Review by Melanie Chapman •
Timing is everything, as is perspective. This is true in photography as well as in life.
Recently, the imposingly large statue of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general who represented the racist past of the American south, was finally dismantled in just over an hour, after having dominated a residential area of Richmond Virginia for one hundred and thirty-one years. To better understand the context of this dismantling and why crowds would gather to witness such a symbolic death, look no further than Monument Avenue, the new photobook by landscape photographer Brian Rose.
Known for his large format studies of lower Manhattan and Donald Trump’s negative impact on the once quaint Atlantic City, Rose responded to the 2020 death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests by packing up his gear in the pandemic afflicted summer and heading to back Richmond, to confront the legacy of his childhood home. There he documented the ways in which the righteously angry expressed centuries of pent-up rage by defacing massive bronze statues of those who profited from the slave trade. With language as colorful as the spray paint, Rose wisely includes detailed shots as well as wide angle vistas to help the viewer experience the degree of outrage felt about the death of not just one African American man, but the thousands who were also beaten and murdered in the name of racism and commerce.
Though images of graffitied monuments may now seem ubiquitous in 2021, we are fortunate for Rose’s photographic instincts to document a visual conversation, when the statues that commemorated the worst aspects of the South’s history still stood tall but were no longer preserved in an honorific manner. Like lipstick on a pig, mere paint cannot make an ugly history seem beautiful, nor can it compete with the permanence of granite or steel. But for a moment in time, the totems of slavery that loomed over Monuments Avenue served as the perfect canvas onto which people’s legitimate grievances could be expressed.
While the images do not overtly express an opinion about the graffitied messages, one may presume that Rose’s decision to undertake this project, as well as his overall body of work,
implies he may be sympathetic to the point they make. His introduction and inclusion of historical photos helps provide context to what Rose witnessed in 2020, and why he felt compelled to make this book. Though this reviewer remains partial to Rose’s Atlantic City for its bite and wit, this handsome hard bound book with dynamic layout design and color printing will be a welcome addition to collectors of his work.
As viewers, we are fortunate that Brian Rose questioned his own family’s role in our country’s racist past, and documented evidence of the outrage, however superficial or short lived. Will future generations, those born into the digital rather than the bronze age, have their own reminders of America’s complicated struggle between myth and truth, upon which to vent their feelings, now that the massive statues and pedestals have been removed? Monument Avenue should serve as a source of inspiration and urgency. Do it now, preserve these acts of defiance and change, as Brian Rose has done so well, before the morning light once again reveals that all has been erased and there is nothing left to see.
Other photobooks by Brian Rose featured on PhotoBook Journal: Atlantic City
Melanie Chapman is a Southern California photographer and Contributing Editor
Monument Avenue, Brian Rose
Photographer: Brian Rose (born in Virginia, lives in New York City)
Publisher: Circa Press, London, UK, copyright 2021
Essay and captions: Brian Rose
Hardbound with stitch binding, 120 pages, Printed and bound in Italy, ISBN 978-1-911422-14-3
Book design: Jean-Michel Dentand
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).