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.