Out of Focus

Out of Focus

Dr. Dora Imhof, U5

The project Out of Focus. The artistic-ethnographic practice of Maya Deren and Leonore Mau investigates two historical positions of artistic engagement with Vodou in Haiti. In a collaboration between an art historian and artists we reexamine their work and ask how it can be productive for contemporary discourses on artistic research, questions of representation, the uses of archives, and (photography) ethics.

While Maya Deren’s work on Vodou is well known and has been the topic of extensive research (Clark et al. 1984/1988, Holl 2017, Keller 2015, Nichols 2001 and many others), the photos Leonore Mau (1916-2013) took when she traveled to Haiti with her partner, the writer Hubert Fichte (1935-1986) in the 1970s, are much less recognized and studied. Like Deren Mau photographed Vodou ceremonies, but also architecture, street scenes, people at work and at play, birth and death. The photos bring together artistic and documentary/ethnographic interests and her collaboration with Fichte presents an innovative form of combining text and image.

Out of Focus. The artistic-ethnographic practice of Maya Deren and Leonore Mau compares their approaches and situates them in their respective cultural, intellectual, and social contexts. It looks at the pictorial concepts with which Deren and Mau approached Vodou and at the forms of publication and display they used (film, photo book, reportage). A fundamental question of our project addresses the representability of religious practices through photography (and film). The archive as well as the tradition of artist’s travels will be examined, thereby reflecting both on the concepts of "homework" and "fieldwork."

The project focuses on Western artist’s approaches to Vodou and to Haiti, but today the photos Deren and Mau took can also become a tool for communication and exchange. What do the photos Deren and Mau took show and what do they not show? What do they tell us about the past and the present? Who are the people they photographed and engaged with and what relevance do/can their oeuvres have in Haiti today?


The image on the landing page of our website is an artistic adaptation by U5 of a photo by Leonore Mau. 1) The photo was originally published in Mau’s photobook “Petersilie” (1980). It shows a scene from the Velación, which is part of the cult of María Lionza, a religious movement in Venezuela which combines African, indigenous, and Catholic elements.

2) U5 scanned the photo with a small document scanner, moving forward and backward over the image. This movement created a pattern, rhythms, repetitions, and mirrorings. While scanning you cannot see the outcome of the process, which becomes visible only after on the computer screen. The scanning process is a kind of blind machine reading or rereading of the image.

3) 4) and 5) show the original slide that Leonore Mau took. Found in the archives of the S. Fischer Foundation, bpk.

In his book “Petersilie” (1980) Mau’s partner, the writer Hubert Fichte, described the ceremonies and the circumstances, in which the photo was taken:

Buses park next to the altars.

In the river is a mannequin with the purple mantle of Queen Maria Lionza. Stones mark the way to her.

On the stones fruits, cut papayas and watermelons.

Between gas stoves, nylon covers, mattresses, hammocks -ceremonies. A community does nothing but rattle. Again, a man on the floor with arms outstretched. A priest asks:

- For whom do you make the pictures?

- For the Ministry of Information?

- These rites are secret.

- It is secret.

- Our trance school is forbidden.

A possessed Indian orders his students to line up.

He prompts them with the gestures they must perform during the ceremony.

A believer is bathed in the river.

- I prepare her for a velación - for a Verkerzung (candling). She lies down on the floor.

Candles are placed according to the outline of her body. She lies with her arms bent. Johnson's baby powder around her. Crosses made of gunpowder. The priest holds a match to it. It fizzes up.

Liquor is poured over the prone woman, flowers spread over her.



Further reading:

Braun, Peter. Die doppelte Dokumentation. Fotografie und Literatur im Werk von Leonore Mau und Hubert Fichte. Stuttgart: M & P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1997.

Clark VèVè A., Hodson, Millicent, Neiman, Carina. The Legend of Maya Deren. Vol. 1. New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1984.

Clark VèVè A., Hodson, Millicent, Neiman, Carina. The Legend of Maya Deren. Vol. 2. New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen. The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston/New York: McPherson & Company, 1983 [1953].

Diederichsen, Diedrich, Franke, Anselm (eds.). Love and Ethnology. The Colonial Dialectic of Sensitivity (after Hubert Fichte). London: Sternberg Press, 2019

Holl, Ute. Cinema Trance and Cybernetics. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Hurbon, Laënnec. Voodoo: Truth and Fantasy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Keller, Sarah. Incomplete Control. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Mau, Leonore. Xango. Die afroamerikanischen Religionen 1. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1976.

Mau, Leonore, Petersilie. Die afroamerikanischen Religionen 2. Frankfurt am Main, 1980.

Métraux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti. New York: Pantheon, 1989 [1959].

Nichols, Bill (ed.). Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.

Preisig, Barbara, Niederhöusern, Laura von, Krusche, Jürgen (eds.). Trading Zones. Camera Work in Artistic and Ethnographic Research. Berlin: Archive Books, 2022.

Ramsey, Kate. The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Schoeller, Wilfried F. Hubert Fichte und Leonore Mau. Der Schriftsteller und die Fotografin. Eine Lebensreise. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2005.






bpk / S. Fischer Stiftung / Leonore Mau
1) Photo in Leonore Mau, “Petersilie. Die afroamerikanischen Religionen” (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1980).
2) U5, scan of Mau's photo from the book "Petersilie".
3) Series of original slides in the archive.
4) Photo of original slide (positive) in the archive.
5) Scan of the original slide.