Black Garden is Jason Eskenazi’s long-awaited sequel to Wonderland, and was the Charcoal Photobook of the Month selection for May 2019.
I’m not familiar with Wonderland… I’m also not familiar with the 3rd volume in the series, Departure Lounge. Thankfully, there are many interviews and articles with and about Eskenazi and his project, and the sequence of photographs in Black Garden are fairly easy to follow.
The photographs for Black Garden were made between 2001 and 2017 in Turkey, Greece, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Egypt, Libya, Sicily, and the United States. There’s a sort of story in progress, it’s clear. There are ruins and people standing around or bicycling by; there are cheerleaders spinning in midair while Spider Man floats in the background. The pairs of images almost always relate, and obviously so: a group of women wail and beat their heads/a day trader stands dejected and downtrodden, holding a huge handful of ticker; a young girl peers around a corner at a horse standing in shoulder-deep snow; a young woman walking with her boyfriend or husband gazes up in wonder at the aforementioned Spider Man and cheerleaders. The pairings are effective, if somewhat heavy handed.
If Wonderland was a Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith, then Black Garden might be a fairy tale of the American empirical project since 9/11, what with our endless, slightly shifting, unwinnable quagmires in the middle and near east. Viewers of the book won’t miss this… the pictures make it obvious, and then there’s a bit of text at the end that makes it explicit.
Eskenazi is a great observer and solid photographer: no question but that he has the eye and the skill and some amount of access. An Olympus OM-1 and a bag-full of Tri-X and be there. His documentary skills are solid, but Black Garden (and, presumably, Wonderland and Departure Lounge) are not documentary works. Sure, Eskenazi takes documentary-type photographs, but he uses them to create a narrative that may have nothing to do with the people or places or events he documented.
Individually, there are some great pictures and some less great pictures here. Some look quite a bit like your usual 2010s Documentary Photography(tm). It’s their usage that is different and interesting. The conceptual aspect, the rearrangement and recontextualization of the individual frames is somewhat different, and removes Eskenazi’s work from that of the Documentary tradition. I might like the concept to be a bit more abstract, amorphous; I might prefer meanings to shift and slide about more than they do. But I appreciate the approach and method nonetheless.
Overall, I rate Black Garden a strong 3.8 stars.
I honestly wish I had a copy of Wonderland (and Departure Lounge) to compare/contrast, and for continuity purposes. But at $800-$1000 for a copy of the now out-of-print Wonderland, I’m very happy to just wallow here in limbo… The story he’s telling is obvious. There’s no question about it, and two other books likely won’t change any of that.
Black Garden remains available direct from Eskenazi and Red Hook Editions, and you can get it in a package with Departure Lounge if you like. This really is a good book and I appreciate Eskenazi’s project, and it’s worth supporting if you can.