Book Review: Phantom Power
By Yotam Ponte
“Phantom Power,” a photography book by Barbara Diener, has a matte black cover dotted with ominous-looking neon-green lights. When the book is opened, a small, folded up piece of black paper falls out. It is easy to miss and easy to misplace, but once unfolded, the reader is immediately immersed in a short story about the artist’s life.
The short story, titled “Conversations with My Medium,” explains Diener’s journey in attempting to find closure after the death of her father. Given the sardonic tone in the storytelling, it is clear that Diener does not believe that a psychic attempt to speak to her late father is viable. Her sarcastic commentary in the writing often disrupts the story of the psychic allegedly speaking to her father’s spirit—catching and magnifying every inconsistency. And yet, the question remains why she continues going to see the psychic.
The story ends with Diener reaching the conclusion that, even though conversations with the after life are unbelievable to her, they can act as a source of comfort, and, succumbing to their possibility—even momentarily—can be beneficial.
The book itself is filled with photographs that take up entire pages. The images portray traditional, almost clichéd conceptions of death and the afterlife. Small bright green lights, identical to the ones on the cover, make multiple appearances in photos throughout the book. Additionally, there are many photographs of dense forests, empty fields, large groups of crows flying above leafless trees, and other scenes of nature. The lifeless environments contrast with the scenes of lively green forestry and examine the balance between life and death in nature.
While some clear photographs of people appear throughout the book, they are rare. Instead, photos of ghostlike silhouettes are more common. They are often portrayed as dark, three-dimensional shadows surrounded by mysterious and surreal-looking lights. The book does not argue for or against a certain view of the afterlife with these images. It simply explores the possibilities of it for the sake of comfort.
An interview of Diener by artist, curator, and educator Lisa Janes at the end of the book reveals that the book, in fact, had no conscious influence by the death of Diener’s father, though the presence of the short story in the front suggests an underlying one. The physical separation of the short story from the book distinguishes the personal life of the artist from the art. And yet, it still hints at the context of the work. The small piece of paper containing the story—the presumed true explanation for the photographs—can be easily detached from the book, allowing the reader to create their own meanings for the images and meditate on the un-explorable afterlife.
The book only lightly suggests the significance of the images to the artist. The readers, however, are invited to look at the images and consider many differing ways to view the relationship between life and death. Giving readers the power to do this, one sees in the book what they want to see—what gives them a sense of fleeting comfort.