La Belle Dame Sans Merci (The Beautiful Lady without Pity). Alec Soth (USA).
This book is my love story!
If you love photobooks, you have to look at the books by Alec Soth. And here is the one! This book is genius of design, photography and narrative. A beautiful cover design: tender yellow with a title in black and a silhouette of a enigmatic dame. Simple yet difficult to miss. La Belle Dame Sans Merci (LBDSM) refers to a poem by the English poet John Keats who spent the last months of his very short life in Rome. And, pineapples decorate the end-papers and mysteriously appear throughout the whole book. American photographer from Minnesota, English Romantic poet, enigmatic dame, random tropical fruit … and Rome.
Rome. Every year a photographer is commissioned by the FotoGrafia Festival Internazionle di Roma to portray Rome: no limits and complete freedom. LBDSM is Alec Soth’s journey through the Italian capital, full of mysteries, mythology, references, feelings, hints, details and everyday life. His vision of the city is guided by Keats’s Romantic poetry and has several levels of references and quotations. It is a truly visual and intellectual adventure!
The structure of the book is in its incompleteness, formal connections (Venus Pudica, and a woman and a man portraits in similar positions), casual links and recurrent elements/symbols (like a pineapple or a pale man). The story has non-linear narrative and one must simply enjoy it through four main subjects: beauty, erotism, love and death. And the image of a femme fatale, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, repeats in mythology, art and everyday life.
The erotic expression in the book goes from a very explicit to a playful composition of fruits of kumquats and figa (with a reference to Sarah Lucas’s Au Natural and Tom Harrison’s poem A Kumquat for John Keats). The photograph Sophie is a partial reconstruction of a famous An American girl in Roma (1951) by Ruth Orkin, controlled by inserting a man with a pineapple. An image of a coiled snake titled Lamia refers to Keats’s poem Lamia written in 1819 and to Greek mythology in which Lamia is half-woman, half-animal creature that seduced young men and fed on their blood. Image XVIII Pale Man directs to Janiculum, one of the hills in Rome and final home of John Keats.
The books has almost XX pictures: the picture XV sends the note: “During my time in Rome, I wanted to make a beautiful picture of the city. But I found it impossible. The city was too beautiful to photograph”. Through mystery and fragmentation Soth revisits forgotten stories and hidden corners of Rome reminding us of its beauty, charm and history.
p.s. Cruel witch, enigmatic dame, femme fatale, beautiful woman. The silhouette on the cover page is actually the one of Fanny Brawne, the great love of John Keats. A full length silhouette, said to have been made by Charles Brown (a very close friend of Keats), after the original by Augustin Edouart, one of the most famous silhouette artists of the nineteenth century.
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