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Youth Without Age and Life Without Death by Laura Pannack (2023)

Youth Without Age and Life Without Death by Laura Pannack weaves the narrative of a Romanian folklore into succinct and evocative photos, drawings, and text, that takes the viewer on a full exploration of the Romanian countryside and its aesthetic. As I started turning the pages of this book, I could feel an uneasiness but I couldn’t figure out exactly why. The opening text describes the story of the folklore; a boy is born to a king and queen that promise him youth without age and life without death, as he grows up he marries a princess from a far off land and they live happily for years and years, but when the prince feels it’s time to visit his parents he learns that over 200 years have gone by and he is left with nothing, then he crumbles to dust. The photos in this book showcase an interplay of young people, older people, and old people and they situate the setting as a driving force of the mysticism inherent in the space. Photographs of kids and adults are usually presented in color and the landscape is often black and white. An element of unease and uncanniness that emits from the photos comes from the way the subjects look into the lens of the camera. Throughout the book the images of people straddle the line of portrait and caricature. These are real people but Pannack has a knack of making them look like movie characters or people who may have been plucked from a story. Furthermore, there is this thread, literally, that shows up over and over in these images, inexplicably so. It’s a red thread that is wrapped around the slaughtered pig next to the farm. It is strung around an old lady’s ax. It hangs in an empty room, almost apocalyptically. The thread is a way for the artist to tie the book together but also to show how connected the elements of this town are. 

The other ever present theme is time. Time as in aging, time as in the past and present, time as in decay. Regarding format, Pannack skillfully uses expired film throughout a few spreads right in the middle of the book. In contrast to the first third and the last third of the book, these images taken on expired, dusty, discolored film are printed on rich black paper, with multiple images per page. It’s a very scrapbook-like feel, as if one of the subjects in the beginning or end of the book took these pictures themselves many years ago. There is also text sprinkled throughout the book referencing time and distance, like the formula for speed. There’s images of apples and eggs and animals, referencing birth and growth. There is also a long linearly horizontal image of mountains expressing time passing on a grand scale. This matches the black and white images of the landscape and very strange colored double exposures of a pond and the moon and balloons on a beach. There is one image of dusty and decayed clocks that perhaps feels a little too on the nose. The end of the book features handwritten notes from the artist as she traversed the Romanian towns, talking about places she’s been, people she’s met, thoughts on time and space, drawings and sketches and diagrams. The whole book is a push and pull of reality versus fantasy, and each image (and even drawing and note) could be read as either reality or fantasy and I think that is the success of the book. 

A few images really stand out to me, the first being one of blind man leading a blind horse. Neither creature knows where they’re going, but they have each other and they’ll get there when they get there. The colors are beautiful and muted, foggy and moody like many photos in the book. There’s a landscape image of a grove of lush trees in the background and stark, dead, chopped up stumps in the foreground – this is one of the main themes in one image (with no people or animals at all): all things that live all become death and part of the earth. There is also a great diptych of a scene of familiar men smoking. In one image two men smoke on the left and one man takes a phone call on the far right and in the other image all three men are talking with one’s back to the camera. These two photos back to back imbue humanity into the book, showing these men really living their lives in an organic, somewhat humorous way, standing in contrast to much of the rest of the book. There is still an air of artifice but the implied interaction comes through as more genuine than fake. Although they stand out, the images of these men fall nicely into that tension of reality and fantasy ever present in this work. There is another diptych towards the end of the book where one photo shows a group of mothers holding their babies and the second photo is almost identical but the babies are wiggling and moving. This plays as an even more genuine display of real life than the men smoking and talking.

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