Review by Kristin Dittrich •
When her photobook reached me for review, I had to put it aside at first. Benita Suchodrev’s Of Lions and Lambs weighs a hefty 5 kg and comprises more than 360 pages. In the past, books like this one contained an artist’s life’s work; today, other standards exist in many publishing houses.
To show my full respect for this book, I shut down my office and turned off my cell phone. For hours, I was alone with this photobook. First of all, I let the images slide through my fingers quickly. Several times. And then I flipped through the whole book page by page, image by image. I decided — and this is the beautiful thing about photography books like this — to read this book backwards from the last page. There the author is depicted with a large-format black and white portrait.
There we get to know the photographer through her portrait, taken on a ship that would soon enter the port of Blackpool in England: A graceful, feminine woman in her 40s looks at us readers through the lens of the camera. Her blond, semi-long hair is flying in the wind.
When I submerged myself in the material of this book, as a reader, without ever having been to Blackpool, I undertook an imaginary visual journey to the west coast of England. After seeing this book, I will never have to take the effort to really travel to this city – that’s how thorough this introduction to Blackpool is.
First of all, I felt as if I was in a Black Velvet Underground video of the 1970s. Suchodrev has photographed many people mostly on the street that we might call ‘freaks,’ acting like outsiders: punks, toothless people, homeless, beggars. Children, couples and whole families in very worn clothing. I immediately grabbed my phone and called my English friends in Brighton, and sent them some pictures from this book over the phone. Their answer amazed me: “These are not freaks, they are the normal average people who live in this city.”
So we had a conversation about the nature of Blackpool, the city’s special reputation in the UK. “Because of its geographical location in northern Europe, England has only a few sunny days a year. As a coastal city, Blackpool benefitted only in the summer months from thousands of tourists from all over the country, and then the city sinks into an extreme shock.” That’s what the photographer points to. Who is left when icy winds blow again and the rain takes over? A few years earlier, in her photobook 48 Hours Blackpool, when traveling through this region, she visually observed the excessive drinking and holiday behavior of the tourists in this city, but now it is mainly locals in seemingly extinct neighborhoods, degraded flats and vacant shops that she photographs.
The first image of the book, a large swarm of birds above the sea, deserves a major award, as does a picture of a chalk-painted David by Michelangelo in dark light.
On the other hand, this book is too big, too thick, too heavy. The reader is compelled by the weight alone to show respect for the book even before it is opened. Some really strong images of the author suffocate in the surrounding mass of images. Visual metaphors and symbols are seemingly arbitrarily juxtaposed with the people of Blackpool: lambs, pigeons, crosses, saints, rabbits, ostrich babies. Ostrich babies?
Excellent images of a lion shot by Suchodrev at Blackpool’s zoo would have been worth their own smaller book. Same with the young people in masks that the photographer observes at a dinner party. When images are juxtaposed in a double-page spread, this often does not work: For example, combining the image of a white cockatoo in a cage with that of a a sad transvestite at the edge of a stage somehow detracts from the special tension and poetry each image presents on its own. This may in turn limit the reader’s new insights.
Suchodrev specializes in social portraits of cities around the world. She will continue to grow in her experiences with images in books and hopefully will soon have us at rapt attention again with a visual narrative with superb sequencing and tension.
She has the stuff to do it.
Translated from German by Gerhard Clausing
Benita Suchodrev – Of Lions and Lambs
Photographer: Benita Suchodrev (born in the former Soviet Union; lives in Berlin, Germany)
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg and Berlin, Germany; © 2019
Essays: Mark Gisbourne, Matthias Harder, Benita Suchodrev
Languages: German and English
Hardback, illustrated cover, sewn; 368 pages with 206 monochrome images; 24 x 31 cm
Photobook Designers: Benita Suchodrev und Kehrer Design
Kristin Dittrich, art critic and specialist for contemporary photography, is the Founder and Director of the Shift Image School and Steidl Library in Dresden, Germany (www.shift-school.com).
Articles & photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).