Charcoal Book Club is a wonderful thing… after delivering Jason Eskenazi‘s Black Garden in May, 2019 (reviewed here in February 2020, where I half-lamented being unable and unwilling to cough up the $800+ for a copy of the first volume of his trilogy), they (Charcoal) went and delivered, and in August, 2020 a signed, second edition copy of Wonderland: a Fairytale of the Soviet Monolith arrived on my doorstep. Win!
And it wasn’t just Wonderland in the package… the book came accompanied by copies of Eskenazi’s The Americans List II and Issue #7 “The Back Issue” of Dog Food, a rather surrealist/absurdist occasional magazine from Red Hook Editions, of which Eskenazi is a founding member.
Insofar as the title of this post is “Jason Eskenazi – ‘Wonderland,'” what follows is mostly a review of that book, but it would be remiss of me to unbox an additional book and zine and make no mention of them in the review, so…
Wonderland was photographed in Russia, where Eskenazi sort of moved shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and just before the USSR completely disintegrated. Photographs in the book were made in Russia and various states that were formerly part of the USSR, between 1992 and 2000, with the vast majority coming in the later third of the 1990s. Press around the book repeat Eskenazi’s statements about the book’s organization and themes, and if you read any of those before looking at the book, it becomes hard to see it as anything else…
The publisher’s blurb reads
The story of Communism is the story of the twentieth century. For many, the Soviet Union existed, like their childhood, as a fairy tale where many of the realities of life were hidden from plain view. When the Berlin Wall finally fell, so too did the illusion of that utopia. Wonderland is a photographic exploration that portrays both the reality beneath the veneer of a utopian USSR and the affirmation of hope that should never be abandoned. And like all fairy tales try to teach us: the hard lessons of self-reliance.retrieved from https://www.redhookeditions.com/wonderland June 7, 2021; also available most anywhere the book is sold.
Period reviews of the book on LensCulture and nearly everywhere else, and the notecard that came with the book from Charcoal, quote Eskenazi saying that he was “unconsciously imitating the classic structures of fairytales.” And “…in most fairytales, the parent or maternal figure dies and the child is left on their own to discover the dangers of the world through maturation. I saw the collapse of the USSR in a similar way.”
A 2008 All Things Considered segment on the book paraphrases this same sentiment, and has Eskenazi talking about it in somewhat more detail. I can’t find the original quote, which makes me think that perhaps the first edition had some additional text, but I don’t really know. And I really wish other reviewers would give bibliographic reference or links to sources. After all, primary quotes are really the only way to go for someone trained in the academy, like me…
Anyway. Everyone else says Eskenazi says he was thinking about fairy tales and fairy tale theory and religious iconography while making the book(s), if not the photographs themselves, and there must be something to it. Eskenazi himself references these same quotes, in other terms, so there must be something, somewhere.
Given all that I’ve read about it, it’s clear that Wonderland sorta follows an arc across its three chapters. It opens with scenes of the communal life promised by Communism, and that remembered by people after Russian communism failed: laughing together, crying together, dancing together, couples in love, various group activities; Chapter 2 shows the realities of crumbled structures and dusty museum exhibits. If these are the “thesis” and “antithesis” of fairy tale theory, then chapter 3 gives the “synthesis,” that is, it shows the good-enough reality, the just getting on with it, and finding that it’s not so bad after all.
Also, now with the trilogy complete, Wonderland seems like it was always Book I of a three book series, and while it may very well be the best, they all sorta fit together, with Wonderland and
Also, now with the trilogy complete, Wonderland seems like it was always Book I of a three book series, and while it may very well be the best, they all sorta fit together, with Wonderland and Departure Lounge nearly exactly half the width of Black Garden, sorta like wings on an altarpiece… And I wouldn’t have thought that at all, not right away anyway, if I hadn’t read or heard it in my research for this review…
And herein lies my abject failure as a photobook reviewer. Most of the time, I don’t really get much out of a particular book and it takes reading other reviews and interviews to gain some understanding or appreciation. Would that I could write what I see, feel, understand, imagine, rather than relying on others to pave the way.
Back in 2nd grade, it would’ve been, what, 1986 or thereabouts, we had too many snow days and so had to make up some time with a half day on a Saturday. It happened that the Saturday the school district picked happened to be both the Saturday before Easter and my birthday, and instead of doing any actual work, we had a family Easter egg hunt in the field behind the school. The mother of one of my classmates, who I hated—the classmate, not the mother—had hidden the prize egg and gestured to the girl where the egg was. I overheard and when the whistle blew, I went right there and scored the prize egg. It was the only egg I found, as I couldn’t imagine where other eggs might be, and so only looked where other people had already found the eggs.
And I haven’t changed much since.
The photography and layout and structure is, without question, top notch, and probably would make some sort of narrative without all the quoting and third-hand explanation from the author, but I’d never know. The book itself is bound on stiff cardboard, which already has some greasy fingerprints from me looking at it with greasy fingers, and oh well. It’ll still look pretty good next to the other two on the shelf.
Overall, I rate Wonderland a solid 4 stars.
The second edition (not a reprint, as it comes in a new trim size to fit into the altarpiece/triptych better) remains available from Red Hook Editions and elsewhere. If you’re going to get just one, this is probably the book to get… if not, you should get all three. If you believe some of the press, Eskenazi may be done with photography… he seems to be following Robert Frank in many ways, and Frank left photography for filmmaking for many many years, and only returned to photography briefly, and in very different ways, later in his life.
And speaking of Robert Frank, Wonderland, as it came from Charcoal, arrived with a copy of The Americans List II, which is a really interesting book. Eskenazi worked as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the Looking In exhibition, and, according to his introduction to the book, contrived to pretty much just hang out in the exhibition every day. Anytime he recognized a fellow photographer, he asked them to talk about their favorite picture from The Americans. He recorded a few hundred in the first edition of The Americans List and added another 95 for this second edition.
I haven’t read much of it yet, but it’s interesting to see how various photographers speak/write about photographs they admire. Some are wordy and theory-laden, others are abrupt and dismissive, others sound airheady or overly self confident. Overall, there are 368 responses from photographers, well known and otherwise, and it’s an interesting document to sit alongside other scholarship on The Americans.
The Charcoal box also contained the 7th issue of DogFood, Red Hook Editions occasional magazine from editors Eskenazi and Arjen Zwart. They’re up to 8 issues now, and if they’re all as interestingly strange, surrealistic, tongue-in-cheek as Issue 7, I should collect them all… They’re free, and so I wonder how to get ahold of them… That said, I probably wouldn’t do anything with them, so I probably won’t bother, but if you find yourself in possession of one, they’re worth a flip through. It reminds me some of Mad Magazine admixed with some light surrealist theory. Fun stuff.