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The Mark of Abel

Photographs by Lydia Panas, Essay by George Slade

Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to feature this gallery in support of Lydia Panas' The Mark of Abel, a monograph of the photographer's color portraits published by Kehrer Verlag in 2012. For more information about this publication and to order a copy for your personal collection, visit


One of this medium’s naïve yet enduring tropes is that the photograph steals souls. That somehow, in the process of securing an image on film or pixels, the lens collects a bit of psychic patina, aural projection, or whatever you believe physically constitutes the soul. Most of us, today, would agree that this is unlikely. Our souls seem relatively safe from photographers. Agnostics, atheists, and avid believers of all stripes are immune from the shutter-snapping tsunami. Unless we determine that society as a whole is increasingly “soul-less” and start searching for causes, photography might actually be implicated — who really knows how we lose our souls, outside of Faustian bargains with Beelzebub at the crossroads.

All of this meandering about souls seems justified in the company of Lydia Panas’ photographs, which seem uncommonly laden with soul, more than their fair share. The striking thing about her work, however, is that she and her subjects seem to have turned the old trope on its head. Looking at these photographs may cause you to lose your soul. The mesmerizing gazes, frank self-presentation, and utter absorption in the photographic exchange propels Panas’ standers (can’t accurately call them sitters, can we?) from within their contained frame and through the fourth wall of spectatorship into a discomfiting engagement within our space of viewing. Another impossibility, of course, but who hasn’t felt the gaze of a portrait subject push through the photographic membrane and grab some part of us?

These are, then, empowered people, a condition Panas has bestowed upon them in the act of photographing. She has ennobled without hyperbole. None of these people are regal, and many seem profoundly self-absorbed. Even in groups, the sense of individuality prevails. But every person is esteemed by Panas’ photography, presented to us as the most exquisite visions of themselves.

It was said of Alfred Stieglitz that he exercised some mesmeric power over his subjects. That, short of hypnotism, there could be no other explanation for why his photographs seemed to reveal invisible truths. To debunk this notion Stieglitz responded by photographing clouds, subject matter over which he could wield no power prior to the exposure. Panas probably hasn’t hypnotized her subjects, either, but she seduces viewers into believing that unseeable things — life stories, emotions, even thoughts — are evident in her photographs.

While there is simplicity in Panas’ project, it has the kind of motive force that sweeps waves of meaning and density with it. Like the best fairy tales, they happen in the woods and are loaded with aspects of myth and dream. As noted earlier, these images have an aura of frieze (or, “freeze,” if you will) about them. They create a dwelling within the photographic frame, in that indeterminate space that is a photograph. It is a space of perception and intuition. It is a space that, instead of affording us the comfort of distance, draws us in to questions of presence — a personal space that enmeshes us in gaze. Having had these encounters, can we say we have learned anything? The lessons may be inchoate, hidden from view, but the experience of meeting Lydia Panas’ photographs is nonetheless vivid.

“State of Nature: Encountering Lydia Panas Deeper in the Woods” essay and excerpt copyright © 2011 George Slade. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission of the author strictly forbidden.

Lydia Panas is an award- winning photographer whose work has been exhibited widely throughout the United States and internationally. Her work is on view this year, in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize Exhibition 2012 at the National Gallery in London. Lydia was one of nine artists selected by Houston FotoFest curators for the prestigious International Discoveries Exhibition in 2007, and has won First Prize for the Publisher’s Choice Singular Image at CENTER, Santa Fe, NM. Her work is included in numerous collections, including Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Brooklyn Museum; and Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. Lydia has degrees from Boston College, the School of Visual Arts, and New York University/International Center of Photography. She has also received a Whitney Museum Independent Study Fellowship. Her first monograph, The Mark of Abel, was released in the United States in March 2012, and was named one of PDN’s Books of 2012 as well as a Top Ten Coffee Table Book by the Daily Beast.

George Slade is a photography historian, writer, consultant, and curator based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Most recently he was the curator and program manager at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston. In 2008, as an adjunct assistant curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he oversaw the installation and presentation of the Museum of Modern Art’s major traveling retrospective of Lee Friedlander’s photography. He was the artistic director and chief curator of the Minnesota Center for Photography from 2003 to 2008 and directed the McKnight Foundation Artist Fellowships for Photographers Program from 1998 to 2008. In 2007 he was awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for a project linking archival photographs and personal reflection. Slade contributes regularly to photo-eye books, and can be found on-line as re:photographica. His essay on Lydia Panas is one of four he wrote in 2011 to accompany photographers’ monographs.

Posted on Saturday, February 11, 2012.


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