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The Mennonites

Gost Book, 2022
540 pages / $80
by Larry Towell


Review by Michelle Bogre

Published in ZEKE: February 2024


Click on photo to view captions.

The opening black and white image in the second edition  from GOST Books of Larry Towell's iconic book, The Mennonites, is quietly subversive. Three boys wearing old ill-fitting clothes stare at the camera. The foregrounded boy's face is slightly obscured by cigarette smoke haze. The boys flanking him smirk. They know they are breaking the rules of their Old Colony Mennonite family.

            The image also suggests a familiarity with these camera-phobic people that few photographers achieve. This 10-year project photographing Old Colony Mennonites who travel between Towell's home in Ontario and Mexico is the best of slow, long-form documentary photography. Through the 115 black and white photographs, 40 of which are newly published, Towell gives us an intimate, yet oddly detached, portrayal of this Protestant religious sect which has lived apart from modern society since the 1800s. They reject public schooling and modern technology, including electricity and rubber tires. Most only speak Low German. By now, almost all of them have lost their land from lack of education, the economy, and exploitation so they live as migrant workers or sharecroppers earning almost no money at the end of the year.

            Towell, a renowned documentary photographer and member of Magnum, known for photographing the dispossessed and landless, first met Mennonite David Redekkop and his family in 1989, "landhungry and dirt poor," almost literally in Towell's backyard. They allowed Towell to photograph them because, he writes: "I liked them a lot because they seemed otherworldly and therefore completely vulnerable in a society in which they did not belong and for which they were not prepared. Because I liked them, they liked me, and although photography was forbidden, they let me photograph them. That’s all there was to it.”  

            The book nestles in a plain cloth black slip case, the title embossed in a lighter matte black on the book's spine. Holding it conjures a hymnal, complete with a ribbon marker. The pages are not numbered. The captions consisting only of the colony name, its location, and the date appear in the back of the book next to image thumbnails. The text, divided as preface and Towell's notes, is isolated in the front of the book. This part of the book design is odd; the factual preface is printed on the same thick luscious paper as the images, while the remaining 58 pages of text is printed on very thin paper.

            Written by Towell from journal notes and memory, this text vacillates between being overwrought metaphors or similes ("The sun was like a big fat woman with sharp daggers for teeth." ) to the brilliant pithy observations of a great photographer ("He was a non-conformist to the core, living in a world in which he knew he did not belong. He pondered how much air was left in it for him to breathe.") None of the text references specific images; Towell wants us to experience the images unmediated.

            Theorist John Berger suggests that, when paired with photographs, words provide meaning and interpretation. That's true here. If you read the text first, it hovers as you page through the extraordinary photographs, falling into the rhythm of Towell's relationship with these people as it unfolds over time. He often traveled with them—once accompanying a Mennonite family of 10 on a harrowing journey from Canada to Mexico, where, over several days and many car breakdowns, the family subsisted on little more than Coke and mayonnaise sandwiches.

            Towell doesn't seem to have a point of view, and his photographs might more accurately be described as the indecisive moment, improvisational vérité, yet hauntingly beautiful because he understands the value of natural light, soft mid-tones, and how to make the most effective use of the edge of a frame. His compositions are loose and many lack an obvious main "subject," allowing the viewer to meander through the frame and its internal narrative.

            Most of the images are unsettling—think FSA, Walker Evans or John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. They also are as raw and unvarnished as the lives of the Mennonites. One stunning double page image screams of poverty so palpable it's shocking that it was taken at the end of the 20th century. A couple, with their three young blond children, stands so close to the foreground that they are almost falling out of the frame. Behind them sits their decrepit adobe house, the dirt yard littered with nothing but debris. Or a woman in bare feet sweeps dirt into a dustpan in a room devoid of furniture except for a few chairs against the wall. In one of most touching images, a young blond boy stares deadpan at himself in a small handheld mirror, with no apparent recognition of his individuality or joy in seeing his face.

            Ultimately, the photographs reveal a life ruled (and destroyed) by a strict adherence to belief and rejection of modernity. Time passes the way time has always passed on the land. Birth and death. Crops planted and harvested. Cows milked. Animals slaughtered. Over and over. Day by day in the face of drought, abusive and exploitive farm bosses, and dust storms. This is a life of pure survival in the face of overwhelming odds. When you reach the end of the book, you realize that what's missing is laughter, joy, or childhood play. Towell does not pass judgement; he leaves that up to the viewer.  


Click here to purchase book from the Gost website.

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