The first time I saw one of Lina Scheynius's photos, I was sitting at my desk at a law firm, working at a summer job that I had in between semesters of school. I was daydreaming about being pretty much anywhere else and as I often did, had been googling different photographers and considering their work. The first of Lina's photos that I remember seeing was an image of a woman moving wildly in front of a pastel sky. I later learned that the image was a self-portrait; a polaroid taken by Scheynius on the roof of her apartment building. If I remember correctly, she was on the phone with a friend and paused the phone call to take advantage of the beautiful sight that she saw out the window. Rather than simply photographing the sky, as many of us would have done in her place, Scheynius went out the window onto the roof, set the self timer and began to move her body. They were movements that could not simply be explained or described. In an ever-flowing stream of images, the photograph made me pause. It represented freedom. Wild abandon. Arms and hair akimbo as the sun set. More than anything, the image seemed to be asking a question I could not answer. It was using words that I was not familiar with but was still speaking to me. I wanted more. I immediately went to Lina's website and purchased two copies of her first self-published book 01. I kept one for myself and gave one to a friend. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of an ongoing collection of books that Scheynius would release.
This past month, Scheynius released her 8th self-published book, aptly titled 08. Scheynius has been releasing small books of her work for the past nine years offering viewers a glimpse into her life. Though slightly different in their layout and design, the books are all identical in shape and appearance.
Her images and this book are hard to examine without seeing them in the context of her larger body of work. Her photographs, partially due to the personal nature of her chosen subject matter, are a serialized collection. Each image exists on its own but also as part of a larger whole. Though her work largely begs more questions than it answers (which is perhaps why it persists in our minds), each book feels thematic, intentionally curated and centred around moments in Scheynius's life. Her body of work as a whole is titled Diary but each book has its own mood and narrative. Loves develop. Loves are lost. Scenery changes. Children are born. Roles evolve. Self-discoveries are made. People come. People go. Each book marks a chapter or a waypoint in her life. In that sense, this book is no different. There are signature Scheynius moments: familiar faces (particularly her own and that of her friend Amanda who has been in constant throughout her work), the lovely light that makes her images so recognizable and an overall feeling that is distinctly hers. With each book she adds to the vocabulary of the language she has constructed. Not a language of words but one of light and gesture composed both of the visible and the invisible.
How this feels different than the others is how it speaks about Scheynius's relationship to her body and to the physical itself. In all of Scheynius's work, the body (hers and the bodies of others in her life) are the messengers. She uses the body to communicate feelings and ideas. Closeness. Mystery. Intimacy. Loss. In her work, there is an awareness of Scheynius as both the author and the subject of the photographs. Lina is photographing her life and her body as she chooses, exploring her relationship to it as she goes. In 08, however, it feels like the body acts as something she is tethered to. In this collection of images it feels as if Scheynius is struggling with her relationship to her place in the world, to her work and to her own mortality. That said, it is not so much a book of life and death as it is one about what happens in between. It is a book that questions the nature of personal evolution, personal happiness and perhaps simply the inevitability of change.
The book opens with an image of the back of her mother's head against trees. Her mother's hair is being parted by the wind, opening like theatre curtains to reveal a pale part of her neck. It is a signature Lina image but not the kind that you would expect to see reblogged on the internet. It's a photo that is modest in the attention it demands but beautiful in its delicacy and is an apt introduction to the book.
Lina has an ability to infuse parts of the body with meaning. In this image, her mother's neck suggests the softness, the vulnerability that hides below the surface. The parting of her mother's hair is a revelation, an invitation. It suggests that Lina is going to offer us an honesty in the pages that follow and in doing so, reveal her own questions about what it is to be a person in the world.
The early pages of the book continue much like many of her other works, with images of people in her life. The book quickly shifts, though, to offer the viewer images of Lina, flowers and the sky. One image in particular, a photo of Scheynius's silhouette across a beautiful clouded sky, feels like it speaks to what the rest of the book has to say. Unlike the photograph from 01 that first caught my attention, this image of Lina against the cloud-filled sky does not suggest freedom but instead a separation. In the image Lina's hand is raised as if grazing a window pane as she stares out at the world. She is not a part of the freedom that the sky offers, she is instead restricted from reaching it; held back by a physical impediment.
In the past few years, the feeling of freedom that filled her images has moved in the direction of transcendence. This book is an important part of that journey. Her signature light is abundant in the pages of 08 often bathing parts of her bareness. In one image, she holds her hands out into a stream of sunlight, as if running her hands under an open faucet to check the temperature. Rather than temperature, though, it feels as if she is testing the waters of transformation and considering the possibility, perhaps the inevitability, of change, both as an artist and a person.
At times it feels that Scheynius herself could transform into a beam of sunlight, eternally existing on unmade beds, across the faces of lovers and in the air around us. The tension in this book comes from the simple fact that she cannot. She, like the rest of us, is bound to a body that is capable of pleasure and pain and that, inevitably, will one day fail.
Throughout her career, Scheynius has allowed us to glimpse her world. It is a world of the possible. Filled with feeling, hope, magic. The images simultaneously exist in the physical world while maintaining an otherworldly quality. It is almost impossible to try and visualize Scheynius taking these photos. Does she use a tripod? How many photos does she take? These considerations seem irrelevant and removed from the resulting images. The photos seem to live just beyond our world. Real in the visual sense but somehow unreachable. That in itself is what makes 08 spellbinding and perhaps painfully ironic. The world she has created is one that even Scheynius herself cannot completely enter. It is a world that lives behind glass. In acknowledging this, Scheynius reveals her own vulnerability, her own fear and her own contemplations about her life. The honesty promised in the image of her mother's neck.
One of the words often used to describe Scheynius's work is intimacy. Indeed it is intimate work that she makes. Since her work started to disseminate around the internet, many Scheynius imitators have popped up. Most struggle to speak her language as fluently as she does, confusing nudity, light and atmosphere for intimacy. A photo of a naked woman on a bed in beautiful light is not instantly an intimate photo. In Lina's work, the intimacy comes from her willingness to be still and uncomfortable. She allows herself to examine and to be examined. She reflects her own world back at herself knowing that she may never be able to reach it, all the while knowing that we are there waiting and watching.