Thursday, December 4, 2008

101 Billionaires by Rob Hornstra

Two dogs meet on the street in Moscow. The first dog says, "How are things different for you with Perestroika?" And the second dog says, "Well, the chain is still too short, and the food dish is still too far away...but now we are allowed to bark as much as we want." - Anonymous 1995.

There is a telling moment mid-way into Rob Hornstra's 101 Billionaires. While visiting some young addicts, one of which suffers from Aids and drug-resistant TB, a woman describes Hornstra and his friend as "a pair of snotty disaster tourists." Such is the burden of young documentarians as they try to describe various aspects of contemporary Russian life.

According to statistics, Russian now has 101 Billionaires - people who made their fortunes as the wall fell and the empire collapsed buying cheaply the newly privatized industries. These few rise into a strata that shields them from the difficult reality of everyday life. Outside of Moscow, many smaller towns suffer from a lack of jobs and for the young, seemingly endless months of boredom. In turn, drugs, drinking and prostitution become common alternatives to pass time or earn money. Many of the images sadly imbue feelings of a female sexual awareness formed out of desperation. Young women compete as strippers (the winner receives a trip out of the country) and even when the photographer asks one to just "stand normally," she insists on staying in character, striking a softcore pose.

Hornstra weaves a fascinating trip through the lives of individuals, especially the young, who are forced to grow up too quickly and it may seem inevitable that all will end badly. Through photographs and compelling writing, 101 Billionaires is less disaster tourism than a book that cuts a wide swath through the contemporary hard Russian realities. It emphasizes the gap between the older generations who knew the old empire and feel a strong connection with it and the young 20 somethings who seem to be desperate to escape its void at all costs.

Hornstra's photography seduces with its use of bright evenly lit strobe and cleanliness of description. Its language and mix of staged portraits and still-lifes paints with an uneasy but loving curiosity. Hornstra is not 'snotty' but he surely knows how complicated photographs can be. He doesn't condescend or reduce individuals to stereotypes, his curiosity places him in the ranks of the documentary-style photographers whose tradition he follows.

An interesting comparison would be to Luc Delahaye's Winterreisse except where Luc's portrayal is a claustrophobic thrust into the hellish underbelly of post-Soviet life, Hornstra's allows the mood to be livened by showing the hard realities with a twinge of humor and at least some air. Both of these artists have a way of pushing their subjects into their own photographic realities and I suspect something resembling an actual portrait lies somewhere in-between.

Much of the contribution to this book is by way of the texts. Extremely interesting and well written by his two collaborators, Hans and Aldus Loos, these splendid short essays fill in the details that the photographs cannot. Unlike many text heavy books, this is a perfect balance of text and image. All of the authors know how to keep to the point without diluting the overall journey.

101 Billionaires has a great design with foldout text pages that allow the photos to exist on their own first. Inventive and clean, this is one of my recent favorites brought back from Paris. Only published in 1000 copies and going fast, this is sure to be recognized as one of the best books of 2008. It has already made my list and I doubt 9 newer books will be published by the end of the year to knock it from its rightful place. 101 Billionaires by Rob Hornstra was self published by his imprint Borotov.

Available from Borotov

For people in New York, Dashwood Books will have signed copies within a week.


Anonymous said...

I also feel it's a powerful book. The only depressing part is that if you substitute "America" for "Russia," this country finds itself growing much closer every day to the disparity between the rich and poor depicted in the book.

My only complaint is that the quality of the book itself, for lack of a better word, sucks. But the subject matter and concept far outweigh that. Remember, William Eggleston's Guide was no master achievement in book printing either.

Anonymous said...

The quality of this book sucks? Matters of opinion are often contrary so I'll put my two-cents in by saying I have no idea what your talking about. This book looks great in everyway that I can see.

The only possible criticism I can see is that in a couple images, the black densities tend to block up but it doesn't really effect the reading of the image at all.

I am not saying your wrong, your opinion is your opinion but can you expand on what it is that "sucks" because maybe I've missed something.

Anonymous said...

All I'm referring to with my - probably ill-advised choice of words - is the cheap semi-soft book cover material, lack of a dust jacket, and overall external presence. It just doesn't have that sturdy "important book" feel like that of, say, the typical Steidl or Aperture book. It can't even compare. But as I mentioned, I'm ONLY referring to the paper material - and perhaps the full-bleed cover image [the embossed title is hardly even noticeable], not the importance of the book itself. There we agree. I would also agree with its inclusion in your 10 best list.

Anonymous said...

PS: On the income gap... One of the "great" achievements years back of Ronald Reagan was that he effectively turned the poor and working class against the poorer and weakest through his relentless propaganda about welfare fraud and social programs. His attacks on social safety nets and unprogressive tax structures of trickle down economics helped create the gap that has continued and widened by continuing those policies. But was the poor bringing the country down. Yeah right assholes. Reagan was one of the worst and most unethical douche bags, yet everyone touts him as a hero.

What we are seeing now is a wholesale plundering on the middle class. Socialism for the wealthy 1 percenters and capitalism for everyone else.

Sorry...these are the things that get me riled up when I am home sick and the television is broken.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. You must be listening to Thom Hartmann. That's why I think books such as this, Zoe Strauss's America and Soth's Last Days of W are so timely. They are time capsules to the corruption and despair so prominent in the country and much of the world right now. Documentary and war photography seems to be the only thing I'm currently responding to - everything else just kind of seems out of touch and not vital.

Anonymous said...

A trivial point, but I see no reason to order from Schaden rather than the link given in the text, where it is cheaper and benefits the photographer more.

Anonymous said...

QT Luong,

Not a trivial point at all and one well taken. I added both links because Schaden are friends and they allowed my publishing company Errata Editions to take up space on their Paris Photo table even though we really didn't have any books to sell other than a few advance copies.

I am simply showing my thanks to them. Rob Hornstra is friends with them as well and I am sure he doesn't mind the double listing but your point is valid and well taken.

Anonymous said...

I commend Jeff for the quality and range of his reviews and insights, for this blog in general, and for the tone he maintains in the Comments. All very admirable.

I agree moreover with his assessment of the "Great Communicator" herein. Exactly right. If I may be granted the indulgence of a political provocation, I will be brief. The end of the New Deal began with Carter. He was selected by Rockefeller and Brzezinski at the Trilateral Commission. Presidents since the murder of JFK -- perhaps earlier -- have been proxies of the int'l banking cartels, of which the military/industrial complex is of course synonymous. These are looting the middle class, reducing it to impotence, running our republic into a third-world cesspool. They have looted and plundered the entire planet through their IMF. It is an Anglo/American/Israeli empire. U.S.A. is the last frontier. Once it too is subverted into the NWO (which is meant to exclude Russia and China), there will be global high-tech tyranny emanating from Wall St and City of London.

There is already, with 20,000 troops now based here to quell insurrection, a blatant violation of posse commatatus.

Exposure of the shadow gov't that has been running things here through the CFR and Trilateral Commission must be issue #1.

The Great One, Obama, is their frontman. I'm sorry. I voted for Cynthia McKinney.

If my fellow patriots could be bothered to research the events of 9/11, they too will understand that the enemy is within. If you do, please bear in mind that, as the counsel to MLK's family, the great Dr Wm Pepper, says, all movements that are a threat to the Man Behind the Curtain are INFILTRATED by disinfo agents and agents provocateurs. The exposure of the September criminals is THE sine qua non for substantive change.

I apologize, sincerely, to those who feel these are inappropriate comments on this blog. But this republic is in a red-alert emergency, and I feel it is my duty to do my best to spread the word wherever and however I can.

Gates and Brzezinski created Al Quaeda.

I do not apologize to those I may have offended. Left gatekeepers that defend the "American system" are very much part of the problem, because their states of denial enable the status quo.

Back to photobooks! See you at the Strand for Catherine Opie next week!

Anonymous said...

Great! Another wacky customer appearing at the Strand: Which one will you be? Me, as the founder and chief commandante of C.I.S.P.E.S. (Da Committee in Support of the People of El Steidl, bien sur!), I will be ringing my bell out front that night raising money for inflatable dinghies. Seems somebody has mined the harbors of Steidlville and strafed the shrinkwrap building. Who? Jimmy Carter and his Taschenistas? Fools that they are, they don't realise there is a second shrinkwrap building that looks exactly like the first!A Hall of Mirrors! Smiley, where are you? The Horror! (Don, how's your Brando imitation? Whiskets, you can be Martin Sheen...peace out, mes freres...I try biting my cynical tongue and it just doesn't work out....

Anonymous said... must have the entire backlist for Verso books.

We would be in agreement on many things but I am not sure of your 9/11 findings. I think many people, maybe even myself included, believe in such complex conspiracy theories because they provide an understandable order to what is really chaos. It is a way to understand the world so it makes sense.

Believe me I think most people with power have a stance that money is more important than human life and that they are the ruling class etc. But as for 9/11 I believe it was perpetrated by an organization that planned a good attack that went off way better than they even expected. Did the government take that fear and run with it? Absolutely.

My problem is that we are so fascinated with 9/11 that has been blown way out of proportion. Meaning no disrespect to those that were lost that day but the world held still for a world-wide minute of silence for the victims. If we had the same moment of world-wide silence for Rwanda in proportion with the dead there - it would have lasted over 4 hours. That is a mindset that I am personally offended by.

I would love to find out about a backroom of the "ones" that really run the show but we just had the most powerful government in the world run by a bunch of incompetents with amazing lawyers who could find holes in the constitution. And they couldn't work their greedy damage without the press reporting on at least some of it (I know...I know...I've read manufacturing consent too).

I don't know what to say other than read, learn but above all avoid paranoia. Always concentrating on conspiracies is just another way of keeping you in a box, pissed off and heading for a heart condition.

(Paid for by the Trilateral Commission and the CFR)

Anonymous said...

I'm mot sure what all the above posts have to do with Rob's book? I think this is a very good blog, but whats with the political rambling on allowed here?

Anonymous said...

Ceiling Fan,

I dropped the Strand bait for cleverer-than-thou wags. You win OK? How's that? You would have been one of those Parisians that sold their hot wives to partying Nazis while going down to your freezing cafe to twirl fake-existential witticisms

Mr Whiskets,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I guess the key to my whole argument was "if ... [you] could be bothered to research [what really happened] on 9/11"

So long as one avoids this (spend one or two hours at 911blogger or architects & engineers for truth, or, if you don't trust internet read any of David Ray Griffin's books, "New Pearl Harbor", "Debunking 9/11 Debunking" or, best of all, Webster Tarpley "Made in USA: 9/11 Synthetic Terror") -- as long as one avoids this, one will fall for left gatekeeper comfort food.

Couldn't we leave alone -- for the time being at least -- extraneous psychological theories? Can we just look at the physics?

We've heard ad nauseum about our need for theories that provide us with psychic comfort (as if: thank goodness it wasn't "Islamo-Fascists," but rather rogue elements within our own "security" apparatus -- whew!). These theories appear in all the Bushco-hating locales like the New Yorker and Counterpunch etc etc. This gives these theories legitimacy to the sane Bush haters.

I love the "incompetence" theory. Yeah, they were incompetent in the months and weeks before 9/11, but look what a great job they're doing now. No attacks since the anthrax!

Oh -- anthrax. I forgot about that . Hmmm, I don't want to know.

As for Rwanda etc. My point is: absolutely correct, but if you expose the true nature of 9/11, then you blow the lid off the sociopaths that orchestrate looting and genocide. Again, if you don't like researching 9/11, try looking into Dr William Pepper and his decades-long toil exposing the truth about the MLK hit. Decide for yourself if he's full of bull. (Newsflash: He won a civil suit, on behalf of MLK family, of gov't involvement.) Because MLK was a real hero, a real threat, especially when he decided to organize against the war in Vietnam.

Or you must read (if you haven't already) -- NY Times Bestseller! -- John Perkins "Confessions of an Economic Hitman." Although Perkins avoids 9/11 Truth, he will explain the Rwanda's.

Bush-haters (of which I am one of course) say that they lied about every single thing for eight years. But not 9/11. Sure. No one single known individual lost his job, all were PROMOTED.

Incompetence? They accomplished everything. Patriot Act (1,000 pp?) was prepared before 9/11, and shoved through within days.

The Rik Plomps?,

I do apologize. But remember: your Hornstra book purports to document the putrefactions of an empire gone to seed. I don't have it, I haven't seen it, but it sounds great.

I'm not so bad! I love photobooks!


Anonymous said...


Just a tangent inspired by a book.


Anonymous said...

well, I'm not sure I follow everything in your 'tangent'. I do believe Rob has once again made a very good book. His protest against the Russian reality.
Compared to his two earlier books I find the pictures have become more direct and 'harder'. But I do like it.