The first thing that strikes one about this impressive book is its size and format: printed landscape with the binder and pages opening upwards it was significantly hard to hold or to read. Rather like a car with gull-wing doors, the effect is to obstruct one’s view and make it unfamiliar to operate. Added to this, the photographs are invariably printed on the upper portion of the page and one is left leaning over a full blank page to look at the bending underside of the top page precariously held open. The publisher, Giorgio Baravalle, continues to push the boundaries of photography book design and his recent successes have all in some way reinvented the alignment, positioning and functioning of texts, pictures and the pages themselves. It is refreshing to see a book treated so uniquely and the design to be so conceptualised. But in some instances the predominance of style and structure at the expense of narrative is overbearing and unwieldy.
For 16 years Kratochvil has been variously assigned to cover stories for magazine and environmental clients. In Vanishing he has compiled 16 of his “stories” from these years to focus our attention sharply on the things he feels are not good with the planet. Indeed the introductory page opens with a polemic about the measure of all things good and bad: “How are things?” he asks. “Not bad,” is the presupposed reply … “Not bad? Huh, let me tell you,” is the implied conversation that follows … and with that Kratochvil begins his “tour through endangered life-forms and ruined environments, human catastrophes and destruction, resulting in vanishing cultures” (and Vanishing the book).
The images are dark, as is Kratochvil’s preference for his black and white photography, and the printing is slightly warm toned – even the pages are a gentle shade of nicotine yellow. Following in his footsteps we trace his 16 man-made disasters as we travel from Beirut to Cambodia and Bolivia to Zimbabwe, each place with its own particular experience of human and environmental injustice. Yet in Azerbaijan we are treated to a solitary image of a sturgeon being held up as a trophy by a bunch of shady-looking men. Are we expected to equate this with the environmental destruction of the species?
In Prague, anti-globalisation protests are treated in much the same way as the oily scarred landscapes of Iraq. The horizon is off kilter and the heavy black of the photograph’s shadow areas sucks the light out of the image.
The fact that one story supposes to tell of resistance and public action whilst the other tells of corporate and global exploitation seems irrelevant to Kratochvil’s approach. Protest is portrayed as pollution and the pollution itself as his own protest in the setting of this book.
The most successful images, for me, were undoubtedly the chapters on Ecuador and Bohemia. Kratochvil has taken the landscapes of these places and made them his own, infusing them with both beauty and ugliness. The pristine jungle is obscured by his contaminating lens as he exposes the wanton waste and toxicity of man’s quest for oil, whilst across the globe another view is exposed. Behind the Iron Curtain he shows us a land that has been plundered and defiled. In the Czech Republic acid rain falls on the colourless grime of Brux in central Bohemia. Kratochvil’s style is the perfect accompaniment to this drab inky landscape. There are many other memorable chapters: from the tin mines of Bolivia to the diamond mines of Angola, Vanishing is an important chronicle of the rape of our planet.
It is a shame, therefore, when the impact of the book is unavoidably weakened with less suitable images. Some stories such as “Home Grown Fear” – Kratochvil’s version of New York under siege post 9/11, with its obscure blurred views of police barricades, the Statue of Liberty and the railing outside the mayor’s residence – do little to extend the argument and their inclusion is confusing. No doubt the images are atmospheric and emotionally charged, yet their relevance alongside the stories of animal traders in the Congo or cyanide mining in Guyana was lost on me.
Nevertheless, the book impresses the reader with is purpose to unsettle. Facts and pertinent quotations add to our outrage when viewing the images: oil companies, mineral extractors, dealers and global financiers are all so obviously guilty of the destruction, Kratochvil points out. Yet by his own admission he offers no answers, just the question: “How are things?” And then the finger points at us, the readers, for having the gall to reply “Not too bad.”