What strikes me most about Eli Durst’s work, especially revisiting it on Aperture’s website, is how little I learned about Asmara, the general subject of his work. The wall text informs us that Durst went to Africa after meeting refugees from Asmara while working in an immigration center in Texas. From the pictures, I can tell you that Asmara is not a terribly modern place and it might have some class issues. But I guess that is something you can say about a lot of places.
This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy Durst’s work. In the interest of full disclosure, I recently curated him into a group show. I would like to put forth that the key to understanding Durst’s work and its place in contemporary photography is how little you learn from such straight-forward black and white pictures, images that look like the documentary photographs we all know of Bresson, Evans or Frank. The subtle avant-garde step in Durst’s work is that as a document, the pictures border on useless and at best, they tell us things that most people already know.
Instead of providing a greater understanding of Asmara, the pictures form or suggest a relationship between the people in the photographs and the photographer. From the level of comfort and casualness of the subjects in the pictures, clearly they appear to be friends of Durst. The shabby hipness of their appearance and the settings paints the picture of some distant bohemian scene in Africa abounding in unknown art and popular music, that Americans only know a visit long ago, when they fell in with the people, and life unfolded like a Hemingway novel, with strangers who become fast friends with whom one eats well, drinks too much and generally have experiences. Which is a lot of life to get from pictures that have a still technical eloquence and seem like products of the skilled eye of a large format photographer.
Taking straightforward pictures that speak to the photographer’s experience in a place instead of trying to communicate historical or political information about a place clearly puts the work in a post Frank tradition of making pictures. But the loose associations from image to image hinge more on the randomness with which most of us currently digest images. Combining this stylistically with the expertise of a commercial photographer places Eli Durst’s black and white pictures of a far-off place soundly in the world of forward-looking contemporary photography.
Through Feb 2nd