Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books: Magda Biernat

by Jonathan Blaustein

In England, Northerners mock Southern Londoners for being soft. Here in Northern New Mexico, people scoff at the Southern part of the State, and often refer to it as Texas.

Ted Cruz, a Texan, and former Republican Presidential candidate, recently derided “New York” values. (By which people assumed he meant liberal, gay-loving, and probably Jewish.)

“Those New Yorkers,” Ted thinks, “with their diversity and heathen practices. Repent, I say. Repent! The rapture is upon is!”

(Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)

No, North vs South is a powerful cultural motif around the world. (The Italians all nod their heads.) And wasn’t there some big war fought over those divisions?

Polar opposites are powerful. I’m not sure exactly why, though we so often define ourselves by what we are not. And homo sapiens tribal affiliations allowed the species to propagate.

My people good.
Other people bad.
Fire scary.

And what of our poles, North and South? How are they faring in these days of rampant Climate Change? I interviewed a Finnish photographer for the NYT earlier this year, and she’d spoken to indigenous people in Greenland who insisted the ice was melting fast.

How fast it melts, and how much rejoins the ocean, has dire consequences for the future of humanity, and all the other living creatures with whom we share our planet. (Except for the cockroaches. Fuck you, cockroaches. Everybody hates you.)

Back on point, I just looked at “Adrift,” a new book by Magda Biernat, published by Ink & Bellows. This is a lovely little production, and I do mean production. It’s not built like most books, as the text is pasted tight to the inside cover, and the images unfold accordion style.

The writing gives us the background, though I couldn’t help look at the pictures first.

Diptychs?

Blue icebergs in blue water, contrasted with white buildings on white landscape. They’re aesthetically pleasing, wonderful to look at, but definitely have a bit of a weird vibe as well. Particular the buildings.

As it doesn’t take long to flip through, I immediately re-flip, and realize the compositions of the icebergs and buildings ape each other formally. (It’s not exact, but close enough to get the point.)

So we know we’re certainly meant to see them as pairs, and I begin to wonder what that relationship implies?

On to the text, and some essay-parsing delivers this: the icebergs are melting pieces from Antartica, and the structures are abandoned indigenous hunting cabins in Alaska. Ms. Biernat covered the world, from Pole to Pole, and the book reflects two global warming stories she witnessed.

There is a proliferation of such imagery these days. The icebergs in particular. I don’t know if frequency alone, with respect to delivering the message, will get the job done. People simply can’t tune out until it’s too late, as the alternative is CATACLYSM.

Full stop.

Perhaps more metaphorical, lyrical ways of telling the story will become vital? (Like this book.)

It’s small, gray and sleek, like a baby seal. It’s delicate, like our ecosphere. Quiet, like the snow.

Basically, this is a cool book. Will it, by itself, defeat Climate Change?

Of course not.
Ridiculous question.

But if there are hundreds and hordes of people are out there, each trying to make an impact as storytellers, artists, consumers, conservationists, then perhaps we stand a chance after all.

Bottom Line: A meditation on Climate Change

To Purchase “Adrift” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Zora J Murff

by Jonathan Blaustein

How do you know you’re having a really bad day?

When you make a pregnant woman cry.
That’s always a good way to gauge when everything’s gone wrong.

If you’re not perfectly sure, having her young husband scream in your face, in public, will carry the point home.

Yes, you’re having a really bad day.

For sure.

That was a part of my yesterday, when two of my Art History students had simultaneous meltdowns. On the last day of class. Of course a year that has pushed me harder than a crowd of Walmart shoppers on Black Friday would end on such a note.

Pure. Bloody. Chaos.

It was my first time teaching this demographic before. And this class as well. (Intro to Art) So I needed to suss out the capabilities of my students, over the course of the term. Stunned, I found that half the class failed a mid-term I felt was pretty easy.

Then I heard most teachers resorted to doing open-book-open-notes tests all the time. My wife suggested I pivot to a final presentation, rather than a test, to avoid causing further stress upon them. (Some left entire pages blank, in pure freak out mode. I had to curve the thing 16 points, in the end.)

Cue yesterday, when the shit really hit the fan. Their presentations were so bad that pure plagiarism from the Internet, read aloud with many mispronunciations, became good work by comparison.

One student did a presentation on Michael Angelo. (Tony Angelo’s older brother?)

I suppose I ought to take some of the blame, as an instructor. I could have been more clear about my expectations.

But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t get through to people.

Other times, though, you can see Art make a difference in someone’s life. As a form of communication, it is something to behold. You witness it, and are reminded why this work is so important, poor pay be damned.

I had two photo students this semester who both used a photography project to conquer some deeply held fears. Both reconciled themselves; succeeding in ways our class simply couldn’t believe. One regained the ability to drive, after making pictures about a terrible car accident; the other confronted PTSD.

Art works because it allows people to take control over how they release their energy into the world. Instead of repressing rage, which eventually surfaces in violence and/or misery, we can transform it into a beautiful or ugly piece of art.

Making things is a transformative process: it takes what’s inside us, and births it into the world.

It allows for catharsis.

I saw it so many times, in the decade I worked with at-risk teenagers in Taos. It’s inspiring, the way they embrace creativity so easily at that age.

Their intelligence is there. They’re as smart as adults. They just don’t have the life experience to know what the world is about, nor the emotional maturity, and often have strong triggers from coming up hard.

I once had a student who would walk home 4 miles from work, getting in after 1am, just to wake up at 6 to get ready for high school again.

Kids who had nothing handed to them in life.

Kids like that often end up in the juvenile justice system, at some point. And what exactly does that look like?

I just put down “Corrections,” by Zora J Murff, recently published by Ain’t Bad Press, with a foreword by Pete Brook, noted expert about America’s Prison System, and author of the blog Prison Photography.

The object is genuinely beautiful, with a turquoise cover that makes me think of the Four Corners, and a graphic icon, meant to evoke the panopticon, that looks like a distorted Zia from there as well. (Navajo Nation, for the uninitiated.)

Pete’s intro suggests, but does not declare, that Mr. Murff worked inside the corrections system, in Iowa, minding the tracking devices placed on teenagers within “the system.” Kids who’d committed offenses, obviously, but not so bad they had to be in juvenile detention. (Jail.)

Apparently, GPS accuracy means the government really can know where ankle-tagged people are at any given time. How degrading is that? Is it not 1000 times better than being locked up?

Well, we get to see and feel what it’s like, in these exceedingly well-made photographs. We’ve seen this book type before, maybe the Christian Patterson-style of mixing up all different sub-genres: historical, paper documents, still lives, portraits. (Surely, there were people who did it before CP, but you know what I’m talking about.)

The ankle bracelet, followed by a blurred portrait, and then all the other people are shot with faces obscured. Not by big blocks or dots, but by gesture. A hood, an arm, a turned body. They don’t want us to know who they are, but they want us to know their stories.

Fair enough.

The clean graphic design on this book, the high quality of the pictures, the substantial feel, create a platform for emotions to translate.

Sadness chief among them.

There’s a document on page 53. (See photo below.) An orientation pod assignment. Sample questions? I am at my best when: never. I feel proud when: never. The happiest day in my life was: hasn’t happened.

Heartbreaking stuff.

I really felt it. I look at so many books, as you well know, but few get under my skin.

You could say that these kids are lucky. It’s much better than being in jail. But the vibe here is that they’re not lucky at all. They’re caught in a feedback-loop incarceration system that is ruining millions of lives and costing billions of dollars.

How often do we REALLY contemplate that our governments send billions of tax dollars to private corporations to incarcerate people for profit? Or that the failed drug war is enriching corporations, while devastating countless communities on both sides of the US-Mexico border. (Who gets rich off of opioid epidemics? Cartels, pharmaceutical companies and private prisons.)

A book like this can make you think about such things.

The epilogue states that Mr. Murff in fact worked as a “Tracker” in Iowa for 3 years, 2012-15. He worked within this corrections system, and was likely in charge of many of the young people in this book. (Unless the pictures are staged.) He had to go on the trauma rides with them, and presumably it was a stressful experience. (The very-well written statement confirms as much.)

One could easily see this art project, making the pictures for the book, even the book itself, as the product of one artist’s personal catharsis.

Composting stress into beauty. Getting our attention, and turning it towards larger issues plaguing this great country of ours.

Bottom Line: Beautiful book about life inside the system

To Purchase “Corrections” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sara Terry

by Jonathan Blaustein

I am blessed.

We all are, actually. If you’re reading this, I feel confident stating that you have a good life.

Or good enough.

The fact that you have Internet access, the proper device, and an interest in photography means you’re doing OK. You most certainly have challenges in your life.

We all do.

But in general, we, the global photography community, are doing pretty well for ourselves.

That much is true.

It’s often said we grow through struggle. Difficulty forces change, promotes wisdom. In my own life experience, I’d have to agree. How we handle adversity becomes a marker of our character, and the adversity itself becomes a guide.

As lovely as my children are, for example, when my son was born, 8.5 years ago, I was unprepared. He was difficult, perhaps, and I was stressed out, for sure.

But I felt more misery than joy during the first 6 months of his life. I did not feel blessed, despite my good fortune.

There were only a few times, in half a year, when Theo and I both felt at peace. My wife had recently gotten me an Ipod for my birthday, which we couldn’t afford, but it turned out to be a godsend.

I’d put on music by the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars, take Theo in my arms, and we would dance. Again and again, to the same songs, which spoke tales of faraway places I’d likely never see. (Sample lyric: “When two elephants are fighting, the grass they must suffer.”)

The songs, which spoke of misery and the abuse of power, contained a joy that was infectious. We danced, my son and I, and for those few moments, everything was OK. The music healed us, temporarily, and I can still see it in my mind’s eye, as if I were a spirit, looming below the ceiling, watching it all unfold.

That is what I know of Sierra Leone. It is one of many countries in Africa that have a history of war, bloodshed, and graphic violence that we frankly can’t understand, here in the West. We have no context; no frame of reference to comprehend gang rapes, and hands hacked off with machetes.

Thank god for that.

But other people in this world, people who had the misfortune of being born to different parents, they have lived through such things. Day after day.

They say life is not fair, but I’d suggest aphorisms have no place in the discussion of such tragedy.

Art, on the other hand, can communicate reality in a way that opens our imaginations up to places otherwise unattainable. Art, I’ve seen with my own eyes, can make a difference.

In this particular case, I’m thinking of “Chapter Four,” a recent newsprint publication by Sara Terry, which showed up in my mailbox the other week.

Wow, is this thing powerful.

I met Sara at FotoFest in March, at a dinner party thrown by a mutual friend. She was clearly a force-of-nature type person, and I have a soft spot for such folks. When I claimed to be grounded and secure with myself, she immediately asked if I that meant I was in therapy?

I calmly said yes, as I was not embarrassed to admit it.

But it was a telling moment. She was confident in her query, unafraid to risk offense. There was a strength in her gaze, and though I knew little about her art practice, (but I had heard her name before,) I had no doubt she was good at what she did.

Turns out, Sara is a filmmaker, a Guggenheim fellow, a former journalist, a photographer, and the founder of the Aftermath Project. She has spent more time in Africa than I’ve spent writing these columns over the last 5 years, and that’s saying something.

The newspaper tells stories of a forgiveness and reconciliation project, called Fambul Tok, that she worked on in Sierra Leone, after the country’s long civil war came to a close. It speaks of atrocity, yes, but focuses on redemption and love.

It is a treatise on the power of forgiveness, and the magical healing that comes from offering apology, admitting wrongdoing, and submitting to the judgement of one’s community.

Holy shit, is this an amazing story. Apparently, in village after village, perpetrators of violence were welcomed back into the fold, such was the power of these ceremonies.

Sara is a good writer, and manages to share tidbits of other people’s tales, dripping with empathy, embedded within her own first-person narrative. Under the guidance of a local activist named John Caulker, she documented a forgiveness project based around communal bonfires in far-flung villages across the country.

The photographs, far from serving as illustration, give us a way to connect to what we’re reading. It’s simply a lovely publication, one rife with inspiration, and something I think I’ll turn to when I’m feeling really low, going forward.

It feels like it might become a totem, the equivalent of those Refugee Allstars songs that saved me once, when I was drowning in misery, rather than basking in joy.

I’m not sure if these newspapers are readily available, so this might be one review where you get all you can from me, rather than being able to put your hands on it yourself.

As such, I’m writing about it as a proxy. I’d hope that you’ll take a minute, over your coffee, your lunch break, or even on the subway, and remember that no matter how bad your day is going, you are extremely fortunate.

And to the many of you out there, working on your own stories of redemption, starting your own NGO’s, and devoting yourself to the downtrodden: we salute you.

Bottom Line: Striking, almost magical publication about the power of forgiveness

UPDATE: Chapter Four is part of a ten-year-long, six-chapter project called Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa. It’s available as part of a handmade, limited edition (50) artist’s book, available on the project website: http://www.forgivenessandconflict.com

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Photographers Quarterly Issue no. 4

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When you name your magazine Photographer’s Quarterly, there’s an implicit promise of 4 issues a year.

I get it.

But I’m famous for my honesty, so here comes a dose. When I first pitched Rob on the idea for PQ, I had a lot more time on my hands. Back then, hours might fly by, unaccounted for.

But my life changed.

I took on a new job, with more responsibility than I could reasonably handle. As a result, I’ve been constantly behind this school year.

I apologize. Mea culpa. Je regrette.

This issue was edited with Winter in mind, as I expected to have it ready in February. That’s the truth.

Now it’s May, and many of us are thinking of Summer. Will we squeeze in three more issues in 2016? Perhaps. I guess. (But it’s not bloody likely.)

That said, the last four weeks here in Taos have been a bombardment of snow. Winter, which took a hiatus in a beautiful run of March and February weather, came at us hard this Spring.

I write this not two days after our most recent snow storm, on May fucking first, when flakes fell from the sky like dollars raining down at an Atlanta strip joint. (Random reference, yes, but you get the point.)

Speaking of getting to the point, I’d like to introduce the artists we’re highlighting in this, the Spring issue of Photographer’s Quarterly. As usual, we’ve aggregated cool photo projects for your perusal. Though they were originally envisioned as being elegies to, or respites from, Winter’s icy gaze, now they’ll have to stand in for rebirth, renewal, and all the good juju Spring has to offer.

Not that we favor the famous here at PQ, but today, we’ll start off with a small sample of pictures from the legendary Emmet Gowin.

Though he’s super-well-known for his family pictures from the 60’s, and his environmental, aerial work later on, this particular group of photos, from early this millennium, has not been widely seen.

It includes butterflies, made in Central America, and images of his lovely wife Edith, who has aged along with Emmet. Though Nick Nixon is more renown for giving us proof of the ravages of time on flesh, by photographing Edith later in life, Emmet has produced a counterpoint to the vision of his sassy beloved, pissing on a barn-wood floor in Virginia.

I’ve seen Paula McCartney’s work around the web a lot in the last few years. Unfortunately, I still haven’t seen it on the wall. But her project “A Field Guide to Snow and Ice” is simply beautiful. Not much explication needed here, but I suspect you’ll dig the pictures.

I met Chris Kleighe at the Filter Festival in Chicago last Fall. Such a great guy. He showed me a book of his photographs taken at Caral, an ancient site in Peru that’s recently been proved the oldest in the Americas. Its 5000 year old society changes the historical narrative, as we now know that the Western Hemisphere had a major settlement as old as Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia.

The pictures are pretty excellent, as they document the ruins in various types of light, and mashup closeups of art objects with sky shots of geoglyphs made from a hot air balloon. Chris is passionate about spreading the word, as archaeological knowledge often takes a long time to codify, and Caral has only been understood in the last decade or so.

I also met Laura Husar Garcia at Filter, though not during the reviews. (We threw back a few drinks at a party.) Luckily, I got to see some of her work when I judged the Critical Mass competition last year. Her project about aging Nuns is obviously poignant. Rarely does the choice of black and white end up being this crucial, but it works perfectly here.

Niko J. Kallianiotis emailed me to check out his work late last year. We try to include viewer submissions here in PQ when possible, I really liked his pictures from his native Greece, though he’s currently based in the US. All year long, we’ve heard about the migrant crisis in Europe, and how it’s affecting Greece. (Unless the stories focus on Greece’s nightmare economy.)

Furthermore, when most people are jonesing for Summer, they dream of perfect Aegean beaches, cold beer, and salty spanakopita. (At least I do.) So I thought this group of pictures, which presents a more mundane reality, was a cool thing to show you guys.

We’ll thank Critical Mass again for introducing me to the work of Cheryl Medow. Her project photographing exotic birds is not something I’d normally show, as it lacks that edgy, weird vibe I like to highlight here at PQ. But man, are these pictures compelling.

I think it’s predominantly the hyperreal aesthetic, as the creatures look like they were birthed in Maya, or some other rendering software, rather than coming out of eggs kept warm by their mother’s bottoms. And thinking of Tropics might just get us through the last few cold snaps, before Summer is here in earnest.

Last, but of course not least, we have the work of Caleb Cain Marcus. I’ve reviewed two of his books in APE already, and am officially bringing the first project back here, as a long-form photo essay, because I like it so much.

These pictures depict real glaciers. Mountains of ice on which the artist actually walked. But his manipulation of scale, and savvy digital skills, have rendered the subjects as hyperreal as Ms. Medow’s birds.

We’re killing this planet because people are so disconnected from the natural world, and from the consequences of their actions. These photographs, which make real nature look so discomfiting and artificial, are the perfect way to honor the vulnerable victims of our collective appetite for consumption.

This Week In Photography Books: Emma Phillips

by Jonathan Blaustein

My kids love yogurt pretzels.

I do too.

For some reason, they seem better-for-you than other kinds of dessert. Maybe it’s the word yogurt in the title? Makes them seem like a health food, rather than sugar-covered-salty-snacks.

Maybe if their official name was “sugar-covered-salty-snacks,” I wouldn’t buy them. I’d stick with 80% dark chocolate, or some other sweet snack that makes you feel bougie and special.

Like fruit.

We all love the yogurt pretzels because the combination of salty and sweet makes your tongue feel like it’s on a vacation in the Bahamas. The palm trees are swaying gently in the breeze. Island music bellows in the background, with plenty of steel drum.

Wait. Where was I?

Right.
Yogurt pretzels.

We expect our sweets to be sweet, but when you throw in the element of salt, your taste buds get a bit confused. But they like it. They really like it.

Our bodies have a taste for a salt for a very good reason. If we don’t get enough, we die.

Say what now?

That’s right. Without enough salt, we die. Humans need it. We may see it primarily as a flavor enhancer for our food, but it’s actually a vital, essential mineral, necessary for survival.

Who knew?

I did, mostly because I made friends with a salt merchant back in 2014. His name is Frank, and I really owe him a visit. (He has a store in Santa Fe called Olive Grove.)

I met Frank a couple of summers ago, and fell in love with the beauty and mystery surrounding his high-end salt crystals. Expensive stuff from Iran, Australia, Korea, that sort of thing. (Fancy food in Santa Fe? Quelle surprise!)

With Frank’s input, I learned that salt used to be the world’s most precious commodity, because of the whole life-or-death thing. It was traded around the world, worth more than gold, and was actually used as money.

Yet most of us see it as a processed, Morton-sponsored food item that causes hypertension if you eat too much of it. We love it on our chips, in our guacamole, and on just about everything you can imagine.

But rarely do we see it decontextualized. Which is odd, given its potential symbolic resonance. If you don’t eat enough, you die. If you eat too much, you die.

How’s that for a symbol?

Needless to say, I was very intrigued when I reached into my book stack, and pulled out an oversized, light-cream-colored offering. There was no name on it, and nothing to speak of, beyond one word: salt.

I opened it up, and missed the title page. All I saw were beautiful, slightly oversaturated pictures of a salt mine.

Somewhere.

I’ll always have a soft-spot for minimalism, and admitted last week, for the 100th time, that I love to see things I haven’t seen before. So I enjoyed these pictures almost as much as…
a yogurt pretzel?

Page after page shows us different visions of what I assume is one salt mine, somewhere. We get a picture of a camper parked on some salt flats.

Nevada?

I have no idea, because as I turned, page after page, I found no supporting material at all. I actually had to start over, and be very careful, just to find the artist’s name on the first page: Emma Phillips.

There are no titles, no statements, no captions. Nothing but salt, in its natural form, and the trucks used to move it around.

Hell, I don’t even know who published the damn thing. But I like the book a lot. It’s beautiful, and graceful, and even soft, in a way. (Are the pictures just a tad soft-focus? It’s hard to tell…)

Unlike its subject, there is nothing vital about this book. It feels like a luxury item. Well-made, understated, and in no great hurry to brag about itself. (Like Frank’s expensive salt in Santa Fe.)

This one is very cool, and I wish I could tell you more about it. But Emma Phillips thought her pictures spoke for themselves, and who am I to argue?

Bottom Line: Beautiful book about a salt mine, somewhere…

To Purchase “Salt” visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Colin Delfosse

by Jonathan Blaustein

I quit my job last month.

No, not this job. (Obviously.) I resigned as the Chair of the Art Dept at UNM-Taos, as of the end of this semester. Administrative work, it turns out, is not for me.

As you might have gathered, from the random comment here or there, the experience was not exactly smooth. I gave it my best, but institutional politics are notoriously bad, and everyone knows colleges and universities are the worst.

I’m here to report that the clichés are spot on. (Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, you know?)

What surprised me most was the degree of combativeness, and sheer aggression, that some people displayed over issues that in the “normal” world, would seem absurd. People screaming in my face about changes to lab hours.

Shrieks of anger at anodyne art exhibitions on the wall. Death stares from people who objected to my age, my attitude, or just my existence, it seemed.

Fortunately, that kind of battle puts hair on your chest. (Cliché #2. How many might I drop in one column?)

I got in my share of fights, growing up, as I had a propensity to stand up to bullies, and a proud streak that did me no favors. But I’ve learned over the years how to get along with others and assumed those skills would suffice.

But sometimes it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes, you have to embrace the drama. Accept the trappings of ritualized combat, and let the chips fall where they may. (Cliché #3)

Honestly, I’m rambling about such things having just put down “Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet,” a new book by Colin Delfosse, recently published by Éditions 77.

My lead-in might be a little weak this week, but there’s nothing soft about this book, I assure you. The design is cool, with primary colors announcing their intentions to impress.

And so it does.

Unless you read this column to punish yourself, like a Penitente in the Morada, you must enjoy some of the recurring themes. One I mention often is that my favorite part of this job is getting to see things I’ve never seen before.

If I pick up a book, and get to enter a world I didn’t know existed, there’s a good chance I’ll review the book. Unless, you know, the pictures suck.

This book transports us into the world of “professional” wrestling in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’m guessing that even with our Global audience, none of you know too much about the subject either.

The photographs are pretty excellent, and more than a little dramatic. They remind me just a bit of Pieter Hugo’s “Nollywood,” but only tangentially. Those pictures took heat for presenting exploitative visions of African men, so I guess some people might ask the same questions here.

But the book’s text clearly explains that the props, the outfits, the implications of spiritual power in totems, the appropriation of witch doctor garb, it’s all what’s actually done in wrestling culture.

No artifice necessary.

The book switches to horizontal orientation about half-way through, and a brief essay is followed by more pictures, this time with captions. I often commend books that break up the narrative, and allow for a flow-change within the viewing experience.

It keeps our interest, and lets us know the design team seriously considers how to communicate properly.

So we’re granted badass pictures of an obviously fascinating subculture, in a place most of us will never visit, with a beautiful color palette for the object, a creative use of narrative structure, and the chance to voyeuristically peek in on a wrestling world that would probably make Hulk Hogan crap his pants.

What’s not to like?

Bottom Line: Beautiful book that shows us some genuinely weird shit.

To Purchase “Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet” Visit Photo-Eye

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Mary Virginia Swanson, Executive Director of the LOOK3 Festival

 

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Jonathan Blaustein: Full disclosure. I’ve known you for years, as a client and a friend. I am on the record in multiple places as being a huge fan of you as a person, and the work that you do.

Mary Virginia Swanson: Yes. Thank you.

JB: You’re welcome. I’m may not be impartial here, but I also have some inside knowledge as to how you operate, and why so many people think highly of you.

MVS: Thank you. I absolutely think that you are a fan of my teaching, and the way I think about the industry.

JB: Right.

MVS: So I’m really happy to have this opportunity to tell you about my latest venture.

JB: Honestly, our readers at APE know me for the 21st Century Hustle, and there are clearly elements of that philosophy that I’ve cribbed from working with you. So in that regard, I apologize if I’ve ever stolen too brazenly.

MVS: No, that’s a compliment. You know when your teachings get carried out into the world that’s a compliment.

JB: Fair enough. I’ll take that as apology accepted. So many people know of your reputation, and that you’ve had a really long career in the industry. You’ve done so many different things- you ran a stock agency, you’ve done consulting, you’ve published books, but the big news is that you recently accepted the position as the Executive Director of the LOOK3 Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia.

MVS: Correct.

JB: And this was in September of 2015. Is that right?

MVS: That is correct. The festival is always in June, and in hiatus for the summer months afterwards. We’ll to be working into the beginning of July, but then we go quiet for a couple of months. It was during that period in 2015 after the close of the ’15 festival that I got a call from Nick Nichols, who is a longtime friend of mine, and one of the founders of LOOK3.

He asked if I would be interested in taking on the leadership of LOOK3. So we embarked on a period of time where I was being interviewed, my husband and I came here to Charlottesville to meet the board, meet staff and just check everything out. I think it was September 8th, we announced that I was accepting the position, and we had a board meeting a week later and began to start to plan this year’s festival. And now we’re just under two months out. We’re ready to roll.

JB: You say it so casually, but was that phone call out of the blue? Did you have any inkling that they were thinking about you? Had you put out little feelers? Walk us through how this happens, because it seems like a big deal.

MVS: Well it is a big deal, and I should say that I’ve been aware of the festival of course throughout its life.

JB: Of course.

MVS: It is a long ways from home. As you know, I often teach at the Santa Fe workshops in the summertime, and some years it just wasn’t on my calendar that I could make it. Other years it fell smack on my birthday and I travel so much that that’s one time that I try to be home with my family.

It was in 2013 that Nick and his team called to ask me, or 2012 I should say, to be part of the 2013 festival. I was thrilled to be able to do that, and I helped them organize some panels, and taught a seminar myself on sustaining your long-term personal projects. That happened to be the seminar that I was giving.

The education was held at the front end, and I remember Nick came by to visit my classroom and say hello, and we had lunch and he said, “Take a good look around at this festival because someday I’d like to have you a lot more involved.”

JB: That was a big ‘ol hint dropped right in your lap.

MVS: Yeah, it was a big hint, and it gave me a chance, to be in the audience for all the talks, and see all the exhibits and the other components. It was wonderful, and we actually did embark on some pretty heavy conversations about my taking over the festival at that time in ’13…

JB: At that time.

MVS: But my family life is in Tucson, and I wasn’t willing to move permanently to Charlottesville. The board wasn’t willing to take that on at that point. They did hire someone who was willing to move, and then they came back to me again when that person had resigned.

At the end of the ’15 festival, we opened the conversation again. At that point, they made it clear from the get-go that if we came to an agreement, that I would not have to move. So we built my contract based on me being able to stay in Tucson; to stay visible in the field which of course is a plus for LOOK3 as well and here we are.

I did agree to be in Charlottesville for just about three months leading up to the festival, and obviously I’ve been here periodically throughout the year meeting local stakeholders, and working closely with my colleague Lisa Draine, long time Festival Director. It’s a fantastic community.

UVA is an extraordinary presence in this town, and it’s a really cultured environment that embraces photography in our world so I couldn’t be happier.

JB: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. I had a hard time imagining somebody like you, who’s so methodical in the way you’ve built your own career, and the way you teach people, that it would have been a random thing.

MVS: And I should say going backwards that when I was first out of graduate school at ASU in Tempe, my first full time job was at the Friends of Photography in Carmel as you know, Jonathan.

JB: Working with Ansel Adams.

MVS: I coordinated education programs there as a young person in the field, and one of the workshops that we did was called “The Photograph as Document,” and there were five faculty members on it: Burk Uzzle, Danny Lyon, Morrie Camhi, Louis Carlos Bernal and a young woman named Mary Ellen Mark.

One of my students in that workshop was a young photographer named Michael K. Nichols. So Nick and I have known each other since 1983. The following year, when Ansel passed away, I moved to New York to work for Magnum, and Nick and Eli Reed were the two Magnum nominees that year.

So we went into next phase of our lives together, and Nick ended up making a big decision, which was wonderful for him, to become staff at National Geographic, and do the extraordinary natural history work that he’s done all of his career.

We stayed in touch as best we could through those years, and our relationship has really been rooted in teaching. When I got to Magnum, I organized the first all-Magnum faculty workshops as well that Nick participated in. To be fair, we really had this strong link to education all the way back to the earliest points in our career.

JB: That’s a perfect little segue. I was so curious personally, and as a proxy for our audience, as to how Swanee becomes the head of a historic and important festival. So after the first question, how did you get the job, I wanted to hit you with something broader.

Why do you love photography so much?

MVS: Photography for me has always been a connector. I think people that are involved in music and performing arts, we all feel that if there’s something in our life that draws us together; that gives us a conversation, and challenges us, and causes us to love things more. It’s a wonderful thing.

I grew up in a family that was the household that everybody hung out at. And my parents were both very involved professionally in gatherings. My father organized conferences in his industry, and in junior high and in high school, I used to go with him conferences that he was running. My mom was very much a community leader. So we all had our thing and for me, it was specifically photography.

I’ll tell you one thing that really rocked my world as a young person was my hometown curator in Minneapolis was named Ted Hartwell, and he did the first big Richard Avedon show of his private portraiture. It was an extraordinary, wild, crazy installation with images that were of the “Chicago Seven” that were pasted on canvas that was fraying on the edges that was the size of the walls.

He and Marvin Israel, the designer, and Diane Arbus came in to install the show and they painted the floors and the ceilings and everything was wild and it was completely different than growing up with Life Magazine and National Geographic and all and it just made me realize that it could be a completely different kind of communication tool.

JB: Sounds wild.

MVS: I’d seen a lot of how photographs had landed in the artists of the ‘60’s Rauschenberg, etc, because the Walker Arts Center is also in Minneapolis. It’s a contemporary museum, but there was something about that Avedon show, and seeing how different it was presented in the printed age, that made me feel like there was a lot more that we could communicate to each other with.

I never forgot that as I was doing my studies, and learning more about the history of photography. Understanding how important that whole notion of personal work was to Avedon, at the time. As soon as I got into college, I was organizing student art shows, and worked at our museum. I also became the student director of our photography gallery, and it just became this great point of contact for me. For my family, it was other things that drew people together. For me it was photography.

Jonathan: And you got a degree as a practitioner, I believe?

Mary Virginia: Yeah, I have an MFA. I had done my undergraduate, in fact, at ASU in ceramics. I was always interested in art history, and in museum and gallery work, having worked as an undergrad at our university art museum. Those were my three areas.

As I took more and more photography and history of photography classes from Bill Jay, everything came together for me with photography. The museum and gallery aspect of it, the art history aspect of it, and the making work– all three came together, and it was like this explosion.

I often find myself saying this to students, that when you find the thing that you love the most, it will seem like there’s a thousand times more energy that comes out of you that you never knew you had.

Just everything connected for me around photography, and it was at that time that I started my involvement in Society for Photographic Education as a volunteer. We organized a regional conference during my graduate studies there, and I really came to know that we were a community.

JB: OK.

MVS: I’ll tell you another kind of funny thing that happened. At the end of my undergraduate studies, there was an NPPA conference that was coming to Phoenix. It takes different form right now, but in those days, it was called the Flying Short Course. It would a five or six city thing, with five or six different people on this tour.

There was always an artist, and sometimes a curator and a photo editor. I went down to this conference-style hotel for the NPPA Flying Short Course, and the person that stood out to me the most was Mary Ellen Mark. She was just back from her Fulbright in Turkey, and had just started Ward 81. I thought, “My god! This is a much broader world of photography than I’d ever imagined! And she was so courageous. I just was so impressed with her work, and her bravery. Everything about what she was engaging in, and that too really combined for me to feel like this is a community that I want to be a part of…

JB: I had to break in for a second, because I did want to ask you a pointed question. From shortly after you got your degree, you joined the business side of the career, and you’ve been involved in so many different areas of photography that way. But do you still make work? Was there a point in which you made time for your own practice, or did your sort of immersion in the photo-community-at-large satisfy your creative yearnings?

MVS: I made pictures on the way home from work today. I make pictures constantly. What I’m not doing as much of as I would like to is printing work, and that’s sort of just the nature of the beast now, isn’t it, that we’re able to make pictures constantly and still be satisfied by them.

When I was working for the Friends of Photography in Carmel, I started shooting color neg for the first time. I still yearn for the darkroom, of course, but I make pictures constantly. Thousands of pictures all the time. I love my Instagram feed. That’s where people see things most.

JB: Right, well that’s where I know you shoot, but I think you understood the spirit of the question. You haven’t pursued it as art, or there were phases where you have or —

MVS: When I finished up my undergraduate degree, I was completely torn, because I was already applying to graduate schools in ceramics, but by then the photography bug and the art history bug and the museum studies all had wrapped around photography. And so Bill Jay helped me out, and he got me an internship.

I had a really good friend that had moved to London, and Bill got me an internship at the Royal Photographic Society, and also I worked four days a week for something called the Half Moon Photography Workshop. At the time, it was the largest grant the arts council had ever given to photography. I made work for that year before I applied to graduate school, because obviously I had to have a portfolio for graduate school.

JB: Of course.

MVS: And then when I got into graduate school I started spending summers and Christmases interning for Ted Harwell back in my home town museum (Minneapolis Institute of Art). What I came to learn in that period of time, and also running the student gallery on campus, was that I love working with photographs, and I loved working with photographers.

I did do my thesis show, I got all through that, I’m really proud of the work that I did, but when I finished up my degree, I really did not have the bug to be a commercial photographer, a fine art photographer or a full-time teacher.

I wanted to work with photographs and with photographers. I looked for a place that I could work that would give me exposure to lots of different types of things in the field, because we didn’t really have jobs that would be defined like that. I think there’s a lot more opportunities to do that now with online magazines, with all different kinds of collections collecting photography that hadn’t before, and agencies, it’s just a different world.

But at that time, I applied for the job at the Friends of Photography in Carmel because they had workshops, they gave grants, we had an exhibition space and we published photobooks. So those four initiatives were things I knew I could learn from, and I wanted to just sink myself into an experience that touched on all those things.

It’s where I really came to love all those things, which are still part of my practice and my teachings. With publishing, and being on top of helping all of the artists understand how to sustain their long term projects, whether it’s grant writing, or corporate funding. All those things that project from the “Friends of Photography” are still part of what I’m engaged in today.

JB: Your message may have been honed in the 80’s, but it resonates quite a bit in the 21st Century.

MVS: The things I talk about in my lectures with students today are what I learned from different mentors along the way. I certainly learned about community working with Ansel at the Friends of Photography. There’s no question about it. But when Ansel passed away, and I went to work for Magnum, that was a step into a completely different business role.

Yes, I knew about the gallery world, I had worked for Janet Borden at the Robert Freidus Gallery.

But I had no idea what I was walking into at Magnum. I was there to do book projects and exhibitions, so I was still working in my area, but overhearing a new language of business was a mind blower to me. When I stepped into Magnum, I realized that there was a completely different world that we hadn’t had any idea about. You can get all the way through an MFA program, and never hear the word licensing, or certainly not hear stock photography.

But when I got there, I realized that the world was much bigger than I had imagined, in terms of photography, and the power of communication with excellent photographs.

From that point forward, I became an agent, and stepped into wearing many, many more hats, which you know from knowing my teaching, is really all rolled up into one. It’s all part of being a responsible professional in the industry, and my strong encouragement for photographers to understand as many possible outlets for their work, and that each one has a different vocabulary.

Each one has a different deliverable, each one has a different contract, and that to me was like a crash course when I stepped into that role at Magnum, and realized that of course their business model involved all of those.

Jonathan: You were still in maybe your late 20’s, it sounds like?

Mary Virginia: Yeah late 20’s, early 30’s my years in New York. Very, very interesting time in the industry. I’ll never forget this. The very first day that I was at Magnum, I was there to create books and exhibitions from their archive.

Mind you I’d worked in museums, I’d worked in galleries. To me an archive looked a certain way, had a certain filing system. I walked into Magnum, and it was a sea of four-drawer filing cabinets stacked high. You open the file drawer, and everyone’s work was smashed together in these brown manila folders, under headings like “Sibling Rivalry” or “Paris Skyline” or “South of France”, or an emotion like “Cooperation.”

I could not believe my eyes. It was a totally different way of thinking of filing images, or certainly there’s a different language of finding them. I remember Bruce Davidson saying to me that very first day, “Swanee, this is how we’ve been making a living all these years.”

And if you looked hard in the files you’d see that under “Sibling Rivalry” there would be some of his “East 100 Street” work or some of Susan Mieselas’ work with the children in the Americas, or in the dogs category of course it would be Elliot Erwitt. Everything made sense, but what I realized was they were inverting, or taking apart personal projects, and filing them in all these different categories. Cross referencing like mad.

Jonathan: It was like analog tagging.

Mary Virginia: All analog tagging at the time. It made me realize for artists, the best thing that could happen would be to have an exhibition. Even better if it traveled, and even better if it had a catalog, but ultimately in our fine art world, when a body of work was done and the tour was on, we kind of thought of that as old work.

People moved on to the next body of work, and it didn’t have a second life, like the licensing world was affording. For me, it was a super-interesting time in the power of photography.

We were finding that there was a generation of people coming into the decision-making chairs, be they photo editors, or graphic designers or art directors, who’d grown up with cameras and had a different perspective. The metaphor could be king.

Things didn’t have to be quite so literal as they had been in the past, but there wasn’t really an agency bringing that quality of work together.

So at that point I called all my friends that owned galleries and said, “Listen, you’re missing this market for your artists. There’s a whole other world of people who can use the images, and it can help support their personal work. People like gallery owner Terry Etherton were saying, “Oh Swan you should do that. We don’t know anything about that, you should do that.”

I just kept paying attention to all that, and more and more often friends were calling and saying, “Hey I don’t know how to read this contract that I just got from somebody. Can you read this for me? Can you call them?” So I’d call people up and say, “Oh by the way, how did you find Sally Gall?” And they’d say, “We subscribe to Aperture. We subscribe to this.”

Or, “We saw their exhibition.” It made me realize that decision-making group is really in a situation now where they can use great work, and that it can help photographers by functioning, not as a primary market, but rather as a second market. That helped me to become confident in starting something called Swanstock, with Gordon Stettinius (of Candela Books & Gallery in Richmond) as my right hand person all those years, we were learning about all these other opportunities that of course continue on in all of our practice today.

JB: So let’s jump forward for a second then. Listening to you talk, even despite my glowing intro, people can hear the depth of your experience. But at this point in your career, you travel all the time, you’re super established, you teach, you have private clients. Just because LOOK3 offered you the job and said you didn’t have to move, you didn’t have to take it. Why did you decide that this was something you wanted to do at this point in your life?

Why did you say yes?

MVS: I have to tell you, I was so moved by the Festival in ’13. The education was rock solid, the lineup of photographers was so interesting, and so much of it was a surprise. I felt like if I could have a hand in making this festival happen every year, I could in fact impact more people than I could on my own.

I looked at that potential for growing education, and it was really was something that the board and I came together on. They were very interested in me from that perspective, I could bring relevant education to the table. I think that’s where the match was really made and happened was the education component.

JB: So how does an education program at a festival differ from a school or a workshop business? How do you guys differentiate it, or what do you try to offer your community that they might not be getting elsewhere?

MVS: Well first of all, I know from teaching at exceptional places like Santa Fe Workshops and Anderson Ranch and Aperture that there are many places that do their kind of education really, really well. I would never want LOOK3 to be those places. There are lots of organizations to go and spend a week with a photographer.

There are not a lot of places to go and have education and inspiration for photographers at levels of accomplishment, and at all ages.

I feel like our industry is changing so fast, and I get just as many questions from photographers that have been successful in one thing all their life that now are wanting to expand.

Maybe they’ve never talked to a gallery before, or a fine art photographer that’s never had an opportunity to talk to an advertising art director before, or someone hasn’t had any licensing experience but in fact they have unique work that could make a difference in communication.

So that’s the perspective that I brought to it. I feel like it’s just as important a time, frankly, for teachers – an essential time for teachers to be completely current on where this industry is going, as best as we can predict it at this time. That’s been my mission behind putting together education for this year, and my hope is that our education stays incredibly relevant. That it changes out every year to be what people need. And that’s what excites me the most. That’s what I’ve built for this year for LOOK3 in terms of education. We’ve also added a lot of community engagement.

JB: What are some of the programs this year?

MVS: The first thing that we’ve got, I’m hoping that people will travel in on the Tuesday which is the 14th –

JB: Of June.

MVS: Because that night, Tuesday night, we’re hosting the PDN 30 Emerging Photographers panel. I reached out to PDN about this, because I feel like it’s the perfect way to begin to think about the education that’s happening in the next two days after that. To start to focus on what is that path?

How does a photographer set out in the world today? What are the marketing paths that have worked and haven’t worked for them? Where do they find their inspiration?

I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to hear Holly Hughes moderate that panel, but it’s not to be missed. I love it. Everywhere I’ve ever seen it, it’s been completely engaging. Then, the next morning, we have two seminar days back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday.

I’ve designed it to be such that the Wednesday is all about your work, and the Thursday is all about your audience. On Wednesday, I wanted to have a day that would be an overview of all the different tools that we use, in terms of technology to be creative. Not just how we make work, but how we publish work, how we deliver work, how we share work, how technology impacts everything. I call that day creativity meets technology.

I asked Jim Estrin from the Lens Blog to moderate that day, he and Andrew Mendelson from CUNY have helped me shape the day and will both participate. We thought a lot about what people need to know now.

We’ll start with the beginning, Andrew is going to do a kind of crash course on 1839 to the present with technology. Some of the pieces people may already know and be using, like Instagram, and the power of that tool. Other people may not know some of the other things we want to bring to the table, like understanding how we measure success in terms of sharing, the metrics of that.

We’re closing that day, for example, with Jenna Pirog who is the producer and editor of the Virtual-Reality Projects for the New York Times Magazine, so we’ll sort of end with the future.

JB: Sounds exciting.

MVS: And then Brian Storm, and we have Julie Winokur and Ed Kashi taking one of their Talking Eyes Media products apart to show us that path to finding your intention with your project. Who’s the audience for that, where do you seek funding, where do you push it out.

We’ve got the photographers from the Black Box Cooperative coming to talk about a new kind of engagement as a team, quite different than the traditional agency world, but a great example of the younger cooperatives that we see today. Lots of different things like that.

Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill from the “Everyday Africa” projects are coming to talk about the power of communication through using Instagram. Dan Milnor is going to talk about atypical publishing.

So I see that day as the kind of day where there’s something for everyone in it. It’s of great value for people who have not been in an education environment for a few years, because many of these things they may not have been experiencing before.

I love the fact that we have some young people teaching, that have been out experiencing it in the world, and I think it’s an awesome day for educators to come and have this crash course on that.

JB: What else can you tell us about?

MVS: The second day is called “Artists Meet Your Markets.” That morning is going to be a really interesting, where I have 10, probably 11 different individuals talking almost on script about what their market is, what their product is, who they’re talking to, how they deliver it, how you the artist can make a strong first impression to them.

If they choose to reach out to you to license your images for illustration, in whatever case they work in, they’ll share with you what the deliverables would be and what the contract would be.

I have people like Catherine Edelman coming and saying, I’m a Gallerist: Our audience is high-end collectors of limited edition art work. We deliver to our audience, from our store-front gallery in Chicago, and attending international art fairs. If you want to make a strong first impression, study our website, come and see what we put on the walls, read the captions, the labels, edition numbers, etc.

If we do business together, we represent you. This is what the contract will look like. The deliverables for us is that we need you to invest in an inventory for us.

The next person might be Molly Roberts from Smithsonian Magazine. She is a director of photography at a magazine. Their product delivers informational articles that are richly illustrated in American History, art, culture and science. They deliver it through their print magazine and their online presence. This is how she would say you could make a strong first impression.

This is what she would say about what the contract terms would be and the deliverables. The next person might be an art buyer at an ad agency or someone at a licensing company or someone at a media company like CNN that wants to commission new work.

My goal is that through that morning, one professional after another explains how they engage with photography and hire photographers, what their terms are, how you deliver so that the artists in the audience realize there are other opportunities for you, but each one has its own vocabulary.

Each one has its own deliverables and each market has its own contracts. If you can manage to understand all that, and speak in these different languages and understand these different terms, you have that many more opportunities to make a living with your camera.

JB: For years, you’ve been talking to photographers, and trying to educate them and open their eyes about the ways their images can cross over into other markets, and how they can introduce themselves to new audiences. To me, that sounds like you’re bringing your pure core precepts into the LOOK3 umbrella.

MVS: I agree, and I have to say it came really out of my stepping out of the fine art market only, and stepping into Magnum and realizing “Oh my god, there’s all these other markets that can help photographers support their project.”

JB: And that was Ansel Adams’ philosophy as well. I did an extensive research project about Ansel, and I got to know his business manager Bill Turnage a little bit. If people want to understand your philosophy, and they want to get a detailed message delivered by professionals across the board, they can come hear this kind of thing at LOOK3.

MVS: Exactly. But I want to tell you what happens the rest of that afternoon.

So imagine that we’ve had this morning that’s opened everybody’s eyes and minds to all these other opportunities. That afternoon we have an opportunity for people that have registered for the morning, and been through that training, essentially, to show their work to not just those ten or 11 professionals but I’ve expanded it.

I’ve added more gallerists, more publishers, more magazine editors, more advertising people, more corporate art consultants. We’re filling out this room with what would look to you and to everyone else like a typical portfolio review. But here’s the catch.

JB: BUT! There’s always a but.

MVS: But you the photographer, in this case at LOOK3, do not pick the reviewer. We call this afternoon LOOK3PITCH.

The reviewers, industry professionals, choose who they want to have a meeting with, not a critique, not a portfolio review. I want LOOK3 to be the place where all of you come and have the chance to meet people, and gain confidence in your work and confidence in that language to other markets.

Come to LOOK3 and have a chance to have proper meetings. I want you prepared. If Catherine Edelman says that she wants to see you, you better be prepared, because she considers it a meeting.

Not a critique or portfolio review but a meeting. So it’s a twist on that, and the reviewers that I’ve engaged to come are thrilled with this kind of switching out to where they get to choose. Normally what happens is what just happened at FotoFest. I’d sit down and every morning there would be my schedule.

JB: Right. I think our readers are pretty familiar with the portfolio review format, so it’s interesting to hear you flip the script. I want to pivot again briefly.

MVS: Yes.

JB: The philosophy that you espouse, that you teach, and that you encourage, it’s been around a while. We can date it back to Ansel, and your own experiences. In my opinion, you’ve had a track record of being ahead of the curve, as far as understanding industry trends.

So I would be remiss if I didn’t put you on the hot seat. You’ve been telling people they had to spread out, they had to diversify their income streams, they had to try new things.

You’ve been talking about this for years, and now everybody knows it’s true. I know you’re thinking ahead.

What’s next? Where is everything headed? We’ve seen most of the places that are going to go out of business maybe go out of business. Now, I’m starting to hear that the gallery industry, maybe, is heading towards a huge shake up? How do you see these things playing out on a five year time horizon? What do you imagine is coming down the pike?

MVS: I have to tell you, I think we are at a huge change right now. More so than we’ve seen in our professional lifetimes, with the growth of online-only, and the fact that the online presence in many cases are more important than the print presence.

It’s certainly reaching a lot more people, and now there are all these places that never intend to have print. My concerns of course are rights and fees paid, and the fact that we need all the photographers to make a living. We have a whole generation coming in now that will be photo editors that maybe never worked in print, and everyone’s on such a high learning curve it’s wild.

I’d like to think that in terms of the fine art print world, that we’re growing the diversification of our collecting audience to be much, much more broad. We see it in corporate art, we see it in some of the huge empires in the hospital world commissioning work and really engaging in that way.

The magazines we see getting smaller, the online presence getting larger. I’m very concerned about the pressure on photographers about what they can release when, because then if they say yes to one magazine then they may never get the one they really want because they’ll say it’s already out.

We are in a time of real upheaval, and I want all of those next-generation of photo editors to be at the tables with those that are sage. Those that have been in the business for years, and hopefully not only influence their capabilities, but influence their understanding of the needs for photographers to keep their rights, to be paid fairly, all of those things.

So I’m cautiously optimistic in terms of the online world. I’m more optimistic than ever in terms of the print world, the collecting world, but we’ve got to all juggle things. Everyone has to understand all of the language, so that they can dabble in all of it and see what’s going to click for them body of work by body of work. That’s not been the way we’ve been thinking before.

JB: It seems like a lot of money flooded out of the system in general. Certainly as content became free, and companies weren’t able to stay in business just selling online advertising, so there’s been an outflow of capital in some ways, but a massive in-flow of interest.

When I do these interviews, inevitably we discuss this overwhelming demand for photography. With the smart phone revolution, with Instagram, we’re looking at billions of people who now have a passion, where the overall community used to be a fraction of that.

I feel like a lot of people see this extreme interest in photography as an eventual lead-in to maybe a new phase where capital comes back in to the industry. Where people make money in different ways.

Do you feel like the growth of global interest will ultimately be commodified, or do you think it might stay discreet from the capital flow?

MVS: Tell you what gives me optimism about the capital coming back in. More and more photographers I talk to are actually challenging the rights. They’ll write someone and say ‘no, I’m not going to take this for the cover; this is the price you offered for the inside,’ or on page 1… the home page is going to cost more.

Photographers are starting to understand how to leverage the value of their brand, and actually speaking up about it. You know me well enough to know I’ve been preaching that, I preach registration and copyright, keeping a paper trail, all of those obvious things, but I’m empowered lately by the fact that I’m hearing more and more younger people rise to that.

I’ll share with you that at Photoville this year, when I had just taken the job about a week before, I ran into Jake Naughton and his colleagues at the Black Box Cooperative. And I said to them, I said, “Let me turn the tables to you. How can we help you at LOOK3? What do you need at LOOK3 edu this year?”

Jake looked at his colleagues and he said, “Well.” And he looked back at me and he said, “None of us has a job, and we’re starting to realize that we probably never will. That the entire role of a staff photographer is out of existence. There are no jobs in the industry shooting that’s a full time job.”

He said, “We were not trained to be entrepreneurs in college, and we’ve got to learn to be.” That’s really where pitch came from.

That next morning, I was at Ed O’Keefe’s office at CNN and I shared with them this experience. It really helped me to shape what I wanted to do with edu, and he said, “You know, I bet they don’t realize that they could come in here and pitch me on a story.”

I said to Ed, “Not only do I think they don’t know that, but I don’t know that they’ve ever had that chance. I don’t think they have the experience to do that.”

I remember back when Darius and I did a seminar on portfolio reviews at PhotoPlus Expo, and we did a role play…

JB: Darius Himes.

MVS: Yeah, my co-author Darius Himes. We did a role-playing thing in front of the audience, and it was a lot of fun. But it made some serious points to people, and that’s really what I want to happen on that pitch day. I want people to have the opportunity to get more confident, and more comfortable with that language, and with that experience. To be ready to handle tough questions from people.

I think it’s just as important for us to be teaching not just the pitch, but the contract terms and the understanding of the rights. You know I’m constantly sending people to ASMP.org and to join their local branches, and to learn from those that have experience managing their own careers. Those who’ve been entrepreneurial for all of these years.

It’s part of why I want teachers to come. We’ve got to help this generation, and the next generation of photographers, be entrepreneurs, be young business people. The same with photographers that have had their whole life in one aspect of the career, where now they want to test other waters. They’ve got to learn from scratch too. When it comes back to the individual photographer, and they can manage those relationships well, then everybody is going to win.

JB: Here’s another big question then. LOOK3, which at least according to lore began as a projection in —

MVS: Nick’s backyard.

JB: Right, Nick Nichols back yard.

You’re a big, bold, ambitious person. But it’s still a festival model, and is built on this idea that there’s a get-together, a big community event that everybody flows in for and then, things ramp down, scale down on staff, save money, then ramp up again.

I’ve been to many festivals, and our readers have heard my experiences at Filter, Medium, PhotoNOLA, FotoFest and Review Santa Fe.

There are organizations around the country and around the world, but certainly we’re blessed here in the United States. Can you imagine something like LOOK3 expanding to the point where it’s not about the one big weekend? Can organizations like yours grow in ways that move beyond the tent-pole event? Or do you think the festival model stays rooted in a week a year?

MVS: LOOK3 has a community that gathers every year. It’s just like some of us that have been around certain things like PhotoNOLA since the beginning. We look forward to seeing our friends, our colleagues, the local gallerists, the local museum curators, the local NPPA photographers.

Everybody is one big community when we hit town, and there’s no question it feels that way at LOOK3. Even Jake Naughton from Black Box shared that he’d come every year since college. People come back to that place where it began, and certainly the city of Charlottesville is so proud to host it that I can’t imagine us not having something here. But I will tell you…

JB: I didn’t mean not having it each year. I meant, having more than one? Or having year-round programming so that the festival only becomes a part of the organization’s identity?

MVS: Right. Well, remember my roots in the Flying Short Course. I can’t tell you how important it is, I think, to roll things out to other communities. Whether we can pull together an economic model that will work to do that? But it’s certainly something that I talked about while speaking with my board about taking this job.

LOOK3 does a really excellent job regionally, where people can drive to it, but I don’t believe that we’re reaching everybody even in the US, and I would love to have us do some sort of remote work. I’m also really interested in where we’re going with the capabilities of live streaming, and I would love to have us connect with other festivals and do some live sharing of things that are going on around the world at festival time.

Next year is our tenth LOOK3. I really want to change it up and do some different things. Obviously I’ve got two months of programming to get out ahead, but believe me, we’re thinking long and hard about what kind of statement we can make.

You know, it’s wonderful watching other festival directors come every year to LOOK3. The head of Visa pour l’Image comes and the head of World Press plans to come. People that are engaged in a very global audience love coming to Charlottesville to LOOK3.

I’ve got to see what we can all put together, but I can tell you that I’ve had festival directors from all over the world reach out, and I would love to figure out a way that we could connect in that way as well as connecting regionally. Anything is possible at this point.

I’m really optimistic that we’re going to have a great year this year, and people will embrace the kind of change that I brought in, and we’ll get feedback from people about what else they’d like.

There was a section on our website leading up to this festival, where I reached out to the public and said what are your education needs now and what work inspires you? It went straight to a Google doc that we could share with our board of what everybody was asking for.

It was incredibly informative for me, particularly the education needs, because it kind of underscored my hunch of what was not being delivered either through colleges or through professional associations to photographers today.

But, I’m all for the biggest community that we can have, and sharing as economically so we can all continue to be physically present, but be able to reach people abroad. Have you had that experience Jonathan, that you’ve seen some live streaming from festivals that’s been engaging for you?

JB: Well, since you’re putting me on the spot, I will answer honestly, which is no. Not yet. But I do have painfully slow Internet out here in my horse pasture, so perhaps that might have something to do with it.

Listen, we’ve talked so much about LOOK3, and we’re getting to that point in the interviews where they start to wind down a little bit, so sometimes I like to be proactive. One of the things that I think that has amazed me about you is that you’re based in Tucson, with massive saguaro cactus’ in your yard, but you travel constantly.

I thought we’d kind of pivot a second and just have a little fun, and then I’ll let you get back to your evening. I know you’re not the type of person who would ever pick favorites, or what you like best, so I’m not going to ask the question that way.

But, if you knew that tonight was your last night on Earth, and you could have one slice of pizza, or one plate of food from that one little joint that you love in Chicago or L.A. What’s your go-to if you only got to have one plate of food from anywhere you’ve been, what would it be?

MVS: Oh my god.

JB: I’m totally putting you on the spot.

MVS: Oh you are. I’m really stumped.

JB: I know, I know. Maybe a couple of your favorites? What do you love?

MVS: I love being in New Mexico. I love being in New Orleans and of course I love being in New York. I never get enough time in San Francisco, it’s so damn expensive even just to fly there let alone get a hotel room anymore. It’s hard to engage, and we all want to be at Pier 24 as often as we can, right.

JB: The place is pretty great, though I haven’t been back in a while. But come on. You can say a big slice of New York pizza off the street, but I don’t know if that’s true. Is it a bowl of gumbo in some little back-alley joint in New Orleans?

MVS: Yeah, it’s posole, of course. I love my posole at Tomasita’s in Santa Fe…

JB: All right, there’s one.

MVS: One of the neighborhood joints.

JB: OK.

MVS: I rarely am in Tucson, so I love some of the food in Tucson too. We have a very different style of food from South of the Border. There’s a little Vietnamese place I love in New York. My favorite bagel shop of course is New York. Things like that.

JB: You gave us something. We always talk about photography. I love food, so I wanted to see what you brought to the table. You gave the shout out to New Mexico.

MVS: Yes.

JB: Do you give yourself a set amount of time that you’re going to devote to LOOK3, or do you literally just take it one day at a time?

MVS: Oh yeah, I need to get through a year of this, because I need to learn the system, and I need to understand every venue, and all of our partners and their needs and our sponsors and their needs. Our program this year has a much more diverse range, not just in nationalities and race and types of work, but it’s different generations.

We have the youngest speaker ever on the stage this year, Olivia Bee. It’s a big mash up, and a wonderful, wonderful experience. We’re testing a lot of new venues this year that we haven’t used before. I want to focus hard on this one year and get through this cycle, and then see what needs to be tweaked. That’s more my style, to run it where it has been, make tweaks as I can as it goes along. Tomorrow we’re doing our second round of testing on the big screen at the Paramount Theatre with new projectors. I’m getting involved in all those little aspects that are key.

JB: And you love it.

MVS: I love it. I love it. My personality, the way my brain works, has always been sort of the producer’s mindset, whether I was running a comprehensive workshop program or education program or in a school or putting together book projects, it’s production. It’s something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Not a lot of routine. That excites me.

I want to make sure that LOOK3 is offering the most relevant education that we can each year, according to what the needs are in the industry, and what the needs of the photographers are. I want to make sure that we bring completely engaging work to the stage.

We want to bring as many exhibitions as possible. We’ve changed up the way the evening projections are, the outside projections by inviting guest curators to put those together, and so there’s a lot of room for growth. But I want to get through the full cycle before we see where we can improve, obviously. And I think we’re bringing a lot of new audiences to LOOK 3 this year, so it will be interesting to hear what a first timer has to say about the experience. All of those things are incredibly exciting to me. I hope you’ll come Jonathan.

JB: You’re kind of talking me into it. I’ll see what I can do. We’ll also say to all the people out there reading it, if you go, drop Swanee an email. You’ll become data. She’ll take your opinion seriously, right?

MVS: Oh, absolutely. Without any question. We totally do.

JB: Any last thoughts, before we go?

MVS: One thing that’s a little bit tricky– all of your readers should know— is that Charlottesville is a small town. Most people connect through D.C. to make their way down. I’m an Amtrak girl, and now I take Amtrak all the time up and down the coast. But it’s not a massive town for a lot of housing options, so don’t wait too long.

Gang your friends, rent a house together, something like that. Call us if you’re stuck, because we always kind of know… a lot of people will tell us that they’ve just booked somewhere, and they’ve got six rooms left there, or they’ve got one left over here, and someone heard about a new bed and breakfast that wasn’t on our list, so we add that up on the list. We want to make sure everybody has a place to stay, so they can make the most of their week in Charlottesville.

JB: Which means Airbnb will be a sponsored partner for 2017.

MVS: You know I have this dream actually.

JB: Of course you do.

MVS: I have this dream that we will get all of the owners of AirBnB houses within like a 10 square block area or something. Can you imagine the portfolio walk we can do if everybody is in their own houses and we go through a neighborhood? Wouldn’t that be awesome? ☺

JB: I knew you were imagining it. [laughs] I really wish you well with the new venture. But it sounds like you guys are doing really interesting things, so hopefully some of our audience will go check it out. And now they know they can drop you a note when they’re done.

MVS: Absolutely! And they can drop me a note beforehand. We are really looking forward to hosting all of you in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Impressions From Texas

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by Jonathan Blaustein

When I came home and announced I like Texas, my father looked as if I’d declared myself Nazi. The shock was real, even if the anger was feigned.

Negative impressions of Texas run deep here in New Mexico, as we encounter the flashier, private-tour-bus-driving Texan tourists each summer. Like any bias, my own personal prejudices were hard to maintain, once I started visiting the state a few years ago.

This time I wanted to check out Dallas, since even Texans like to mock the place. I figured if Houston, Marfa and Austin were cool, maybe Dallas was too, in an under-the-radar kind of way.

Can’t exactly report I found the city charming; all concrete and highway onramps. But I was shown some pretty fantastic hospitality, by photographer Debora Hunter, and met friendly and smart members of the local art community as well. (Which made the detour worth it.)

And big shout out to the Austin Photo Crew, ably led by Sol Neelman. A heap of photographers came out on a Sunday night to drink beer, eat pizza, and catch up. They assured me it was nothing special, as their group, rolling 50 deep, meets up each month to drink, talk shop, and play skeeball in town.

I’ve already extolled the virtues of Ft. Worth, with the Kimbell and Amon Carter Museums being free all the time. (And the Modern on Sundays.) But why were they so great?

As you know, I love to be surprised. To be blown away by things I’ve never seen before. The Kimbell, with its top-shelf collection of global masterpieces, let me revisit many artists I love dearly. (Cezanne, Mondrian, Picasso.)

But there’s one art piece I’m still thinking about today. Can’t stop talking about it, really, because I’ve never seen anything like it, and doubt I will again.

“Christ the Redeemer,” by Tullio Lombardo, a Venetian, was dated between 1500-20. It’s a stunning, white-marble, profile sculpture of Jesus, in half-relief. A genuine Renaissance masterpiece, one of only two of his sculptures in the United States.

The object’s orbit drew me in with haste, like the smell of fresh baked pizza. The detail work! Incising stone like that! Into hair! Creating those types of repetitive patterns?

Unfathomable!

The technique, the mastery of the process, allows the piece to take on energy. The vibrations from the patterning, the solidity of the stone, and beauty of the color, it all comes together to create a calm, visceral energy in the immediate vicinity.

I must have stayed there 5 minutes, but it could have been an hour. I simply lost myself in wonder.

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That’s why tens of millions of people continue to go back to art museums every year. It’s easy to lose yourself in a movie. The sound, the scale, the visuals, they combine to build an immersive experience. Video games too.

But a sculpture sits still in space.
People bump into you.

The security guard asks you to please step back. Reality is all around, in 3 dimensions.

The best paintings, sculptures, photographs, they work so well that they allow us to jump the mundane turnstiles of regular life. It’s a big ask, I know, but that’s why I think we should always take the opportunity to visit with genius, when we can.

There was a Martin Puryear sculpture at the Modern that was equally brilliant, in its own way. I first found it from above, as it occupies multiple stories, and couldn’t believe the way it fit the gallery. Slowly receding up into space, diverging with its multiple shadows.

No wall card meant I had to ask around, and was told the artist info was down below, on the first floor. So I sprinted through the museum, (or at least power-walked, elbows pumping,) until I found its point of origin.

Breathtaking.
Beautiful.
Totemic.

Someone told me, later in my trip, that the piece had been designed for the space.

I believe it.

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Days later, I’d find the same phenomenon at the Menil Collection in Houston. (My second favorite art space in the US.) It was an insanely excellent, 60 foot long painting by Cy Twombly, in the mini-museum they have of his work. When I asked the security guard how it could fit so snugly, she said the building had been designed around the painting.

Why is that relevant?

Maybe it’s not, but it seems like a part of the Texas Zeitgeist. Exorbitant amounts of money, an important if fairly recent history, and a culture that’s trying to catch up with global mega-cities that have hundreds of years of head starts. (There were cranes everywhere in Dallas. Always a sign of growth and ambition.)

By the time I got to FotoFest, half-way into my trip, I was pretty worn out. This was not going to be one of those events where I got to drink, party, and chat all night long.

No sir.

I stayed off-site from the event, in a little Airbnb studio that smelled like wet dog. (But thankfully came with an electric air freshener.) I made sure to get a good night’s sleep each evening, which I recommend, and took walks each day, to counteract the effects of all that recycled, conference-room air.

Normally, I’d have a slate of articles about the best work I saw. But as I was showing my own work, I didn’t have the same time to look at other people’s portfolios. Nor did a lot of projects jump out at me during my brief tour of the portfolio walk.

There are always a few people that have the “it” vibe at an event like this. Always happens. This time, Mahtab Hussain, from England, had the work people raved about, with his series “You Get Me?” I saw his pictures on the wall of one of the attendant FotoFest exhibitions, and was sucked in immediately.

He photographs young members of the disaffected Muslim community in England, where he grew up. These are the type of razor-sharp, incisive, taut, personal portraits that give photography a good name. Beyond that, of course, they’re as topical as Molenbeek, so Mahtab has that going for him as well.

Meghann Riepenhoff, another exhibiting artist, also had the buzz. She works with cyanotypes, which are having a moment, and makes pictures in the hand-made, of-the-Earth style embraced by her fellow West Coast photographers Matthew Brandt, John Chiara, and Chris McCaw.

Her installation, which I also saw on the wall, was pretty excellent. Furthermore, it didn’t look like other peoples’ pictures.

What’s the lesson here?

If you can get your photographs to a place where they are technically excellent, aesthetically pleasing, speaking to ideas that are important to you, relatively original, and relevant to contemporary issues: you might blow up at FotoFest.

I was also pretty impressed by Peter DiCampo’s new work, which he showed me one day. Peter runs an Instagram feed called Everyday Africa, of which you might have heard. The way he spoke about his project, built on the back of his own experience in the Peace Corps in Africa, reflected a fatalistic but humorous cynicism. He’s genuinely conflicted about the role of Western Aid in Africa, and it gave the pictures, as well as the narrative, a more nuanced take on do-gooding than I’m used to hearing.

Priya Kambli, of whom I’ve written before, also showed me some pictures that stuck in my brain. She’s always worked with historical, family imagery in her practice, but this time, she had images in which she had clearly “destroyed” or altered the source material, which then became her work. (Mostly by stippling little pin holes through old photos)

She admitted to me, and a couple of people who were looking, that she hadn’t scanned the originals before she attacked them. The others were mortified.

How could she not scan them first?
You can’t do that!
It’s sacrilegious!

I disagreed. There was a real tension to the pictures, and I thought part of that was due to the way Priya was out there without training wheels. She committed to the work, risked destroying important parts of her history, in order to make something better.

Something new.

Which is why I left for this big Texas road-trip in the first place. To see new things. To meet new people. To bring some fresh energy into my little Taos bubble.

Mission accomplished.

Discarded: Anthony Hernandez at the Amon Carter Museum

by Jonathan Blaustein

On my last night in Texas, I stayed with an old friend, outside Austin. Jeff, who’s my age, is one of the few people I’ve known my whole life. (Beyond family, of course.)

We hadn’t seen each other in 12 years, and things have been difficult for him since then. But he handed me a jalapeño margarita soon after I walked in the door, and then we drank some beer, ate wicked Mexican food, watched the NCAA tournament, played video games, and laughed for 6 hours straight.

Jeff had a major heart attack the next day. (Hours after I drove off towards the endless horizon.)

Sometimes, change moves quickly, like a tornado, even though its causes have been building for years.

Think about the way we treat our planet. Some recent sci-fi films, like “Wall-E” and “Interstellar,” suggest we can all pack up and leave one day. Just shoot humanity up into space, and the rest will take care of itself.

Maybe.
I guess.
It’s possible.

But it seems like a bad bet, from where I’m sitting. (Yes, at my white kitchen table.)

That sense of fait accompli, that it’s all just a matter of time- I felt it strongly, the longer I stood in Anthony Hernandez’s photography exhibition “Discarded,” at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas.

We’re done here, I kept thinking.
We tried.
We failed.

C’est la vie.

In fairness, he might not have been speaking about all of us.
Just the Californians.

Mr. Hernandez is known in art circles, I’ve gathered, though I hadn’t heard of him until I saw his show. I’d been drawn to the Amon Carter Museum, as I was meant to meet one of their curators at FotoFest, and I wanted to be prepared. (As I’ve written countless times, from the perspective of the reviewer, do your homework. In this case, I visited a city just to check out this person’s curatorial practice.)

The show, however, was more than worth the trip. And it wasn’t even the best art I saw that day. The Kimbell Museum, recommended by my friend Ed, was unbelievably dynamite, and I can’t stress that enough. Both the Kimbell and the Amon Carter Museums are free, as is the adjacent Ft. Worth Modern on Sundays.

As I happened to visit on a Sunday, I got to see terrific art in 3 museums, over 3 hours, without paying a dollar. If you live in DFW, or are visiting that part of Texas, get your ass to Ft. Worth and see what they have going on.

You’ll thank me.

That said, this is meant to be an exhibition review, so let me pivot back to our putative point.

The prints in Anthony Hernandez’s exhibition, made between 2012-15, are all very large, and share a clean, clear California light that I described in my notes as “pitiless.” Cruel might be appropriate as well.

Apparently, Mr. Hernandez is known for his pictures of socialites and street people in LA. He’s an LA guy, it would seem. But for this show, he took his talents to the less glamorous parts of CA. The Inland Empire, the Central Valley, Mojave and the Salton Sea.

I’ve driven through many of those places, and can attest that they lend themselves to an end-of-the-world-type vibe. And I did wonder if there wasn’t a bit of city-snobbery in the way these places are depicted.

But really, it’s hard to lay it on too thick in spots this bleak. (Before you ask, the work does evoke John Divola and Richard Misrach, but I didn’t find it derivative.)

Just last year, everyone was talking about California running out of water. It was in the news cycle for months, this idea that its time was up. One El Niño later, and it’s no longer an issue, if the media is to be trusted.

But things don’t work like that.

The heart attack might strike like a ninja, but its antecedents move slowly, like tectonic plates. (We made our bed, and now we have to lie in it, even though it’s a rank, urine-soaked mattress on the floor of a vacant starter-home.)

There were almost no people in the pictures, but their imprint was everywhere. Abandoned homes with broken doors shoved over gaping window orifices. Purple-ish concrete-block fences that looked like minimalist bracelets. Scattered oranges on a dirt road, reminiscent of Roger Fenton’s cannonballs.

And always, that blazing, unforgiving light.

I made notes like, “When you’re done here, make sure to turn out the lights.” Or, “Has California just given up?”

Defunct, half-built housing projects defeated by the Great Recession connect economics gracefully to environmentalism. A pristine new curb, separating gravel from dirt, in a place where no homes will ever be built. A valley, called Lucerne, which probably gets as much water in a Millennium as its Swiss counterpart gets in a week in Winter.

The end of the world. That’s what this show makes you think about.

Uplifting stuff.

It puts me in mind of a conversation that Jeff and I had, in his suburban apartment off a Texas highway. Though I’ve admitted there’s nothing funny about Donald Trump, we did laugh about the fact Ted Cruz has to be PRETTY FUCKING CRAZY to be the biggest lunatic in the Republican race.

We may fear Trump more, but Ted Cruz, as a true Evangelical believer, is anxiously awaiting Armageddon. He’s so excited for Jesus to come back and kill everyone who’s not on his team. ISIS wants the end times, sure, but so do many of our fellow Americans.

So while The Donald is odious, I don’t think he shares Ted Cruz’s desire for the End Days to come sooner, rather than later.

After seeing Anthony Hernandez’s exhibition, I can’t help but wonder if we’re running out of time.

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This Week In Photography Books: Brian David Stevens

by Jonathan Blaustein

I live in a bubble. (At least it feels that way.) Taos is an insular place, and it holds on to its own.

It takes a great deal of energy to leave, as the nearest towns are miles and miles in every direction. It feels very much like an island in the middle of the Wild West, equal parts 19th and 21st Centuries.

When you don’t have the perspective of other places and cultures to keep you balanced, you begin to over-invest in the little daily rituals and dramas that play out. Insignificant social interactions take on import they don’t really deserve.

You begin to go a little crazy.

Fortunately, last week, I embarked on a great adventure, driving 2000 miles across the massive state of Texas. I’d been stuck in the Taos orbit for too long, and marshaled my resources to allow for a big art/photo road trip, all the way to Houston.

I was headed to FotoFest, to show my own work for a change, and stopped in Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Austin on the way. As the highway flashbacks are still fresh, I’ll spare you a succession of anecdotes, and err on the side of brevity. (For once.)

My trip was fabulous. It gave me a fresh take on my life, a renewed sense of purpose as an artist, and as a human being in general.

There’s nothing like the open road to clear your head.

I needed to get the hell out of town, because I’d recently found myself standing at the top of our hill, staring out into the desert, wishing I could escape. I felt trapped, surrounded by mountains, desert and volcanoes in all directions.

Now that I’m home, I recognized a similar feeling in “Brighter Later,” a new book from my pile, by Brian David Stevens, recently published by Tartaruga Press in England. To cut to the chase, for once, this is not a brilliant book. It will not change your life.

It will not, singlehandedly, give you new insight into the human experience. It’s simply not that kind of production. (Though the textured cover and sleek vellum text pages do make for a lovely offering.)

The artist, with whom I occasionally trade tweets, visited each county in England, and made diptych images looking out into the sea beyond. (Because he used to close one eye, and then the other, when he was a boy, looking at the sea.) The images resemble many we’ve seen of the horizon before, including the famous project by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

So they fail my self-imposed test of showing us something we haven’t seen before. Still, they’re beautiful. And that counts for something.

I was far more intrigued by the categorical nature of the undertaking. Two images, in each and every county. It made me feel like the artist was living in a world before boats were invented. I imagined him thinking, “There has to be a way off this godforsaken rock in the middle of the ocean! Maybe if I try Carmarthenshire…no good. Or Ceredigion? Damn. What about Ayrshire? No. Argyll & Bute? Not quite.”

I felt the desperation for peace, for beauty, for a visual reminder that things are big out there, on Planet Earth, even if we’re cut off from the action.

I liked that a personality emerged from the pretty ocean shots. Slowly, you begin to think about the artist. What was he searching for? Why did he have to go to every county? There’s a secret buried somewhere in this exploration, if only we can find it.

Right. I’m headed back to drool on myself, and do my taxes. Sometimes, when you do get out into the world, you come home to drudgery. That’s OK, as long as the memories of excitement carry you until the next big adventure.

Bottom Line: Beautiful ocean horizons, and the yearning beneath

To Purchase “Brighter Later” Go Here

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This Week In Photography Books: Haley Morris-Cafiero

by Jonathan Blaustein

I used to be overweight as a kid.

Not always, but often. I would gain and lose weight, in phases, but I never had a perfect body.

I still don’t.

Hell, at my wedding, I must have weighed 20 pounds more than I do now, courtesy of Tony’s Pizza in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Sample conversation:

“Tonys!”

“Hi, I’d like to order a large grandpa pizza for delivery please.”

“No prahlem.”

Do that every Friday for six months, and you too can pack on the pounds. The aftermath might not be pretty, but damn, that shit tastes good.

All kidding aside, any discussion of the concurrent obesity and diabetes epidemics in the United States is likely to be fraught. It almost perfectly pits the personal against the societal, and that’s not a battle that can be won.

In one corner, we have identity politics and issues around body shaming. Who are you to tell me how I should look? Or to judge me because of how much I weigh? It’s discrimination, it’s wrong, and you are an asshole for even thinking that my body is your business.

In the opposite corner, we have a genuine public health crisis, with millions of people eating themselves into disease. Why that happens is related to poverty, culture, access to healthy food, cooking knowledge, government subsidies for corn production, and the insidious advertising and food science efforts put forth by large multinational corporations peddling crap food.

Like I said, this issue is a field of quicksand suspended above a Florida-sink-hole. (Good intentions get sucked down faster than a shrimp-head at a Louisiana crawfish boil.)

Enter Art into the discussion, a notoriously subjective product that revels in ambiguity, and you’re guaranteed to draw some attention. And so it has been, for three projects I’ve noticed over the last few years.

Jen Davis, and then Samantha Geballe, have both photographed their large bodies in a self-portraiture format. Ms. Davis, whose work I saw at the Library of Congress, and wrote about, uses color. Samantha, whom I met at the Medium Festival a couple of years ago, and also wrote about, prefers black and white.

They both made striking, uncomfortable, compelling images of their own bodies. They stood in for the masses with weight issues and said, “Here I am. Look! Don’t avert your gaze. I am worthy of your attention, every bit as much as a skinny model with vapid eyes!”

Both artists subsequently underwent gastro-bypass surgery. (How’s that for ambiguity?)

I’m not sure about Ms. Davis, but Samantha has also documented her new body, and the vestiges of her old one. The pictures are great, and will be on display at the Houston Center of Photography from May 13-June 10.

Really striking stuff.

There is one other artist I know of working with these themes: Haley Morris-Cafiero. I heard about her project, “Weight Watchers,” but as sometimes happens, I knew of it, saw tweets about it, but never caught the pictures themselves, beyond a social media thumbnail. (The iconic pic of her walking on the beach.)

A few weeks ago, a respected colleague wrote to see if Ms. Morris-Cafiero could send me a book for a potential review.

I said sure, as I always do, with the caveat that I never know what I’ll review until I pick it up. This one, most definitely, is worth discussing here.

So let’s get on with it.

“The Watchers,” published by the Magenta Foundation, is a book that grabs you from the cover, quite literally. There are words embossed into the white rubber/plastic coating, and red text leaps off in the other direction. The words seem to come from comments about the project, and are a little incendiary.

(Sample: “You are courageous. You rule. Fuck everyone.”)

The overall design is excellent, as the red text on white returns again and again, as Internet comments are juxtaposed against each other. Negative trolls on the left hand side, positive supporters on the right. According to this format, this artist seems to summon wrath and kindness in equal measure.

But what does she do? What is her take on this very tricky subject?

Well, near as I can tell, she walks or stands around, while an assistant waits to snap the shutter the second someone looks askance at Ms. Morris-Cafiero.

Really, that’s the gist of it.

Ms. Morris-Cafiero, who is overweight, stands around by the side of a walkway, or in Times Square, or under the Eiffel Tower, and the camera-person captures people who look at her.

The obvious message is that people are put off by her body, which is often visible, as she wears bathing suits or workout clothes. The picture quality is good-but-not-amazing, as it seems as if these were snapped with a compact point and shoot camera, or maybe a digital SLR?

Things like light quality, color palette, and formal compositions are understated, I gather, to enhance the feeling of reality as it happens. But by gutting the efforts of technique, it puts a lot of pressure on content.

This is obviously a very smart idea, but I’m not sure it stands up to deeper scrutiny. There are several images in which passersby shoot Ms. Morris-Cafiero some serious shade; pictures in which you can tell that random strangers are being rude.

A few, yes.

But there are other images in which the strangers’ intentions are much less clear. A sideways glance is not an indictment of someone else’s character.

Furthermore, in many of the set-ups, Ms. Morris-Cafiero adopts very noticeable body positions. Her feet are splayed, or she looks confused, or dazed. Then there are the pictures in which she is holding a map, and looking confused, which will certainly draw the attention of many a person walking down a city street.

Despite the fact that I’ve already admitted this is a complicated subject, I’ll openly state that people who body-shame, or mad-dog someone else just because of how much they weigh?

Those people are dickheads.

There.
I said it.

But just because it happens to Haley Morris-Cafiero does not mean that I have to love her art project. Especially as I’ve seen, and written about, other projects that deal better in nuance.

This feels more like a Jackass outtake, to me. It’s clever, original, and clearly means well. I get the ideas it wants me to get. So it’s successful in that regard.

Maybe it’s even intentional? A viral-esque style for a project that was always going to go viral?

But it also feels like it’s taking advantage of some of the strangers, judging them the way Ms. Morris-Cafiero feels judged. I was inclined to like this project, but came away feeling unsure.

Or maybe it’s just that by making it a book, she included images that don’t support her message? Too many pictures made me think: “That’s not a dirty look. That’s just someone turning his/her head.”

What this book did is put me in an uncomfortable place, and I think that’s a big part of its allure. (Structural metaphor, anyone?) Do anything other than lavish praise, and I set myself up to be accused of being disrespectful, or biased. As I’ve written at length about so many difficult issues over the years, I’m clearly not afraid to offend.

So let me end thusly: This is a very interesting, edgy book, that draws attention to a murky, difficult subject. I think this artist has done something smart, if flawed, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Bottom Line: Edgy, well-designed, but imperfect book

To Purchase “The Watchers” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Maud Sulter

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a lot of opinions.

As I make my living as a columnist, (along with many other jobs,) it helps to have strong convictions. I share them each week, to entertain you, but also to discuss important ideas in digestible bits.

Occasionally, when you throw your opinions out there into the digi-sphere, you’re going to be wrong. Sometimes, spectacularly so.

C’est la vie.

In this case, I thought it best to admit my mistake. (Man up, if you will.) Better to face the error than to pretend it didn’t happen.

Right?

About a month ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Iowa Caucuses, I declared the death of the Donald Trump phenomenon. Marco Rubio was on the ascendancy, so I thought, and Mr. Trump’s high polling numbers would vanish, like indigestion after a nice constitutional.

The day after my article was published, Marco Rubio went off the rails in a debate, outing himself as a robot, (or maybe just a cyborg,) and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve made fun of Donal Trump in this column. Some of my best one-liners have come at his expense.

But I’m not laughing anymore.

Though I rarely stick my neck into the morass of American politics, today, I’ll make an exception. I turned 42 a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t ever remember this particular feeling before: despair mixed with fear and a touch of embarrassment.

The fact that we’re witnessing a major party candidate courting votes from the Ku Klux Klan seems more surreal than the Dali painting I dreamed about last night. How could such a thing happen in 2016? What does that say about America, that so many white people have lined up on one side, glad to be unaffiliated with the rest of the races that make up this country.

It’s just. So. Wrong.

I’m aware that Mr. Trump’s chances of becoming President are small, but any chance > 0 is scary. France can have Marine Le Pen, and England the UKIP assholes, but seeing a large chunk of America embrace racism to this degree has taken me by surprise.

Yes, I was wrong to dismiss Donald Trump. He’s a narcissist, and will never hear the voice of reason. Said voice could be blasted into his ears by the world’s biggest BOSE bluetooth speaker, and still he’d only hear his inner monologue. (As he said this week, his most trusted advisor is himself.)

Part of what’s so crazy, to me, is the difference between his spoken and written words. I heard Mr. Trump say, on a video clip, that his followers need to be “gentle” with the protestors. In a transcript, he’s disavowing violence.

But his voice dripped with sarcasm. His tone and inflection screamed, “Kick the shit out of those hippies and blacks. They deserve it!”

And the violence has begun in earnest. We have the sucker-punch heard round the world, the Chicago protests, and now, Mr. Trump is actually “predicting” riots if they try to take the nomination away from him at the Republican convention. Millions of his followers will take to the streets, he assures us.

What is that, if not the extortion of a nation, by a budding strongman. Nasty business, this.

Nasty.

The reality is that even though 2016 feels modern and futuristic, and gay people can get married in the United States, our history of violence and theft still lingers.

We stole people from their homes, entire cultures from their homelands, and our homeland from its original occupants.

Wishing away the vestiges of Colonialism simply won’t work.

Sadly, I’m in mind of such things, having just put down a lovely newspaper/exhibition catalogue, “Syrcas,” featuring work by Maud Sulter, recently published by Autograph ABP in London.

This little volume turned up in the mail recently, as last summer I’d met with Karin Bareman, one of their curatorial staff, and she thought I might like it. Fortunately for us, she was right.

We’re constantly hearing about the dearth of non-white voices in the Photo community, and these pictures are proof positive that a diversity of talented perspectives is vital. These images are cool as hell.

This project, which is on display at Autograph ABP until April 2nd, mashes up totemic African iconography with pastoral, entitled European art vernacular. Though they were made in the early 90’s, by the Scottish/Ghanaian artist, these photos feel totally relevant and current.

Mashups are a part of the global cultural lexicon now, as are digital compilations. Appropriation maintains its fascination as well. It’s all here for us, should we care to look.

These pictures carry a tension that I really love, and I wish I could see them in person. The African masks and symbols are proudly laid “on top” of generic mountain scenes and fancy ladies.

Defiance!

You will see me, they say. You will acknowledge my heritage. You will accept that we, and our history, are a part of your culture!

Whether we’ve discussed the tragic lot of poor, migrant communities on the outskirts of European mega-cities, or the lack of non-white faces at portfolio reviews, here at APE, we do our best to speak important truths. (Even though I am an entitled white guy myself.)

I didn’t write about a book today. Instead it’s a slim catalogue on newsprint. (But at least it has pictures.) And no, I don’t think my little diatribe will have any impact on the outcome of America’s Presidential election. (Unlike Mr. Trump, I harbor no delusions of grandeur.)

But I do get to show you cool things, when they pop up in my mailbox. That’s what this column is about. If you live in England, go see this show, and then tell me all about it. If you’re curious to learn more, fire up your Google and see what else is out there.

Bottom Line: Super-cool exhibition catalogue of a show I wish I could see

To Purchase “Syrcas” Go Here

This Week In Photography Books: Christine Osinski

by Jonathan Blaustein

My cousin had a baby yesterday.

Or, I should say, his wife did. I think he was at the bar, drinking, through much of the affair. (At least, that’s what I saw on Facebook.)

Certain things make you feel old, and they’re never what you expect. Cousin Kenny becoming a father is definitely one of them. (Even though he just turned 40.)

Kenny is the funniest person I know, (or co-funniest, with his brother,) and he became a stand-up comic a few years back.
I can easily imagine him onstage, but it’s harder to visualize him changing his new daughter’s diaper.

Why?

Kenny has always been lazy. He was nicknamed “The Snail,” when we were kids, and it’s not because he resembles a slimy curlicue shell.

He’s the type of guy who likes to sit on the couch all day, watching football, eating 56 chicken wings, and mocking everyone around him. That’s his style. The selflessness required of all new parents will be a challenge for him.

I’m sure he’ll sort it out, and I’m sure it won’t be easy. Hell, his comedy act features some serious bouts of misogyny, so that will likely change as well. (Or at least morph into complaining about having to say poo poo and pee pee instead of shit and piss.)

The whole thing makes me feel old as hell. I can remember Kenny, standing on his driveway in East Brunswick, New Jersey, back in the day, wearing some tube socks pulled up to his scrotum. Or riding his bike, replete with ginormous handlebars, up and down the road.

We all did that, back in the 80’s. We rocked the short shorts, long socks, dorky bikes, and overall lack of imagination about what life might offer us. There was no Internet, of course, which made it really hard to guess the world was wide, beyond our suburban horizons.

I haven’t lived in Jersey in almost 25 years, and still, it all comes back to me. The smell of fresh cut grass, or pollution on the New Jersey Turnpike. The sound of skee-ball machines at the Point Pleasant boardwalk.

The accents.

Hell, on Friday, while I was chatting with Kenny’s equally hilarious brother Jordan, we ended up slipping into a Staten Island accent to make each other laugh.

“Hey. Ha yaz doin’? Can I get yaz anotha ma-ga-ree-tah?”

It was always easy to make fun of Staten Island. It’s mostly just a huge landfill, so they say. The Outerbridge Crossing, the highway that connects Staten Island to New Jersey, might as well be a one way street: all the Islanders were moving to Jersey in hordes, when I was in high school.

What does Staten Island look like now, in 2016?
I have no idea.

But I can see the whole scene, back in the 80’s, having just put down “Summer Days Staten Island,” a new book by Christine Osinski, recently published by Damiani.

Will I get death threats from angry goombahs, for derogating their homeland? I have no idea. But if I were there now, insulting the Island, you can bet I’d get some seriously dirty looks from the locals. (They’d be mad-dogging me all day long.)

There were a few mad-dog photos in this most excellent book. A handful of pictures in which you can easily imagine the subject saying, “What the fuck a youz lookin’ at? Youz got a fuckin’ prahb-lem? Yeah, I’m tawkin’ to you. Who the fuck do you think I’m tawkin’ to?”

Stop me. I could go on all day.

Honestly, though, this book brought me straight back to my childhood. I guessed the images were made in 1984, and the end interview confirms ’83-84.

Pure. Classic. 80’s.

The hiked up tube-socks are my favorite detail, sure, but that must be because I can relate. The rampant shirtlessness is also perfect. But there is more subtlety here, if you care to look for it.

Like the house with two curlicue hedges, abutting an empty field. Man-made nature/ raw nature, sure, but I also wondered how far into the marsh a landfill might be? (We never see those.)

There is a picture of some kids playing in front of a bombed out car, holding up a van that says crime scene, while an actual van sits in a driveway across the street. (You bet I’m taking that as a Scooby Doo reference. The 80’s had the sleuths it deserved.)

Big cars are everywhere. (Obligatory Iroc Z28 included.) Big mustaches too. And a blonde, teen-aged girl, staring daggers at the camera, cradling a brown paper bag like it was her first born.

How much you wanna bet there was a bottle of liquor in there? I’m so curious, but like all my other questions, I’ll never know.

The answers are gone, forever.

That’s why I love this type of flashback photography so much. It reminds us that even though the global photography community now numbers in billions, and so many images are thrown away every tenth of a second, sometimes, we really are stopping time.

Freezing light, outside of the space time continuum.

It means I can sit at my white kitchen table, on a gray Tuesday afternoon, and be catapulted back to the 80’s, a time many of us would just as soon forget. (Yes, I had a mullet and braces. Find the pictures. I dare you.)

Bottom Line: Amazing pictures from Sta-en EYE-land, back in the day

To Purchase “Summer Days Staten Island” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sally Mann

by Jonathan Blaustein

I write about my kids all the time.
You know this.

(You, the faceless crowd of e-readers.)

I remember in the Summer of 2012, when my daughter was born, I shared my confusion about changing her first diaper. How do you deal with a tiny vajayjay?

Are you gentle, like handling a fragile print? Or do you have at it, like scrubbing a recalcitrant dish in the sink. (Off, spaghetti sauce, off!)

It felt edgy to write about such things.
Transgressive.

But never would I ever post pictures of her little lady parts. Never, ever, ever.

Never.

Our relationships with our loved ones are so personal. They define us, really, even though we pretend our work is more important. I’m guilty of it myself, though if you asked me to give up my creative pursuits, or my kids, it wouldn’t be a choice at all. (Goodbye camera. Goodbye keyboard.)

Just yesterday, while teaching my photo class, a student began to cry as we discussed a picture of her granddaughter. There were two photos in succession, one a sweet, generic, black and white shot of a girl smelling a bouquet of flowers, her eyes closed.

Seen it before. On a greeting card.

The very next image, however, was of the same girl, in color, standing with an arched back, staring daggers into the camera. Her red dress was echoed by the red roses. Other flowers, also in color, surrounded her head like a halo. She was not happy, but we couldn’t know why.

Everyone in class loved the second picture, and tried to explain to the photographer why it was so much better than the first.

Personal. Intimate. Honest. Engaging. Edgy.

The eyes had a story to tell, and we wanted to know more. She began to cry, hurt all over again, reliving the moment where the young girl leaked misery. Her granddaughter had taken her glasses off for the shot, and considered herself hideous. The other kids teased her. (She wanted to cry, so her grandmother, her proxy, did instead.)

We talked about how pictures that surprise us, that give us the unexpected, that walk the line of propriety, are the ones we remember. We compared the first picture to the shot that comes in the frame when you buy it, and the second with the picture you put in the frame once you’ve removed the filler.

I promised my student that the pain she was feeling, the raw emotion, if channelled properly, would lead to photo gold. If she could handle it properly. If she had the courage to look at her life with a penetrating gaze, and then share it with the rest of us.

It’s a big if. Most people shy away from the cliff, when it heads straight down to the Rio Grande river, 650 feet below.

But not Sally Mann.

No sir.

Sally Mann made some pictures back in the 80’s, of her life, of her children, wild and feral, running naked around the Virginia countryside, and we still talk about them to this day.

Hell, I’m talking about them now, having just put down Aperture’s re-issued publication of “Immediate Family,” which I plucked from my photo-eye box a little while ago.

Such. Great. Stuff.

It’s hard to write about something that people know so well. We all feel attached to what we love, even if it’s someone else’s work. (Quick sidebar: two red tailed hawks just screeched over my own country valley, and right now, they’re careening around the sky outside my window.)

Where were we?

These pictures were guaranteed to shock, as they showed off the naked bodies of young children. How could that not draw ire and anger in a predominantly Christian country like America? It had to, right? (Cue the ghost of Jesse Helms nodding slowly.)

But get past the nudity, and you see some striking imagery. The picture of the child’s legs covered with flour paste? Never before have I seen something alive look so dead. I really wish I’d made that picture. Even the crop, chopping off the feet, is genius.

Ramping up the tension, it hurts my viscera just thinking about it.

We see skinned squirrels, dead deer, and children living in a make-believe land of wonder. An imaginary playland that must look like Kiddie Heaven, when seen from above.

The picture of the little child covered in a shroud, as if dead, only reinforces the dark juju running through this world. A touch of “Lord of the Flies” invading Never Neverland.

Really, fantastic stuff.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Bottom Line: A re-issued classic.

To Purchase “Immediate Family” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Melissa Ann Pinney

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got yelled at on Monday. (It was expected, but unpleasant.) Sometimes, even when you know what’s coming, you still can’t get out of the way.

We’d just changed the hours of our art labs at UNM-Taos, and as the Chair of the Fine Arts Department, a low-level manager in an unwieldy bureaucracy, it was my job to enforce the rules.

There’s an old saying about killing messengers, and as I stepped through the open door of the Print lab, I was fairly sure that drama was imminent. The door was meant to be closed, locked, the better for students to see the fresh sign declaring our new schedule.

I knew the man in the far corner of the room. He’d been to my wedding, though we didn’t speak that night. His parents were friends with my in-laws, his late Aunt one of the most famous actresses who’d ever lived.

That didn’t matter, as he’d been sharp with me in the past, and had an edge about him like a red aura. (Is red the color of angry auras? I don’t know, but it seems appropriate.) He glared at me, begging for trouble, waiting for the slightest provocation.

I tried to sound confident as I told him he couldn’t be here, even though he was. The rules had changed, it was decided by my superiors, not my idea, just doing my job. A not-my-fault ramble that was never going to succeed.

“You’re a liar,” he shrieked!

Spittle flew like paper airplanes, slowly arching towards the ground.

“A liar! This is all your fault! You’re trying to ruin the Printmaking department! I know you are!”

I could see I was getting nowhere, so I retreated to marshall reinforcements. I returned with a calm, confident administrator, one better accustomed to dealing with the crazies, and wielding bureaucratic power with a sense of finality.

He listened to her as he couldn’t with me. As I opened my mouth to speak, his face flushed again, and he bellowed, “Back off, Junior,” at the top of his lungs.

As there were now two of us to deal with problem, when only one was strictly necessary, I left the room, crossed the hall, and began to teach my photography class. The stress chemicals pulsed through my bloodstream, but I knew I’d be OK in a little while.

Back across the hall, two people still talked about rules, and systems, and why change is hard. Fortunately, this pair was able to communicate well enough. (Better than the first pair, anyway.)

I’m in mind of such things after having read, and perused, “TWO,” a new book by Melissa Ann Pinney, edited by Ann Patchett, published last year by Harper Design.

Ms. Pinney gave me this book in September, shortly after I’d finished my “21st Century Hustle” lecture at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. She paid me a nice compliment, handed it over, and asked that I take a look at it when I had some time.

This happens to me fairly often, at festivals, and as there was a long line of people waiting to speak with me, I said thank you, and tucked it away. It came home with me, and my wife placed it prominently on the shelf. (At least SHE thought it was special.)

It must have been Ms. Pinney’s mellow, polite mien, because the event didn’t stick in my mind. A couple of months later, she emailed to see what I thought of the book. Embarrassed, I realized I ought to take look at the thing.

I took it off the shelf, and promptly did a double-take. No, a triple-take, when I saw the cover. This photobook featured essays by Elizabeth Gilbert, Barbara Kingsolver, and Susan Orlean.

What now?

In fact, ten prominent authors had contributed stories, and Ms. Pinney’s bio, on the back-flap, stated her work was in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a few other massive institutions.

This was a prominent, important artist, working with major writers, and somehow, in our little micro-moment, none of that came across. No ego, no attitude, nothing beyond a few gracious words, patiently expressed.

I felt ashamed, and promised myself I’d give the book its due, once I had the time.

Well, today, 4 months later, I was able to stop my natural momentum, get on the couch, and start reading this thing. Reading pictures, yes, but reading words, more importantly, as that’s what sets this book apart.

The pictures in “TWO,” shot in many places, over decades, are uniformly well-made. Good light, good color, nice balance. Always, there is two of something; a pair of objects or people that imply narrative.

Or they’re meant to. Who are they? How are they related? What are they doing? What does it mean?

Normally, that’s what I’d ask myself. But I wasn’t actually sucked in to the imagery. It didn’t grab my heart, or my gut, and force me to contemplate.

But each time I came upon a story, I read. I skipped nothing, reading, reading, and then looking at the photographs in between.

Slowly, with each passing story, the book reeled me in. It humanized the photos, to the point that I’d pay heightened attention to each successive suite of pictures, after I’d finished the previous tale, poem, or essay.

I felt like the relationship between me, and this object, was deepening with each successive minute. At first I’d been neglectful, then skeptical, and finally entranced.

In my 4.5 years of reviewing books, I can’t think of a book quite like this. The pictures need the stories, and together, the two forms of communication ably support each other, like one of the old married couples mentioned in more than one essay.

Duality, expressed by Yin and Yang, or black and white, or even 1 and 0, is deeply embedded in the philosophies and realities of human-kind. We crave companionship, and pair off to make the next generation.

It takes a secure artist to cede this much of the stage to others, to see the value in the right kind of collaboration, and I’m glad I spent a part of my afternoon embedded in this charming little world.

Bottom Line: An excellent pairing of images and words

To Purchase TWO visit: http://www.melissaannpinney.com/

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This Week In Photography Books: MBLCK

by Jonathan Blaustein

Code.

Such a simple word.
Four letters.
Two vowels.
Two consonants.

Well balanced.

Such a basic word, for such a complicated concept. Even now, as I type these clean, black letters on the bright white Retina display, I’m aware they’re not as they appear. I see letters, yes, but underneath the alphabetic structure lies a string of numbers.

Ones and Zeroes.

Code.

Most of us are aware that binary code underlies the entirety of Digital Reality, which has eaten the Real World whole, like Goya’s depiction of Saturn devouring his child. We live so much through our screens, and all is illusion.

Ones and zeroes stand in for electrical impulses. On, off. Yes, no. If, then.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

But code, or the masking of one set of information in the form of another, is absolutely necessary to our daily lives. Codes are only helpful when they’re comprehensible, and often most valuable when they’re perfectly impenetrable. (Yes, I saw “The Imitation Game” a few weeks back, but that’s not what’s gotten me wound up today.)

No, I’m thinking rather of the assumption that code can be broken; its meanings interpreted. That’s how it works digitally, as code allows numbers to appear as pixels, pixels to resolve into pictures. Photographs in our Instagram feeds are so much more interesting as images; less so in the form of a string of digits as long as a unicorn’s tail.

But what happens when those assumptions are broken? I write this column every week, and every week I discuss a book that I understand. Sometimes, they withhold their meaning for a little while. Always, though, their secrets are revealed in the end. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Why would an artist not want us to know what is going on at all? Or who they are? Or why they sent you a book?

As you might have gathered, I’m not speaking in hypotheticals. (Of course not.) Last week, a little book box turned up in the mail, and I chucked it in a corner. Just now, I opened it up.

When it arrived, I noted that there was no name on the box, and I hadn’t been expecting anything. It only said MB, with an address in Austin, TX.

I know no such person.

I was curious and opened the box. I was met with a swath of thick, white wrapping paper, covered with hand-painted black marks. Little bits of charcoal, or paint chips, spilled out as I unwrapped the parcel.

Surely, I’d never received something like this before.

Inside the protective coating, I found a slim volume titled “INDECIPHERABLE.” Fair enough.

There was no letter, no essay, nothing at all, save a definition of the word. I flipped dutifully through the pages, and each time, I found a rendering of the black marks on white, on the left-hand side of the book. On the right, some sort of abstracted image, impossible to make out.

Page by page, I wondered. What is going on here? Are the black marks a kind of coded message? Do they mean anything at all? On the right-hand side, in a few images, banded lines appear? Is it an obscured computer screen? A scrambled message? An amalgam of many different photographs mashed together? (A technique I’ve seen a few times before.)

I really don’t know.

Eventually, the black-mark-hieroglyphics migrate to the right-hand page as well. The code eats the image. But what does it mean?

Believe it or not, it’s never explained. The book ends without a clue, save for the term MBLCK on the back cover.

I re-searched the package, looking for a note. A press release.
Some sort of explanation?

Nothing.

What the hell is going on here? I’ve never seen a book I couldn’t figure out, until now. But as it’s called “INDECIPHERABLE,” that’s clearly the point.

Why? To what end? Who is the mysterious MB, and why did he or she send me this coded object?

You regular readers know how much I hate to turn to Google to understand a book. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so here we go:

(pause)

First attempt: “MBLCK indecipherable Austin TX” reveals nothing.

Second attempt: “MB photo book indecipherable” reveals nothing.

Third attempt: “MBLCK photo book” reveals nothing

Fourth attempt: MBLCK photographer Austin” reveals nothing

(bigger pause)

This is a first. A book review with an anonymous artist, whose intention is totally unknowable. Why did you send me this, MB? What does it mean?

WHO ARE YOU!!!!!!!!

Does anyone have any intel on this? If so, please write into the comment section, send me an email, drop me a DM on Twitter, FB, or Instagram. Let us know in some digital variation or other, because I’m dying to know.

Aren’t you?

Bottom Line: Weird, inscrutable, impenetrable, coded photobook

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This Week In Photography Books: Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman

by Jonathan Blaustein

The gorilla stench clings to my nostril hairs, like Pigpen’s fog. Surely, I can’t still smell the gorillas? But my nose crinkles just the same.

I saw those gorillas in the Albuquerque Zoo on Sunday morning. We took the kids down to the “big” city, (irony intended) as when you raise your children in a horse pasture, they need to get out every once in a while.

My daughter, now 3.5, had never seen zoo animals in person before. It was time.

So we put on our coats to fight the 9am chill, and decided to walk off our big breakfast at the Central Grill, a fantastic restaurant that sits astride old Route 66. It came highly recommended by my old friend David Bram, and now I’m passing the tip along to you.

I could tweet it, if I really wanted to, but I don’t think I’ll bother.

The gorillas are the first thing you come to at the Albuquerque Zoo, and I think they might want to re-think that decision. The smell traveled across a fair distance, and felt like it took up residence in my nasal cavity. You’ll have to trust me: it was awful. (Because you’re reading it on the Internet, it must be true.)

It is one of life’s deep pleasures, to introduce a child to the wonder of a kookaburra’s surreal call, the magnificence of a family of hippos exiting their pond, or the quiet, regal menace of a snow leopard sitting in its pen, perfectly still.

For most of us, seeing such creatures from a safe distance, their danger muted by cage bars, is the only way we’ll ever experience them in the real world. Unless you have mad cash to splurge on a safari, or live in a place where a tiger might actually pounce and eat you, the mediated experience is all we have.

The only time I felt scared was walking below a mountain lion, who paced back and forth in his elevated cage. My fear was real, because those monsters live very close to my house. I could presumably see one, though I hope it never happens. My brain was able to suss out the difference, so my heart beat quickened.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The oddest moment, by far, was at the very end. (Just before we walked through the gorilla stink, which by then had managed to hang in the air, 200 feet from their habitat.) Our last visit was to the polar bear, who had no interest in swimming in his frigid water on a cold morning.

Back and forth he walked, on a concrete precipice above his abundant blue pool.

Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.

The problem was, to the naked eye, he didn’t look real. He was only 20 feet away, true, but my brain read him as digital. A trick of the light, I’m sure, but still, I checked with my 8-year-old, who’s been raised on screens, and he agreed.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a hi-resolution projection. A figment of the digi-verse, transposed onto reality by some next-gen projector, sitting just out the frame.

What a trip.

Are you surprised? Have you ever had the feeling before, that reality was no longer real enough? That your eyes, so accustomed to screen time, could no longer tell the difference?

I’m asking, having just put down “Geolocation,” an excellent new book by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, recently published by Flash Powder Projects. (A new publishing venture by the aforementioned David Bram, and his partner Jennifer Schwartz. I’ve reviewed friend’s books before, so this is no precedent. But I thought you should know, and I’ll do my best to be objective.)

I’d heard of this project before, but somehow never seen it. The premise is conceptually tight: the artists take other people’s geo-tagged tweets, track down the location where they were tweeted, photograph it, and then pair the tweet with the image.

We’ve seen stalker art before, (see Albuquerque’s own Jessamyn Lovell,) but this is something new. It has to be, as it’s based on contemporary technology. But innovation is not a guarantor of quality, so I was curious to see the book and decide for myself.

The key to the project’s success is that they choose tweets that range from random and silly, to poignant and personal. Someone dies. Someone else craves love.

The tweet suggesting that life is just like the “Harry Truman” show brings the book together. Both the ridiculous faux pas, of course, and because unlike Jim Carrey’s Truman, so many of us now choose to be observed. To proffer our lives as other people’s entertainment. (Myself included. In this very space.)

The photographs are strong, as well as diverse. We see Canada, England, New York, California, Indiana, and places in between. No-place places and someplace places. It all fits.

In general, I think the work is really strong, and I’m glad to share it with you. The flaws in the book, such as they are, come in the way the sequencing of text and imagery happens. As the publishers are very new to this, (the book is their co-launch,) and I’ve reviewed at least 200 books over the last 4.5 years, I thought it appropriate to mention this.

There are too many pictures, and the poems and mini-essays that pop up, from curators and other trendy types on the photo scene, seem placed at intervals meant to challenge our attention span. Some books need smart people to tell us that they are “IMPORTANT.”

This isn’t one of them. The combination of concept and execution means that almost any audience will get this work. It’s funny and smart and the pictures are not boring.

In the best photobooks, less is more. More is not more, because it causes our eyes to glaze over, and incites a desire to skip ahead. Narrative flow, furthermore, is a delicate beast, like a hummingbird. (It needs to be handled carefully.)

So I wholeheartedly recommend this one, and give props the artists for their diligent work, done over hundreds of days on the road. To the publishers, I also give a big thumbs up, for sticking your fresh necks out to support this collaboration. I hope you’ll take my advice in the spirit in which it was intended, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Bottom Line: Innovative, witty, tweet-worthy 21st C photo series.

To Purchase “Geolocation” Go Here.

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This Week In Photography Books: Karen Knorr

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s Tuesday, the morning after the Iowa Caucuses. (When I’m writing this. You’re likely reading on Friday, of course.)

Today marks the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s incessant march to colonize Earth. Wouldn’t you just love to see the TRUMP insignia emblazoned on the side of the White House? I mean, after you moved to Canada, wouldn’t you find it funny? (Instead of tragic and/or shocking?)

I’ve said since the first Republican debate that my money was on Marco Rubio, so I’m sticking with that. The Republicans have a great habit of rallying around whomever is “most electable,” and he fits the bill.

Ted Cruz, who won the contest, seems more unlikeable than a genetically engineered TRex that’s about to eat your face off. A smugger man, I’ve not yet seen. And the hubris to pretend to be a man “of the people” when you’re educated at Princeton and Harvard?

We haven’t witnessed that degree of fakery since George W. was photographed “clearing brush” in Texas. (Oh George. Where have you gone? How we miss your bumbling mispronunciations.)

No, Ted Cruz will not be the next President of the United States. You heard it here. But then, neither will the Donald, a man who would gladly take the Malkovichian punishment of living inside his own head, surrounded by clones who spoke only his own name, were he given the chance.

“Trump?”

“Trump.”

“Trump Trump Trump?”

“Trump Trump.”

If we’ve learned anything from Donald’s six-month-performance-art-piece, it’s that how much money you have is not a marker of your intelligence, nor your worth to the rest of us. That guy clearly has billions, but he acts like a scared, insecure bully on the playground, making sure to charge $5 admission to the swing-set, just because he can.

He may have money, but as they say, money can’t buy class. In this case, I actually speak from experience. Back in 1996, I worked on a movie called “The Devil’s Advocate,” and personally delivered a $50,000 check to his assistant, made out to Donald Trump, for the use of his 57th St penthouse for ONE DAY.

That’s right. 50 grand for a day, not that he needed the money. The walls were covered in plated gold, something I’ve never seen before or since. Tacky beyond belief. An Emperor is how the man sees himself. (A taller Napoleon with bad hair.)

But gold walls or gold toilets do not make a better person. Not better than any of us. Just better at wasting precious resources.

The homes we live in, the trinkets we acquire, the animal pelts we collect, these do not reflect the quality of our character. The idea of aristocracy was misguided from the beginning. Much as some would like to believe it grew out of a reality that some families are superior to others, I’d proffer that it’s simply that some are driven to acquire wealth and power by any means necessary.

And others are not.

As I rarely get political, (though I’ve staunchly avoided mention of whom I support in 2016,) I couldn’t help myself after looking at “Belgravia,” a new book by Karen Knorr, released last year by Stanley/Barker.

Once you see it, the above rant will fit snugly into context, like a medicine cap on a bottle of Prozac. As the book brings us inside the homes, and minds, of the English elite, circa 1976. (Has there ever been a more photogenic decade?)

According to the end notes, though not hard to suss out from the content, Belgravia is a posh neighborhood in London, near Buckingham Palace. It is likely to West London conservatism what the East End is to hipsterism these days. (And if I’m wrong, I’m sure one of our many London-based readers will correct me.)

The portraits, staged in fancy rooms with grand fireplaces, are paired with snippets of conversation the artist recalled from chatting with her subjects. They fit, in the sense that we can imagine “these people” saying such things, despite the obvious artifice.

My favorite part was that several of the crops are not clean. Photographs like this, of formal people in formal rooms, are so often meticulously made. Every cut is perfect. Each composition as exacting as a valet cleaning off a just-used dinner jacket.

But these are rougher than that. They’re close to formal, but often deviate in observable ways. Rebellion, via composition? And the lighting is not perfect either. It’s often flat, rather than glamourous.

I counted at least 2 zebra-pelts, assuming they’re real. And other objects collected from around the Empire. Lions, cheetahs, elephants. Knick-knacks from the hinterlands.

Honestly, I didn’t love this book. But that’s the point, no? These people aren’t lovable. They’re just rich. They look normal, for the most part. (Not the Platonic ideal of a human, like a baby made by the unholy English union of David Beckham and Sienna Miller.)

That’s what the Upper Class look like in our minds, no? All jutting, cleft chins and wide-set blue eyes. They look better than we do, attended superior schools, so they deserve to rule?

No, this book just shows some lonely-looking, repressed rich people, clinging to their religion and their guns. (Sorry. That was an Obama quote.) I mean, clinging to their fancy things and big rooms.

Bottom Line: Ironic, old school pics of the British ruling Elite

To Purchase “Belgravia” Visit Photo-Eye

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