Imperial is a difficult book. To the average reader, artist, or art connoisseur, it is hard to grasp what Vollmann is doing both in terms of publishing and in the vision within his photographs. This 200-page collection of photos of the California-Mexico borderlands named the Imperial Valley offers quality, if not perfunctory, images of a hard won desert life. The book, however, is as complicated as the people and politics it represents. Part two of a two-book series, the publisher who initially took on Vollmann’s dialog in their version of Imperial left the photo collection to PowerHouse Books. The story, therefore, has been split.
The images in the second Imperial seem flat, but that could be purposeful. Though they clearly seem aged with their sepia tones and the bright lighting of a desert sun, the history of the borderlands is constantly evolving and wrapping itself within other social shifts in agriculture, employment, and politics. To create a set of timeless, seemingly flat images may make a better story.
These basic portraits give each reader the opportunity to fuse the faces with their own knowledge of work, poverty, and border wars. The seemingly simple and obvious photos, therefore, leave the door open for readers to do the work of making Vollmann’s argument. The trouble is, there is too much left to chance with the book split from its captions and descriptions. There are important points Vollmann tries to make with certain images, particularly those that juxtapose labor and the law with the border. Yet, readers only have a classroom-perfect 8 x 10 image with which to make his point.
Even the review copy—delivered only as a PDF document—robs readers of particular necessary context. By simply presenting photographs of the area, Vollmann, better known for his commentary and analysis, becomes only the photographer and the collection isn’t gripping enough nor telling enough to survive as only 200 pages of lovely photographic images. Vollmann counts on the reader for a bit too much and trusts too heavily that his lens is as powerful as his voice.