Photobook Review: L’Amoureuse by Anne De Gelas

L'Amoureuse by Anne De Gelas is a book about loss, grief, the finality of the death of one’s partner, and the anger a son feels at the death of his father. L’Amoureuse is filled with love, sorrow and the hardness of unexpected loss.

The book is a republishing of the long sold-out 2013 edition. Almost identical in size and content, it tells the story (in French) of the response of Anne De Gelas and her son Max to the sudden death of her partner and Max’s father, T., on a beach in April 2010. "T., my lover and father of my son, died on April 5, 2010 of a brain stroke. He fell beside us on a beach at the North Sea. The violence of his death put me in front of a big void…a silence that echoed in my head only equal to the brightness of the blue sky which no planes crossed because of the ashes of a volcano in anger, my anger." "To face that loss, I plunged myself into the work that I had started more than 10 years ago consisting in writing a personal diary, now focussing on telling about my suffering but also about that surplus energy that burst within me.’

 That is one part of the story, the other is the story of her son, Max. "There is a never a right way to tell a child about the death of his father. Those words don’t exist", reads a snippet of text in the book. And so Max deals with his father’s death in his own way, contemplating what life will be like the morning after.

"The first words Max said to me on waking: You know, mum, it’s a very particular day today. It’s the first day of life without dad. We’ll see if it’s better or worse. I can’t help but answer that it will be worse..." The text is in French and if you can read French well (I can’t), it will be a more rewarding book. But the emotion, the ideas come through in the very personal but universal story of a woman who is plunged into into a morass of solitude. Alone with her son, it’s a life she must recalibrate, a relationship she must recalibrate. And it is something she must do with Max who fortifies his mother in the void she finds herself in.

"Max said to me, the adults are sad, but I’m angry because dad is dead. Before there were three of us. Now there are more than two of use, because that anger will make us stronger." The images show Max as he goes through the process of grief, they show de Gelas as she copes with her memories, her isolation, the loss of physical and emotional love.

The book begins with images of loss. We see T.’s body, his feet, and sketches of the graveyard where we guess (the text being too complex for me to read) he is buried. And then we see her isolation. We see her standing in front of the cameras, her breasts showing, we see sketches of her making love to a man who may be her now-deceased partner. So the book is also about physical and emotional love, and what it means to have that ripped away from you. What it means as a woman.

As time passes, things shift, the sadness settled. De Gelas keeps herself busy, we see a sequence of her knitting, a mania of frantic grief-tinged energy, the wool of the images extending into pencil lines on the page that knit words of loss, of grief, of envy, of dismissal, of love. We see the torso of Max, white skin shining, as he holds a stick. We see him in the bath with his mother, we see him brushing her hair, the closeness but also the distance. One collaborative image shows Max approaching de Gelas. She blocks him with  the palm of her hand. There is always solitude. Solitude matters too.

L'Amoureuse doesn't have a happy ending, because there's no happy ending to be had, but there is a resolution in the sense that life shifts, love changes and new beings are born out of tragedy. It's body focussed and seems almost therapeutic in feel.

Paul Auster (who is in the process of dying himself) recently described the idea of “closure” as being “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of. When someone who is central to your life dies, a part of you dies as well. It’s not simple, you never get over it. You learn to live with it, I suppose. But something is ripped out of you and I wanted to explore all that.”

 That idea is at the heart of the book. You can never return to the past, the sorrow never leaves entirely, it marks you. In the body of the book (it was originally on the cover), there’s a poem. It’s called An (almost) perfect day - 4th April 2010. 

This is how the poem ends:

 I take your face between my hands,

I still feel your lips on mine

That sweet, mutual movement of union

you say 'I'm cold'

I answer 'go straight home and get a coat'

I turn round to pick up my spade

out of the corner of my eye

I see your dark shape falling

I turn you over in the soft sand

they said 'diagnosis of the vital signs is very bad'

I spent the night telling you I loved you

kissing you

crying

looking at you and smiling

still happy to be at your side

impossible to comprehend death

ever

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L'Amoureuse is published by Éditions Loco

96 pages

21 x 0.8 x 29 cm

French

Publication date: 19 May 2023

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All photos © Anne De Gelas

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Anne De Gelas is an artist based in Brussels who creates highly personal work related to family, mortality, and being a woman. Using self-portraiture, collaborative images, text, and sketches she creates diaristic books that reveals hidden narratives of life, love, and loss.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His next online courses begin in January, 2024. More information here.  Follow him on Instagram

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