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Book Review: A Sense of Place by Charlotta María Hauksdóttir

Topography Study XIII

In 2003, Charlotta María Hauksdóttir moved from her native Iceland to California to study photography. “The relocation stirred in her a sense of rootlessness and a yearning for the landscapes of her childhood,” the press release says. She began to make regular trips to Iceland to take photographs “that she would then reconstruct and repurpose in her studio.”

Although having myself lived in a number of countries far from my native Switzerland but never experienced a sense of rootlessness, I nevertheless felt occasionally a yearning for the landscapes of my childhood or, to be more precise, for the familiar smells that I associate with my youth. In other words, I can partly identify with Charlotta María Hauksdóttir Californian longing for Iceland. Yet why, I wonder, did she not just record what she found? Why did she reconstruct and thus repurpose the photographs taken?

In an interesting read at the end of this nicely done tome she gives quite some hints in which she recounts early memories and specifically mentions a roadtrip during a snowstorm with her father. “In later years, he was often my driver on photography excursions, where he would tell me the names of every landmark we saw – which, sadly, I would promptly forget.” Same with me, I automatically thought, some things (as interesting as I might find them) I almost immediately forget, others however (and among them quite some things I do not think interesting at all) will stay with me forever.

Impression VIII

However, Charlotta María Hauksdóttir’s memory does not work like any other. This is not to say that we do know how memory works (apart from knowing that it is fleeting, creative and not to be trusted when it comes to eyewitness accounts – “He lies like an eyewitness,” a Russian proverb famously says), this is to say that she suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy that affects her memory. “I have always experienced memories coupled with a sense of incompleteness and displacement. While manageable, the epilepsy affects my memory with frequent déjà-vu’s and distortions, making actual and perceived memories and experiences often feel equally authentic. In particular, my childhood memories are now tightly coupled to grainy snapshots found in my parents’ old photo-albums.”

In other words, she cannot really distinguish between what she calls “the secondhand memory of those fuzzy images” and the actual memories. I’m not really sure whether such memory-distinctions are possible but must assume that for Charlotta María Hauksdóttir they are less possible than for others. And, these aspects of her perception and recall inform her work “in which I aim to craft a perspective and atmosphere that creates a similar visual experience.”

Gathering of Clouds

The book is divided into three sections. The first is entitled “Dreamscapes” and shows blurred and fragmented landscapes, the second, “Scapes,” assembles three photographs thus “creating an alternate view of the space,” the third, “Imprints,”‘ displays physically deconstructed photographic images. Since my understanding of photography is to show what is in front of the camera (and not what is on my mind), I warmed most to “Dreamscapes.”

The book also (in addition to the foreword by David Rosenberg) contains an essay by Guobjörg Rannveig Jóhannesdóttir entitled “The invisible landscape” in which the author introduces the term aesthetic perception that she defines as “perceiving only to perceive how something affects us”. An interesting criterion that I’m increasingly in favour of. Just look and see what these pictures do to you. Take your time and refrain as best as you can from interpreting. The effect these photographs have on me is a calming one. They enchant me.


A Sense of Place
by Charlotta María Hauksdóttir
Daylight, January 2020
For more information and to order the book daylightbooks.org/products/imprints-a-sense-of-place

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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