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Beirut 1991 (2003)  
By Gabriele Basilico
159 photographs. 184 pp.
Baldini Castoldi Dalai. US$65.00
ISBN 978-886074329-7

Gabriele Basilico’s latest book, Beirut 1991(2003), offers a collection of mostly black-and-white photographs taken of post-war Beirut in Lebanon. In 1991, Basilico was invited to help document the war’s effects on the center of Beirut, approximately one square acre in size. Beirut 1991(2003) is photographic realism. This is not photography for the sake of aesthetics, but for creating a visual historic record of the aftermath of war in this single, small urban space. The pictures Basilico took when he returned to Beirut in 2003, when Beirut was under reconstruction, reveal how quickly and easily history may be lost.

Basilico explains, “I do not intend, in my photos, to express a judgment about the architecture of the city. I am not interested in pointing out whether a city is beautiful or ugly. What really interests me is the living together and the existential setting of the human beings.” Although images of war zones are visible in news reporting, they are presented as part of an ongoing narrative that is ultimately about people instead of the places in which they struggle, fight, and destroy. Basilico’s photos are largely without people; when they do appear, they are usually far in the distance and seem miniscule compared to the grandeur and scale of this ancient city.

There is virtually no text in Beirut, and this requires readers to develop their own interpretations of photos that linger on destruction, showing the same burned-out buildings from multiple angles and at different times of day. Vanishing points are used to pair photographs, as are similarities in vertical objects, and long rooflines. One picture insists on the contrast between a burned out four-story building and the large healthy tree growing next to it. Basilico develops an intimacy with the center of Beirut that acknowledges both its catastrophic wounds and the possibilities of its renewal.

One particularly evocative pair of pictures demonstrates similarity of line in webs of electrical wires. A series taken inside of a ruined building uses a particular configuration of rubble to help readers realize that they are looking at the same scene from different angles. A bank appears in multiple photos, but from so many perspectives that it may take a while to notice how they orient readers to the city’s center.

The final series of 36 pictures contrasts Beirut as it was in 1991 to how it appeared on Basilico’s second visit in 1993. Streets are newly paved in the later photos, and some building facades have changed so much that they are almost unrecognizable. Balconies hang below windows that were once burned out, and more cars are parked in the streets. In some cases, completely new structures replace ruined ones, changing the landscape and suggesting a rapidly modernizing city. As Basilico invites us into his view of Beirut, we are also encouraged to find our own meanings in pictures that most people would not even think of taking. Beauty and ugliness are not Basilico’s point. Instead, the scope of his photographs challenges conventional notions of those ideas and renders them, at least for a time, unimportant. This book will interest historians, photographers, those interested in the Middle East, and architects. It will also be a worthwhile addition to libraries.

Elizabeth Breau, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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