Review by Steve Harp •
I visited Albania in 2009. Until opening – slowly – to Western tourism in the mid-1990s, Albania had been known as the most tightly closed, inaccessible country in Europe, a blank spot on the map, even after the fall of the East bloc. So imagine my wonderment, while walking one night on the boardwalk in Saranda, looking out across the strait separating Albania from the Greek island of Corfu, as the Dire Straits song, Sultans of Swing, began to play from public loudspeakers.
This memory returned in looking at Chris Suspect’s 2020 self-published monograph Old Customs. This book is described on Suspect’s website as “explor[ing] the idea of freedom and youth tethered to history, all in the style of a modern-day fairy tale filled with beauty, magic, myth, and mystery.” The book documents the Romanian vacation town of Vama Veche, located on the Black Sea at the border of southeast Romania and northeast Bulgaria.
Vama Veche, we learn in Suspect’s brief concluding text, translates literally as “old customs,” a strange name for a village which has long had a reputation as “an oasis of freedom far from the prying eyes of Ceausescu” and the repressive agencies of the Romanian communist state. According to Suspect’s text, Vama Veche was a colony of writers, poets and intellectuals, mingling utopically with the locals while “discuss[ing] philosophy and playing folk music while sunbathing in the nude . . . a place of open-mindedness and tolerance.” What’s not to like?
In Suspect’s images, we are given endless blue skies, scantily or unclad young, beautiful bodies, makeshift, temporary structures, cavorting dogs, carefree play, and the sea. Always the sea. In his text, Suspect also refers to Romanian folklore and fairy tales and the Romanian legend of Sanzienele – in which “beautiful nymphs . . . with bright yellow flowers dance naked or in white dresses near lonely cliffs, remote sea-sides and sunny meadows. They have magical powers . . . [and] when they sing, gold pours forth from their mouths.” These are magical figures bringing prosperity, fertility and health, appearing most often at the Summer Solstice in late June, figures of pre-Christian, pagan tradition. In Suspect’s images, he translates this magic visually through the presence of mirrors, masks and glare, significantly obliterating and veiling the faces of his “Sanzienele.”
The book is separated into six sections. The first, third and fifth sections seem to present a more contemporary, communal (or commune-like) environment of beach-life, temporary accommodations and bacchanalia. The second, fourth and final sections are visually quieter, depicting, Suspect’s text implies, the beauty of the Sanzienele, as (for the most part) individual nude forms in the landscape. Prominent also in these sections are other suggestions of nature: deep blue skies, the sea, animals – mostly birds in flight but dogs also. Each section is separated by a full page (recto-verso) intricate design, “derived from traditional nineteenth-century Romanian patterns.” These patterns are not simply decorative, we are told, but “serve as a secret language known only to the people of the region from which they originated.”
Secrets and secrecy, in fact, is suggested from the moment the viewer initially picks up the book. The cover image is wrapped in a translucent dust jacket on which is imprinted in gold, the title and author name in a Kogaion font. The Kogaion font, the developer, Florin Florea’s website tells us, is “a Romanian archaic font inspired by the Cyrillic letters used in Romania around 1800.” While the font not only “makes strange” the Latin letters used in Western languages, the dust jacket also obscures the cover image, one of Suspect’s “nymphs” whose face is washed out by glare in the photograph, and whose nude form is, at the same time, both on display and visually inaccessible.
The idea of a “secret language” becomes a problematic indication as to how to read the images presented here, no doubt deliberately so. Clearly (Suspect tells us), Vama Veche was an open secret even during the Ceausescu years, a place of no-secrets, purportedly both exposed and timeless within this most secretive (and surveilled) time. By juxtaposing the hallmarks of tradition (the mythic Sanzienele and their golden songs, themselves a counterpart of the tightly-woven patterns with their obscure indigenous origins and meanings) with the supposed “new” of the first post-Communist generation, we are asked to use these current images to explore the limits of our collective need for the sort of continuity that myth provides. The power and the irony of the book’s title, Old Customs, are both referenced in this series of images, through which past and present are mythologized alike.
Yet in its efforts both to celebrate the reach of mythic resonance and the explosion of novelty within it, Suspect’s images speak louder than his words, revealing what is, perhaps, an implicit (or secret?) wish to be able to separate out the old from the new, myth from “reality,” in some clear way, to appreciate the uniqueness of Vama Veche, and to demonstrate the capacity of myth to provide a timeless thread that can bind Romania’s present to its past. What the images show, however, is a more complex story, in which Vama Veche is portrayed as a town tinged in mourning, its worn and crowded emptiness a shadow of the oasis it imagines itself to be. The images here testify to myth’s fluidity, at once specific and universal, infiltrated by a novelty that is mythic in itself (no American of a certain age would read these without recalling 1967’s “summer of love,” with its anti-authoritarian, communal, “free love” ethos playing out in beautiful, sunny California, nor of the signs of creeping homogenization and commercialism upon the Vama Veche landscape).
Which takes me back to my opening memories from Albania – the perception (on the part of this Western viewer) of the encroachment of the mythically “decadent West” into former strongholds of “socialism.” Indeed, all of these speculations on my part, of course, are based on myth – the myths we all carry within us and apply to our encounters with worlds we don’t know. The myths of Old Customs, it seems to me, have less to do with the Sanzienele than with the idea of myth as a fantasied (or defensive) attempt to grasp what is distinctive in this beguiling and seductive human truth, in which order and chaos wrestle in the waves of a place we are always attempting to call home.
Old Customs, Chris Suspect
Photographer: Chris Suspect, born in the Philippines, currently residing Hyattsville, MD
Self-published, Chris Suspect, copyright 2020
Essay: Chris Suspect
Stiffcover book, perfect binding. Cover: 130lb Finch Fine iD Bright White Smooth (texts printed on translucent book jacket), inside pages: 100lb Finch Fine Bright White Smooth matte papers. Printed and bound in USA.
Photobook designer: Chris Suspect
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