Review by Douglas Stockdale •
As we mature it seems that old family photographs become more bittersweet. Or at least these seem to me. We observe that the many individuals depicted have aged, if not passed, and that our memories of them and related events become more indistinct, as though lost in a midst of time. For artist like Laila Nahar, the transitory nature of memory can become more acute and complicated when she no longer lives in the same region or even on the same continent, having been born in Bangladesh and now living in the North American state of California.
In her handmade artists book, I Have Been Here Before, her photographs are paired with her and others’ poetry about self-reflection and the trickiness of memory. Her visual and written narrative circles around the photographic talismans that elicit emotional and memory triggers. The photographs vary from a documentary style capture of a passing event, color fragments of a structure, black and white archival portraits, an impressionist moment, found documents and other places that have a significance to the past. The poetic quality of many of her photographs are wonderful, if not complicated, metaphors for the complex feelings she is attempting to investigate.
For her book title, Nahar draws on the poem Sudden Light by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
I have been here before
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound,
The lights around the shore.
Her photographs are frequently ambiguous, perhaps like memory, not defining a specific place, or even a specific time. These poetic photographs are interspersed with other images that resemble her birthplace far across the ocean. I am reminded of Sean O’Hagan’s article about Roland Barthes’ unseen photograph known as the Winter Garden Photography: “Like all family photographs, indeed all photographic portraits, the Winter Garden Photograph is essentially a tantalizing glimpse of the irretrievable, a cruel reminder of “what has ceased to be”, and like them it evokes a past we often have no lived memory of, but also a sense of our own encroaching mortality.”
This book’s narrative resonates with me as I have found that my own family photographs lack that exactitude that I would hope that these could elicit, regardless of how photo-documentary and ‘realistic’ the image. I can only recall a vague vision or and incomplete and truncated discussion. Perhaps like Barthes, even more confounding are photographs that were created when Nahar was not present: what was this event, conversation and moment that she missed and was not a part of? Is there something still present in this image that triggers a memory, however faint?
This element is what I sense in Nahar’s photographs; that even a documentary photograph of a family event is loaded with missing elements and that our frail memories cannot fill in the all of the gaps. We can also choose how we react to what we do not recall of our precious family moments: sad bittersweet memories or a time to rejoice in things that we do recall. I sense that the memory of past family events weigh heavy on Nahar as this poignant book comes to a dark close, while suspecting that this artist book may also be seeking a way to find closure to both honor her family and assist her to be able to move on.
In closing, I repeat the short poem that Nahar includes from Louise Gluck ‘We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory”
Footnote: Sean O’Hagan, “Looking for Henriette: Roland Barthes’ Tantalizing Mystery”, The Guardian, 2020.
Douglas Stockdale is the Senior Editor (founder) of PhotoBook Journal and a Southern California visual artist, book-nerd and science-geek.
I Have Been Here Before, Laila Nahar
Artist: Laila Nahar, born Khulna, Bangladesh and resides in Folsom, California
Self-published, Folsom, California, copyright 2021
Essays & quotes: Laila Nahar, Louise Gluck, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Hardcover book, hand-bound and archival pigment ink printing by Laila Nahar, edition size of 25.
Photobook Designer: Laila Nahar
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