Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books: James Welling

by Jonathan Blaustein

The sun is out again today.
Thank god.

After an unseasonably warm November, winter came in earnest last week. Below zero wind chill. Industrial-grey skies. High clouds looming above, like hall monitors, ensuring nobody has any fun.

This time of year always makes me sad.

It gets dark so early, and here in Taos, we’re all addicted to the sun, so when it goes away for even 2 or 3 days at a time, my mood drops off a cliff faster than Wil E. Coyote.

The morbid, bleak light.
No leaves on the trees.

There’s no snow on the ground yet, so the brown, dead grass reminds me of my own mortality. Early winter is the seasonal equivalent of angsty, teen-age poetry.


Why?
Why is the world so unfair and cold?

Why?
Why don’t my parents understand I’m not a kid anymore?

Why?

Why is death a part of life, when death is cruel but life
is beautiful?

Why?

My blood pumps through my veins.
I feel it.

Why must it all come to an end?
Why must I lose everything?

Why?

Like I said, the sky is blue today and the sun is unencumbered. It’s so bright, I had to close the shades in my daughter’s room so I could see the computer screen to write for you guys.

So I can joke about such things today.

But sometimes, I do feel sad. I miss the long, easy days of summer. I think about my children growing up so quickly.

I wonder how long I’ll be remembered when I’m gone?

I’m in this mood now, truth be told, having just looked at “Diary/Landscape” a book that turned up in the mail by James Welling, published by The University of Chicago Press. The cover, no surprise, is gray; the font somber.

James Welling is known as a conceptual photographer, or maybe a conceptual artist, but his pictures normally look like straight photographs. While I’ve known of him for years, it’s hard for me to conjure a specific image in mind when I think of his work.

People think of ideas, when they think of conceptual art. It’s an obvious connection. But it often has as much to do with process and structure. Having a system in place, the end result of which is your artwork.

This book, perhaps because it represents an early project, really speaks more about traditional photography, and less about ideas, I’d say.

At the end of the introduction, written by Art Institute of Chicago curator Matthew S. Witkovsky, there’s a telling Welling quote. He says, “I think that all landscape photographs are a stand-in for abstract art, which is a stand-in for emotion in art. To me it seems very obvious that I’m photographing emotions.”

As far as I understand it, in the late 70’s, when Mr. Welling was a younger artist, he photographed the diary of his Connecticut ancestors, written by his great grandparents as they toured Europe, and he also photographed around his parent’s new home in Connecticut as well.

Black and white pictures.
Large format.
Somber.

His relatives had been prominent in the mid-19th Century: his great-grandfather both a Congressman and a Senator who rubbed elbows with Abe Lincoln. It is presumed, given the New England location and his family’s history of importance, that the Wellings are an old, prosperous, (or once-prosperous) WASP clan.

Such people are not known for expressing their emotions.
Quite the opposite.

We know this.

But the pictures in this book, the old diary pages and church steeples. The weathered siding and leafless trees. The barren fields and gnarled limbs.

It reminds me of those endless East Coast winters, when it can be cold and gray for months on end. You might not see the sun for 3 weeks. It’s torturous.

Just thinking of it makes me depressed.

That’s the thing about this book.
It’s kind of weepy.
Elegiac.

The pictures are beautiful, and they express emotion, which, given the cultural milieu, is a rebellious act. Though it’s certainly understated, I like it very much.

Because, like that blasted Pixar film “Inside Out” branded in our brains forever, sadness is a genuine emotion. It’s a part of our identity that cannot be ignored, nor willed away. Huge swaths of life are tragic, and having that feeling pervade an object like this is not an easy feat to accomplish.

So for all of you out there, living in places like Upstate New York, or Upper Peninsula Michigan, I’ll make sure to put my face in the sun every day for you.

I promise.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, bleak, black and white photos from New England

To Purchase “Diary/Landscape” by James Welling go here.

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This Week In Photography Books: Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m binge-watching “Marco Polo” on Netflix.
Talk about entertainment.

I was just lecturing my students, not two weeks ago, on the Southern Song era in Chinese art. (Long one of my favorites.)

It produced landscape paintings of staggering beauty and influence; perhaps the first to use negative space as a positive compositional element. Blank white silk represents water, mist, and snow.

I told them, (as my Chinese Art History professor taught me,) that the Mongols ruled much of China, from the North, so the Song Empire, much diminished, resided in Southern China instead.

A week later, after stumbling on the series last Friday, I found myself watching an extremely expensive recreation of the very same place and time. The Mongolian steppes and palace intrigues from 800 years ago appear, in HD, in my fucking living room.

Benedict Wong is mesmerizing as Kublai Kahn. I guess that’s the nature of binge-watching, that the story takes over, you’re immersed in it for a day or two or seven, and then you move on. And I DO have a soft-spot for period pieces with high production values.

Which is why I decided to route through Los Angeles, on my recent trip to San Diego for Medium. I’d been sent the book that accompanies “Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France” by the Getty Center, (curated by Karen Hellman) as it’s the companion to the exhibition of the same name, which closes November 27th.

Southern Californians: If you’re too lazy to read the rest of this piece, at least remember this: Go see the show!

I stopped looking at the book after 10 pages, when I first opened it, as I decided to buy the ticket to LA then and there. I figured, if I’m going to see the photographs in person, why spoil it with the book first?

Turns out, they’re very different experiences.

Though the title might sound a shade academic or dry, the pictures are nothing of the sort. Gustave LeGray is one of my all time favorite photographers because, like his 19th Century contemporaries Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron and Carleton Watkins, the pictures seem to jump off the wall. (The same sensation as seeing a Velasquez in a room full of paintings by his peers.)

LeGray’s photographs are always visceral, and dripping with emotional resonance. (So it’s no surprise he steals the show.) His landscapes, including on the waterfront, or in the Fountain-bleu forest, have that vibe that Atget later tapped in to.

A haunting feeling you’re sure is in the picture, rather than being a function of the age of the print. An EXTRA sort of perception.

We learn that LeGray touched up his negatives from the beginning, to increase contrast, and only achieved his masterly seascapes by later sandwiching two negatives together. Is that extra something his ability as a printer? Utilizing subjectivity, as an era-appropriate Instagram filter?

I don’t know, but there is a side-by-side in the book, with Edouard Baldus, and I think it’s clear LeGray’s photograph is more compelling. (And contrasty.)

In LA, I was equally smitten by Charles Negre’s photographs of people. Italian street musicians, in particular. In the book, I noticed, these same images are not nearly as powerful as the talismen I encountered in the flesh.

In the exhibition, I had a feeling I only remember having once before, at the Met, when I first saw Egyptian encaustic portraits from 2000 years ago.

I’ve used the time travel metaphor so many times, but this wasn’t that. (Or, at least, not JUST that.) It was more like I was seeing something I wasn’t meant to see. Something intimate, like the way certain tribes were said to fear a photograph can steal your soul.

The fact that photography was so young, so packed with potential back then, so experimental in its nature, gives this entire exhibition a super-charge that was so worth going out of my way for.

The galleries were packed, so it’s hard to even use a word like intimate, but that’s what it was. The clothing, the patina, it made me sad in a good way, like schadenfreude.

The focus is tight. Little more than a decade in France, 160 years ago. But with such a comprehensive display: people, places, things, the sacred and the profane, you have a sense of “being there” more than almost any other show I’ve seen.

There is also a strong educational component to the exhibit, (and essays in the book,) so we learn about the initial use of salt paper prints, paper negatives before glass, and see the negatives themselves presented on light-boxes. The whole thing is super-slick. (Remember what I said before about liking sharp production values?)

I have a very good memory, so I’m certain there are photos in the book that are not in the show. And almost all of you won’t be able to make it to the Getty by Sunday. (Though hopefully some of you can. The museum is free, don’t forget.)

Some of the extras pics, by LeGray, are as strong as anything in the show, hinting the archive goes much deeper than what was on the wall. So I’d say the book would be a great purchase as well.

When we delve into things like this, we are reminded that we too will be history one day. Images, ideas, cultures change over time. These days, Thanksgiving is mostly seen as a holiday where we eat lots of turkey, watch football, and perhaps have a drink or two to celebrate.

But what are we celebrating?

Speaking for myself, I have a beautiful, loving family, I live in a country that, for now, is still free and prosperous, and I get to type out my thoughts and share them with you guys each week. (I even get paid for it.)

Now is the time of year, especially in light of the extra election stress America has been living with, where you take stock. Count your blessings. Appreciate what you’ve got.

Because no matter how bad you might have it, there are people in this world, in Syria or elsewhere, who are facing gruesome death each and every day.

Even little kids.

So I hope you had a good holiday, and I’ll be back with another photo-book again next week.

Adios.

Bottom Line: Excellent book that captures the spirit of long ago France

Go Here To Purchase Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France

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Medium Festival of Photography – Part 2

- - Portfolio Review

by Jonathan Blaustein

There’s a bar at the Lafayette Hotel called the Red Fox Room. The name alone evokes the 70’s.

I can practically hear Fred Sanford yelling at Lamont, “Hey Dummy!” I can see George shimmy on “The Jeffersons” while Weezy clucks her tongue. I imagine Carroll O’Connor’s face right now, scrunched up, as he insults some race or other as Archie Bunker.

Even better than the name, the Red Fox Room is the closest thing to a time warp I’ve ever seen. It’s dark in there, and the decorations and votive candle bowls are straight out of the 70’s as well.

The drinks aren’t even expensive, which heightens the atmosphere, but not as much as the karaoke. (It’s not what you think.)

There are no Japanese businessmen getting drunk and singing “Like a Virgin.” No college kids crooning 90’s hits you never knew anyone liked.

It’s more like a piano bar with a couple of characters ripped from a Norman Lear sitcom, warbling out of tune like Tiny Tim. I shit you not, these people, all in their 60’s and 70’s, really can’t sing, but then, it’s impossible not to listen.

They may be be out of tune, but they can carry a tune, if that makes sense. I guess we all got a taste of that in the early stages of “American Idol,” when we could mock the losers while enjoying the experience. (#2003. Before Reality TV shocked the world.)

It’s like Ricky Gervais got into a Delorean, then crossed the 4th wall, and ended up in “Three’s Company.” All he has to do is emerge from the bathroom, dressed like Mr. Roper, and the transformation is complete.

Honestly, doesn’t it feel like it’s the late 70’s all over again? Just trade gas lines and a hostage crisis for ISIS and a furious working class. Carter had no chance against Reagan selling “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

No chance at all.

And here we are in 2016. Young people are out in the streets protesting. Did they happen to vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, I wonder? (Do they not teach causality in colleges these days?)

I said last week that nobody knows what’s coming next, and it’s true. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit around and wait for life to happen.

Make art, sure. But maybe get involved with a non-profit that supports causes you believe in. Run for your local school board or town council. Go out in the streets, if you feel the need, to speak truth to power.

Or maybe try to have an honest, rational conversation with someone with different beliefs than you have. See if you can ask someone to explain why they think what they think, and everyone promises not to raise their voices.

Keep an open mind.

But you, this audience, are media professionals. You’re photographers and editors and artists and writers. You’re the ones who will document and comment on what’s to come.

That’s why I was in San Diego in the first place: to look at work by photographers who use their artistic expression to better understand the world. So here we have the final installment of the best projects I saw at the Medium Festival in San Diego. Many thanks to the artists for allowing us to share their work with you.

Among the rights we need to protect, vigilantly, are those of the LGBT community. I met Jason Pearson in San Diego, and then his creative partner and twin brother Jesse in Santa Fe a week later. These guys could not be more different, but they click when they’re making art.

I thought the pictures were fantastic, absurd and silly takes on male sexuality. They’re performative and well-constructed. Amazing stuff. But as Jason turned up with a portfolio of highly mis-matched prints, I did encourage him to tighten up the ship going forward. You never want to give someone an additional reason to say “No.”

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Carol Erb was also headed to Review Santa Fe with some work I found innovative and smart. She photographs animals in zoos, then shoots nature scenes, and also made a series of images in an abandoned mental hospital. (West Virginia, maybe?)

She photoshops them all together, seamlessly, as she thought people just tune out at seeing endangered animals in their natural environment. These pictures radiate a kind of sadness that I think will affect people in a more powerful way. I found a couple of prints that lacked proper conceptual continuity, and Carol fixed them right up for RSF.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved – No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

All rights reserved - No derivative works can be used, published, distributed or sold without written permission of the owner.

I met Ellen Cantor at Medium in the past, but had not done a review before. She was an interior designer for a long time, and that skill-set showed, as her multiple projects all looked good. The one we’re publishing here is of her mother’s ephemera, after she passed away. I’ve seen projects like this before, of course, but thought these pictures were visceral, and melancholy, in a way that I respect.

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I had a hard talk with James Porschen, a working photographer who had two distinct series. The first was a group of color, aerial photos that could not have looked more like Ed Burtynsky and David Maisel’s work if he had set out to do so. I told him that, and think deep down he knew it was true.

The other project, in black and white, also attempted to grapple with the landscape, using some aerials, but I thought these were groovy, and far more original. We talked about how hard it is to walk in the shadow of well-known visions, and how we need to instead go in the direction of what makes us unique.

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Printed by the Fine Art Department at The Icon; archival inkjet print using Epson 9800 with K3 inks, on Hahnëmuhle German Etching 310 gsm paper, RGB profile.

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Victor Ramos comes from a computer programming background, and was recently diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. I liked both of his projects very much, including one that metaphorically grapples with his condition, but that was not-yet-completed.

His other project, “In The Future,” incorporated funny, irreverent, and sometimes troubling text with images to forecast what lies ahead. (While also commenting on the now.) The pictures were a bit uneven, but I thought most of it was really great.

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Emily Matyas visited Romania, her ancestors’ homeland, and then went into character as if she were a local peasant. (It’s a strange conceit, to be sure.) I like it a bit more each time I see it, and the best pictures offer an ambiguity to go with the strong visuals. It’s odd, but I kind of dig it.

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Last, but not least, we have Cathy Immordino. She does improv, and has been on Nickelodeon TV shows before, but doesn’t currently mix those talents with her photography. I encouraged her to consider melding her skills.

We saw composite pictures about her child’s birth, as she had a “million dollar baby,” given the associated costs due to complications. I definitely have a bias against heavy composting, which I admitted to her, but the best images have an undeniable tension that I liked a lot.

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Well, that’s it for the Fall Portfolio Review Circuit Roundup. We’ll go back to book reviews for the rest of the year. Thanks for sticking it out to the end…

Medium Festival of Photography – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the 90’s, Michael Jordan was a god. He could fly, like Superman, and his ubiquitous Gatorade commercials implored us to “Be Like Mike.”

Back then, we had a kid on our soccer team named Mike Belasco. We teased him by singing that Gatorade song, and at one point, I bought the cassette-single, (yes, they existed) so we could torture young Mike with regularity.

Sample lyrics: Sometimes I dream, that he is me. The shots I make nobody else would take.

But Michael Jordan refused to take shots at certain corporations, or become politically active, for fear of offending potential consumers. His famous reputed quote: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Unlike Mike, I have used this weekly platform to spout off my opinions for the last 5+ years. If you’ve been coming each week, you’re well aware of my thoughts on President-Elect Trump.

You might expect that I’d rail against injustice today, or lash out in anger, but you’d be wrong.

Not today. (I’m writing the morning after the election.)

Though I admit to being extremely disappointed, within the system we possess, Donald Trump won the election fair and square.

He got more votes in the Electoral College.

Hillary Clinton’s popular victory, while ultimately fruitless, proves we are indeed a divided country. Split in two, it would seem.

I read the think pieces today, and wasted time on Twitter and Facebook. It made me feel bad. And you know what I realized? Nobody knows what’s going to happen.

Whether it’s fears of a wall, a mass deportation police, or some new war in the Middle East, nobody knows what’s coming.

Nobody knows if President-Elect Trump will shed one character and adopt another, since he’s a modern day reality TV actor, just as Ronald Reagan was a B-movie star.

Nobody knows what the future will bring.
Nobody.

I promise you: it’s entirely unwritten. Maybe he’ll do some good things amid the many bad things to come? Or maybe the bad things won’t come?

Your fear of the future, of the unknown, of what he’ll do next, none of will do you any good. It’s just wasted energy. It burns calories, worrying, and better to save them for being creative, and expressing your freedom of speech during these next 4 years.

I admit, truthfully, that I did wonder last night if there was an archive of all the people who wrote nasty things about him? If I weren’t on some list?

But then I realized that was crazy. I’ve championed freedom of speech many times in this column, and intend to exercise the right going forward. There is no list.

Now, though, it’s time to “Be Like Mike.” If my repeated expression of my own political views has bothered you, when you were just looking to see some pictures of a photo-book, I apologize.

I’m going to continue to keep it real, but if you are among the many, many millions of people that voted for President-Elect Trump on Tuesday, I appreciate that you’ve been reading. I hope he’ll able to do some good things as President, and for all we know, his Art-of-the-Deal jujitsu skills might do the country some good.

As far as we artsy-liberal-types go, though, a few minutes ago I saw a tweet by comedian Eugene Mirman, who does a great voice on “Bob’s Burgers.” He said he looked forward to all the great art and music that would emerge from the first Trump term.

I couldn’t agree more. (#MakeStuff)

As artists, we’re blessed and burdened with the responsibility to report on our culture. It’s what we do, and I guarantee some kick-ass shit will come out of whatever it is that’s about to happen.

Speaking of making stuff, though it feels like another lifetime, it’s easy for me to recall the best work I saw at the the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego last month.

I’ve been there before, as you know, and the founder, scott b. davis, is an old friend. Medium works because it’s small and homey, with a positive vibe. It’s not a heavy drinking/partying festival, but it is set at the Hotel Lafayette, which has a cool pool surrounded by palm trees, in case you want to catch some sun.

You need to have a car, or use Uber, if you want to get around the city or head to the beach, but it’s just as easy to stay put. For whatever reason, even though North Park is not super-gentrified yet, there are a handful of excellent restaurants and cafes within 3 blocks of the hotel, so you can easily stay in the neighborhood.

Medium, like Filter, is not juried, so I expect to see a wide range of work. People continue to come asking for feedback, and I try to give it as honestly and kindly as I can. Luckily, this time I saw some interesting things, and am sure you’ll agree.

As usual, the photographers are featured in no particular order. Hope you enjoy their work, and we thank them for letting us share it with you.

We’ll get things going quickly with Adam Frazier’s work. Adam’s based in Las Vegas, and used to be a musician. He felt he wasn’t good enough an improviser to continue, so he gave it up and switched to photography. He worked with a dancer named Darius Hollins to try to capture motion in an authentic way, and I think he definitely succeeded. The photographs are dope.

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I met with Adriene Hughes at Medium a few years ago, and we published her performative pictures back then. What she showed me this time was very different: images she made during a residency in the Arctic. I liked both of two sets, but preferred this group, as the naked digitality grounds it in our scary times.

I’ve seen a lot of work from up there lately, (including one project that verged on plagiarism,) and at some point, people just tune out, rather than in. I love these colors, and think it might be a more interesting take on documenting icebergs and glaciers before they disappear.

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Deb Stoner had some pictures that are not the sort of thing I’m normally into. They are beautiful images of natural objects, and I often expect more than just pretty. (I like edge, as you know.) But there is something that works here, that helps me to appreciate the flowers and branches and bugs. I give her props, and certainly don’t mind seeing soothing things like this in such a crazy week.

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Jim Graves is another photographer I’d met at Medium before. I recall our encounter as being a little strained, as I challenged him to make pictures that had a more specific vision. He came back to the table this year with a set of medium format, black and white photographs that I really enjoyed.

We talked about how he pushed his process a bit, including taking a trip to Ireland, where he made some really killer photos. I like that they play with implied narrative, and occupy the weird-but-not-creepy zone, and think you’ll like them too.

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I’m starting to realize there’s a bit of a theme today, in that much of the work is uplifting or pleasurable to look at. Sally Ann Field carries that line through with her irresistible series, “Punch Bug.” Between the immediate memory of playing the Punch Buggy game, smacking my brother Andrew in the arm, and the other memory-trigger of “Herbie the Love Bug,” this project gives me a perma-smile. I think it’s got coffee-table-book written all over it.

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Finally, we’ve got Tami Bahat. This is the first group so far that plumbs some depths, but still, it doesn’t make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Tami said she’s always felt like she belonged to another time, and here, she’s used her friends and family, in a jimmy-rigged studio, to evoke a sense of the Renaissance.

It’s hard to make work like this, because it’s easy to fall into kitschy tropes, but I love these. The symbol choices, which often required animal wranglers on her own dime, are pretty much perfect. Tami is doing well with the project, and I’m not surprised.

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More next week. Keep your head up, and see you then.

This Week In Photography Books: Curran Hatleberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was just talking to a friend about comment sections. Ours, in particular. It seems like a hundred years ago, but was really only 4 or 5, when anonymous trolls insulted me each and every week.

My god, did I hate that shit.

It’s easy to say, “Don’t take it personally,” but I most certainly did. Rob must have gotten tired of my complaints, because I couldn’t let it go.

These days, we moderate, and it’s a bit of a wasteland down there. Not much going on. Tumbleweeds drifting across the information superhighway. Tarantulas creeping along the asphalt, as there’s no one else around.

Except for Stan.

Every now and again, Stan Banos, who’s been reading for ages, will pop up with a comment to keep me in check. He was there back when it was crowded, and he’s there now that it’s chill.
I appreciate his feedback, as he is intelligent, and has a different perspective than I do, so that makes for good dialogue.

If I’m being honest, I even inserted a clause in last week’s column with him in mind, and he took the bait. As I was gushing about how much fun I had in NYC, LA and Chicago, I thought it important to mention that I had not visited places where life is hard.

Places lacking the glamour of a gleaming art museum, or a cool bar with expensive drinks. After-parties are great, of course, but I’m at least smart enough to know when I’m experiencing privilege.

Sure enough, Stan chimed in to stress that life is insanely difficult for a large swath of this country, and things just don’t seem to get better. We all know there are millions of people living rough, and I acknowledged that as well, but Stan stood up and said, don’t pretend it isn’t happening.

So in Stan’s honor, I was glad to look at “Lost Coast,” a new release by our friends at TBW Books, from artist Curran Hatleberg. It investigates a culture in California, in the far North, that most of us don’t get to see, and it’s not exactly pretty.

I’ve written about books like this before, so I won’t claim that it’s insanely original. But it feels authentic, and hit me hard just now, as we’re all anxiously awaiting the results of an election that is increasingly driven by race and class.

There is no introduction on this one, and only the end-note-thank-you’s ground this as taking place in Humboldt County. (Famous for its insanely strong weed. Or so I’m told.)

A CA license plate tips us off before that, and an image with a pile of logs in front of a shipping port hints that it’s up North, but we’re not sure until the end.

I wrote last week that I had not dropped in on homeless encampments along the railroad tracks, and sure enough, some of the people photographed here look like that might be their next stop.

Even though I’ve seen worlds like this before, what really interested me were the subtle details. A father and son peering in the window of a motorbike store. You can’t see their faces, and I guess we don’t even know if they’re related, but the implied narrative screams yearning to me.

We see pit bulls, sure, but also a man attempting to cut a watermelon on a piece of cardboard, just outside the boundary of a gas station.

Another gas station, replete with no loitering sign, features a group of people doing just that.

A man with a reconstructed nose makes me think of meth and coke, hard drugs that will warp your face and ruin your life. A burned up trailer reinforces that read, suggesting a meth lab fire.

Yet one house has pink trim and a satellite dish, and another has a perfect pink rose bush outside in the yard. Even in difficult lives, people still crave beauty and a sense of normalcy.

A man has his head shaved, while showing off a hairy back, and the next picture features a bearded dude drinking Olympia, (the World’s worst beer,) while he plays with a ball made of aluminum foil.

Kids run around barefoot, a creepy-looking guy fills a gas can at yet another gas station, and a front yard barbecue looks fun, I suppose, if the pit bulls leave you alone.

I have no idea if Stan will like this book, or appreciate that I keep him in mind sometimes when I’m writing. It’s hard to remember what goes on outside your own world, I suppose, and that’s why I love this job so much.

No matter how stressed you might be, it’s important to be cognizant that even in a rich country like ours, there are too many people suffering deprivation. That’s why some will occasionally turn to a savior who promises to make it better by himself.

By next week, we’ll find out if he gets the chance.

Bottom Line: A well-crafted, taut look at hard living on the Lost Coast

To Purchase “Lost Coast” Go Here.

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The Big 3

- - Art, From The Field

Make America Great Again.

It implies this country of ours used be great, but it’s not anymore. We’ve gone to seed, like Ron Jeremy, and only a strong man with ridiculous hair can bring us back.

Restore our luster.

Polish the family silver to a gleaming sheen. A massive shiny cock, like the Trump Tower in Chicago. (Bad example. I actually like that building.)

It’s hard not to think about Donald J Trump when you consider America. A man this delusional is still within spitting distance of the power to conduct nuclear war. That scares me more than knowing we had a President who couldn’t even pronounce the word. (Nook-u-lur. #GodblessGeorgeWBush)

Donald Trump speaks for a segment of America that has not fared well in the new Millennium. You could argue our national economy recovered from 9/11 only by absorbing crooked money into a bubble system that crashed so badly, it took down the Entire.Global.Economy.

For all of Barack Obama’s excellence, his skills were spent just getting America about back to where we were before the Twin Towers came down.

Make no mistake. America is a flawed place with a history of causing misery elsewhere. Places like Guatemala or Nicaragua. Iraq and Libya.

But despite our black marks, I still think this country is the best in the world. I really do.

Our freedoms, of speech, thought and movement, are profoundly important. Our system of regulated Capitalism, while imperfect, creates wealth and allows for entrepreneurial opportunity.

Our people, in certain cities, represent a true mix of the all cultures and races on Earth. Everyone mashed together, living parallel lives. Striving toward parallel dreams.

A nice place to live. A safe place for your family. A new 2017 Ford mustang GT, all black, tinted down.

The American Dream.

I visited Chicago, New York and LA in the last month, the three biggest cities we have, and came away thinking the US of A was in pretty good shape.

I’ll admit from the outset I did not see the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago where so many people are being killed. Nor did I check in on homeless encampments near the train tracks in LA.

I visited each place for five days or less, and mostly stuck to the city centers and art destinations. So make of that what you will, whether I had a representative enough sample to make informed judgements.

But you know I’m never short on opinions, so here we go.

Chicago has the nicest skyline of the 3 cities. Which means it has the nicest skyline in America. Hands down, the best architecture.

It’s also much cleaner than New York. That perpetual layer of grime that covers the ex-New Amsterdam is a part of its character. A gritty charm, I suppose.

But at 42, I was attracted to a beautiful American urbanscape, filled with phallic buildings, that looked so very good without the dirt.

Nice people there, too. Good Midwestern values. And you know what I think of the Lake.

I walked along the Brooklyn waterfront with my friends and our children at night. It was safe and developed, in 2016. There is a magic in the air, in New York, that you just don’t get elsewhere. I’ve felt it before, and so have you.

That feeling like your life could be in a movie at any minute. New York is soooooooo cinematic.

We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, on foot, for the first time. My daughter was on my shoulders. It was late. We dodged bikers in the narrow walker’s lane.

And I think of all three cities, that experience was the one that sticks with me now. New York is iconic on a level that’s hard to match.

But LA can do iconic too. There, the mega-architecture is less about how tall, and more about how cool. I’ve seen Frank Gehry’s Disney Center before, and didn’t get to check out the new Broad Museum. But I spent hours at the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center, and that is something that you just can’t get in New York or Chicago.

Standing in the baking sunshine, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, the city at your feet. Light glinting off travertine tile. Curved building overhangs cutting up the blue sky. World class art, for free, at your disposal for as long as you’d like to be there. (I hung out for 4.5 hours. Parking costs $15, but the museum does not charge admission.)

Speaking of museums, the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at MCA Chicago was among the best I’ve ever seen. I thought I’d have to taunt you with tales of its awesomeness, but I just read on Twitter that it’s opening this week at The Met Breuer, so you need to go see it, if you can.

I didn’t get to The Met Bruer, unfortunately. Nor have I seen the new Whitney. Instead, I went to the Morgan Library, which is underrated, and the Brooklyn Museum to see the Sports photography show. I’d heard through the grapevine, (via Bill Hunt,) that it was excellent. It seemed an odd topic for an art show, but as I love sports, I had an open mind.

It’s a killer, killer exhibition, and I fell in love with a profound portrait of Lou Gehrig in the opening room. (They don’t have the jpeg available, I’m afraid.) I saw the show with my friends Richard Bram, who used to live in London and just moved back there from NYC, and Matjaz Tancic, a Slovenian who used to live in London but is based in Beijing. (Confused?)

Anyway, the two of them were arguing, playfully, in front of a London Olympics photograph with perfect light. They were discussing the intricacies of where the photographer might have stood to get the shot. They gesticulated like a couple of Brooklyn locals bickering about where to get the best pizza.

Nearby, we saw a photograph of Olympians at the first Olympic Games in Greece in 1896. Of course I know that photography existed back then, but somehow, things like that seem more like memories or myths than simple organized activities. I was surprised at myself that something like that would seem so surprising, if that makes sense.

New Jersey had the best pizza, if I’m being honest. (And I’ll ask you to trust me.) I don’t feel much like a Jersey boy lately, but Luigi’s in Lincroft was totally brilliant. Big ups, guys.

I covered thousands of miles in the last month, and came away totally inspired. Chicago, New York and LA were fun as hell. Great art, great weather, great food. So many super-cool, interesting people.

Now that I’m home, and the road is behind me, I’d like to thank everyone I met who showed me a good time, and reminded me that we need no Orange King to make us great again.

We’re pretty fucking great already.

Thomas Pelham Curtis (American, 1873–1944). American Olympic Team at the 1896 Athens Olympics, 1896. Vintage photograph, 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (12.1 x 11.4 cm). Collection of Thomas Pelham Curtis II

Thomas Pelham Curtis (American, 1873–1944). American Olympic Team at the 1896 Athens Olympics, 1896. Vintage photograph, 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (12.1 x 11.4 cm). Collection of Thomas Pelham Curtis II

 

Donald Miralle (American, born 1974). Men's Beach Volleyball match between Brazil and Canada, London Olympics, The Horse Guards Parade ground, London, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm). Leucadia Photoworks Gallery, courtesy of the artist

Donald Miralle (American, born 1974). Men’s Beach Volleyball match between Brazil and Canada, London Olympics, The Horse Guards Parade ground, London, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm). Leucadia Photoworks Gallery, courtesy of the artist

Filter Photo Festival 2016 – Part 3

by Jonathan Blaustein

Allow me to gather my thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who does that?

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

Who does that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No lie!

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

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

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

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photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

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

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

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

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

Filter Photo Festival 2016 – Part 2

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

This semester, I’ve got a few students who are into horror. (The genre.) They don’t like actual horror, of course, but prefer to simulate the emotions through entertainment.

Personally, I don’t get it. Back in my early 20’s, I watched a few of the “Scream” films, but after “The Blair Witch Project,” I swore that shit off forever.

Lots of people love the experience of being scared to death, but I don’t understand the impulse.

Weird stuff, I appreciate. By now you know this, as I’ve shown any number of edgy portfolios over the last 5 years. Kooky, odd, discomfiting, strange, I can handle.

But the outright grotesque? Joel-Peter Witkin? There, I draw the line. In fact, I skipped his lecture at the Filter Photo Festival, when I was in Chicago, because I have enough of his images stuck in my head, thank you very much.

So with that as background, as I stood in front of photographer Rebecca Memoli at the tail end of the portfolio walk at Filter, at 10pm on a Saturday, I had little patience for being scared.

Next to none.

I reviewed Rebecca’s work at Filter last year, and then exhibited a few of her prints at the college gallery I was running at UNM-Taos. She had delicate flowers in hand-made vases of meat. The juxtaposition was engaging, and the students loved it.

But after Rebecca showed me a scary-monster picture the other week, when I was moments away from retiring to bed, I was a little put-off. It wasn’t that nasty, the picture, but my over-tired brain needed to shut down, not absorb DARK FORCES OF EVIL.

I politely told Rebecca I was done for the night, but she demurred, holding a red shoe box. (The following quotes are a paraphrase. It’s pretty damn close to what she said, but I’m writing it this way for narrative effect.)

“Don’t you want to see what’s in this box,” she asked?

“No. No, I don’t.”

“Sure you do,” she replied, and then she shook the box. Shake, shake, shake.

“No, I really don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” Shake, shake, shake.

“Listen, I really need to go to bed. I’m exhausted. I’ve seen 30 portfolios today. I’m done. And after that last monster picture, I really don’t need anything else like that in my head. No thank you.”

“I think you do.” Shake, shake, shake.

“I’m going to get rude here in a minute. I’m trying to be polite, but you’re making me a bit angry.”

Shake, shake, shake.

“I don’t want to see anything scary. Disturbing I can probably handle.”

Shake, shake, shake.

“Fine, give it over then. I’ll look, and then I’m leaving,” I said.

She handed over the box. Apparently, the “art” story is that they’re found materials, but since I know her, she admitted that it was all staged, and that the rabbit-woman was done up in professional makeup.

The rabbit-woman?

Now, my kids’ favorite movie is Wallace and Gromit’s “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” so I’m not offended by the idea of a human-bunny hybrid. But the set of 5 Polaroids I saw were like nothing I’ve seen before. (That will always get you written about.)

The rabbit-woman was on all fours, on a bed, with her ass popped up like she had just had rabbit coitus. In at least one version, the makeup smeared in her butt-crack to simulate blood was Just. Too. Much.

Those pictures burned into my retinas, as I was afraid they would. But Rebecca was right. It’s not a scary picture. Just depraved and wrong. (The so-wrong-it’s-right kind of wrong.)

Rob and I agreed that it was too NSFW to publish, but we’re OK with linking to it on her website. Right here. But be warned. If you are disgusted by the idea of a sexed-up rabbit-woman, then just keep on reading the article.

There were plenty of other artists to write about at Filter, and it was exciting to see so many different styles of photography.

John Steck, Jr was a Chicago photographer friendly with the Filter crew, and like Victor Yañez-Lascano last year, multiple people told me I had to see John’s work. He exposes photo paper in the sun, never drops it in chemistry, and then lets the resulting images fade away into nothing.

Unlike the Phil Chang project I wrote about earlier this summer, you’re not looking at straight black paper. Rather, we see colors and haunting imagery shimmer as they fade. Gorgeous stuff, without a doubt.

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Lois Bielefeld showed me 3 projects that all had a conceptual hook. The first was actually portraits of families eating weeknight dinner in their homes. (M-Thurs only.) I thought the work was good, but not perfectly resolved in execution or concept. The last project I saw, in which she accompanies people on evening walks, was the best. They’re very cool images.

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Stephanie Brunia had a couple of projects that had a nice blend of absurdity and pathos. In one, she mashes her body up against an ex-beau. The other, which focuses on her aging father, seemed to push in two directions at once. (Funny and earnest) I’m curious to see where she’ll take it.

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Eva Kelety had the distinction of showing me pictures that I was not kind about in person, but like rabbit-woman, they stuck in my head after the fact. Eva, who is from Vienna, was shooting urban-scapes. I felt the style was a bit derivative, though I did complement her exceptional grayscale—rendered-in-color palette.

Right before I saw the rabbit-woman, Eva showed me a little booklet that had a different edit than the portfolio she showed me at the review table. It made more sense, and then the images stayed with me, so hopefully you’ll like them as well.

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Finally, Daniel McInnis brought a set of tack-sharp portraits made of creative-types. I thought the work was good, and certainly the technique was strong. (Though I recommended he push the drama with some of his lighting.) He’s currently beginning a project looking at Syrian refugees re-settled in Ohio, and I think he might have something great on his hands.

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That’s it for today. We’ll have one more set of Filter portfolios, and then I’ll have some thoughts from my trip to NYC. LA and San Diego are up next week, so lots of juicy content ahead throughout the Fall.

Filter Photo Festival 2016- Part 1

I’m still recovering from my trip to Chicago, yet I’m off to New York in a few days. (Then LA later this month.) While I hadn’t planned it, I guess it’s become AMERICA’S BIG 3 SMACKDOWN, and let’s see which city comes out ahead.

Chicago has a sizable lead, of course, as I’ve sung its praises in this column last year and last week. It has a lot to offer as a clean mega-city with gorgeous architecture, a killer food scene, beautiful beaches, world class art institutions, and a blue collar, unpretentious attitude.

New York maybe bigger, and LA more glamorous, but each has a reputation for being a tough nut to crack. New Yorkers are too blunt, Angelenos too slick, and perhaps Chicago’s porridge is just right?

We’ll see.

I do want to compliment the crew at the Filter Photo Festival for running a great event. People are so friendly. They genuinely care how you’re doing. (And they also know how to have a good time when the workday is done.) There are plenty of lectures and events at Filter, but not so many as to give you a migraine.

As with all the events I attend, I like to do a series of write-ups featuring the best work I saw at the festival. My criteria haven’t changed much in the last 3 years. If someone can show me at least 5 cohesive photographs that are well-made, and don’t look EXACTLY like everyone else’s pictures, I’ll show them here.

I’m not saying everything is brilliant, or the best I’ve ever seen. Rather that the photographers I include have found a coherent and confident vision, and their technical skills are up-to-snuff.

And always, the following artists are in no particular order. Hope you enjoy the work, and thanks to all the photographers we’ll feature for allowing us to share your imagery with the world.

Let’s start with Carly Ries, if for no other reason than she shoots at the lake. (Mmm, cool blue water.) Carly was trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and still gets to use their excellent equipment. I think these pictures are lovely, and encouraged her to get even more specific with her work.

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Eddee Daniel showed me several projects, and as is sometimes the case at portfolio reviews, I didn’t like some of them at all. In such situations, I always hope that I see at least something to redeem my impression. At the end, Eddee pulled out a project done during a year-long residency at a sculpture museum in Milwaukee.

I felt the repeated engagement with the subject helped strengthen his vision, and that these pictures were pretty excellent. It’s rare that photographs about art transcend the original work, but you could argue that happens here.

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Dana Mueller presented me with a similar dilemma. She is trying to get a book published about an extensive project she’d shot in Cuba, as she’d taught there a couple of times. The subject choice seemed arbitrary, and the images lacked the requisite punch.

Just before we finished, Dana showed me a group of photos made in her home region in Germany, in the nether regions between the former East and West. The drained color palette was powerful, and the pictures had genuine emotion. I thought they were great, and am happy to show them here.

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Andrea Birnbaum presented me with work that was so subtle, it almost wasn’t right for the speed-dating environment. I confess at first I couldn’t see exactly what she was getting at, but as we moved the prints back and forth in the stack, her message came across.

Andrea is looking at the discomfiting phase in adolescent development, as teen-aged girls become disillusioned or self-conscious about their bodies. It wasn’t until I liked a more obvious picture, (the girl in the bikini reading a magazine,) that my eye caught the subtlety of gesture and body language that the pictures contained.

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We’ll finish today with Traer Scott, a photographer who missed most of our meeting due to a mixup. She came in flustered, obviously, but I told her that these things happen, because they do. We’ve all been there, and I felt the best thing I could do for her was be cool, and assure her I wouldn’t hold it against her.

For her project, “Natural History,” Traer photographs reflections in diorama windows at Natural History museums. Her artist statement alludes to endangered species and Climate Change, but in person, she told me that she practically grew up in a Natural History museum in Raleigh, NC, as her mother was a curator there. She spent a lot of time unsupervised as a kid, so these pictures actually stem directly from her childhood and personal experiences, which often makes for compelling work.

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This Week In Photography Books: Meghann Riepenhoff

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Once upon a time, I wrote about stereotypes and clichés.

It was fun to resurrect phrases left for dead. I did it because good writers avoid them, and I was rebelling against the norm. (Or maybe I just wasn’t a good writer?)

Sometimes, though, we use a phrase just because other people do. We don’t think about where it comes from.

I’m thinking of “bone tired,” because I tried to explain it to my son the other day. Everybody says it, but I suspect only people over 40 really know what it means.

When you reach a certain level of exhaustion, your bones actually ache. At the moment, I’ve got a tingling feeling from my tibias to my clavicles, and there’s not much to be done. (Not much but complain, I suppose.)

I was in Chicago last week for the brilliant Filter Photo Festival, and worked straight through the weekend. Unlike last year, this time I came home with my voice and my wits in tact, but the latter has faded as the week’s gone on.

This year, I again saw nearly 40 portfolios, and will have plenty of work to show you in the coming weeks. I saw remarkable exhibitions, met with so many fascinating people, ate at a steak house with a heap of financial planners, danced to a human beatbox at a late-night afterparty, reviewed countless photographs, and talked for 5 days straight.

I made a few changes compared to last year, beginning with my reviewing approach. After much thought, I decided to temper my advice based upon what I sensed the person could actually hear and handle. Rather than just imposing my will on the situation, which led to a few bad results last year, in 2016, I decided to be patient, listen, and then react.

Not surprisingly, it was a successful tactic. Getting ripped to shreds by one reviewer at FotoFest in March, when I took my own work, reminded me how easy it is to ruin someone’s day with a few poorly chosen words. Or with a confidence bordering on arrogance.

Last year, despite a powerful urge, I failed to eat any Chicago deep dish stuffed pizza. This time, my friend Melanie and I rectified that at Giordano’s, and the results were good enough, but far from awesome. (Yes, Susan Burnstine, you tried to warn me off. I should have listened.)

Finally, in 5 full days in Chicago in 2015, I never made it to Lake Michigan, even though the hotel was only a half a block away. (Lake Shore Drive proved a formidable impediment.)

This year, I asked how to get access, which was insanely easy, and went to check it out on my very first day. There are sandy public beaches, ladders to climb down for a swim, party boats on Sundays, and very blue, luxurious water.

The smell might be different, (since it’s a lake,) but by the look of things, it’s as pretty an urban scene as San Sebastian or San Francisco. I simply can’t overstate how nice it is.

I went for a run there one morning, ambled other days, and then on Sunday, on my way to and from Expo Chicago, I walked along the shore instead of through the city. Great plan!

Unfortunately, it was rather hot on Sunday. And humid too, of course. Very, very humid.

So as I pumped my arms, power-walking like a worker-bee on my way North to grab the subway, the sweat-storm began. I felt the first trickle, didn’t think too much about it, and then it was a flood that overwhelmed my shirt.

I was sweating so much, was soooooo wet and sticky, and right next to me was all that cool, blue water. Taunting me. I wanted to swim so badly, I considered my options.

“Jonathan,” said the lake, “you know you want to jump into me. Come, Jonathan. Give in to your desire. It will feel so good.”

Opting against a full scale assault in my clothes, I bent down, took a knee, reached into the undulating blue, and cupped some water in my hands. I reached back, splashed my neck, and then did it 10 more times.

I’m not a religious Jew, to be honest, but I know we have a tradition of the mikvah. Consecration in water. It felt like that then, a moment I’ll remember for a long time.

The next morning, (I returned home after 1am,) I went down to our stream and repeated the process. Cool water on the same neck.

A journey begins, and it ends.

Speaking of journeys, I wrote about my big trip to Texas earlier this year, and mentioned I met an artist at FotoFest, Meghann Riepenhoff, who was having a moment at the time.

Well, Meghann just sent me an exhibition catalog of her work, “Littoral Drift,” now in its second edition, and of course it was on top of my pile today when I needed to write for you guys. (It’s Thursday. Deadlines await.)

There’s been a trend in California lately of photographic artists making one-of-a-kind objects out of old-school, hands-on processes. Chris McCaw might have gotten it started, but Matthew Brandt, John Chiara, Klea McKenna, and Meghann have all come up with styles that are steeped in the past.

Meghann makes cyanotypes in water. Chemistry mixes with primordial cocktails of salt and sea, resulting in abstracted, beautiful, dreamy objects. In person, they were lovely and textured.

In book form, it’s hard to communicate scale, so I commend the attempt to conjure our imaginations with various installation shots. But mostly this book is about the pleasure of looking.

Like the evanescence of frost, molecular structures under a microscope, or the unmistakable smell of my daughter’s hair, we all know that nature is more powerful than we are. Its aesthetic instincts are nearly always perfect.

I like that this work channels a sense of that visually, as well as existentially. No water, no art. No sloshing, no looking.

As you might imagine, I’ve just hit my limit for today, especially as I’ve got to teach a class all afternoon. (No rest for the weary, I’m afraid.) But this weekend, I’m going to take a big fat nap, and it’s going to be glorious.

Bottom Line: Gorgeous catalog of innovative cyanotypes

To Purchase Littoral Drift Go Here

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This Week In Photography Books: Jason Langer

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

He was handsome.

That was the first thing the barkeep noticed. Handsome in a country kind of way.

This was no twink.

The young man in the cowboy hat couldn’t have been more than twenty-five; more likely he was just past the legal drinking age. He’d come in about ten minutes before, walked up to the bar with a bow-legged gait, and asked for a Bud draft.

He paid with a five, left a dollar tip, then retreated to a table with a good view of the ladies.

The barkeep was certain he’d kept the last buck to give to one of the girls, so he wouldn’t feel too bad about hunkering down. You’ve got to give them SOMETHING if you want to stare at their tits, and a dollar is something, as opposed to nothing at all.

If this were another bar, in another part of town, the barkeep would have hit on the cowboy. That beer would have been free, so too the next. He was good-looking enough for five free beers, if we’re being honest, but only in another story.

In this one, the cowboy was clearly straight, so the barkeep could do nothing but cop the occasional stare.

The music was too loud, just like every other night. Some sailor just walked in with a handful of buddies, only this one looked like he was trying to fit in. A more promising candidate, that’s for sure.

The barkeep was actually ogling the sailor when the cowboy came back to the bar.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said.

“What can I do for you, cowboy?”

“Well, sir, I find myself in a bit of a predicament, you might say.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, sir, you see, the problem is, I’m not exactly supposed to be here.”

“You don’t say?”

“No, sir. I just came up here to town to arrange the sale of my family’s almond crop. We’ve got a farm out there in the Central Valley.”

“I never would have known.”

“Well, that’s kind of you to say, sir. But my Pa, he don’t take kindly to me frequenting these types of establishment. He thinks it’s a waste of money.”

“It takes all kinds.”

“Well, that’s how I feel about it, but my Pa don’t exactly agree. You see, the reason I came up here to talk to you is that I’m supposed to be home right about now, but here I am.”

“You’re right here in front of me, handsome.”

“Like I said, I’m supposed be home, and here I am. As to the problem I mentioned, well, I’ve got to call home and tell my Pa that I had a flat tire, and I’m a couple hours behind.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“Well, I hope that’s true. But the problem I keep mentioning is that I just spent my last five dollars on this here beer, your tip, and a buck for the lovely lady over there. I think her name’s Lexus.”

“How can I help you, cowboy?”

“Well, sir, I feel right bad asking you this, but I need 25 cents to call home on that there pay phone, but I don’t have a dime. Is there any chance you might spot me a quarter, and I can pay you back next time I come in?”

“Well, cowboy, that’s no trouble at all. Normally, I’d just give you the quarter. But since you’re so cute, how about you give me a little peck on the cheek, and we’ll call it even,” said the barkeep, now extending a quarter in his right hand.

The cowboy looked sheepish, or at least pretended to, then took the quarter, leaned in, and kissed the barkeep on the left cheek. It was over before it started, then he sauntered to the pay phone in back, lit up by Miller High Life neon, dropped the coin into the slot, and began to dial.

The light glowed off of his cowboy hat, as he leaned towards the payphone, to better hear over the noise, and in that one half second, the barkeep knew he’d give that young man anything, if only he’d ask.

And… scene.

In photo class, I sometimes talk about implied narrative. The idea that a story is right there, practically suggested, if only we have the creativity to fill in the blanks.

A great photograph might walk you so far down the path that you’re lazy if you don’t bother to connect the dots.

The image in question comes from “Jason Langer: Twenty Years,” a book released by Radius earlier this Spring. It sat in my pile forever, and now that I’ve opened it up, I’m glad I did.

Another writer might have been seduced by the cowboy, but I was hooked by the payphone. It’s SO fucking 20th Century. (And the Miller High Life sign was pretty great too.)

I interviewed Jason Langer a few years ago, and I enjoy his work, though I wouldn’t say I love it. As with the review a couple of weeks ago, one particular picture made this book worth writing about.

Jason shoots in black and white, and his style fits in the center of three Venn diagrams marked “moody,” “set in the past,” and “overtly strange.” Most of his pictures look like they could have been shot in any decade between 1880 and 1960.

They’re much more “hat wearing” Don Draper than “Esalen-era” Don, if you catch my drift. Old fashioned, but in a way that reveres gray-scale, rather than mocking it. There’s just not much irony to be seen.

I found, oddly, that the pictures in the book from the last century had a stronger impact on me than the more recent work. But for once, it didn’t seem that the artist had been less successful.

Rather, and more subtly, my brain seemed to accept that the 90’s, that last pre-internet decade, really did belong to another temporal universe than ours. Almost like, after Y2K, or 9/11, we all jumped tracks to another reality. The continuity strings between the 19’s and the 20’s were cut, and we’ve all been making it up as we go along.

That’s why the payphone grabbed me so much. How quaint, how antiquated, and yet, 20 years really isn’t that long ago. (Or 18, as this photo was shot in ’98.) At first, it felt like New York, but Pacific Bell was a West Coast thing, right?

Then I thought of all those go-go bars in San Francisco; the ones near North Beach. I think there are a gaggle of them on Broadway, but honestly, I wouldn’t know. I was with my wife by the time I lived there, so the strip club phase was already in my personal rearview.

There are many excellent photographs in this book. Jason is a pro, understands his own vision, and as I’ve seen his work before, I think they did a great job creating a smooth edit. If you like this sort of photography, the book will be for you.

But I’m just glad I had my moment, pretending to be a cowboy, hoping a gay bartender might do me a solid. I’ve got almonds to move, goddammit, and they’re not going to sell themselves.

Bottom Line: Classy book where the 19th, 20th and 21st C’s collide

To Purchase “Jason Langer: Twenty Years” Visit PhotoEye

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This Week In Photography Books: William Eggleston

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

It all began when I forgot my cell phone.
(Which is rare.)

It’s a strange feeling, like being naked except for your socks. There’s a discomfiting sense of incompleteness when our devices are left behind.

I was driving Theo home from soccer practice last night, when we’d normally be eating dinner. Instead, we began our ascent of Blueberry Hill, just as the sky turned crazy.

As photographers, we know how crucial light is to our end product. No matter how hard I stress the point, my students still don’t get it, as appreciating illumination is a life-long endeavor, and they’ve only just begun.

But last night… any fool could see things were special.

Climbing in 2nd gear, right behind two big pick-up trucks, I looked to East to Taos Mountain, which was glowing amber. When green trees turn gold, every photographer reaches for the camera.

So I did.
But it wasn’t there.

Instead, I’d been given an opportunity to really look. I often feel that photography, while freezing time for the future, actually makes it more difficult to revel in the present.

Thinking about taking pictures leaves less RAM for appreciating what’s in front of you.

By the time we’d crested the hill, it had begun to rain lightly, even though the sun was beaming in the West as it dropped towards the horizon.

We cut across the Taos valley, everything before us shining like a swarm of lightning bugs in July. I turned to Theo and said, “We’re definitely getting a rainbow out of this.”

As the car sped North, there it was. Not one rainbow but TWO! (The Double-Rainbow being a New Mexico speciality.)

We call it walking rain, out here, when you can see curtains of moisture, from the clouds to the ground. It is beautiful, of course, but you get used to it.

Nothing could have prepared us, though, for the massive mist of walking rain, gleaming copper, enveloping the mountains, slashed in two by the double-rainbow. The ROYGBIV colors were so intense, reality became a hyper-real touch-screen.

Air, something you normally can’t see, was multi-hued, and it was so luscious that I wanted to reach right through the silver Hyundai’s window and touch it.

Theo kept saying, “Take a picture, Dad. Take a picture.”

But I couldn’t.

Then, and I swear this is true, a huge lightning bolt rent the sky, right between the two rainbows. Theo and I screamed aloud, as words failed us. (Today he said, “It was magic, Dad. Actual magic.”)

Four cars pulled off the road rapidly, as if they’d blown a tire, so the drivers could snap the perfect Instagram square.
I kept reaching for my phone, like a phantom limb, but it was futile.

We lived those 15 minutes, and I can recall so much more now than if I’d tried to capture it. It’s a paradox, especially for an audience of photographers.

Is it ever a good idea to just put the camera down and watch?

I ask you, now that I’ve just finished with “William Eggleston: Portraits,” a new book that turned up in the mail from the National Portrait Gallery in London. (Thanks guys!) I’ve been meaning to show you this one, and today’s the right time.

It’s a perfect foil for the Diane Arbus book we reviewed two weeks ago, as this also introduces a black and white vision that pre-dates what we know of Eggleston’s masterworks. (You might recall I reviewed his brilliant “Los Alamos” project earlier this summer.)

As I wrote then, William Eggleson’s mature work, his rambling American color photographs from the late 60’s and early 70’s, is as good as anything that’s been made. He owns color; a certain saturated palette in particular, and you’ll have to claw it out of his cold dead hands.

So what was this black and white then?

Unlike Ms. Arbus’ early 35mm photographs, which contained the tension inherent in her later work, these early pictures look like they could have been made by any number of people. They’re exploratory, rather than resolved.

They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a big chasm between good and historically great. There’s even a photo that looks suspiciously like a Robert Frank picture from “The Americans.” (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Once he shifts to color, the work takes off, but the book still has a continuity problem. We see several of his seminal images, which are inter-mixed with portraits of his family, and pictures of famous people. (What I wouldn’t give to have sat in the back seat as he shot a peak-talent Dennis Hopper, in the early 70s, on the very same road I drove through Taos last night.)

The portraits, and several proto-selfies, are all strong of course, and it wouldn’t be complete without Eggleston naked in a red room, his penis hanging out for all to see. (I said red room. Not red rum.)

The exhibition was organized by the NPG, which is a terrific museum. I saw a cool Man Ray portrait show there a few years ago, which I reviewed here, and recall having a similar problem.

When you decontextualize an artist’s work, you break the narrative that projects create. Pictures are designed to go together so themes can emerge, and symbols repeat. I spent 10 freaking minutes analyzing his use of Coca-Cola Red at Pier 24 in May, because I was so interested in how he had achieved this kind of greatness.

But here, for the sake of an exhibition-constructed narrative, the spell was broken. All fine pictures, yes. But they didn’t take my breath away, despite Sofia Coppola’s implicit promise that they would. (She wrote a brief introduction.)

I’d guess most people would still want this book, as it brings together a chunk of excellent photographs, while giving you a glimpse into the artist’s private life. In 2016, no one can seem to get enough of the backstory. (It includes an extensive Q&A with the artist as well.)

But it reminded me that sometimes, when you’re looking at perfect light on your daughter’s cheek, or a day-dream happy expression in your wife’s eyes, you need to fight off the urge to take a picture.

Just enjoy, until the moment is gone.

Bottom Line: Fascinating yet flawed look at Eggleston’s portraits

To Purchase “William Eggleston: Portraits” Visit the National Portrait Gallery in London

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This Week In Photography Books: Dana Lixenberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the early days of the Great Recession, Barack Obama signed a stimulus bill injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the American economy.

Little ol’ Kit Carson Electric Cooperative here in Taos was given 64 MILLION DOLLARS! The goal was to wire up homes in our rural area, providing fiber-optic cable directly to every house that requested it.

The program put people to work, laying cable and digging trenches, but also provided much needed affordable high-speed internet to residents locked into high prices for very little service.

I was stuck in that situation, paying evil CenturyLink $45/month for a promised 1.5 mb/ second. (It was always slower than that.)

No higher speed was offered.
Period.

Seven years later, I finally got my 30mb/second for $40/month. As of last week, I’ve officially joined the 21st Century. (Insert government efficiency joke here.)

My first move, after telling CenturyLink to fuck off, was to set up Netflix. All those shows you’ve been watching were finally in my grasp, like a handful of lollypops fresh from the piñata.

I began with “House of Cards” since it came first; Netflix’s big debut. My wife and I sat down on the couch, and were immersed in a fleshed-out universe of power, greed, desire, betrayal, and, ultimately, murder.

Jessie pulled out near the end of the first season, realizing this was not a redemptive story. She had no interest in filling her brain with negative, Machiavellian schemes, once she realized there would be no light at the end of the tunnel. (I made a similar choice with “Breaking Bad,” and never regretted it.)

So now I’m on my own, pressing the “next episode” button like a rat begging for pellets. Please sir, may I have some more?

More drama. More pain. More controversy. More emotional escape into the fictive lives of others.

We’re all voyeurs at this point. We peek in on our high school friends in bikinis on Instagram, read salacious tidbits about politicians on nytimes.com, or perhaps binge-watch “The Wire” to fool ourselves into thinking we could possibly know how hard some people have it, on the other side of the tracks.

As photographers, and photo-book lovers, we often get our “virtual” reality as we turn the pages of someone else’s story. Photographer X goes to visit Culture Y, and the resulting Z images hold our attention for a little while.

No harm done.

But occasionally, you pick up a book that might not deviate from that pattern, but it renders others’ lives in such emotionally wrought detail that you don’t feel like a snoop. Rather, you have the sense that your understanding of the human condition has ratcheted up one notch, and you’re the better for it.

“Imperial Courts, 1993-2015” a photo-book by Dana Lixenberg, released by Roma last year, is such a book. Frankly, this one is about as good as it gets.

There’s little text to guide at the beginning, but it’s clear the photographer visited some African-American projects, beginning in 1993. The portraits are exceptional, and I didn’t need the end notes to confirm they were made with a large format camera.

You don’t get pimple detail like this without breaking out the large-scale hardware. (Certainly not in 1993. Maybe these days you can swing it, if you have 80 Grand to spare.)

The photo of criss-crossing highways on the cover suggests SoCal, but it’s not until we see a California license plate, maybe 1/4 of the way in, that I was sure this was LA. (I might have guessed, but that’s different from knowing.)

Two well-written essays at the back confirm what you slowly piece together for yourself. Imperial Courts is a housing project in Watts, and Ms. Lixenberg returned multiple times over the decades to revisit the work.

Unlike Nick Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” which is categorical in its dissection of the aging process, skin decaying before our eyes, this project relishes its gaps. Apparently, the artist stayed away for 15 years at one point, the series always simmering in the back of her mind.

People grow up. They have kids. Their kids have kids.

Some die.

Hair styles change. Fashions evolve. But according to the pictures and the words, life in Imperial Courts more or less stays the same.

Poverty. Violence. Lack of opportunity. Resilience. Strength. Community.

The book reminds us that most of these people have likely never seen Malibu. Perhaps not even put their feet in the sand in Santa Monica. Places like this may sit adjacent to LA wealth, but for all practical purposes, they’re living in another world.

The back section serves as a visual index, showing family connections between subjects, and printing images that were not afforded enlarged status in the plates. (The B-sides, if you will, but they’re all excellent.)

Ms. Lixenberg was drawn to LA to photograph the Rodney King riots in 1992, and one assignment begat a project that has carried her into middle age. I was a senior in high school that year. I’d barely even been to California.

Now I’m 42, and was cruising the 405 just this summer. But I didn’t drive through South Central.

No sir.

A book like this does everything right. The pictures are amazing. The cultural history is respected. The subjects received prints, and became friends with the photographer. Relationships were built, and some broken, as residents passed on.

I’m not sure that any photo-book, even this one, can fundamentally change who you are. Is it anything more than entertainment? Maybe. If it inspires you to create more, to strengthen community bonds, to strive for greatness, then perhaps art has more power than we realize.

Bottom Line: Brilliant, in-depth photo series shot in Watts

To Purchase “Imperial Courts, 1993-2015” Visit PhotoEye

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This Week In Photography Books: Pascal Amoyel

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve got good news.

School started up last week, and now that I’m teaching two classes, rather than trying to run an entire dysfunctional art department, my life has gotten much better.

Hard as is to believe, teaching is actually fun again.

How does that affect you? Well, it means you won’t have to put up with my whining and complaining each Friday. These columns might just get funny again, rather than being storehouses for my misery and distress.

Speaking of funny, did you hear that Donald Trump is taking a trip to Mexico today? Can you believe that’s actually happening? Just imagine it:

“Hey, Ivanka, get me a Piña Colada and make it snappy, OK?

“Sure thing Boss. I mean Dad.”

“You know what. Forget it. I changed my mind. Now I want a Corona.”

“OK. Corona it is. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to have one of the assistants get it, because I’m kind of busy, you know, running your companies.”

“No. No. You do it. Nobody gets the beer cold like you do. Honestly, (to the room,) I don’t know how she does it. It’s like she has magic fingers, and as long as she hands me the beer, it’s so freakin’ cold.”

—Ivanka leaves room, returns with a Corona.

“What the hell is this? Where’s the lime? Lots of people are talking, and they all say that you can’t drink a Mexican beer without a lime.”

“Sorry, Dad. I’ll have someone get you a lime.”

“Limes. How weird are they? They’re really green on the outside, but not so green on the inside? How does that even work?”

“I don’t know, Dad. But it’s just fruit. Not nearly as important as going over our notes for today’s meeting with President Peña Nieto.”

“Peña Nieto? That sounds like Piña Colada. You know, I think I’d really like a Piña Colada. Ivanka, honey, run out and get me a Piña Colada, OK? And be quick about it. Somehow I have a beer in my hand, but I really want a Piña Colada.”

And scene…

That’s the thing about visiting foreign countries: we go with all sorts of expectations, and so often they actually determine our experience. If you expect Mexico to be filled with rapists, and you’re suspicious of everyone you see, you likely won’t have such a good time on Spring Break in Cabo. (Or on your trip to meet the President.)

Or if you expect the American South, for example, to be mysterious and poetic, then you’re likely to have that kind of experience as well. Right?

I only ask having just put down “Not All,” a new book by Pascal Amoyel, published by Poursuite Editions in France. I’ve reviewed a few of their books in the past, enthusiastically, and recall they were all shot in Europe.

Not this one.

From what I gather, the French artist spent two months in the American South in the Spring of 2014, photographing away, and this book was the result. It’s a pretty simple narrative, all things considered, and we know how many photographers take a crack at depicting this photogenic region.

(Seriously, are all trees in the South strange and/or creepy, or just the ones that get photographed?)

The short version is that this book is nice, but not exceptional. As I flipped through the pages, I couldn’t help thinking this was a generic version of a place I’ve seen in books many times before. It is not compelling, though the pictures are certainly well-made-enough.

And then, I turned a page, and saw a photograph unlike any I’ve seen before. A decrepit, paint-stripped, white shotgun house, set against a couple of hedgerows, with a red brick chimney jutting into the blue sky. Normal enough, I suppose. But affixed to the clapboard siding is a sign that says “CHIROPRACTOR.”

Holy shit. I laughed so hard. What a picture.

If Walker Evans were alive today, he’d make that image.

I came down off my photo-high, and kept flipping away. The book was underwhelming again, until I came upon a picture of a woman’s slightly distended belly, and her very small pink bikini bottom. Strange angle. All tight.

Is it a woman? Or a girl? If it’s a girl, isn’t this picture really inappropriate? And if it’s a woman, is she pregnant? Or does she just have a little pot belly, like that weird French chick in “Pulp Fiction?”

The next photo, of a purple scarf spread over the green grass, makes for a cool little diptych.

Nicely done.

But two stellar pictures do not constitute a great book.

This is one of those reviews where I like something about a book, and it spurs me to write, (always my chief criterion,) but I do wonder if it isn’t a good example of what happens when every photographer wants a book for each project.

Pascal, I appreciate you sending this along, and I mean no disrespect. But if you want to be a great artist, I think every picture in the book, or certainly 90% of them, needs to be as original and stellar as those two shots.

And of course, I’m speaking to all of you here, not just Pascal. The truth is we live in a world where some publishers make a lot of money each time you sign a contract. (To be clear, I’m not saying this about Poursuite, as I’ve found their other books to be really tight, and not overly-produced.)

But it’s the truth. If you really want a book, and are willing to pony up your own money, or hit up the “crowd” to pay for it, you can have a book.

But is that enough of a reason?

Last piece of advice, people: next time you’re hankering for a taste of the South, but you can’t afford the plane ticket, just hit up the video store, or Netflix, and rent “Hustle and Flow.” Because it’s hard out here for a pimp…

Bottom Line: Nice book about the South with 2 knockout pictures inside

To Purchase “Not All” Visit PhotoEye
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This Week In Photography Books: Diane Arbus

by Jonathan Blaustein

New York City is larger than life.
We know this.

In the last year, I’ve been to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th largest cities in the United States, and loved them all.

(Big ups to LA, Chicago, and Houston.)

Realistically, though, there’s only one New York.

JayZ, Derek Jeter, Ed Koch, Giuliani, Joe Namath, you name it. There are people we associate with the Big Apple because they stepped onto the biggest stage, and made it their own.

Cats on Broadway, Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park, John Starks, Jackie O, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, Biggie Smalls.

My Dinner with Andre.
Reggie Jackson.
Daryl and Doc.

The Statue of Liberty.
Robert Moses.
Debbie Harry.
Andy Warhol.
John Gotti.

You know what I’m talking about.

NYC has a mythology so strong that we call it Gotham, straight out of fucking Batman. It’s a city of blackouts, not blinding sunshine, and anyone who’s ever lived there for a while will describe “her” as an entity, a living thing.

And you won’t like her when she’s angry.

Within photography circles, Diane Arbus is seen in much the same way. A mega-talent who either honored, or took advantage of weirdos, depending on your vantage point. A once-in-a-generation vision so distinct that most of us can conjure Arbus pictures in our head with ease.

Grenade boy.

Most of her photographs could not have been made by anyone else, and her imprint has been seen on many photographers since. (I’m looking at you, Nan Goldin.)

When I think of Diane Arbus photographs, I think of carnies and losers, trannies and freaks. Strippers and Hustlers. Giants and fools.

But I don’t automatically think of New York.
Do you?

Fortunately, I picked up “diane arbus: in the beginning” at photo-eye on my last visit, and boy are you in for a treat. The book is published by Yale University Press, in conjunction with the current show curated by Jeff Rosenheim at the Met Breuer. (Which used to house the Whitney, of course, in a horse trade between NYC Titans.)

This book oozes New York. It features early pictures, made almost entirely with a 35mm camera. So while we also associate Arbus with the square format, these photographs undermine what you think you know.

Simply put: they’re brilliant.

The book represents a whole trove of images that weren’t well-known until recently, many years after her suicide. And they firmly establish the roots of her talent, in my (not-always) humble opinion.

The plates start in the mid-50’s, and really look like they were made by Robert Frank. (At least at first.) But they were contemporaneous with his pictures, so even though similar, they couldn’t really be derivative.

Grainy, grabbed people on the street. The 50’s vibe is so strong that if I close my eyes…

“Hey guy. How youze doin’?”

“Uh, I’m good. Who are you?”

“Name’s Ritchie. I live out on Coney Eye-lan. Whatta you doin’ he-uh?”

“Uh, I don’t know Ritchie. One minute, I was writing a book review, then the next minute, I’m in my imagination, talking to you.”

“Wow. That’s crazy, Pops. Crazy. You wanna get outta he-uh? Me an’ the boyz is goin ta hang out undah da boahd-wahk.”

“Yeah. Sure. I guess. Will there be girls there too?”

Sorry. That was weird. But you get my point, no? These pictures are the equal of what all the other famous street photographers were doing. And it’s not even what we consider her classic work!

As you might expect, things eventually get a little weird. And dark. Then darker still.

The gaping-corpse-chest-cavity, below the dead guy’s receding hairline?

Nasty.
Just nasty.

We see Siamese twins in formaldehyde at a carnival, a hacked up woman in a wax museum, kids in monster masks. Then the strippers and trannies show up too.

It’s like watching someone grow in real-time, as she took the gritty-street-photo aesthetic, and then force-fed it some creepy and transgressive shit. The content shifts so slowly, you don’t feel the water boiling as it cooks you alive.

In the end, we get the crammed christmas tree and boy with the grenade, in all their Medium Format Square glory, almost as smelling salts. Yes, this is the same photographer whose pictures you’ve memorized. Yes, she also made these badass street photos too.

Diane Arbus was a legend, and she belongs on the truncated list of NYC greats. The show is up at the Met Breuer until November 27th, so get your ass over there to see for yourself.

I’ve booked a trip to New York this Fall, so you can bet I’ll check it out. To be honest, I haven’t been back to NYC in 2.5 years, and I miss it, so that partially explains the overly-earnest introduction today. Hope you’ll forgive me…

Bottom Line: A masterpiece publication featuring Arbus’ early work

To Purchase “diane arbus: in the beginning” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Christoph Bangert

by Jonathan Blaustein

Lying in bed last night, waiting for sleep, a random thought occurred to me. We’re less than a month away from the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Isn’t that crazy? The seminal event of the 21st Century, I would argue, happened so long ago that teenagers have been born since.

Can you imagine what 9/11 would have been like in a Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat/IM world?

I remember sitting glued to the TV, watching Peter Jennings, because that’s how we still received our information. Step away from the screen, and life in San Francisco appeared normal. But it was so very hard to step away from the screen. Impossible, really.

These days, we are drowning in information. We have so much, it has become difficult to concentrate. Lately, I’ve found myself musing to friends that we don’t really NEED to Google a fact in dispute. Simply knowing we could is enough.

But some bits of information, from 2001, and the subsequent wars of revenge, still stick in my mind. Mohammed Atta. People jumping from the towers to their deaths. Abu Ghraib. IED’s.

The last one is such a strange little acronym. Improvised Explosive Devices. Technology otherwise known as “let’s jimmy-rig some shit that will blow up a lot of people. The more the better.”

We’ve since seen art that reflects the tension inherent in such moments. Katherine Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner, comes to mind. It’s a powerful film, but not exactly funny. Why would anybody joke about something as serious as war?

It’s a good question, and one asked in the forward of the excellent new book “hello camel,” by Christoph Bangert, recently published by Keher Verlag in Germany.

Straight off, it’s an exceptionally well-made object. The cover graphic on fabric is terrific, the print quality is high, and I though the consistent double-page spreads really let the photos breathe.

In his statement, Mr. Bangert, who covered those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the NY Times and other sources, directly references the hilarity of the war experience. It’s buried in the traditional notion of the absurd, which suggests some things are so ridiculous, so outside of rationality, that it’s best to throw up your hands and laugh at it all.

While I rarely, if ever, quote a book, I’m going to break my rule here, b/c it’s just such a good passage:

“We want war to be a dramatic, heroic fight between good and evil. But it’s not. There are no heroes. War is as messy as it is layered and confusing. And at times it’s weird and hilarious, too. The moment we realize that the mass murder of human beings is an ordinary, daily event that is organized and executed by ordinary people like you and me, we begin to realize the significance and true horror of war.”

It’s the hilarity that I most enjoyed about “hello camel,” mostly because it’s delivered in such a terrifically dry way. The compositions of these pictures are formal, enhancing the sense of reason. The light is always great, delivering believable, dynamic color.

In other words, they’re really good photographs.

But time and again, the structure is contrasted with an amazing sense of improvisation. That’s the word that kept coming back to me. Improvised.

Speaking from an American perspective, (the photographer is German,) we’ve all heard the stories about George W. Bush’s botch job in the Iraqi reconstruction. They slapped that shit together faster than I can build a lego set for my kid.

(Wait. Wait. We’re missing a piece. Fuck! Where did that little red square get to. Goddammit. We need that piece!)

We see palettes and sandbags propping up a satellite dish. Blast walls erected everywhere. Models of forward operating bases cut out of cardboard. An outhouse in the middle of a dirt field. Old tanks re-purposed for target practice.

It’s tragic because it’s silly, and it’s tragic because it’s tragic.

There’s one picture, in red light, of some masked men torturing someone. I let out a huge breath. Nothing funny about that. But the thorough captions, at the end, inform that they’re models in a Kurdish museum.

A wedding couple sit in the middle of an ornate, obviously expensive clam shell, in 2005. A bikini-clad soldier, with a tramp stamp for God’s sake, sits by a pool, conveniently protected by another blast wall.

I assumed the photo of jihadi’s brandishing their weapons to have been appropriated off the Internet, but the captions claim it’s a straight photo. Apparently, Mr. Bangert has bigger balls than I do, b/c no fucking way would you catch me clicking the shutter on that moment.

NFW.

I always say I like to see things I’ve never seen before, but obviously I’ve reviewed books on this topic. This publication, however, gives us a strong perspective that we normally don’t see.

It’s only funny if you get the joke, and even if you don’t, it’s still powerful. Not only that, but in the end notes, by thanking anyone and everyone, including the people who baby-sat his kids while the book was on press, Mr. Bangert proves he’s also a very polite guy.

What’s not to like?

Bottom Line: Witty, very well made book about the Post-9/11 wars

To Purchase “hello camel” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Wagstaff Collection

by Jonathan Blaustein

Time is a strange beast.

We tend to think of it as fixed and finite, when clearly it is neither.

As I understand it, according to Einstein, the closer you approach the speed of light, the slower time will affect you. Essentially, time’s innate duration grows.

Before “Interstellar,” most people would have found that confusing. But then that Great Wave! And Anne Hathaway’s big brown eyes!

That’s just the theoretical level. If you think about your daily life, doesn’t the same hold true? I was in California with my family for two weeks, and it seemed like a month.

We’ve been home for nearly three weeks now, and it feels like it’s been 5 days. (For real.)

I’m sure that’s happened to you as well. When we travel, in particular, our senses heighten. We make more memories, and perhaps savoring slows the clock as well.

Photography also manipulates time.
We know this.

But every now and again, I get a reminder, something tangible, that helps me re-connect to the mystery of what we’re all doing.

Back in LA, a few days before California caught fire, I took my family to the Getty Center, where I planned to see the Mapplethorpe show, which we covered previously. I thought it would be an optimal place to introduce the kids to “Great Art,” but at nearly 9 and almost 4, they were still too young to get excited.

Big ups to the current installation of replica Chinese Buddhist cave art. The reproductions were meticulous, and each “cave” took 3 artists 10 years each to make. Simply stunning stuff, and that it all takes place in an air-conditioned tent in the searing California sun?

Mind-boggling.

The kids enjoyed the snack bar and sculpture gardens most of all, with one exception.

They definitely got down with “The Thrill of the Chase,” which exhibited work from the Wagstaff Collection, the immense trove of greatness assembled by Robert Mapplethorpe’s former lover & patron, the patrician collector Sam Wagstaff.

The group is super-strong on very early photography. (1840’s and up.) I began to photograph it, as I had the Mapplethorpe show, but was immediately stopped by security and told to put the camera away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t shoot the show for you.

I wanted the kids to see the exhibition for one reason in particular: Abraham Lincoln. I walked my son up to the photo of our former President, by Alexander Gardner, and let him look carefully.

“That’s the actual Abraham Lincoln,” I said. “The man himself. The real thing.”

His expression was inexplicable; equal parts incredulous and wow-that’s-amazing.

It was a genuine moment, and then he wanted to see everything else he could. The one instant when he realized that photography froze history, saved it, and allowed us to look back from our unimagined futuristic world?

It was memorable for me, to say the least.

There are some excellent, fantastic photographs in this show, and the book that accompanies it, “The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”

The show was curated, and the book edited by Paul Martineau, published by Getty Publications. (It turned up in the mail the other day, which means that I get to share the images with you below.)

Seeing the pictures in the book, I immediately recognized my favorites from the IRL experience, like Arthur Rothstein’s rad portrait of some early-version-knock-around Union Guys. Theo’s choice was Larry Clark’s hippie-dude Kung Fu kicking his buddy in the park.

Thankfully, now I get to show you the brilliant photo-booth-strip of Andy Warhol that I mentioned in my review two weeks ago.

Then we have Julia Margaret Cameron. And August Sander. Edward Weston. William Eggleston. Walker Evans. Irving Penn. And so many more.

The book’s essay makes mention of a few glaring omissions to the collection. The New Topographics artists, like Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore are absent. So too is Atget.

Too dry, perhaps?

The book features Pyramids in Egypt, 150 years ago, back before paved roads, cotton candy, and the Internet. And Roger Fenton’s famous cannon balls appear as well.

George Barnard, over whose Civil War landscape photos I drooled in San Francisco, also turns up.

I loved Edward Curtis’ “The Eclipse Dance,” from 1910-14, which may have been staged, but gives me the willies, like I’m looking at something I’m not meant to see. (Here at Taos Pueblo, some dances are open to the public, but all the deep knowledge is kept in the underground kivas, far from outsider’s ears and eyes.)

The whole family stopped cold at Timothy O’Sullivan’s “Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada” from 1867. Jessie guessed it might be White Sands, New Mexico.

I thought it looked more like a film still from a Western than anything I’d ever seen. Except the movie is the simulacrum, and the print is the actual history. (How Meta is that?)

It features a wagon being pulled across the soft desert in the searing light. Who was inside? What did they have for breakfast? Why are those sand tones so creamy?

And the craziest thing of all? It’s the WILD FUCKING WEST! The actual place, just as if we’d stepped into a time machine. I’m sorry, but even when I get jaded, this type of work brings me back to the passion.

Really, all the best historical work, this many years later, makes think of mortality. Gustave LeGray’s “The Great Wave,” from Sete, France, saddens me more than almost any image I know. I first crossed paths with the print at LACMA 7 years ago, and rejoiced at the Getty when I saw it again.

I close my eyes, and imagine a wave crashing, 159 years ago. And then another wave.

And another.
And another.
And another still.

Millions of waves have come and gone since then, and they’ll keep crashing when everyone alive today passes on to whatever comes next.

Time might be relative, but down here on the human level, our story only ends one way. This book, and the show on which it was based, remind me of my mortality, but not in a way that makes me anxious, which is hard to do.

Sam Wagstaff lived a glamorous life, and then died miserably of AIDS. These pictures are his legacy, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn from what he accrued.

The exhibition, which has closed in LA, will be on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, CT, opening September 10. Mr. Wagstaff was a curator there once, long ago, and I expect he’d be glad to know his collection will be on the wall.

To those of you in the greater NYC & Boston areas, take a train, or an Uber, and go see the show next month. It’s definitely worth the trip.

Bottom Line: Well-produced catalogue of an excellent show

To Purchase “The Thrill of the Chase” Visit The Getty Store

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This Week In Photography Books: Ken Grant

by Jonathan Blaustein

If you haven’t heard, I’m what they call a nice Jewish boy from Jersey.

It’s a stereotype, sure. It means I’m polite, kind, and respectful to my mother. If you have me over for dinner, I’ll show up with a bottle of wine, and offer to help clean up afterwards.

Like I said, a nice Jewish boy from Jersey.

The other day, however, an old white guy in the supermarket parking lot mistook me for a Latino gang-banger who was about to steal his wallet.

No lie.

I was wearing a black, UNM graphic T-shirt, and my new sunglasses are of a style you might find on a Homies doll, or an extra in a not-particularly-well-funded movie. (Stylistically, that is. In fact they’re made of recycled materials, and I bought them at Whole Foods in Santa Barbara. #Bougie)

Anyway, there I was, walking towards the market, and the OWG was headed back to his car. In a flash, I realized I’d forgotten my re-usable shopping bag, so I pivoted quickly.

In that instance, the dude turned back to me, and I saw his eyes grow large, his body tense up in anticipation of attack, and his pace quicken to make it back to his car before I could mug him.

All this in broad daylight, mind you. It happened in a half-second, but I know what I saw.

He looked like a tourist from Oklahoma, and thought I was another sort of guy all-together. Of course, he let out a huge sigh of relief when I stopped at my own car to open up the door.

Given all the “actual” racism that exists in this world, and the frequency with which it ruins lives, I’m not implying that this asshole hurt my feelings. Rather, it was a strong suggestion that the clothes we wear, the facial hair we grow, the manner in which we saunter, all of these things are coded messages to others.

In some places, the color of your clothing can get you beat up, if not killed. We all know about Crips and Bloods, but Red vs Blue plays out in England every day. (But for very different reasons.)

You might have heard of it, with respect to Manchester, (United’s red, City’s powder blue,) but today, I’m thinking of Liverpool, that other famous Northern English city.

The reason? Well, it’s a photo-book, obviously. In this case, “A Topical Times For These Times,” a new book by Ken Grant, recently put out by RRB Publishing.

You regular readers know how much I love Arsenal Football Club, and wouldn’t you know it, but Arsenal and Liverpool face each other in 10 days, kicking off the 2016-17 Premier League season. Am I obsessed?

Yes.
I am.

But not nearly as obsessed as the English football fans who grew up with loyalty for their local club, rather than picking a team as a 37-year-old because you like the fancy-passing and cool uniforms.

Liverpool is a historically famous club, but as a city, it actually features two teams: LFC is red, and Everton is blue. Royal blue. Blue like the paint you buy at the art supply store, before the color dries out because you forgot to put the cap on right.

English fans are famous for violence and drunkenness, (which often go together,) though in 2016, they were out-done by the organized Russian thugs at the European Championship in France.

Red and blue don’t mix well, as the US Political system will attest. But in this book, Ken Grant admits that both he and his father have habitually gone to both Liverpool AND Everton matches. It all depended on who was playing at home on a given weekend.

That’s the type of loyalty breach that’s likely to get you a head butt. (Oi, mate. Watch out before I crack your skull like a silly melon.)

The cover, in red and blue, references its innards, but surprisingly, the pictures are all black and white. It’s almost confusing, but serves the purpose of re-uniting a larger community that’s been rent apart by fan-dom.

The photos have been made since the 80’s, so the grayscale also forces you to look hard to suss out whether something is historical or current. (The text even references Liverpool’s new manager, Jurgen Klopp, who’s a rockstar in football management circles.)

Here in America, being into soccer, and even calling it football, is something of a hipster fetish. It’s not the meat, potatoes & beer thing to do. It means you like arugula, white wine, and Barack Obama. (I happen to love all three.)

But over in England, is there anything more “keepin’ it real” than supporting your local team? Or heading out onto the green to play a weekend match with your mates from down the pub?

Looking at a book like this, you get the genuine sense of a community, on the other side of the world, that has seen better days. A place that likely voted for Brexit this summer. A place that is grappling with the difficult realities of the 21C.

Places like that need their entertainment. They reel when scores are killed at a match, as happened in the Hillsborough Disaster of ’89. They cheer when a neighborhood boy makes good. And they cringe when Steven Gerrard slips, blowing the Premier League title in an instant.

They drink because it’s fun, not just because it takes the pain away.

My only criticism of this book is that it has too many photographs. Editing allows the strongest pictures to emerge more gracefully, but perhaps we don’t need perfection?

Basically this is a cool book, filled with little stories from far away. It’s just enough to satisfy a cranky book reviewer who wants the new EPL season to start already.

Come on you Gunners!

Bottom Line: A cool look at football culture in Liverpool

To Purchase “A Topical Times For These Times” Visit Photo-Eye

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