The Flow of Future Memory – Review of “The Seraphim” by Jesse Lenz

Some people call it being in the flow or being in a flow state – that feeling of being completely absorbed.

Oftentimes this will happen while reading a novel. You get caught up in the story, the pacing, the rise and fall of the plot, the elucidation of character. And suddenly it’s 3:30 in the morning and you have no idea where 1:30 and 2:30 went.

“The Seraphim” by Jesse Lenz
Published by Charcoal Press, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen

It’s mesmerizing and pleasing. And then somewhat remorse-filled when it’s broken. This can happen during a movie, during a concert, even during a long walk on a pleasant afternoon. You get absorbed in something else and that something else becomes the reality through which you move.

I bring this up because I’m holding a book in my lap a new book called The Seraphim by Jessie Lenz, and turning the pages I found myself, happily, in a state of flow.

© Jesse Lenz

The Seraphim is a wonderful book of black-and-white images about Lenz’s family, his children, animals, and his farm in Ohio. Each image is an insight. Sometimes, they are captured in fleeting moments, such as a possum running across a field or a child’s dash through the woods. And sometimes they take a more still-life approach, such a child standing in a field of sunflowers, peppers growing on a vine, mushrooms spread out on a cloth. Every image seems to touch something essential and deep about childhood and place.

© Jesse Lenz

What this book is really about, however, is a state-of-being. This is what life my life is like, the book says. The images reveal small moments, the kind of small moments that define who we are and how we relate to the land around us.

What, for me, brought on the state of flow is the simplicity of these images and their honesty. I do not mean honesty as in truth of reportage, although there is nothing deceptive here at that level. What I mean is honesty of affection. This is a book that loves its subject. Again, I don’t mean any kind of overly romantic or cliched depictions of love. What I mean is a love for the character of normal life, what other people might call the mundane.

© Jesse Lenz

Black and white is an elegant choice here in that it achieves the timelessness that monochrome still appeals to us. Although they seem candid and spontaneous, these are also not just snapshots. There is nothing haphazard about them at all. A young girl twirling in a room filled with books is as much an act of artistic recognition as it is a serendipitous capture.

Turning the pages of this book, I found myself lingering. I had very little question about the particulars of these children or the animals or the farm, but I found a personal joy in the tone, in the affection, in the this is what it’s like. For me, the book is a bit nostalgic because my own children are over 30 now, and I remember these days from their history of discovering nature and playing outside.

© Jesse Lenz

There is a soft quality to these images, the kind of softness we might assign to a favorite memory. The subjects range in a way that makes sense if you’ve lived in a small town. There are Amish carriages, open backyard lots, owls and snakes, and power lines. There are flooded tire tracks on a dirt road, stuffed animals and warm blankets, bugs, birds, and flowers. This is the milieu of the American Midwest. It’s all a part of the same quilt.

The book is perhaps the photo album we all wish we had. It is not a record of trips or vacations. This is not a collection of events as much as it is a collection of moods and moments that define a quality of life.

© Jesse Lenz

I cannot tell you how long I spent looking at this book because I looked at every page first and then found myself going back. Not with intent to search out any particularly evocative image but just going back for the pleasure of running through the pages. Order was no longer important. This is not a book with a narrative arc. So perhaps the most important element here, for someone of my age whose children are grown, is to recollect what that was like.

This book is about a type of innocence, yes. But to say this is a book about innocent childhood is not actually right, in the way we typically understand innocence. Instead, this book is innocent in the way we might understand the holy or sacred.

© Jesse Lenz

This, of course, brings me to the book’s title.

A brief refresher (with apologies for the simplification): Seraphim is the highest of the nine choirs (levels) of angels. The name means “burning ones.” The only reference to them in the Bible comes from Chapter Six of the Book of Isaiah, verses 1 through 7. They are seen attending to God on a throne. According to the RSV: “Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah protests that he has “unclean lips,” and a Seraphim touches his lips with burning coal, which removes his sin. Thus begins his ministry.

According to a small card included with the book, “The Seraphim is the second volume of the The Seven Seals septology by photographer Jesse Lenz. Delving deeper into the vision that started with The Locusts, the reader explores a realm of childhood attachment where nature insists upon sets of fledgling counterparts. His children experience the joys, curiosity, and vulnerability of childhood alongside other creatures that seem to either be standing vigil over them or stalking them from the shadows. The backyard becomes a labyrinth of passages as the children experience the cycles of birth and death in the changing seasons.”

Note: A review of the first volume, The Locusts, can be found here.

© Jesse Lenz

Clearly, with the book and series titles, there is a theology at work here. And, as a reminder, the second seal in Revelations, when opened, releases the red horse and the second of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, a bringer of war.

Does this seem like a disconnect from the images and tone of the book? Perhaps. However, it would be unfair to say Lenz’s The Seraphim is a book of religious intent.  It contains nothing of proselytization or argument. He is, instead, moving toward articulating a different type of apocalypse. Again, on the card that accompanies the book, Lenz writes: “Working at the pace of one book every four years, my youngest children (twin two-year-olds now) will have just graduated from high school when the seventh book releases.  The world I have known for 30 years will be destroyed. The Seven Seals septology is a continuance of the cycle of life: rebirth through decay, creation through destruction.”

© Jesse Lenz

There is a holiness to the way children come to know a landscape and a bit of regret in the way adults understand, in the act of witness, that this moment will pass too quickly into memory.

Photography can hold onto that moment. To be in that recollection is to be in the best type of flow.

A note from FRAMES: Please let us know if you have an upcoming or recently published photography book.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

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