After his successful debut monograph ‘Smoke’, Theo Elias (b. 1985, Sweden) now brings to the forefront a new photobook – Red / January 2021. A continuation of his exploration of themes dealing with love, seclusion, and existence in the environment of the Nordic landscape, however, this time in colour.
In January 2021, the artist was invited by the organisation Gamleby Photography for a one-month residency at Tjustbygden – a remote countryside area located in the south of Sweden. The place is already scarcely populated due to the dense forests that spread across the land and its far distance from Swedish major cities. Elias arrived when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, making Tjustbygden secluded and void of human presence more than ever. The conditions for creating were not ideal – all gatherings cancelled, only a few hours of daylight, and extreme weather conditions falling to -20°C.
Elias then came up with a different working strategy, involving people yet without them being aware. He started using a trail camera outside the local grocery store. This device is originally used by hunters to track down animals in the forest, but this time people became the ones hunted. In a way, it was an approach that highlighted the distance Elias felt both to the place and its inhabitants. He later added a thermal camera to his repertoire which recorded the temperature of things and particularly, heat. Both methods of photographing made visible the things that escape the human eye, turning his body of work into an atmospheric existential quest.
During the production process, Elias realized that the main means of getting to know the temperature of an object is to touch it, so he started to explore the notion of touch photographically in more depth. As he explains: “Since I was not able to touch anyone at that time, the thermal camera became a kind of shortcut to intimacy. Like I was experiencing the heat of others but from a distance.” This subject was close to him as in this period he was also in an on and off relationship with a person – a circumstance that contributed to an emotionally loaded body of work. Elias elaborates that this relationship together with the winter and the isolation he experienced made him think a lot about distance and intimacy. “I was also thinking about other opposites like heat/winter and violence/passion in making the work. All these opposites eventually became the framework for the book.”
These contrasts are visible in the book through Elias’s use of red and blue colour palettes and experimental analogue photography processes. However, red predominates. Its connotation with heat, passion, and violence immediately grabs our attention and sets the atmosphere of the publication. As Elias explains, “it is also the colour at the end of the visible spectrum of the human eye, the use of it in this work also refers to the edge of what we can see or imagine. Maybe the edge of reality as I see it.”
This limit of viewer’s vision and obscuring of certain elements relies on ambiguity and anonymity which invites an affective reading of the work instead. His images are combined with scribbles, paint, and tape, forming a diaristic insight into Elias’s thoughts and emotions at that moment. The artist reveals that the publication is inspired by a notebook he kept at the time of the residency and that’s why he decided to keep all these haptic elements in the book which in the end turned into a form of therapy.
There is also a backstory that came to the surface on the very last day of Elias’s residency. He overheard a news report on the radio which stated that a woman is getting a double hand transplant in Sweden where the doctor performing the surgery added: “she will get back everything that is associated with hands – like identity, integrity, and intimacy.” Elias then immediately thought about the idea of a restored intimacy that was once lost – something that pierced him intensely during that particular winter – which as a result, added a new layer and means of understanding for all the photographs of hands he included in the book. It all turns a bit Kafkaesque in the end. We are powerless to understand or control what is happening…
Red / January 2021 provides a space for reflection through its honest revelation of the artist’s true self and his mind that perhaps resonates with that of our own. As the German novelist Thomas Mann once declared “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”
is a Swedish photographer based in Gothenburg. He has an MFA in Photography from Valand Academy of Fine Arts and also an education in photojournalism from the Nordic School of Photography. In 2019, his first monograph ‘Smoke’ won the Photo London & La Fabrica Dummy Award and later in 2020 it was nominated for the Swedish Photobook Award.
Red / January 2021 is currently sold out in regular edition but is available in collector’s edition here.
Curator of Discarded Magazine & XXX
She is a photographer and writer dealing with the topics of trauma, gender and sexuality.