2nd Tour Hope I Don't Die is at once a hauntingly beautiful, passionately engaged, angry, and a necessary book. Few are. This is The Disasters of War for first decade of a relentlessly creepingly, creepy century. If one looks back a hundred years, God only knows what disasters may lie in wait.
In the epilogue to the book, van Agtmael writes, "I have a lot of memories that don't have photographs." He then catalogues some of them. Since many people first look at photography books from back to front, this may be as useful as it is edifying. Some of his photographs are likely--to any humane viewer--to leave memory traces one might rather not have.
While van Agtmael's photographs are not only in the tradition of and equal to Capa, Duncan, Burrows, McCullin and other fine photographers of war, his text is impossible to imagine from his predecessors. You might hear it in a bar late at night, after one too many, but those photographers and more to the point, publishers, would not find van Agtmaet's text fitting or seemly. It is both.
I am reluctant to be too formal in my review of this book, for that would obscure the meaning of both the book and what I take to be the photographer's intent. My minor cavils are the choice of the cover photograph, the often poor guttering when that design technique is employed and (given the obsessive textual commentary), a lack of place/date signifiers for the graffiti photos which punctuate and move the sequence. While I am thankful to publishers for bringing this work to a wider and book audience, I suspect a second revised edition might be even more powerful.
One hundred years from now, when our little, pointless, destructive imperial follies are memory only, a historian or novelist might joyride the past and find nothing better than Nina Berman's and Peter van Agtmaet's photographs to throw a little light on the price of war early in our new century.
Richard Gordon is a photographer who lives in California. His photographs and artist's books are in museum and library special collections from sea to shining see. Four prints from his recently completed book project, American Surveillance, will be on display, along with the work of five photographers, in "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera" which opens at the Tate Modern in late May 2009 and at SFMOMA in October 2009.