Undertow – Memories of an American Journey

Photography: Mara Palena

Text: Irene Barontini

Since a selection from her project was published in PYLOT’s ‘The Family Issue’ under the title of ‘Undertow’ , Mara Palena has been dedicated to producing her first, analogue photography book of the complete series: ‘Undertow – Memories of an American Journey’ is due for release on February 25th, accompanied by an exhibition at the Twenty14Contemporary Gallery.


Palena’s debut book release will take place in her hometown of Milan. The Northern Italian city, that she left seven years ago, will soon play witness to her return as a photographer – something Palena had never anticipated. Photography had always been only a passion, “collecting memories has always been my obsession,” she says, “until five years ago,” when she documented a trip to Turkey with her analogue camera. Afterwards, looking at the pictures of the trip, she realised her ability to capture and tell stories – if only brave enough to invest her time and energy in doing so. It took her a few more years to make the final step towards photography as her full-time profession, and now she celebrates her new career with her first photography book made up of a hundred self-published pictures.


When Palena was in America capturing the images that would make up her final body of work, there was no set project in mind. She speaks about her voyeuristic documentation, usually from her car or through shop windows, as if she wanted to distance herself from what she was looking at. From this detached perspective she was able to show the people, sounds, smells and colours of a touristic America in a way that told stories beyond her individual reminiscences, a revelation released when the first roll of film was developed.


‘Undertow – Memories of an American Journey’ as a project is a multi-layered one: it tells stories through the collection of personal memories, it acts as visual testament to analogue’s unique ability to preserve, and finally, it is itself an exploration across America as a one day long journey. From dawn to dusk, the book details a surreal day that happens nowhere and everywhere. Flipping through the pages, the photos taken mostly in California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, lose their sense of time and place. Cloudy opaque morning skies are followed by the afternoon heat of the desert, intensely purple sunsets, and then the glow of neon lights and motel rooms at night. A series of lost memories that overwhelms the viewer as if in a “weird, colourful dream”.

Mara Palena’s work in PYLOT’s The Family Issue can be purchased here.

Photography © Mara Palena