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Tucson Weekly Deadly Vision

Dan Eldon's posthumously published journal is an homage to a young man's adventurous aesthetic.

By James DiGiovanna

The Journal's of Dan Eldon: The Journey is the Destination, by Dan Eldon (Chronicle Books). Cloth, $27.50

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  WHEN SOMEONE DIES as young as Dan Eldon did, at age 22, we usually talk of promise unfulfilled, or what he might have accomplished had he lived. But if someone traveled the world, had a great deal of professional work published and recognized in both journalism and fine art, lived amongst many different peoples, led expeditions through dangerous and exotic territories, and influenced many other adventurers and artists were to die, we would talk of a full life, lived to the limits of its possibility. That Dan Eldon could fall into both these categories makes this book a disturbing, rich and anxious work.

The Journey is the Destination is a collection of assorted pages from Dan Eldon's 17 scrapbooks. Eldon began producing these collaged pages when he was 14 years old. Combining his photographs with painting, drawings, official documents and marginal writings, the book reveals an incredibly sophisticated young man. In the very first journal (produced when Eldon's eighth grade class went on an outing to visit the Masai Tribe of Kenya) he writes, "I mix them with my brains, sir: John Opie, when asked with what he mixed his colors," and includes a short extract on the role of ethnography in ethnology.

Still, the first few pages have the look, if not the tone, of a junior high school project. But as the volume progresses a visual sophistication arises. The earlier painted photographs are reminiscent of the kind of projects one sees at art schools, but Eldon quickly develops an acuity with the brush that moves well beyond the Andy Warhol style of painting-on-photography.

The pages become densely layered, and record not only Eldon's growing aesthetic vision, but also the breadth of his experiences. Photographs of African tribespeople are pasted on official travel documents, entry stamps to various African countries, letters from the office of Nairobi's president, and a wide range of mementos, advertisements and odd press clippings.

One striking two-page spread features four copies of the same photograph, a picture of a stuffed owl in the lobby of a North African hotel. Each image is painted with different strokes, some emphasizing the bird, others introducing ghostly silhouettes, another turning a fluorescent light into a spiritual beam from the head of an otherworldly creature.

The later sections of the book eschew the layering for cleaner images of the stark Somalian city-scape, bringing to relief the horrors of the war which was to take Eldon's life.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in reading a book like this is that the life of the author, its tragedy and romance, intercedes between the pages and the reader. It's difficult to look at an image of war, a picture of a soldier, a collage featuring tanks and Jeeps, and not see the death of Dan Eldon. It's impossible, then, to say whether the impact of these pages is due to their inherent artistic value or to the romance of a young man who gathered a small group of friends from many nations to travel in a broken down Jeep across hostile boundaries and difficult terrain, and who died a horrible and brutal death at the hands of an angry mob.

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