Issue #177  12/11/2010
Photo Book Reviews: Lives On Both Sides of The Divide

By Matt Damsker


Essay by Anthony Shadid, with poems by Lisa Suhair Majai. The Quantuck Lane Press, distributed by W.W. Norton and Co., New York, N.Y. 136 pages; 100 duotone prints; hardbound; $29.95 (CAN $50.00). ISBN No. 978-1-59372-0377. Information: http://www.quantucklanepress.com .

Rania Matar's theme of ordinary lives living under extraordinary circumstance may not be a new one for documentary photography, but her sensitive, questing eye more than rises to the challenge of keeping it fresh. In this case, her homeland is the subject: war-scarred Lebanon, a unique locus as the long-suffering gateway between the Western and Arab worlds. Matar, who moved to the U.S. in 1984, brings forth images of an everyday Lebanon that seems to survive mainly through the will of its women, captured here in the quiet dignity of their domestic travail. As they feed their children, hang their wash, huddle patiently in rubble-strewn locales or refugee camps, pray or protest, Lebanon's women are the animating force that prevails, and so there is life, hope and playfulness in the wretched streets.

Matar's camera captures its share of Pieta-like interactions between young and old as they strive and survive, awaiting the distribution of food, resting uneasily, bravely persevering; but these photos are equally fixated on the details that bring the scenes truly to life. The plates of food by a mother's feet as she sits, cross-legged, ready to serve; the rows of fabric in a marketplace; the bullet-riddled textures of half-collapsed walls that frame so much of the action as the children play--these photos blend their stillness and sorrows with the kinetics of irrepressible life.

Matar composes these images with a powerful chiaroscuro skill, from high and low angles, yet she lets the frame fill itself, so nothing seems forced or rhetorical, even when she focuses on Lebanon's affluent edge: the upscale shops and the Westernized customers who seem to have escaped all reality. They are, simply, there. And while a glamorous billboard advertising Gauloises becomes an ironic emblem for the bombed-out facades along the street, it is also an exercise in sheer visual information, an inert moment in time.

"Baghdad was resilient, even in its medieval heyday. Beirut, more so with every passing year, is resilient as well," writes Washington Post bureau chief Anthony Shadid in the book's eloquent essay. "Matar may not try to represent the soul of Lebanon, but her images understand that essence evocatively well... [They] are most spectacularly about endurance and resilience, the tapestry of life." Indeed, it is a tapestry that doesn't require too much elaboration, and so the compassionate curiosity and honesty of Matar's camera convey depth without diatribe, while the mournful yet hopeful poems of Lisa Suhair Majai perfectly echo the visual and spiritual values of the photography: "...because we are all, each one of us, / in love with the light."


Backstreet Books, Revere, Pennsylvania. 106 pages, approximately 90 black-and-white prints; hardbound; ISBN No. 978-09766535-2-3. Information: http://www.backstreetbooks.com ; http://www.emilygrimes.com .

Nothing could be further removed from Rania Matar's images of Lebanon than Emily Grimes's genteel portraits of the generations of her family atop Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Grimes is one of the few of her clan to leave Lookout, emigrating to Chicago decades ago to begin a career as a photographer who has since chronicled woodlands, wetlands, farmlands, and even the Windy City's hip-hop artists. However, these family photos, a semi-regular series begun in the 1970s, could prove to be her great anthropological legacy.

They remind us how the affluent white Southerners of the late 20th century seem like an endangered species to us now, but through Grimes's familial lens they are warmly preserved, along with their capacious homes, hills, vales, rivers, streams, swimming pools, and live-in African-American servants. While most of these photos are casual snapshots taken at annual family gatherings or weddings, Grimes is a gifted photographer who composes with care, responding to the decisive moment and smoothly connecting us with her relatives as they convene--cocktails frequently in hand, and pass the tasteful torch of gentility down the line.

Grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, and innumerable offspring are glimpsed in happy moments of kinship, but some of Grimes's best photos are of the domestic context--the empty porches, sweeping driveways, private woods and pristine vistas in which the privileged of Tennessee once flourished. Indeed, anyone who grew up in upper middle-class America in the 1950s and '60s can relate to these photos, but by now, with early 21st-century America sunk in on itself, they inevitably feel like a celebration of something we can no longer celebrate: an American Dream at once welcoming and exclusionary. This is best evidenced by the occasional shots of Grimes' relatives posed with such family "fixtures" as the elderly cooks and maids who played such a major role in these households; for all the good cheer, there's a familiar uneasiness, the unease of half-belonging, on the faces of these beloved retainers.

In her acknowledgments, Grimes notes that the book's production was family-financed as a means of collecting the many private photos she took over the years, so it is clear enough that this isn't a project reflecting the mainstream of her photographic work. It is a family album--a handsome, ultimately personal keepsake that hardly asks to be embraced by the wider world. Still, it reverberates, reminding us just how insular the American ideal can be.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)