Books I Love: Beyond the Fall

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The latest installment “Books I Love.” The concept is very simple. Find a book in my collection, photograph it, then share it with you. The idea being to share what I love about the book or why I have it. The books will range from traditionally published, POD and handmade. The only stipulation is that I love the book. Most of them have a backstory, which I will also share. Books and photography are forever linked, so why not explore the relationship through my bookshelf. Hope you enjoy.

In short, I don’t think you can find a better book of reportage. “Beyond the Fall” by American photojournalist Anthony Suau is a ten-year look at the former Soviet Bloc in transition. TEN YEARS for those of you who came of age in the “modern” photography world of weekend essays, isn’t an exaggeration or typo. He spent TEN YEARS working on this book, and one look at the images living on those pages and you will very clearly see what that kind of time does when it comes to the quality of reporting. Suau covers it all, politics, family, war, high-society and everyday life. When I think of documentary photography books, it’s publications like this that set the bar. You have to remember something very, very important. This is a book of moments. The vast majority of these images are one frame moments. Just think about that. Just think about how much time and focus that requires. Now think about doing that over a ten-year period. So many of the documentary books I see today are the “abstract urban landscape book” void of people(So no need for interaction or model release) or the “portrait series” documentary book which can be done VERY quickly(There are a few stellar books in this category however). Forget it, this book was like an ultra-marathon.

Now, books like this rarely get the credit they deserve because for whatever reason work like this is considered too reality based and the art world doesn’t seem to know what to do with it(Something that has been written about by a fair number of art-world folks), but for me this work is SO DIFFICULT, so RARE and so TIME CONSUMING it deserves it’s own wing in the museum world. Forget the gallery world, this work it more important than MOST of those spaces(There are worthy galleries.)

I KNOW there are so many of you out there living under the ultra-romantic notion of photographer. The loner walking the back streets of a crumbling empire, Leica in hand, pouring their life into their contact sheets. Well, in this case, that is in some ways what you had, but I will remind you of the DATE these images were taken, and the reality that this lifestyle is EXTREMELY rare today because the industry that supported photographers at this time is basically gone. Even during the time this book was made it was a supreme struggle to do this work. Today, nearly impossible. The time isn’t being spent, the work is made digitally now and it just doesn’t have the same cache or impact, nor do folks want to slow down and actually appreciate the work. The reason I’m telling you this is to slow YOU down when you consider a book like this. This is a treasure. A gem. Give yourself, and the photographer, some respect and sit down alone, sans mobile phone umbilical cord, TV, laptop, iPad, etc., and just look at the work, start to finish, front to back. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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I simply can’t tell you the range of what this book offers. I’m not even going start with design or materials, which are both very good, because I still can’t get over the quality of the photographs. The alarming thing is that each photograph represents what has to be an archive of other work. You see an image of a destroyed downtown Grozny during the height of the Chechen War and you think “What ELSE does he have?” You realize to get that one image there had to be MONTHS of preparation and sacrifice. This work is “classic” in all the right ways, and could or should be used in photojournalism schools to illustrate the kind of work being done by one motivated individual with time and resources. Perhaps not as much as he would have liked, actually don’t know, but I’m guessing. This book gets better with age.

Don’t walk, RUN, and go by this thing.

Long Overdue Book Review: Beyond the Fall by Anthony Suau

It was recently brought to my attention that the World Press Photo of The Year for 2008 was taken by a photographer named Anthony Suau.(With Leica and Tri-x by the way.)

Now when I started in photography, back around the 1990 time frame, this guy was at the top of the photojournalism game. Pulitzer Prize, Capa Medal, etc, etc, so I’ve known about him for a long while and known him to be a great photographer, so seeing his name in the winners column of World Press was no surprise.

It also reminded me that I had several of his books, his “Beyond the Fall,” as well as a more recent book regarding politics, the name of which escapes me.

So, seeing as his name was fresh in my mind, I thought it a great time to revisit his work, and his books. Moving to my bookshelf I pulled down “Beyond the Fall,” and took a gander.

People, this is a great book. I mean a really great book. This is perhaps one of the best reportage books I’ve ever seen. It’s not like I didn’t know this, but it has been some time since I have seen these images, these pages, read these notes.

I’ve seen a lot of reportage books since I bought Beyond the Fall, and frankly, the vast majority of them pale in comparison to this book.

What got me right off the bat was, “1989-1999.” Ten years folks. Ten years to make these images.

Now legend has it, back in the day, ten years was the cut off time for those making books. A photographer would work for approximately this long before taking on the idea of creating a definitive and final book impression of the story. Obviously, not everyone managed this, but a fair number did, and there is absolutely no way to substitute for that much work and time.

With each turn of the page I heard myself say, “Oh, I’d love to have that print.”

This book covers the former Soviet Union in transition, over a ten year period, and I’m talking virtually all aspects of life. You have politics, war, family, commerce, health care, history, landscape, and all not just done, but stamped with his point of view.

This book is almost all black and white, and looks to be done with just a lens or two. There are so many fantastically layered images, it could be used as a teaching aid on how to properly use a wide angle lens. And, there are many images that are more art than reportage. Yes, I said it. They are fine art images, masquerading as reportage. You have any idea how difficult this is?

What I see in these images is an intimacy you just don’t see that much anymore. It’s probably the time in the field, his access and his ability, coupled with a real understanding of place, culture, history and transition. I don’t know if I’ve ever had this type of relationship with a project, which really sucks, but just means I have to work harder.

I’m pretty sure one of the reasons we don’t see much of this work today, or projects of this scope, is because the industry won’t support it. Budgets have been hacked, deadlines have been shortened. advertising has been lost. And, advertisers are controlling content more than ever before. Most American advertisers probably aren’t thrilled to see this type of work in an issue with their ads, hence the infrequent use of reportage on the cover of major magazines. Celebrity sells much better, so does just about ANYTHING else that is safe, homogenized, colorful, etc.

Each section of the book could be a book in itself, which is really what we do see more of today. Pieces of the puzzle, but rarely are we given the entire puzzle to sit with, contemplate and put together.

Looking at the pictures from Grozny I found myself wanting to find Suau online, just to pick his brain about the story behind the photographs. I could say the same for the quiet moments of Yeltsin alone in the Kremlin. “How did you GET IN there?”

Looking at these images I was taken back to the Romania stories of the early 90’s, the war in Bosnia, the turmoil of the region, and could see that Suau was there every step of the way.

If he never snaps another image, ever again, the work in this book, in my mind, cements him as one of the best American documentary photographers.

What is truly mind-blowing to me is how little I hear about this guy. Okay, I live in Orange County, but even still, that shouldn’t matter THAT much. I have a feeling, and I’m making this up off the cuff, he is a guy that just does his thing and probably doesn’t spend a lot of time telling people how great he is, which is the modern method of becoming a legend(Monday I will begin my great crusade of self promotion.). If you tell people long enough how great you are, inevitably there will be some takers. No, I have a feeling he is out shooting. I just wish I could see more of what he was doing.

I think, in short, this book is a lesson to all photographers, a reminder of where the bar has been set.

Revisiting this book is, for me, is an exciting trip, like taking a voyage through history with someone who had a front row seat.