JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 by Mutton Row Books (here). Hardcover, 215 × 155 mm, 160 pages, with 83 four-color images and 33 two-color images, and 18 fold-out pages. Includes text-only softcover booklet, 127 × 102 mm, with 60 pages of text; a QR code leads to the audio narration of the text by Samuel J. Weir. Wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Dean Pravitt. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)
Comments/Background: Photographic storytelling comes in all shapes and sizes, from single images that capture a moment to linked sequences and series of images that span time. But few photographers embrace the kind of ambitious visual fiction creation found in Lottie Davies’ recent project. quinn.
Produced over a period of seven years, and comprising large format photographs, short videos, audio narration, texts and physical objects, quinn has taken the form of immersive installations and exhibitions, online presentations and now a photo book. The project tells the fictional story of William Henry Quinn, a British soldier returning from World War II in the summer of 1945, who embarks on a lonely journey on foot from the South West of England to the Far North of Scotland.
quinn is told as a simple narrative, essentially romantic or cinematic in its progression over time. We follow Quinn’s walk and can hear his thoughts in the form of a written diary (and accompanying audio voiceover) addressed to his wife Mary. As Quinn traverses diverse landscapes, walks along empty roads, encounters strangers, and settles down for the night in boarding houses, her mind wanders through her memories (of the war, her childhood, and her family) and struggles. with the traumas that still haunt him.
As the newspaper recounts, Quinn’s life story includes a posting in the Royal Navy, an explosive mission to the French coast where he was wounded and left to drown, and several years in German prison camps, while When he returns home, his wife and children appear to have been killed in a bombing, leaving him with a simmering array of unresolved regrets. Her journey on foot lasts about four years (from fictional time, until the spring of 1949) and moves geographically from place to place, eventually bringing Quinn back to her old home, which is now inhabited by another family.
Davies sets the fictional pitch with a black-and-white “snapshot” of Quinn on shore leave, enjoying happy time at the beach with his wife and two small children. We then fast forward in time to the start of Quinn’s post-war journey, where he stands (now seen in color) on the rocky shore and gazes pensively at the choppy waves. In the photobook, the story progresses through stills from video (seen as smaller images, in sequential groups) and large single frames that often expand to fill the leaflets.
Again and again, Davies photographically returns to staged scenes where Quinn gazes pensively at the empty landscape, or is seen alone moving through the world, resting or walking on roads and paths. These configurations are reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous romantic painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” from 1818 and systematically place Quinn’s solitary figure against the grandeur of the land around him. And while there is a linear backstory wrapped around these fragments of time, each of these singular frames can be a moment of introspection or contemplation on its own. Quinn looks up at the trees, surrounded by tall green trunks and the ground flecked with orange leaves; it crosses a misty valley filled with flat shards of rock; he stands atop a mountain pass looking down at the arid land and small lakes below; and it follows a dirt road through tall green trees. Along the way Davies plays with rich color, in the reds of winter berries, the greens of lush grass, the soft yellows of a fading boarding house wall and the dark grays of wet paths and abandoned houses.
After being alone for so long, Quinn’s random encounter with a young girl picking berries seems almost magical. against the dusty rose of the heather, it has a stuffy sense of awkwardness and miscommunication. And then it continues, through British landscapes of more desolate beauty – rocky beaches, swaths of snow-covered land, a glorious Red Valley (which expands to fill a four-page leaflet), then a once more to the shore, and a look out to sea from a steep promontory. The final image in the series finds him standing on a dock with his suitcase staring out at the water, presumably finally returning home.
On the back of the book, a selection of black and white still lifes provide a taxonomy of physical evidence to support the narrative. Davies shows us the rock that was in Quinn’s shoe, his knife, his razor, the bunch of heather the girl gave him, the beer glass he broke, some seashells he picked up on the shore and the charred teddy bear given to him by the new tenants of his house. These and other objects (including a newspaper clipping that provides clues to the death of Quinn’s family) mingle with photographs, video stills, and diary entries to fill in the outlines of the story.
While some of Davies’ photographs inevitably have a staged or mannered feel to them, the best works develop with awe-inspiring magnificence, with Quinn’s solitary figure set against the majesty of the earth. We feel its insignificance and its isolation in these settings, the quiet emptiness of its restless wanderings facing the scale of a much larger and more imposing world. Such compositions feel like a throwback, but they’ve been executed with such consistent precision that it’s hard not to be wowed by their deliberate emotional breadth; we know Davies manipulates our reactions, but that doesn’t diminish the power of his images.
In terms of design and production, the photobook version of quinn is thoughtfully designed and surprisingly intimate. The book itself is small, which makes it feel special and personal, and the diary entries are squeezed out into an even smaller booklet, where the little guy draws the viewer into the story. When we return to the page turns of the imagery, the sequencing creates a back-and-forth motion between the small video stills and the larger photographs spilling over onto the leaflets. This folding process feels like expanding or falling inward, as we suddenly move from clips and fragments to immersive images that seem expansive and enveloping. Navigating the book resembles Quinn’s journey, as the turning pages require repeated effort to reach a moment of stillness, movement leading to stillness. The black and white still lifes on the back of the book are printed on matte paper, creating a tactile distinction between travel and artifact. And then the whole package is wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, like a long-lost package.
Like a post-traumatic parable, Quinn’s walking tour visualizes the process of using travel to fill space, of wandering when there is nowhere left to go. Like so many soldiers who returned from the war broken (physically, emotionally, or psychologically), only to find that the life they left behind was also shattered or simply gone, Quinn isn’t quite sure how to handle her situation. His journey is a way of coping, where he can navigate his way through the memories, questions, desires, and “if onlys” of his past. Often her diary resembles a trance-like state, where her confessions, angers, regrets, and daydreams intertwine, eventually mingling with a deep sense of physical weariness and exhaustion that only slowly dissipates with walking. unending. Whether Quinn finds her way through loneliness, grief, and the loss of some kind of new meaning isn’t really answered, leaving her story deliberately open and unfinished.
At the end, quinn is a deceptively powerful photobook, anchored by a handful of almost timeless photographic compositions that form the basis of a meditative account of an almost silent personal tragedy. It is both utterly understated and often visually extravagant, turning us alternately inward and outward, encompassing both the intimate and the sweeping. Written like a novel and photographed like a series of large landscape paintings, quinn reminds us that photography can still be used for large-scale visual storytelling. By ambitiously embracing (and extending) the medium’s nuanced narrative possibilities, Davies has found his own path.
Collector’s point of view: Lottie Davies is represented by the Cynthia Corbett Gallery in London (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail probably remains the best option for interested collectors to follow.