Through his lens

Edward Grazda’s ‘Asia Calling’ is an unexpectedly welcome experience.


A first read of “Asia Calling: A Photographer’s Notebook 1980-1997” will grab you, though not likely in ways you were expecting.

Documentary photographer Ed Grazda has published a black-and-white photo book of 17 years of images he captured between 1980 and 1997 in Southeast Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and environs.

Grazda has created the design concept for each of the half-dozen books he’s published. The design of ‘Asia Calling’ is a study in contrasts. On the cover, we see a young Asian woman in modern dress operating a time-wearied telephone board, a subtle juxtaposition that I missed the first time.

Then you turn to the opening pages, to an explosion of frenetic colors and images, stamped visas, blown-up scribbled notes and postcards with fragments such as “the ceasefire is a joke …” 

By now, we’ve figured out we aren’t in Kansas anymore, bookwise. For example, the cover flaps, normally reserved for self-promotion, have the text and notes for each photo in the book, for reader ease.

The cover with the telephone tableau turns out to be a blowup of a postcard sent to Grazda from a friend from Cambodia. 

We’re on sensory alert by now, and the black-and-white images unfold, seeming silent and vaguely secretive. Grazda’s Asia is streetwise, captured in macro, replete with symbolic images of a world undergoing explosive growth and repeated wars. Grazda helps us along with several pages of expository text, some credited to other authors, some he has written himself.

Two powerful images of the continuum of war and chaos and survival caught my eye. The first seemed innocuous, slightly humorous, showing the interior of an automobile with a fur-lined dashboard and the cultural equivalent, perhaps, of fuzzy dice.

In the photo notes, Grazda explains the car is a 1968 Ford Falcon, once a U.S. Embassy vehicle, repurposed as a taxicab.

A few pages later, a young Asian American slumped on the side door of a rail freight car with Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge in the background. The bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel (Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower) during the French colonial period in Vietnam, spanning the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. Unlike Lady Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, the bridge has been bombed and rebombed, and rebuilt each time.

The photo that symbolizes the never-ending history of war for me shows a fighter on the street in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1992. The man is looking at the camera unemotionally, holding a loaded rocket launcher with a quiver of rockets on his back. His affect and 20th century weaponry lead us to imagine a 15th century British archer in the same pose, with his high-tech longbow.

At this point, a sentient being would ask, “Who is this Grazda guy?” Ed Grazda grew up in Bayside, Queens — a.k.a. Jimmy Breslin Country — received a Catholic education that didn’t teach him about the world. His interest in photography did, and his father’s colleague had gone to this place called Rhode Island School of Design, to which not a lot of Queens guys went at the time.

Grazda went, abandoned plans to be an industrial design director, studied photography instead, graduated without a career track, and essentially began walking down the road with his camera. The rest of his professional life has evolved mostly organically, though later on grants and commissions have helped pay the rent, and quality outlets like the Christian Science Monitor bought his work.

“I never was interested in money, and thank God I’m OK now, but I would work at photography studios, develop film for friends, do carpentry to get enough money to finance a trip. I went to places like South America, the Western part of the United States, and eventually Asia that were cheap. I mean, a hotel room in Pakistan was two bucks,” he said. And he photographed relentlessly, seemingly looking for the soul of the places in the quotidian moments. “I fastened onto Asia in the 1980s. As much as I liked Latin America, for example, it seemed frozen in time, but Asia was changing quickly. Things were happening, not just war,” he says.

“There’s never been a plan or a project. I’m not good at that, but over time things seem to come together slowly. Sometimes I’ll look at a finished [book] and realize there is more in there than I ever consciously intended,” he said.

Besides “Asia Calling,” other titles by Grazda include “On the Bowery: New York City 1971”; “Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1985”; “A Last Glance: Trading Posts of the Four Corners”; a photographic record of Navajo trading posts, both extant and vanished, in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado; and “Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000,” a period of intense political upheaval and internecine warfare. He has also published a small book called “American Color Slides.”

A Chilmark resident, Grazda, now 74 and working away on his next book, is married to Valerie Sonnenthal, an MV Times colleague, who wrote a pretty good summary of this unique talent in a story in Arts & Ideas magazine a few years ago: “Ed has been drawn to worlds apart, places that have not wholly caught up with the times, and where cultural traditions are preserved. He repeatedly returns to photograph over time, creating an alternative vision: a compelling historical document of lives and places we might never know about without his concerted efforts.” 

There’s plenty to see and learn about in Ed Grazda’s work. But like him, we have to sometimes work to see it all.

“Asia Calling: A Photographer’s Notebook 1980-1997” by Edward Grazda, $35. Available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Main Street, Vineyard Haven; at Edgartown Books, Main Street, Edgartown; and online.