Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Drone Imagery from Archeologists in Jordan

 

For my seventh birthday, my parents took me and a few friends to the movies.

In case you’re GenZ, “the movies” was a physical place, a theater really, where you’d go to see films and buy candy. These moving pictures would be projected onto a very large screen, and you’d watch the movie, in its entirety, in the company of total strangers.

Weird, right?

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was such a big deal at the time, it’s hard to come up with a contemporary cultural parallel. Maybe if Drake and Rhianna had a son, Raptor, who grew up, was in a band with Ivanka Trump, and they had an affair, which led to another child, (the one born to Raptor and Ivanka Trump,) who grew up to be President.

Like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, his Indiana Jones reeked of charisma. It was the old Hollywood story: people either wanted to do him, or be him.

And Indiana Jones, in case you are under 20, was actually an archaeologist.

A scientist, for God’s sake.

He was a classic cinematic hero: handsome, dashing, brave, he could fight, had a trademark bull whip, and battled Nazi’s for a treasure bestowed by God himself: the lost ark of the covenant.

There must have been thousands of young boys who grew up in the 80’s wanting to be archeologists. Indy made it seem sexy, and thrilling, and I’d bet almost anything there are a ton of  “scholars” sweating in the field today because of those Steven Spielberg stories.

I almost wish I could ask an archeologist.

What if I could?

Yorke Rowan is an archeologist who works in Israel and Jordan, and he and his project partner Austin (Chad) Hill, have an exhibition currently on display at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It features their aerial drone photographs of petroglyphs and archeological sites in “The Black Desert” of Jordan.

I stumbled upon a web description of the exhibit, and the OI was kind enough to put me in touch with Yorke, so I could learn more about the show, and see some pictures.

First things first, when I asked Yorke about my Indiana Jones hypothesis, he threw dirt on the fire immediately, because he said he was too old for the movie to have been seminal.

But he disputed that an archeologist’s job included “going in, stealing things, and running from the natives.”

The duties are far more mundane, apparently, as he described the work as “trying to make sense of the junky, broken parts of ancient people’s garbage.”

Just when I was beginning to believe him, (about the job being over-hyped,) he told me the story about how, back in the 80’s, he’d lived in Egypt, and then traveled on transport trucks down the Nile, all the way to Khartoum, Sudan.

For fun.

As soon as he arrived, he got word, (having called his parents collect,) that he was due in Sicily for his first big dig, so he turned around and headed back the way he’d come.

No.
That doesn’t sound romantic or dangerous at all.

His project partner, Chad, who grew up in the 90’s, was addicted to remote control aircraft as a kid, in Northern New Jersey. His father was into the hobby, and Chad has been flying things since he was 3.

From what I can gather, Chad knows about as much about flying drones as anyone out there. As he’s in his mid-30s now, and began putting 35mm cameras on balsa-wood planes when he was in High School, I’d say his street cred is solid.

I asked Chad if he felt like a cross between Indiana Jones and MacGyver, and he laughed. But then he said, deadly serious, “I enjoy that description, but I would not actually describe myself as either Indiana Jones or MacGyver.”

OK, then. We’ll play this straight.

Yorke and Chad have been working for years at two sites in “The Black Desert” of Jordan. Apparently, the aerial view is extremely important in archeology, so photography has always been a key component to the work. At the end of each season, it’s important to chart the changes in the site you’re working, so before/after mapping is a must.

They used to hire planes, helicopters or hot air balloons, which was extremely expensive. This in a field of diminishing resources, as it sounds like academia is strapped for cash, just like the photography world. (Though Yorke was clear to state their support from the Oriental Institute is substantial.)

At one point, when they were working in Israel, Chad had the idea to jimmy-rig a drone, like he’d done when he was younger.

“This was 2011, and I said, ‘Hey, when I was in High School, I did all this aerial photography myself. We could buy our own equipment, put a camera on a model airplane that we can buy locally in Jerusalem, and take our own aerial photography at the end of the season.

We can do it whenever we want, we would have our own control over it, and it would cost us less than one time of getting this professional company to shoot for us.’”

“So we did that,” he said. “The first year, we bought an off-the-shelf model airplane, and mounted a GoPro to it. I flew it fully manually, as this was not a high-technology drone.”

These days, they still use some homemade technology, but DGI gave them a Phantom 3 quad copter, and Chad confirms its ease of use is the main reason behind the super-popularity of drones.

“The newest crop of drones, you have no experience, you go and buy a $1000 drone. You watch a couple of videos maybe, and you press a button and the drone will fly. You can intuitively make it go where you want it to, and if you get into trouble, you press a button and it will return to you, and land,
without you having to figure out how to make it land.”

“The barrier to being able to effectively control them has dropped dramatically
in last 5-6 years.” In the old days, he said, “you needed to know a lot or you would crash.”

What first caught my attention, when I looked at the pictures and video they sent me, was the fact that the Jordanian desert reminded me so much of the volcanic fields outside my window here in Taos. The pictures were familiar and exotic at the same time.

Beyond the initial jolt, I was myself entranced by the formations on the desert landscape that looked like Nasca Lines, the famed geoglyphs in Peru.

What could those be?

It turns out, the low rock walls are called “kites.” Unlike the Nasca Lines, which were actual images meant for some deity in the sky, kites are not visual at all. Rather, they were Neolithic hunting traps that run for long distances in a given direction.

The kites, designed between 7000-10,000 years ago, funneled gazelles, like a crude maze, towards an ultimate spot, (or killing field,) where our ancient forebears could hunt with relative ease. Some kites even used the edges of the basalt mesa tops to hem in their pray.

“One of the things I find most fascinating about the kites,” Yorke said, “is that not only did they take a lot of planning and thought about where they’re going to go on the landscape, and how they’ll go up the side of a mesa, and spread out on top, using the edges as further barriers so the the animals can’t escape that way, or they fall down the side of a cliff.”

“What’s more amazing even than planning that, and setting it up across the landscape for kilometers, is that we’ve started to realize they’re linked. There are actually chains of these kites going hundreds of kilometers across the desert, all of them open to the East, which must be the migratory patterns of the gazelles.”

Yorke, Chad and their colleagues did not discover the kites, which were first spotted by English pilots flying mail between Baghdad and Cairo in the 1920’s. But their drone technology makes it that much easier to make photographs of them, which can be used as scientific evidence, as well as art.

They have discovered some interesting things, in particular that huge slabs of basalt were actually roofs on pre-historic houses. The size, and difficulty moving such slabs, implied people spent more time in the inhospitable climate than one might imagine.

This also suggests there was more water there than there is now. One site, the Wisad Pools, is so remote that the team has to take an extra vehicle with them, each time, in case the main transport breaks down. Two flat tires at the same time might be a death sentence, so the archeologists plan ahead, even if the extra car ends up mostly serving as a wind block for the kitchen.

Though the drone technology has enabled this work to exist, and the archeologists to function on smaller budgets, it turns out that the drone revolution is creating some serious backlash. They reported that drones have recently been banned in Kenya, and one of theirs was confiscated by the Jordanian government, despite their previous openness to the technology.

“The downside in general, is that there are so many drones, it is not wrong to be concerned about them being used by bad actors,” Chad said. “Those people who don’t know any better. Who don’t think bad things will happen to them using their drone, and don’t think the rules should apply to them.”

“And one thing we haven’t talked about is that even though lots of these new drones fly exceedingly well, they also occasionally fail. They tend to fail at some point, and they can be dangerous. They have fast-moving blades that can cut you, and they can fall out of sky and into people.”

I still remember the time my family and I were given a drone demonstration above our horse pasture here in Taos, a couple of years back. My kids were cheering on the little flying machine, as if it were Indiana Jones running away from that huge boulder.

Run, Indy. Run!

But I was pretty impressed too. It made me think of the future, in which we’re obviously living. (Now that flying cars are real.)

It makes one wonder what our ancestors, 10,000 years ago, fresh from a gazelle hunt, might think if flying robots descended from the sky?

Maybe someone will write that one up as a screenplay one of these days? I don’t know about you, but I’d pay to see it.

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This Week in Photography Books: Tom Atwood

 

Everyone’s a little grumpy this time of year, and I’ve bitched about April as long as I’ve lived in Taos.

Allergies. Ditch cleaning. Windy, gray skies.

Taxes.

It sucks, basically, and each year, I yearn for May like a kid awaiting summer vacation. It never comes fast enough, but then again, I learned years ago that waiting for a future event, in order to get happy, never works out so well.

The irony, of which I am aware, is that I’ve got it pretty easy. With respect to the global game of life, I was dealt a pretty sweet hand, but still don’t always find a way to win.

Others, here in America or elsewhere in the world, face far rougher challenges than I do. The truth is simply that the world is not fair, and some people face discrimination, or violence, through no fault of their own.

The history of humanity is littered with the corpses of the oppressed.

Part of why I’ve always loved America, despite our copious flaws, is that one can see a march towards a more equitable society, over the course of our history. There has always been the backlash, (which we’re seeing now with #Trump) but over the course of time, we’ve corrected many of our errors.

Whether it was overcoming slavery, giving women and minorities the right to vote, overturning anti-immigrant legislation, or the break-up of Jim Crow laws, the changes in our society from the 17th to the 21st Centuries have been profound.

The improved rights of the LGBTQ community would have to be considered one of those successes, despite the near-daily-deluge of tweets about gender-neutral bathrooms.

Just now, the morning after watching the finale of “Grace and Frankie,” Season 3 on Netflix, I learned that Lily Tomlin, who married her partner in 2013, said that she had to wait until after her mother died to come out of the closet.

At 76!

She said if she’d told her mother while she was alive, it would have killed her.

Ms. Tomlin is one of the titular stars of the show, but oddly, she plays a straight woman who was married to a man, (played by Sam Waterston,) who left her because he was gay. And then, during the show’s run, he married his law-partner, played by Martin Sheen.

Sheen and Waterston are straight, playing gay. Tomlin is gay, playing straight. Jane Fonda, easily the best actor of the bunch, has no such sexual identity confusion. And somehow, it all holds together.

To say popular culture has come a long way from Will & Grace, at the beginning of the Millennium, is an understatement. Think about it: back in 2000, if you said the word trans, by itself, people would assume you forgot to include the last two syllables.

Trans-mission.
Trans-ition.
Trans-action.

You get the point.

These days, now that LGBTQ issues are again symbolic of America’s endless culture wars, it seems more important than ever to depict members of that community three dimensional.

It’s vital that people can see flesh and blood human beings, not stereotypical Gay bff’s who never wear pants. (Now that “Girls” is over, maybe Andrew Rannells will find some roles that are less-obvious in how they objectify his body?)

Thankfully, I’ve just put down “Kings & Queens In Their Castles,” a new book by Tom Atwood, published by Damiani. Now that I only review books by submission, Mr. Atwood was determined to get my attention, as he emailed several times, and then hit me up on Twitter.

He seemed to think I’d be a good person to look at this book, and frankly, he had excellent instincts. This one is almost-tailor-made for a jblau review. (Thanks, Tom.)

The premise here is not difficult to discern, as Mr. Atwood spent years building relationships, and meeting fellow members of the LGBTQ community. He was allowed into people’s homes, into the heart of their lives, and made pictures across a very wide spectrum of contemporary LGBTQ culture.

Before I say anything else, I’ll admit there are a lot of celebrities in this book. (Some are totally expected, like George Takei, John Waters, and of course Alan Cumming.) The artist, in his opening statement, admits that people like to look at pictures of famous people.

No surprise there.

But it works well in this project, as it mashes up the concept of “celebrities, they’re just like us,” which comes from the world of US Weekly, with the promise of outing a few people you didn’t know were queer. (There weren’t many, for me, but I didn’t know Heather Matarazzo was gay.)

Beyond the thrill of seeing what Steve Kmetko’s home office looks like, (I jest,) what works best about this book is that it studiously avoids over-worked production values. (This is not a book suffused with Liberace’s ghost.)

Rather, we see a multi-racial group of “regular” seeming people. They have jobs, and kitchens. They shop at Trader Joe’s, and live in trailers.

They’re doctors, and social workers, and yes, they work in theater.

Ironically, one of the funniest bits of “Grace and Frankie,” this season, was a recurring plot in which some homophobic protestors disrupt a San Diego community theater play. As they walk around with placards, they chant about wanting theater to be reserved for straight people again.

It’s a great joke, and in his statement, Mr. Atwood does make mention of the high proportion of gay Americans in the arts.

(Again, no surprise.)

In the past, I’ve addressed the fact that you guys, our audience, are almost entirely composed of Blue-State-Liberal-Artsy-types. This column, therefore, is often the epitome of preaching to the choir.

But I recently got an email from a regular, Republican reader who assured me you’re not all so consistent in your beliefs. It was a polite note, I must admit, and lacked any name-calling or inappropriate vitriol.

Basically, we engaged in a bit of cross-party communication, which is pretty rare these days.
As such, I’ll try to assume, from now on, that you’re a more heterogenous mix.

But people keep coming back here, each week, because I spout off a bunch of words, and show a really cool book too. This one qualifies, as its insider access gives us glimpses into normal lives.

Regular places.
Regular people.

Like the gay bartender, from Utah, hanging out shirtless in his trailer. He’s not glamorous, and in another photo book, in a different context, we might think he was embroiled in the Opioid epidemic.

Instead, we can imagine a bit about his story. Do the guys at the bar know? If so, are the cool with it?

Or rather, does he live in the closet, making off-color jokes about boobs and harlots?

Does he have to pretend, to stay safe?

Without asking further questions, we’ll never know. But good books get conversation started, and this one definitely qualifies.

Bottom Line: A cool, important look at gay Americans in their homes.

To purchase “Kings & Queens In Their Castles,” click here

 

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

 

This Week In Photography Books: Zackary Canepari

 

The best art connects to something universal. (That’s why it’s the best.) It has a quality that speaks to people across our many divides.

Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” or a Van Gogh olive grove, can inspire almost anyone. Even better, look at Jackson Pollock’s seminal paintings, which attempted to represent Jung’s collective unconscious, and many believe they do. (Myself included.)

Pollock’s work doesn’t look so great in reproductions, because the scale, texture, and color patterns all need to be experienced in the flesh.

Sometimes, size matters.

(But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.)

There are universal aspects to humanity.
We love. We hate. We eat. We die.

We sleep, and dream.
We work, and aspire.

Some parts of humanity are the same, no matter when or where you live. (Even Neanderthals would have hoped for a cave with better-tasting-water, I’m sure.)

It is easier, I’d say, to focus on where we differ. Each tribe concerned with its own, excluding others. My history is not your history, and you can’t take mine, if it’s not yours.

In general, I’m open to critiques of cultural appropriation, when appropriate. In light of where things ended up, Marvel definitely should have cast an Asian actor as the lead in “Iron Fist.” (Opportunity missed.)

But where to draw these lines can be murky. How much sampling is OK? What belongs to all of us?

I bring this up in light of the Dana Schutz controversy. Her painting, in the Whitney Biennial, has drawn countless words because she based it on a disturbing image of a dead Emmett Till, a young boy tragically murdered during the Civil Rights Era.

The work was threatened with boycott by certain African-American artists, who wanted it removed, or even destroyed, to prevent her from profiting off the collective pain of their culture.

My colleague Maurice Berger, writing in the Lens Blog, sided with those who thought this use of appropriation uncouth. Calvin Tomkins, in The New Yorker, had a long piece on the artist, including up-to-the-minute details of the controversy, and her responses were exactly what I predicted.

When you try to look for that spark of the universal, you think in terms of the collective. Emmett Till’s story, and the Civil Rights era, are American stories. They happened here. If you’re born and raised in the US, our country’s legacy is yours too.

We hear a lot about white guilt, but not so much white shame. When you’ve been taught, for most of your life, that your country has done awful things in your name, you develop a certain cynicism. A willingness to explore the edges of things.

Furthermore, we were encouraged, in art school, that it was best to keep your mind open to all ideas. (Ms. Schutz and I went to NYC Graduate Art schools around the same time.) We were pushed to explore creativity, and then judge its aftermath once the work was done. Is it good, bad, brilliant, offensive, un-showable, ridiculous?

That’s what I thought she’d say, Ms. Schultz, and it’s exactly what she said.

She explored the ideas, knowing they were risky. She made her painting, based upon a symbol of hatred from America’s past. If you look on Google Images, you can see the style is consistent with her other work.

Censorship denies people the right to even make up their own minds about whether something is worthy of their consideration. Provocative work makes people think and talk, which is part of its point.

When things are made public, and put on display, we all get to decide whether something meets our moral standard or not. And with respect to publicity, those who sought to minimize the painting’s impact inadvertently fanned the flames of dialogue.

I’m fascinated, and I haven’t even seen the painting in the flesh yet.

But I do believe artists have a right engage with any culture or idea they want, and then see what happens.  (Just because you’ve made it doesn’t mean you have to show it). And as one who has taught in minority communities for nearly 12 years, I can affirm that cross-cultural communication is a good thing.

I’m on the subject today, having just put down “Rex,” a new book by Zackary Canepari, recently published by Contrasto books in Italy. I was anxious to get my hand on this one, as I first saw the project in Critical Mass in 2015, and fell in love.

It has since garnered much acclaim, as the story of a young, female boxer in Flint, Michigan spawned a movie, an interactive website, a book, and presumably print exhibitions as well. This thing thing spun off content like Disney around a new Marvel franchise.

(Dr. Strange! Not as funny as Tony Stark, but he has magic!)

The documentary film, “Rex,” was a hit, and even received a Guggenheim Fellowship this week. Big ups to Mr. Canepari, I’d suggest.

I like the book, and thought the gold cover was a terrific touch, as it alludes to the gold medal at the metaphorical heart of the story. Claressa and Briana are two sisters, living in the same water-poisoned town, living lives on separate trajectories.

The ravages of poverty that ensnare so many in towns like Flint have hit hard, as the family has moved around a lot. The girls’ mother had difficult, live-in boyfriends.

No stability at all.

The photographs of the girls’ lives are interspersed with text bits. The hand-written nature of the words suggests intimacy. Honesty. Direct to us.

It’s an engaging book, and the pictures are really well-made. I normally don’t quibble about such things, but having every picture spread over both pages, split in the middle, was a bit distracting. (I’m guessing they thought it was worth it, to make the pictures pop a little larger.)

Oddly, one of the most memorable parts of the book was the silent opening. Quiet, sad, empty, green neighborhoods beckon us. The pictures were visceral, and put me in the mood. (It’s funny how words sometimes get in the way.)

The book is well-produced, and has a nice narrative pacing. The portraits are always well-lit, and there’s a slickness to the photographs that belies a skilled technician as well.

I have to admit, though, I wonder when a story is mined in this many ways, whether some media aren’t more effective than others? Given last week’s book review, you know I’m a fan of cinema.

One advantage to that medium is how quickly we can create empathy with characters, when we have sound and motion and music. When facial expressions are not frozen, but fluid. In book form, some of the text segments tugged at my heartstrings, but most of the pictures did not have that visceral energy.

From the thank you page, it’s clear that Mr. Canepari has grown very close with these people. I don’t doubt he is thoroughly engaged in his subject’s lives, even though their culture is not his.

The short version is that Claressa, who won a Gold Medal in boxing at the 2012 London games, wasn’t able to escape Flint’s drama, so instead she escaped Flint entirely. She had boyfriend trouble,

coach trouble, and family trouble, so she moved to Colorado Springs to train full time at the US Boxing facility.

Her sister Briana had a kid, called fatdaddy, because she wanted a person in her life who’d love her completely. Their brother Peanut had a child too.

Their struggle represents other families, who are battling odds in dying cities, where you can’t even turn on the faucet.

In this regard, I don’t pretend to relate, which is why I turn to art to learn things I don’t understand. I would not make a photograph about what it feels like to be a poor African-American living in Flint, Michigan. Despite what I said about our commonalities as people, not everything is universal.

I applaud Mr. Canepari for having the guts to go tell a story he found fascinating. Clearly, the sisters embraced him in their lives, and want their story shared with others. I think I’ll have to see the movie, because I’m curious, but the book’s pretty good too.

Bottom Line: Slick, dynamic story about a young, female, Gold Medal boxer from Flint

To purchase “Rex” visit Contrasto’s website

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

This Week in Photography Books: Michael Lesy

 

Remember John Woo?

He’s a Hong Kong filmmaker best-known for his gangster movies, which often featured a young, insanely charismatic Chow Yun Fat.

“Bullet in the Head” and “Hardboiled” had a huge influence on American filmmakers, which continues to this day. The balletic use of gunmanship in “John Wick,” (and presumably “John Wick 2,”) are direct descendants of his Gun Fu techniques.

Frankly, if you’ve EVER seen a protagonist leaping sideways while shooting guns in each hand, you’ve seen vestiges of John Woo.

So I was shocked, and also pleasantly surprised, to know he had a career re-invention in the aughts, once he left Hollywood for China. He came over here in the late 90’s, and if I tell you that his two best films featured a post-Pulp Fiction-successful-and-therefore-neither-ironic-nor-charming John Travolta, that’s probably enough information.

Back East, as it were, in the run-up to the Great Recession, (almost on its eve,) John Woo dropped a massive, historical-kung-fu-action-war drama called “Red Cliff,” which was released as a 2+ hour movie in the West, and a 2 part, 4+ hour epic in Asia.

It was as if he took a large Hollywood budget, and instead of going futuristic and alien, like “Star Wars,” or “Avatar,” instead chose to retell a particular battle from China’s endless history of war and dynastic succession.

The story, which is set in the 3rd Century AD, (when China already had 55,000,000 people,) follows a North-South Civil War in which northern aggressors, behind the Prime Minister Cao Cao, try to invade the South to unite an empire.

The opposing side, an alliance between Sun Quan and Liu Bei, together still possesses far less troops and weaponry. SPOILER ALERT, the smaller forces prevail, due to some strategic wizardry on the part of its leaders, and the propitious use of weather prognostication.

One of the good guys, Zhuge Liang, is a master of strategy, who also possesses high-level battle-observational skills. He’s depicted, at one point, discerning the size and tactical spread of oncoming calvary, simply by listening to the pattern of hoof-print-sounds on the ground.

That this key part, a man of almost mystical ability, was played by a Japanese actor, the heartthrob and singer, Takeshi Kaneshiro, was particularly surprising to me.

Because the Japanese are almost always the bad guys in Chinese action movies. Their history of Chinese repression, and imperial aggression, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, makes them sworn enemy number 1.

The English are number 2 on the list, due to their colonial violence, which resulted in multiple wars, and the annexation of Hong Kong.

We Americans are pretty lucky, from what I can tell. We never stole any Chinese turf, nor murdered its citizens. Conversely, we gave them Capitalism and let them into the WTO, thereby helping to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

So hopefully our future Chinese overlords will treat us better than other Westerners? (Fingers crossed.)

Wait, where was I?

Right. “Red Cliff” was pretty badass, and proved John Woo has mastered another genre of cinema. Kudos to him.

Big shout out to my man Tony Leung, too, because he brought the necessary acting chops to make it seem more like an art film than an action flick.

These guys spent tens of millions of dollars, (if not a hundred,) to recreate the past for the viewing pleasure of a global audience. They re-animated and re-interpreted history, for our entertainment.

We yearn for such things.

Because as long as there have been cameras, and before that sketchpads, people have wanted to see what other places look like. Other people. Different colors. Different foods.

I’ve said before photography allows us to travel in time. I’m very lucky, (and forgive me if I don’t say that enough,) to get to see exhibitions, read books, and look at pictures online, as a job. Because of my employment, I share the best of what I see with you, each week.

“Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” a new book by Michael Lesy, recently published by WW Norton, definitely qualifies as something excellent to share.

It’s a fantastic book, actually, and fits in perfectly with the theme of historical work that we’ve been on for the last couple of months. (Have you noticed?)

Mr. Lesy makes a similar statement, in one of his well-written essays within, that photographs allow us to travel through time. And he should know.

He spent months combing through a massive archive of stereographs at the California Museum of Photography at Riverside. The Keystone-Mast Collection contains the entire remains of the two biggest stereograph companies of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

The essays educate us about the practice, of which I was unaware, in which stereoscopic images were packaged with text, and the mechanical means to turn them into 3 dimensional images that would appear before the eye.

An entire section of Keystone’s business was designed to sell to schools, so these pictures were the backbone of the American educational system for decades. (Before AV clubs.)

From today’s perspective, large parts of the content are racist. African-Americans are denigrated. The Chinese are savaged. Japanese culture, in contrast, is treated with respect bordering on veneration.

Mr. Lesy culled from 300,000 images to choose the selections in this book, which are broken down thematically, with sections of engaging writing in between.

The book focuses on 1900-10, the beginning of a new, dynamic century that felt like a different age entirely. (Sound familiar?) The writing makes explicit contemporary references to climate change, and treats the offending texts with proper context and condemnation.

Like the stereographs from which they originate, these pictures allow us the same vicarious thrill that the original buyers experienced. Except we get to step back in time as well!

Look at those dead Filipino rebels. (Staged, apparently.) Who were they fighting?

Us.

Why?
Because we were occupying their country.

The company’s network was vast, in both distribution and hiring photographers, so we see pictures from almost every continent. (No Australia or Antarctica that I noticed.)

There are cities. And battlefields. Aristocrats. And architecture. South Africa. Peking. London. You name it.

The wars were plentiful, and there is a fair bit about the Chinese rising up in the Boxer Rebellion, to battle the outside forces that were picking over her weakened carcass. There are pictures of that era in Beijing, (then Peking), including a beheading.

The Chinese are described as dirty, dishonest, and craven.

The Japanese, in conjunction with the biases shown by the photographer James Ricalton, who is chronicled within, are by contrast clean and orderly.

There were so many fascinating things to look at. I felt like a kid with a dollar in my pocket at the freak show, in Coney Island circa 1952, with so many choices I didn’t know what to do.

The best part is, I can open it up again, whenever I want, to get my jolt of a another tumultuous age, beset with technological changes and vast shifts in global power.

One of Mr. Lesy’s essays alludes to said shift, as the British Empire has ceded way to a world run by American and Chinese power. The 19th and 20th Centuries were not kind to the Chinese people, I now understand. (Thanks, Netflix. Thanks, Wikipedia.) How they co-exist with Trump’s America is anyone’s guess, but at least we’ll have Mar-a-Lago.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, excellent production featuring an archive of the world in the early 20th C

To Purchase “Looking Backward,” click here

 

 

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

This Week in Photography Books: Richard Bram

- - Working

 

About a year ago, (give or take,) I read somewhere they decided the word “internet” should no longer be capitalized.

Now, I’m about the worst person to complain about the misuse of capital letters. I’m terrible at remembering the rules, so years ago, I decided to embrace the digi-world-acceptable practice of manipulating spelling and grammar as I choose.

I’m so bad, I even write entire emails in lower-caps. (Yes, I’m that guy.)

For some reason, though, I decided to abide by the new rules, though I’m not really sure who gets to make these decisions in the first place.

Seriously, who are these people?

And why was the internet no longer the Internet? Could something that powerful, ubiquitous, and just-shy-of-omniscient really have become less important?

Of course not.

Can you believe that someone, somewhere, got paid to make a decision like that? (You know there were committees involved.)

Maybe it was the Public Information Protocol Bureau? Or a cabal of nefarious magazine editors?

We’re ALL on the internet these days. Cell phones are everywhere; mobile carriers of the information network that binds us together.

And while we consider the digital world a different kind of experience, being online can manipulate your emotions, just like IRL. (That seems obvious, as who hasn’t felt anger or jealousy when scrolling through Twitter or Facebook.)

But just this morning, I read this article in The Atlantic in which researchers examine the way in which one person who wakes up grumpy can cause a chain reaction of negative energy, if that person happens to be a troll.

The word, in its original connotation, meant a monster that lived under a bridge and charged a toll. They were scary regulators of commerce, or highway-men of large stature with poor hygiene. They gummed up the works in fairy tales, just like they do now in the digiverse.

Most cities are located on the water, so they really need their bridges. When I lived in Brooklyn, and visited my family in New Jersey, I’d take the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge to come home. I rarely came in through Staten Island, but I just heard the new toll on the Verrazano Bridge is $17.

$17, just to get into New York City.
I googled it, and the tunnels cost $15 too.

The train from Newark Airport to Penn Station is $15, so unless you fly into JFK and take the subway, there’s no cheap way into Manhattan.

The trolls must receive their tribute.

It’s an island, Manhattan, the ultimate limited supply, which is why they built up to the sky. It’s easy to look up, in New York City, as the tops of the skyscrapers are so beautiful.

People will peg you as a tourist, if they catch you ogling the tops of the buildings. (Or if you walk through Times Square in general.)

But street photographers have long known that it’s better to look around you then up at the sky, down at your phone, or off into your own thoughts as the Ipod pops in your eardrums.

Street photographers know that if you just watch the city unfold, block by block, it is ALWAYS interesting, often fascinating, and sometimes downright sublime.

It’s never boring, Manhattan, a city where no matter what someone says they saw, you’ll always just respond, “Sure. Why not.”

I guess I can believe you saw albino triplets on tricycles going down the sidewalk. Or a monkey walking a dog on a leash?

Why not?

The absurdity level is always turned up in New York, and if you have the time and inclination to look, the pictures are waiting to be taken.

It’s why there are so many cameras in Richard Bram’s “New York,” a photobook published last year by Peanut Press. (And printed in the USA.)

Richard is a friend of mine, and I’ve written about him in this column before. Frankly, he came up and introduced himself at the PDN Expo in 2010, when I did my first travel piece for this very blog.

He’s a smart, considerate guy, and recently moved back to London from Lower Manhattan. He did a stint of 8 years in New York, and photographed it for much of the time lived there. When I was at FotoFest in 2012, he showed me a rough edit of this project, so I’ve seen the pictures evolve.

What I like best about this book is that it captures Richard’s wry sense of humor. There are some images I might have edited out, but whether it’s a woman in a flaming, furry pink suit, or a girl in hot pink boots, they’re cleverly observed.

Cameras are everywhere in these photographs, which clearly marks them as being of-their-time. During those 8 years, the rest of the world became obsessed with our habit, so why shouldn’t cameras be a repeating motif?

There’s nothing mean-spirited, like Garry Winnogrand, though they do invade people’s space, if not their privacy. Unlike the aforementioned internet, cities push peoples’ bodies together. They force human beings to share air, and sidewalks, and square footage on the subway.

Richard observes with subtle curiosity, and it took me a few passes through the book to enjoy some of the nuance.

I love the grumpy guy who looks like he knows he’s being photographed, and he’s holding a creepy doll. The first time, I saw his face, and the doll, but only the second time did I see the nice Nikon around his neck.

Dolls show up again in some guy’s backpack, though they likely just belong to his daughters. Later, he photographs a man, photographing a dog, in a car, with a cameraphone.

We see a guy sunbathing, shirtless on the sidewalk, surrounded by spray paint and barricades? Why not?

Or the little boy wearing ducks on his cowboy hat? Which follows the pink furry lady, and precedes a guy spray-painting gold a naked, apparently Asian mannequin, next to some giant orange traffic cones.

Sure. I’ll believe it.

Last week, I told you I’d try to scare up something silly, so I looked at my submission shelf, and this book was just right for today.

Look around. (That’s today’s message.) Look around, because it’s fun. And who knows what you might see?

Bottom Line: Witty, well-seen color street photographs in New York

To purchase Richard Bram’s “New York,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Carl De Keyzer

 

No one alive has experienced a major war on American soil.

No one.

We adults can relate to 9/11, which still seems fresh, but that simply doesn’t compare to a massive ground invasion, where the tanks roll in and start killing people.

Even 9/11, which is the emotional touchstone of so many Americans today, seems like a token holiday to today’s youth.

I know, because I asked.

My students are all 15-18 years old, so not one of them was a sentient being during that horrible day. A few of them said their parents told them about September 11th, but for others, they didn’t even have that.

The consensus was that 9/11, for today’s kids, was akin to D-Day or Veteran’s Day for older generations. (Something that might get you the day off from school, but probably not.) They compared it to the way I might consider Pearl Harbor, which happened more than 30 years before I was born.

In other words, there are exactly NO people born and raised in this country who know what it feels like to be Syrian right now. Or a Congolese. Or even a Northern Mexican, as their Drug War has claimed countless victims right across the border from Trump’s proposed wall. (Maybe Fox News should run a story about El Chapo’s tunnels, JIC our gangsta President has forgotten?)

It’s all a game here in the US, (according to Michael Lewis writing for Vanity Fair,) because none of us is truly familiar with the stakes.

Massive World Wars that kill millions and millions of people, and devastate large parts of continents, are simply too removed from our collective experience.

Worse yet, the ghostly ramifications of the last time people killed each other here, en masse, are still being felt, as the Red State/Blue State divide tracks so-effing-closely with the boundaries of the Union and the Confederacy.

Honestly, I didn’t set out to write another dispiriting column. I know this space used to funny on a regular basis, and perhaps it will again some day. Lord knows I tried to crack 100 jokes at Trump’s expense, but it got us exactly nowhere.

These articles are now beholden to the books that turn up in the mail, and I respond to what I see, so if you guys start shipping in light-hearted, absurdist photo books, I’ll do my best to soften the mood.

Today, though, I want to show you a truly remarkable publication that came in during the Fall, in a batch of books I was sent by the University of Chicago Press. (BTW, if you Chicago-types have seen Obama around, can you please tell him there are 8 billion people out there who could really use his help?)

The book is called “The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front,” by Carl De Keyzer and David Van Reybrouck, in conjunction with an exhibition that happened in Bruges, Belgium, in 2014-15. It features a trove of previously unseen glass plate images from WWI, that have been digitized and cleaned up, which accounts for the killer contrasts and unscratched surfaces.

The sharpness is a result of the glass plates themselves, sharper than any print, and the color images were apparently made using potato starch, instead of collodion liquid.

I’ve always said I’m most excited when I see something I’ve never seen before, and that certainly happens here. The photographs, which were made by different photographers in Belgium and France, are mind-blowing in the best/worst possible way.

Children playing war games. Masked munitions workers, stuffing bombs for the next slate of killing. Razed villages. Bloated corpses in the mud.

We see an armless man selling souvenir postcards in front of the wreckage of the former tourist-spot. Or a soldier, alone, making a painting of the ruins that stand before him.

There are insanely-crisp photographs of Belgian architecture, taken by occupying German photographers, to preserve what was about to be annihilated. If you don’t see the antecedents of the now-famous, dry, Bernd-and-Hilla-Becher style, you’re simply not looking. (Or you might be my Dad, who doesn’t know about photo history, but reads each week because, you know, he’s my Dad.)

Most shocking of all, if you still have any breath left to exhale, are the set of portraits of young, dead, Belgian soldiers, made just after the war’s inception. They were used, we’re told, to identify the bodies of the young men, who all came from the same village, and died on the second day of WWI.

Big ups to the production team at the U of C Press, because these reproductions are about as good as I’ve seen, printing-quality-wise. They jump off the page and spit in your face, daring you to look away.

The sad truth of my job, which has been bothering me lately, is that no matter what I say, no matter how compelling the material I present here, it will never engage with any of Trump’s army.

That’s where were are in 2017. No amount of information, unless it comes from his mouth directly, can invade the pre-frontal cortex of a true believer.

Not even these pictures, which are definitive proof of what can happen, when things go really wrong.

So why do it?

Well, just yesterday, I went to see the new shows at the Harwood Museum of Art, here in Taos. They hired a new Director last year, and he’s doing great work, so there was much on the wall that moved me. 19th Century Spanish retablos, minimalist Agnes Martin grid prints, and some ink drawings, by novelist John Nichols, of Day-of-the-Dead style skeletons that were so good I smiled.

The first thing I did, when I left the museum, was to walk across the street to the art supply store and buy some good paper, a brush, and some Japanese ink, because all of a sudden, I felt compelled to do something beyond photography.

Inspiration is worth its weight in gold.

So I might not be able to imprint upon the minds of a certain type of American, but I don’t write for them. I write for you guys, the creators and difference makers, and if anything you see today inspires you to fight harder, or enjoy a few minutes of respite from the otherwise dire stories out there, that’s good enough for me.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, scintillating, never-before-seen pictures of WWI.

Click here to purchase “The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front,”

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

The Getty Research Institute’s Online Palmyra Exhibition

 

When I got to college in 1992, Pearl Jam was a big deal, and Kurt Cobain was still alive. The first Gulf War had recently ended, and Bill Clinton had not yet assumed office.

As a freshman, I took a Poli Sci class with a fiery professor, and learned a lot about the Cold War, and Spheres of Influence. We were taught about an important book, which had just been released by Francis Fukuyama, which theorized “The End of History.” (Insert ironic joke here.)

It’s now 2017, and for the last three semesters, I’ve been teaching Art History at the local community college. The class is called “Introduction to Art,” and I enjoy sharing my passion with a bunch of Post-Millennials who were reared on screens, calm in the knowledge that Barack Obama had their backs.

As I built my curriculum, I realized that for thousands of years, art was used in service of wealth and power, with few exceptions. This idea of personal expression, speaking truth to power, and radical innovation, that drives the best in contemporary art, would have been unimaginable to our artistic forebears.

Rather, artists and craftspeople were recruited, (if not compelled,) to make objects, buildings and images that communicated directly to an illiterate populace. The message was consistent across cultures: We are in charge. We are the ones bestowed with divine right. Cross us at your peril.

There have always been people who craved power, and were willing to do whatever it took to exercise control over others. Whether out of a desire for riches, because of actual belief in a religious theology, or because they simply craved violence and destruction.

Today, we look back on these artifacts as our collective, cherished history. One can spend hours traversing a great museum, like the Met or the Louvre, and wander amidst objects that reach back 5000 years, and there are often more commonalities than differences. (A basalt Ganesha from India and a basalt giant Olmec head from Mexico are not that different, when you get down to it.)

Hitting up your local museum, if you live in a major city, is far easier than catching a flight to Rome to walk through the Forum, before taking a train to Bari, grabbing the boat to Corfu, taking another boat to Athens, and then perusing the Acropolis for a little compare and contrast.

But sometimes, if you live in the sticks like I do, even getting to a major city can be too much. (Cash, time, you name it.) Thankfully, the best minds, or at least the people in the best museums, have begun to respond to that reality. (And to the fact that the aforementioned youth of today treat their screens as de-facto glass windows into reality.)

I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t ramble, but I always get to the point eventually. This month, in our new feature highlighting fascinating digital portfolios, we’re headed back to the 19th Century, when the French sea captain Louis Vignes first visited the ancient Syrian desert Oasis city of Palmyra.

Earlier this year, the Getty Research Institute in LA published, “The Legacy of Palmyra,” which they believe is the world’s first entirely online art exhibition. It features Mr. Vignes’ amazing photographs, alongside other visions of the city, which reached its peak in the 3rd Century AD, before it was conquered by the Romans.

As if we needed further refutation of the absurd idea that history can ever end, (beyond our fearless leader D. Trump,) his best buddy Vlad Putin has used his propaganda outlet, the RT network, to release visions of Palmyra today, as they’ve recently taken the city back from its former captors, ISIS. (Also known in this column as The. Worst. People. In. The. World.)

If you’re unaware, ISIS used Palmyra for target practice, in 2015 and again this year, much as they destroyed priceless historical artifacts in the Iraqi ruins of Nimrud, near Mosul. They released videos of the art-slaughter, which featured gleeful dickheads doing damage to things that belong to all of us. (IMHO.)

The GRI’s exhibition, which is as cool as ISIS is terrible, is an extensive effort to highlight the manner in which history remains relevant. It took a year to produce, featuring copious hours by a well-constructed team, which was led by curators Peter Bonfitto and Frances Terpak.

Ms. Terpak was kind enough to agree to an interview, so I could learn more about the Louis Vignes pictures, and the exhibition in general.

It all began back in 1864, when a French aristocrat, Honoré Théodore Paul Joseph d’Albert, the duc de Luynes, was organizing an expedition to the Middle East, as he was desperate to visit the Dead Sea, among other locations. (Including Petra and Palmyra.)

Many photographers working today are aware of the subset of photo history, in which independently wealthy people have risen to the top rank of the medium. (I’m not naming names, but then again, I don’t have to.) The tradition of the upper crust adventuring and creating is nothing new, and explains the origin of the Vignes photos.

“The duc, given his status, could self-fund this trip to the Dead Sea,” Ms. Terpak said. “He built a small team of scientists, with a geologist, a naturalist, and the duc himself, who studied archaeology and had an interest in biblical studies.”

“He wanted to take someone on the trip who would also record it photographically. With Vignes, what he got was a sailor who also knew the ports in the Eastern Mediterranean, and he was a photographer.”

Much of what transpired has been lost to history, she told me, including whether Louis Vignes made significant work after his excursion, but it is believed the duc hired the famed French photographer Charles Negre to teach Vignes how to make prints in the field.

The Getty Research Institute purchased the Palmyra prints in 2015, and received such an outpouring of interest in a blog story about the acquisition, (and a concomitant promotional Facebook post,) that the curators realized there was an untapped desire for further information. Surprisingly, the acquisition was made before ISIS destroyed much of the Palmyra ruins, but the subsequent ISIS attack made it all the more relevant.

Research institutions like the Getty have a mission to preserve and educate, and working within cyberspace allows them to reach all the people who can’t spend a day exploring the two lovely campuses on the West Side of LA.

Ms. Terpak confirmed as much, when she said, “As I think is evident, we wanted the audience to be everyone. From the specialist who knows Roman History and the Eastern Mediterranean, to the high school student who is approaching current events, and is curious about why Palmyra is important.”

“I think 80% of the site is downloadable. Everything the Getty owns is downloadable, and can be printed.”

She added that the site is also being translated into Arabic at the moment, so it can be better accessed by people who are actually being disrupted by War in the Middle East.

We also discussed why Putin is so intent on associating himself with Palmyra, as it has little strategic import in a larger war. Its power, rather, is symbolic, as it associates him with the history of human civilization, and the many rulers who’ve been etched into stone.

“I think ancient monuments throughout the ages, from the ancient to the present, have always been symbols for rulers to promote themselves, and to show their right to be in power, because they are connected with these great civilizations of the past,” she said.

“I don’t find it surprising that Putin is doing this.”

Lest you doubt me, just today, not minutes before I started writing, I discovered this article claiming that the Syrian Army had “annihilated” one of the perpetrators of the Palmyra destruction, and this fresh video from RT that shows Russian soldiers clearing land mines from the recaptured ruins.

We also discussed why ISIS would go out of its way to do such things. Victors have always raped and pillaged, to our eternal human shame, but this seemed so deliberate. So evil. (A word I typically avoid.)

I asked her why she thought they did it, and she replied, “Syrians don’t want to leave Syria. What people like ISIS are doing is they’re causing not just destruction of the monuments, but they’re forcing the people to leave because they’ve lost their heritage.

“They’ve lost their income. Palmyra was a site for tourism, and by destroying it, it’s destroying its economy.”

Ultimately, though, this is a photography blog, and the Louis Vignes pictures are pretty astonishing. They capture a place that no longer exists, and the thought that we need to reach back to the 19th Century for documentation is rather sad.

That said, Louis Vignes did not see the Palmyra that ISIS encountered, as some of what they destroyed was actually reconstructed by archaeologists in the 20th Century. The Vignes pictures far better reflect the Palmyra that sat, hidden in the desert for centuries, before being “rediscovered” by English explorers in the 18th C.

It was a multi-cultural place, even in antiquity, as it was a cross-roads between the massive Roman Empire to the West, and the Parthian Empire of Persia to the East. Ms. Terpak added that much of the 20th Century scholarship was conducted by Polish and Japanese teams, so the fact that it’s currently being mined by Americans digitally, and Russians IRL, is nothing new.

The Vignes images, quiet as they may be, speak for themselves. While I’m rarely at a loss for words, (including here, as we just cracked 1600,) I don’t think there’s much I need to say, description wise. They’re fantastic, and I’m very grateful that the GRI has allowed us to publish them here. (Again, you can download and print them directly, should you so choose.)

Rather, I think I’ll let Ms. Terpak have the last word on the pictures, as she’s earned the right.

“I think they’re haunting,” she said. “They just evoke the mystique of the place. I’m very upset that I never visited before 2010, because it clearly was a very special place.”

Louis Vignes, self-portrait, 1859, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

Louis Vignes, 1864, courtesy of the Getty Research Institute

 

This Week In Photography Books: Bruce Morton

by Jonathan Blaustein

Whether you realize it or not, this column has undergone a sizable change over the last few months.

For five years, almost all the books we reviewed were borrowed from photo-eye in Santa Fe. They have a great selection of photo-books, for sure, but the types of books I wrote about were limited to what they had.

Furthermore, photo-eye is famous for getting small batch publications from weird, artsy publishers, so I often wrote about books like that. My friend Melanie, who worked there forever, would handpick a large stack of books, and they mostly consisted of big-time artists and the aforementioned edgy/Euro/Japanese stuff.

As of November, though, we ended our long relationship with photo-eye. Though people began sending me books a few years ago, our selections were heavily filtered through photo-eye, but now they’re coming from you.

It’s true that I can (and do) request books from publishers now, whenever I get a particularly juicy press release, but the guts of what I write about comes from the audience that reads this column.

What a populist notion.
How Trumpian of me.

I’m not saying the books will be better, nor worse, and I do hope we’ll be able to maintain our global perspective. But I think you’re already seeing that some of my selections seem more off-beat than they used to.

Things turn up in the mail.
I look at them.

So much of what I’ve reviewed in the last 5+ years has trended international. I can conjure images of Kazakstan or Calcutta as easily as I can pictures of New York. (OK. I admit it. We do show a lot of stuff from NYC. You got me.)

But it’s 2017 right now, Bub.
Get with the times, you know what I mean.

Trump might wear a blue tie to fool the gobsmacked, but he knows that his supporters are red-meat-and-red-hat-loving white people in the middle of the country. In so many cases, their lives are no better than they were in the late 90’s, and in some cases they’re worse.

The jobs that came back in the Obama recovery, Post-08, skipped rural America, and still others that were there even fifteen years ago have fled, like highwaymen who know the Pinkertons are coming.

Opioid epidemics and underfunded educational systems mean that large parts of rural America have been left behind by gleaming cities and Iphone-robot-sex-dolls and Silicon Valley and arugula-eating elites.

(My Republican Uncle even wrote the word “Proletariat” in a Post-Oscars Facebook post. What is this, Russia?)

Trump is right about one thing, though.
I’ll give him that.
He says the media is biased, and liberal, and of course that’s true.

We are the media. Right?
And we ARE highly educated, occasionally elitist, but most definitely liberal.

When we visit places, like Appalachia or El Salvador, we’re carrying our politics and context with us, so it often takes an insider to give us a more nuanced perspective. And given the state of the times, wouldn’t it be nice to get a glimpse into the world of heartland white people?

Luckily, “Forgottonia: The Audience,” a new self-published book by our friend Bruce Morton, turned up in the mail a month or so ago. Like Jeanine Michna-Bales the other week, Bruce is an artist I met at portfolio reviews whose work I’ve featured in this column before.

In fact, I showed a few of these very images a year and a half ago. Bruce was getting the project up and running, and I remember thinking that these color pictures of people in gatherings, in Bruce’s home area of Western Illinois, were just snarky enough to be a naughty.

The people were large, in so many cases, and I could feel class distinctions tallying up in my head like abacus figures.

Click Clack.
Click Clack.

But in Bruce’s handsome, gray, soft-cover, perfect-bound book, the tone is completely different. His take on things is interesting, in that he moved back to his hometown of Bowen, IL a few years ago after decades in Phoenix, where he got an MFA in photography at the great ASU program.

Bruce is of this place, then got his head filled with technique, theory, and decades of living amid other cultures, before returning home. That combination of curiosity mixed with empathy mixed with a local’s knowledge makes this one of the most interesting books about rural America I’ve seen.

I’ve typically been impressed by Bruce’s image-making craftsmanship, but these are far more casual than I’m used to. The photo professor in me occasionally blanched at some of his snapshot-style cropping.

But these pictures are honest, direct, and most certainly not condescending. They take us inside a world that looks like a different American reality, because it IS a different American reality.

I almost blushed when I saw the heavy acne on the forehead of a high school basketball player. I felt it in my gut, yet also had flashbacks to sitting on the bench, against Mater Dei, the night George HW Bush invaded Iraq to kick off the First Gulf War.

About half-way through, there’s a really slick bit of editing that bears mention. First, we see a wonderful shot of a yard strewn with empty white chairs. Then, the very next picture features a gaggle of African-Americans, crowded together on a public bench, while a few nice fold-up chairs sit empty before them.

Gut-punch.

Of course it’s the only photo of African-Americans, or any people of color for that matter, in the entire volume. (Shout out to Paula Gillen, who’s credited with the editing.)

There is a delicacy and a sweetness to this book that is the opposite of snark and derision. It’s respectful in a way that perhaps only a native son could muster, especially one who has seen the outside world, then still come home in the end.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, warm-hearted look at heartland America.

To Purchase “Forgottonia: The Audience” Go Here: http://www.bruce-morton.net/books/forgottonia-the-audience

This Week In Photography Books: Adger Cowans

by Jonathan Blaustein

Over the last six years, I’ve become addicted to Arsenal Football Club, a soccer team that plays in London. It’s gotten so serious that I even write about the team, for fun, at 7am kickoff, a popular American-run Arsenal blog.

It all started out innocently enough.

After I sold a chunk of photographs, when “The Value of a Dollar,” took off, I was able to buy a nice television, and hook it up to Dish Network. Straight away, they piped in all this international soccer, (for free at first,) and once I was hooked, they yanked it away.

I’ve had to pony up a lot of scratch to maintain the habit ever since.

While I could have ultimately supported a handful of teams, when I first started watching, (and might be happier had I chosen otherwise,) I was successfully charmed by Arsenal’s famed mega-manager, Arsene Wenger.

He’s hard to encapsulate quickly, partly because he’s so multi-talented. He grew up in Alsace, and therefore speaks French and German, in addition to English, Spanish, Italian and a bit of Japanese. He was trained as an economist, is known as a progressive globalist, and brought a certain Continental, Gallic, professorial cool to the thug-life English league in the late 90’s.

He went on to massive glory with “The Invincibles,” his undefeated 2003-4 team, which was immortalized in Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”. Then Wenger, who had previously managed in Monaco and Japan, designed a new stadium for Arsenal, and kept them in the black through years when the club was heavily debt-strapped.

Basically, I became an Arsenal fan, in large part, because Arsene Wenger was “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” Now, though, his temperament is too tetchy. He knows his time is coming to a close, but is battling with every ounce to hold onto his perch.

The short version is that Arsene Wenger is a legend, albeit one whom most fans and pundits feel has hit the retirement zone. He’s good enough to be good, but no longer good enough to be great.

I don’t think he deserves the “MIMITW” title anymore.

Therefore, we need a new “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Thankfully, I have a proposal for the perfect replacement. You might not have heard of him before, as I hadn’t, but this dude has been involved in SO many interesting things in the 20th, and now 21st Centuries.

His name is Adger Cowans, and I just finished looking at his new book, “Personal Visions: Photographs,” recently published by Glitterati. Take heed, as Mr. Cowans seems like a genuine candidate for the title, if this book is to be believed.

Adger Cowans grew up in a creative family in Ohio in the 1930’s and 40’s, and was surrounded by art and photography from a young age. There’s context provided for his hyper-productive career, which is then backed up by various statements referring to his massive charisma. Tuliza Fleming, a curator at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, specifically mentioned she’d noticed the power of his personal “cool.”

Better yet, in an afterward, Dowoti Desir, a writer described by the New York Times as a voodoo scholar and practitioner, writes things about him that can only be described as mystical.

One example: “His sacred counterparts are nested among the forces of the Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions such as the Marassa, the twins of the Haitian Vodou system.”

Another: “Cowans is the silent warrior on our path, the mayuba or the chameleon whose most powerful attribute is its ability to emulate or recreate the environment around them in every meticulous detail, while remaining true to its core.”

I bet he has your vote for “Most Interesting Man in the World” already, and we haven’t even talked about the pictures yet.

The book opens with essays and a personal narrative, including photographs of his family. (This book is built around his life, as well as his work.) There’s actually a picture at the very beginning, of his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather that is so creepy I almost don’t want to photograph it later. (But I will.)

After a stint in the Navy, Adger Cowans went to New York to apprentice with Gordon Parks, have a stint as a street photographer, shoot countless musical celebrities, and work as the set photographer for more than 20 movies in the 70’s and 80’s, including seminal films like “On Golden Pond,” “School Daze” and “Dirty Dancing.”

Adger Cowans has photographed Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Mick Jagger, Henry Fonda, Jesse Jackson, Samuel Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Biggie Smalls, Al Pacino, and so many, many more.

The book doesn’t seem to be tied to any current exhibition, so it’s more likely a career-encapsulator, as I think Mr. Cowans is “approximately” 80. I’m not exactly sure of his age, as the book’s only weak spot is that it doesn’t provide dates for any of the photographs.

There are multiple sections, and each opens with a quote from an established photography master. (Erwitt, Sander, Weston et al.) The first, featuring street photos from the late 50’s and early 60’s was my favorite, as the best evoke a romanticized version of New York, even though they’ve got uptown street cred. (The snow-covered car and umbrellas-in-the-snow couplet was particularly magical.)

Apparently, Mr. Cowans also paints, makes music, and works with fiber, bolstering his Renaissance Man stature. The book riffs on that distinction, showing different phases of his photography discretely, including digital concoctions, still lives, and experimental imagery.

Not all of the photographs are classics, it should be said, but many of them are really excellent. In particular, I loved the early portrait of Barbara, whom I believe is the mother of his son Eden.

It is oddly intimate to have that family-album-element, but it definitely hooked me into this book. By digging in, I learned about elements of the African-American art community of which I was wholly ignorant. (He was a part of two important art collectives, Kamoinge and AFRIcobra.)

My experience writing about this book was unique, as it strangely enticed me to spend more time than I’d originally planned. First, I looked at it, thought it was cool, and then sat down to write, as I always do. I tried and tried, and then gave up after 6 attempts.

That’s never happened before.
Ever.

Instead, I sat down by the fire, and read it cover to cover, then skimmed back over several parts again. I looked at the images few more times as well, to better understand his career arc.

For whatever reason, this book required more of me than a flip-through and a witty response. I’m not surprised though, now that I know Adger Cowans might just be the Most Interesting Man… you get the point.

Bottom Line: A Funky, fascinating lifetime of work by an African American photographic badass

To Purchase “Personal Visions: Photographs” Go Here: http://glitteratiincorporated.com/products/personal-vision-by-adger-cowans

This Week In Photography Books: Jeanine Michna-Bales

by Jonathan Blaustein

Let’s face it: most photobooks are for photo geeks.

Publication runs for most photobook publishers are very small: 500, 1000, maybe 3000 on the high side. As we’ve discussed through the years, in multiple interviews with artists and publishers, photobooks rarely make money, or even make their money back, and are often seen as glorified business cards.

That’s hard truth, but I’ve heard first-hand of an artist who had to rent storage for his/her remaindered books. This after paying out of pocket/crowdfunding tens of thousands of $$$$$ to make the production in the first place.

There are exceptions, of course.

Major artists with a solid history of book-sale-success will get the costs fronted. (Martin Parr being an example we discussed in our interview with Dewi Lewis.) And I’ve heard that one or two publishers still take care of productions costs.

The obvious benefit of the tight-knit-market is that by focusing on quality, and charging enough to provide it, photobooks are art objects themselves. Many sport spiffy cover textures, oversized paper, innovative construction, and crisp, snappy print quality.

They’re collected for a reason: because they’re (relatively) rare and beautiful.

On the flip side, there are projects that crack over into the mass market: photobooks that aim for coffee tables. They’re able to speak to larger audiences, as perhaps they document or explore issues, beyond the photo community, that have wide resonance in popular or mainstream culture.

They feature subjects like religion, sports, nature, and history.

Books like this can sell 100,000 copies, even in an era devoid of Barnes and Noble. These books often use less expensive materials, allowing for a lower price point that enables the larger audience.

It’s a trade-off, and one I suspect most artists would be willing to make, especially those whose work is message-driven.
Because the ability to speak to a large group of people is a huge motivator for artists with something important say.

Especially those with a taste for the extreme.

In this case, I’m thinking of Jeanine Michna-Bales, a Dallas-based photographer whose work I’ve featured in this column before. I first met her at Review Santa Fe, and saw her inspirational project, in which she reconstructed and photographed the Underground Railroad at night.

I loved her portfolio-sized, meticulously printed fine art work, as the inky blacks were darker than Steve Bannon’s soul. The pictures are so dark, literally, and they represent a shameful time in our nation’s history.

I’m thinking of Jeanine’s photographs right now, as I’ve just put down her new book “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad,” which was just published by Princeton Architectural Press.

We showed a chunk of the project here in 2014, during my usual festival roundup, and the photographs also look great on screen. The projected light allows for a luminous take on deep bayous and forgotten forests, late into the wee hours.

Amazing stuff.

And it was no easy project to execute, either, as Ms. Michna-Bales begged help from family, and hired off duty police officers to protect her, as she photographed each link in a painstakingly researched chain.

I requested this book as soon as it was available, and am predisposed to like it. There’s a cool intro by Civil Rights Leader Andrew Young, in which he segues from Curtis Mayfield to Bob Marley to Kendrick Lamar in one fell swoop of message-driven art.

The book is surprisingly small, with a horizontal orientation, and I wondered if it was enough space for these mysterious landscapes. The designer went a step further and put a dark, charcoal gray border around many of the photographs, shrinking them further, but also making their murky depths harder to separate. (I would have gone with white.)

That dark gray is ever-present, including on image-less pages, and it makes for difficult viewing, with all the dark photographs.

The images don’t have a lot of three dimensionality, unfortunately, as I think they might have pushed the limitations of the printers they were using. There’s a flatness to the darkness here that suggests hyperreality, a visual styling I don’t remember seeing in her gorgeous, fine art prints.

I know it sounds like I’m being critical, so please allow me to reframe. This project, as a result of its awesomeness, has had a lot of success. A traveling exhibition of prints is going on a multi-city exhibition tour through Texas, the South and Midwest, through 2020.

She’s won prizes, and been supported by excellent organizations like Photo NOLA and the Open Society Institute.

I think the dark design, and repeating motif of historical quotes opposite photographs, are meant to suggest a somber and serious mood. While I admit it’s not exactly to my taste, I think I see where this is going.

Princeton Architectural Press belongs to Chronicle Books, the masters of the mass-market photobook. Given that it’s the only photobook offered in the “new releases” section of the PAP website, which also features several different types of notecards, I think this book is poised to speak to a larger audience.

Unlike me, most mainstream book buyers won’t be holding the color separations up against my memory of her original fine art prints. They’ll see these quiet, creepy places, and their imaginations will activate.

They’ll see themselves there, crawling through the mud, scared shitless, worried if the hounds are on your scent. They’ll appreciate the pictures, but more than that, they’ll be reminded that our country was built upon a heinous system of injustice, and that combatting racism, especially in the Age of You-Know-Who, is a worthy goal for any photobook to inspire in its viewers.

Bottom Line: Dark, somber photographs of the Underground Railroad, reconstructed

To Purchase “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad” Go Here: http://www.papress.com/html/product.details.dna?isbn=9781616895655

If you would like to submit a book to be considered for review, please contact jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

Cleveland Museum of Art- Raja Deen Dayal

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Hello there.

What am I doing here on a random Wednesday in February?

Well, that’s a great question.
So glad you asked.

This is the first installment of a new feature we’re trying out here at APE. For nearly seven years, I’ve been reporting on art exhibitions and festivals, interviewing artists and photography professionals, and reviewing photobooks every week.

As my writing career has evolved, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of countless PR emails, and stumbled through endless websites and social media postings. I see a lot of photography, it’s fair to say.

Prior to today, though, I had no outlet to just show incredible portfolios or projects here. Images that I saw only as jpegs, which we’ll publish here as jpegs, as this is meant to be an entirely online affair.

It’s ironic, then, that the first work we’ll show is as old school as it gets. We’re kicking off our 21st Century endeavor by examining a beautiful set of photographs from India in the 19th Century, made by the Indian master Raja Deen Dayal between 1885-87. (He was born Lala Deen Dayal. Raja was a title bestowed later in life.)

I first saw a couple of these images in one of those aforementioned PR emails from the Cleveland Museum of Art, as they’d recently acquired an album of albumen prints by Mr. Dayal.

The photographs caught my attention, and the Museum was kind enough to provide us with more information, and the entire portfolio for your viewing pleasure. Better yet, the CMA’s Curator of Photography, Barbara Tannenbaum, spoke with me about the entire acquisition process, from how pictures are first spotted to how they end up in an exhibition on the wall.

Apparently, she’d been interested in bringing Raja Deen Dayal’s work into the museum’s collection for several years, and her colleagues were aware of her desire. The Museum’s Chief Curator and Director were together in London, and saw a few of these Deen Dayal prints at a gallery.

After expressing interest, the museum asked for the prints to be sent to Cleveland for viewing. What came out of the box was thrilling for Ms. Tannenbaum.

“It’s a really unique album in a number of ways. First of all, it’s early work by Dayal, which is fairly rare,” she said.

“He’s is really most famous, and the majority of photos that you’ll see in museums and around on the market are images of buildings. They’re architectural shots.

“This is almost entirely portraits, with a few scenes of military exercises thrown in.”

Indeed, these pictures are comprised of several subsets, one more fascinating than the next. We see formal and casual portraits of British Aristocracy summering in the Himalayas to avoid Delhi’s heat in the late 1880’s.

“Hello there, Alistair. Would you care for a game of Badminton?”

“I say, Old Chap. That is simply a brilliant idea. Brilliant! And, Nigel, do look over there. I believe I can spot an inch of shoe beneath Ms. Lyall’s dress. Simply scandalous!”

“Yes, scandalous!”

Sorry. Where was I?

The pictures. Surely, it was exciting to discover photos by a major, historically important artist that were totally under the radar. But why did Ms. Tannenbaum think they’re worthy of bringing into her institution’s collection?

“In this case,” she said, “we look at both the British and the princely Indian societies through the eyes of an Indian. And one of the first to really master the forms of expression, and get the opportunity to put his images out.”

“These have a particularly reverent feel to them. Great care has been taken in how they were made. He was just masterful at evoking the mood and the feel of the scene. You get the contrast of these two cultures here, and that same intensity for both of them, which I think is amazing.”

There are formal group portraits of native Indians, and a tighter group of young Maharajas; boys thrust into a grown-up world. (Immature leaders, imagine that?)

One of those images is among her favorites, Ms. Tannenbaum admitted. “Especially the boy king of Rewa,” she said.

“He just happens to be an incredibly poignant subject for photography. I love the one where he’s sitting there on this chair, with his crown and his gold jewelry. You look at the way his toes are curled under, because his feet don’t quite reach the ground.”

There are battle exercises from Jhansi, further to the South, and a suite of photographs of actors in a performance of some sort as well.

But we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. This group of pictures originated as a photo album, though it’s since been deconstructed. Many of its subjects are named in the captions.

Basically, it existed as a collection of memories. Someone bought it directly from Raja Deen Dayal’s studio.

But whom?
That’s where things get interesting.

Nobody knows.

“Of course there’s the intriguing question of who he is, and we’ll try to pursue that and maybe find an answer,” Ms. Tannenbaum said.

The current theory is that it might be the man featured in the solo portrait. The dude in three quarter profile. The one with the thick beard, clutching gloves in his hands and rocking the flower in his lapel.

It’s the only photograph that wasn’t captioned. One wouldn’t caption a photo of oneself, goes the thinking. So what about it?

We have a global audience.
I have to ask?
Do you know this man?

He was an Englishman, so you people in the UK, might this guy be your Great-Great Grandpa George? Did anyone in your family spend time in India in the late 1880’s?

Ms. Tannenbaum is dying to know, and plans to do research on her own in the future, so I suggested we could do our little bit, perhaps, and crowdsource it. She’s looking for a certain type of expert, preferably with time on his or her hands.

“The answer probably lies in archives in London about Colonial India,” she said. “My dream would be to hire someone who really knows who was there when. A historian of Colonial India, maybe, to track this down.

“It’s a riddle that will eat at me until I find it, or decide that I’m not going to be able to find the answer.”

So what do you say, cyberverse? Does anyone know anyone who wants to figure this out? Whose memories are these? Who commissioned this album?

Beyond the mystery, though, Raja Deen Dayal’s work fits in well with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s mission, as they’ve long had a strong Indian and South Asian Collection. (No surprise, once I learned that Sherman Lee was a Director there in the 60’s and 70’s. He wrote my textbook for Intro to Asian Art History in college.)

When the transaction was done, and the prints were (sort of) hers, Ms. Tannenbaum was elated. She’s hoping to exhibit the work later this decade, likely with other artworks from the collection in a larger context. She was also on the lookout for some of Raja Deen Dayal’s architecture shots, to enlarge her newfound holdings.

“You know, curators always want more,” she laughed. “If we’re not acquisitive, we shouldn’t be in this job.”

His Highness Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab and party at Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.5 x 27.4 cm (7-11/16 x 10-13/16 inches); paper: 19.5 x 27.4 cm (7-11/16 x 10-13/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Mrs. and Miss Lyall, Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.9 x 27.0 cm (7-13/16 x 10-5/8 inches); paper: 19.9 x 27.0 cm (7-13/16 x 10-5/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Badminton party at Mashobra, Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.9 x 27.1 cm (7-13/16 x 10-11/16 inches); paper: 19.9 x 27.1 cm (7-13/16 x 10-11/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Picnic party, Mashobra, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.3 x 26.1 cm (7-5/8 x 10-1/4 inches); paper: 19.3 x 26.1 cm (7-5/8 x 10-1/4 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

His Eminence Commander in Chief and party, Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.5 x 27.2 cm (7-11/16 x 10-11/16 inches); paper: 19.5 x 27.2 cm (7-11/16 x 10-11/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Elephant Battery, Jhansi, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 18.2 x 26.5 cm (7-3/16 x 10-7/16 inches); paper: 18.2 x 26.5 cm (7-3/16 x 10-7/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

His Highness Maharaja of Rewa, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 26.7 x 20.3 cm (10-1/2 x 8 inches); paper: 26.7 x 20.3 cm (10-1/2 x 8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Reverend Loch at Neemuch, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.4 x 26.5 cm (7-5/8 x 10-7/16 inches); paper: 19.4 x 26.5 cm (7-5/8 x 10-7/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Maharaja of Rewa and classmates, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.8 x 27.1 cm (7-13/16 x 10-11/16 inches); paper: 19.8 x 27.1 cm (7-13/16 x 10-11/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

His Highness Maharaja of Rewa, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905)
Albumen print; image: 20.0 x 27.2 cm (7-7/8 x 10-11/16 inches); paper: 20.0 x 27.2 cm (7-7/8 x 10-11/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Robert Hotz Esquire and bulldog, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 13.2 x 19.8 cm (5-3/16 x 7-13/16 inches); paper: 13.2 x 19.8 cm (5-3/16 x 7-13/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Miss Lyall, Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 12.4 x 20.3 cm (4-7/8 x 8 inches); paper: 12.4 x 20.3 cm (4-7/8 x 8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Colonel T.G. Oldham, Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 13.0 x 20.3 cm (5-1/8 x 8 inches); paper: 13.0 x 20.3 cm (5-1/8 x 8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Colonel H.R. Thirillier, Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 18.1 x 26.1 cm (7-1/8 x 10-1/4 inches); paper: 18.1 x 26.1 cm (7-1/8 x 10-1/4 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Major Sparks, Indore, July 86, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 17.0 x 27.1 cm (6-11/16 x 10-11/16 inches); paper: 17.0 x 27.1 cm (6-11/16 x 10-11/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Portrait of a gentleman, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 25.8 x 18.8 cm (10-3/16 x 7-3/8 inches); paper: 25.8 x 18.8 cm (10-3/16 x 7-3/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Heavy Field Battery, Jhansi, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 18.3 x 27.0 cm (7-3/16 x 10-5/8 inches); paper: 18.3 x 27.0 cm (7-3/16 x 10-5/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Maharaja of Scindia, nobles, and high officials, Gwalior, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.0 x 27.4 cm (7-1/2 x 10-13/16 inches); paper: 19.0 x 27.4 cm (7-1/2 x 10-13/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Treacher and Cos Shop in the Fort, Bombay, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905)
Albumen print; image: 19.6 x 26.3 cm (7-3/4 x 10-3/8 inches); paper: 19.6 x 26.3 cm (7-3/4 x 10-3/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Ramkishore Singh of Rewa, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 20.3 x 27.3 cm (8 x 10-3/4 inches); paper: 20.3 x 27.3 cm (8 x 10-3/4 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Detachment of Bhopal Battalion at Indore, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.1 x 26.5 cm (7-1/2 x 10-7/16 inches); paper: 19.1 x 26.5 cm (7-1/2 x 10-7/16 inches)

Jhansi Fort and Elephant Battery, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.4 x 27.2 cm (7-5/8 x 10-11/16 inches); paper: 19.4 x 27.2 cm (7-5/8 x 10-11/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Elephant Battery on Parade, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 18.1 x 27.0 cm (7-1/8 x 10-5/8 inches); paper: 18.1 x 27.0 cm (7-1/8 x 10-5/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

His Highness the Maharaja of Scindia, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 25.5 x 18.4 cm (10-1/16 x 7-1/4 inches); paper: 25.5 x 18.4 cm (10-1/16 x 7-1/4 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Fancy Group at Indore I, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 12.4 x 19.9 cm (4-7/8 x 7-13/16 inches); paper: 12.4 x 19.9 cm (4-7/8 x 7-13/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Fancy Group at Indore I, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 12.4 x 19.9 cm (4-7/8 x 7-13/16 inches); paper: 12.4 x 19.9 cm (4-7/8 x 7-13/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Fancy Ball, Indore, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 12.2 x 19.9 cm (4-13/16 x 7-13/16 inches); paper: 12.2 x 19.9 cm (4-13/16 x 7-13/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Maharaja of Rewa and Sardars, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.7 x 26.9 cm (7-3/4 x 10-9/16 inches); paper: 19.7 x 26.9 cm (7-3/4 x 10-9/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Lord Dufferin and the Supreme Council of Government of India, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.4 x 27.3 cm (7-5/8 x 10-3/4 inches); paper: 19.4 x 27.3 cm (7-5/8 x 10-3/4 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

The Duke and Duchess of Connaught, with Col. Adam, Captain H.V. Benett, Col. Becher, Gen. Knowles, Captain Herbert, Col. Cavaye, Mrs. Cavaye, and Gen. R. Gellispie, Mhow, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.1 x 26.6 cm (7-1/2 x 10-1/2 inches); paper: 19.1 x 26.6 cm (7-1/2 x 10-1/2 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Fancy Group of Children, Indore, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.7 x 26.3 cm (7-3/4 x 10-3/8 inches); paper: 19.7 x 26.3 cm (7-3/4 x 10-3/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Ramkishore Singh of Rewa, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 18.6 x 27.0 cm (7-5/16 x 10-5/8 inches); paper: 18.6 x 27.0 cm (7-5/16 x 10-5/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Mr. Brown’s Horses, Jhansi, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 18.9 x 27.6 cm (7-7/16 x 10-7/8 inches); paper: 18.9 x 27.6 cm (7-7/16 x 10-7/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Maharaja of Rewa in Prayer, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 20.0 x 27.2 cm (7-7/8 x 10-11/16 inches); paper: 20.0 x 27.2 cm (7-7/8 x 10-11/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Sir Auckland Colvin and family, Simla, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 20.0 x 26.9 cm (7-7/8 x 10-9/16 inches); paper: 20.0 x 26.9 cm (7-7/8 x 10-9/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Picnic Party at Mr. Pelitis’ Country House, Mashobra, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 18.9 x 27.7 cm (7-7/16 x 10-15/16 inches); paper: 18.9 x 27.7 cm (7-7/16 x 10-15/16 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

Major Martellis Camp at Mhow, c. 1885-1887. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844-1905). Albumen print; image: 19.0 x 26.4 cm (7-1/2 x 10-3/8 inches); paper: 19.0 x 26.4 cm (7-41/2 x 10-3/8 inches). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund.

This Week In Photography Books: Piotr Zbierski

by Jonathan Blaustein

Nostalgia is a funny thing.
What is it, really?

A state of mind?
A sensation?

An emotion?

However we classify it, nostalgia is heavily responsible for the shocking shit-show that is the Trump Presidency. (I promise I won’t write about him every week.) Overwhelmed with longing for the past, a not-small segment of White America yearned for an idealized vision of the 1950’s.

They chose to reminisce, fondly, about an America that was entirely white. About a time when men, who wore hats, were the sole breadwinners, and women stayed home. It was a time when grabbing your secretary’s backside was fair game, and racist jokes were socially acceptable.

I’ll spare you a recap of this week’s version of Trumpsanity, but rest assured, it’s enough to make some people nostalgic for the George W. Bush years.

That’s a thing.
I’ve seen it on Twitter.

The world is so strange, at the moment, that some people think it was much better back then. As I recall, George W. Bush needed the Supreme Court to install him as President, presided over 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, started two massive Wars, (one of which continues, the other of which begat ISIS) and then broke the Entire. Global. Economy.

Thankfully, though, the mid-aughts did have some highlights.

Take my neighbor here in Taos, Donald Rumsfeld, for instance. He was pretty high on the unintentional comedy scale. (Remember those oversized glasses?)

When Rummy philosophized about the known unknowns vs. the unknown unknowns, he wrote himself into the book of ridiculous rhetorical history. But he was right on many levels, if just this once. (In case you’re too young to know what I’m referencing, Rummy theorized that there are things we know we don’t know, and things that we don’t know we don’t know.)

So much of life is run by the unknown unknowns, though that’s terrifying to admit. We like our lives to be routine-based, built upon a sense of normalcy. Our computers give us answers, but only if we know what questions to ask.

We can’t even imagine what came before the big bang, or where we go after we die. Scientists don’t know what makes up dark matter, so they named it like a secret weapon invented by Darth Vader.

There are underpinnings of reality that speak of magic, or the super-natural, and most of us wouldn’t even know where to begin, as far as understanding what really makes the planet spin every day.

I like it when a photobook makes me think of the unknown unknowns. And that’s where I’ve gone today, having just put down “Push The Sky Away,” a new book by Piotr Zbierski, recently published by Dewi Lewis in Manchester.

Structurally, this book is as well-put-together as you’re likely to find. The vertical orientation is big without being too-big; the black and white cover is stark. The photos are broken into three sections, as it’s a trilogy of projects, so there are black inserts that actually divide the book, but are removable. (So you have to put it back together each time.)

There are also small journal inserts, which are bound into the book, so the page size and image style also vary consistently. A lot of thought went into this presentation, I’m sure.

But what is actually being presented? (Finally, he talks about the pictures.)

The images are mostly made with instant photographic technology, (hence the sponsor shoutout at the end to the Impossible Project,) and there’s a heavy spate of pictures shot in India. That much is clear.

But not much else is.
Clear.

There are black and white, grainy, often blurry pictures of grandmothers and statues. Cities and oceans. Live people and dead monkeys. And much in-between.

In an opening statement, the artist writes of a desire to connect to primal forces, and I think you can see it. Talismanic objects. Ecstatics in prayer. Odd people from odd angles.

There’s a hint of Diane Arbus and Roger Ballen, for sure, mixed with a tiny dose of any random person’s travel pictures from India. But it’s that final mix, the creative special sauce, that makes this such a cool book.

It feels non-linear in a way that references worm holes and peyote sessions and smoke signals, all at once. Visually, it offers a viewer that feeling that some things will never be revealed, but it’s OK, because our brains are too small and fragile to handle ALL the secrets of the Universe.

Bottom Line: Trippy, dreamy images that hint at deep forces at work, beneath our every-day existence

To Purchase “Push The Sky Away” Go Here: https://www.dewilewis.com/products/push-the-sky-away

If you would like to submit a book to be considered for review, please contact jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week In Photography Books: John MacLean

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s Monday morning, and the sky is gray. (It can be confusing, I know, as you’re likely reading on a Friday, when the weekend is at hand.)

Everybody loves the weekend, but gray Mondays are about as fun as being the guy who has to wash Donald Trump’s underwear. Think about that guy the next time you get a case of the Mondays.

(Uh, Mr. President, it’s kind of hard for me to say this, but there was a strange stain on your boxers that I just couldn’t get out. I’m really, really sorry, Sir. We tried. We really did.)

This Monday, there’s one guy in America who feels like it’s Saturday night, all day long. That man’s name: Thomas Fucking Brady.

Now, if you’ve connected the dots properly, being from New Jersey as I am, I follow the New York Giants. The only team to ever beat Tom Brady in a Superbowl. (Twice.) I have no love for the Patriots, and was solidly rooting for the Falcons last night.

They jumped out to a massive 28-3 lead, and Fox kept dropping statistics on the screen about how nobody had ever come back from more than 10 in a Superbowl.

Ever.

Then they told us that in the history of the NFL playoffs, teams with a lead like the Hawks had were 93-0.

Nobody had ever lost a lead that big.
Ever.

My wife was half-asleep on the couch, bored as hell, just waiting for me to give up on the game so we could watch “Love,” a show we’re currently digging on Netflix.

I could feel her, willing me to change the channel. The ending seemed a foregone conclusion. I wondered what the analytics guys would say about the Falcons chances of winning, at that point. (This morning, I read either 99.7%, or 99.8%, depending upon whom you trust.)

“Still,” I said to Jessie, “We can watch Netflix when I’m sure the game is over. There’s too much time left to say it’s impossible.”

So I watched the epic, never-before-seen comeback. I watched it all. And as a sports fan, if you don’t love a story like that, you’re in the wrong business.

Tom Brady has now won 5 Superbowls, and I’m sure the extra ring will look good on his thumb. I don’t imagine a thumb ring will be comfortable, but what can you do?

He’s just a boy from Northern California, the perfect looking guy, if we’re being honest, who just happened to become the biggest sports legend in the biggest sports city in America. Bigger than Larry Bird, or Big Papi, or anyone, really.

Tom Brady’s just some dude from San Mateo, who grew up in the shadow of Candlestick Park, where Joe Montana plied his trade for the San Francisco 49ers. Joe Montana, the guy people used to say was the Greatest of All Time. Joe Montana, who won 4 Superbowls, the previous high for a quarterback. (Along with Terry Bradshaw.)

Imagine that.

Tom Brady grows up with Joe Montana as the obvious role-model. He absorbs something in the watching, maybe? And then he goes on, inspired, to eclipse Montana, the previous best.

It’s the way things work, as we take from others, learn from others, copy others, are inspired by others, or (insert random verb that makes sense here.) As humans, we have role models among our family and friends. Our parents, one would hope, have taught us to be good people.

As artists, we have colleagues, whose ideas are bouncing around the air now, and we have our heroes and predecessors. Our favorites, whose tricks we’ve cribbed, whose colors we’ve coveted, whose energy we’ve used to sustain us as we walk our respective paths.

It’s a personal collection, for each of us, our heroes, but in John MacLean’s “Hometowns,” published by Hunter and James, we get to see inside the artist’s own inspirations, and it makes for a really cool book, to be sure.

This one turned up in the mail a couple of months ago, but I’ve only gotten to look at it today. It is a really well made production, from a design standpoint: from the fold-over hardcover, to the initials code for artists on the back, to the fact that you can always see the code-key while you’re flipping the pages.

There’s a concept involved, in Mr. Maclean’s 23 city tour to track down his idols’ hometowns, but the project doesn’t lean too heavily on that. The pictures are really good too.

Many are straight, but convey a light that felt familiar to me. Ed Ruscha’s Oklahoma City and Robert Rauschenberg’s Texas both rocked a clear, Southwestern haze-free light I’d driven through before, many times. The sharp light made for sharp pictures, but little bits of humor crept in too. (Accessorize your garage. Oh Chevrolet, you’re so clever.)

The bent-over fence in Rauschenberg’s Port Arthur, TX was another favorite. Conversely, the cold wafting off of Wassily Kandinsky’s Moscow, and the gauze-y light in James Turrell’s Pasadena were equally evocative.

But there are lines that appear on Richard Long images, little Baldessari balls that pop up in National City CA, and a perfect flower crown in Gabriel Orozco’s Mexico City that hint the artist is intervening in the landscape as well.

He’s basically going to these places and doing his own jam, while clearly riffing on his influences. (Ie, one image in Lee Friedlander’s Aberdeen, Washington has the requisite graphic, head-ache-inducing composition.)

The Robert Frank pictures, done of quarry divers, are also excellent. Given that I like the idea, execution, and image quality on this book, I’d have to give it high marks.

Who are your artistic inspirations, I wonder?

Bottom Line: An excellent book about an artist’s personal quest to connect to his forebears

To Purchase John MacLean’s “Hometowns” Go Here: https://www.jmaclean.co.uk/store/hometowns/

If you would like to submit a book to be considered for review, please contact jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week In Photography Books: Claire Felicie

by Jonathan Blaustein

Hope is a mentality.
A state of mind.

It’s not a thing you can touch, like a coffee table, or a bird’s feather.

It’s in the air around us, like oxygen, but that doesn’t mean it’s always available. Hope is often there when you need it, but not always.

Like now.

The last few weeks have seen an outpouring of grief, anger, fear, and hostility beyond anything I can recall. I’ve been conscripted several times to be the voice of reason, assuring friends and loved ones that there are precedents for what’s happening in the United States.

We have a history of nativism and racism that goes back to our nation’s founding. Even NYC, a sanctuary city if ever there was one, used to be a very rough place for foreigners. Look no further than the incredibly violent Scorcese film “Gangs of New York,” if you doubt me.

We’ve had Nixon, W. Bush, and Reagan in the modern era, but the US has a history of enacting laws to restrict immigration, or at least the status of immigrants. We all know about the Ellis Island phase, lend me your tired, your poor and your huddled masses, but America has been cruel as often as it’s been kind.

But looking back at shitty phases of our history is not a particularly effective way to summon hope, I’d suggest.

Hope requires a belief, inside one’s soul, that things are going to be OK in the end. That everything will get better, if not soon, than eventually. Unfortunately, while it can be inspired, (a la Obama,) it can’t be manufactured elsewhere and then transplanted, like a pre-fab home.

You actually have to believe, to have hope, which is why February 2017 is such a tricky time for millions and millions of people.

They’ve actually begun to doubt that things will ever get better again. I blame social media, personally, as an echo chamber of everyone else’s’ fear and misery is not the best place to hang out, if you’re trying to get your head on straight.

But Facebook is as popular as its ever been, offering people confirmation of their worst thoughts and theories: World War 3. The return of a Hitler-like force for evil. The end times.

Not good.

Basically, much of America’s population is suffering from PTSD at the moment, and apparently the condition is contagious.

As artists, though, it’s our job to look past the current moment; to think differently from the masses, even if we all share the same digital platforms. There aren’t many people with a plan of action these days, to counter the Trumpian revolution, but I’d suggest it’s the same plan that worked for you last year, and back in the Aughts, under George W.

Do your work.

Investigate what’s going on out there. Report on important stories. And summon your empathy for those who are suffering worse than you are, because caring for others stimulates positive chemicals in your brain.

Normally, I don’t dispense all my advice until I’ve reviewed a book, but I’m feeling a bit more hopeful right now, having just put down “Only The Sky Remains Untouched,” a new book by Claire Felicie that arrived in the mail this past Autumn.

It’s one of those publications that makes you into a detective, as it doesn’t explain itself until the end. And the design adds to the sense of dislocation, as the pages are shuffled to force you to connect the dots.

After opening it up, one is bombarded with bleak, sad, black and white images of wintry nature, followed by a building in a serious state of decay. Then, half of a human shows up, as the other half has been reserved for the next set of pages.

That’s the pattern that develops: the torso of a person, lying down, juxtaposed with the grim space in which the photographs are being constructed. (Or so I gather.)

They’re all men, with one exception, and many have copious tattoos. Like their environment, they’re sad, lonely, and emitting some very depressing energy.

Who are they?
Are they prisoners?
Soldiers? (Several wear camo.)

What gives?

The book’s end provides answers, as well as individual histories. The subjects are former Dutch soldiers who all suffer from PTSD. Each person agreed to be photographed in an abandoned Dutch weapons facility, to represent the horrors that kicked off their collective condition.

As you know, I almost never quote from a book’s text, but today I’m making an exception.

Ms. Felicie wrote, “This book is also an homage to all those who suffer from inner wounds and traumas and have the will to face as well as share their problems. The brave veterans you have met in this book had the courage to do so. As their recovery progresses, it is my belief that they can set an inspiring example for their companions in adversity.”

In 2017, I’d suggest we’re all “companions in adversity.” Nobody can promise you it will all be OK. Nobody knows what the future will bring, not even Elon Fucking Musk.

So instead of spending one more hour posting or commenting on FB, how about you get going on a new project, or inject some life into an existing one, and get back out there.

We’re artists, writers, journalists, editors, image makers, influencers, and nothing’s going to get better until we make it so.

Bottom Line: Haunting, inspiring look at veterans grappling with PTSD

To Purchase “Only The Sky Remains Untouched” go here: http://clairefelicie.com/only-the-sky-remains-untouched

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This Week In Photography Books: Axle Contemporary

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever seen Duck Dynasty?

I haven’t.

But I’m aware it’s a reality TV show featuring some dudes with long beards who wear camo. Though I’ve never seen a minute of the program, it has leaked out into the popular culture, like a silent fart, so I’m aware, tangentially, what it’s about.

It’s meant for rural folks in the South, I suppose. I have no idea who the protagonists are, but they are the kind of stars that a certain type of bayou badass can get behind.

The kind of stars who will stand up for their Red State values, even when the only other celebrity known to rep for Trump is Chachi, whose fame died back when Henry Winkler could still fit into that tight leather jacket.

Not surprisingly, then, the TV shows that we watch track well with our political affiliations and cultural preferences. A few weeks after the election, the NY Times even ran an Upshot story that tracked the correlation between a TV show’s viewership, and its fans’ behaviors.

The results were mostly intuitive, but one statistic really jumped out at me. Basically, the data demonstrated that Native Americans, particularly those living in the Navajo Nation, had almost the exact same viewing habits as African Americans across the country.

Folks out in Shiprock are watching BET like they’re OG’s from Bed Stuy.

No lie.

Having lived in the Southwest for years, I wasn’t exactly caught off guard, as African Americans and Native Americans have one very large thing in common: both communities never benefited from the immigrant experience in America.

For centuries, people have migrated to the United States based upon small networks of relatives, or neighbors from the village or shtetl back home. One at a time, or 10 at a time, newcomers moved to particular cities, and neighborhoods, because someone’s cousin, or best friend’s uncle, promised them a job when they got there.

Or maybe it was the lure of a place to live, even if it was a couch in an overcrowded, roach infested shithole on the other side of the tracks.

Still, a choice was made.

But, as we all know, Native Americans were here before America, and had their homeland ripped away at the cost of millions of lives, and African Americans were stolen from their homes, violated in every possible way, and then shipped across the world to be exploited until they died.

(And we wonder why Vlad Putin is always reminding people that America is less-than-pure.)

History lesson over, it is interesting to think about the commonalities between Native and African Americas, given that they seem to share certain cultural predilections.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow get a picture of what people actually look like, out in Navajo Nation? Actual people? Real people?

Thankfully, I just put down “E Pluribus Unum: Dinétah,” a new book by Axle Contemporary, which showed up in the mail a little while back. It’s an exhibition catalog featuring a recent project by Matthew Chase-Daniel and Jerry Wellman, the founders and directors of Axle, a mobile art gallery that popped up in Santa Fe in 2010.

I’ve exhibited at Axle before, but then again, so has much of the Northern New Mexico art community. These guys are out there constantly, working hard to promote other artists, while making their own work, but also investing time and money into public art projects involving the local Native American population.

Sadly, despite our tri-community diversity here, (Native, Hispanic and Anglo) there is less inter-mixing than one might expect. Each community often keeps to itself, and any time “gringos” try to get involved with the Native American world, it is fraught with vestiges of colonialism, white guilt, and a nostalgic fascination with the “other.”

So as I flipped through the pages of this book, I was genuinely inspired by what they had accomplished. To be clear, given how picky I am, I do not think these photographs are amazing. They’re casual. People smile. Pictures are occasionally blurry.

Based purely on the quality of the images, this project is not something I’d normally review. But judging the work solely on the photographic excellence misses the point. This work is about giving back, meeting new people, and allowing a community to have a say in its own portrayal.

Basically, Matthew and Jerry spent 12 days out in the Four Corners area, and invited people to come into the truck to have their portrait made. They asked people bring something to hold; an item that had personal importance to them. Then, they printed the photo on the spot, so the subjects could leave with an instantaneous memento.

They also posted prints on the side of the truck, so the venue became a rolling photo exhibition, of the community, for the community.

We see people clutching car keys, energy drinks, cold hard cash, sunglasses, toys, pets, musical instruments, and even a priest holding rosary beads.

There are guys dressed like gangbangers, cowboys in their hats, little children sitting on their siblings’ laps, and a couple of culinary students brandishing knives like they’re ready to debone a chicken.

Like I said, real people.

I’m always on about the artist’s responsibility to dig deep into narratives they know well. To push the viewer, by showing us elements of reality we normally cannot access. To enlarge others’ knowledge by mining one’s own, and sharing the results with the rest of us.

Normally, at least in the books I review, the message is that great work is what moves us. Such books demonstrate technical mastery, original style, and creative risk-taking.

But today’s book takes a slightly different strategy. Maybe don’t worry so much how amazing your pictures are? Rather, focus on how you can use your photographic practice to benefit others, even if you’re not making masterpieces in the process.

Bottom Line: A book that offers a cross-section of life in Navajo Nation

To Purchase “E Pluribus Unum: Dinétah” Go Here: http://www.axleart.com/epu-dinetah

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This Week In Photography Books: Philip Trager

by Jonathan Blaustein

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman, the highly opinionated columnist, imagined a world in which Donald Trump tweeted nice things. Inspiring things.

Positive things.

Mr. Friedman wrote tweets, seemingly from a parallel universe, in which Mr. Trump, who will be inaugurated today, worked hard to win over skeptics. He fake-tweeted, (in the real news,) suggesting ways in which things might have gone differently, were Mr. Trump a classier sort of guy.

My father sent me the article, thinking I’d appreciate it. While I read it in its entirety, it made me a little angry.

What’s the point?

Trump is who he is. How can we possibly doubt his character and intentions, given decades of evidence that he’s just not a nice human being?

I admit, after my initial shock at the election results, I spent a week or so giving our next President the benefit of the doubt. I even wrote a conciliatory column, reaching out my hand to any potential Republican readers.

At this point, though, I accept that it was wishful thinking, as the slew of incendiary tweets and right wing cabinet appointments have laid waste to any optimism I might have tested out. (Where am I in the grieving process? Acceptance? Bargaining?)

Thomas Friedman and I have four things in common. We’re columnists, we’re men, we’re Jewish, and we write for the New York Times. But he’s a famous millionaire, and they don’t pay freelance bloggers so well, I’m afraid.

Given our different vantage points, even with the similarities we share, it’s not surprising that we’ve come to very different conclusions. He imagined a world in which Trump was magically moral, and I think he’s naive for even typing up such thoughts on a functioning computer.

That’s just the way the world works. As artists, we know this. If we’re doing our job right, we dig down deep into our experience, and come back with something that will speak to others. The more we connect to our own personal knowledge and desire, the more likely we are to speak to an audience.

Therefore, even if two artists nominally approached the very same subject matter, the resulting work could/should turn out to be very different.

Right?

I’m glad you asked, because this week, I had the opportunity to view “New York in the 1970’” by Philip Trager, a book published by Steidl that turned up in the mail this Fall. If you read every week, you’ll know that last Friday, we covered Richard Sandler’s book of photos from the Big Apple in the same time period.

I had the idea to check this one out, thinking it might be interesting to turn mid-January into a little compare and contrast assignment. I figured the two visions would have some overlap.

Not even remotely.

Mr. Trager’s pictures, made with a large format camera on a tripod, rather than grabbed in 1/60th of a second on the subway, are nearly devoid of people. Rather than focusing on the embittered, the downtrodden, and the decrepit, Mr. Trager drove around New York in awe of the majestic architecture.

Rather than look down, he chose to look up.

The pictures remind me a fair bit of early Thomas Struth, but given when they were shot, he wasn’t being derivative. And they do lack that take-a-deep-breath visceral beauty of Struth’s empty cities.

But Mr. Trager’s photographs are very well made, and present a New York that it is hard to believe ever existed. It’s regal, and quiet. It doesn’t even seem dirty, and I have no idea how he pulled that off.

We see eagles jutting off the Chrysler building. Wall Street. Macy’s. Times Square. Columbus Circle.

And, of course, the Twin Towers.

He gains access to rooftops, and presents perspectives we are not accustomed to seeing. All of it, of course, in a grayscale that would make Gotham proud. (Shades of gray standing in for the bleak skies that haunt my memories.)

This is an accomplished and excellent group of pictures, if a touch emotionally dry. It makes for a superb book, partly because Steidl is renown for it’s high-quality printing.

When I picked it up, I had no idea what was inside. It showed me things I haven’t seen before, which is one of my primary qualifications for a review, but in this case, it did it in a new way.

I knew New York in the 70’s. Hell, I could see the city back then from my hometown in Jersey. It loomed large, and my recollections of it mesh well with what Richard Sandler photographed.

But this NYC, all stately buildings and quiet grandeur, I can’t believe it ever existed. Did it? Or was Mr. Trager just able to take advantage of one of photography’s inherent strengths: the ability to decontextualize a fraction of time from its larger surroundings?

As NYC in the 70’s is no longer around, outside of the art made to represent its legacy, I suppose we’ll never know.

Bottom Line: Classy book of NYC architecture, back in the day

To purchase “New York in the 1970” go here: http://www.artbook.com/9783869308067.html

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This Week In Photography Books: Richard Sandler

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just got back from visiting my parents in Mexico. It’s an annual pilgrimage, as they leave Taos for a tropical climate each winter.

Every time, though, like the Brady Bunch’s vacation in Hawaii, things always go horribly wrong.

Two years ago, I wrote about how my wife and I were nearly dragged out to sea when we swam during a storm’s aftermath. Another year, we drove across the Rocky Mountains, during a blizzard at 2am, on the way home from the airport.

There’s always an undercurrent of drama, unfortunately, and this year was no exception. Among other problems, I got a horrible stomach virus that had me puking through the night, and then our car died on the highway driving back from the airport in Albuquerque.

It’s been a trying week, to be sure.

But it’s always difficult visiting Playa del Carmen, as what was a sleepy beach town 15 years ago has since morphed into a bustling city of more than 200,000 people. My brain remembers previous incarnations, back when it was quiet, and the ocean was still clean, but there’s no avoiding the reality that Playa is now a thriving metropolis, with all its attendant problems.

Cities have street life. Pollution. Noise. Constant activity.

They allow one to people-watch, as the urban narrative plays out in real time. Stand on a corner, watch the Euro ravers walk by. Wait a minute, and there’s an elderly Mexican grandma wearing a Señor Frog’s T-shirt.

Jackhammers wail everywhere, as the growing city is under continuous construction. There are parts of Playa del Carmen that have changed so radically, it’s hard to reconcile what I see with what I know to have existed.

It reminds me of New York, in some ways, as I grew up just outside that great city, and my memories of day trips in the 70’s and 80’s are markedly different than the city I lived in from 2002-5. And now, in 2017, New York is about to enter an even stranger phase, as native (but hated) son Donald Trump turns The Big Apple into his personal vacation home for the next (hopefully) 4 years.

New York used to be New Amsterdam, but no relics from its 17th Century past remain. New York is constantly gentrifying, which is why Polish pickle stores in my former neighborhood, Greenpoint, are now cold-brew coffee shops for hirsute hipsters.

C’est la vie.

But you know this is a book review column, which makes it likely that some photo-book got me off of today’s tangent, right? Of course!

I just put down “The Eyes of the City,” a new photobook by Richard Sandler, recently published by powerhouse. The 70’s and 80’s vibe coursing through this production is so strong, I’m half expecting Ed Koch to pop out from under my bed and scream “Surprise! You’re on candid camera!”

(As Ed Koch is dead now, though, visions of Zombie Koch turn gruesome very quickly.)

Despite the typically florid introduction, this is a book that needs little explication. It’s a lengthy series of street pictures from a long ago, but the sweet spot captures NYC at it’s most dirty, dangerous and addictive.

The subways were covered with more graffiti than there are giant billboards in Times Square. Old men walked around in hats and trench coats, like they were all living in one giant London Fog commercial.

Legless street people rode skateboards, the Twin Towers loomed above the Financial District, and live sex shows advertised on street-side signs written in magic-marker.

So many New Yorkers are nostalgic for that era, back before internets and facebooks and hybrid cars. Back when danger meant getting mugged by some lowlife, as opposed to being blown up by a crazy terrorist.

As I’ve written countless times before, photography’s unique skill is to transport us through the space-time continuum. To allow us, even briefly, to enter chambers in our consciousness where the dead still live, and trains never run on time.

This book does that for me, and given New York’s oversized place in global culture, I’m betting you’ll dig it as well.

Bottom Line: Really cool photos of New York, back when it was dingy

To Purchase “The Eyes of the City” Go Here: http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/the-eyes-of-the-city/

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This Week In Photography Books: Ashly Stohl

by Jonathan Blaustein

I haven’t seen “Rogue One” yet.
Have you?

It’s the newest installment in the Disney-Marvel-Lucasfilm-entertainment-constortium of evil.

Well, that last part might not be true. We won’t hate them just because their products are so darn tasty. (Mmm, meatballs.)

Elsa, Olaf, the Avengers, and Luke Skywalker all rolled out like so many products on the assembly line.

Thor.
Iron Man.
Captain America.
And Darth Vader?

It’s almost as if one company, Disney, has amassed a treasure trove of endlessly repeating variables of highly valuable intellectual property. (Because they have.)

But that’s just a b-school way of saying they’re putting out entertaining movies, and telling stories that a huge segment of the world’s population wants to hear. Shades of gray good guys. Charismatic bad guys.

Superheroes AND science fiction.

It’s true I haven’t seen “Rogue One” yet. And I missed “Dr. Strange.” But the idealist in me? The part the cold dead hand of cynicism has not yet touched?

That part remembers “Star Wars” being the single. coolest. thing. that. had. ever. happened. to. me. I remember, in kindergarten, how much we all fought over who got to be Luke Skywalker. Back in ’79.

Imagine us, in our 70’s big-collared shirts and thick, bowl haircuts. Giggle at our cheesy attire. I remember it so well. And you know what else I remember?

No one ever wanted to be Darth Vader, in our children’s games.
Never.
Not once.

So imagine my amazement when I looked at “charth vader,” a book that turned up by Ashly Stohl, published by Peanut Press. No, this is not a story you see very often.

The book, which is black, and intimate, is filled with relatively small, very well composed, black and white photos of a small child wearing a Darth Vader mask.

Always.
The Vader mask.

Luke.
I am your father.

Say what now?

The end notes confirm it’s the artist’s son, Charlie, (hence the title,) and that he has a condition that impairs his vision. The pictures convey a sense of loneliness, and I wonder if that’s a projection, because of they’re kind of spare.

Are they sad?
Is Charlie?

Is the mask a protection from the world, a joke to put smiles on people’s faces, or a projection of strength from a little person who’s at a disadvantage, relative to the rest of us?

Maybe all of the above?

I think the pictures are lovely. And they build upon a theme from last week’s column too. There are a lot of lemons rolling around the world right now. (Assuming Climate Change hasn’t killed off all the lemon trees yet.)

Metaphorical lemons, I mean.
And now that it’s 2017, I’d recommend you buy a little sugar, hack up some ice from your front yard, and make a little lemonade.

As parents, we know how hard it is when our children get sick. Even a nasty cold.

But the little statement at the end states that Ms. Stohl has two children with eye issues. I’d say that would lead to a lot of stress.

This book, “charth vader,” smacks of being a witty, personal project that took that stress energy and turned it into something positive, via the art-making-process. I’ve taught and written about it for years, so I know it works.

Art helps you get through difficult times.

But books like this can be a great reminder, in this first column of the year, that if things are hard, or you want to speak your peace, put it into the work. We’re creative types, all of us, so make the best stuff you can in 2017.

Do it for Charlie.

Bottom Line: Inspirational, whimsical book from the Dark Side

To Purchase Charth Vader go here: http://peanutpressbooks.com/collections/books/products/charth-vader

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