by Dilpreet BhullarMar 20, 2023
On July 4, 1845, American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau embarked on a journey of solitude and self-reliance, as he moved to an English-style 10 feet x 15 feet cottage on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Over the course of two years, two months and two days, the writer chronicled the life that he led there in voluntary exile in his memoir titled Walden. At times self-aggrandising and at others dismissive, the account is rife with facts that create an almost fictional account of the time that Thoreau spent in the wilderness. But despite its shortcomings, Walden is an ode to the transformative qualities of aloneness.
In an image from the series The Splitting of the Chrysalis & the Slow Unfolding of the Wings (2018), the artificial light from a flash illuminates a single, large boulder from its side, suspending it in a landscape that blurs from the long exposure. The result is one that displaces the boulder from its surroundings by adding a dimensionality to it that is further accentuated by the unidirectional source of light. Photographed against a twilit sky, the image obfuscates the geography and relates a sense of otherworldliness to the object of the boulder.
The Splitting of the Chrysalis observes Greek photographer Yorgos Yatromanolakis, as unforeseen circumstances force him into a period of isolation where he finds himself confronting memories from a traumatic past. Besides the obvious symbolism that the title carries, the Crete-born photographer explains in an interview with Cat Lachowskyj of Lensculture in 2018, how the work relates to a specific phase in the life cycle of a butterfly: “It focuses on that crucial moment when an insect inhales air through the first crack in their cocoon, swelling its body and crushing the chrysalis that surrounds it”. Such breakthroughs then reflect in the muted tones of the twilight, where his unconventional use of flash presents different ways of looking at the same.
This notion of metamorphosis, that the work embodies, traces back to the political disquiet of 2008 in Greece, when Yatromanolakis had just begun his photographic practice. The police killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in central Athens soon escalated into riots after large-scale protests and demonstrations spread across the country and subsequently the world. At the crux of the protests was the youth’s rising discontentment with the country’s dwindling economy, rising unemployment and corruption. Yatromanolakis, who photographed this pivotal moment in his country’s history in the work, Roadblock to Normality (2012), describes the transformative sense of change he felt, in the same Lensculture interview. “While I was swept up and taking part in those events, I quickly understood their historical significance and began taking photographs. I had the feeling that through the debris of the old system, a new world was emerging, and I wanted to make works about these periods in time”.
Soon after, Yatromanolakis was conscripted to complete his mandatory service in the Greek Army, where he produced the work Not Provided (2015). For him, the understanding of the political is always through the personal and forms the basis of his entire photographic practice. The Splitting of the Chrysalis, then brings to mind the words of author Olivia Lang from her book Lonely City, where she speaks about how loneliness is both personal, as well as political.
In The Splitting of the Chrysalis, Yatromanolakis returns home, to see the world anew, as he recreates the landscape from memories and light. Blue-breasted peacocks emerge in vivid clarity as the valley behind them breaks into dawn or is it slipping into nightfall? In another image, flash-frozen ferns curve poetically, as they are photographed against a dark sky bespeckled by motes of dust and moisture. The photographer’s gaze produces an oneiric quality of wonderment that lies captivated by the ethereal atmosphere. Human forms punctuate the series, abstracted beyond recognition, as apparitions or distant memories. The close portrait of a woman, with her features distorted by a flare of light, creates a sense of longing and distance, while in another image a pair of disembodied legs are seen sticking out from an undergrowth, adding mystery and intrigue to the entire narrative.
The Splitting of the Chrysalis encounters isolation, as a period of reformation that necessitates the construction of a new reality. The capacity of the cocoon to exist in chrysalis, between being and becoming, highlights the importance of seeing such time spent in solitude as a time for magical thinking. The breaking of the chrysalis in turn suggests those revelatory moments of lucidity that are born out of such a fluid process.