Review: Christopher Anderson on Peter Van Agtmael
This book was short-listed for a 2014 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award.
Peter van Agtmael
Disco Night Sept. 11
Red Hook Editions
Designed by Yolanda Cuomo Design
8 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. (21.59 x 26.7 cm)
276 pages, including 19 gatefolds
188 color photographs
Clothbound hardcover with tip-on
I really don’t want to look at another picture from a war. For such a visual subject to photograph, so little seems to come from war photography that means much of anything at all. Some of it is done “better” or “worse”; sometimes there is a more powerful moment here, or better light there. But rarely does any of it add up to something more than a horrific accounting of a daily score. One of the reasons (there were many) I no longer function as a “war photographer” is that I couldn’t find a path to reconciling this for myself. I could not give myself a satisfactory answer to the question, “What is the point?”
It was always so. But now and then (once in a generation?) a body of work comes along that answers this question with thunder and poetry. Vietnam Inc. by Philip Jones Griffiths (1971) comes to mind. Farewell to Bosnia by Gilles Peress (1994) is an obvious example. With his book Disco Night Sept. 11, Peter van Agtmael might have answered that question for his generation of war photographers—and for himself.
Disco Night moves over vast territory, both geographic and emotional. Layers are stitched together to equal meaning that is bigger than the sum of its parts. The images float back and forth from Afghanistan to Iraq to America. We meet soldiers and civilians and families. But van Agtmael’s camera serves not to report their stories as much as communicate his experience among them. As with Tim Hetherington’s video, Diary (2010), van Agtmael deals with the dissonance between war and home and the gray areas in between: one day a firefight in Afghanistan, the next a view from his own childhood window. But the introspection is ambient noise; he is not consumed by it. The central characters are those trying to make sense (or not) of what war has brought them. The striking thing in this book is the humanity with which van Agtmael introduces us to this material. Humor and tragedy are not easily untangled in the real world.
The design and size of the book walk a fine line between understatement and gravitas. It is elegant without being pompous, simple without being shallow. The photography is loose and subtle, so it needs a bit of size to register. Apart from van Agtmael’s poignant introduction and diary-like entries sprinkled in (thank goodness he didn’t add some insufferable academic essay about what war photography is), lengthy captions accompany the images. In a lesser book, this might easily suck out all the poetry, but here it works coherently in the service of its overall power.
I should note that Peter is a friend and colleague of mine at Magnum, so in the spirit of objectivity there has to be some criticism. So, here goes: photography in and of itself is not very interesting to me. Visual wizardry and compositional fireworks are just tricks. With some shining exceptions, the pictures in Disco Night are not what one would describe as “good” in that mundane sense of photography. But because they are not “good” pictures, they are great pictures: pictures full of confusion, frustration, fear, excitement, anger, horror, and sorrow. For me, this is where photography becomes interesting. These are not just pictures about war. They are pictures about us—us as Americans, Afghans, Iraqis; as soldiers, civilians, journalists, innocents, savages. It doesn’t seem trite to call Disco Night Sept. 11 an important book. It will fit perfectly on your shelf somewhere between Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) and Gilles Peress’s Telex Iran (1983).
Christopher Anderson has been a member of Magnum Photos since 2005. He is the author of five photography monographs, including Capitolio (Editorial RM, 2009), Son (Kehrer, 2013), and Stump (Editorial RM, 2014). Presently he is the first-ever photographer-in-residence at New York magazine.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.