Photographer retraces 33 days of war through the lens of faltering romance


BEIRUT: On the night of July 12, 2006, the photographer Fouad Elkoury was attending a dinner party in Beirut. Talk of Hizbullah's cross-border raid that morning, and speculations on the possible scope and scale of Israel's response, dominated the conversation. No one guessed Beirut's airport would be bombed the following morning, least of all Elkoury, who was scheduled to fly out the next day to catch the opening reception for an exhibition of his work in Athens.

It is perhaps ironic that the eruption of one war in Lebanon cancelled Elkoury's plans to attend a show about another one. In the course of a career that spans more than two decades, Elkoury has exhibited his work at the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern and the Maison Europeene de la Photo. The show at the Contemporary Art Museum in Athens, titled "1982," featured photographs he took of the last Israeli invasion. Reading through the prose that crackles on the pages of Elkoury's latest book, "On War and Love," one senses that he faced the prospect of photographing another with utter dread.

It is perhaps doubly tragic that a war broke out in Elkoury's backyard on July 13, and then four days later, his girlfriend called from Alexandria to announce that she was leaving him.

"Do you really think this is the right moment to say this?" he asks."Is there a right moment to say this sort of thing?" she responds.

That latter trauma - with its stomach-dropping, blood-draining, time-stopping horror - is the primary subject of Elkoury's new book. The 33 days of war are secondary. They provide the backdrop and the structure, but the main theme is piercing, hollowing, intimately suffered loss. "On War and Love" is Elkoury's eighth book to date, not counting the many tomes that have been published with his photographs alongside those of such legendary shooters as Robert Frank. The first six were for the most part picture books, such as "Liban Provisoire," "Palestine: L'Envers du Miroir" and "Beyrouth Aller-Retour."

Elkoury's "Suite Egyptienne" retraced the steps of Gustave Flaubert and Maxime du Camp in Egypt. In "Le Coeur Demeure," his images illustrated the letters shared between writer Andree Chedid and her husband Louis as they recall ed their childhood, also in Egypt.

But Elkoury's seventh book, "La Sagesse du Photographe," was all writing without a single picture. "On War and Love," then, is a kind of reconciliation between text and image for a photographer who has, in the past decade, branched out creatively into films, videos and installations as well as words.

"On War and Love" features 33 diary entries, one for each day of the war, and a roughly equal number of photo-montages layering Elkoury's painstakingly precise handwriting onto images rendered in both stark black-and-white and sumptuous color. The series was exhibited at Munich's Galerie Tanit in February and March, and it constitutes Elkoury's participation in the first-ever Lebanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which remains on view through September 30. The bilingual edition of the book, published by Editions Intervalles, just made its way to Beirut bookshops this month.

As a treatise on love and loss, on destroyed cities and shattered romances and on the strange, immeasurable pain both caused and captured by photographs of people who have disappeared from one's life, "On War and Love," though spare and slim at just 96 pages, belongs to a thoughtful lineage of books that contemplate the power of images - from "Fever and Spear," the first installment in Javier Marias' masterful trilogy "Your Face Tomorrow," to the late W. G. Sebald's "Austerlitz" and back, possibly, to Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida."

Elkoury isn't a born writer. His turns of phrase and his quirky humor probably lose their grace and punch, respectively, when translated from French to English. But the diary entrees that set the tone and pace of "On War and Love" have a naked immediacy that easily trumps more writerly accounts of living through political and emotional rupture.

Elkoury's photographs of random personal effects - cassettes and coffee cups and packs of Iranian cigarettes strewn on a table, for example, or the creased propaganda flyers dropped by Israeli warplanes, picked up, saved and arranged in a kitschy tableau with flowers and paints - further serve to heighten the intensity of the book. The erotic charge of text scrawled down a woman's back, or a frame of her blurred figure leaping over a threshold, ratchets it up another notch.

In 1974, when debates were raging over the exact purpose of the photographic enterprise, the late novelist and essayist Susan Sontag wrote: "The force of photography is that it prolongs instants which the normal flow of time immediately closes. This freezing of time - the

insolent, poignant stasis of each photograph - is what produces beauty."

"On War and Love" dwells in that prolonged instant - stretching it out over the 20 days in which Elkoury endeavors to win his lover back. The text ends ambiguously: She may stay; she may go. But the fact that Elkoury orchestrates such a high level of suspense in such a precious volume is a mark of achievement and, however tragic, of his work's beauty, too.

Fouad Elkoury's "On War and Love," published by Editions Intervalles, is available now in bookshops throughout Beirut





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