There is something both haunted and haunting in Lori Vrba’s photographs. Captured on medium format film and printed using the traditional gelatin silver process, her sepia-toned images seem to hover outside of time and to occupy a mystical elsewhere. The Moth Wing Diaries, the artist’s first monograph, is a compelling distillation of her unique creative vision.
The artist writes that she is “inspired by moments that hold contradictions…like a big lightning storm that is really uncomfortable and really beautiful at exactly the same time. Such duality is true for the very best things in life.” It is certainly true for the photographs in this book, where ethereal beauty is shadowed by the unsettling ambiguity of time, memory, and the nature of self.
In both their formal execution and their subject matter, Vrba’s photographs have, variously, the evocative presence of relics and the freighted intimacy of family heirlooms. In “Genesis,” an antique typewriter holds not a blank sheet of typing paper but a photographic print of clouds; the composition alludes elegantly, succinctly, to the nebulous mysteries and origins of the creative act. The typewriter itself registers as a quiet challenge to notions of obsolescence, notions that Vrba’s photographic practice—rooted in pre-digital materials and techniques—implicitly engages.
Elsewhere, in “Untamed,” a child is pictured in profile, tousled curls tumbling down bare shoulders, rudimentary bow and arrow held aloft; meanwhile, in “Sacred,” a girl holding a doll is seen at a distance, bathed in soft light and framed by a cathedral of trees. A kind of Edenic glow suffuses such images—they suggest some irrecoverable state of innocence and freedom. Simultaneously, they invoke the machinations of memory—the idealization of childhood from the position of adulthood, the interpenetration of feeling and seeing.
Yet Vrba’s images also hint, subtly, at a world that lies in wait beyond the limits of the frame. These photographs radiate a visceral attunement to both outer experience and inner sensation, to the concomitance—the “duality”—of beauty and pain, growth and loss. In the vastness of the woods that engulf the little girl, we find danger as well as majesty. This child is—as we all are, Vrba suggests—ever exposed, ever vulnerable; to live life is to constantly, necessarily, risk ourselves.
Vrba describes The Moth Wing Diaries as a “visual diary,” and the ultimate power of this book resides in its personal specificity, in the sense that its exquisite visions are, in fact, refractions of a distinct and deeply considered life. What we find between its covers is a rich and revealing meditation on life being lived.