Reviewed by Stan Banos
PowerHouse Books, October 2007. $35 / $23.10 on Amazon
Whatever you may think about the current debacle in Iraq, Christoph Bangert's photos in Iraq: The Space Between are some of the most compelling to have emerged from that living hell. And that's because his eye goes well beyond mere newsprint criteria—how anyone creates "art" under war conditions is truly beyond reason. Aiming cameras and deciding proper light and framing while others are aiming guns is hardly conducive to the creative process. And yet Bangert, like Capa, Meiselas, and Nachtwey before him, manages to thrive under just such conditions. His bold colors and dynamic wide angle scenarios are matched and counterbalanced by content that can be: dramatic (grievously wounded or grieving civilians), ironic (the fragile female beauty of an adolescent entrapped within a nearly deserted house almost reads like a fashion spread), or both (the lush color of a truck's canopy surrounding suspected insurgents is downright Egglestonian). All this from a guy who relaxes by then going on a cross-country solo excursion across the continent of Africa.
But despite the dramatic content and composition described, I can't be too enthusiastic in my endorsement due to the presentation and layout of the book itself. Many of the photos in Iraq: The Space Between are two-page spreads that do not fully extend to either side (to avoid cropping). It's bad enough that the picture gets "interrupted" by being run across the gutter, but the viewing experience is then further disrupted by an annoying blank white border to one side of the image. Imagine having a white matt solely to the left or right of a photograph at a gallery exhibit!
One photograph that truly exemplifies the problem is a minimalist composition involving a barrier in the desert. The barrier consists of nothing more than a striped horizontal line that divides the photograph into two equal halves of earth and sky- which in turn then finds itself competing with the white "border" section to the left of the picture. The entire photo is effectively thrown off balance and incorporated into what becomes one very confused and discombobulated graphic.
So you can imagine my surprise when I removed the dust jacket—only to find a smaller, more modest reproduction of the same image on the book's cover! Without the noise of the gutter and the off-centered layout, the original composition became immediately apparent and easily appreciated. To make matters worse, other individual, unrelated photographs are often joined back-to-back as a disconcerting "panorama" of images, effectively reducing and nullifying the inherent power and composition that these singular images were originally intended to portray. Such a presentation should only be considered when the individual images are too weak to stand on their own.
As you may have gathered, I'm not particularly a fan of the bigger-is-better syndrome when it comes to "mutilating" photographs by running them across both sides of a two-page spread. And while all the photos of Iraq: The Space Between do not fall under the "fine art" category (some were taken from the window of an armored vehicle—the limited embedded access no doubt hindered as much as it helped), the arrangement and presentation of anyone's images in such a slipshod manner is a disservice to all involved. These powerful and eloquent photographs deserve better, and this book serves as a potent primer on how not to assemble and present what remains a most outstanding series of images.
Featured Comment by Greg Heins: "I'm still waiting for the book that runs the text across the gutter."