Who doesn’t love a good mystery? There’s a reason the genre remains one of the biggest sellers in the world of literature year upon year. Something about the delicious allure of the unknown appeals to a specific aspect of our humanity, doesn’t it? It’s all to do with the thrill of feeding our curiosity. The satisfaction of profiling characters and piecing clues together. And the glimmer of possibility that we might just be the one(s) to solve the conundrum.

But what happens when a story of mystery is translated into a visual experience? When in lieu of guiding words we have instead to rely on the atmosphere and symbolism of images? If British artist Emily Graham’s new photobook The Blindest Man is anything to go by, then one could argue it has the potential to offer even more of a thrill.

“Yvan,” 2017, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham

The Blindest Man follows the story of the elusive Chouette d’Or (or ‘golden owl’)—a golden sculpture buried somewhere in France in 1993 by an author working under the pseudonym of Max Valentin. The same year, Valentin—whose real name was later revealed to be Régis Hauser—released an accompanying book entitled On The Trail of the Golden Owl, which included 11 cryptic clues as to the statuette’s exact location. It became something of a phenomenon in France back then, and almost 30 years later, many people continue to search for it. To this day, however, it remains unfound, and the author has long since passed. Made in France between 2015 and 2018, the pictures in The Blindest Man introduce us to a number of different people on the hunt for the golden owl, following along on their failed routes. These people are referred to as ‘the searchers’.

“Disguise,” 2017, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham

Each of the 11 clues in Valentin’s On The Trail of the Golden Owl consists of a riddle and a painting, and these two components are heavy with symbolism. The paintings of long grasses, cockerels and keys are simple and bold, while the accompanying words speak of phantom images we have to conjure for ourselves: a spiral with four centers, the arrow of Apollo, an opening that reveals a heavenly light. In turn, similar symbols are woven throughout Graham’s photobook—a spiral staircase leading nowhere, for instance, or a single peacock lingering on a hillside.

“Peacock,” 2018, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham

Then there are all of the photographer’s references to body parts—hands, eyes, chattering teeth. One particularly powerful image sees a single glass eye cradled in someone’s palm, extending from the darkness beyond. Both darkness and the uneasy dichotomy between seeing and unseeing recur throughout this book, characterized by an intense shadowiness that swells through the sequence—a shadowiness that either eclipses or frames scenes at every turn of page. The title itself alludes to this state, taken from one of the clues based on an old proverb: the blindest man is the one who refuses to see. For Graham, that felt right for this story, with its many characters still looking in all the wrong places.

“Elisa,” 2016, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham

Alongside the images taken by Graham, The Blindest Man also features other collected ephemera, maps and archival pictures. The inside and outside covers are filled with slices of correspondence, hinting at clues and fragments of the story, and a couple of times a flurry of lo-fi images printed on thinner paper punctuates the edit. These show us maps and blurred archival images from past searches and hunts, of people digging or metal-detecting or marking up locations.

Looked at as a whole, the photobook is the ideal format for this story, because the experience of it needs to be cumulative. By the end of the book, we have been given a full and rich array of visual coordinates to guide ourselves through the world these searchers inhabit. And perhaps what’s most fascinating about it is how it reveals to us different interpretations of the same set of clues. While some of the people Graham meets head deep into forests, others have their heads in maps and books, each one following their intuition with a different approach.

Spread from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham

On The Trail of the Golden Owl is often referred to as an ‘armchair treasure hunt book’, and Graham has managed to extend something of that notion into her own publication, making The Blindest Man an incredible feat of storytelling. It doesn’t offer any answers towards solving the mystery at the heart of it, it focuses instead on expressing the phenomenon of the treasure hunt itself, sweeping us up in the adventure. Throughout its pages, we are led through a sort of meandering, visual maze —a stop-start journey that begins on many routes, turns back on itself, encounters dead-ends and walks the ground so many others have covered before.

Where The Blindest Man begins with images of people, pathways, phone boxes and cars (images of communication, movement and possibility), it seems to close with more obscuring images like thick forests and webs of branches—representative, perhaps, of the disorienting state the search provokes. At the very end, the last few photographs in the book comprise a small sequence of black and white images—the lack of color seeming fit to reflect the lack of clarity in a powerful visual way. Lastly, the final image in the book is of a vast landscape. In it, two people small as ants wander a long path. It’s a picture that pans out on the scene like the end of a movie, somehow encapsulating how huge the task is, and leaving us with one final image of the searchers continuing on their unresolved quest: modern treasure hunters on an odyssey for gold.

Spread from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham
“Black Forest,” 2016, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham
“Frank,” 2017, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham
“Peacock,” 2018, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham
“Phone Booth,” 2017, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham
“Staircase,” 2018, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham
“Trompe l’Oeil,” 2017, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham
“Appear,” 2018, from “The Blindest Man” © Emily Graham

The Blindest Man
by Emily Graham
Publisher: Void
ISBN: 978-618-5479-20-6.