David Ávila-Cañamares Portfolio Contest Winner

Words: Dean Brierly

The word “nostalgia,” with its connotations of sentiment and warmth, is typically used to express longing for a fondly remembered time or place. It is not, perhaps, the first word that comes to mind when viewing David Ávila-Cañamares’ series Time of Absence. The topography in these photographs is stark and abstract, marked by large areas of bottomless black-and-white space, each suggestive of a physical or metaphysical abyss. What ground that can be discerned seems unstable, unsafe. The solitary figures that navigate these spaces are rendered as blurred or silhouetted ciphers, seemingly as tenuous as the terrain. They appear wary and tentative, in danger of being engulfed at any moment, like the prone figure in “Time of Absence #1,” or the boy who seems about to slip into the void in “Time of Absence #10.” The overall mood is, at best, ambiguous and unsettling.

Yet for Ávila-Cañamares, the past is viewed in shades of both light and dark. “The series is a nostalgic evocation of the past, but also a meditation on the decline of some places of my childhood,” he says. “The work reflects the contrast between what one wanted or imagined in the past as opposed to the reality of the present. It depends on where you are situated in time to be able to experience this sort of ambivalence. In some way, the blurry and dark figures are a representation of this idea, an attempt to reveal the instability of our temporal existence and the impossible desire to escape from this temporality.”

More specifically, Ávila-Cañamares says the images are meant to suggest the psychological and emotional journeys we all experience, and how we look back at our evolving selves at different points in our lives. The discomfiting quality implicit in the physical spaces depicted evokes both our precarious mental states as well as the inevitable process of organic decay.

This multi-themed narrative springs in part from Ávila-Cañamares’ personal experiences, but also resonates on a wider, universal scale. The viewer can’t tell if the photographs were made in Colombia, or any other country in the world.

“This series was made in my birthplace—Tunja, a small city 135 kilometers from Bogotá,” says Ávila-Cañamares. “This place has a strong sentimental impact for me; having spent my childhood and adolescence there, I obviously have many memories of those years. This emotional charge was crucial in being able to make these images in a natural and spontaneous way. Beyond personal memories, it’s true that the photographs could have been made in any other city or country. What is relevant in Time of Absence is not the specific place in itself, but rather the reflection about the decline of the places in which we have lived and, correlatively, as an irreducible expression of the fragility of our lives.”

The project originated around the concept of deterioration. Ávila-Cañamares was wandering around Tunja looking for familiar places and taking photographs with that general concept in mind. As he did, more specific concerns and questions came to the fore, guiding the work in a fortuitous direction. He describes the experience as a kind of continuous feedback between the ideas and the images going constantly in both directions.

The images were made with Kodalith film to achieve a high-contrast look that enhances the underlying themes of spatial and temporal dislocation, in much the same manner as Mario Giacomelli and Daido Moriyama, two photographers whose work resonates strongly with Ávila-Cañamares. “I am fascinated by Giacomelli’s capacity to navigate so easily through distinct territories, and I’m struck by Moriyama’s capacity to penetrate so acutely into the chaos of a city and its inhabitants.”

Ávila-Cañamares, too, digs deep beneath the seeming solidity of the world around us to reveal unexpected fissures.

“It’s about human instability as a whole and its ambivalent expression—lying in the grass without purpose, keeping out of the sun on a hot day under a shadow, lying defeated on the floor, and at last jumping into the void as a response to a vital impulse, as if wanting to finish everything. All of us sometimes feel these kinds of things.”

Fact File
David Ávila-Cañamares
Bogota, Colombia

Images are available at 8×10 inches for $250.

Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3 Photo 4 Photo 5 Photo 6
Time of Absence #4, Tunja, Colombia, 2012