by Allyn Gaestel
I lent Jason Eskenazi’s photo books to a friend of mine to look at after dinner. I had been carrying them in my suitcase for eight months. It was the night before a residency where I planned to finally cohere the fragments of this essay into a text. In the morning my friend told me the books were intense to look at right before bed. She quoted the introductory poem to Departure Lounge:
If you cannot bear your grief
And you dare not dare to die
Then make of grief a song
And bear it high.
I don’t know if it is because, like Eskenazi, I too have been a journalist, so I too have stuck my face into every space to see every situation, every way we can treat each other, every contortion a body can take; or if it is because I’ve looked at so many photographs that what I see more than the subject is the gaze. I had to look again to recall that of course these books are dark. Or, I had to look again to see the corpses. I already knew they were dark. But to me they are dark because journalism is dark; they are violent for reasons of narrative.
In Wonderland, Eskenazi frames the world as myth, goes looking to tell a “fairytale of the Soviet Monolith,” then by the end realized: “Searching for metaphors, but realizing, too late that I brought my own when I first arrived.” The practice of imposing myths on spaces is the quotidian violence of the outsider who remains impermeable, who, blinded by ambition or acquisition or expectation, enters and leaves spaces with only what they sought. Most western journalists do this. What makes Eskenazi special, and his books worth engaging with, is that he noticed he was doing it.
Wonderland was shot during the nineties, designed by 2000 and first published in 2008. This year Eskenazi re-released Wonderland and published two sequels, if you can call them that: Black Garden and Departure Lounge. The trilogy is divided physically into three, but they are one text, one journey—book two begins on page 78 with chapter IV—and they question time, so the temporal lacuna between the publishing of the first and second, the immediacy of the second and third, are irrelevant.
Wonderland became itself mythical in the photography world, or at least the New York based subset of which Eskenazi is part. He is one of the founders of Red Hook Editions, which published the books, a small imprint respected in this tight, tumultuous community. Wonderland was revered, made classic, and then rare: used copies on Amazon range from 590 to 5,000 dollars. When I asked to borrow a copy I was regaled with stories of its scarcity. Alan Chin told me his copy had been stolen twice from his apartment. Eskenazi told me he could perhaps lend me his mother’s copy for a week or two. Finally, Glenna Gordon lent me hers, saying she had carried it all around West Africa, so it seemed fitting the book would continue to travel with me.
Wonderland is the smallest of the three, and it is the best. Eskenazi’s aesthetic is sweet, milky, mysterious, cinematic. The book is a black and white dreamscape, clicking between worlds with every flip of the page. Three women, one pregnant, stare blithely at a crashed airplane as children play, swinging from the tail (“Fallen Soviet Monument, Chechnya, 1996). We only see their backs. A perfect sequence of bodies are stacked one, two, three, as if illustrating the arc of a sit-up, while behind, people practicing push-ups and pull-ups perfectly punctuate the frame (“Army Base, Karagandar, Kazakhstan, 1998”). Three schoolgirls in white bows balance on a staircase descending into water; ripples kiss the rigid concrete lines as one girl crouches and dips her fingers (“Last Day of School, Volgagrad, 2001”). Two ballerinas sit in a warehouse, their cloud of tutus and shiny pointe shoes incongruent with the background of peeling walls and stacked sets (“Mariinsky Ballet, St. Petersburg, 2000”). Light flows through broken windows in an abandoned church. A bombed-out circus is concentric circles under a confetti of rubble. There are mock funerals; insect-like gas masks; girls sauntering down a dirt path framed by graves. Everything is a bit eerie, melancholic, saccharine. Nothing is quite as it seems. Reality is slippery, and we slide through the panoply that evokes more than it says.
It is its inconclusiveness, its ambivalence and uncertainty that made Wonderland so addictive. It said a million things, but also nothing. It is dense and yet light; nonlinear but perfectly sequenced. It stood perfectly on its own. But the trilogy is important because after Wonderland, Eskenazi was not done. While a decade passed between the publication of the first and second books, and there were many moments of side tracking, other projects, bouts of poverty, study and rebirth, the questions Eskenazi were posing with the first book lingered, plagued him, until he addressed them.
“I need to unravel the strands that went before,” he wrote in the text for Black Garden, the second in the series.“Back over the Atlantic, to the Old World, back to where my ancestors came from.” The series of photo books are ostensibly about Eastern Europe, about the question of East and West, but really they are a bildungsroman: a symphonic ode to the evolution of the soul; a visual exploration of the shifting of his thoughts and frameworks for the world; a spiritual coming of age novel told in wispy photographs of girls in white dresses and cyclists on bombed out streets.
Eskenazi knows this is what he is doing. He wrote in an email: “I see myself as a conceptual photographer who masqueraded as a photojournalist or a documentary photographer for the last 30 years.” And in the text for The Americans List, a book he made gathering photographers’ reflections to Robert Frank’s masterpiece, he described photographers as being “soaked in fame or soaked in rain, who pound the pavement with their magic boxes looking at the exterior world for internal reflections of their souls.” All photographs are self portraits; all document the way of seeing.
Eskenazi loves Robert Frank, and aesthetically Frank is central to Eskenazi’s personal canon. When I asked for other influences he named Josef Koudelka, Garry Winogrand, Anders Petersen; he is deeply entrenched in the tradition of white male documentary photographers—the only canon that calls itself “the canon.” And Eskeneazi indeed describes himself as a “traditionalist.” But what made The Americans a seminal photographic text was its statement on a certain moment in America. It was apt. It resonated. It aged. Eskenazi’s books are not effective documentary works on the “subjects” he claims to be exploring. He was almost flippant in referring to the themes of Black Garden and Departure Lounge: the subjugation of women, the East-West divide, the degradation of the environment, the American empire after 9/11. I do not have a sense of a statement on these topics when I close these books. But the texts have value because the inner evolution of the soul has value, and these are the questions Eskenazi is really asking, in and of the world. The books document how his work worked on him; how implicit biases woven into initial questions can be untangled through the response if the seeker is slow and permeable enough.
In Black Garden, Eskenazi again asks questions that in their answers he finds irrelevant; the answers to the questions undermine the very framework of the questions. He noticed the relationship between what we are looking for and what we find: “We are a species of self-fulfilling prophecies, solidifying the myths we create, then becoming them,” he wrote. “We conjured up a world of opposites, from within to outside ourselves; of sky and sea, of East and West; from hemisphere to hemisphere.” Setting out looking to document history, Eskenazi came back—or kind of didn’t. He lives in Istanbul now—with poetry and fluidity. “The vanishing point is beginning to blur, or do I just need spectacles? East is West, and West is East,” he wrote. In the center of Black Garden is a pull-out panoramic photo assemblage of the sea: various coastlines commingle, pasted against each other. He pushed to the end and dissolved; went out looking for East and West only to realize they are constructs and don’t actually exist.
Black Garden is a different scale than either Wonderland or Departure Lounge. In the reprint, Wonderland will match Departure Lounge and the two will fit over Black Garden like an altar piece, he said, a holy triptych. Eskenazi calls himself a secularized Jew, but he thinks about the sacred. He’s seeking the sacred, seeking tradition, and his work borders on the mystical as he pushes further and further from reality to fairytale to myth to metaphor and then to shapes, spheres, circles, the spiraling all-ness of everything. “I’m certain that if we traveled near-forever through this celestial dust that we would come back to where we began. But we are mortal,” he wrote.
Nomadism is circular; a pilgrimage is linear. It might look the same from the outside to travel from place to place, but nomadism is about needs: you do not have all you need to survive continually in one place, so you move when the water dries, physically or psychologically. In a pilgrimage, though, you move for spiritual reasons. You are called to a place, transform in that place, then leave to continue to the next place you are called to. It is a difference in orientation and perhaps also in pace. We are all continually changing, but certain phases are more contracted. Eskenazi sees the three decades that cohere in these books as a period of intense spiritual formation. “This was like the longest gestation period of being born in some ways, of going through the canal and finding how to breathe and how to live. I’ve come out of it a totally different person, I think. I think I’ve transformed myself, but it took a very long time.”
On a pilgrimage, the world forms us. At its purest, journalism can be this: a punishing route to the transformed self, a path to see everything and then change your way of seeing; one path to enlightenment, to the dissolution of the self. Realizing that everything is happening, somewhere, that the external world is interwoven with our own interior, that everything we thought we knew can be deconstructed, reordered and changed, all of this can be clarifying and clearing for the psyche.
Yet there is something simultaneously deeply pure and deeply problematic with using the world as a stage for personal evolution.
My friend noted how perhaps it was his exploration of grief that meant all the people were looking away in Eskenazi’s photographs. But I see this throughout the trilogy, throughout Eskenazi’s work. When I look at photographs of people I see relation. The relationship between the people in the photograph is visible, as well as the relationship between the photographer and their subject, and the relationship between Eskenazi and the people he is shooting is distant: sculptural, metaphorical, poetic, but also somehow dehumanizing. Eskenazi said himself that he shoots people like they are statues. He was thinking of the liveliness of Greek statues. Before he traveled to shoot the second two books, he spent twenty months working as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, watching the people watching the art, earning what he considered an informal PhD in art history. He mused: “the statues were alive, they were living, the Greeks–or whatever they called themselves back then–knew how to insert a person within the marble, so you see the emotions, the pain, generally, of people, of the statues, that they were actually real human beings, or representations of real human beings who had emotions . . . so for me, when I look at the people, whether they’re refugees or not, they appear somehow as statues, they exist within the space that you create within your frame, they inhabit this space, and they strike poses somehow, and you’re there to capture the moment.”
Emotion carved in marble, people turned to stone. My friend said it’s interesting how photographers use people to tell their stories; which in a way is turning people to props. We agreed, these are not portraits. Almost all of the photographs in these books have people in them, but the people are shapes. Eskenazi is a master of composition, of framing and rhythm. The books are a symphony of ribbons and bows and hats and fingers, flows of fabric, weddings and deaths. The most striking photographs have an unexpected balance; the bland ones are too direct in their repetition or references. In the smaller books this kaleidoscopic, wonderland-like energy works better because it is a surprise to fall, in each flip of the page, into another complete, mesmerizing scene. In Departure Lounge, the horseshoe created by pumps passing a corpse on a linoleum floor (“Medical School Cadaver, Lvov, Ukraine, 2000”) is echoed a few pages later in the curve of a gilded arch held aloft by a group of women (“Religious Procession, Tutaev, Russia, 2000”). Both are accentuated with white fabrics, a repetitive motif throughout the books.
Black Garden, as the largest, is the only of the three that places two images next to each other, which makes more obvious the intentional fracturing, pulling together pieces that speak to each other not for subject matter but for composition. The juxtapositions can at times feel too obvious—pairing a horses’ mane with a nude woman, echoing her pubic hair, felt gauche and cheap. But in all of this: people are rendered symbolic, countries are rendered myth; there is something inhumane despite the tender tone. The girls in white dresses are beautiful, but they are not themselves.
In his seminal text, Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote: “to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise, which, in that situation, can never be discarded.” Eskenazi’s description of consent to photograph was “a kind of silent collaboration where the people in the picture know you’re there to take pictures, they sort of wink at you and say ‘okay, take some pictures’.” He said, “Most of the time I have no connection with these people because a lot of times they are journalistic events, whether it was the refugees coming over boats in Lesbos, I didn’t speak to many of them, I didn’t get their stories either. I was not there as a journalist but as a photographer, I didn’t write anybody’s name down.” It’s not unlike his personality. He speaks more than he listens. He’s romantic but he’s also narcissistic. “It’s looking into someone else’s life in order to find something in my life, so you can say I’m just finding images to reuse later on, just finding material,” he said.
The disembodiment of the images, their decontextualization—what renders them myth, not human—is intentional. The captions are cryptic. At the back of each book Eskenazi lists only locations and dates for each image. They are scattered, and he loves this. He spoke gleefully of opening and closing these three decades of photographs with images snapped moments apart. For the symphony, the ode to grief, for the fairytale, we need not know the details. This isn’t documentary. “The goal for me was to collect images and see how they can be formed into a universal narrative or story that dealt not just with the idiosyncrasies of a particular event, but like fairy tales or mythologies, with morality and culture, and simply what’s it’s like to be human,” he wrote.
I love nonlinear narratives, but still, these choices trouble me because it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to both make poetry and speak to universal themes while still treating humans not as examples, statues or material but as individuals: specific, complicated, distinct and vast.
“Can you tell me one question you would like me to ask you. . . that nobody has asked you before?” street photographer and writer Eric Kim asked Eskenazi in a 2012 interview.
Eskenazi responded : “Why don’t you have any children?”
“Okay,” Kim said, “why don’t you have any children, Jason?”
“Photography takes up most of my time, energy, and money—and I can’t afford to have a family,” he said. “And photography is an extremely selfish profession. I am very selfish in the way I want to keep that kind of secret part of me pure and untouchable and to do that you have to be kind of self-sufficient, and I feel like if anything or anybody is impinging on that kind of core thing it would cause me to lose myself.”
At that stage, he was still in the thick of it. He was still finding himself in transport hubs, interchangeable, blinking across continents, unraveling his questions. He thought it was his only way to be. “I’ve been on the road, too long already to go back and try to find another crossroad in the road of life,” he said.
By the end of book two, he’s dragging in the departure lounge. “Lately an uncertain queasiness comes over me every time I head to Idlewild airport. Oh! Circumnavigation again. Of nausea and reverie,” he wrote. He was almost done, but not quite. Tired, but still, he had to finish.
Last year he said to me, “In some ways, photography was an interruption, like I didn’t waste 35 years because it was a vehicle to find myself, and I think I found myself . . . I was in countless war zones. I saw amazing human suffering, and the best of humanity as well, so for me it was like, really, I got to see everything,” he said. Though evolution is continuous throughout our lives, these periods of formation are precious and discrete. “I would say I was never really a photojournalist, and it was almost a wrong road I went, but it helped me to come to this point, you know, everything that has happened in those years has brought me to this point . . . and I feel like I’m kind of a bit finished. That is put behind me. Now I can do other things,” he said. He found his language, figured out how to be in the world, made his oeuvre, and now he doesn’t have to anymore. The work is alchemical; the trilogy is a documentation of his growth. He made some books for us to feel it, while he has transmuted into something new. “It’s time to take everything I’ve learned, and now live my life,” he said.
In the 2012 interview he was afraid to lose himself. In 2019 he told me he is in love. In the spiritual union between he and his wife, they are becoming like one person, he said. It doesn’t feel like a loss now. “I desire only a soft kiss from my wife, on the forehead, when I’m breathless, cold and stilled,” he wrote in the closing text for Departure Lounge. “Every love story adds to the healing of the planet,” he told me as the rain pounded the Brooklyn pavement outside, and we finished hours of musings on time, growth, completion, and what follows. “This is one love story. It is the most important to me, and I feel like we are the ones, we’re going to heal the planet and do something,” he said. “But everyone must feel that way, I’m sure. That’s why there is love.”
Allyn Gaestel is a writer and artist. She has written for the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Berlin Quarterly, Intense Art Magazine, Very Vary Veri of the Harvard School of Design, among many others. She is at work on her first book, a lyric novel. Her website has a full portfolio: AllynGaestel.com