Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography Books: Ed Eckstein

- - Photography Books

 

My son just saw “Airplane” for the first time. (Thanks, Dad.)

He’s turning 10, so I guess he was ready. I certainly remember watching it as a kid, laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. But that was back when the movie was fresh, and the references made sense.

Not surprisingly, as it’s 2017, Theo felt uncomfortable with the “jive turkey” scenes, as what was acceptable in 1980 is considered highly racist today.

He also didn’t know what to make of the Hare Krishna’s. I mean, how do you explain that to the Internet generation? It’s not like we’ve got bald, dancing hippies at airports anymore.

(Instead, we have bomb-sniffing dogs, and lots of smelly bare feet.)

In a weird way, I miss some elements of the monoculture: the pop references, and films, that everyone got.

Where’s the Beef.
Joe Isuzu.
Eddie Murphy doing Gumby.

The comedic movies from the 70’s and 80’s, in particular, stand out as cultural icons that have not really been replaced. (Well, I guess Alec Baldwin doing Trump comes close.)

If you ask anyone between 30-50 about the funniest movie of all time, the odds are they’re going to say something with Bill Murray in it.

“Caddyshack,” most likely.

The fact it had peak-funny Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield makes it hard to pick anything else. But I could just as easily say that about “Stripes.”

It featured peak-funny Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Candy, with a scary/funny performance by Warren Oates to boot. (How sad is it that three of those guys are dead now?)

“Stripes” gets pushed down the list a bit, for many, because it was really two movies in one. The first part, with all the classic lines, (“You call me Francis, I’ll kill ya,”) was set in basic training.

Show me something funnier than John Candy mud-wrestling.
I dare you.

But the second part, which morphed into an Anti-Soviet action movie, is a bit harder to defend. Completely different tone, and seeing Warren Oates become a good guy was hard for my young brain to process. (Ah, such a simpler time, the 20th Century. Our good guys were good, our bad guys were bad, and it was OK to chant “USA” without irony.)

Seriously, I think my entire understanding of basic training comes from “Stripes,” and I guess that says a lot about me. I don’t have any family members in the military, I never considered joining up, and I was born just after the end of the draft.

For me, “The Draft” means 20 hours of ESPN each Spring, watching heavily-made-up former football players dissecting clips of college footballers whose names they can barely pronounce. (Yet still I watch…)

It’s hard for most people to relate to a world in which the government could force you to fight, and often die, no matter what you thought about the situation. We are so far removed from that time, it’s hard to imagine a world in which that many Americans had skin in the game.

These days, a small minority of American families do the heavy lifting for all of us. And, most of the time, it’s lower income kids, from rural areas lacking job opportunities, that end up dying for our “freedom.” (Yes, I’m putting quotes around the word, b/c with Trump around, it seems like a much shakier proposition.)

Thankfully, (and not unexpectedly, if you know this column,) a photo book turned up in the mail the other day that puts this issue before our eyes, straight outta the early 70’s.

“Grunts: The Last US Draft, 1972” is a new book by Ed Eckstein, published by Schiffer Publishing in Pennsylvania, and it provides a glimpse into the last draft class in American History. (This time I don’t mean the NFL.)

This photo book shows us a set of pictures that Ed Eckstein made in 1972, when he embedded with a group of draftees, and followed them from Philly down to basic training in South Carolina. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get “Stripes” out of my head, when I was looking at this book. (Yes, I’m a weirdo.)

But the thing about a documentary photo project is that it shows us the unvarnished situation, in clean black and white, and eventually, I was able to see these young men as people, rather than stand in’s for John Winger and crew.

While this book gives us something we otherwise wouldn’t get to see, (a surefire way to get reviewed,) I wouldn’t say the pictures are dynamite. They’re good, and in some cases very good, but in general, I don’t think they’re terribly visceral or emotion-grabbing.

Rather, they feel historical to me.
And important, as such.

There are little bits of humor, like the little tags on the uniforms, made “For Soldiers of Distinction.”

How great is that?

Even better is the promotional poster, featuring Richard Nixon, that promises “Equal Employment Opportunity” from the Federal Government.

Let that sink in for a moment.

In one little advertisement, Richard Nixon is presented as less of a racist/sexist than our current President. Nixon, the past poster-child for how to be a terrible President, in retrospect looks like a balanced statesman compared to our current Asshole-in-Chief.

Then we get a signs that says, “When you fire think “BRAS”: Breathe/Relax/Aim/Squeeze.” No f-ing way something like that passes muster in 2017. Misogyny may still be alive and well, but with a now-partially-female military, tacky puns like that would never cut it.

And how about the guy in full karate-chop mode? How much you want to bet he’s making a Bruce Lee-esque karate-chop cry? Hiiiii-yah!

It’s true I’m making light of a situation that demands a bit more respect. It’s likely that some of the guys in this book went on to die in Vietnam.

Nothing funny about that.

But that’s kind of my point. As the military burden shifted from almost-all-of-us to a select demographic in this country, the reality of War, and its costs, has become buffeted, to a dangerous degree.

Which is why I’m glad Ed Eckstein sent this book along to remind us, in this time of “Rocket Man,” that none of this is a laughing matter.

Bottom Line: Vintage, black and white documents of the last draft class

To Purchase “Grunts,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Michael Crouser

- - Working

 

I’ll be honest with you.

I’m pretty fried at the moment.

It’s been a long year, and a long summer, and right this second, my brain’s a little spent. Just when I thought I was getting caught up with things, my Dad told me I had to get on this Equifax shit-show, and nothing brings up stress chemicals like the fear of identity theft.

That said, a weekly column is just that, as it requires me to feed the beast.

And so I shall.

Last week, I reviewed a book that was squarely in my old comfort zone, back when we worked with photo-eye: a small-batch, edgy, art-school type project that was more off-putting than embraceable.

My main criterion for reviewing a book has always been, does it compel me to sit down and write? If the ideas flow, then the book is interesting.

I don’t have to love it, and you don’t have to love it. I’d hope that, over time, we all enjoy far more books than we dislike. Given the feedback I get from you, I think that’s probably true.

So this week, (as is my wont,) we’re going completely in the opposite direction. This book couldn’t be more different than “Married to America.”

Seriously, if you tried to come up with a more antithetical project, I doubt you could. (But if you want to try, we do still have a comment section.)

I interviewed Michael Crouser here a few years ago, as he’s a talented photographer who makes pictures that yearn for yesteryear, and often lack visual markers of present day. We discussed how his black and white photographs, when shot in Europe, actually look as if they come from a previous era.

It’s like a photographic equivalent of “Midnight in Paris.” (The only good Woody Allen movie I’ve seen in the last 15 years.)

So I wasn’t surprised when “Mountain Ranch,” his new book, recently published by the University of Texas Press, turned up in the mail. Apparently, the project was just shown at ClampArt in NYC as well.

This time out, Michael spent 10 years, (2006-16) photographing the declining ranching culture of North West Colorado. If last week’s pics were the epitome of edgy/uncomfortable, these are as earnest and heart-warming as it gets.

Frankly, they’re not my favorite style of photographs. I like a bit more bite. But most of you will probably dig these pictures, as they’re so well-made, and really hard to dislike.

If last week’s review was Ted Cruz, this week we’ve got Oprah. Everyone loves Oprah, right? (Yes, I’m going to Chicago next week, so I wanted to kiss a little ass, as I think Oprah still runs that town.)

As you know by now, I grew up in suburban New Jersey. Nothing could be further from that experience, all cars and green lawns and manicured highways. But now I live in the Rocky Mountains, and can personally attest that ranching culture, with all the cowboy accoutrements, is alive and well.

This America, the one in these photographs, is alien to almost all the urbanites out there. It looks like a Red-State fantasy camp, but really, it’s a way of life that has existed as long as Westward expansion was a dream.

The book features some powerful, first person accounts, by the ranchers, of why the lifestyle is dying. Property taxes, inheritance taxes, a younger generation that wants an easier life.

Michael Crouser wants to document this world, to show us his passion, before it disappears. And today, I thought it was appropriate to share it with you. Because if I’m too cynical to enjoy some lovely pictures, then I should probably get a new job.

Bottom Line: Lyrical, old-fashioned pictures of Ranch Life in Colorado

To purchase “Mountain Ranch” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

 

This Week in Photography Books: Justin Clifford Rhody

 

The Earth spins once a day.
It circles the Sun once a year.

We are born, we live, and we die.

Everywhere we look, cycles represent the natural world around us. Karma, or God, or whomever, seems to have a preference for circles.

Everything seems to come back around again, or “full circle,” if you will, if there’s only time to allow it.

Yesterday, I got into it with my soon-to-be-10-year-old, because he kept complaining about doing his homework. He rolled his eyes like a professional actor, and sighed demonstrably. Anyone within twenty miles would have known he was unhappy.

I stood there, watching a younger, newer version of myself. Man, the shit I used to get from my folks for giving them dirty looks. For throwing them shade.

Cut to 1984:

Mom: You better cut that out, or you’re going to be in big trouble.

Me: What!

Mom: You know what. Cut it out.

Me: I didn’t say anything!

Mom: You didn’t have to say anything. It’s written all over your face.

Me: How can I get in trouble if I didn’t say anything?

Mom: Dirty looks are just as bad. Cut it out, or you’re going to your room. And your father will not be happy when he gets home from work.

Me: (Dirty Look) Fine!

Cut back to 2017

I stood there, watching him give me the stink-eye, like Avon Barksdale mad-dogging a snitch, and at the same time, I was deeply in my memory, wondering how these life cycles can be so obvious sometimes.

My son kept rushing through his homework, because he wanted to watch TV. He hates homework, and thinks that makes him original. Such pain, having to do 10 minutes of homework, what with Irma heading towards Florida.

Much as I was angry, as a Dad, I was also empathetic, because every kid hates homework. And I was also the omniscient narrator, a small voice in my head appreciating the irony of it all, understanding it was my time to reap what I’d sowed 30+ years ago.

Like I said, everything old is new again, including Fascism in America, apparently.

Seriously, can you believe that some people grew up so badly, and ate so much garbage, that they think Fascism is the way forward? That’s like saying, no thanks, Doc, I’ll pass on the surgery. Gonna get me some leeches instead, ‘cuz I’m sure they’ll cure me right up.

Last week, I wrote about the inside/outside debate, and how the spirit of the “flaneur” is alive and well in 2017. Roaming and wandering. As someone pointed out on FB, without the outsider, there is no “The Americans,” the Bible that made many of us into photographers.

The tradition of the road trip is as old as cars. I’m sure some dude in Detroit grabbed his best bud Cecil, cranked up the Model T, and hit the dirt roads looking at all the places they’d never seen before.

Likewise, certain sub-themes seem to continually re-emerge in photography, each time suffused with the same energy. In this case, I’m thinking of a certain style of anarchy. A vibe, always put out by young-men-in-bands, that they’ve re-invented living dirty. (Or nasty, if you prefer.)

This week, “Married to America” turned up in the mail, a new book by Justin Clifford Rhody, recently published by Hidden Eye. Justin had written to see if I’d be interested in his book, and after a quick peek online, I said sure, send it along.

When I reviewed Jim Jocoy’s “Order of Appearance” a few months ago, we discussed this punk rock spirit. But that book showed some OG punks from the early 80’s. Guys who were puking on their buddies before Justin and his crew were born.

This book reads differently to me.
It makes me feel old.

First of all, I couldn’t help catching some typos in a statement by road trip buddy Carlos Gonzalez. One of our regular readers, the publisher and former Center board member Joanna Hurley, used to ride me about its vs it’s, so now I can’t not see it.

Like a grumpy Dad chastising his son for mistakes he’s made himself, I was angry at my brain for focusing on the silly typos. Let it go, you square, another part of my brain said. Punks don’t care about typos.

The pictures in the book are cool, but not distinctive. They remind me of simulacra of previous road trips, of previous photos, of previous “On The Road” seekers. It was just so hard to find anything fresh here.

But not impossible.

There are two diptychs, (layout wise,) that I thought were really smart. One pits a Wolverine-style-glove against a bronze wall-plated bust of George Washington; a great little visual poem about 21st Century America.

Even better, the still life of the Egyptian hieroglyphic stela comes right before the obligatory shot of a filthy, disgusting, shit-stained toilet. (You can’t have one of these books without that shot. Or the velvet boobs painting.)

But that’s where the meta-level kicked in. When we see Egyptian art, we think about the past. Our collective history. And what we, as artists, leave behind for “future generations.”

So the subsequent toilet shot becomes the answer to the question. Justin Clifford Rhody is gifting that foul-poop-recepticle to the next generation, and the ones that follow, and he’s doing it with his eyes open.

The final statement tells us more about the book. It is indeed a poetic record of a road trip three guys took, playing music in little “underground” venues, and projecting slides of found imagery to boot.

I don’t deny, in any way, that these Millennial fellas are authentically themselves. I get that they lived this experience, had fun, made art, didn’t hurt anybody, and are growing up in their own time. (A much-less-naive era than we Gen-Xers were given.)

I get that certain people will read this like I’m a hater. Like I’m too old to understand the joy, the freedom, of life on the road. No kids to make breakfast for. No trash container to pull up the hill. No responsibility to crush your spirit.

Maybe I am getting old? (Or as Danny Glover famously said, “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.”)

Maybe.

Or maybe there’s something to this cycle of life? Maybe the Universe prefers circles for a reason? And we’re all doing the best we can, right where we need to be.

Bottom Line: Cool, but familiar, tale of rockers on the road

To purchase “Married to America,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Gary Isaacs

 

All summer, here in the column, I contrasted projects made by insiders and outsiders.

It wasn’t intentional. We didn’t have a big staff meeting, with a conference table covered with donuts, and brainstorm all the different themes I might develop.

There are no staff meetings.
There is no table.
And donuts are for cops and stoners.

Rather, things seem to evolve in certain directions, when you have a weekly column for 6 years.

Today, though, I want to take the issue head on. No oblique references, or silly puns. This question is core to the history and future of photography, so let’s go there.

The French have a word, “flaneur,” that all of us are taught in art school. It means a wanderer, but not in the sense of some Dude named Cooter who rides the rails, and needs a shower more than America needs a new President.

Rather, in photography terms, a flaneur is one who visits new places, roams the streets with a camera, and is constantly on the lookout for the daily drama of real life.

Many, if not most photographers have been there at some point, and I can personally attest I devoted my life to photography after a certain 5-day-cross-country-road-trip, camera in hand.

It’s a fact that the camera, as a machine, has the power to change human experience. Once you’ve gotten a hold of one, and realize how drastically it alters how you see and feel the world around you, it’s hard to go back to a less-well-lived life.

But if you study photography, go to art school, and try to make a career of it, most of the time, you gravitate towards more structured projects. You’re encouraged, for good reason, to make work about what you already know: to mine your expertise for knowledge-wisdom-nuggets, and render said information in visual form.

It’s advice I’ve received, and have dispensed myself.

These days, most people want to dig deep into their own cultural, gender or class-based experiences. (Not surprising, given the prominence of identity politics in many institutions of higher learning.) You’re encouraged to stay in your lane, essentially, rather than aimlessly explore other viewpoints.

They’re two accepted ways of doing things, (wandering and tunneling,) and I’d argue it’s the middle ground that gets tricky.

We saw evidence of that at Antidote, which I opened up to a few of my former UNM-Taos students, free of charge, so they could get the benefit of the world class teachers I brought to town.

One Antidote student was making work in and about a small, Hispanic community in Northern New Mexico, where he had few ties, and he got feedback pushing him to defend the decision. We probed for actual connection, but he rebuffed us, believing his intellectual interest allowed him to investigate another culture, even though he didn’t officially belong.

More power to him, but it’s a rough road.

Conversely, one of my local students had done work, in my class, about “descansos”: roadside memorials to people who’ve been killed.

It’s a popular subject, as they are visually compelling, and I even reviewed such a project at Photo NOLA a few years ago. That time, the pictures had been made by a white, Jewish lady who came in from out-of-state.

Work like that, done by outsiders who are doing more than just wandering, has come under fire lately, as it’s called “cultural appropriation.” I’ve defended the practice here, and would again, under other circumstances.

But what we saw at Antidote gives me pause.

The Antidote crew was rapt during the descanso critique, because my former student had photographed memorials to her dead friends and family. With each memorial, she told us who had died, and how the tragedy unfolded. There is a lot of death and violence in Taos, so the project becomes a metaphor for a culture few outsiders can possibly understand.

The pictures are well-made, don’t get me wrong, but the fact that they were constructed out of pain, out of heartache, sent a strong energy through the critique. Such information can be conveyed through text or video as well, but I witnessed the vibe coming right from the pictures on screen.

It was hard not to compare the two projects. One came from personal experience, the other because sometimes people need to find a project for school, or assignment, or to keep pushing the rock up the hill.

I’m not saying one way is better than the other, and I’m even contemplating my first major curatorial effort, exploring a “foreign” culture, because that’s where my curiosity is taking me.

Where is this rant coming from?
(You always ask the right questions at the right time.)

I just put down “Chinatown,” a new self-published book that came in the mail the other day, from Gary Isaacs. (Not sure on this, but I’m guessing he’s a member of the tribe too.)

This book, all grainy, moody black and white, stems from an assignment in San Francisco’s North Beach, the introduction tells us. Gary did his work there, but found himself powerfully drawn to that exotic neighborhood right next door. (Having photographed SF Chinatown myself in the past, and cruised its streets earlier this summer, I can attest it’s insanely photogenic.)

Not content with his first efforts, Gary went back a few times, to flesh out his vision, and said he spent 15 full days photographing 30 square blocks. Structurally, it fits somewhere between a straight flaneur story, and something a little deeper.

The neighborhood is vibrant, and obviously different. It looks great, because it represents a historical immigrant culture, with its fascinating visual signifiers, yet is surrounded by a more traditional America. (OK, maybe it’s not wise to brand San Francisco as normal America, but you get my point.)

When you look at this book, there is no sense you’re getting an intellectually supported, politically motivated, culturally nuanced vision of the world. There will be no graduate thesis written about these pictures, nor will anyone start a Twitter Hashtag war, like they did for #IronFistSoWhite.

The sprit of the wanderer, of one who’s addicted to the joy of seeing, permeates the pages. I’d argue this book can be a catalyst for all of us to turn our attention back onto the world around us, and try to see it with fresh eyes.

(And if you insist the pictures represent a white person’s cliché vision of Asian culture, you’re welcome to that opinion.)

I just read a piece in GQ, by a guy I went to summer camp with many years ago, about breaking his Weed-Cherry at 35. He’d been too uptight to smoke marijuana earlier in life, but finally got around to it, just in time for the legalization efforts, when the stigma had gone away.

His final sentences were about the way New York City glowed, with lights reflecting off wet streets, when he walked the city while high. His perceptions became heightened, and his experience of visual pleasure was enhanced.

He felt glad to be alive.

I like Mary Jane as much as the next guy, but when photography does its job, and we get to be our best selves, the camera is all the help we need to be overjoyed by the magic of the world.

Food for thought.

Bottom Line: Cool book, featuring noir photos from San Francisco’s Chinatown

This Week in Photography Books: Larry Sultan

 

America is dominated by Baby Boomers and Millennials.

You know this.

My cohort, Generation X, is small by comparison, and as we’re all slackers, we get lost in those giant shadows. But we’re famous for our sense of irony, and these days, it’s a life-saver.

For instance, the one thing most people want, more than anything, is to have a long life. Nobody wants to die young, except for rock stars, but as Rock-n-Roll is dead, the rock stars are gone anyway.

People want to live as long as possible, even though that best case scenario almost always leads to illness, broken bodies, doctor bills, and some form of misery and pain.

Like I said, without irony, where would we be?

My own parents are aging, as I’m 43, and the last ten years have been a litany of ill health. My Dad had two major back surgeries, including a spinal fusion, interspersed with years of aggressive, debilitating nerve pain.

My Mom had a spinal fusion of her own, and before she’d fully recovered, she tore her achilles tendon in Mexico, and had that godawful injury as a follow up. (Though she reported her experience in the Mexican health care system was excellent, in case you’re thinking of moving to the other side of the Wall…)

It’s a challenge, watching the people you love suffer; a reminder it will be your turn soon enough. If you’re one of the lucky ones, that is, and you don’t get pre-mature cancer, or hit by a car driven into a political protest.

On the plus side, aging is meant to bestow wisdom. While our bodies degrade, no matter how many crossword puzzles we do, or superfood smoothies we imbibe, our understanding of reality often develops nuance and expertise.

Who hasn’t looked back on a younger self, thrown up one’s hands, and exclaimed to the sky, “What the fuck was I thinking?”

I know I have.

Right now, I’m focusing on a particular moment, back when I lived in San Francisco in 2001. I’d recently applied to graduate school at CCAC, (now called CCA,) and the Dean of Admissions had arranged for me to sit in on a class with superstar-photographer-professor Larry Sultan.

I brought my portfolio along, as I’d been assured he’d likely review the work, and discuss how I might fit in at the school, were I to be accepted. (I wasn’t.)

But on the day I arrived, Mr. Sultan said it was a special class, with some guest lecturers, and he wouldn’t have time to meet with me. He warmly welcomed me to stay, assuming I could learn a thing or two.

As I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, I slipped out at the first smoke break without even saying goodbye. If he couldn’t see me, my younger self thought, what was the point of sticking around?

Such a rookie mistake.

The incident played in my mind, over and over, as I walked through the singularly brilliant Larry Sultan solo show at SFMOMA back in May.

It was easily one of the best photo shows I’d seen in years, and at the end, they had a video monitor set up, with a lengthy interview with the artist.

Sadly, he passed away too-young in 2009, so it was much like hearing from a ghost. A ghost, I might add, from whom I had been too proud to learn, in the limited way I’d been offered.

I sat there for 20 minutes, easily, and this from a guy who never, ever has patience for such things. (Never. Ever.)

Thankfully, the folks at SFMOMA are pretty cool, and they’d arranged for me to preview the Mike Mandel exhibition next door, and meet the long-time curator Sandra Phillips. Even better, as I was leaving, they gave me a hot-off-the-presses copy of “Pictures from Home,” the Larry Sultan classic that was recently re-released, (or re-imagined?) by MACK in London.

Needless to say, when I showed the book to people at Pier 24 that afternoon, (after admitting I used it as a sun-shade on the blazing walk along the Embarcadero,) they looked at me like I was the messiah.

“How did you get that,” exclaimed the Assistant Director? “I’m actually thanked in the liner notes,” she said, “and I don’t have a copy yet!”

I blushed, said something about getting lucky, and realized this was a book I needed to sit with properly.

No skimming allowed.

I hope you’ll trust it’s taken 3 months to find such time, and that I busted open the green, hard-cover book as soon as I was able.

Meaning yesterday.

But there is so much text that I lay it down, and came at it today with a couple of hours set aside. Let me be clear, this is a book you need to read, not just look at the sharp photography.

“Pictures from Home” is such a great meditation on aging: of people, of dreams, and of America itself, that I’ll state outright it deserves its masterpiece status.

A more poignant, intelligent book, you are unlikely to find.

It features many of the seminal images shot during that series, made from approximately 1982-92, in addition to stills from Sultan family home movies, text by Larry Sultan, interviews with his Mom and Dad, and ephemera from their lives.

The short version of the story is that Mr. and Mrs. Sultan, Irving and Jean, moved out to Southern California in 1949, right after the War boom, in the midst of a recession. They were East Coast Jews, he from NYC, she from Jersey, and they joined the wagon train of Americans headed West towards a better life.

Eventually, Irving landed a job as a salesman for the Schick Razor company, and made his way up the corporate ladder for 20 years. It is as pure a vision of the American dream as you’re likely to find, as a Jew who briefly went by the pseudonym of John Dutton, to work in an English clothing store, was eventually embraced by the whitest of American corporate culture.

Until he wasn’t.

Turns out, Irving was spit out by Schick at 56, when he refused to move his family back East for a promotion. No matter what, he was only giving up the California sunshine if they pried it from his cold, dead hands. (RIP Irving and Jean, in addition to Larry.)

Irving never held another job, easing restlessly into a golf-strewn retirement, but Jean built a successful real estate career in his stead, allowing a feminist subtext to creep into the book as well.

In last week’s review, I admitted I found Ashley Gilbertson’s writing more compelling than his photographs. (Most of you probably preferred the pictures, but you’re not writing the review.) It certainly made me question when words communicate more effectively than images.

But this book proves how perfectly the two can complement each other, in the right hands. First person histories about scamming girls at the boardwalk, being abandoned to orphanages, taking massive risks, and developing sangfroid in our relationships take center stage, and inform the way we view each subsequent photograph.

Later on, the text begins to allude, and then outright mentions, the fact that Larry Sultan staged these photographs, believing a fictionalized version of reality can often tell more “truth” than a document.

In the fraught photo of Irving, standing in front of a white-board featuring knowledge gleaned from a Dale Carnegie course, we learn that Larry asked Irving to misuse a word, on purpose, to suggest a certain fallibility. (Empathize became empathy)

I could go on and on.
But I won’t.

This is a book best enjoyed by yourself, on your sofa, with a cup of coffee or two. (Or three, as it was with me. No blue sky today, so I needed extra energy-juice.)

The times of the great, white male are either over, or still far-too-prevalent, depending on which media outlet you read. But in this case, the idea of shrinking, until there is nothing left but time for leisure, as your aggregate life slips away, is sad but real.

I hope my parents regain their footing, and enjoy a spate of health and good fortune. But I don’t know it will happen, as aging gets us all in the end. (If we’re lucky enough to land on its doorstep.)

C’est la vie.

Bottom Line: Brilliant, re-issued classic that examines the fading American dream, and the realities of old age

To purchase “Pictures from Home,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Ashley Gilbertson

 

Antidote is over, and I’m happy to report it was a big success.

Oddly, it was a lot like an art project, as I visualized something new, and then went about executing what I saw in my head, so it could come out into the world.

Unfortunately, the two days since the event ended have been filled with sorrow, as a good friend had to deal with tragedy here on our doorstep.

I don’t feel comfortable sharing the details, (since when?) but let’s just say that someone’s life fell to pieces, and my friend was left to deal with the aftermath. (And we became the support system for our friend.)

We spoke about how insidious PTSD is, as it basically perpetuates terror energy in an unbroken chain. Addiction, illness and War are representatives of the worst in life, and their fingers reach into many pies.

Take, for example, the soldier who signs up to serve his country, but ends up killing strangers on the far side of the world, for reasons he’ll never completely understand. With his guns, he perpetuates misery on others, even when his cause is noble and patriotic.

And then he, or she is killed in action.

Another life snuffed.
Potential lost.
Joy extinguished.

The soldier’s death then devastates his or her family. (Or when they come home broken, the effect is the same.)

I’ve gone morbid today, I know, but I just dealt with some heavy shit, on the heels of a weekend of intensely positive energy. I’m in a strange place, I admit.

But Antidote, a weekend of hide-out bliss, was counterpointed by what happened in Charlottesville. Open-faced Nazis, carrying torches, and screaming hate at the top of their lungs.

Violence is among us, and tensions are high.
As a columnist who often discusses what’s actually going on in the world, I must say, I don’t know where this is headed, but it doesn’t look good.

When countries go to War, which is what happened under the last Republican administration, young people die. That happens every time. But the normal ways of showing such things have lost the power to move people, I’d say.

So today, in light of all the aforementioned circumstances, I pulled an older book from the shelf, “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” by Ashley Gilbertson, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2014.

It was submitted last Fall, long after it had been introduced, but I’ve never had a hard rule about only reviewing new releases. It’s mostly worked out that way, but today, we’re mixing it up.

Ashley Gilbertson, an Austrialian-born-America-based photographer, has been a war correspondent for a long time. And at one point, while working in Iraq, a soldier was killed while protecting Mr. Gilbertson’s life.

That would leave an imprint on any psyche.
A PTSD of its own, if you will.

Eventually, Mr. Gilbertson’s wife suggested a project, as he grappled to deal with his feelings, in which he’d photograph soldiers’ bedrooms.

The ones that were intact, because parents couldn’t bear to part with the memories, which were enshrined within their homes.

Our childhood bedrooms, it’s well established, are where our identities first form. Are we neat or tidy? (Oscar or Felix?)

Do we have posters of sports stars, or bikini-clad women, or none of the above?

I noticed that the UK soldiers’ rooms had a lot of DVD’s. What’s that all about?

The pictures here, shot in black and white with a panoramic, wide angle perspective, are somber. How could then not be? And it’s not that I cried. I’m too numb for that.

The pictures are straight forward, and I’ll show a fair sample below. (As I always do.) Maybe a few extra, even.

Mr. Gilbertson’s well written, extensive afterword grabbed me more than the pictures. We all receive information differently, and in this case, the story about the story was more compelling for me than the images of the story.

I doubt many of you would agree, as the photographs are excellent, and it is a photo book.

We don’t need to have favorite children, though, and I commend the publishers, and the artist, for making a book that dripped with empathy in many ways.

I honestly hope, for all of our sakes, that the world calms down a bit, and that the USA is able to find a graceful, non-violent way out of the Trumpian mess we find ourselves in.

Fingers crossed.

Bottom Line: Poignant, important book about the true cost of war: our children

To purchase “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Rebecca Memoli

 

I’m a little distracted at the moment.

Antidote starts tomorrow, and somehow I find myself playing roles of caterer, landscaper, teacher, entrepreneur, tour guide, and raconteur, simultaneously.

Be careful what you wish for…

Truth be told, I’m very excited. I promised you guys earlier this summer that I wouldn’t promote the retreat here, but technically I’m not, as it’s already good to go.

Following the advice I dispensed in the column a few months ago, (Build it and they will come,) once I decided to go for it, and started buying plane tickets for my instructors, the event fell into place.

But not before.

As my Dad used to say, back when he had the guts to walk away from a lucrative law career, with no guarantee of what the future would hold, “Commit to the path, and you’ll find the way.”

Things are coming at me quickly these days, so it’s great to be able to hit the couch each evening, after we put the kids to bed, and watch some high-grade content on Netflix and Amazon.

After years of having sub-par, over-priced Internet, (Thanks for nothing, Centurylink,) I’ve now got a fairly priced 40mb/second set up, so we stream to our hearts’ content. (Like the rest of you.)

Lately, Jessie and I have gotten into “I Love Dick,” the extreme, fascinating, feminist tale set in Marfa, Texas. You probably wouldn’t recall, but I did a travel series here about a trip to Marfa, back in 2012, and found the place strange as hell.

The show captures the odd mix of high-brow culture and fabulously wealthy people inhabiting a shit-box, formerly poor town in nowhere West Texas. I’m not sure I’ve been to a weirder place, unless you count Van Horn, TX, the creepy spot where we spent the night on our road trip South to Marfa.

“I Love Dick,” while putatively about the Marfa-Art-World Culture, is really a meditation on female sexuality. There have been a million think pieces, posted on a million message boards, seriously discussing the female gaze.

Shows like this are arbiters of the cultural changes afoot in the 21st Century. I could not be happier to see edgy stories like this told from the female perspective, made by female artists.

And this coming from one of biggest male feminists out there. (As I may have said before, with a wife who went to Vassar and Smith, I was always going to end up here.)

“I Love Dick,” though, has helped me distinguish between the parts of the female experience a straight white male can understand, and those he can’t.

For instance, a recent episode featured a digital ghosting effect, in which an amorphous white blob was digitally overlayed on a few of the female characters.

“That’s cool,” I thought.

But when the show was over, I turned to my wife and said, “What do you think that was all about?”

I genuinely didn’t know.

Without missing a beat, Jessie looked at me sympathetically and said, “It represents female desire.”

She was neither rude nor condescending, but it was clear that something I couldn’t figure out was exceptionally obvious to her. (Point taken.)

Speaking of points, how about I get to mine, as I have breads to bake, schedules to build, furniture to move, tents to raise, children to feed, etc.

Yesterday, “The Feeling is Mutual” turned up in the mail. It’s an exhibition catalogue produced by Rebecca Memoli for a show she curated recently in Chicago. (Rebecca has herself been featured here in articles about the Filter Festival.) The catalogue includes four emerging artists: three young women, and a gay male artist.

And as Rebecca states in the afterword: “This collection of photographs examines the concept of family values through a feminist lens.”

I think that tells you what you need to know, as each artist looks at the families they were born with, or created. Rebecca also stresses that many people don’t find support, understanding, and love from the families into which they were born, and need to build a new system from scratch.

(There it is again: Build it and they will come.)

I’m not going to describe all the projects in detail, as I think the pictures speak well for themselves. Basically, today’s book is a hot-off-the-presses, photographic equivalent of “I Love Dick”: unconventional, edgy, poignant, and showing us things from perspectives that were traditionally voiceless.

As I’m not reviewing each artist separately, I’ll tell you that the pics below are in order, and the artists are as follows: Samantha Belden, Nydia Blas, Blane Bussey, and Sarah Hiatt.

Hope you enjoy it, wish me a little luck with Antidote, and see you next week.

Bottom Line: Cool, edgy exhibition catalogue for a feminist photo exhibition in Chicago

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

The Best Work I Saw at the LACP Portfolio Review, Part 2

 

I haven’t written a Trump column in months.

I was going on about him weekly, for quite some time, so I decided to take a break. It seemed healthy, as this is not, in fact, a politics blog.

Rather, aPE is about photography, so I decided that #247Trump was not appropriate.

But it’s been a while, and this being the dog days of August, when most of you are on vacation anyway, it seems like the right time to exercise my First Amendment rights. (While I still have them.)

Now that I’ve given myself permission, though, the words don’t flow as easily as I expected. I feel like the Monty Python guy, who couldn’t eat another bite, because it really has been absurdity-overload lately.

I was discussing it with my Dad the other day, and we agreed that while the national crisis may have been bigger during the Nixon 70’s, with crazy protests and riots, the Trump political scandal is far worse.

I’ve got a good memory, and even I can’t keep all these daily dramas straight.

But here are a few.

The President’s chosen communications director sought an on-the-record interview with The New Yorker, for crying out loud, and then said, of the President’s chief strategist, that he likes to fellate himself.

Oh, and he also threatened to kill the President’s Chief of Staff. (Who was subsequently fired post haste.)

Ironically, the Mooch was out before his paperwork was filed. (And before godsend Mario Cantone could franchise this impression.)

What else?

Oh, right, there was that Trump Jr/Jared Kushner meeting with Russian spies who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton, after their government had stolen a trove of her campaign’s emails.

And Donald Sr started Tweeting about her emails the same day.

This, and so much more, has unfolded in the press while a non-partisan former FBI director looks carefully into the President’s shady-Russian-Mafia connections.

At one point this winter, as my mother likes to remind me, I said it all resembles “House of Cards” + “The Americans,” and that seems to get truer each day.

The stuff Netflix and FOX made up as dramatic fantasy is actually no less salacious, at this point, than the Real.Fucking.Thing.

Welcome to August of 2017.

As I wrote here last year, I had my first premonition things might go awry when I was in Los Angeles in late October, and watched the 3rd Presidential debate at a theater in the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

“Not a puppet, not a puppet, you’re the puppet” drew laughter like we were watching “Chapelle’s Show.” Trump read as entertainment, to us, and he was damn entertaining.

But we were in literally the bluest bubble in America, and I felt uncomfortable with the elephant in the room: that millions of our fellow countrymen took him seriously, and agreed with many of the deranged things he said.

Now, just minutes ago, I read on CNN that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President’s own spokesperson, was forced to admit that Trump had told untruths about two things. (He said he’d received phone calls that he had not.)

But she shied away from the word “lied,” because she felt it was too harsh.

Yes, that trip to LA gave my spider sense the tingles, but when I returned a couple of weeks ago, 6 months into the shitshow that is Trump’s presidency, few people were talking about him.

It’s almost like he’s Voldemort for many of us. Keep your head down, and hope it ends before he kills us all. (North Korea can now reach LA with a nuke, they say.)

I didn’t talk much Trump in Los Angeles, but I did see a lot of photography. I don’t have the exact number, but I saw at least 25 projects at the LACP Exposure portfolio review, and am glad to show you the best work I saw.

I liked Lisa McCord immediately, as she seemed honest in a way I connect with. She showed me some work from the early 80’s, done on her family’s tenant farm in Arkansas.

Basically, Lisa said she’d felt more comfortable with the African-Americans who worked on the farm than she did with her people, who owned the place. So she hung out a lot, including with the Nanny who raised her, and people let her make pictures, because they knew and trusted her.

Images like this are seen as fraught these days, with so much tension around racism and white privilege. It’s hard not to see them as controversial, yet I sometimes think that says more about us than the pictures themselves.

Because if we take Lisa at her word, that these were her friends, more like family, than there’s nothing radical about the pictures save the color of everyone’s skin.

Dawn Watson had landscape photos in which she’d inverted the tonal curves in Photoshop, so the colors were reversed. I’ve seen similar projects, and told her about Adriene Hughes work we published here last year.

But I think showing digital’s unmistakeable hand can be a sound visual strategy, and I liked several of these pictures a lot. I told Dawn to be careful about whether she wanted to make pretty pictures, or edgy ones, as her aesthetic sensibility seemed to waver.

Douglas Stockdale, a fellow reviewer, has long run the excellent blog The PhotoBook Journal. He also makes his own books, and shared “Bluewater Shore” with me, his latest.

I’ve never seen a book that came in a plastic ziplock bag before, and that was a novelty. But I also like the re-purposed archival family images, which resonate with old school California beach culture.

I saw Eleonora Ronconi’s work at the portfolio walk, and it turned out she was engaged to my friend Paccarik, which I didn’t know. (He’s made a few appearances in the column over the years.)

She had pictures made in her native Argentina, and I thought they were lovely. Her color palette, in particular, with those rose-peach hues, grabbed my attention the most.

J. Matt is a surfer dude from Hawaii who recently moved to LA after many years in San Francisco. He’s an architect, by trade, but seems like a generally-creative-type person.

He showed me some pictures of LA that looked a bit like Dan Lopez’s from last week, and a little sample of work shot at the beach. As that’s a huge part of who he is, I checked it out on his website afterwards, and we’re sharing some of them here.

Linda Alterwitz, based in Las Vegas, had photographs made with a thermal imaging camera. I asked her if she knew of Richard Mosse’s work, the stuff with the expired pink film, and she said she did.

Little did I know, but he’s done work with thermal imaging cameras as well. So what, though, as I highly doubt Linda knew about it when she was lent a camera by a manufacturer.

The figurative images are wild, as are the horse pictures. And there’s a monkey in there too? WTF?

Finally, Mara Zaslove had photographs of an elderly friend, and they’ll include the only nudity we show today. (Hope that’s OK, as we’re normally SFW.)

Aging is a subject most people want to avoid. Hell, I was watching some old Westerns on TV the other day, and couldn’t believe how many old people there were.

Modern entertainment casts must be 25 years younger, on average. So I like that Mara’s work makes me think about that, while retaining some grace too.

Well, that’s it for the LA roundup. We’ll be back to book reviews next week, and I hope you’re enjoying the summer.

The Best Work I Saw at the LACP Portfolio Review Part 1

 

Hollywood is hip these days.

It’s always been popular as an idea, of course.
As “Hollywood.”

But I’m talking about the actual part of Los Angeles; one section of the many that stitch together the Megalopolis. In that respect, Hollywood is just the North-Central part of LA where Hollywood Boulevard sits just above Sunset as they intersect with Vine.

The place where the Hollywood Walk of Fame resides, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

It’s like Times Square in New York, or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, in that it’s clearly built for, and subsists off of tourists. There are trinket shops galore, hotels aplenty, and lots of bars next to drunk-food-restaurants.

No lie, on Selma, 1 block from my hotel, a high-end Tao sat across the street from Danny Trejo’s Mexican bar & taqueria, which was itself next to a Poutine joint. (Which I couldn’t resist.)

The guys working the counter, where they sling the cheese fries and gravy, were dressed like Canadians, in lumberjack patterning. They told me they only open up outlets next to bars or colleges. (Makes sense.)

I got accosted by some drunk guys, as I awaited my poutine, even though it was barely 8pm. They took me for Israeli, which never happens, and pretended to slap me in the face as I stood there, daydreaming.

Minding my own business.

Cursing myself for being gluttonous enough to order cheese fries and gravy for dinner.

They offered poutine topped with bacon, beef, chicken, or lots of other artery-clogging-to-the-point-they-should-have-a-cardiologist-office-next-door toppings, yet I stuck with the plain version.

And boy did it give me indigestion later that night. Big mistake, getting the cheese fries and gravy for dinner.

Wait.
Where was I?

Right.
Hollywood.

I was there to work, of course, so I didn’t sample the clubs or the bars. Instead, I limped my tired dad-bod around the neighborhood to grab food, (lacking a car, as I mentioned,) or I was next door reviewing portfolios at the LA Center of Photography.

The organization, which is now non-profit, was long known as the Julia Dean Workshops, so Julia Dean is now the Executive Director of the LACP. Apparently, they changed the structure and name about 4 years ago.

Their portfolio review, Exposure, is held in their school space there on Wilcox, and also at the DNJ Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. (Hence the multiple Ubers.)

It was a well run event, and the people in charge are genuinely helpful and friendly. (Here’s your shout out, Brandon and Sarah.) The organization has been around for a while, but the review is relatively new, as it was the first time they were bringing in reviewers from the outside. (I was joined by Brian Clamp and Elizabeth Avedon, two New Yorkers.)

Most of the people at the reviews have taken classes there before, and many had studied with Aline Smithson, who teaches Fine Art Photography for the LACP, and has for years. We’ve shown many of her students’ work here before, and I’ve been consistently impressed.

But others were less trained, so as usual, I tried to be helpful, and point out to people where their strengths seemed to lie, and where they were weak.

Today and next week, we’re going to feature the best work I saw at the review. As usual, my criteria for what to show you are based on a few simple concepts.

1. Are there enough contiguous images to show you a proper sample of someone’s ideas? (Meaning 2 or 4 good pictures is never enough.)

2. Does the selection show a well-executed vision?

3. Are these pictures at least visually pleasing, if not genuinely brilliant?

If I see that range in someone’s portfolio, I’ll try to show it here.

As I’ll be doing 3 more portfolio reviews for you guys this year, (in Chicago, Santa Fe and New Orleans,) I thought it was worth the slight diversion to explain how I choose what’s worth publishing.

So let’s get started, and, as always, the artists are in no particular order.

Silvia Razgova recently moved to Los Angeles from Toronto, having spent the previous few years living in the United Arab Emirates. (I think I’ve got that right.) She showed me pictures from the UAE, that were cool, but I was far-more-seduced by these medium format gems from her hometown of Hradok, in Slovakia.

Her color palette is pretty dreamy, and I liked a few of these very much. But overall, they fit the conditions above, as they’re well made, consistent, and show us a slice of her world, which we’d otherwise never see.

Anto Tavitian was amazed when I guessed he was Armenian. (I felt confident I was right, but you never know.) Later, he realized my trick.

“Was it the ‘ian’ at the end of the name,” Anto wondered?

“Yes,” I said, “you got me.”

That said, Anto showed me the deconstructed book pages from his BFA project at Cal State Northridge. He’d made a photo narrative about his immigrant Armenian-Syrian parents, and included the repeating motif of the tight shot of a coffee cup.

As coffee was so important to the story, he also stained the book pages with it, creating a dappled-brown effect. And the few text pieces, and one drawing, that were interspersed are cool too.

Jamie Siragusa is currently enrolled in a one year program at LACP, and was working on street photography. She’s interested in photographing children, but didn’t want to do it in a conventional way. So she’s focusing on kids at political protests.

We all talk abstractly about what our actions will mean for our children, or grandchildren, so she wanted to make pictures about those descendants now. In particular, kids who are being vocal with their disapproval by protesting in public. (Mostly with their parents, of course.)

Dan Lopez showed me a book, “Constellation Road,” which featured these LA cultural landscape photographs. I thought his sense of color and composition was really strong, and he definitely captured some of the bright harshness of the California sun as well.

(Sidebar: part of why I didn’t go on huge walks through Hollywood, rather than snobbery, was that the sun is so damn strong in July. Be forewarned.)

I told Dan I thought it was hard to separate his work from the photographers who’d come before in this tradition, as he admitted being influenced by the usual suspects. (Shore, Eggleston.) It’s tough to find an original voice, I admit, but the more we try to push away from the things we’ve seen a million times before, the more likely we’ll get there.

Last, but not least, we have Brian McCarty, whose work is the edgiest of the bunch today. Brian makes a living photographing toys, as it’s his commercial specialty. (So he’s really good at it.)

As such, he ended up doing a project in which he tries to use toys to help children in war zones, particularly in the Middle East, to process their trauma. He’d just gotten back from Mosul, in Iraq, which is an extremely active fighting spot, and admitted that he’d been shot at twice, and had been lucky to survive.

He and his organizational partners, (he mentioned the UN,) ask children to make drawings of their horror stories. Then, they re-create the situation, sometimes quite literally, with toys, and Brian makes the resulting photos.

They are strange and cool, and some of them are very sad. He often exhibits them side-by-side with the drawings, so people can see the source material. Not surprisingly, the drawings are quite tragic.

That’s enough for today, so we’ll be back next week with part 2.

This Week in Photography Books: Henry Wessel

 

 

I’ve been to Southern California at least twenty times in my life, and I’ve always had a car.

Every. Single. Time.

You’ve got to have a car in Southern California.
(Or so I thought.)

Back in May, a friend told me she’d just gotten around LA using ride-sharing services, which for some reason are insanely cheap at the moment. (Much less expensive than taxis.)

She made me half-swear that I wouldn’t rent a car the next time I went to LA. So when I visited the city last week, I subsisted on cabs and Ubers alone, even though I wasn’t able to download Lyft or Uber on my phone the day before I left. (Long and boring story. I’ll spare you.)

I must say, not having immediate access to go where I wanted, when I wanted, was a seriously uncomfortable feeling.

It’s no surprise that cars are symbolically associated with freedom. I guess if I had a new Iphone, and my own ride-sharing app, that feeling might have abated, but I’m not so sure.

As one who’s lived in the American West for a chunk of my life, I know that things only work at car distances. Otherwise, the cities and towns dotted from the Rockies to the Coast would never truly be connected.

Cars are almost like water out here, in how necessary they are for survival.

We all crave the revelatory feeling of being on the open road somewhere, with your favorite music blasting. The yearning for discovery and adventure is hardwired into the human experience.

It’s the opposite feeling, in every way, to being stuck in traffic, staring at the same cars for an hour, while you inch along a concrete ribbon, and you could probably walk faster if you really tried.

Everyone hates that feeling.

Everyone.

The traffic-anger, which I felt getting in and out of LAX, reminded me of a photobook I’d looked at just before I left New Mexico, and which sits before me this very moment: “Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide,” by Henry Wessel, recently published by Steidl.

It’s one of the best books I’ve seen in a long time, (no doubt,) and features three of his seminal projects from the past. Mr. Wessel, if you’re not familiar, was a part of the famed “New Topographics” movement, documenting the California cultural landscape with a dry eye over many decades.

The thing that makes the “Traffic” pictures so immediate for me is the way he boxes in the compositions. We never see the front or back of the cars he’s showing us. You never get the compositional freedom, the fresh air, of open space.

Frankly, these pictures are great. They’re just so damn Californian. And all the period cars and outfits? What more do I have to say?

(Well, I guess I now see Lee Friedlander’s Post-Millennial series “America by Car” as being in dialogue with this project.)

But the “Sunset Park” images were my favorites, for sure.

Like many of you, I read the recent New Yorker profile of Gerhard Steidl, which presented him as a cross between Steve Jobs and Jesus. I won’t say it seems excessive, because I believe all these people, but I wasn’t a Steidl cultist before looking at this book.

And now I am.

The separations are mind-boggling. I’ve never seen shadow detail like this, in conjunction with three dimensional reproductions that pop off the page.

The luminosity of a few of these pictures compares to looking at a retina display, and I don’t understand how that’s possible.

Apart from the technical virtuosity, though, I love this group of images, and it reminds me that we understand so much of art by what has come before.

I lived in San Francisco back in the day, and saw Todd Hido’s “House Hunting” show at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery around 2000. It’s the exhibition, and project, that shot Mr. Hido to stardom, as the creeper-stalking-outside-people’s-houses-at-night vibe, along with the sharpness and color, was super-memorable for me.

Now that I’ve seen this book, though, I know that Todd Hido was heavily influenced by “Sunset Park,” as Mr. Wessel is a Bay Area legend, and longtime professor at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Last week, when I saw this book, I had that thought. And then this Saturday, at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, right there in their Summer group show, they had one of those Hido pictures hung just below one of Wessel’s.

No lie.

The “Continental Divide” series, the last of the bunch, is my least favorite. If I’m being honest, it seems to wrap up our little summer conversation about books by locals vs. travelers.

For me, the California pictures are more original, as they spring from deep knowledge. In the Western pictures, on road trips around dusty towns, Mr. Wessel was exploring, rather than reporting from his own little spot in the world.

The images look far less distinctive to me than the Colorado pictures by Robert Adams, Mr. Wessel’s contemporary, and I don’t think that should surprise any of us, at this point.

We ought to know more about our own world than the places we just visited for the first time.

Right?

Bottom Line: Masterpiece book, featuring work by a San Francisco legend

To purchase “Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Raphael Shammaa

 

It’s the middle of July, which means many of you are on vacation.

Yes, it’s holiday time again. No doubt about it.

I’m not getting to beach myself, this summer, so if you’re reading this on your Iphone, in between dips in the blue water somewhere… I hate you.

(Just kidding.)

I don’t hate you. What kind of writer would hate his audience? That’s insane.

Rather, I’m going to do you a solid. I won’t make you read 700 words today before I get to the book review.

Not today.

I’ll keep it short, and show more pictures at the end to make up for it. Think of it as my way of saving you a few extra brain cells, while you recharge your batteries.

You’ll need the help, as I’m off to Los Angeles tomorrow for portfolio reviews put on by the LA Center of Photography. I’ll have lots of fresh work to show you in the coming weeks, so today you get a reprieve.

Surprisingly, this week’s book comes right out of yesterday’s mail. It never even made it into the pile.

It’s a slim volume from Raphael Shammaa called “The Simplicity of the Moment.” (I believe it’s self-published.)

I don’t know anything about the artist, (beyond the fact that he has a great name,) and the book doesn’t have much to say either. There’s a short statement indicating the pictures were taken in various locations, and that he’s going for simplicity and truth.

Mostly, the words were vague because these are very visual pictures. They’ve got structure and sharpness, which are characteristics that will often get you reviewed in this space. And the printing quality is very high.

Frankly, I just like this little book.

Though I’m as happy to dig deep as the next guy, what I most enjoy about this one is that it suggests, gently, that you don’t need to bother. The beauty is of a Zen kind, but also of the synchronous temporal variety that photography does so well.

Like I said, today, we’ll keep it brief. In the PR letter that he sent out with the package, Raphael wrote, “There are so many ways we can work together.”

Well, Raphael, I just reviewed your book, so that’s about as much as I have to offer.

Enjoy summer, everyone, and I’ll be back next week.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, slim Zen book of travel photos

To purchase “The Simplicity of the Moment,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Michael Larkey

 

I’ll make you guys a promise.

I’m not going to promote Antidote, my new photo retreat, here in the column each week. In fact, this will be the last time.

I’m mentioning it now, as this week, we created a new Student/Educator Pass, for $499, which makes the event far-more-affordable for the next generation of photographers, and the under-paid professors who teach them.

I’m sharing the news, because rather than simply big-upping my own efforts, I think it’s important to stay honest here, as I always have. If I can criticize others, I should have the stones to do it to myself as well.

When it came time to create a price for Antidote, I didn’t give it much thought. I looked around at what some high end workshop places charge, and slotted in accordingly.

But everything I know about the creative life in 2017 flies in the face of such thinking. No one’s handing money out these days, and everyone is hustling hard to make ends meet. Whether it’s buyouts at the NYT, or galleries closing all the time, we all know you have to work for whatever you get, and opportunities don’t grow on trees.

I’m glad I realized my mistake, and am now making my event within reach of you guys, my readers, as well as students and teachers across the US. I should have done it before I launched, but I forgot to consider the most crucial of questions: could I, as an artist/writer/adjunct professor, afford to come to my own retreat?

Now, I can answer that question more appropriately.

Honestly, the only reason I started Antidote is because adjunct teaching pays so poorly. It is literally impossible to make a living doing it, and I say that having just spent a year teaching full time, and being the chair of my art department.

I’m going with the DIY method with Antidote, even if it’s not my preference. Building things from scratch is hard, and I’d rather be able to make a living working at the school I’ve taught at for 12 years.

But it doesn’t work like that anymore.

Despite your level of fear and anxiety about the current geopolitical climate, we all know things are much better than they were in the depths of the Great Recession. The economy has recovered, in some ways, but not in others.

Disposable income, a term I used to find hilarious, is no longer in wide use. It’s an anachronism, as nothing is easy to come by in the Post-2008 world. Making matters worse, income equality continues to rise, so that levels of extreme wealth and poverty now coincide in close proximity.

I don’t talk so much about the 21st Century Hustle these days, but even old catchphrases can come back around again. If you value my opinion, I’m recommending that after you chill out for summer, (everyone’s entitled to that,) try to make something entirely new.

Maybe start up a collaborative project with some friends? Make a movie? Or a T-shirt line? Or a photo ’zine?

I don’t know. But maybe this is the time for all of us to embrace the DIY attitude, even if we don’t want to use a dorky term like “maker.”

I’m on this rant, if you must know, having just looked at “squirrel fight,” a few issues of a photo ‘zine that turned up in the mail this week, from Michael Larkey. (Sometimes, I open submissions before they go into the stack.)

I didn’t think to look at the return address, and there was no contact info beyond Michael’s email address and website, so I have no context on these little ‘zines. I got to look at them fresh, yet they felt perfect for today.

Near as I can tell, “squirrel fight” has a hot-time-summer-in-the-city kind of vibe, straight out of NYC. (I’ve admitted New York gets a lot of coverage here. It’s not on purpose.) “squirrel fight” hearkens back in time, with the in-your-Moms-basement style of production, but even through they’re small, and some are on copy paper, they’re still carefully done.

It could not have cost Michael much money to make these, and they’re so brief. One has poems by Rilke, but the wordless ones are most captivating. My favorite, which might be because of the higher print quality, is the fold-out poster. It’s immediate, sharp, and contrasty.

The subway entrance gives context, and assures us we’re in New York. We see a cab, a pretty kid in flip flops, an Asian person of indeterminate gender, and a guy who has a gigolo hairstyle, circa Richard Gere in the 80’s.

I know Rob shows promo-mailings all the time, and that many of you professional shooters make them. Maybe this is similar, and I just don’t see a lot of that stuff.

But one “squirrel fight” seemed to be a washed-out ode to the viewing platforms at the Empire State Building, and another has a picture of the same tall spire seen through a scrim of some sort.

These ‘zines are a bit Romantic. More “someone who moved to the city” than a “kid who grew up there” kind of love, because a native would be more cynical. (I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t bet on it.)

These ‘zines are cool as hell, and I think you’ll like them too. Now, once you’re done with your holiday, your assignment is to make something cool like this too.

Bottom Line: Cool, throwback photo ‘zines about New York

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Matthew O’Brien

 

This column is nearly 6 years old, and over time, I’ve told you guys a lot about my family horse farm here in Taos.

It’s a very special place, as the 60 acre property has 1/4 mile of streamfront, verdant pastures, rolling hills, ancient basalt cliffs, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains right outside the window.

This week, my wife and I launched a new photo retreat program, called Antidote, so we can share this place with our friends and colleagues in the global photo community.

Since we’ve developed a loyal audience here over the years, Rob and I thought it would be a good idea to tell you about the program, in case any of you wanted to apply. I’ve built an impressive group of instructors, and designed a retreat in which you can get critical feedback about your work, inspiration for new ideas, and opportunities to rest and relax here in Taos.

You can learn more about the retreat at our amazing website, (Thanks, Rob,) or by watching the short video I’ve embedded below.

 

That said, this is a book review column, and not an infomercial space, so I promise to get to the matter at hand.

One thing I do like to do with the column is develop themes over time, and create relationships between books from week to week. Rarely is it planned, but things always seem to fall into place naturally, a phenomenon for which I am grateful.

Lately, we’ve been alternating between projects made by locals, in their home regions, and wandering flaneurs who visit exotic locales, and bring stories back home with them. Last week, Marisa Scheinfeld showed us the ruins of the Catskills Borscht Belt, which means this week, we get to see a book by a traveling photographer.

Luckily, “No Dar Papaya,” a book by Matthew James O’Brien, turned up in the mail recently. (Published by Placer Press in San Francisco.) Matt reached out a little while back, as he thought I might appreciate his project.

He was right, as I think this is a cool, charming, surprisingly positive book. The premise is simple, as Matt shot in Colombia for 10 years, and the book is made up exclusively of Polaroids. (Mostly diptychs.) None of the images has been enlarged, and the consistency, the white image borders swimming in plenty of clean white space, makes for a pleasurable viewing experience.

The introduction, from a Colombian arts professional, suggests that Matt has been embraced by his Colombian hosts, but tells us little beyond that. The pictures tell the story, and then an excellent afterward by the artist uses words to confirm what the pictures imply.

There seem to be a surprisingly large number of young, attractive women in the book, and the end text shares that Matt was first drawn to Colombia to photograph two beauty pageants, which are the biggest things going down there. He also mentions a cultural addiction to plastic surgery, which is also hinted at in at least one picture featuring a woman with suspiciously large breasts.

But in general, the images show a beautiful country with a diverse topography and population. There are many portraits, and almost of all the of the subjects present themselves to the camera as open, warm and friendly.

Then the text confirms as much.

According to Matt, who received a Fullbright to support the work, despite the country’s difficult history of war and drug cartels, the hardscrabble Colombians have not closed their hearts to each other, or to outsiders.

As long as people understand the context of the title, “No Dar Papaya,” that is. In English, it means “Don’t Give Papaya,” but it’s an exlusively Colombian idiom that means, don’t be a sucker. Watch your back.

Apparently, Matt sees this book as a love letter to Colombia, and that came across to me. It’s a great reminder that there are positive stories, and visions, in even the darkest of places. (OK, maybe there aren’t any happy tales coming out of Syria these days, but you get the point.)

So wherever you are, as the heat blares down on your head, or the Southern Hemisphere winter begins to kick your ass, I hope this book will put a smile on your face, and show you something you’ve never seen before.

Sometimes, that’s enough.

Bottom Line: Lovely book of Polaroids of Colombia, by an outsider

To purchase “No Dar Papaya” click here

To submit a book for review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Marisa Scheinfeld

 

I started irrigating on the farm this summer.

Our property came with water rights, which means we’re allowed to use the ancient acequia system, designed by Spanish Colonists in the 19th Century.

The main pasture used to belong to our neighbors, before they sold it off, and I’m told their father raised corn, or alfalfa, depending on whom you believe. (I just use it to water the grass.)

Each Saturday, I head outside, all geared up with my shovel, and dig out the ditch, a few feet at a time.

Not surprisingly, it’s hard work, but the joy and sense of accomplishment are palpable. Lifting the gates, and watching the water flow down hill feels primal, as out here in the desert, water is life.

Putting on my work boots, and slopping out the muck, doesn’t seem strange, as I’ve lived in Taos a long time. Cutting sluices, and watching where gravity moves water, is not rocket science, and I even use my daughter’s pink sled to direct the water where I want it to go.

But sometimes, if only for a moment, I’ll look around and wonder how a Jewish guy from suburban New Jersey ended up in such a place?

I’ve certainly come a long way, but living in a lush field in the mountains is a great way to beat the heat. And as I water trees we’ve planted, and watch them rise, it’s hard not to imagine them growing tall and strong, providing shade for my children as they grow too.

A generation ago, when my parents were my children’s age, they lived in New York City, as their parents were born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. As beastly hot as NYC can get in the summer, with all that nasty humidity, back then, people didn’t even have air conditioners. (WTF!)

Nor were Jews necessarily welcome in the WASPY country and beach clubs where less-immigranty Americans escaped the heat.

Rather, both of my parents, and everyone they knew, went to the Catskill Mountains, (which out here we’d call hills,) and stayed with friends and families in bungalow colonies. My Mom said she shared a bed with her grandmother, and always, people were squashed together, because money was tight.

Her Dad, (my grandpa Sy,) was a musician and bandleader who worked in the fancy hotels, so Mom used to hang out there during the daytime. Those places had pools, which were more glamorous than the lakes where her family stayed. She got to play with the wealthier kids during the day, and then return to her bungalow at night to sleep.

It was a lot like “Dirty Dancing,” she said, and recalled one time when my Aunt Lynda, who is 5 years older than Mom, stayed out until 1am with her new boyfriend. When she got home, my grandfather chased her around the bungalow, screaming and hitting her with a broom.

You can’t make this shit up.

The Catskills were home to the Borscht Belt, a huge resort and entertainment industry that sprung up in the 1920’s, and continued through the early 80’s, though by then it had already declined tremendously.

I remember hearing stories about those places, when I was young, but given that we had our own swimming pool by then, and I went to sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, I can’t say I cared too much about the history as it was recounted.

Frankly, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” famously uttered by Patrick Swayze, (RIP,) had more of an impact than any story my Mom told me, back in the day.

However, when I got a look this morning at “The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland,” a new book by Marisa Scheinfeld, published by Cornell University Press, the first thing I did was call up Mom and ask her to tell me what it was like.

Ms. Scheinfeld was raised in the Borsht Belt, in the town of Kiamesha Lake, so this book fits in with our recent exploration of the divide between local versus wandering photographers.

In her very-well-written statement, she said that Arthur Ollman, the former director of MOPA in San Diego, once told her to “shoot what you know,” so she headed back East to document the places that have succumbed to time.

We all know there’s a genre of ruin-porn, which often features weeds and trees growing up in the man-made environment, and if you close your eyes, I bet you can conjure such a picture of Detroit without trying too hard.

But this project is something different. Ms. Scheinfeld has done copious research on the cultural history of our respective ancestors, which overlaps with learning more about where she was literally raised, and what’s become of all these former palaces and huts of leisure.

Much as I was touched when I walked through Ostia Antica, crumbling ruins outside Rome, or Teotihuacan, the massive pyramids near Mexico City, looking through this book gave me the willies.

The photographs are a testament to the finite nature of culture, and our lives, because they manage to cut beneath the surface of a once vibrant world that has disappeared in my lifetime.

There is a sculptural nature the pictures, and the desaturated colors speak to the reality of the weak light on the East Coast. (The mountains outside my house are called the Sangre de Cristos, because they turn red each night as the perfect light illuminates them like the blood of Jesus.)

The essays come before the pictures, and one, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, focuses on chairs. As I hadn’t seen the plates yet, I thought it was a pretty random subject, and wondered why she focused on such an esoteric symbol? But once you start flipping the pages, it makes a lot of sense.

The chairs have a totemic quality, much as I complimented Anthony Hernandez for his handling of concrete block walls. Here, the empty seats stand at attention, or slump into irrelevance, but always they remind us of the people who are no longer there.

On Facebook today, someone posted the weather forecast for Tucson this week, and it ranged from 110-118 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you imagine? Your fucking brains cook in your head at that temperature.

No thank you.

The temptation to escape the worst of summer has been around a long time, and over the years, I’ve reviewed books from lakeside and beachfront hangouts around the world. But this is the first time I’ve seen a book like this.

So next time the mosquitos are biting me, the water gets inside my yellow leather gloves, and I slip and fall into the muddy ditch, I’ll likely think of my grandfather, blowing hard on his trumpet, while the ghosts of my people’s past dance through empty halls.

Bottom Line: Fascinating look at the abandoned Borscht Belt

To Purchase “Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland ” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Priscilla Briggs

 

Just this morning, I was trying to explain Communism to a 9 year old.

Fortunately, he’s very bright for his age, and seems to be interested in history. But it’s still hard to break down planned economies, and the Bolshevik Revolution, to a person who was born on the cusp of The Great Recession.

Basically, I contrasted Capitalism, which is obsessed with extracting money and value from all things, with Communism, which intended to put ownership of the means of production in the hands of workers.

Karl Marx wrote thousands of words about the exploitation of labor by Capitalists. (It’s a rather famous book that railed against endless greed.) I told my son about how in practice, Soviet Communism meant the state had control over where you lived, what you did for a job, what you could eat, and where you could travel.

America, by contrast, offers freedom and choice. But in 2017, it’s pretty clear that regular people and the entire planet are cannon fodder for the big guns.

Cash rules everything around me indeed.

The Soviet Union collapsed, as we all know, and Russia is now a Capitalistic dictatorship. There may still be a Communist Party there, (I didn’t bother to check,) but if so, it’s one among many, and all are subservient to Putin.

But the Soviet Union was not the only major Communist power, of course. Not to be outdone by Stalin’s cruelty, Mao Zedong led a Communist revolution in China, in 1949, and eventually ruled over the massive, populous country for decades.

The upshot of Communism, supposedly, was that everyone would be guaranteed a place to live, a job, food, and time off. Theoretically, that would obviate things like homelessness, and it was meant to create a level playing field.

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

These days, though, China is Communist in name only. It has become a global economic powerhouse, and has begun to transition into being a political one as well. Capitalism is alive and well, in the Middle Kingdom, and its conspicuous consumption and income disparity seem rather familiar, if you ask me.

If the middle class in America continues to hollow out, we’ll be left with nothing but the rich and the poor. But in China, with their rapid development, hundreds of millions of people have been brought out of poverty.

Their middle class is booming while ours disappears, but still, the lifestyle difference between rural farmers and wealthy urbanites in China is still probably wider than in America at present.

Consumption is all the rage in China these days, and I can say that with some confidence, having just put down “Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism,” a new book by Priscilla Briggs, recently published by Daylight.

It’s funny, the way themes develop from week to week. Last Friday, I talked about that certain homegrown authenticity that projects have, when photographers work where they’re from. Aaron Hardin and Evgheny Maloletka made very different pictures, in the American South and Eastern Ukraine, but their photographs had that special sense of local juice.

Today’s book, by contrast, belongs to the far-reaching tradition of artists traveling to new places, camera in hand, and shooting what they see and explore.

From what I can gather, Ms. Briggs went to an artist residency in Xiamen, which likely kicked off her investigation. Regardless, the titles at the end confirm she shot in China between 2008-13.

I don’t mean to knock this book before I even get started, as the wandering eye can often bring a more distanced, perhaps critical view. Certainly, irony is often boosted by the outsider’s perspective.

And that’s mostly what we get here. The series is heavily ironic, as the most prominent repeating motif is the backdrop. The fake world, enmeshed with the real thing, comes up again and again.

(In fairness to Ms. Briggs’ observations, after writing the column, I discovered this Ai Weiwei Op-ed, in which he calls China “a place where everything is fake.”)

We see a real boat in front some very realistic-looking fake water, a park bench in front of a painted train car, which itself is in front of a virtual horse farm. Plastic geese before a faux Tahitian village. A fake snow scene, a fake tugboat, and a fake locomotive barreling down the tracks.

You get the picture.

There are also amusement parks, clothing factory workers, and a subset of young women who she photographs before the sea. (Which is real, I think.)

We’ve got hair extensions, fur coats, and pink lingerie that says luxury on it. And lots and lots of photographs of advertisements of women in bras and panties.

I mean lots of photographs.

Are the ads that ubiquitous in China, or is it something she zeroed in on to make a point? I’m not sure, since I’ve never been to China.

This is one of those books, though, that carries a clear point of view. It shows a tacky China, one that builds fake monuments from other places, (Hello, pyramid of Giza,) while simultaneously bulldozing its own history in an orgy of new.

I’m always interested in books that show me things I haven’t seen before, so this qualifies. It shows an absurdist strain of Chinese Capitalism, and I chuckled once or twice. The use of repeating motifs, and the way the edit is structured, shows me a lot of care went into making this book.

Well worth discussing on a Friday in June.

Bottom Line: Ironic, wry take on Chinese consumerism

Click here to purchase “Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism”

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

The Best Work I Saw at the NYT Portfolio Review, Part 2

 

Today was meant to be a book review.

Aaron Hardin, whom I met at the New York Times portfolio review in late April, had given me a copy of his self-published photo-book, “The 13th Spring.”

Aaron’s a Southern photographer who got an MFA from the Hartford low-residency program, and lives in Tennessee, where he teaches college. His pictures are of that genre of Southern photography that is lyrical, poetic, vibrant, evocative, (insert appropriate adjective here.)

We’ve discussed the genre many times in this column over the years, and Aaron’s work reminds me a bit of my friend Susan Worsham. But that’s the point: from Eggleston through Sally Mann and right on down, photographing the South is a grand tradition, and I never hate on anyone for being an adherent.

I think Aaron’s pictures are strong, and he’s able to communicate a warmth and emotional sensitivity that separate his work from many a Southern photographer.

The book chronicles the time around his daughter’s birth, which a poem, (at the end,) says happened during a birth year for cicadas. Hence the little bug dude on the front cover, which was imprinted on a stately piece of canvas.

The second photograph, of a snake trying to sneak into a house, (despite the two door obstacle,) is pretty fantastic. He swears the snake was trying to get in, that it wasn’t set up in the least, and I believe him.

But it’s a photograph I’m sure he’ll get asked about for years.

The peacock as a repeating motif is pretty cool too. We’ve got the bearded, Jesus-looking guy, the tree growing up through a house, a white cat, a boarded-up shotgun shack, and some nasty bug-sex. (Hence the title.)

It’s a very cool book, I must say. Really well done. Alec Soth and Doug Dubois teach at Hartford, and one can see the influence of their styles, which make for an interesting mashup with Aaron’s Southern roots.

It’s like how the Three Six Mafia represents Memphis, but still sampled from artists on the coasts too. (Big shout out to “Hustle and Flow.” That movie never gets old.)

But like I was saying in the beginning, Aaron was going to get a book review all to himself.

Was.

Past tense.

No sooner did I plan a column on his book alone, than two journalists I met at the review, Evgheny Maloletka and Emelienne Malfatto, emailed me after getting back to internet service in the danger zones in which they were shooting.

Given what we discussed last week, you almost couldn’t make this up. Evgheny was working in the war zone in Eastern Ukraine, near where he grew up, and Emelienne is down in the chaos of Venezuela.

As such, I’m able to show you some of their work as well. So Aaron’s will have to share the spotlight a bit, but as he’s a nice guy, I’m pretty sure he can handle it.

Emelienne Malfatto is a French-Italian documentary photographer who is rather itinerant. When we met in New York, she’d come off of a stint in Iraq, a country at war at the moment, but then jetted off to Caracas, which is not a safe place. And then she pushed off to the hinterlands of Venezuela.

Pretty hardcore.

She showed me pictures of a community in Iraq that had risen against Saddam Hussain, and to retaliate, he drained the swamps of their native lands. I thought some of the pictures were great, but she wasn’t able to access those for me, being out in the field with little internet.

Emelienne is resourceful, though, and managed to transfer me a group of photos she made in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. They’re dynamite.

Evgheny Maloletka and I met at the review in New York, and then again on the F train to Brooklyn. Zenhya came up and introduced himself before the review, and was the only person to do so. Given that we use this blog to help educate young professionals, (among other things,) I have to say, things like that make an impression.

He said he had me on his list, and Good Morning, nice to meet you, I hope you have a good day.

You remember things like that.

Even better, his pictures were great. He showed me photographs of the war in the East that were so raw, but were made with visual sophistication, which is a difficult combination. Like Aaron’s pictures are clearly of the South by someone from the South, I’d argue a foreigner would be hard-pressed to make such emotional news photographs.

We also looked at a series about young cheese-makers in the Carpathian Mountains that had echoes of a medieval lifestyle, here in the 21C. And then we saw a project about a community of Romanians who were trapped in Ukraine, when the borders were redrawn.

We’ll look at the war photographs today, but I could easily show you any of the three projects. The dude is very talented, and I expect all three of the young people we’re featuring today will go on to have great careers.

Overall, I was thrilled with the quality of the work I saw in New York, and am glad to be able to share so much of it with you guys. Enjoy the beginning of summer, and we’ll be back with a book review next Friday.

The Best Work I Saw at the NYT Portfolio Review

 

Though art and news photography commingle these days, artists and journalists are very different breeds.

I studied art at the undergrad and graduate level, and spent the last 20 years learning to understand the language, so it’s pretty natural to me, at this point.

The journalistic ethos I’ve learned on the fly, as I went from starting a little blog here in New Mexico, (that nobody read,) to writing for the New York Times in 4 short years.

Artists mostly do the work for themselves, because they enjoy it. Maybe it’s a path to sanity, or for those with ambition, to having a conversation with an audience of strangers.

But while a small group of artists are overtly political within their practice, for most, it’s about personal expression. (I paint the mountain because the mountain is there.)

Journalists, though, are more mission-driven, on the whole. They might have been nerds in high school, rather than hipsters, but they use their intelligence for the greater good.

Journalists face tough job prospects here in America, and dangerous violence in other places around the globe. Six Mexican journalists have been killed this year alone.

This very morning, in fact, the Republican candidate for Congressman in Montana physically assaulted a reporter from The Guardian, because he asked the man a question.

And just when things seem like they could not possibly get more surreal, the Fox News team, who were about to interview the politician, supported their British colleague as fully as possible.

Their first-hand accounts led to the jerk’s arrest. (And he’ll still probably win the election.)

The point is, while most artists have a cushy, if poorly paying job, many journalists, in order to tell their stories, are forced to put their lives on the line.

When I went to the New York Times portfolio review last month, I was very aware that the young journalists I met were on something of a quixotic trip, as far as careers go.

It’s been said that data, and information in general, are the world’s most valuable currency. Reporters and photojournalists traffic in highly dangerous information, and it makes them targets for murder. More so now than ever before.

I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but it truly is a slippery slope from reporters being beaten to reporters being killed. If we’re not careful, we’ll find our voices here in America, creative or journalistic, have been intimidated into silence.

Most, but not all of the photographers I reviewed came from the journalistic arena. Beyond admiring their gumption, several times I offered technical criticism suggesting the photographers consider embracing a more geometric, formal, “artsy” structure into their compositions.

Clean crops and solid shapes help pictures pop, in my opinion, whereas most news compostions care more about dynamism than structure.

I wasn’t able to procure images from all the photographers I met, but a quick memory-trip tells me they hailed from Colombia, France, China, Egypt, Ukraine, Nigeria, Argentina, South Africa and the United States. (Plus, the Argentine was based in Mexico.)

Today, we’re going to show you the best work I came across at the review. As usual, the photographers are in no particular order.

Miranda Barnes caught me completely off-guard, because she looked like she was 12 years old. Her big smile was disarming, and then her story was even more interesting. She’s born and raised in Brooklyn, and was currently studying law. But she’d fallen in love with photography.

I highly encouraged her to keep both things in her life, for now, because it can be so hard to make a living in photography these days. Miranda taught herself how to use a medium format camera, and then scan the negatives, with a truly impressive level of skill.

She showed me two series; one looked at Upper East Side rich folks after Trump’s election, and the other, which we’re showing here, featured African American Twins. When I asked her why she chose the latter subject, she said that when she’d looked up twins in Google Image, there were no kids of color at all.

Annie Tritt, who shoots editorially, had a project “Transcending Self,” about transgender and gender expansive children. It’s a subject that’s getting a lot of media coverage, so I appreciated that the pictures were topical, as well as being well-made.

We discussed whether she might want to do a deep dive on one particular subject, rather than a survey of many, so that the viewer can get a richer, more nuanced take on an issue that can be hard for some people to understand.

Yan Cong is a Chinese photojournalist and blogger, and she showed me a pretty strange project. Apparently, Beijing is preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympic games, which I didn’t know. That, along with the city’s wealth, created the need for ski areas in Northern China, within range of Beijing.

Yan is documenting the changes in one small town, as it’s transformed over the next five years. But that project is ongoing, and not ready to show, so I checked out a multi-media piece she’d made about the trafficking of Cambodian brides in China.

I found the audio track to be remarkable, and extremely sad. It’s worth a watch/listen, as it’s a good lesson in how adding to the photographic experience can increase a viewer’s emotional connection.

Rujie Wang was also from China, and was finishing up her BFA at the School of Visual Arts. I really loved her project, “Made in China,” in which she photographed cheap crap from the dollar store, alongside her friends from China, who were the models.

Eventually, she started composting in the studio, so the kitchy objects and neon palette create a visual aesthetic that is very contemporary. Even better, she’s begun to turn the photographs into .gifs, in which certain image layers dance around the surface of the picture, like characters out of Pokemon Go. Once she’s sorted out the proper way to exhibit the .gifs, I think they’ll be massively successful.

David “Dee” Delgado was my room captain for the review on Sunday, and we chatted a bit during breaks. I always offer to look at people’s work once I get home, if we can’t sit down, so Dee sent me a set of files the other day.

Apparently, for “Bike Life,” he’s shooting street riders in his home borough of the Bronx. I’m always telling you guys I want to see things I’ve never seen before, and these pictures definitely qualify. The high-contrast, hyper-real, black and white look makes them feel of the moment as well.

Lujan Agusti had maybe my favorite work, at least of the things that were totally resolved. Though she’s Argentine, she’s based in Veracruz, Mexico, the Western Hemisphere’s most dangerous place to be a journalist.

Lujan has photographed indigenous Mexicans from the area, in the clothing they wear for local festivals and ceremonies. I love that she updated a trope by bringing the subjects into the studio, and using their costume fabrics as backdrops.

Along with the creepy-clown vibe, the colors and patterns give these pictures some major visual tension. They’re great, and I love the way they manipulate color to channel the festive, reverential spirit of the ceremonies they’re meant to represent.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of typical bonnet used by dancing clowns. Each member creates his/her own bonnet, they sometimes put religious images on it. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of hand with castanets, usually used while dancing. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait the leader of the gang, showing the images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He represents a Spaniard and is in charge of giving order to the dancers. Many of the clowns go out to dance by promise to the Virgin of Guadalupe.From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Jose Luis takes off his mask. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of Claudio. The use of the handkerchief is also typical. They do it to reveal even less of their identity, and wear it under the mask. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of typical costume and fabric used by the dancing clowns. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of Mayra. There is no requirement to participate in the gang, and people of any social class participate. They should only respect the leader’s orders, not drink alcohol, or have uncontrolled or violent attitudes during the dance. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of typical bonnet and mask used by dancing clowns. Each member creates his/her own bonnet, and mask. The mask is used to hide their identity, and dance freely. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Last, but not least, we have Andres Millan. My editor Jim Estrin grabbed me, at one point, and said I had to talk to this young guy, so I said sure.

Andres had two projects I thought were very cool, the first of which featured panoramic images of Colombians battling illness. They were excellent, and the odd aspect ratio definitely helped them to stand out.

The other project, “The New Gold,” which we’re featuring here, contains pictures made in the Amazon basin. I liked that he intervened in the landscape, painting things gold to match the title, as it made the pictures more memorable. (Always a good thing at an event where you’re seeing so much work in a compressed amount of time.)

This Week in Photography Books: Anthony Hernandez

 

There are more photo-books out there than ever before.

The market has proliferated, with the advent of crowdfunding, and publishers who will make you a book if you’ll pay their fee.

So if you’re planning on joining the crowd, I’d recommend you ask yourself a few questions first.

Why do I think my work needs to exist in book form?
Who is the potential audience?
Why will it be necessary for people to buy it?

Occasionally, I like to get you guys thinking about the reasons behind this photo-book industry I cover each week. By now, my tastes are well established, if broad.

One week, I’m praising pictures from the 19th Century, and the high quality of the packaging in which they’re presented. The next week, I’ll big up a little ‘zine that looks like it was made by some very talented teen-agers.

Any type of book can be excellent, if it gets the right balance of content, form, and intentionality. And I’ve interviewed several artists who prefer books, for their permanence, to exhibitions, which are ephemeral.

I love a good show, myself, because it allows scale to become a far more valuable element. Just as people go to the movies to see things on the “really” big screen, I like that in museums, I can see paintings that are 40 feet long, or photographs 8 feet high.

The book’s strength, in addition to longevity, is that it’s intimate. You control the experience in a more personal way. No pushy crowds. No bumping into people in the elevator. No dirty looks from the uptight gallery staff.

You can turn the pages backwards and forwards. Skip ahead. Or dash back to a favorite picture.

But in general, photo-books are linear narratives. The viewer will pick it up, start at the beginning, and carry on through to the end.

Therefore, what you do or don’t tell someone at the outset determines the context in which they understand your work. Some books want you to guess what’s going on, (like last week’s offering,) others ask you to read dense, academic essays before you even get to peek at a pic.

If I’m thinking about these things as a reviewer, I expect you to consider them before you spend the money to make a book.

What are you trying to say, and to whom are you speaking?

Given what I know of Anthony Hernandez’s work, I was a little surprised with what turned up in the mail the other day. The folks at MACK, in London, were kind enough to send me a copy of Mr. Hernandez’s new book, “Forever.”

I reviewed his excellent Amon Carter Museum exhibition, “Discarded,” last year, and was lucky enough to interview him a few months later about his retrospective at SFMOMA. (Since closed.)

He grew up in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, and has been making some pretty smart, considered, and at times beautiful photographs in and around LA for most of his life.

Much of his career has focused on examining the secret haunts and hidey-holes of the city’s homeless community, and the bleak public spaces left for those without Maybachs and mansions in Beverly Hills.

“Forever,” I learned, is a project in which he visited homeless encampments, boxes and jimmy-rigged shelters, and laid down where people sleep. Or where they catch a few minutes of rest, in the midst of the stress-horror-show that is life on the street.

Then he photographed from that vantage point.

I was entranced, as he said, “If you stop, and start thinking about, where I am? How can I be sitting here, or laying down on this bed, you won’t be out there. You won’t be making those pictures.”

I think it’s vital to know that about the photographs, to truly appreciate them. Some are too dry, or too reminiscent of things I’ve seen before, but others are absolutely perfect.

Like the twenty, beat-up, sad-looking copper pennies in perfect rows, sitting atop a thin strip of curb, set against the less-shiny brown of the pebbly dirt.

I think it’s amazing, visually. You can sense how deeply he stared at it. And then, you think, why would anyone living on the street leave money like that?

Are pennies now that worthless?

Or was the place tucked-away-enough they considered it safe?

Maybe they took off in a hurry, or were too high to remember the change?

It’s only one picture, and there are seven or eight I thought were that mesmerizing. Like the matchbook. The brick wall. The concrete block wall. (He does walls well.)

And, most of all, the curled, slightly faded portrait of a weepy-looking young girl. A studio portrait, made somewhere, by someone.

It’s taped or glued to the front of a hollowed-out concrete block. Presumably, in this context, it’s the first thing someone sees after they wake up, and the last vision before closing their eyes at night.

The picture is screaming in my ear: This is the last place I’d ever want to end up. The worst spot in the world. Alone, sleeping on rocks, thinking of the daughter I left behind.

Or maybe she’s dead? And the grief drove her father or mother insane?

The book is set up in such a way that it’s difficult (or impossible) to acquire this context, before looking at the pictures. I suspect it’s intended for art world people, who already know what his work is about.

They bring the knowledge with them, as I did. And I think MACK figured the book buyers would be cool with it. No didactic description necessary.

We can agree to disagree.

There’s only a bit that really hints at it, in the book’s closing essay by Judith Freeman. She uses a style in which the narrative and interview bits are jumbled together, distinguished only by font style.

Her words say, “To find a bed or chair, a place you can sit, look out from their point of view.” As it shades towards inscrutable, on first reading, I’d say they’re still assuming people will know what’s going on.

There is nothing wrong with making a book for art collectors and photo geeks. Most established photo book publishers are definitely going for just that market.

But, setting aside one’s preference for knowing versus guessing, I think it’s a very cool book. The best pictures are almost perfect examples of the anti-aesthetic.

Of ugly beauty.

I know from our interview that Mr. Hernandez was friends with Lewis Baltz, (RIP,) who was a genuine master at that skill. Composing so well within ugliness, mastering tone and texture, amid garbage and industrial spaces, that beauty emerged despite itself.

Design-wise, I have to give a shout out to the patterned purple cover followed by a rich, red, inside-cover paper . It’s pretty gorgeous, and makes me think of tailors on Saville Row with a taste for the naughty.

It’s a pretty interesting contrast to the glumness inside, and hearkens back to earlier in this article. Every choice you make, when you build your book, reflects your intention.

MACK, as a publisher, tries to make art objects. They don’t see books as information dissemination vehicles, but rather art itself. And art objects, unlike opinion columnists, need not explain themselves.

Bottom Line: Cool, well-designed, but slightly inscrutable take on homelessness

To purchase “Forever,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com