Its really early on in my plans to slowly work through my book collection and review them one by one to be making this call, but America by Zoe Strauss is one of the best photo books available. Period.
If you dont know the story behind the book then this is a great way to start your journey through its pages, but I am going to give away a little of it here. Zoe poured her heart and soul into this book. Something that is plainly evident when you spend some time taking in the work in its pages. There isnt really many ways to put it, other than to say that there is a range of stunning images in the book. Some of them simple, and others highly complex.
The amazing thing for me within the pages is not the single images by themselves though. The amazing thing is the never ending ebb and flow of sequences of images that have been masterfully set out in a deliberate order. Their order adds feeling and emotion to the story that is being told. The images may have been taken worlds apart, but in many instances they just have this feel of belonging together.
I find it amazing that even a few sets of images can be paired like this in certain books that I own, but this is just different somehow. Each turn of the page leaves you with a slight smile and that slow feeling of realisation dawns on you. The images sinking in. Complimenting one another. Building on one another. Helping each other to tell their own story. Helping each others story to become more evident than if they were shown separately.
Zoe talks in the interview at the start of the book about the fact that the process of making images for her includes the editing and sequencing of images as well. The fact that this is such an important part of her photographic process is likely why she is so successful with it.
From reading her answer to one of the questions posed to her in the interview, she makes it plainly clear that she would find it hard to pick which part of the process of shooting, editing, post processing, and sequencing her images she finds her favourite. It would seem from the answer that she feels that all of these peices are just a part of a singular process. This for me is the key reason why there is such a fluid and coherent nature to the images in the book.
The strange thing about this is, that even though the sequence of the images makes me smile as I am allowed to slowly enter Zoe's world, learning just a little more each time I pick up the book. some of the images have this morbid and negative under tones to them, the sequencing seems to make this OK for me. It makes it easier to deal with the story thats unfolding on the pages. A story of poverty and drug use. A story of the areas of America that tourists wouldnt venture to. A story of the people in these areas that call them home. The only home they have.
Not all the images are dark or negative, there are some positive moments as well. I find that these few moments of happiness in the book are watered down a little by some of the other content. I also find that the images depicting the struggle and harsh reality that Strauss uncovered do tend to stand out a little more in the pages. I am sure that this was intentional, as I am sure that the struggle of these people impacted Zoe enormously as she spent years undertaking the project.
One of the amazing things about the book is how cheap it is as well. I got my copy for about $12US posted to Australia. Its second hand, and has a few scuff marks on the cover, but all the images are there, the pages are intact, and the scruffiness sort of suits the book I think. Even if you want a brand new copy of the book its inexpensive for what you are going to get. I dont think that there is such a thing as value in the sense of bang for your buck with a photo book as I am kind of happy to pay what it takes to get a good one, but this is hands down the most inexpensive book on my shelves, but is also hands down one of the best as I have already said.
I love all of the books that I have for very different reasons, but this one is plainly about the connection that I have with it. Its an interesting statement. I do feel that I connect a little with Zoe herself through reading the book. I also feel a connection to the subjects within the pages as well. Its the combination of these things that really makes it feel like this is a book that takes on a life of its own. Its this that allows the reader to feel like they are able to make a connection with the book itself.
I have already mentioned that there are some quite confronting images within the pages. These images usually of people. People who have had limbs removed, or people that are clearly poor and likely drug adicts. People who live in the areas of America where this is likely the norm in some cases.
This may be a bit of an assumption on my behalf. I have never been to America myself, and more to the point, if I did go there I dont think that these are the areas that I would end up visiting. I think its that connection that one develops with the book that makes you feel confident about making these assumptions for yourself. The keen ability of Zoe to so clearly document the story and situations of her subject leaves the reader sure about their place in their country. Its a genius ability for a photographer to be able to achieve this with a set of images.
The final thing for me that binds the images of the book together to generate their story is Zoe's ability to include images without a human element. These images in other books sometims have a sort of filler type of feeling to them. This is far from the case in America.
Sometimes these images are paired with an image containing people on the adjoining page. In these instance the images are always complimentary to one another. The image without the people always strengthening the feeling portrayed by the image with. In other instances there are sequences of images where both are lacking human content in the form of a person.
Even in instances where images with no people are paired together there is a feeling of belonging. I dont know if this is a layover from the same feeling that is generated in some of the other pairings in the pages, but its still masterful. I dont know of many images of a corner of a brick walled room that I find so intriguing. That ability to make the mundane and boring interesting through the lens of a camera takes a well trained and keen eye for detail. The ability to place that same photo in the middle of a book that portrays such a strong and unarguable message, and not have it feel out of place, is another thing in itself.
Zoe talks at the start of the book about the trip that she took to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina as a defining moment for her in her journey to becoming a photographer. The image above was evidently one of the photographs taken there. Such a simple image that tells so many stories. There feels like there are almost an infinite number of meanings that one could take away from the image. The might of nature vs the might of an international conglomerate. Interesting back story.
I am going to finish the post the same way Zoe finishes the book. A final patriotic stance from two of her American as American can be subjects. A final positive message for all the subjects within the pages of her wonderful book.
Zoe Strauss - America. A plain and simple message from me.
Just buy it...