these recurring elements allows her a more fluid entry into various narratives. In her work, the individual is everything while individual identity is nothing. The actors, the figures, in her dramas are so alone so as to be universal.
Landin only recently discovered the work of Francesca Woodman (who died a suicide at age 22 in 1981), but there is an undeniable sympathy between the two photographers’ bodies of work. Both offer ambiguous, lyrical, “angelic” images. Both seem intent, as Gianni Romano writes of Woodman, on utilizing “the female body to develop…self-knowledge and not some representative but generic model of the world.” And both have created, as in the title of Woodman’s first book, unforgettable “disordered interior geometries.”
Largely self-taught, save for one class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studies with a photographer-friend who taught her to see “with my heart,” Nancy Landin works intuitively, “primitively.” “Of every photograph I make, there’s a place that looks like this in the deepest part of me,” she says. “I find myself there unexpectedly, and the going there can only be reached without thought…My images are my voice, sometimes a whisper, sometimes, not.”
Nancy Landin’s astonishing photographs,
meditations on solitude, rich in compassion and mystery, linger in the
memory for days, utterly compelling.