Sumptuous isn't a word you might typically associate with a photo book, but paging through Senza Parole, the unintentional swan song by the late Belgian photographer Marc Lagrange, you realize that even sumptuous may fail to adequately describe the lush beauty held within. Lagrange was a master of his craft and borrows from photographers like Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi and from filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai (2046 is a visual masterpiece) to create a world that is sensual and provocative, in a style that is all his own. I was introduced to the work of Mr. Lagrange in 2013 by a photographer friend who let me borrow his previous book, Diamonds & Pearls. I became an immediate fan and after returning the book, I wrote: "In photographs by Marc Lagrange, models become characters, performing both for the camera and for their own amusement, while we are invited to take the role of privileged voyeur, watching the acts of eroticism and intimacy unfold like a stage play." Senza Parole is both an evolution and a departure; Mr. Lagrange is building on much of the work that came before it, while at the same time pushing his own boundaries into an even more cinematic direction. Whereas locations in Diamonds & Pearls were often small and intimate—occasionally even simple textured backdrops—in Senza Parole, environments are presented as grand set pieces to help contextualize the lush narrative framing the work. The intimacy is still there, to be sure, but alongside it is a larger theatricality, partially derived from the set ups in the locations themselves—beautiful nudes alongside elephants and camels in the old stock exchange in Antwerp, Belgium or figure studies with massive marble statuary at Studio Nicoli in Pietra Santa, Italy. The results are spectacular—and while the images may skirt the line of propriety for some, fans of Mr. Lagrange will likely see it as an elegant erotic circus that is sensual without being overtly sexual.
Technically, the work in Senza Parole is superb, particularly the black and whites, where subtle toning adds a hint of patina that evokes a sense of timelessness. The color photographs, while for me not quite as consistent, are often rich and velvety without feeling overly styled—this is work crafted by a masterful eye, which makes his untimely passing all the more tragic. The layout is clean and elegant, save for the annoying and all-too-frequent convention of presenting landscape images as full-bleed, two-page spreads. Personally, I would prefer to see them printed full-bleed on one page and simply rotate the book 90 degrees, which seems to be a better solution than having the subject lost in the gutter. It only happens a couple times, but even that is enough to take the viewer out of the otherwise compelling visual narrative. There are two areas where the work itself falls slightly short for me. The first is an issue with the selection more than the technical nature of the photographs. There are a few images featuring men rather than women—within this body of work, which is so obviously focused on the female form, their inclusion feels somehow tacked on or obligatory. The other is in the few group shots—their compositional complexity feels almost haphazard and breaks the otherwise taut visual tension between subject and environment that Mr. Lagrange creates with only one or two main subjects. These are only minor quibbles, however, about an otherwise gorgeous collection of photographs.
While I've never been much of a fan of nude photography as a genre, especially when nudity is used simply to titillate as in contemporary "glamour" photography, the work of Marc Lagrange—and particularly the photographs in Senza Parole—transcend the unfortunate moniker to become, in his own words, “…an elaborate dress code of seduction.”