New York Times Book Review, December 1996

New York Times Book Review, December 1996
Vietnam: A Book of Changes
By Andy Grunberg

Nan Goldin's "I'll be Your Mirror" and Mitch Epstein's "Vietnam: A Book of Changes" share the honors for the year's most engaging books; these two art photographers find reality the most dramatic subject - in Ms. Goldin's case, her own milieu in downtown New York, and in Mr. Epstein's, the layered landscape of Vietnam. Their pictures may not get anyone in a holiday spirit, but they are unflinchingly vivid and honest.

Vietnam: A Book of Changes By Mitch Epstein, (Double Take/Center for Documentary Studies/Norton, $35.) For many Americans, Vietnam will never be just an exotic foreign destination suitable for a National Geographic article. Our war ended nearly quarter of a century ago, but the Communist regime's insularity and America's need to forget have drawn a curtain over the country since then, meaning that few photographs have been taken there by Western observers until recently. Mitch Epstein's "Vietnam" addresses that erasure of memory, depicting a Rip Van Winkle of a country still littered with the detritus and damages of American involvement, as well as with traces of the French colonial period that ended in 1954. The 80 color photographs in this unprepossessing but intellectually complex book, all taken since 1992, deftly capture the poignancy of a country too poor to pave over its past and too rich in tradition to abandon itself entirely to the lures of modern capitalism.

Using a dense, elliptical photographic style that in less skillful hands could seem self-conscious and solipsistic, Mr. Epstein creates a convincing report of a country that even time seems to have forgotten. His camera focuses on the empty halls of once-opulent colonial mansions, shop windows newly filled with Western lingerie, a dog's severed head being offered at a food market, the view from inside rusting American tanks. Anthony McCall Associates, which designed the book, has helped create the feeling of a novel, breaking the photographs across two pages and dividing them into chapter like sections. The result is a book of narrative dimension but no simple resolution: Vietnam endures, Mr. Epstein suggests, by disclosing itself slowly.