Through a Glass, Darkly

Between the Two Worlds of Lara Gilks


LARA GILKS under her wing 2022
Giclée print on museum quality Hahnemühle archival paper

Certain kinds of beauty call for casting one’s descriptive net beyond the canon of romantic tropes. In her novel H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald describes the plumage of a goshawk she is training as ‘beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud’. ‘There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm-rain.’(1) This is the language of a place beyond summers’ days and darling buds of May.

The descriptive specificity of these passages of Macdonald’s came to mind on viewing the series between two worlds by Wellington-based photographer Lara Gilks—and not just because of the feathers. Gilks describes the series as a meditation on ‘passing between two worlds’, but she is deliberately not specific about what the worlds are to which the title refers. Gilks resists the reductive reading of the metamorphosis as simply death; the eerie layered images serve as a ‘different way of thinking about passage to the next state’. The transitions that inspire her work ‘include’ death, but they are not limited to it. The next stop could be ‘a state of peace’ or a ‘spiritual realm’.

Gilks does not work in a studio, and her models are generally her immediate family or friends. She uses natural light and is also drawn to water, in all its states. She uses a combination of lenses, shooting through Perspex, to create soft distortion or manipulate the perspective. If these images evoke a certain mood—a ‘dark beauty or dreamscape’—it is by dint of the themes she is exploring: mortality, ascension, escapism. Printed relatively small, they take on a devotional quality.

The visual and historical references that mingle in the crucible of this series are far-reaching. Layers of feathers dissolve into spectral human forms, filtering the mythic Greek half-bird, half-human figures of the Siren and the Harpy through layer upon layer of water, air, and ice. But despite the classical references, the photographs’ impact is more visceral than philosophical, more textural. A pallid face manifests from amidst brittle leaves like condensation on a winter window. A nude form evaporates between the folds of feathers, like fingers grasping air. A faceless form in a billowing white dress wilts into stars as if into a stream.

The photographs in this series sit between at least two worlds — between allegory and fable, between a dark romantic dreamscape and the very real scene of Gilks with a camera in her hand, outside, guiding her models into their roles. Her generous gift as a photographer is to let the viewer fill in the rest.

1. Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk, Grove, New York 2014, pp. 18–19.

LARA GILKS fallen 2021
Giclée print on museum quality Hahnemühle archival paper

LARA GILKS ghost light 2021
Giclée print on museum quality Hahnemühle archival paper

LARA GILKS the harpy 2021
Giclée print on museum quality Hahnemühle archival paper

LARA GILKS awaken 2021
Giclée print on museum quality Hahnemühle archival paper