The Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography: Part 2

 

I never set out to be an opinion columnist.

It’s true.

Hell, before 2008, if you’d told me I’d become a professional blogger, much less do the job for nearly 9 years, I’d have taken you for a crazy person.

But everything realigned 10 years ago, in the eye-teeth of The Great Recession, and frankly, I don’t think the world has been the same since.

It’s funny, reading the papers, following the discussions about whether the 10 year bull market has finally turned bear.

Will the stock market’s tumble, or the government shut down, or Trump’s stunning incompetence, finally derail the strong American economy, and lead to a recession?

I find those articles patently absurd, and my guess is, you do too.

I’m glad the stock market has gone its run, sure, but in every other way, it feels like America is still not back to where it was before the mix of horrible home loans, and the toxic derivative instruments built upon them, created a financial bubble that finally burst in September 2008.

By January 2009, of course, the economy was in pure free-fall, and America inaugurated its first African-American President, tasked with putting the pieces back together. (Tough luck, Barack. You needed the crisis to get elected, I’d imagine, but it meant you spent your best years putting out another man’s fires.)

I admit, knowing it was exactly 10 years ago has been on my mind lately. I first approached Rob Haggart, my long-time editor, because he put out a call looking for Great Recession images in early 2010.

(He complimented the ones I emailed him, pictures from Southern Colorado I’ve mostly scrubbed from the internet, which I’m now re-visiting nearly a decade later.)

Since we were corresponding anyway, I pitched Rob on writing a couple of articles for him, gratis, as I was a fan of the blog, and had been writing on a small-time blog with friends for nearly a year by then.

At that point, when I wrote him, it was spring 2010, and my small commercial photography/printing studio in Taos had seen its business evaporate. I mean, I went from having clients to having none, all within a few months.

The tell-tale sign, I discovered, was I was getting hired a lot, near the end, to do Canadian passport photos, because all the Canadians wanted to make sure they could get the hell out of the country.

Pronto.

Going into the Great Recession, I was an unknown artist doing all sorts of photo and printing services to make a living, while also running the studio as a gallery. (I sold next to nothing.)

Afterwards, I was a somewhat-known artist, a professional blogger, and a college professor.

But all these years later, I’m just about making what I made before the career-changes happened.

Truth be told, I love the career exchange, and would make it every time, if I could. I get a lot of satisfaction and pleasure out of the work I do, despite the grind of permanent freelance living.

My wife makes more money now, as she went into private practice as a therapist, (after years of working in a local school,) so that helps for sure.

As I’m said, I’m personally very happy, but in no way do I think that things are “better” in the world than they were before the Crash, and in many ways they seem worse.

Seeing all the income growth go to such a small percentage of Americans wears away social trust, as once people believe a game is rigged, they have much less interest in maintaining said system.

And of course while Obama was left to clean up W. Bush’s mess, the real legacy of The Great Recession was Donald J. Trump.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the now-President here for years, and even I’m stunned to read that the FBI actively investigated whether Trump might be a Russian asset.

(And that he bought a room full of McDonalds and Wendy’s for the Clemson football team.)

This truly unstable world, I believe, was first born in the ashes of the Global Economic Collapse.

All of a sudden, America stumbled.
Hard.

Even worse than in Vietnam.

The extreme elements in our Capitalistic system wiped out extraordinary amounts of wealth, for ordinary people, and in many cases literally kicked them to the curb.

In the end, essentially no bankers went to jail.

Foreclosed Americans were left to pick up their own pieces, and American taxpayers paid the bill for bailouts.

Are we really surprised that so many people, doing so poorly in depressed areas, would fall for Trump’s con, feeling their pain and promising to bring their jobs back?

Or that other major nations, like China and Russia, would see our inherent weakness, and push that much harder to take our mantle of power, geo-politically?

I haven’t written a political column in a while, because I try to balance the style and tenor of these articles. It’s one way that I’ve managed to keep it interesting, given that the format is essentially unchanged all these years.

But as it’s early in 2019, and 10 years since that evil 2009, I felt it was a good time to go in this direction.

This story will ultimately be about the second batch of photographers I saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego last October.

And last week, I wrote my spiel about the city, and gave you all some advice to get out there and hit up the festivals, or travel more this year.

This column is meant to build upon that, if you can believe it.

Because beneath the super-structure of the political critique, (I can’t believe I’m explaining my own meta-level writing,) what I really meant to say was: reinvention is painful.

Change is hard.
And yet it’s always worth it.

One of the cardinal rules of being an artist is that once you realize how deeply you’re embedded in your comfort zone, it’s time to jump out of bed.

Doing these things is much harder than saying them, and pretty much no one chooses to change.

It’s normally forced upon us by life circumstances.

But knowing that you eventually have to shake things up, and then having the guts to make the tough call, these processes lead to growth, as a human and an artist.

I live by my own advice, I swear.

Just the other week, I gave up my beloved Wing Chun Kung Fu, and switched to Aikido, because I knew I needed a new teacher, and a new beginning.

It hurt, but I did it anyway. Because that’s how I was trained at Pratt.

Many of the artists I meet at events like Medium don’t have the MFA degree. They didn’t go to art school, and some haven’t even taken a formal class.

Many of the photographers had a first career. They didn’t follow their passion, initially, but when given the chance later in life, they took workshops, joined critiquing groups, and threw everything they had at their new career as an artist.

Other times, I let my opinions fly, and I might be sitting across from an MFA photographer. Or even better, sometimes, I’ll be critiquing a professor from a really established school.

This visit, a photographer came up to me to re-introduce herself, as I’d been really strong in my advice, during a previous review at Medium. (I insisted that she change her paper type from matte to a photo surface.)

I published her work here, and never thought about it again. But apparently, the woman told me, I’d gotten under her skin, as she resented the advice at first, but then had finally done what I suggested, and found success with the change.

Another person verified that this professor had told the story many times, as I was the “paper guy,” and it had been a big deal in her life.

Honestly, I can’t keep giving beginning-of-the-year-advice-columns much longer. February is right around the corner, and anyway, after today, it will be enough.

The best I can say to you is to try to embrace some change, in 2019, and push yourself hard.

Try a different medium. Go somewhere new. Sign up for a class at a local community college. Switch to black and white. Make a video.

Times of upheaval have a way of re-writing the rules of the game, and why not make yourself stronger, and pick up some new skills, for the decade to come?

Enough said, now we’ll look at the second batch of the Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in October 2018. (As always, they’re in no particular order.)

Victoria Fava was visiting from Monterrey, Mexico. She studied art as well as photography, and we spent much of our chat discussing what the optimal medium would be to express her ideas.

She’s been interested in the fact that astroturf, a chemical product developed by Monsanto, is highly utilized there, and oddly is often featured in wealthy homes. (From an American perspective, it seems downscale.)

I like the photos, but personally thought creating installations, making mock-outdoor-scenes indoors, might be the way to go. (Easy for me to say. That’s much harder to pull off than making a photograph.)

CJ Pressma is one of the types of people I alluded to above, as he’s been involved with photography at a high level since before I was born. CJ was visiting from Louisville, where he ran a residency program for many years.

He’s was also a master printer, doing portfolios for people like Meatyard, and my colleague Brian Clamp even mentioned to me during the festival that he had vintage prints that CJ had made back in the day.

At Medium, CJ showed me a book he’d made pairing (mostly) night photographs with faux dream diary statements he’d asked his friends to contribute. The one image of the frozen truck was probably the best single image I saw that week.

Bil Zelman is one of the few people in the world who make me jealous, as he lives in Encinitas, my favorite beach town in California. (Though all of North County is pretty cool, IMO.)

He’s primarily a commercial and editorial photography who self-financed a personal project looking at elements of the landscape that reflect our anthropocentric times. (Non-Native species, non-native trees, etc.)

Given the high flash at night, they’re super dynamic. And I had to lay it on hard to convince Bil that he shouldn’t lead with 15 tree pictures before showing the alligators and Burmese python.

Never bury the lede!

But Bil told me he mixed it up for later reviews, and received some really great responses.

Justin Nolan is another example of one of the types I mentioned above. He’s a professor at the University of Central Florida in Daytona, and he got his MFA at UNM in New Mexico not too long ago.

Once I knew his training, I pushed him pretty hard, and asked some difficult questions. I never would have gone down that interrogative rabbit hole, though, with someone who was new to the field, or hadn’t been trained in the critique process.

Needless to say, I didn’t love one of his projects, but found his take on Florida, his new home, to be witty and great. I make fun of Florida a lot on Twitter, (as does anyone paying attention to what happens down there,) but I liked that Justin’s subtle style contrasted with that over-the-top reputation.

Finally, we have Sheri Lynn Behr, whom I met at Photo NOLA back in 2012. (See what I mean about going to festivals. You can stay in touch with so many people.)

Sheri mentioned to me, in the hall before the review, that she’d heard I was tough, and that she wanted a tough critique. I knew her work was doing well, as she’d just had a solo show at the Griffin Museum in Massachusetts.

Sure enough, though, she showed me a bunch of projects that were mixed together, and printed on different paper surfaces. It was one of those crits where she had an answer for most of my issues, and was fairly wedded to her process, so I let it drop.

Her meta-project, which she made into a book, is called “BeSeeingYou,” and is all about surveillance culture. This one vertical piece stood out to me so powerfully that I’m going to show it by itself.

That’s it for today, and we’ll be back to the book reviews next week. I am planning to hit up a few festivals in 2019 though, including Photo Lucida in Portland, which will be my first time.

So I’ll be sure to report from the field again as soon as I’m able.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 2 Comments On This Article.

  1. Some good work there! And yes, you’re right; it does one good to get outta one’s comfort zone… if only to test the waters. After 40 yrs of B&W analog, I finally took the plunge into digital color (incl sq format)- having the time of my life…