There is something both common and brilliant about the idea of revisiting images. With just a little bit of time gone by, so much of the world, and so much of the photographer, has changed, old images stand apart from whatever reason brought the artist to press the shutter release. Wonderfully mundane images taken today might have deep historical significance fifty years from now. Images taken for a newspaper as information today might be considered fine art when a short bit of time has passed.
“Abandoned Moments: A Love Letter to Photography” by Ed Kashi
Published by Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2021
review by W. Scott Olsen
Even if you insist that the only thing that matters is what’s inside the frame, those of us outside the frame, the viewers, change with each passing year. Context may not be everything, but it’s certainly a lot. And while the urgency of a present moment will pass, the image remains. Bring a bunch of them together and you begin to see a different story.
Retrospectives are nothing new. The arc of an artist’s career, collected, provides a perspective the contemporary or short-view does not allow. We learn something new about the photographer by looking at the breadth of their work. We see a developing talent and insight emerge. Retrospectives are often theme-based, too. We learn something new about an event or situation or time period by looking at a breadth of coverage.
Sometimes, though, the retrospective has a different intent. Ed Kashi calls Abandoned Moments, his new collection, an autobiography, and the distinction is important. In this case, Kashi has curated his own oeuvre to make a statement.
Ed Kashi, of course, is a superstar. His work as photojournalist, filmmaker, speaker, and educator has covered topics as diverse as the impact of oil in Nigeria, the protestant community in Northern Ireland, the lives of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the impact of an aging society, climate change, the plight of Syrian refugees, and the global epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease among agricultural workers. His publications include National Geographic, Open Society Foundations, The New Yorker, MSNBC, GEO Germany, Fortune, Human Rights Watch, International Medical Corps, MediaStorm, NBC.com, New York Times Magazine, Oxfam, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and TIME magazine. Add to this gallery and other exhibits.
The images, every one of them, is part of an autobiographical argument, an aesthetic claim. In other words, they are evidence of a way of thinking about photography which Kashi has refined throughout his years.
Many of the pages in this book contain small bits of text. In one he writes, “As a young photographer seeking to reconcile the chaos of life, I stumbled upon a method of photographic observation, in which geometry, mood, emotion, and possibility – the instant – unite to create something new but unintended. I called this the abandoned moment; A concept of that has run through my photographic approach for over forty years.”
Yes, this sounds an awful lot like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. And perhaps it is, so many years into the future from Cartier-Bresson. Yet it’s clear that Kashi sees his work as different. Not opposed to Cartier-Bresson, but essentially different. For Kashi, there’s something essential about the notion of abandonment.
As he says himself a few pages later, “The consequence of a fractional instant of surrender, the abandoned moment is a counterpoint to the decisive moment, that flawless frame that is perfectly in tune with the photographer’s vision.” Another few pages and he says, “The decisive moment combines the elements of composition and timing with precision; the abandoned moment is an intuitive, impulsive act that conveys the happenstance of real life It captures the kinetic nature of existence the perfect, chaos of everyday life.”
Abandoned Moments is a book to be read, not just viewed. It is in many ways an ongoing and developing essay. The chapters are titled Chaos of Reality, Hit the Road, Fear of People, Wonder of the World, Unconscious Offerings. And each chapter grows deeper as each page is turned.
In an introduction by independent scholar Alison Nordström, titled “On Recollection,” we read: “Ed Kashi’s career in photojournalism has already spanned nearly 40 years. It has taken him all over the world, to places of pain, violence, and death, where the hard realities of the human condition have called for his special kind of witness and record making…. Abandoned Moments however is different in look, purpose, and emotional tone. It is both a departure from this lifetime of work, and a consummation of it, a carefully edited and sequenced personal selection of images drawn from decades of projects, reordered, recontextualized, and accompanied by a new and expressive text. These images were once made to preserve a specific moment, to inform, but also to illustrate a point and a point of view. Now, freed from that necessity by their new use, they become the subject of an authorial perspective that has often been downplayed and intentionally unexpressed…. Perhaps most importantly, this book demonstrates an innovative and nuanced form for autobiography from someone whose entire working life has been predicated on his own invisibility… Kashi is showing us his world, poetically, it’s emotional and intense moments recollected in tranquility as disconnected scraps of memory, each suggesting the next. It is rather like a life, not tightly distilled into chapters and orderly narrative but crazily, messily, relentlessly engulfing. One of the artifacts of this visual mashup is the readers quick surrender of any need to link a photograph to time in place. The random images make sense when we stop asking them to, while the direct connection of each to their author makes for multiple tiny self-portraits that experienced together make Abandoned Moments the autobiography it is.”
The images, while often blurry in the sense of long exposure motion, are always dramatically composed and deeply insightful to whatever moment is being captured. The images are complex and multilayered; there isn’t just one narrative in any of them. These are images that ask, and reward, being read. There is a variety of color as well as black and white images throughout the book, settings as varied as India, Israel, Iraq, San Francisco, South Dakota, England and Missouri (among many other places), and one of the defining features of Kashi’s idea is that there is always a tremendous amount of action within the image. I don’t believe there’s a single image in this book that could be described as quiet. The images are offered without any context or explanation, and although there is an index at the back that provides contextual detail for each image, that index is superfluous. As Kashi writes, “These images capture imprecise glimpses of transitory events. Responding to their unconscious offering, I forgo formal composition and just let intuition take over, seizing that serendipitous moment when time, energy, and space mix within the picture plane.”
This is not a book of random, accidental captures. Kashi may say he’s not concerned with formal composition, but I would argue his talents there have become second nature and his intuition about when the abandoned moment may occur is sharp. His eye and heart and mind see the convergence of elements and his camera is ready. If this is different from the decisive moment, then it is a difference of situation and situational awareness – speed and awareness and trust.
Really, the most important thing here is the understanding of this book as an autobiography. Even though Kashi does not exist in the book as a character – we get no details of birth, education, love affairs – what we do get is evidence of his aesthetic. Imagining this work as an artistic essay will be a way to understand his point. Every image in Abandoned Moments is worth pausing over, examining both the image and our response, the suggestions within the frame and our own sense of curiosity as we parse the details. As a whole, the collection with its text suggests a notion of re-discovery of purpose.
A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.
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