A Note on the Photographs of Iannis Delatolas
Before dying in Avignon, about a century ago, at the age of ninety-two, Jean Henri Fabre had written, somewhere in the dozen volumes of his souvenirs entomologiques (rather dryly characterized by the Institut de France as "of literary as well as scientific value"), an insect comedy about the largest moth in Europe, indomitable in its course through unremitting darkness. Les ténèbres, Fabre observed of this intrepid but taciturn giant, sont pour lui clarté suffisante. Nor was I, a lifetime ago in my childhood character as a Shaker Heights lepidopterist, the last admirer of that wonderful phrase by which Fabre chose to identify this creature, for the mercurial British dramatist Christopher Fry would subsequently make Fabre's words the title of his final romantic comedy The Dark is Light Enough, and now I beg your patience while I extend the figure to another purpose in discussing young Mr. Delatolas's sensationally evasive images that cast so stygian a glamour on any walls on which they hang.
"Light-writer" translates the modern Greek name for the latest artist of modernity; exposure is that photographer's emblematic accomplishment: to disclose, to reveal, to bring to light is the standard action of the cameraman's profession; for as Roland Barthes remarks in Camera Lucida (his own title a knowing reversal of the darkroom's offstage necessity), the primary statement a photograph makes is: this did exist. The fact or rather the phenomenon that the ultimate consequence of camera action is a certain reality has of course generated many contradictions, all having to do with the dialectic of truth and illusion, and their symbolic counterparts, light and darkness.
As I—with heroic effort—see it, the major achievement of the Delatolas photographs is their immediate artistic character; the existential truth of these images, finally perceived once your eyes have adjusted to—have acknowledged—the colors of darkness, a chromatic fantasy never stooping to trick effects like that "negative" switcheroo which so enlivened certain surrealist reversals of the Twenties.
Take, for artistic example, the glorious plate of the overgrown path that blithely leads to . . . Tartarus, with no menacing frenzy of vegetation on the margins, as in the infernal Romantic views of a John Martin, but merely—merely!—the ultimate nigrescence of visibility itself, our very modern discovery that to be darkling is a condition of vision, not a challenge to it. And then consider (it is the artist's comic triumph) the supreme virtuosity of his drive-in sequence, dead screens a commentary on the "animated" ones against a various claudication of clouds, or even of clear, star-studded skies, a mockery of what Shakespeare would have called our "rude mechanicals," country efforts to entertain our eyes contra naturam. Mr. Delatolas has even gone himself one better in a signature piece wherein the tripod and its master are gigantically shadowed into—or against—or perhaps merely upon the intricate detail of a midsummer night's Faery Ring.
Everything is so very clear in its obscurity, so very rich in its asceticism, and (most of all) so very original in its derivation from the foes to any easing immediacy of perception. Invoke Shakespeare once again, the only seemly salute:
"Night and darkness, who is here?"