Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land is the second annual publication of Rob and Arnold's ongoing Sochi Project. The first being last years Sanitorium. Sanitorium is everything a photo-book collector wants; limited print run, a slick design, clear concept and nice big pretty pictures un-cluttered by too much text. Its the last wish, "not too much text" which sets this book apart. Rob told me he often hears people say "I don't like photo books with alot of text...." This might be true in some cases but as any follower of the Sochi Project knows, the entire project is not positioned as an artistic endeavor but instead as a social documentary, albeit with a way above average photo contribution. I have to be honest and say that Arnold's text, until now, have had a hard time competing with Rob's images. This is an attempt to level the playing field and bring the texts and the images into one form; that form not being a "photo-book" nor a novel, but something in-between. A perfect sign for me is that I haven't read this on my big green couch next to the bookshelves in the studio which I have set up with perfect light for looking at photo books, but instead this one is on my nightstand, for reading in bed. This one keeps company at the moment with Barbara Kingsolver's "Lacuna" and Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief". At 290 pages and about the size of a hefty novel, this book is one you will take on a long train-ride, dog-ear the corners and refreashingly admit that EL,PL,FL is a damn good read!
A short summary of the story: Amid the bigger Sochi Project, Rob and Arnold travel to the very small and obscure region of Abkhazia on the Black Sea, squeezed (literally and politically) between Russian and Georgia. This story is the complex situation of a country which isn't recognized as a country, devastated by war and now mostly abandoned as it exiled about 75% of it's Georgian inhabitants at the beginning of the Georgian-Abkhazian War in 1992-93. As is with most histories from this region and down into the Balkans, the events leading up to civil wars are so incredibly complex and span generations of political, religious, and social nuances that are nearly impossible to understand, unless of course you dive in as Rob and Arnold have done, and even they admit it is quite a mess.
The design: I think the quickest way for a set of photographs to lose a bit of their surface illusion and take on the form of a book is to print the images across the gutter; double-truck. The photographs have to bend to the binding, becoming an object and not a surface. Normally this is done with a horizontal image, the verticles left to their own format. What really breaks with this form in EL,PL,FL is that you have to turn the book to see almost every one of the color plates, even the verticles which are spread across the gutter. The horizontals are also printed full bleed in a verticle format, so you even have to turn it for these. For the photo-book reader looking for an easy entry, this one will slow you down as it is basically impossible to flip through this like a magazine, with fleeting glimpses of images. Sometimes this feels like a text book from a history class, and rightly so. Its also worth noting that many of the most interesting photographs are not printed big and bold and colorful, but instead are embeded in the text, illustrating places and people as they are cross-referenced in the text.
Photobook enthusiast who have missed out on a title or two will know that Rob seems to have a Midas touch with marketing and selling his books so it makes sense that this one has a higher print run of 1000 copies considering that the purpose of these books is to finance the trips of the Sochi Project. This one might have a slower reception in the art/photo book world because of "all that text", but in the long run it will be the most important of the Sochi Project to date and, for me, the first time Arnold van Bruggen is given room and really shines, the collaboration becoming solid.
There is a special edition of EL,PL,FL launched at the Off Print in Paris.
Get both the trade edition and the special edition here.
I'm giving 2 for Christmas presents.