Written by Anne Silver
“For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river.
For more than a thousand years her sweet madness
Has murmured its ballad to the evening breeze….”
— Excerpt from Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell/The Drunken Boat
The story of Ophelia’s tragic and untimely demise has mesmerized artists and poets since William Shakespeare first penned Hamlet in 1599. For over four hundred years, we have been captivated and horrified by her descent into madness and her eventual death. Though the character of Ophelia only appears in five scenes throughout the play, she has become a muse for all ages. She was immortalized on canvas numerous times by the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a magnificent body of work that continues to inspire modern photographers and artists.
Her story is the classic conflict between innocence and knowing, between following the expectations of others and following our heart’s desire, and of what happens when we lose ourselves in the process. On one hand, the teenage Ophelia struggles to hold onto her purity and her honor, attempting to be a good daughter by respecting the wishes of her father and her brother. And on the other side, there is her incredible attraction for Hamlet, something that tantalizes her budding sexuality. The pressure from her father leads her to betray Hamlet, and afterward, compelled by remorse and repressed desires, she plunges into the depths of lunacy, a state from which she never returns.
In a haunting, intimate series of portraits, American photographer Cory Wilson offers his own version of the story of Ophelia, a modern interpretation that is perhaps more hopeful and speaks of the possibility of rebirth. We are drawn into the melancholic beauty of each scene, and it pierces us with intensity. The reaction is visceral as, through Cory's photos, we become Ophelia: The grip of reality slips away, and we revel in the liberation and the terror that comes with that. In the blink of an eye, we are taken by the caress of cold, silky creek water flowing over and under and around the flesh. Pulled under by the weight of the water, the breath escapes from our lungs. We feel the ecstasy that only comes with surrender. And we sense the boundless possibility of what lies beyond.
"On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping
White Ophelia floats like a great lily;
Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils...
In the far-off woods you can hear them sound the mort...."
– Arthur Rimbaud, A season in Hell/The Drunken Boat
"The wind kisses her breasts and unfolds in a wreath
Her great veils rising and falling with the waters;
The shivering willows weep on her shoulder,
The rushes lean over her wide, dreaming brow..."
– Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell/The Drunken Boat
"The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her;
At times she rouses, in a slumbering alder,
Some nest from which escapes a small rustle of wings;
A mysterious anthem falls from the golden stars..."
-- Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell/The Drunken Boat
"And the poet says that by starlight
You come seeking, in the night, the flowers that you picked
And that he has seen on the water, lying in her long veils
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.”
-- Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell/The Drunken Boat
Of this series, Cory says, "While working with instant film I fell in love with the results I was lucky enough to fairly consistently achieve. The images I produce have a wonderfully haunting feeling, almost like I’m constantly longing for something. My fiancé and I love to hike, and when we found this particular creek in the woods, I immediately pictured her in a sheer gown floating in it. Just like that, she became Ophelia and the series was born. I struggled with using color versus black and white, and ultimately used both to portray every aspect of emotion I could capture. I love the sad harmony between the elements of nature and the natural flow of her lines and tones. The color images seem to have a beautiful struggle between the motion of the water and her still body, the sheer gown acting as both catalyst and mediator between the two. The look of peace she conveys brings everything together in this quite lonely place, hidden from the rest of the world."
Cory Wilson is a fine art photographer from small town, northern Indiana, now living in Bloomington, Indiana. His love for film photography started when he was 12, capturing the haunted historic nature of Gettyburg while on a middle school trip to Washington, D.C. He made the shift to the digital format when his local processing lab closed its doors in 2005. Never satisfied with the mundane “instant” results “in camera,” Cory found himself longing for the nostalgia of film. Finally, in 2014, he picked up a Polaroid OneStep CloseUp at a thrift store in Bloomington for $2.00. He went straight to the only local store that sold instant film and burned through all three boxes in only a few minutes. After seeing the results, Cory was instantly, pardon the pun, hooked.
Cory’s recent focus has been on artistic nudes and portraits using Impossible Project, Polaroid Originals and expired Polaroid films, as well as expired disposable cameras. His work has a strong emotional value and tends to show a sense of intimacy and playfulness between the subject, the photographer, and the viewer. His sensual work has been internationally published and displayed, most recently included in the infamous Expolaroid series.
You can see more of Cory Wilson's work on Flickr.
All photos are the exclusive property of Cory Wilson and may not be used in any capacity without his written permission.
©Pryme Editions, 2018.