Gost Books has published a new edition of photographer Larry Towell’s seminal work, “The Mennonites.” This book has become a bona fide classic work of longform photojournalism in the years since its initial publication. If you are a fan of photojournalism, you probably know about it. The new edition expands on the original, published in 2000, by including previously unpublished images.
In 2000, I was still in graduate school at the Missouri School of Journalism. I was studying photojournalism alongside a hefty group of like-minded idealists hoping to make a difference in the world. Most of us had yet to set foot into a newsroom. We were mostly blank slates. And we tended to be like sponges soaking up the work that “real” journalists were doing or had done before we waded into the waters.
The Missouri School of Journalism provided an incredibly solid foundation upon which we have all built on as the years have gone by. Early on, while reading and looking at work that would serve as inspiration down the road, I stumbled across the work of photographer Larry Towell.
Towell’s work became very interesting to me because it built on other work I had begun to absorb that showed how photography, and more specifically photojournalism, could break the boundaries of what I had begun to think of as traditional photojournalistic work.
That is, Towell’s work showed me that things didn’t need to be presented in neat, linear packages; you could breach the foundational tropes being taught in journalism school. And that made for much more intimate, feeling work that functioned alongside the great longform writing I had also begun to absorb.
I don’t really know how I found it (there wasn’t really a vibrant internet community back then), but I bought “The Mennonites” that year. It’s a book of lyrical and immersive black-and-white photos exploring the world of the Old Colony Mennonites. This was no quick hit wide-shot, tight-shot package like you might produce for a newspaper story. No, Towell threw himself into the lives of the people he was photographing. He spent nearly 10 years doing it! It was an enthralling read then, and continues to be today.
I won’t go on and on about how the internet and the 24/7 news cycle have eroded our appetites for patient, painstaking reporting in favor of the quick hit and hot take. That’s for another time and another place. It used to be more common to take one’s time, get to know the people you are writing about or photographing. It’s still done today, but it’s more common to cover events and not go as deep as you would with a project like “The Mennonites.”
Anyway, as I mentioned above, Towell made the photos in this book over a period of nearly 10 years, both in Canada and Mexico. Some of the photos have achieved near iconic status — the photo of three young men staring into the camera as one of them smokes or the one of young girls holding onto their hats as wind kicks up dust or even the one of a family cast against the backdrop of their hardscrabble home, reminiscent of Arthur Rothstein’s iconic dust bowl photos from the 1930s. His first encounter with Mennonites was near his home in Ontario, Canada.
Towell became friends with some of them, and that is how he gained access to photograph them, eventually documenting the lives of Mennonites not just in Canada but in Mexico as well. The following is Towell’s description of how he gained that access:
“In 1989, I discovered them in my own backyard, landhungry and dirt poor. They came looking for work in the vegetable fields and fruit orchards of Lambton, Essex, Kent and Haldimand-Norfolk Counties. 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.”
Gost’s new edition brings this classic work back and makes it available to a whole new generation to be able to discover. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the first edition from 2000. It comes in a handsome black slipcase, and the book itself resembles a Bible (or maybe a hymnal?), replete with thin pages and even a black ribbon bookmark.
You can find out more about the new edition and buy it here. It is also available to preorder here.