Literary Ambition and the Photobook: Black Garden Trilogy by Jason Eskenazi, by Robert Dunn

How ambitious can a photobook be? In a handout to accompany the publication of Jason Eskenazi’s two new books, “Black Garden” and “Departure Lounge”—the completion of a trilogy launched by “Wonderland” in 2008 (to be reprinted in October of this year)—Eskenazi tells us: “I’ve always seen bookmaking as cinematic and in musical terms. The images though authentic are taken out of their original context in order to make another, more personal and universal visual narrative. All the books have three chapters each adding up to nine, for the nine muses. And the sequence of all the books are numbered consecutively from 1-314, as in Pi.”

That is, his three books are as far from just some collection of photos he took as you can get. Indeed, here’s a hint of the books’ ambitions: They absorb music, myth, literature, history, and the profound transformations of the collapsing Soviet Union, the eastern Mediterranean world, and, finally, our planet itself, “once a garden in the universe, but now on the edge of annihilation by the hand of man.”

And more, the books work like music and literature, with recurrent motifs, clusters of notes harmonizing and clashing with each other, abstruse numerological references, and established characters who change (or don’t change), be they of people or of emanations of history, and relationships that grow ever more deep and reflective. Scholars are still delving deep into such complex works of literature as Homer’s “Odyssey” (a touchstone for Eskenazi) and James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” debating symbol, allusion, and overall meaning; and it’s not hard to imagine scholars years from now digging into similar depths in the three books the photographer calls his “Black Garden Trilogy.” Yes, they’re that rich.

But this isn’t an essay written years from now, this is in effect a review upon publication. So let’s get to it.

All of Eskenazi’s photos are in black and white, and each of the books is handsomely produced. The shots are printed in rich tri-tone, and the books are all bound in thick natural cardboard with a fulsome color cloth spine. In “Wonderland” the photos have a slight white border; in “Black Garden” each photo has what looks like a hand-drawn black frame inside a white-paper border; in “Departure Lounge” the photos have a black-paper frame—not huge differences, but careful and telling. As Eskenazi explained above, the books are also broken into numbered chapters, clearly noted (hand-drawn Arabic numerals in the first book, Roman numerals in the second, printed Arabic numerals in the third), three per book, nine total.

As much as any photobook I can think of, these are works not to be flipped through but actually to be read, and read deeply. Try it: You can curl up with “Black Garden” and go from boys tending horses in an animal market in Turkey to mummer-like figures holding up toy bomber planes on Fifth Avenue to a mesh-shrouded bird’s-eye view of Ground Zero to a shop window back on Fifth Avenue with curiously Greek goddess–looking models amid a reflection of what looks like Doric columns, then back to the real Old World with a shot of workers putting up a cloth roof over chairs set up before the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. Each picture expands on Eskenazi’s story as it loops back to photos you’ve read before. It’s an immediately satisfying experience, even as all the complexities of the book tantalize and inspire further readings.

Oh, and the photos themselves are really good. Once you’ve seen the array of shirtless male bodies hanging off of bars doing sit-ups at a military camp in Kazakhstan in “Wonderland” you won’t forget it. The shot has the complex composition of the best of Alex Webb’s shots (sans the vibrant colors). Indeed, Eskenazi is great at bodies in motion, whether it’s yamaka’d boys at a Passover festival in Jerusalem or the next photo of a host of kids clambering over a fence in Istanbul. He’s a master of the telling moment, too, with the understated power of a Cartier-Bresson, and nearly as wide a geographical range. You also won’t forget the shot in “Black Garden” of a man in Istanbul standing on his right leg, his left leg and torso fully perpendicular to the ground, a Molotov cocktail about to be launched. Oh, and to enrichen the photo, in the foreground is a fully shrouded figure with an unlit cocktail bottle atop their head.

This is a newsy photo, for sure, a shot taken with all the implied danger of being smack dab in a battle zone; but it’s not a mere news shot because it’s so strong and timeless, and the story it bears isn’t the disposable kind that graces newspapers but instead a photo that links tightly through form, subject, and implication with all the other photos in the trilogy. Furthering the pairings and resonances of the book, the above isn’t the only Molotov cocktail shot. A few pages earlier we see two homemade bombs launched into the smoky air by a hooded man before a dumpster fire. Those two bombs soaring during a street fight in Cairo are on the right side of the page. On the left? A Veteran’s Day parade on Fifth Avenue, men in minuteman costume tootling pennywhistles marching along beneath four helicopters in the sky in the near exact positions as the flaming bottles in the adjacent shot.

Yes, that degree of dualing and complexity. Some college school student will someday write a paper on just this one page spread … if not a graduate thesis on the whole three books.

A small hint to that future thesis writer: The first photo in the trilogy, a lovely nude-torsoed woman looking out a hotel room window in Moscow is from the same contact sheet as the final photo in the trilogy, the same woman now putting on a dress and lit up by a curtain before the room’s large hotel window.

Does that mean the whole trilogy takes place in the few seconds between the photos? Are all the shots in all three books simply that woman’s dream? Or is she the trilogy’s heroine, who, escaping mere temporality, has adventures on many continents over many years and many political and social upheavals finally to arrive back just where she began? I’ll leave it to my hypothetical scholars to work it all out as best they can.

As for me, can I pick a favorite volume of the three linked books? Nope, they’re each full of powerful, amazing photographs, and they each radiate Eskenazi’s deep intent in how his story is coming together. I do have photos I like better than others, but even thinking like that in such a complex work seems to be missing the point, like deciding that the scene with Miss Havisham burning up in Dickens’s “Great Expectations” is the only chapter in the book you like, the rest of it, Meh. No, in the “Black Garden” trilogy every photo has a reason to be there, and as much as in any photobook I can think of, the sum is far larger than the very impressive parts.

This last thought is most manifest dead center in the middle book.

Before I describe the array of photos in that center spot, I should tell you that Eskenazi worked for a while as a security guard at the Met Museum (great first job, you wannabe photographers and artists), and he spent a lot of time with the Italian altar pieces. He says he fell for their three-part nature, the large middle panel, and the two flanking it—and that the whole trilogy is in a way based on that construction.

So what does the very middle of a book based on Odysseus’s travels, a trilogy inspired in part by our current ecological crises, do? It opens up beautifully.

First you hit a photo that’s spread the length of the quite wide book. It’s dozens of bathers in a sun-drenched sea, in a broad circle, all holding hands. But that’s hardly all. The initial spread folds back, revealing four photos, on the right boaters walking ashore, next to it a lump of an island in the sea, then three black-shrouded women gazing outward, and finally a handheld snapshot of the World Trade Center hovering inches from a camera trained on Lower Manhattan post 9/11. But then—breathless hopefulness—those two end photos fold back and we get one whole spread of events before a calm sea: a man lying on rocks, a woman looking out at a ship, that island, those shrouded women, then some sunbathers, and finally a woman using a primitive straw broom to sweep up trash before the wine-dark sea.

A still center in the chaos, a place the whole wild rest of the three books swirl around. True, world-saving hope? Not for me to say. (Turns out the man on the rocks is a dead refugee; and the book’s next spread puts us right back in fire and Molotov-cocktail-throwing violence.) But that woman in that Moscow hotel dreaming this whole breathtaking photobook saga, I’m sure she—like us—takes her comfort these days where she can.

But comfort, of course, is not Eskenazi’s job. Making strong, moving photos is. As well as creating a book that pushes the very boundaries of what a photobook can be.

That’s the vastly ambitious job he took on … and in the three astonishing volumes of “The Black Garden” trilogy, unequivocally pulled off.

A selection of Jason Eskenazi’s photobooks can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.