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photo-eye Book Reviews: Dies Irae

Dies Irea, Photographs by Paolo Pellegrin.
Published by Contrasto, 2011.
Dies Irae
Reviewed by Joscelyn Jurich
Paolo Pellegrin Dies Irae
Photographs by Paolo Pellegrin
Contrasto, 2011. Hardbound. 208 pp., Black & white and color images throughout, 9-3/4x12".

I felt compelled to listen to the 13th century hymn Dies Irae while looking at Paolo Pellegrin's collection of the same name. The hymn's first lines describe the apocalyptic world the listener is about to enter: Dies iræ! Dies illa/Solvet sæclum in favilla:Teste David cum Sibylla! (Day of wrath! O day of mourning! See fulfilled the prophets' warning, Heaven and earth in ashes burning!). Pellegrin brings viewers into mournful, wrathful worlds that are man and nature made: West Bank violence, the Kosovo and Iraq wars, Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami. Only a few photographs of individuals' struggle for life in the face of personal and collective destruction – a mother and child fleeing violence, an injured Cambodian soldier being comforted by his wife -- provide a redemptive respite from an otherwise relentlessly violent, disrupted and disruptive reality.

The collection displays Pellegrin's astonishingly wide-ranging portrayals of contemporary global apocalypse: organized chronologically, it begins with his photographs of Cambodia (1998) and includes sections on Kosovo (1999-2001), Iraq (2003), Darfur (2004), Palestine / West Bank (2002-2004), New Orleans (2005), the Indonesian Tsunami (2005), Gaza (2005), Haiti (1995 -2010), Afghanistan and Lebanon (2006), Iran (2009), and concludes with Palestine / Gaza (2009). All of the photographs, save for those of Hurricane Katrina, are black and white, which Pellegrin associates with universal experience (as contrasted with the immediacy of experience, which he shoots in color.) A thoughtful and extensive interview with Pellegrin by Contrasto founder Roberto Koch concludes the collection.

Dies Irae, by Paolo Pellegrin. Published by Contrasto, 2011.
Uniting these disparate times, places and contexts is what Pellegrin describes as his commitment to "a concerned photography…a humanistic photography." Even Pellegrin's photographs of spaces without people are humanizing in their emphasis on the absence of human presence: a destroyed village in Sudan, whose landscape shows only the barest remnants of human presence; the rooms of a hospital in New Orleans where a calendar, a crucifix, a page from a child's coloring book decay on the mold-speckled walls.

Dies Irae, by Paolo Pellegrin. Published by Contrasto, 2011.
Many of Pellegrin's most intensely humanizing individual and group portraits possess a Baroque sense of dynamism, immediacy and intimacy. The photograph of women at a funeral in Kosovo is a close-up portrait of a dramatic moment, crowded with faces and gestures. Mourners' hands form a chain that leads up to a young woman grieving. Her anguished face, eyes shut and mouth half open, is held in the hand of another woman who seems to be preventing her imminent collapse. The portrait of Phanna, a 24 year-old Cambodian AIDS victim, is an intimate psychological study of her bathed in a light and darkness reminiscent of a Georges La Tour painting. The cover, a grainy, blurred image of young Palestinian mourning her child, captures the height of the emotional moment, a moment that for Pellegrin is often ultimately the decisive moment.

Dies Irae, by Paolo Pellegrin. Published by Contrasto, 2011.
The collection's organization also emphasizes the deeply expressive power of Pellegrin's photographs by separating their informative captions (listed at the end) from the images themselves. Displaying them without text infuses the book with an explosive quietude that might well have been lacking if text and image were combined. It also makes the viewer responsible for seeking out the precise details about images that may otherwise be highly ambiguous: the frontispiece photograph shows a group of soldiers surrounding a man lying on the ground – are they helping him, hurting him, arresting him? There is no way of knowing by just looking. Pellegrin seems to want the viewer to suffer these questions, and then seek the answers.

"I happen to think of photography as a foreign language," says Pellegrin. "The question isn't how to take good photos, it's how to take photographs that succeed to do a number of things simultaneously: to document, to transmit information, and to strike a chord emotionally." Pellegrin's images have the rare ability to communicate on these multiple levels: as evidence, as information and as emotion. 

Dies Irae, by Paolo Pellegrin. Published by Contrasto, 2011.
Perhaps nowhere is this more powerfully or more painfully revealed than in the last series of photographs from Palestine, almost all of which show Palestinian children gravely injured by the Israeli army. The first image in the series is of Palestine Tambura, 15, seriously injured by Israeli shelling; she stands alone against an expansive blank wall, her face and eyes downcast and partially sheltered by her hijab as she lifts her pant leg to reveal a punctured leg that has been operated on five times.

"My duty – my responsibility – is to create an archive of our collective memory," says Pellegrin. If Dies Irae is an archive of our contemporary collective memory, it is a record so barbarous and so brutal that the viewer can only hope – if even futilely – that Pellegrin's future archives will not look exactly like this one.—JOSCELYN JURICH

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JOSCELYN JURICH is a freelance journalist and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, Publishers Weekly and the Village Voice. Jurich is currently a Fellow at the Writers' Institute at the City University of New York.