My son is studying American history in 4th grade.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
His little sister, all of five, misheard Patrick Henry’s quote, and apparently she and her best friend were chanting “Give me America, or give me death,” on the school playground.
(You can’t make this shit up.)
I pointed out to my son, however, that while that was the history I learned in school…
The Stamp Tax.
The Boston Tea Party.
The shot heard round the world.
Washington crossing the Delaware.
…That it was really only one part of American history. There were the Native Americans, of course, but our very own New Mexico had a Spanish Colonial history I was never taught.
New Orleans, where I went last week, came from a French colony that also gave roots to the America we know today. (And a hedonistic set of roots, at that. If you can’t have fun in NOLA, you’re not trying hard enough.)
I’ll have a set of review articles from Photo NOLA for you guys in the coming weeks, but for now, I want to share some advice I often give to people at the review table. (In particular, photojournalists and documentary shooters.)
There are two elements of the “fine art aesthetic” I identify for people who are shooting in a looser, camera-tilted, or just-grabbed sort of style.
First, I talk about formalism, geometric compositions, and balanced image structures that come from a Germanic tradition, like the Bechers. (#RIP) I think a solid structure, (mixed with great light,) allows a viewer to really sink into what you’re visually communicating.
Secondly, sharpness and clarity are the ultimate cheats, in great fine art photography. People use big cameras, and super-sharp lenses, because our eyes inherently read sharpness as pleasing.
And it’s sister, clarity, means that an increase in three dimensionality happens, and images separate well into foreground, mid-ground and background.
Sharpness is our friend, for sure.
So I was happy to open up “New Deal Utopias” today, a new book by Jason Reblando, released this fall by Kehrer Verlag. (Who continue to do a stellar job.)
It stuck in the back of my mind that this book had come in a while ago, and when I saw it was postmarked September, I knew I had to give it a look.
Truly, you could not find a better example of both of the above tenets. Not in one book. These images are razor sharp, and the compositions speak for themselves.
Not only that, “New Deal Utopias” also shows us something we haven’t seen before. (That happens to look like a lot of what we HAVE seen before, tonally, in contemporary America.)
The story is that Jason photographed in three towns which were built along utopian, idealistic, essentially socialistic lines during the Great Depression.
Public money went into building them, people were specifically chosen to live there, and there was green space built-in to offer a higher quality of life.
Fast forward 75 years, and the three towns with Green in their names, in Ohio, Maryland and Wisconsin, look a little worse for wear. (Like the grass coming up through the basketball court.)
I love the pennants, as a repeating motif, as well the excellent blend of interiors, exteriors, and landscapes. (This dude really knows what he’s doing.)
Though each image is titled, and the town is named, I’m more impressed by the overall contemporary-America vibe. It all feels like middle-America, down-on-its-heels-USA.
(It makes me think of an Empire in decline, while the obvious heir, China, flexes her muscles more obviously every day.)
Then again, there is one image of a dental care sign: Drs. McCarl McCarl McCarl & McCarl that made me giggle. A total changeup in tone that I often recommend, and this book contains short text quotes to break up the narrative as well.
Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t see this book a few months ago.
Today was just the right time.
Because it reminds me that America has always been an experiment, and that progress comes whether we want it to, or not. (These days, 10 year olds ask why the founding fathers owned slaves…)
This has always been a messy society, America, cobbled together out of all others, and I guess we’ll just have to see what 2018 brings.
Now won’t we.
Bottom Line: Excellent, precise look at a Middle-American Utopia
If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at email@example.com