Phaidon makes beautiful, oversized artbooks; walk into a thoughtfully-decorated suburban home or apartment and you are likely to find one or more anchoring a coffee table or protruding conspicuously from a shelf. They are the costume jewelry of taste: bobbles to confirm a certain background or status that one notices in passing and then rarely considers again. Questions Without Answers does not fit this box.
The book is divided into four subjects: After the Cold War, Lives in the Balance, Landscapes in Turmoil, and Changing of the Guard. Each of the sections includes several photo essays captured in a few brief paragraphs to ground you in place, time, and the thoughts of the photographer followed by 5-10 pages of photographs, most with 2 to 3 on a page. The timespan of the work is roughly 1990-2011, though there may be some exceptions.
Like other books from Phaidon, it is a hefty volume of page-after-page of photographs sumptuously printed in rich colors that speaks to one of the positive aspects of capitalism in general and publishing's contribution to art in particular - that such works can be assembled, bound, and delivered at such a price. The similarity to other art books, however, ends there.
This is an unflinching look at our world. For consumers of the book it may seem like postcards from the serrated edge, but it is really more of a testament to the reality of the condition of the people in our world in all of its breadth. For every image from a fashion show, there are probably 20 revealing life in a war-ravaged city or a mental hospital or a mining village. In other words, it provides equal representation to all of the people on the other side of the lens, not just the ones of a certain privilege or agreed beauty. Moreover, these are not constructed photographs, they are glimpses of people moving or wounded or laboring or, in few instances, resting. Even the relatively few images without human subjects reveal a presence of humanity through its conspicuous absence.
Fairly or not, few of these photographs would make it into any mainstream publication. They are not easily digestible. They are provocative in their truth, but if you can remain present without getting numb to so much suffering it will sink in: this is the condition of the world we have created. This is an unflinching portrait of both the 1% of the groomed, packaged, and consumable as well as the 99% of the messiness of life today.
These are not the photographs one gets by visiting someplace for a week and taking the well-trod path. These are images of places that even the most well-traveled among us will never see and intimate in a way that can only time can produce: from a child's relieved smile in Darfur to a sex worker's grimaced embrace in India.
Whether this book will end up on too many coffee tables is unlikely. Most of us want to escape into the fantastic beauty of inviting landscapes and gorgeous people, but some sobriety is well taken. While they may take issue with the comparison, their collective of photographers, self-identified as VII, harkens back to the early days of Magnum, when photographers gave their lives for their craft. The people at VII are giving their souls.
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Printing and binding: five stars; organization of content: three stars (because it of so much zig and zag between ideas and emotional push/pull between the subsections); personal subjective taste relating to the photos representing a subject: three stars; value of the work in the commitment of the artists and raising awareness: five stars. Average: four stars.
Though provocative and challenging, my hope is that others will support this work and more broadly the people who provided these insights through their photographs.. And I hope this review helps you.