Ken Light – Course of the Empire

Review by Melanie Chapman •

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay a photographer is to be so inspired by their work that you go out into the world and attempt to make pictures in the same vein. Thus, on Christmas Day, Ken Light’s new photobook Course of the Empire compelled this reviewer to drive downtown, seeking images that illustrate the sense of disparity that comes not “but once a year”.

The contrast of the haves and have-nots in America is so increasingly apparent that no amount of over-shopping can mask this truth, yet this exercise demonstrated that illustrating this conviction is no easy task and reinforces what a masterful photographer Ken Light continues to be.

Course of the Empire could also be titled CURSE of the Empire, or CALAMITY, or CORRUPTION…as Light’s impactful afterword begins: “This is not the America I grew up in.” The 209 images of this new Steidl publication were made over a period of ten years, in sad small towns and fancy opera halls. Divided into chapters such as Heartland, Metropolis, Transformation, and Regime, Light’s black and white photography reveals an empire in decline while the decadence of wealth and power continues unabated. 

Light is from the school of social documentary photography, yet he is clearly a visual artist as well. Working with film in square format, Light’s use of framing and angle is evocative of Weegee, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Larry Fink and Robert Frank. The American flag is a reoccurring motif throughout this excellent body of work, whether draped around someone’s shoulders like a shield or fluttering in a hay field against a stormy sky.

He photographs riot police and naked sex workers, Mennonites and open-sore addicts, Cardinals, and heavy metal fans. Statues wrapped in plastic speak volumes as do the faces of hopeful migrants peering through a border fence. In one particularly compelling image, a presidential inauguration is attended not only by a middle-age woman with a fur trimmed coat and fetching winter hat, but also by a gleeful younger man behind her- slightly out of focus his smug delight steals all the attention in the frame.  

Like all Steidl books, each page of this hardbound masterwork offers a satisfying tactile as well as visual experience, with rich dark tones and quality paper that invite the viewer to revisit the images again and again. The editing is also of the highest caliber and provides visceral visual harmonics that remind us why photography is often best appreciated in book form.

As the metaphoric sun sets on this year and on our heaving empire, Light’s new book is one to keep picking up and spending time with, for inspiration and for guidance. We may not be able to stop the disintegration of our social fabric, but at least we will know what it looks like as the threads continue to fray.


Other photographic book by Ken Light feature on PhotoBook Journal is: Midnight/La Fontera and Course of the Empire was selected by the PhotoBook Journal staff as one of our Interesting Artist and Photographic Books for 2021.


Melanie Chapman is a Contributing Editor and a Southern California photographer.


Course of the Empire, Ken Light

Photography and essays: Ken Light, (born in New York City, resides in San Francisco Bay Area, CA) 

Text: English

Publisher; Steidl Verlag, Germany, copyright 2021

Hard covers, Printed by Steidl, Germany, ISBN 978-3-95829-958-0

Book Design: Holger Feroudj/Steidl Design


Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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