Elis Hoffman. Fading

A book review by Sabin Bors

In the Photography Series

“For me, people are at their most beautiful when they are brave enough to show their vulnerability,” says Elis Hoffman in Fading, after the viewer has already browsed through the images of frailty and impermanence. Echoes of Hoffman’s words hunt both Carl-Henning Wijkmark’s short note on Fading and Peggy Sue Amison’s “Everything Fades,” [1] laying emphasis on the photographer’s serene observations around the frail thresholds of life, death, and the fading repetition of everything in between. “Using photography,” says Amison, “[Elis Hoffman] studies and documents the traces of energetic ephemera that ripple our from the wake of lived experiences as he ponders how our consciousness and identity are formed by the obstacles and struggles we encounter throughout the arc of our lifetime.” Hoffman’s curiosity and fascination with how experience shapes human existence may indeed reflect the photographer’s quest to finding answers to deepest questions and understanding what lies at the heart of our existence, but Fading is also a metaphor of how our lives are haunted and hunted by the spectrum of the unseen. What Walter Benjamin has once called the “optical unconscious,” [2] that is, the power of photography to reveal the unseen, also brings back the haunting spectrum of loss. Fading is as much about the transitory moments of our lives, as about the rituals of self-apprehension and the resigned comprehension that the boundaries between life and death reflect on our power to accept, bear, and embrace the ephemeral for all that it erases. If Hoffman is a “witness to these events with a direct and honest gaze that leaves the viewer with a sense of understanding, but without fully knowing what lies behind these vignettes that illustrate lives and what is left behind,” [3] he is also a hunter of the unsettling power by which nature confronts us with our most fragile selves.

Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

While the book opens with an aerial, almost contemplative view, it closes deep within the lonely shadows of an earthy setting, not before the photographer offers a glimpse into a jocund scene, echoing the never-ending cycle of life and death, and the elusive boundaries between familiar and unfamiliarity. More than documents, Hoffman’s series should be seen as photographic objects that capture the essence of timely, sensitive experiences only to inspire an instinctual understanding of what the photographs show us. There is a certain materiality and substantiality in the colour palette the photographer employs, the earthy mist and damp atmosphere that seem to enshroud the scenes, together with “the deafening silence that accompanies ultimate endings and change.” [4] They render frailty and intensity in a delicate balance, observant of the dark corners of consciousness and the spectrums hidden within the human psyche. Shadows enshroud Hoffman’s photographs to produce a friable contrast and dramatic tones that reflect a psychological domain. Foregrounds are imbued with airy silhouettes focusing the viewer’s attention to the moodiness of the image; they reveal pitted surfaces and textures, autumnal moods and fraught apices, in a romantic view of the fading life that challenges the viewer to appreciate the momentum of quiet anxieties and deaths, or the mouldering rust that lays the gravity of time.

Amison has made a strong case in her essay of how photography results as self-portrait of sorts. “The nature of photography produces a mirror of the maker,” who documents his chosen narratives and discovers unexpected aspects of himself at the same time. Like an archaeologist, Hoffman investigates these ravaged scenes “teasing out the answers to his own deeper philosophical questions” and thus create images that “are as much about him as an artist and a person, as they are about his subjects.” Elis had never traveled to these small rural towns around Sweden and didn’t meet the people prior to taking the photographs, but the strangers “also make up the vital elements of a very personal journey – a soul searching walkabout.” [5] It is chance that brings the season of encounters, and it is often accident that brings the season of departures. But these are also narratives of fading times and fading rituals. In the municipalities of Malmberget and Skellefteå especially, the first a major site for the extraction of iron ore, the latter a historically industrial city based on large gold mining, the rusty scenes may well be mouldering ruins at the twilight of life and twilight of an age.

Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

Everywhere in Hoffman’s photographs, a penetrating sense of togetherness binds nature, people, and animals, who all share the same fading fate. Observant of ephemeral moments and evanescent nature of matter, the photographer has also eyed everyday rituals and the simplicity of people living here. Their artlessness is arresting and seems to stand as a dignified posture against the overwhelming tides of time. A deer lying dead in the grass, old people who seem to bethink the past in the sheer intensity of the moment, the portrait of a deer hanging ragged on a wall, funeral moments and pictures of binding separations – these narratives and details express the chastely compassion of those who in a moment of respite confront the timeline of their lives. One aspect in particular that traverses many of Hoffman’s photographs is the depiction of hunting-related scenes and its symbolic gravity. Hunting is all about the haunting spirits; its symbolism lies both in the killing of the animal, which is also a metaphor for the destruction of ignorance and evil tides, and in searching for the prey, which is in fact a spiritual quest. Like those photographed, Hoffman is a soul who persistently hunts for the moment and the haunting spectres that may never reveal themselves, treading in people’s and animals’ steps to come closer to the vanishing moments. Hunting is a means to arrest the moment and arrive at the divine virtue of capturing what is untameable and insuppressible, but it is also a longing to push ever further away the limits of the encompassing chaos which, in the guise of a wild animal, continues to linger at the borders of our organised world. For all its symbolism and religious act, hunting is nevertheless of great social relevance, offering a different relation with nature and the wild kingdoms; it is a ritualistic desacralisation of the fields before tillage, when wild animals are chased away from the wastes. Unsurprisingly then, it is at the same time a test of our inner strength and virtue, a manifestation of the Unseen, and the ordering of life cycles. Fading is the photograph of the privileged moments when we dare to see and sense closeness and intimacy through all the separations and reign divisions, when distance brings together and the unfamiliar is nestled ever closer to us.

Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

As Amison notes, Fading is an exploration about the simple facts: “Seasons change; leaves fall from the trees and die, winter moves in – everything is constantly fading. Spring arrives, restoring life and as quickly as new seedlings emerge, fading begins again. Each second ends as it begins. […] Everything does fade, but while we are here, there are tremendous moments of connection to discover that which will not be easily forgotten.” [6] The succession of seasons inscribes the rhythm of life, the periods of a life cycle: birth, growth, maturity, decline – it is the humans’ rhythm of life, but also a rhythm of societies, civilisations, with their rise and fall, all breaking down and dissolving in the gulping earth. It is not by chance, however, that Hoffman has insisted on photographing animals, deer especially. As archetype, the animal is the embodiment of the most profound strata of our consciousness and unconscious, the crude force and manifestation of the material and the spiritual. Undifferentiated, primitive and instinctive, fragile and agile – the deer is a graceful reflection of what is not fully disclosed, either because of moral censorship, or because of fear, psychological weakness, and a feeling of inferiority. A strong and negative animus, its lively eyes are like a mirror for one’s own purity and insecurity. But, as evidenced in Hoffman’s photographs, here lies our greatest strength: the power to accept, to grasp, and to embosom our fragility and vulnerability, and restore their dignity in front of the insensible passage of time. We can understand hunt and the hunt for life either as a spiritual quest in search of the divine, or as the insatiate thirst for sensible pleasure, vassals to its indefinite repetitions; but one can also seize its meaning as a most personal and frail attempt to resist the wild instincts and anxieties, to preserve a quiet order of the everyday, and understand our intimate connection with the immediate surroundings.

Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.

An unconscious ecology is revealed in Fading. Elis Hoffman’s photography is a reflection of an inner equilibrium that retrieves our most human essence and redeems all kingdoms. Like life itself, hunting is a place of isolation where one confronts himself. At its autumnal peak, the rhythm of life reflects how man’s dominance and power over nature are but a feeble attempt to survive the tides of time. Amidst all the haunting shadows, Fading reveals the really beautiful things that occur when one holds for a moment to observe: the wind blows away the mist, motion continues to surface dead bodies and forgotten memories, blurry phantoms offer a glimpse into the unseen as if in a gesture of assurance and protection. Experiences always prove to be more beautiful and more serene when we give in and let nature take its course, when we acknowledge the incurability of chance to find reconcilement in the hollow hopes, memories, or dreams of others. And while we need to believe that something lasts as we embrace the unexpected, the true virtue that lies at the end of our journey is perhaps to discover within each and every last one of us the power to let go.

– May 26, 2015

Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
Elis Hoffman, Untitled. Image © Elis Hoffman. Used here by kind permission from Kehrer Verlag. All right reserved.
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