Rare are the photobooks that are as immersive in design as they are in subject matter. With full-bleed images of figures submerged in water displayed cover to cover, and no text save for an acknowledgements page at the very end, Place in Between by Australian photographer Narelle Autio is an example of a book where it pays to allow the images to speak for themselves. Like in an unfolding film strip, each image tumbles seamlessly into the next, the result, a continuous journey through a shadowy, watery world that is familiar and inviting but at the same time, strange and off-putting, eerie, even. From the first to the last we are there with the figures as they plunge into unknowable depths.
For Autio, the sea is, she has said, a second home. Indeed, much of her work over the years has focused on or had links to water, whether that’s coast, waterhole, beach, shoreline, harbour or ocean. Known for her richly coloured, heady images, Autio has a knack of capturing not just the essence of a scene – what was happening in that moment – but an emotion that on occasion triggers what could be described as universal memories of long hot summer days spent on a beach and chilly dips in the sea. With this work, which dates back to 2007, it is less memories that are evoked and more a disconcerting sense of being suspended between land and sky, the physical and spiritual, and even life and death itself. The title alludes to what we might clumsily call this ‘in-betweenness’.
Autio has talked of having a fascination with or rather a fear of the ocean, or “what lies beneath”, and consequently her work, especially Place in Between, is sometimes tinged with an air of menace. She alludes to as much in the accompanying statement for her new book. “I dive, down into the quiet and cold,” she writes poetically. “I breathe out the remaining life I have left in me and sink further into the darkness. Looking up, I watch the bubbles of air flee towards the light.”
“I love that moment of immersion when the sea first grabs hold of us,” she continues. “[We are] cocooned in a shroud of bubbles and light, suffocated by a cold, insisting watery embrace. There is a sublime moment of suspension, of complete isolation in a place between two worlds. We can live here but not for very long. The sea lets us enter but it might not let us leave.”
Glance at these figures and they are merely fooling around; look again, and they could be drowning. The water might be welcoming but its potential to end a life as much as to enrich life is not lost on the photographer. For all the work’s lightness of spirit, this ever-present truth weighs heavy on it. That this darkness enriches the work, giving it depth, and manages not to take anything away from the carefreeness is testament to Autio’s delicate touch.
Greeny-blues of various luminosities dominate, punctuated here and there by glimpses of flesh sometimes momentarily illuminated by a stray shaft of light. We catch sight of a hand, an arm, a foot, an elbow belonging to wraith-like disembodied souls. Autio’s protagonists are anonymous, barely visible, and the location geographically non-specific, but all is somehow strangely relatable: there is a universality in this work as there is with so much of Autio’s photography. It is intensely human as much as it speaks to an otherworldliness.
This is a quiet collection of images that invites both personal reflection and contemplation upon what it might mean to be human. By eschewing words, Autio creates space between the images to imagine, to dream, to conjure, and there is great comfort to be taken from such an experience.
By Gemma Padley
Gemma Padley is a writer and editor on photography who is based in the UK.
Narelle Autio, Place in Between
Published by Stanley/Barker (2020)