Maja Daniels’ Elf Dalia “weaves together a narrative born out of the Swedish valley of Älvdalen” according to the publisher’s blurb. It was the Charcoal Book Club photobook of the month selection for (if my counting is correct) June 2019.

Elf Dalia focuses on the Älvdalen valley in central Sweden. The people there, some of them anyway, speak a Norse language called Elfdalian and back in the 1600s, the Swedish witch trials got their start when a young woman there reportedly walked on water. Later, in the early 1900s, a man named Göran Lars Albert Persson (“Tenn Lars”) worked with cameras and telescopes, and left behind an archive of around 5000 glass plates and photographs, from which Daniels culled a decent chunk of Elf Dalia. And even later, Daniels, whose grandparents lived in the area, moved into a cabin for several years to teach and make photographs.

Tenn Lars, according to Daniels, was interested in natural magic—phases of the moon, medicinal plants, as well as the occult—and built his own lenses and cameras and telescopes and all, and the photographs of his that Daniels selected are a mix of portraits, documentation of local festivals (with cartoon faces scratched into the plates), diagrams, and pictures of the moon. Daniels’ photographs, in color, are a mix of landscapes and portraits, with a loose sort of approach, soft focus, light leaks, and etc.

Now, I’m a little bit suspicious these days of the idea of creating Narrative through photographs alone, let alone a mixing of contemporary photographs with images culled from of photographic archives. Seems like you could 1) tell any story you wanted, while also 2) completely fail to produce anything legible. I’m not making any claims about Daniels work here, though I’m also not sure I get all the things from the work that did Dylan Hausthor, who inteviewed Daniels at LensCulture or Marigold Werner, whose review in the British Journal of Photography is far superior to this one, so go read it.

But, then, and in Werner’s writing, Elf Dalia

does not offer any answers. “Because I wasn’t looking for them,” says Daniels. “I’m not trying to solve a problem here, I’m trying to engage with a feeling.” Afterall, the thrill of a mystery is sometimes more exciting than finding the answer.

Werner, Marigold. “Elf Dalia by Maja Daniels” in the British Journal of Photography. Retrieved from https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/05/elf-dalia-by-maja-daniels/ 6/13/2020.

So it’s an open ended narrative, I guess. There are some suggestions of spooky goings on, thanks to the scratched smiley faces in Tenn Lars’ plates and strange masks in Daniels work, some nod to the natural and metaphysical realm (as opposed to the rational) thanks to the light leaks and other sorts of analog imprecision. A very Norse-looking man appears, I think, 4 or 5 times. At first, he has a short, spikey haircut; a few pages later, a hand holds out a long, blonde braid; some time later, the braid is attached to the back of a man’s head; and much later, there’s a long haired man who may or may not be the same guy as before. There’s beauty in Elf Dalia, taking the form of lush, bokeh-licious landscapes alongside the spooky bits, and all together maybe it adds up to a sort of narrative exploration of Älvdalen and some of the people that (have) live(d) there.

But I’m not really sure. I probably haven’t spent enough time with it. And, honestly, I’m not sure I will, though, looking again, the longhaired Norse guy mentioned above has a scar on his forehead that the shorthaired Norse guy doesn’t. (And still honestly, in looking back to check that, I didn’t really get much more out of Elf Dalia than I did the first 4 or 5 or 7 times I looked through it.)

Unrated.

Given current prices for Elf Dalia, and that it made at least one Best of list for 2019, other people get loads from Daniels’ book, so take my comments with whatever you like. There must be something there, really. Right?

If you have any clues, please to point me to them. I’m sure I’ve missed something.

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