This Week in Photography Books: Barbara Diener

 

Nobody likes a know-it-all.

It’s the reason some people hated Barack Obama so much. (Including my own aunts and uncles.) Obama was so confident in his intelligence, so suave in his mojo, that he never really thought to mask either.

Some people, insecure though they may be, find that sort of attitude arrogant, and the use of mental acumen as “professorial.” (Despite the fact that being a professor is a high-status job, the term is normally used as a pejorative.)

Arsene Wenger, the legendary Arsenal soccer coach, who stepped down recently after 22 years, (it wasn’t voluntary,) was painted with the same brush. With his oversized glasses, big 90’s suits, and weird Gallic accent, he was an easy target. (I still maintain that Sacha Baron Cohen imitated Arsene in “Talladega Nights.”)

Beyond the perception of arrogance, the other main irritant is that people don’t like being “lectured.” It’s a subset of reality that people don’t like to be told what to do in general, but they hate being “lectured.”

In college, a lecture is a positive experience. It’s where you go to learn, and hang out with friends and colleagues.

Lectures are where we build community.

As an opinion columnist, (and long-time professor,) I’m always in that place; trying to inform, but not lecture you or get preachy. It’s always best to stop before enough is too much, but knowing there’s a line, and then trying to find it, is tricky.

I try to keep the direct-admonitions and from-on-high-proclamations to a minimum, but I don’t avoid them.

Today, for instance, I want to go back to that word: community. It’s something many of us crave, and it needs to be watered and nourished when it does spring into being.

But man, getting people together, not knowing exactly what will happen, but knowing FOR CERTAIN that good things will come, it’s a great feeling.

I’ve learned about it watching others, and recently wrote of the New York Times efforts to foster diversity IRL. In the 9 years since I first went to Review Santa Fe, I’ve learned about community-building from other festivals, like Center, Filter, Photo NOLA, and Medium.

As I’m building Antidote, our photo retreat program here in Taos, one thing I’ve realized, FOR CERTAIN, is that artists do better when they have a support group of fellow artists.

The job is too difficult, too original, and so many of us “work” alone. Plus, there are so many intricacies to marketing, and building a career.

Success as an artist is like raising a child: it takes a village.

So when I went to Chicago last week, to meet a few consulting clients and hang out with my friends, I decided to arrange an Antidote Meet Up, as two of our 2018 Session 1 students live in the city, and another lives three hours away in Indianapolis. (I was confident she’d drive in, and she did.)

I knew these ladies would hit it off in August, when they met here in Taos, so why not let them become friends/colleagues a few months earlier? They’d have each other as sounding boards all-the-sooner.

The four of us booked a gallery tour last Thursday afternoon. In that same spirit, I invited two young, talented, female photographers to join us, just in case they were free.

The more the merrier.

One of them, Barbara Diener, was featured in this column last year, as the former-Santa-Fe-artist I bumped into on the street in Chicago. (After I paid for a Buddhist blessing in what is a really long story.)

Barbara, who moved to Chicago to get an MFA at Columbia College, is now the collections manager in the photo department at the Art Institute of Chicago, and graciously, generously offered to host our meet-up at the museum.

For free!

How classy is that?

In what can only be described as that good-Chicago-juju I’m always writing about, our group then bumped into legendary photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, as she was ducking into a private tour.

She stopped what she was doing, came over, met the group, and told everyone about her new exhibition, curated from the Library of Congress collection, that’s currently on display at the Annenberg Center of Photography in Los Angeles. (Go see it. I’ll be catching it in July.)

What are the odds of that happening?

1 in a million?

I got to introduce a group of female artists to one of the most important role-models this industry has ever seen. All because I chose to follow those instincts towards being generous with my new-found ability to bring people together.

One of the students was running late, shortly before we all met Anne, so Barbara was kind enough, at my request, to do a little presentation on her new photo book “Phantom Power,” recently published by Daylight, with essays by Allison Grant and Gregory Harris.

As professors, we encourage our students to dig into their own experiences, and mine their own lives, their expertise, to find the strands of curiosity that lead to exploration.

Formally, this takes shape in a “project,” but really that’s just a fancy word for our artistic inquiry, and, best case, a mastery of certain visual skills.

Barbara explained to us that she was thinking about her father’s death, as he’d died suddenly, and it was obviously impactful. (One of our students, Jessica Paullus, is dealing with a similar experience in her work.)

Barbara grew up in Germany, before moving to America, and was exploring farm country in Illinois that reminded her of the landscape of her youth. She met a woman named Kathy, and they spoke of ghosts.

It was a thread, and she pulled at it.

Eventually, she met a medium named Irene, who claims she can connect to the dead.

(Obviously, it’s a much longer story, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to revisit it, but the night before I saw Barbara’s book, I found myself in conversation with the ghost of Garry Shandling, via a medium named Jim, over a Subaru-bluetooth-phone-system.)

Back to the book.

The use of color here is strong, and worth mentioning, because on second viewing, I realized, (surprisingly,) that the book is not creepy.

Or scary.

It’s not really haunting at all. The photographs metaphorically deal with the practice of communing with the dead, and reference spirit photography. (Including all the lights.)

They’re moody, sure, but there are rainbow colors throughout this book. Pops of illumination everywhere. One picture simulates a field of fireflies.

Who doesn’t like fireflies?

There is a short story insert, which Barbara wrote, that tells of her first meeting with the medium Irene, in a group setting, in which she purported to speak for Barbara’s Dad.

But in a second, private session, held later, Irene at first forgot, and believed Barbara’s father was alive and well.

It’s hard not be cynical about the underlying premise, unless you believe in ghosts. (Do you?) Barbara admits in the text she’s a cynic.

When I was talking to Garry Shandling’s ghost, all I could think was, “Stay open. Stay open.”

Meaning: experience this as intrinsically real, in the moment, because it will be more fun that way. Can I say I’m 100% certain I’m NOT talking to Garry Shandling’s ghost?

No, I can not.

Because I stayed open, I had an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

The short story echoes the sentiment. In the end, once Irene figured out that Barbara’s Dad has passed on, she told Barbara her father said he loved her.

He never said that in life, she writes. (Heart-breaking stuff.) But once it was said, she felt better, and was able to move along.

That’s why this book isn’t creepy, even though it’s about ghosts.

The dead.

Instead, it’s a weird, sci-fi, love-letter, and what more could you want, really?

Bottom Line: A look at ghost culture in the country-side

To purchase “Phantom Power” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers.

Jonathan Blaustein

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