“The Timeless Story of Moormerland”, Autofiction Stories of Elsa and Johanna

Imagine you are walking through a market when a large suitcase with unidentified photos of unknown origin catches your eye. By diving into the lives of anonymous people, you imagine their lives and try to give them meaning. The artist duo Elsa and Johanna reproduced the work of an imaginary photographer who had encountered several different characters. “The Timeless Story of Moormerland” presents an iconography worthy of old family albums. It reveals the traditional silver prints and a projection of 160 slides by mixing photography, performance and video.

The calm before the storm, the timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna

Reconstruction of a fictional universe

Elsa Parra and Johanna Benainous, interpreters of real visual stories, stage themselves through sixteen anonymous characters. “We portray our characters a bit like dolls, with their silhouettes and their costumes. The characters gradually emerge, giving us a global vision of the roles we have played and what is missing to create a heterogeneous form”, specify the two French photographers. They don’t try to fade away completely and remain recognizable despite the costumes. The characters are “a clever mix of the clothes we found, the territory that inspired us, wigs and hairstyles”. Elsa says: “There’s a bit of us, our families, our readers and our favorite movie characters in them… A lot of things have come together and created images that are part of the collective imagination.

The stag, the plane and the bouquet, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
The stag, the plane and the bouquet, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna

Query identity

The series takes place in May 2021 in a vague context where logistical and health constraints collide. After scouting homes through platforms like Abritel, the duo moved to Germany. “Through the prism of our projects, we not only visit a territory but discover an environment. They travel around twenty different regions for four weeks, including Moormerland, which gives its name to the series. This small German town near the Dutch border alone captures the eerie atmosphere of the series. The interiors, the details, the moldings and the super neat atmosphere are reminiscent of the world of the dollhouse. This almost sickly coquetry, a tendency specific to western Germany, says a lot about the relationship of individuals to their space and the need to represent themselves through their homes and gardens. For the duo, The Timeless Story of Moormerland is a form of questioning about intimacy, memory and the way we present ourselves.

The black eagle, the timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
The black eagle, the timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
The sound of the steeple, the timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
The sound of the steeple, the timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna

More than a journey through time, “The Timeless Story of Moormerland” is a journey into another reality. The photographs evoke non-existent or existing personal stories that are unknown. Elsa and Johanna are convinced that each individual has a multitude of possibilities within them, such as a color palette that is not fully exploited. “There’s a bit of quantum metaphysics in there,” Elsa says. “These characters exist in the form of reality that we created for them. We even give them names, which we keep confidential. »

Flower Fever, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
Flower Fever, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna

Weird, cinematic aesthetic

Elsa and Johanna are inspired by The Anonymous Project, a collector of slides from the past 70 years that revives an anonymous collective memory. Their goal is above all to “create moments of life, smiles, exhilarating moments and at the same time really worked photos”. Although it looks like accidental photographs, the composition is very organized. They shoot with natural light, which offers striking and highly saturated color rendition. The unexpected angles and the finesse of the color tones remind us in particular of the works of William Eggleston, a great inspiration for the duo. 50s decor decor looks straight out of the box Revolutionary Roada film by Sam Mendes.

Vertigo, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
Vertigo, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
UFO, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna
UFO, The timeless story of Moormerland, 2021 © Elsa & Johanna

The series, on the border of dream and reality, summons a cinematic atmosphere somewhere between Peter Weir The Truman Show and Tim Burton Big fish. “In cinema, stories are written through shots, the sequence of images and objects. We explore, at different scales, the world that is designed and built. In this series, this work of scale can serve as a metaphor.

The timeless history of Moormerland”, exhibition by Elsa and Johanna, at the Studio of the European House of Photography. Paris 4th, from September 7 to November 6, 2022.

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