Michael Christopher Brown’s Libyan Sugar (Twin Palms) is an attempt to shape the Magnum photographer’s experiences in Libya in 2011, as the country exploded into war. It’s chaotic, confusing, only fitfully chronological, and a triumph of you-are-there reportage. In a solid brick of a book, Brown intercuts more than 400 color photographs – all taken with an iPhone after his digital camera fell and broke – with journal entries, emails from home, Facebook posts, and relayed news bulletins. He tells us right up front that he survived the bombing in Misrata that killed fellow photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, but he’s quick to point out that many more Libyans, fighting to topple the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, died anonymously that day, and he dedicates his book “For the Revolutionaries.” Brown asks more questions than he can answer, but he’s never disconnected. “What is that spirit of a revolutionary living and breathing into the land and blowing through the minds of men,” he writes in his journal some months after the bomb attack. “I am not a Libyan but an American trying to understand.” Perhaps because he imagines that the revolutionaries he sees in Libya – ordinary men, with no uniforms, no military training, and all too often no weapons – were not unlike the citizens caught up in the American revolution, he photographs them with a remarkable empathy and intensity.
A war of flare-ups, skirmishes, and an alarmingly fluid front line doesn’t yield many scenes of battle. Brown ducked bullets, but most of his pictures are of conflict’s aftermath and the evidence of atrocities past: piles of charred bodies, rotting corpses, bloodied blindfolds, and, finally, the raw-meat remains of Gaddafi himself, laid out in a meat locker for the public to see. But it’s not all blood and guts; Brown is a keen observer of the everyday surrealism of urban warfare. His picture of a fighter pointing his machine gun out the window of a ruined apartment is followed by a shot of a vase of flowers, undisturbed on a table at the other side of the same room. The picture immediately after that is of Brown’s mother, watering plants in her Washington State backyard: a flash forward to home. Brown returned there to recover from his injuries and reflect. “Photography can be a sort of disease,” he writes, painfully aware it could also be terminal. “I cannot fake adventure, original thought, and truth. It is either there or not.”
For truth in an entirely different register, pick up George Dureau: The Photographs (Aperture), the long overdue follow-up to the New Orleans photographer’s 1985 book, now a cult collectible. Dureau (1930-2014), a painter with a studio in the French Quarter, considered his portrait and figure photography a secondary pursuit, but there’s no sign of that in the work. His black-and-white images are at once soulful and restrained, with a matter-of-fact directness that tends to undercut the notion that the photographer was a provocateur, out to shock the bourgeoisie with pictures of black men, dwarves, and amputees, usually in the nude. Because Dureau’s sitters were friends, neighbors, and sometimes lovers, the work has real warmth; it feels somehow private – the product of a shared experience. Much the same could be said about the best of Robert Mapplethorpe’s
considerably more famous series of black nudes, published in 1986, but artifice and what the book’s essayist, Philip Gefter, calls Mapplethorpe’s “arctic elegance” tends to eclipse emotion. Gefter is especially good on the influence Dureau had on Mapplethorpe (who’s shirtless on page 87) and quotes Dureau’s vivid descriptions of his studio sessions. “I make love to them while I shoot them,” he said, and even if he insisted he was always the top in that relationship, the results suggest a much more equal and intimate exchange.