Written review by
Associate Curator, International Center of Photography
Elna Sondergaard Elna’s portfolio is a very delicate one, very thoughtful, feminine, and moving.
I am particularly attracted to her mirror series – which is why I will start with the other ones, that are weaker photographs. These other portraits (1, 2, 4) are perhaps a little too posed, too simple. It is a combination of too much self-awareness on the subjects’ part and of too much hesitation on Elna’s part – her personal visual quest is too obvious, too visible, too transparent. In fact, in those portraits, especially the first one, there seems to be no “filter” at all, and by “filter” I don’t mean physical ones but emotional ones: it is at the same time to raw and too artificial. The first image is very awkward, for instance, composition wise: the light on the right bothers the eye, while the subject on the left is too self-conscious. She is also too close to us, too close to the lens, there is not enough distance.
The same applies to portraits 2 and 4: in a very different way and style, color instead of black and white, blur instead of focus, the woman is too close, the result is fake. Portraits 9 and 5 are good, but a little too anecdotal - the mirror effect saves them but not completely, they are still a little bit too posed, too obvious. And yet, the mediation of the mirror helps them by giving them this other dimension, the dimension that helps the viewer dream a little and imagine a story within (and beyond) the photograph.
To me, these mirror portraits are photographs of oblivion, a beautiful way to render the blur and poetry of memory, or memories, or lack of thereof. I appreciate that Elna decided to focus on this one mirror, making it her main subject matter, the medium to convey a story and a feeling, developing her series as a metaphor, a sensitive and sensible reflection about time, life, and death. I see it as a truly beautiful rendering of human beings’ aging process: slowly, memories fade out, they become pixelated, reduced to minuscule particles, and they finally turn into a gigantic, vertiginous black hole where men get lost, imprisoned.
This impression is particularly well rendered in portraits 6 and 7, the most tragic of the series. These photographs also convey a tragic sense of incommunicability. Interestingly enough, portrait 8 is beautiful in a much lighter way, a much more lively way: it renders a beautiful floating feeling of femininity, lightness of being, and hope. The subject is at a perfect distance and her gaze is inviting us into the photograph, into the mirror. The composition is perfect, too: no artificial blur, just particles subtly sprinkled on top, adding romantic mystery and wit, and fantasy, to an otherwise classic portrait.
It is interesting to note that with the same subject matter and the same artifact, Elna made two completely different portraits (portraits 8 and 9): perhaps because 6, 7 and 8 are in color, they are less gimmicky. Perhaps a visual comment about time and memory needs to be in color: time is happening, now - mercilessly, say portraits 6 and 7; joyfully, says portrait 8. And the quality of these portraits stems from the fact that they tell us a universal story, one that is much greater than the subject we are looking at. Quite a wonderful timing for such a Proustian production…
In the future, I would encourage Elna to pursue her personal quest and her visual treatment of time, and memory. Somehow I think she expresses herself more skillfully and profoundly in color, and she should keep on searching for the right distance between herself and her subject matters.