Two Senses – Review of “It Could Have Been A Beautiful” by Edouard Elias

Given the fact that photography is a visual medium, it is perhaps surprising that more innovation has not been imagined in the world of photobook book arts. While there have been tremendously beautiful books produced by any number of small and large presses, they tend to be beautiful within a well-established set of assumptions. Yes, there is a solid argument to be made that extravagant books arts may draw away from the images they contain, the same way an overwrought frame may distract from the image it holds, and my shelves hold a large number of books where the art-direction and design are sophisticated and impactful, but that’s not what I mean. Think of it this way—you’re living on a diet of Tchaikovsky and someone asks, “Have you listened to Charlie Parker?”

“It Could Have Been A Beautiful” by Edouard Elias
Published by IIKKI, 2023
review by W. Scott Olsen

IIKKI books has come up with a new way to imagine what a photo book may be. Not so much what it contains, but how to experience it., what kind of conversation we have with the images on paper.

IIKKI’s most recent offering is a book called It Could Have Been A Beautiful, by photographer Edouard Elias. The book, a collection of B&W and color images of strife, is not just a book of photographs. As with their previous offering, Shadow’s Praise by David Nissen, which I had the good fortune to review a while back, this book is a duet of sight and sound, a photo book with an accompanying soundtrack.

As explained on the book’s back cover, “It Could Have Been A Beautiful is the result of the dialogue between the photographer Edouard Elias and the music artist Aiko Takahashi initiated by IIKKI between September 2022 and September 2023.”

The back cover also explains, “The complete project works in two physical imprints: the book and the disk [Vinyl/CD]. It should be experienced in different ways. The book read alone. The disc listened to alone. The book and disk read and listened to together.”

As just a photo book without the audio track, It Could Have Been A Beautiful is a poignant, sad, and sometimes angering discourse on the troubles in the contemporary world. The photographs, taken between 2012 and 2021, cover areas of strife, conflict, and dismay from Bangladesh to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, Iraq, the Mediterranean Sea, Syria, and elsewhere. There are images of violence and despair, all haunted, given the book’s title, by the idea that something else was possible.

The first section, It Could Have Been A Beautiful Afternoon, contains a variety of sad images: rocket fire and street violence, intermixed with children playing table tennis and soccer or jumping into the sea. There are lifeboats filled with refugees in life jackets, burning ships on the horizon, men with machine guns, and men hiding behind sandbags. One image simply shows the ground littered with bullet casings.

This section is meant to be accompanied with the first selection of music, a 16 minute and 32 second meditation that begins with birdsong and moves into a type of tone poem (vibraphone?) that evokes a mood more than a narrative. The music creates a feeling of, well, a beautiful afternoon. To listen to this music while looking at the images of trouble makes the experience more gut-punch sad.

The second section, “It Could Have Been A Beautiful Evening,” is likewise an admixture of color and B&W, showing refugees at sea, rocket fire, and the desolation of a war-ravaged cityscape. The music, without birdsong, is again a tone poem with more complicated strings and percussion along with the other. There is a bit more dissonance here, evoking both the peace and the threat of oncoming night.

Standing alone, just as images, It Could Have Been A Beautiful, holds the kinds of images that reinforce the notion that war is obscene at every level. And we are failing as a species to let it persist. To listen to it along with the music, however, is to add a dimension of pathos.

The music and images in the third section, It Could Have Been A Beautiful Morning, take us into what should be a new day, with all the hope of rejuvenation and restarting, but begins with children under umbrellas, a dog running through muddy street, scenes of poverty and despair. There is a persistent sadness here as the world “could” becomes an indictment of ourselves.

I cannot say images of the destruction of war are anything new, sadly. At the same time, I do not mean to take anything away from these images. They are, every one of them, poignant and moving. The book, viewed without the soundtrack, achieves a particular power of photography, which is to create empathy and a will for change.

But when the book becomes multi-sensory, when it becomes audio as well as visual, it gains an emotional depth we have heretofore only expected in movies. There is an argument being made to the eyes as well as the ears. In this case, a sad, wistful, nostalgic and plaintive argument that it, our self-inflicted pain, could have been different.

Of course, in this case, if it could have been different, then it should have been different.

It Could Have Been A Beautiful is a remarkable reimagining of what a photo book might offer.

A note from FRAMES: Please let us know if you have an upcoming or recently published photography book.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *