Filter Photo Festival 2016 – Part 3

by Jonathan Blaustein

Allow me to gather my thoughts.

In the last month, as your emissary, I’ve been in Albuquerque, Chicago, Denver, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Albuquerque again, Los Angeles, and now San Diego.

In my 6.5 years writing for this blog, I’ve never had a travel schedule like that. My brain is like a gelatinous bowl of rice pudding, and I’ve still got a portfolio review to attend
in a few hours.

As such, I’m sitting at a hotel desk, listening to the white noise of the window-box air conditioner. Even though it’s mid-October, it was 90+ degrees in LA yesterday, and it’s meant to be a scorcher here in SD today as well. (Hola, Climate Change. Como estas?)

I wrote a column earlier this week, but it didn’t feel authentic to reality. I was trying to synopsize part of my journey, but it’s all too fresh. How can you look back on something when you’re still in it?

Take my morning run, for example. I just returned, and the sweat is still dense on my dirty black T-shirt. I was jogging down the sidewalk, minding my own business, when I saw a massive black cat sitting stock still on a postage-stamp lawn. That the home’s front porch was decorated for Halloween made his sentinel-pose all the stranger.

Next door, two puppies railed at their fence, presumably so they could harass the neighboring feline. On the same block, in front of an apartment building, strips of grass were cut into the parking spaces so that cars could sit atop a swath of green each night.

Who does that?

It’s a question that kept popping up last night, as I watched the final Presidential debate in a public auditorium at the Hammer Museum in LA. Surrounded by strangers, who treated political theater like the Jerry Springer show, I catcalled a few times myself.

Who does that?

The truth is, this has been a crazy month for the entire country. We all just want it to be over, but now the conclusion teases us with visions of skinheads pulling out their assault rifles to fuck shit up when their orange King loses the election.

Like I said, my mind is in that stream-of-consciousness state you get when you’re perpetually on the road. So perhaps I ought to pivot, like Hillary did, when she called Trump a Putin Puppet.

I laughed, like the rest of the room. I screamed out in disbelief, all the while realizing it really isn’t funny.

But pivot I will, to the last group of portfolios I saw at the Filter Festival in Chicago last month. I’ll try to gather myself to write a piece next week about the Chicago/NYC/LA triumvirate, and then we’ll be on to articles from the Medium Festival in San Diego soon enough.

As always, these portfolios are in no particular order. It is dude heavy today, but only because the first story was mostly ladies. (You know I’m big on keeping the balance.)

Jeff Philips has the distinction of doing the funniest karaoke bit I’ve ever heard. In fairness, I’ve only sang twice, but his riff on the Rapture last year was a bit of genius. This year, Jeff had a review with me, and I liked his new series photographing from within death metal mosh pits. (Better him than me.)

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I didn’t actually meet Rachel Cox at Filter, though apparently we just missed each other several times. She followed up right after the festival to see if I’d take a look, and of course I loved her pictures about the end of her grandmother’s life. Sometimes, work needs a bit of context, (or actual text,) to make sense. Not so here. These photos are dynamite.

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Alan Thomas had some large-format work shot in Calcutta. As he publishes books at the University of Chicago, I assumed he’d be a craftsman, and so he is. I thought these pictures shared an aesthetic with much I’ve seen in Hong Kong, or elsewhere in Asia, but capturing India this way was new to me. (They’re so well-made.)

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Ben Altman showed me a project that I’d first seen on Critical Mass last year. I wrote to him afterwards, as I was so impressed with the insanely-ambitious/batshit-crazy idea he had to dig a ceremonial mass grave in his own backyard.

No lie!

To make it even more ridiculous, he also built a faux guard tower. In his own backyard? With his own hands? It takes some massive balls to do a thing like that. I think the stark, black and white photographs of his installation are super-powerful as well. (I know there are a lot, but I think there’s a poetry to the long edit.)

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Cruising through the portfolio walk at Filter, I came across Max Cozzi’s prints. In a room filled with work, they jumped off the table. Max photographs in the Upper Midwest, and I thought his combination of color and clarity was extremely engaging.

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Tom Wagner is a long-time photojournalist, and has photographed in North Korea many times before. I know it was a hot topic last year, photographically, but I like that these pictures have a bit of sparkle from a place I imagine to be rather grim.

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

Finally, I met up with Andre Avenessian, as we’d done a review together at Filter 2015. Back then, I told him his work was not nearly as visceral and engaging as the stories he was telling me. I challenged him to up his game.

On the last day of Filter, he busted out this group of new pictures, which he makes to approximate his vision of Hell. As in, the actual place. He is Armenian, and grew up in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity, so it as always felt real to him.

As Halloween is coming up, I think these freaky-ass pictures will be just right to end this series. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I did hook him up with Rebecca Memoli. Scary-fetishes are best shared, I think.)

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Hasta la vista, and wish me luck, as I’ve got miles to go before I sleep.

Jonathan Blaustein

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