— John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, with pictures by Robert Capa, 1948
First of all, this book is beautiful just in itself. Big, square, and heavy, with an embossed cover, it's made to look from the outside like a prayer book or an old-fashioned leather journal. Inside, it's chock-full of photos and maps, with excellent design throughout.
The concept of the book is that of a travel journal. Ten Magnum photographers visited Georgia during spring 2009, and the book treats us to their multi-perspective view of contemporary life in this former Soviet country. Each 20-page chapter is devoted to a single photographer's point of view, including "personal" journal reports of their impressions of Georgia.
The book also offers us some fantastic vintage photos drawn from the Magnum archives — most notably a sample of Robert Capa’s work in Georgia from his 1947 travels with John Steinbeck. A brief timeline sketches Georgia's history from 4000 BC to the present day. And the book begins and ends with a series of modern postcards showing brightly lit, richly saturated color scenes from tourist sites in the "new" Georgia.
Archival pictures and postcards aside, what’s great, really, is to get so many different takes on what Georgia is like today. Most (though not all) the journal entries are gushing with praise or delight, echoing John Steinbeck's findings from 60 years ago.
Since the Georgian Ministry of Culture paid for this whole project, (with the active participation of the President of Georgia), sometimes these reports ring of promotion, publicity, and tourist bait, rather than genuine photojournalism. Perhaps the inclusion of the postcard images is a brief nod to this intention. But the truth is, whether you take them as back-door promotion or honest documentation, there are plenty of serious new photographs in this book.
Paolo Pellegrin takes a sincere look into religion, faith and tolerance. Alex Majoli explores the still widespread desolation and destruction following the recent war in South Ossetia. Mark Power reports on the evident national desire to quickly build up a shining new foundation for industry, economy and tourism. And Martin Parr does a good job reporting from the flashy casinos, busy restaurants, flea markets, baths, raves and discos.
Alec Soth’s contribution is without doubt the least inspiring conceptually and textually — he went searching for “the most beautiful woman in Georgia” — and then ended up stalking (literally) a young woman who refused to be photographed.
Photographer Thomas Dworzak, who lives in the capital, Tblisi, had the challenging assignment of photographing Georgia's young, charismatic president, Mikheil Saakashvili (a runner-up for Time magazine's "Person of the Year 2008") as he globe-trotted from one photo opportunity to the next. Unfortunately, we get the least convincing pictures from this talented photographer, even though he lives his life in the country! Every shot feels staged and highly promotional.
All in all, after spending a few hours with this book, I feel like I would know what to expect if I were to visit Georgia — a naturally beautiful place, loaded with history and conflict and tradition — yet struggling with its cultural identity as it is moving fast-forward into a fully globalized, consumer-driven Western-style democracy. This book is a richly diverse snapshot of a country and its people at this particular point in time.
— Jim Casper