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Art Photobook Reviews

Empty Forest by Nanouk Prins

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

What is it about sad songs?

On occasion they can remind you that you are not alone, an arm around a shoulder, or a friend in a time of need. Yet other times they can be confirmation that you may be right after all and that the swirling darkness and feelings of isolation are very real and for a while at least, you are going to have to deal with this by yourself. Emotions are powerful things and when stroked and manipulated by those that know what they are doing the end result can be both devastating and liberating. The best sad songs - for better or worse - stay with you.

“In 1909, a young mother called Emma Hauck was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg (Germany). She was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. Emma would pass away in an asylum in Wiesloch 11 years later. By that time a collection of letters was found in the archives of the Heidelberg hospital. All of these letters were written obsessively to her husband Michael, begging him to collect her. Most of her letters are written with overlapping words. Some read “herzensschatzi komm’ (darling come) over and over; others only repeat the words, ‘komm, komm, komm’ (come) thousands of times. The letters were never sent…” Artist's site

Before I had even viewed a single frame of Empty Forest I knew that I was about to see something quite special. It seemed certain that if Prins had the ability to move us visually with the same degree of power that had been done with just these few simple paragraphs, then the images themselves promised to be a truly moving experience and it really is.

Hauck’s loneliness and isolation, her sense of being trapped and abandoned haunt each and every page. A series of serene portraits, a modern manifestation of the tragic figure appear at points along the way. A sadness as deep as an ocean emanating from the darkness of her eyes.

In reality her living nightmare can only be hinted at. At best one can only hope that there will have been times where she may not even have been aware of her situation. At worst the knowledge that her incarceration in this “garden of earthly delights” would have been sanctioned by those she most loved and trusted would have been incomprehensible. The definition of terrifying and one which would surely have been enough to make Bosch himself weep. Watery light pours through windows casting misty pools on blank walls, whilst beyond the confinement of the institution, fields and brooks roll away to the horizon.

The downy heads of dandelions waiting for the right time and a breeze to provide a chance of their own escape, are balanced by wintery landscapes.

The stripped bony fingers of branches extending from wizened trees reflected in the opaque surface of a lake.

The passing of seasons hinted but never laboured.

And all the while solarised images of wolves.

Unappointed sentries ceaselessly patrolling the flawless but threatening escape route, or perhaps a metaphor for those both inside the institution and instrumental in placing her there in the first place.

Carers, friends and family.

Check the lockers, an abundance of sheep’s clothing

Lest we forget, these celluloid illusions are not punctuating some Brontë-esque fiction, but a stylised representation of a wasted and abandoned life. Archival images from institutions depicting inmates and their living conditions refocus and remind us that as elegant and ethereal as these images may be, they are also a reminder of how cruel and inhumane we are capable of being when faced with the unknown or alien, even amongst those dearest to us. The toothy and unforgiving traps of melodrama and sentimentality are strewn in a continuous but random pattern along the paths of narratives such as this. It is to her unending credit that Prins has sidestepped and pirouetted past each and every one.

Bound into the pages of the book are facsimiles of a handful of Hauck’s letters retrieved from the hospital’s archive, faded and almost unintelligible, they cut through any thoughts of romantic melodrama like the keenest of blades through flesh and memory.

I like to think that I have a fair collection of books full of beautiful pictures, thousands of them in fact. So much so that these days as the flood of releases only continues to increase in intensity, somewhat ironically my full attention is secured by relatively few. This is nothing to do with the quality of the work, taking a technically good photograph is certainly not the issue. For me it is the subject matter as much as anything else that sits front and centre. Concept and narrative have become increasingly strong preoccupations with me over the last few years and when the artist can combine these elements with beautifully executed photography then the chances are another space on my shelves will be taken. Empty Forest is a wonderful example of an original and heartbreakingly human story. A sublime but so very sad song, stifled for more than a century.

Although both Hauck's existence and her letters are already a matter of record, for me and no doubt many others this will be our introduction to her and it is thanks to Prins, that Emma Hauck’s story along with her impassioned pleas for salvation are finally being heard and like those evergreen melodies, they will refuse to get out of your head, along with the stories they tell. Yes, the stories they tell.

Empty Forest is self published.

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Ania Ready
Ania Ready
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Ah, that's a book I'd love to have. I'm fascinated by the story and really love how it was produced. Some of the themes definitely overlap with my work. I'm so glad I came across this review, thank you!

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