Christian Caujolle March 2009
Published in Ojo de Pez
Concerning In the shadow of things

In the course of the last ten years we have witnessed a proliferation of works in which
artists, most of them women, have sought to construct self-portraits around often trivial
details of their everyday lives. There have been so many works of this kind that they
have begun to lose interest. The approach they adopt is self-centred, narcissistic even,
the worlds they describe of interest only to the artists who produced them. As time has
gone on, these works have become repetitive, their iteration of ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘I’ merely
stylistic, an increasingly hollow fashion, betraying only the feeblest understanding, if any,
of the work of Nan Goldin. Although she appears in a good many of her pictures, Nan
Goldin did not consider the ups and downs of her daily life as works of art: she was
giving an account of the particular life which was hers and especially that of her friends
of both sexes, people on the margins, drug addicts, homosexuals, transvestites. Her
‘family album’ contrived to cast a direct and sensitive light on a part of society which up
until then had been covered up, judged or treated in a pitying way by photojournalists
who found in it ‘subjects’ often not without sensational appeal. It was a far cry, in other
words, from the smug repetition of scenes featuring heaps of messy underwear
alongside sinks overflowing with dirty dishes to which we have been increasingly treated.
From this convention of over-valuing the banal Leonie Purchas breaks away entirely,
and her work comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. It is a slow study of her family, and
it is still in progress. Her family’s situation is very particular: her mother suffers from a
rare and almost incomprehensible condition which leads her compulsively and
alternately to arrange things in as perfect an order as possible and then quite suddenly
to reverse this and return them to a chaotic disorder whose logic she alone understands
and governs.
Leonie Purchas follows her family in their daily lives as she visits them, but reveals in an
extraordinary freshness of approach, working in a flexible and natural way, using colour
and ambient light, and no artificial effects. This lets her garner moments of tenderness,
children’s games, instants of anguish and pain, things in a mess and then things neatly
stacked. She does all this with a subtlety of colour which makes each instant unique,
whether shot inside or outside; she does all this without creating any sort of show,
displaying instead an elegant and simple capacity to change the distance from which
she photographs, free from all dogmatism and always finding the right tone and angles.
Her work presents us with neither a carefully constructed ‘project’ didactic in intent, nor a
sketchbook of impressions. It simply invites us to share emotions, instants, scraps of life
articulated in a natural fashion within the framework of the family, which is the only
constraint Leonie Purchas seems to impose on herself. This is not a narrative or a story,
strictly speaking. Rather, it follows life and its threads as they weave together; taking us
far beyond mere demonstration and making us each look into the real world.
In its documentary approach, pursued with humility, Leonie Purchas’s work could be said
to be reminiscent of Nick Waplington’s early work on his parents’ neighbourhoods
(effectively a way of talking about his own family, but her manner is less jarring. Again,
while it may be similar thematically, it has nothing of the direct and disturbing quality of
Richard Billingham’s depiction of his fathers decline. Leonie Purchas’s treatment is

unique, truly personal. This is perhaps because by immersing herself in families in
Rome, London, Cuba, Los Angeles and France, she has already confronted the need to
make herself forgotten as the photographer in order to disturb the course of everyday life
as little as possible and therefore successfully capture those ‘little nothings’, which take
us back into the depth of actual life.
This time, her work is about her own family. This changes nothing in the subtlety of her
treatment or her attention to light. But it changes a great deal for her.

Christian Caujolle studies under Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Pierre Bourdieu in Paris. During the
80s he was photography editor for ‘Liberation’, a time when the newspaper was acclaimed for its bold use of
photography and design. He then went on to found the French photography agency Agence VU, which he
continues to run as an artistic director. He is an internationally respected writer and critic on photography.