Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books: Mike Slack

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Mad Men” ended this week.

Did you see it? Were you dissatisfied? Personally, I like to imagine Matthew Weiner’s recurring nightmares about “The Sopranos” last episode, and its less-than-stellar reception.

Can’t you see him tossing and turning in a king-sized bed, replete with high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets? Unconscious, with the Pacific Ocean shimmering out the window, he wonders how to live with himself if he fucks up the end of “Mad Men” the way David Chase faded to black.

He must have been a neurotic mess in the days/months/years leading up to Don Draper’s denouement. I’m certain of it. Because otherwise, he wouldn’t have over-thought things to the degree he did.

SPOILER ALERT

Ending the show with a meditating Jon Hamm’s beatific smile would have been just about perfect. The skeptical, stoic Don Draper, finally merging with the emo-boy Dick Whitman. The straight-laced beefcake, who looked Iconic in his 50’s hat, finally trusting in the Universe enough to go easy on himself.

To forgive.

That would have been a profound message about mankind’s ability to grow and change. (And woman-kind, of course.) But no. Matthew Weiner had to take it one step further, and ambiguously suggest that the momentary enlightenment was put directly in service of inventing that famous Coke commercial that we will all have stuck in our heads forEVER.

A classic bit of over-thinking, especially as he didn’t bother with the epilogue showing Don Draper’s triumphant return to pitch the idea. That would have made more sense, traditionally, than the half-done act of running the ad.

But then, most of us get in our own way, from time to time. We overcomplicate things. Normally, it’s better to keep it simple; to see your job as making the donuts, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. (What if we made the wheel square? Instead of round? We could build pyramids with this newfangled contraption.)

Today’s book does just that. (Keep it simple, that is.) Mike Slack’s “Shrubs of Death” had me at the title. I might have rushed past last week’s telling book cover, but this one grabbed me by my chakras and didn’t let go.

Shrubs of Death? How great is that?

And then, it delivered on its promise. We see a lot of shrubs. Each picture is cropped just right, to anthropomorphize a bit of shrubbery. (There’s a Monty Python joke in there somewhere. I’m sure of it.)

I giggled for the first few photos, and then started flipping more quickly. It was like a paper version of an animated gif. What would you call that? A flip-book? An analogue cartoon?

No matter. Halfway through, I thought to myself, “This is cute and witty, but honestly, Mike Slack could have shot this whole project in 25 minutes.”

I really thought that. I swear.

I even made puns in my mind about Mike being a Slacker, and making a book out of the experience just because he could. Then, the end notes claim that he did, in fact, shoot the entire group in one day. (The consistent light was a giveaway.) Apparently, he made the pictures at a cemetery in Indiana. (Hence the title.)

Let me be clear here. This is not a great book. And charging $32 for the thing requires some genuine hubris. But at least Mike Slack didn’t over-think anything.

He got a funny idea to shoot shrubs in a cemetery. Maybe he always thought it could be a book. And then he did it. The fact that I had it in my hands proves its existence.

Why am I highlighting it today, if I only like it ironically? Because art is in the making. We all have lots of ideas. But sometimes, it’s best to just get out there and make something. Anything.

The truth is harsh. No matter how smart you are, sometimes, you just need to photograph those shrubs… before you’re the one 6 feet under the ground.

Bottom Line: A funny little book that won’t change your life

To Purchase “Shrubs of Death” Visit Photo-Eye

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Paul Schiek TBW Books Interview

Jonathan Blaustein: I just called you on the phone. We’re not Skyping. And I noticed that your phone number was 444-BOOK.

Paul Schiek: Yeah.

JB: Who did you have to bribe, as a book publisher, to get BOOK as your phone number? How much money did they make you pay?

PS: OK. Awesome first question, because I love these little details that most people don’t notice, or care about. A lot of people don’t have landlines anymore, and to me, a landline represents this classic way of doing business, so people can just call you at 444-BOOK.

It was sort of, I don’t want to say kitschy, but it was…

JB: Cute?

PS: I’ve had this long goal of being a business in the Oakland community, and that TBW would sponsor a Little League team. In the same way that Joe Schmo the plumber buys a Little League team their uniforms.

JB: (laughing) You’re gonna do that?

PS: That’s been a dream of mine for my publishing company. When I set up a landline, I said, “How much would it cost to have my number be 1-510-TBW-BOOK? But that was taken just numerically, by chance. So I just said well what about 444-BOOK?

They said it was available. So I said, “OK, how much is it going to cost to have that for the rest of my life, as my landline for my business.”

They were like, a one time charge of…$35.

JB: (laughing.) There it is. 35 bucks.

PS: So that’s the office phone number. In certain circumstances, it’s totally appropriate to tell people that’s the number. Sometimes, it’s goofy, and I just say the numbers 444-2665. But I like having it. It’s cool, and it references the workmanlike qualities that I like to instill in this company.

Some people get it, some people don’t.

JB: Listen, that was the fun first question. The next question is more traditional, but something that I’m really curious about. You’re a successful artist, as well as being a publisher. Why did you gravitate towards art to begin with?

PS: The short version is that I was out in the world, shooting a lot of bands that I would go see. I always had a camera with me, but I didn’t have an understanding of photography. I’d moved to California, and was working whatever menial jobs were possible, just to get by.

I was having a great time, away from a seemingly culturally oppressive environment where I grew up, in Wisconsin. At the time, for a 17 year old, it sure felt that way. Anything left or right of center was frowned upon. So I moved to California, and lived that lifestyle for a long time.

I made the decision that I was going to take something seriously. I think I was 26 at the time. I applied to one local art school, which at the time was California College of Arts and Crafts, but now it’s California College of Art.

JB: Right. They dropped the last C.

PS: Yeah, but when I was there it was CCAC. I got in, and it was an immediate life-changing experience. This isn’t my quote, but I became like the jock of art school. I would stay there 24 hours a day. I had no email account. I had never been on a computer, and here was a room filled with 25 computers, and you could do whatever you want on it.

I was blown away at the idea that I was encouraged to challenge things. It didn’t matter what I did at school. They were like, “Oh that’s interesting. Why did you choose to do that?”

That was extremely liberating and fascinating.

JB: Did you get to work with Larry Sultan?

PS: Yes, I worked with Larry my last year, but the whole time I was there I became really close with Jim Goldberg, and worked with him extensively. He’s 100% responsible for introducing me to photobooks and sparking that interest in me.

I worked with Larry, in 2005, but I didn’t become extremely close with him. He was a very influential person on my work there though. He was a extremely smart man, and someone I was very honored to have a opportunity to work under.

JB: In working with Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg, you were introduced to super-star artists just as you were beginning your career. That must have been foundational for you?

PS: I knew that they were well-respected, and great artists, but I was just excited by what they were willing to offer up in terms of them being interesting people with interesting perspectives on things. I knew that they had books out, and I could go in a library and look at their book.

To me, that was something. That these guys, that I knew, that I could go sit one-on-one with, and talk about photography, I could also go in a library and, amongst these stacks of books, pull out a hardcover, coffee-table book with their images in it.

That amazed me. I’d never known people that had books out. You know? In a lot of ways, that inspired me to say, “I’m going to make a book.”

JB: And now, it’s 10 years later, and everybody’s got a book. That whole idea of it being a super-exclusive career marker, it seems like that mystique has been watered down a bit. Would you agree?

PS: I would agree with that. Yeah. Somewhat frustratingly, I agree with that. It bums me out a little bit, because I loved the exclusivity of it. It was this defining thing.

JB: Well, you can see everything from grumpy cats to gestating grandmas on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great pictures there too, right?

PS: Yeah.

JB: Well, in 2005, which is when I’m guessing you graduated, you decided to publish your own book. It’s a perfect segue. You were fascinated by books. You had professors who knew how to make them. And well, well before everyone was doing it, you said, “I’m going to make my own book.”

Is that how it happened?

PS: That’s exactly how it happened. The more intricate part of it was that part of our requirement to graduate is that we had to mount a show, and make a post card announcing it. We had to print and frame it ourselves.

That was what we had to do to graduate, and prove that we are photographers. To me, it was just absurd. No one knew who I was. I had friends who were on the East Coast, in the Mid West, and Down South. I wanted to share what I was doing in school with these photos, and it just made no sense to spend this money to print these large photographs and frame them.

No one was going to see it. No one was going to care. Then, I was going to have to sit on this product that I didn’t know what to do with, that no one wanted to buy.

It made a lot more sense to me that I would be a publisher, and I would make a book. Then, I could mail it to those people, and use it as a promotional tool. Et cetera, et cetera. I had asked for Jim and Larry’s blessing, to do the book instead of a show, and they said it was fine.

I should also say that at that point, I’d been making ‘zines for years.

JB: OK.

PS: So the idea of a book to me was the next level ‘zine.

JB: I’m glad you pointed that out. It didn’t come from nowhere.

PS: No. I was looking at, and participating in these things that were happening alongside the music world. I’d collected and seen fan ‘zines for years. Ever since I was 13 years old in Wisconsin, I’d seen ‘zines. More importantly, I was buying and seeing records.

A lot of times, a record was hand-printed, and on a random, nothing label. It was just like a name. So I just applied all those same concepts to publishing a book. In my classes, people would say, “You can’t just say you’re going to make a book. You need a publisher.” So I’d be like, “Well, I’m the publisher.”

JB: (laughing) That’s awesome.

PS: They’d be like, “What does that mean? Who’s going to print it?” So I said, “I’ll print it.” Then they’d be like, “Well, you need a distributor.” And I’d say, “I’m the distributor.”

JB: (laughing) That’s rad. Oh my god.

PS: This, to me, was not foreign whatsoever.

JB: Right.

PS: This was just how you made something that was yours, and you put it out in the world. For me, it wasn’t weird at all, but to some of the people I was studying with, they thought it was a circus sideshow. They said, “This dude says he’s going to have a book in a month for his senior thesis.”

To me it was just, I’ve got to get to work. I’ve got to figure this out. So that’s the way it worked out, and how I published what essentially was my first art book. It’s funny to call it a book. It was 4″x6″, and 40 pages, but I really did the best I could to challenge the materiality of what a ‘zine was, and to make a book out of it. To bring it into the feel of what a book is.

Really, I gave them away. I had a book release party at my friend’s little book/zine shop here. I said, “First 100 people get a free copy of the book.” That was just this technique for me to say, “There’s gonna be 500 people there.” Probably 30 people showed up. But on the flyer, I wrote first 100 people at the door get a free copy of the book.

That was just me trying to be funny, but it was also allowed me to believe in myself, in a strange way. So we screen-printed flyers, and had the party. It was what I’d seen other people do, having record release parties for their band.

You do it in this little space with 7 foot ceilings, and cram a bunch of people in, and hang up a few photos. It was cool, and it was fun, and it felt like mine.

I never played in band…

JB: I was just about to ask you that.

PS: No, I never played in bands, but I was around that, and was living with and knew people in bands. I watched how they operated, and ran little businesses. I never felt a part of that. I was always making photos of it, but was never a part of it.

I tried to apply those same techniques and understandings and operations to this new thing that I was starting, which was making books. I should also mention that at that point, I was becoming obsessive about photography. I was looking at everything I could get my hands on.

Spending as much time as possible either making photos, or printing photos. I was becoming really entrenched in it. While I was in school, I was making so much, but also working jobs, because I needed to pay rent and basic life needs.

So I really wasn’t able to focus, for a bunch of different reasons, on the reading assignments. I wasn’t really getting the History of Photography. After school is when I started to take a moment and go back to read. I really wanted to study the medium. I just wanted to be the kid who knew everything. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say to me, “Do you know those early daguerreotypes by blah blah blah?” and I’d have to say, “No, I don’t know it.”

I wanted to be able to say, “Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and we can have a conversation about it right now.” I really wanted to be able to back up the decisions I was making. I was aware people would want to pigeon hole me and while in no way am I an intellectual, I wanted to at least be able to know the history of the medium to a T.

JB: Yeah, I had a buddy in school like that, back at UNM in the late 90’s. My friend Scott B. Davis looked like he worked in a record store, and he knew everything. He had the background.

I came to it at 23, so I didn’t have the background. Everyone would just look at him, and the eye-rolling was ridiculous. It was like, “How the fuck do you know that? I don’t know that. I wouldn’t even know how to learn that.”

So you were that guy.

PS: Here’s the thing I want to be clear about. I wanted to be that guy as a defense mechanism. I was insecure in the art world because I was really just a dirt bag from Wisconsin. I felt like this new world that I’d discovered, which was the art world, I was seen as the kid who could go to a house party, or a show, and make pictures of kids throwing up, or whatever. And I did make those photos!

But I was making tons of photos. I was shooting everything and later relying on the editing process to extract meaning and try to create new narratives. I was trying to use images as signposts. This was the time when VICE was doing their annual photo issue.

This style of photography was hyper-on-the-radar. You shoot with a point-and-shoot…flash at night. From my perspective it was a really exciting time for photography.

JB: Listen, I was living in Brooklyn when Ryan McGinley had that show at the Whitney. The whole Beautiful Losers thing.

PS: So you know exactly what I’m talking about. I wanted to be a part of the academia side of things also. I wanted to prove that I was deeply invested in this. That this wasn’t by chance, that I was working really hard at something.

It’s funny, but I haven’t thought about this work in a long time. I was shooting with a point-and-shoot, 35mm, but I would crop my photos like a 6×7, to give it a more formal quality. Larry was shooting with a 6×7, so I would take these 35mm photos, but then I cropped them so they had a snap-and-shoot aesthetic, but they were presented more formally.

JB: When you say crop it like a 6×7, you mean use that aspect ratio, so people would think it was made with a bigger camera?

PS: Exactly. Maybe it was grainy, or had a bright flash. Or it was in a situation where you wouldn’t use a big camera. But then the prints would look like something Larry would do. It would be more serious, not the snap-shot thing. Perhaps it was staged, that whole conversation of fact and fiction in photography.

I was trying to do both things; to be in two places with the work. I’m digressing…

JB: There’s no such thing in one of these interviews, man. You’re supposed to. That’s part of the deal, and why these are different from everyone else’s interviews.

We don’t stick to a script. We want to give the readers a chance to learn from your experience. People have their own big ideas, and don’t know where to go with it. Or they don’t feel like they have permission to just do it themselves.

I’ve done it in my career, and it’s always been helpful.

PS: Sure.

JB: Sometimes, you just have to self-declare. Like you said earlier, “I am a publisher,” and then you are one. We manifest these aspects of our personalities, and our careers, through hubris.

PS: That’s exactly right. That’s a main tenet of what I was privy to growing up. You say you’re a guitar player in a band, not because you either have a guitar, or you know how to play it, but because you do it. That can obviously translate into any facet in life. You determine it.

This is sounding corny, so I want to stop talking. Next question. I feel like I’m on a soap box now.

JB: You can stop right there, but I actually know what you’re talking about. Back in graduate school, I had a friend who asked me, “How do you get a show?” I said, “The easiest way to get a show is to make a show?” So he said, “How do you make a show?”

I said, if there are pictures on the wall, and people in the room to look at them, and they have wine in plastic cups in their hand, then you have a show.

PS: That’s right.

JB: He said, “Oh, it’s that easy?” So I said, “Watch. I’ll show you.” We had a beautiful apartment in Greenpoint, with white walls and hardwood floors, so I just did it. I invited my grad school buddies, and hung pictures, and there were some people there. Then, in the second show, there were more people there, and then in the third show, it was a wall-heaving jammer, and I thought that was great, until I had to clean up the next day.

PS: (laughing) Yeah.

JB: I had to mop up all the dried, stinky beer from my kitchen floor, and I thought, “OK, I think I’ve made my point.”

But a lot of people don’t necessarily give themselves permission to take risks, and let it hang out. I try to use these interviews as a way of giving people some confidence to do what they want to do, even if it’s not necessarily related to what you and I are talking about.

I’ll put myself on the soapbox, so you don’t have to be. How’s that?

PS: OK.

JB: But back to the publishing. You made one book for yourself, and then a couple more, but then at some point, you decided that you were going to publish other artists. You must have woken up and said, “Well, I do have a company. And I might not have a Little League team under sponsorship yet, but this is no longer just for shits and giggles. This is a real thing.”

PS: Yes.

JB: And then you managed to cultivate relationships with some really successful artists. Can you walk me through the genesis of that, from doing your own work to publishing other artists, and selling books, and really trying to push the envelope?

PS: That is another example of form following function. I’d gotten out of school, I’d made that book “Good by Angels” as my senior thesis, and I wanted to do another book. By that point, I was making different photographs, and I wanted to show them again. But I still hadn’t cultivated a following, beyond my immediate friends, and I didn’t know how to reach a larger audience.

It was really just a practicality thing. I’d been studying with Jim, and he and I had become close, so I asked him, “Hey, I want to make another book. Would you also do a book with me?” He agreed to it, and I always think of it as him extending an olive branch to me, you know?

This is something I don’t normally talk about, but I feel comfortable talking with you about the business side of things.

JB: Sure. Thanks.

PS: I didn’t have any money. Big surprise. I had no money to print anything. So I developed this system where I said, “I’m going to make these four books. One’s going to be by Jim, and I got two other artists, and one will be mine. People are going to buy these books because Jim’s involved in it. And I’m going to force people to look at my own book.”

They’re going to have to buy my book, because they want to get Jim’s book. They’re only sold as a set. That’s going to be a way to expose my work to a larger audience, and also, more importantly, it’s going to secure some funds for me to pay for this thing.

Once Jim agreed to do it, I promoted it, and got some orders coming in, and I took that money and I developed a program where the books would come out individually over the course of the coming year. The reason that I did that was because it was an opportunity for me to make the money to produce them as they came out, to pay for production of the other books.

I took the money from the initial orders and go to the printer, pay them, and then go and pay the bindery. Then I’d have the first book, but people already paid for all four books. So I’d ship the first book to the customers, and then I’d start praying.

I’d be like, “Fuck. I need more orders.”

JB: Right.

PS: Then I’d do more promotions, and more emails, and I’d ask some friends and tell them about it, and a couple of more orders would come in. You can see what I’m saying here.

JB: Yeah. It was a great hustle.

PS: Eventually, I got enough cash together, and I’d print book number two. And then I’d start praying again. And then repeat.

Finally, it got to my book, and I was shipping it out to my subscribers. I was like, “Wow. Here’s a subscriber in England, man. England! I’m shipping a book to England!”

JB: (laughing) Right.

PS: Anyway, I realized that I was doing something of value, and that I should continue pursuing it. That opened up opportunity, because I was cultivating a client list, and was able to print better books, because I could start relying on these people to order.

I was really trying to build an old school business, no different than a plumber. “Hey, you’re going to hire me, and I’m going to come in and provide excellent service, and give you and excellent product, and next time you need that again, you’re going to call me.”

That’s really what I believe in. It’s how I grew up.

JB: I was just going to say, this has to be a Mid-Western thing.

PS: Yeah, I’m from Wisconsin. 100%. And it’s really funny, because when I was there, I was miserable. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this. Did you grow up in New Mexico?

JB: I grew up in Jersey, man, so I can relate.

PS: Jersey. So you understand what I’m talking about.

JB: Yes.

PS: Because you have this dichotomy in your ethos and approach to things. The cultural differences, right?

JB: Absolutely.

PS: I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but when I was in Wisconsin, I really couldn’t appreciate it. This year’s really important for me, because it’s my 18th year in Oakland. So this year marks the same amount of time in Oakland as I was in Wisconsin.

It’s a strange feeling. Maybe that’s beside the point.

Now that I’m in California, steeped in the art world, I find there’s a lot things I don’t appreciate. Things I’m not in line with. When I break it down and look at it, it’s because of the way I was raised.

JB: Jersey gets a bad rap, and I couldn’t wait to get away, frankly. But one person’s “Bridge and Tunnel” is another person’s grounded, down-to-Earth, everyday American.

PS: Absolutely.

JB: I could see the Twin Towers from my town, but it was so different from New York City.

PS: That’s exactly right. Do you feel that now that you’re in New Mexico, which couldn’t be more different from where you’re from?

JB: It’s like what you were saying with your 18 and 18. My folks first brought me out here when I was 14, and they moved here permanently when I was still in college.

PS: Moved here, meaning New Mexico?

JB: Yeah. Taos. They still live here. So I’ve been around this place, on and off, for 27 years. This is home, and Jersey is the place that made me, that I still go visit occasionally.

In my own psyche, I don’t relate as an East Coaster so much.

PS: All my family is still in Wisconsin, and I go back to visit, so I’m still connected to it. I think about it a lot. And then I come back from these trips, and within four hours, I’m back in this liberal, hippie bubble that we live in in the Bay Area.

JB: The sun is shining, and the palm trees are swaying.

PS: Totally. And I find it comforting, and I love it. At the same time, so much of it is not in line with how I want my life. In a lot of ways, I create this environment for myself, like the phone number, that harks back and references this nostalgic America. I don’t know…

In a lot of ways, I’m antiquated, and still not in touch with the way things really are. But, whatever. It’s this weird world that I’ve created for myself. I assume it’s idealized in a lot of ways.

JB: Let’s go into that world a little bit. I’m looking at the “Subscription Series Number 1″ on your website, which I assume is the project we were just talking about, without naming it.

That’s the first time I see Mike Brodie’s name pop up on the website, and it was put out in 2006.

PS: Yeah.

JB: I’m going to go ahead and assume that people will know who Mike is, without having to do a lot of backstory. I’ve reviewed his first book, by Twin Palms, and he’s had a ridiculous amount of success in the last few years.

How did you guys meet? How did you come to become friends and collaborators?

PS: I was introduced to Mike through a friend of ours: Monica. Mike would travel through Oakland, and Monica lived in a punk house that we’d go to and hang out at, they would have parties and shows there. He’d stayed there a couple of times, and she told me, “This kid comes through town, and he’s great. His name is Brodie, and he’s got all these Polaroids with him.”

At the time, I shot a lot of Polaroid stuff. It was natural, and that simple. There was a party at the house, I think it was actually Monica’s birthday. My good friend DV and I were there. We all just hung out, I remember I made a photo of Brodie that night with his dog Pucci. My wife recently put it in this special cabinet at home. Brodie looks like he’s 12 years old in the photo now!

I told him to bring some Polaroids next time he was in town, and he did, so we sat there and talked about them. He was showing me these Polaroids he was getting while he was traveling, and I was already becoming versed in the Fine Art world. I was hearing terms like “archiving,” because of school. You know?

JB: Sure.

PS: I was like, “Archiving. OK. Acid free.” I said to him, “OK, why don’t you send me these Polaroids, and I’ll archive them and for you, and catalogue them. Because I think these things are pretty incredible.”

He and I started hanging out. He was younger than me, and I had a little more knowledge than he did at the time, so I was kind of…

JB: Big brother?

PS: Maybe A little bit. Maybe like I could help this kid, in some way, because I was pretty sure he was going to get steam-rolled pretty soon. Based on how good these things are. That’s all.

He and I became pretty fast friends, so when he came through town, he’d stay with me. I enjoyed his stories.

There were other things happening. I got in a gallery around the same time, so I was really getting into the art world. I was seeing prices, and how important art became on the secondary market. Understanding and learning the habits of collectors.

When I was thinking about the stuff that Brodie was making, I thought there was probably an opportunity for us to collaborate a little more than just hanging out as friends, and looking at photos. He had no interest in the art world whatsoever, and I did, so I thought maybe he and I could work out some sort of system.

I could help oversee things, and help ensure that they were done properly. Not butchered.

JB: It’s come across in the interview that you have a good business mind, to go along with your work ethic. But if I understand things right, the creative collaboration worked both ways.

I’m pretty sure I remember from when I first reviewed your excellent book “Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me,” that Mike Brodie is the one who first found the pictures that became your art project. Is that right?

PS: That’s exactly right. At one point, he was traveling in Georgia, and was spending time in an abandoned prison. When you’re 23, it sounds really fun to go to an abandoned prison.

He found all these mug shots, and sent them back to me, and said, “You got to look at these. They’re incredible.” And I looked at them, and I thought they WERE incredible.

I don’t know if you’ve pulled this together, but I have a real interest in vernacular photography. I think a lot of people do at this point. I’m interested in found photography, and re-contextualizing images that were never intended to be seen in certain ways.

How history can re-shape the meaning of photographs. I love all that stuff. So this was really up my alley, and he knew that, so he sent them to me in a big, beat up box. My nature is to organize and archive, so I began immediately to put them into groups and categories, to make sense of it. Because there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

I made categories: Black guys, white guys, old guys, young guys. I wanted to make some sense of what he sent me. Eventually, I edited the images to become a book with the conceptual approach that I was choosing images with likeness to myself. That in an almost Becher-esque way, you could see all the images and get a generic idea of the Author. In this case, me.

JB: It’s funny, because you keep using the word archive, and the word we haven’t used yet is appropriation. I’m constantly surprised that the idea of appropriation is still as dangerous and edgy to some people as it seems to be. You know?

Richard Prince is held up as a god and a devil, depending on which side of the fence you sit. Is that something that you were thinking about at the time, with this work? You mentioned archiving and vernacular, so that makes me think maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision on your part to say, “I’m appropriating this. I’m taking it, and making it mine.”

PS: It’s interesting. Appropriation, in my mind, has a negative connotation to it. So I think earlier, I said re-contextualizing, which is another way of saying appropriating. I archived and organized, at first. Then afterwards, when I was making the book, it certainly can be argued that yeah, I appropriated those photos for my own artistic enjoyment.

I certainly did that.

JB: Yeah, I think you’re probably right that it’s seen as a pejorative term, but the process is so well-established within the tradition of art that I almost wonder whether we’re selling the word short.

Frankly, I had a different read when I saw the pictures as over-sized prints on the wall at Pier 24 than I did with the book. I much preferred the hand-held experience.

PS: Yeah. Books and prints have very little in common. They are very distinct and separate experiences to me.

JB: That’s why I wanted to talk to you about this. Aside from the word itself, do you think that it ought to still be controversial, in 2015, when people have been doing it successfully and intelligently for decades?

PS: I personally don’t see any problems with it. It’s a response to the appropriation that happens every day on the Internet. My personal belief is that we live in a time, for better or worse, where images are made, consumed, and used by everyone at all times.

We live in a borderless, fenceless, Wild, Wild West when it comes to images online. It sounds arrogant and pompous, because it is, but my job as an artist, as a person who thinks about and consumes photography at every level, as a person who attempts to contextualize images in our culture, my job is to use images any way that I feel is responsible and appropriate

There might be repercussions from that, but that’s a world we live in now. (pause.) Now I’m thinking about what I just said. Certainly, if there’s copyright on things, that’s a legal binder to an artist and complicates this whole conversation above my pay grade and expertise.

(pause.) Hey look, can we chalk it up and say I don’t know the answer. I’m just reacting. I’m doing what I do, and I don’t necessarily know the answer to your question.

JB: I wanted your opinion, and you gave it. It’s a great opportunity to talk with someone who’s working with that practice, and doing it well. How could I not want to touch on that in the interview?

But there are other things I’d like to talk about. Let’s jump back into photobook publishing, before our brains burn out.

The most recent thing that I saw, and reviewed, by TBW is the “Assignment Number 2″ project, with the Sugimoto and Misrach photos. The book made with a prisoner who had been held in solitary confinement in San Quentin prison. I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about this.

PS: OK.

JB: Both Rob and I thought this thing was really, really dynamite. Creative, smart, political, positive. You’ve been publishing for ten years, and now it seems like you’re in a place where you’re almost re-inventing what a photobook could be. Do you think that’s a fair statement?

PS: Well, yes. But also no, in the fact that I wish you had a copy of my first book, and it wasn’t much more than a bunch of glued together postcards. So I really have always had that idea that a photobook is not what we’re told a photobook is. How it’s experienced. The materiality of it.

A large portion of what I do with TBW are these limited editions. They’re objects in a way that’s interactive, and sculptural. I have parts that are machined by motorcycle builders. I’d like to hope that the work I’m doing with TBW is always questioning the format of books.

This particular project, “Assignment Number 2,” was just a great opportunity to explore and think about what this thing should be. It went through many different incarnations, in the design phase. That project was 3-something years in the making, and it was always talked about that it was going to be a book.

We just finally got to a point where it just was telling us it didn’t want to be a book. You’re photographing that yellow-hand-written paper against a black backdrop, so you can lay it out on a page. Then, against a white backdrop. Then, it’s against concrete, which will reference the idea of a prison cell.

Nothing’s working. It’s not feeling right. At some point you just say, “What we need to do is reprint it at scale, page for page. That’s the way it wants to be.” It needs the tactile, interactive experience, so that the person can get the sense of what this thing is.

So you come to that conclusion. It’s an organic, natural process when designing a project, where you say “OK, so if we have this yellow paper, we have 10 of them, and it looks exactly like his original paper, then how do we bind it into the hardcover book?”

It’s not enough pages. It’s not in signatures, so we can’t stitch it. We don’t want to staple the side of it.

JB: It’s a process.

PS: It’s a process and you have to trust the process. The real story is, I was going to FedEx, and I go to these really great ladies near my house, to drop off my packages. They’re these old school ladies that have this packing and shipping store. You know those stationary store type places?

JB: Sure.

PS: I went in and asked, “Anne, do you have any old clips?” Because everything in there is from the 70’s. Dead stock. I asked for clips for a binder folder, and she pulled out three different options.

So I had one of each, and one of them happened to have those old two-hole punches. So we mocked it up, and I said, “What if we just punched it two times, and put in a folder like this? Actually, that feels really good. That feels right. Let’s do that.”

Then, we’ve got into developing and aging this folder. That’s the process. I’m as excited these days about the design of these things. Coming up with those solutions.

For a lot of people, the dream is to be a photographer. You travel the world, you make photographs. And that’s it. You know this.

JB: I know this.

PS: 99% of what you do as a photographer is not photographing. The actual photographing, or working with photos, is very limited. Most of it is going to Fed Ex and trying to find the exact two hole punch.

So in the process of designing this, we wanted it to have this exterior feeling. Really grubby, dingy, worn out. And then the inside you open it up, and you have these perfect reproductions of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Misrach photos.

How do you achieve that? We sampled out all these papers, and we found a manufacturer who did double-sided paper. One side uncoated, and the other with a gloss UV varnish.

That whole process: How does a viewer see this? How do they touch it? How do they open it? What’s the feeling they get when they slide it out of the package? If they open this flap first, what are they presented with?

There’s a whole process to looking at books. You know this as a reviewer. You look at them in a certain way, in a certain environment. Are you standing up, or are you sitting down? Are you drinking a beer, or are you not?

I take all these things into consideration. Who is my audience? How are they going to experience this? I love, love, love thinking about all those things.

JB: It comes across. I kind-of wanted to hear you say that stuff, because, in my experience, these things are never arbitrary. They can’t be.

PS: That’s right.

JB: When something works that well, I wanted to hear you talk about all the thought that goes into it. You must have learned quite a bit about process these last ten years, or am I assuming incorrectly?

PS: My process has never changed. Now, I’m balancing this thing where I have to run a business now. I know through your writing that you have kids too. I have a kid now.

Things change when there are real life issues that need to be dealt with, so I’ve had to make certain adjustments that I wouldn’t have made before.

It used to be, “Hey, I’m going to hand stamp all these covers, and if it takes me three weeks, all night long, I’m happy to do that.

And I thrived on that. But now, I can’t do that, because I have these other things that I have to pay attention to. I’ve had to make certain decisions, in production, and how to stream-line day-to-day business, to make it more efficient.

But I still am doing insane things that make no sense. Like hand-stamping that cover with the date, and the red tornado that you talked about.

JB: Exactly.

PS: I’m not kidding when I say I tested that hand stamper 100 times, so that I learned when I stamped it, to twist it at the same time, so that it smudged. Lester, who runs the office, said, “Why are you stamping it twice?” I said, “I think, from a design perspective, it looks more interesting if the date is there, and then also there’s this weird red smudged date. As if the person who stamped it made a mistake.”

And he just looked at me like, “If you want to stamp it twice, go ahead.”

JB: (laughing)

PS: So I was stamping it twice. Here’s the thing: the reason that I started hand stamping things is because on that first book I did, “Good by Angels” I didn’t have a budget to print a cover.

So I found a printer, and they were like, “Here’s what we’ll print for you. And if you want a 4 color cover printed, it’s this much more. If you want black and white, it’s this much more. I said, shit, I don’t have any money. So what I’m going to do is buy a rubber stamp with my title on it, and I’ll hand stamp them to save money.”

I had this book at the time, called “The Self-Publish Bible,” or something like that, and there was literally 10 commandments. One of them was, “Make sure that your title can be read from 10 feet away. Use a bright color, and bold font, so that when it’s on the shelf in the book store, people flock to it like a moth to a flame.”

I thought, this is insane. This book is not going to be in a book store, so that doesn’t apply to me whatsoever. So in an antagonistic approach, I did my cover black on black in a Old English font. You could just see it slightly reflecting in the sunlight, but I hand-stamped them all, and that became this thing that I’ve done ever since.

Each one is subtly different. Now I have the resources to print 4 color covers, and we did. On “Assignment Number 2,” all that weathered edging is printed 4 color. So all I had to do was make a stamp logo with the date, and print that on there too, and it would have eliminated me hand-stamping thousands of covers.

JB: You’re risking carpal tunnel syndrome for your creativity.

PS: (laughing) Exactly. But I was really driven to be able to provide something that was subtly unique to each person. I think it’s awesome that on the review copy you got, it looked like a tornado. Somebody else buys it, reads your review, and thinks, “Why doesn’t mine look like a tornado.” And then they say, “Oh shit, mine doesn’t look like a tornado because they’re different. Are these hand-stamped? Who on Earth would hand-stamp these? Why? What does it matter?”

Well, when you think of an institution like San Quentin prison, and you think of the office there, there’s some lady there who got the thing, and received it on July 18th and…stamped it. That’s why. You know what I’m saying? That’s why. Because that makes sense with what we’re trying to get across in that project.

I love all that stuff. I want to tell you one other thing, because I want you to understand why these things are in my head. I told you earlier that I would order records direct from record labels when I was younger.

JB: Right.

PS: I ordered a record a long time ago, and it had a white booklet with the lyrics of the song. Some photographs. And really delicately placed on the sleeve, and some of the pages, were these perfect, black fingerprints. And, I thought, “Oh my god, this is the best design ever. Somebody subtly took fingerprints, scanned them, adjusted the levels, and printed these fingerprints to reference a ghost. Or a person of the past, flipping through.

It fell in line with the aesthetic of the band. It made sense. I thought, “This is brilliant design. I love it. Super-smart. Super-subtle. Super-beautiful and poetic.”

Well, flash forward 8 years, and I was having a hard time. I was pissed off at the world, needed some cash, and sold all my records. I quickly realized that was a mistake, and went on the hunt to buy back the records that were important.

I ordered that record again, and I open it up: no fingerprints. I was totally crushed, because I realized that there wasn’t a smart designer that designed this with these fingerprints. But I was also amazed that someone had flipped through the booklet, and it got slipped back into the pile and packaged, and my record was unique in that way.

JB: Right.

PS: I thought I’d bring it up. Those nuances are so powerful, and I try to put that into the books that I make now. Whether or not anybody gets it, or cares, I don’t know.

But for me, it’s that important.

JB: Don’t they stay that about Apple? That their engineers always want the innards that nobody will ever see to be as elegant and efficient as the design is outside?

PS: I heard the story that Steve Jobs said, “This motherboard is cluttered, and has to be redone,” and someone said, “No one’s ever going to see it,” so he fired them.

JB: Urban legend.

PS: There’s a madness to it. An arrogance to it. But maybe a reason for it? I don’t know.

JB: I don’t believe these things are accidental. When people are willing to do the kinds of things that you’re talking about: take risks, stay true to themselves, meld the different parts of their personality into a holistic object, people can tell.

They might not be able to break it down in the specific way that you build it up, but it’s communicated properly, and they understand they’re looking at something powerful. Something that’s really well built.

When you break it down for the readers, you’re giving them an opportunity to think a bit about these ideas might impact their work, and their careers.

You talk about paying attention to the smallest details, and no one would know this, but our interview was briefly interrupted when my phone line went down. And I didn’t need to go back to check my email to find your phone number.

510-444-BOOK. It was embedded in my brain. Like it or not.

PS: Man, I like that!

JB: True story. And thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Above door entering TBW Books offices, Oakland Ca.

Above door entering TBW Books offices, Oakland Ca.

Packing station,TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

Packing station,TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

Detail of Subscription Series #4, TBW Books

Detail of Subscription Series #4, TBW Books

Detail of wall above packing station, TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

Detail of wall above packing station, TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

TBW Books product

TBW Books product

http://www.tbwbooks.com/books/ASSIGNMENT-NO-2

http://www.tbwbooks.com/books/DEAD-MEN-DONT-LOOK-LIKE-ME

 

This Week In Photography Books: Lindsay Morris

by Jonathan Blaustein

My daughter is a spitfire. A wild-cat. A force of nature. She is genuinely fierce, and has tried to kick me in the face more times than I can count. (Luckily, I’m quick enough to dodge, and of course, she isn’t trying to hurt me. But she did tag my wife just last night.)

She also loves the color pink, and wears her Elsa-themed Disney princess dress as often as we’ll allow it. I’ve seen her in a tiara, and it’s cuter than a waterskiing squirrel. But she won’t let us put her hair in pig-tails.

Ever.

Honestly, like many a hetero-guy, I was frightened of having a daughter. I imagined future scenarios with boys at the door, waiting to take her out on the town. I was one of those boys, years ago. Their minds are not very complex, I’m afraid.

Once she was born, though, I realized that you take each day as it comes. We’re not yet 3 years in, and I’m eternally grateful that she wasn’t a boy, as it’s expanded my world immeasurably, learning to live with this head-strong, moody, gorgeous little blue-eyed girl.

And, on several occasions, I’ve wondered whether she’ll be interested in those boys that come to the door, or if she’ll prefer girls instead. I don’t mean to shock here. If I had to guess, I’d suspect she’s straight, like her brother and her parents.

But it’s 2015, and thankfully, most of us are comfortable with the idea of gender mutability and homosexuality. It’s cool with me that my little girl likes to wrestle and fight, in addition to playing with her dolls.

Who am I to judge?

It’s ironic, tragic, and a bit thrilling that we live in a country, and a world, that offers unprecedented rights for LGBT people, while concurrently, hordes still try to restrict their freedoms. It’s so of-the-moment to watch things evolve this quickly. (#YOLO)

Hell, I wrote a story for Lens in March, in which I profiled an artist who’d photographed Hijras in Bangladesh. Those are men who gender identify as women, and occupy a stratified position in the Muslim society. The article’s text was slightly amended, after a qualified commenter claimed I’d used improper gender nomenclature in my explication.

It doesn’t get more real time than that.

I’m always interested in the way photographers show us things we haven’t seen. Things that are relevant to the here and now. So it was inevitable that I’d want to review “You Are You,” a new monograph by Lindsay Morris, recently published by Keher Verlag in Germany.

And so I shall.

The key to the book sits on the cover, but I didn’t notice, as I opened it rather quickly. The first photos give the sense of a camp environment, but not much more. Picnic tables around a campfire. Lush green vegetation. An archery target affixed to a tree.

Then, after the title page, we’re treated to a visceral, and not-too-long poem by Victoria Redel, that describes a young boy with the courage to publicly acknowledge his love of glitter, and other “girly” things. It was a moving piece of writing, and then the next page, (the cover image I’d skipped past) shows what appears to be a short-haired boy, with a flower in his hair, frolicking with a gaggle of girls.

OK. I get it now. This is not just any summer camp. Interesting things are happening here, and I want to know more.

In each subsequent photo, I found myself scouring the images more carefully. Is that a boy? Could it be? What’s going on here? What’s the deal?

The pictures are uniformly well-made, and the sense of joy and play leaps off the page. I’ve been not-so-patiently awaiting summer, and this book made me want to bellow at the gods to make the good weather come that much sooner. (Or at least bellow at the fuzzy bunny staring at me, just outside the window, in case he has a direct line to Mother Nature. Make it warm, little bunny. Make it warm.)

There is a fair bit of text at the end of the book that gives us the context we’ve mostly guessed at. Ms. Morris spent several years visiting, and photographing, at Camp You Are You, which takes place over a weekend every summer. It allows “gender-nonconforming children and their families” a space to hang out together, play, and explore their identities collectively.

The end section features resources for people wanting more specific info, several essays, and testimonials directly from some of the parents. It’s a photo-book with the heart of a instructional pamphlet. Or maybe it’s both.

People like us, we’re the target market for this sort of publication. Open-minded, liberal, supportive. I’m sure some of you might break that stereotype, but creatives in general tend not to be small-minded homophobic racists. So this book might well be for you.

Personally, I’d be more curious to see the expression on someone’s face, someone who believes in denying others the freedom to be themselves. What might they say, while flipping through these pages? How much evidence of joy would it take to set them off, to fire up their anger? How many kids would they rather see cooped up inside an oppressive box?

Bottom Line: Excellent, positive, life-affirming look at a summer camp for gender-nonconforming children

To Purchase “You Are You” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Christopher Williams

by Jonathan Blaustein

The strangest thing happened to me yesterday. I was chatting with a neighbor while photographing his Apache sweat lodge. (Long story.) We’d met for the first time the day before, so I was making small talk about our little valley.

I asked him if he’d seen the pair of golden eagles that lived around here, and often roosted in the tall cottonwoods near the stream.

He said he had no idea there were a pair of golden eagles around here. His tone was dubious. Then he mentioned that there WERE a couple of red-tailed hawks living in the canyon, but of course that was something else entirely.

It was the third time in as many weeks that someone had told me my eagles were hawks. The first two times, I shrugged it of as misinformation. But yesterday? I realized I might have been the one mistaken.

So I ran home and hit up my trusty friend Google. My heart sank. My favorite birds, the one’s from whom I’d learned so much, were not eagles… but hawks.

Should it matter?

The birds are no less beautiful. Or majestic. Their hunting prowess no flimsier, nor their stupefying ability to soar through the air without seeming to move at all.

So what was the problem? In my mind, they were eagles: rarer and more special than common hawks. I identified with them as being the kings of the sky. That they lived in my yard made me feel special. I told many people about my eagles.

But they were never eagles. At least, not outside my own mind. They nested inside my expectations, and laid eggs that gave me courage and confidence.

And now?

Now, I have to get over myself. I’m still freakishly lucky to live in a place where I get to watch red-tailed hawks circle over my yard on a near-daily basis. The fact that I’m even conflicted about this says quite a bit about my ridiculous character.

But expectations are powerful things, even if they don’t have a tangible presence. Take books, for example. We “expect” them to make sense. To tell a story. To inform us of their meaning, at some point, before we cease to flip the pages.

That’s their job. To tell us stuff, either in pictures, words, or both.

But what if you found a book that absolutely refused to bow to convention? That reveled in fucking with your head, while simultaneously depicting a set of images made during an artist’s career?

What would you think about that?

I’m glad you asked. Because I just finished looking at a red monograph of work by the conceptual photography/art star Christopher Williams, and I’m still scratching my head.

I knew it was his book, because photo-eye had affixed a tag that said Christopher Williams, printed in Germany, $120. That’s all I got, even after looking at the whole book. (Though the “Printed in Germany” did appear at the end of the book too, on an insert, which was a tad reassuring. That they knew how to print words at all, that is.)

I would have figured out it was his book, had I not known, because I’ve seen some of his seminal images before. They’re always inscrutable. Pictures of cameras, deconstructed. Cars, tipped like cows in a pasture. Models, obviously on set, with color bars in the frame. Corn in the husk.

I’ve read a bit about him in the past, and know there are strong motivations behind the work. Big ideas. Political, even. But you’re never going to suss that out just by looking at the pictures. I’m a bright guy, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.

But start I did, and the first handful of pages in the book are red. Like, red red. Bright red. Cherry red. Coca Cola red.

There’s no name on the cover. When you finally find a photo, on a white page, it’s a piece of yellow foam wrapped into a sculptural form. The kind you might put upon your child’s bed to make it softer. (My son was praising his yellow-bed-foam just yesterday, coincidentally.)

That picture repeats later. As do others. There are seemingly African workers in front of a Heidelberg printing press. Some images, of apples, run off the page, and reference the printing process. That, I can say with confidence.

There is one picture of boobs, that repeats, because, as we all know, Boobs Sell Books℠.

Random repeating images. Lots and lots of red pages. No words. Pictures that are odd, and perhaps discomfiting. Maybe a little hypnotic. But they give you nothing concrete.

It’s like the whole book is the spawn of a mad scientist who had sex with a bespectacled artist. It only makes you angry if you think you’re supposed to get it.

But what if you don’t try to get it? What if there’s nothing to get? The world is a messy place, as I wrote last week. Logic and reason exist, but so do chaos and terror. Money rules the day, and it always has. (Though it might have taken the form of salt, gold, oil or jewels.)

When I was done, I practically chuckled at the chutzpah it takes to make a book with no words. There’s even an insert at the end, the type that typically contains an essay or two. Maybe an artist’s exhibition history?

Nope. It was blank. Only red.

Like the look on your face, perhaps, while you’re reading this. Will you like this book? I don’t know. But I think it’s awesome, because it undercuts almost every sane idea about how to make a photo-book.

And all that red made me realize my red-tailed hawks are perfect, just as they are. What’s in a name, anyway?

Bottom Line: Inscrutable, almost offensively strange, yet perfectly awesome book by a brainy art star

To Purchase “Printed In Germany” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Michael Danner

by Jonathan Blaustein

Life in the 21st Century is a futile attempt to answer a set of unanswerable questions. (I’m sorry for the downer, but it’s true.) We’re faced with existential problems that lack easy, digestible solutions.

And yet, we persevere.

How do we reconcile the fact that we are not-so-slowly killing the Earth, but many of the radical things we might do to arrest the changes would likely slow our economy? Which would impact our competitiveness as a nation. And perhaps lead to unrest.

Of course, many people with the political power to enact change, here in the United States, don’t actually believe in science. Or at least they publicly disavow accrued knowledge, so that it doesn’t impede the steady progression of corporate cash into their campaign finance accounts.

I’m not nearly as cynical as it might appear, but honestly, it’s hard to see how we’re going to solve our environmental problems. Because they are inextricably linked to money, and as we all know, cash is king.

Even if, by some miracle, a corporation invents a device that scrubs carbon from the sky, how much do you think they’ll charge for that machine? Can you imagine? Rich countries get to “buy” a cleaner environment, and little Third World backwaters will be shit out of luck.

And yet, we persevere.

I’m musing, mostly because it’s Earth Day today. (We should all wear green, I’d think, but St. Patrick’s Day got there first.) But also because I just opened up “Critical Mass,” a book by German photographer Michael Danner, recently published by Keher Verlag.

This book falls squarely in the category of experiential, which my regular readers know is one of my favorite types of photobook. The pictures within are not drop-dead amazing, but they don’t need to be. Their formal structure screams German, as does the methodical nature of the project.

Mr. Danner photographed in 17 nuclear power facilities in Germany, and brought the results back out in a haz mat suit, I’d imagine. Of course, I thought of Homer Simpson, at times, and once of Thomas Demand’s amazing “Control Room,” but other than that, this book felt fresh to me.

It opens with a set of black and white archival images, which refer to protests in the past. I assume it’s protests against nuclear power plants, but there is no text in the beginning to corroborate. (That comes at the end.)

From there, we enter a world of color, though much of the exterior reality is drained of vibrance. Then we head to the entrances to the facilities. At that point, we realize that the book is segmented into “chapters,” which offer the repetition of showing us the same thing at different plants. (I couldn’t do it justice in the photos below, as I have spatial constraints.)

The entrance gates. The locker rooms. The haz mat suits. The cafeterias. The conference rooms. The gym. The gym?

We can imagine some nameless drone walking through the turnstiles, clocking in, grabbing a presumably free currywurst, changing in the locker room, suiting up, and then going about a “routine” that carries with it the risk of melting down a whole region of a prosperous country, and potentially polluting the air of an entire continent.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Nuclear power provides near-boundless energy, without polluting the air, but the waste is beyond toxic. The Fukushima disaster, and Chernobyl before it, remind us that the economic cost of the megawatts can exceed what is written in a profit-loss ledger.

Do we have a choice about Nuclear Power? Or is it a necessity?
I have no idea. As I said at the outset, these questions bely easy answers.

Back to the book, and we finally move along the vent tubes into the reactors. Industrial-looking behemoths. How do they work? Fuck if I know. Uranium? Plutonium? The methane from aggregated rhino farts?

From there, we enter the bowels of the facilities. One long, dark tunnel after another. This was my favorite part, because the imagery was visceral and striking, as opposed to much of the book, which was clinical and intelligent, but not dynamic.

We finish with a bookended set of archival pictures of protests from back in the 20th C. An era when most people thought the Earth’s resources were limitless, and our political rivalries binary. Us or them. Capitalist or Communist. Good or bad. Black or white. Life or Death.

Bottom Line: A methodical, experiential look inside German nuclear power plants

To Purchase visit http://dannercriticalmass.com

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Andrew Hetherington Interview

Jonathan Blaustein: You’re from Ireland. Is that right?

Andrew Hetherington: Correct. Yes.

JB: How far does a good accent take you?

AH: Good question. It certainly helped get my foot in the door and I have certainly laid it on thick at times to break the ice. Then sprinkle some irony, sarcasm and charm on top for the full Irish effect.

One has to use what one has. You know?

JB: Don’t hate the playa, hate the game. Right?

AH: We wouldn’t say that in Ireland. But…I guess, yeah.

JB: (laughing) There’s the sarcasm. I guess. Whatever.

AH: Let’s face it. It is partly a game, and how you choose to play it. I think you’ve got to use all the tools in the arsenal. Do you need to take good photographs? Absolutely, but what else sets you apart from the pack?

I recently photographed Conor McGregor the mixed martial arts fighter aka The Notorious AKA from Dublin here in New York for Esquire magazine. We hadn’t met before but he knew where I was from as soon as I spoke my first word. I said off the bat that I was a shite photographer and the only reason I was on the shoot was that I was Irish. Ice broken.

Doesn’t matter to me whether I am photographing a celebrity, a person in the street or a slice of bread I try to be as genuine and sincere as possible.

JB: You could not have set me up more perfectly for the next question. You used the word arsenal, I’m curious as to whether you’d agree that Arsenal Football Club are likely to beat the pants off of Liverpool this upcoming Saturday?

AH: I have a funny feeling they will, yes. They are the form team and we are lacking in world class players like Ozil and Sanchez in the middle of the park. So I expect us to get well-beaten, although secretly I hope we will win. Being a Liverpool supporter, naturally.

JB: That was not the answer I was expecting. The guy I interviewed last week (Dewi Lewis) was a Manchester United fan, and he was such a homer, he defended them to the death under all circumstances. So I thought I was going to get your goat, but instead, you were honest.

AH: Well, we are having a mixed season. The usual highs and lows. I’m very much a realist. We haven’t played particularly well against the big clubs. If we’d beaten Manchester United the weekend before last, I was hopeful we would make a charge for a Top 4 spot, but I don’t think we’ll get there. We are looking at 5th, and Tottenham and Southampton are nipping at our heels.

The dreamer in me thinks we can win the whole thing of course. I photographed the Liverpool owner, John Henry, right before the end of last season. We were both really optimistic, believing that we would do it. He hit me with some statistics he had run, being a statistically-minded owner, saying that we had a really good percentage chance of winning the league title. The shoot was right after the Manchester City game and the day after the Hillsborough documentary aired on ESPN. It was a very emotional session that one.

JB: Isn’t that the beauty of sports, no matter how you crunch the numbers, there’s no algorithm that can predict that Steven Gerard’s going to slip, or lose his mind and get red carded against Manchester United.

The two defining moments of the last 8 months of Liverpool football could not have been predicted by a computer on Earth. Isn’t that crazy?

AH: Yes, it’s a funny old game as the saying goes. Both events were gut wrenching. I couldn’t look at the UTD game. Already dreaming about next season at this stage.

JB: I only know you’re a Liverpool fan because I watched a video on your website called “Meet the Hetheringtons.” It’s awesome, and everyone who reads this interview should go watch it now.

Did you direct it? Who was the official “maker” of this video, which inter-spliced interviews with you and Tim Hetherington? Was that your baby, or collaborative?

AH: That was my idea. I’d always known of Tim.

One hoped that one was the only “Hetherington” photographer. If there were 20 Andrew Hetheringtons, how do you differentiate yourself from one another?

So I remember seeing Tim’s name in “Vanity Fair,” when I was getting my thing going, and just being in awe of his talent. Early on, in the first couple of years that I was getting into American photography, it was always alphabetical, so I would be before him.

I’d have some portrait, and Tim would have some Earth-shatteringly brilliant picture from Afghanistan, or whatever. It was inevitable we would meet one day, and the opportunity came at the New York Photo Festival, when that was going strong. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Jon Levy, who was at Foto8 at the time.

I had no idea what to expect. And then it turns out he’s literally larger then life in person, tall, handsome, engaging. The complete package. And I’m bald, and 5’8″.

He was the sweetest, most generous charismatic life force, and I figured I had to do something fun with him for the blog so the idea of the video popped into my head. He was totally game and on board, up for some fun. I shot video of him answering the questions. Through our conversation, we figured out that we had some stuff in common, like both being Liverpool supporters.

JB: That was what struck me. I never met the man. Just knowing his work, which was so life-and-death serious, I assumed he was a serious guy. But in the video, he had a wry smile on his face, and came across as funny and down-to-earth.

You’re confirming that he was a fun, cool dude?

AH: Yeah. People close to him hadn’t seen the video until after his death and were touched when they saw it.

We weren’t best friends, by any means.

JB: I understand.

AH: We were friendly. We did an event together for Resource Magazine, I think, out at Root Studios in Brooklyn, where they had a little film evening, inviting photographers who were dabbling in motion to showcase some material. They got in touch with me to show the “Meet the Hetheringtons” video, and in turn I put them in touch with Tim with a view to them screening his “Sleeping Soldiers” piece.

He agreed to have it shown, and showed up for the evening himself. I think he was working in Amsterdam, and managed to get back for the evening. The two of us are sitting there, and they show mine first, and then they show his right afterwards. They couldn’t have been more polar opposite content wise, but it was a fun.

A special moment I will treasure.

I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me that opportunity, and for spending a little time with me. He was definitely one of the greats. Talent, creativity and humanity just oozed from him. I had the utmost admiration for what he did, and who he was.

JB: Well, you’re really anticipating my question. This one sets up perfectly. Sure, you had some things in common, and were both Liverpool supporters. But you are Irish, and he was English.

Here’s the real question: Who are better drinkers, the Irish or the English? Who takes that one?

AH: (laughing) Oh wow. Can we have a score draw on that one?

JB: That’s a politically correct answer right there.

AH: Well, I mean, I have a lot of English friends and a lot of Irish friends. And what about the Scots? And the Welsh? I think on any good night, as in any good day on the pitch, anyone can play a blinder, getting back to the sporting analogies.

JB: OK. Fair enough. I asked the question, you answered it. You mentioned a few minutes ago that back in the day, you were a serious blogger. Let’s talk about that. There’s something I’m super curious about, and I’m sure you’ve been asked before.

What is the, or a, Jackanory? It sounds like a mythical animal.

AH: If you were Irish or English, you would know all about this. When we were kids in the 70’s, there was a children’s television show called “Jackanory,” where a celebrity, a writer, or a reader would basically read a story, from a book, on television. You don’t get any more high tech than that.

It became a slang term. What’s the Jackanory? means what’s the story?

I knew early on that something interesting was happening with the blogs. I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to figure out how to use this tool, partly for fear of getting left behind too (laughing).

The idea was to treat the blog as if it as my own online magazine, so it wouldn’t be Andrew Hetherington’s blog just about Andrew Hetherington. Whats The Jackanory? seemed like the perfect name. So I searched the URL, it was available and I bought it. And that was that.

JB: I expect that our readers will know who you are, and that you’re working like crazy for the biggest magazines, but how much of your current success would you attribute to the fact that you built a following, got name recognition, and people learned more about you through the blog? Do you think it had a significant impact on what came next?

AH: Yes. I really do. I’d been in the game a long time. I started off in Ireland, and began again in the US. In the late 90’s, I started shooting for magazines like “Cosmopolitan,” and “Mademoiselle.” Primarily doing fashion and beauty photographs, but mixing it up with portraiture and music photography.

Like a lot of young photographers, I thought I could do it all. After the tragedies of September 11th there was a period of uncertainty in the publishing world as companies circled the wagons unsure of the immediate future. A few of my clients closed up shop including “Mademoiselle” who would have been my biggest at the time. I also realized I had got as far as I could in the world of fashion photography.

I do appreciate the art. I think you have to live and breathe fashion to for the work to be genuine, and I was losing interest. Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to adapt, and change.

I saw the blog as a chance to be creative, to promote myself and also as a way to promote other people and work I liked. It was a great venue for me creativity because I could do little photo projects, little videos, little whatevers. If it didn’t work no worries, move on, next. It pushed me.

The timing was right too, because it was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram. The feed was less cluttered. It was also a very exciting time, with bloggers like Alec Soth, or Rob here at A Photo Editor, the Bitter Photographer.

People in the photo industry started to use blogs to find photographers, look at work, information and so on.

JB: You’re talking about being adaptable, and being slightly ahead of the curve, by setting up a blog at the right time. I discovered the blogosphere in 2009, back when Jörg Colberg had a blog roll on Conscientious, and for me, that was what was going on. I used that as a portal, and found your blog that way.

AH: That’s what happened to me too. When I was working as an assistant, I worked a lot at rental studios. It was very social, and I got to meet other photographers and assistants at the studios or at the labs.

Then when you start to shoot, it becomes a little less social, but at the time there was a communal darkroom called Print Space where everyone went to make C-prints. That’s where I met just about everyone: established and young photographers.

With the advent of digital, naturally the darkroom wasn’t as heavily trafficked as before. So someone turned me on to Jörg’s blog one day too, and I went through the blogroll as well, and started clicking, and before you know it, I’d spent two days on these links.

JB: It was crazy.

AH: I said, “Wow.” Because this was what I was missing. I used to see all this new work, and prints before they were in magazines, at that darkroom. I missed that whole community thing, and with Jorg I discovered a new community online.

I was curious and I reached out to Jörg and said how much I liked what he had going on. As well as being a friendly email, there was a method to the madness, because I sent him the link to a photographer friend of mine whose work I knew he would enjoy.

I knew my work wasn’t for Jörg, but I said “Check this out. I think you might like it, and it may be something you could feature.” He posted it a few days later, and I said to my friend, “Hey, can you check your site visits?”

He did, and the numbers were phenomenal, and I thought, this is really something. Things are moving in a new direction.

JB: You had your finger on the pulse then. Good things happened. You’re in a prime position in the industry now, so let’s look forward a little bit. Do you ever think about what comes next?

If you were to theorize about what the industry landscape might look like in five years, what would you say?

AH: (laughing.) Wow. That’s a loaded question. I don’t know. Is it all going down the shitter? Who knows?

JB: Nobody KNOWS. That’s the whole point.

I’m putting you on the prognostication seat. You can choose to sit there, or you can choose to pass. That’s your choice.

AH: I might have to pass on this one, I always feel like I’m just beginning anyways. I like to think I am still emerging. But then someone said I was a veteran recently and I took umbrage (laughing) to that so a photographer friend said I was an emerging veteran and I liked that (laughing).

JB: Well, let’s go there then. When we’re starting out, I think we all have role models. People we admire and want to emulate. Who was that for you? Who do you look to and think, “Damn, I just love how they conduct themselves, or what their work looks like?”

AH: I admire anyone who’s had a long career, whether it be a photographer, an artist, a filmmaker. Anyone in the creative field. That’s all I want to do. There are so many one hit wonders. So many people who come and go.

Being an assistant, and working with a lot of photographers here in New York in the 90’s who had very established and lucrative careers, a lot of them have disappeared. You never know what curveball life or your career can’t throw you at any moment.

I try to take a very measured approach, and be cognizant of change. I try to adapt. I want to learn new things, because I don’t have all the answers, by any means.

I admire people who are in it for the long haul. You’ve got to hand it to the Rolling Stones. Even U2. You have to admire them. You can’t not. How many bands started when U2 did, and are no longer around. I am not a fan of their music by the way.

JB: Looking at your website, you shoot people, places and things. Even among celebrities, you’ve got the hot chef foodies, like Tony Bourdain. You’ve got actors, comedians, athletes. Anyone who knows photography understands that to do that kind of work, you’ve got to be good with people.

What are your go-to moves to put people at ease? Beyond presumably just being a grounded human being, what are your tricks to make people comfortable, when you don’t have a lot of time with them?

AH: I put the accent on thick, for starters (laughing).

JB: That’s why it was my first question! I’m no dummy, man.

AH: (laughing) I’m usually a bumbling idiot I think. I like to be engaged so I try to have a conversation, which might be detrimental, if you only have 30 seconds with somebody.

JB: Did Tony Bourdain actually eat the pig in the photo, when you were all done?

AH: So the Tony story was great, because I’m a big fan, and I like to cook. That one was for “People” magazine. Anyone who knows Anthony Bourdain will know that he’s had a colorful past, so the “People” angle was that he’d recently gotten married and had a young child.

This was the new, post-heroin Anthony Bourdain. Softer around the edges. So the magazine had arranged for me to scout his place in advance, which was great. I remember that it was a really wet day here in New York, and I got totally soaked.

He lives in Mid town, in one of those hi rise towers, and the door man sends me up, and I’m just drenched. I knock on the door, half expecting there to be an assistant or housekeeper to answer, and there’s Tony.

I was like, “Oh Shit!” I said to him, “What if this doesn’t go well? If I say the wrong thing now, will that scupper the shoot? Will you request somebody else?”

He was incredibly gracious, showed me around and when we came back to shoot a week later, he couldn’t have been more professional. He knows how it works, and said, “Let’s just do this,” so we got stuck in and did it.

At the end of the shoot, we hung around and ate pig, and he had a spread of cheeses, and we chilled out for a half an hour which is very unusual. And he was sweet enough to sign my copy of “Kitchen Confidential.”

Every now and again I’ll do the selfie thing or get something signed, but that’s always the furthest thing from my mind on the shoot.

JB: So the answer is that he ate the pig. He had to eat the pig. That was a given.

AH: Yes. That was a given.

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JB: You’ve interviewed people. You know how this works. That’s why I led with the accent. In my mind, I imagined that it would go over well.

It puts people at ease, when you can be a bit self-deprecating. Not seem full of yourself. Do you see your job as putting people at ease, and getting them to feel relaxed and comfortable in your presence?

AH: Absolutely. I’m looking for a moment. I’m hoping that a moment’s going to happen at some stage, whether it be in someone’s office or on seamless. The more relaxed and comfortable they are with me the more likely that’s going to happen.

I like to keep things pretty simple technically, so I’m able to move around and react to whats happening in front of me.

I like to watch people when they’re doing what they do. That’s not always possible, but I encourage people, “If we weren’t here, what would you do? Or how would you sit in that chair?”

Obviously, once the camera comes out, people can become very self-aware and I have found that some of the best moments come when I am physically packing the camera in the bag, and I look around and say, “Hold on! That’s perfect!” So I bring the camera back out.

What was the question?

JB: Well, you got it. Don’t worry. The answer was good enough.

AH: (laughing) So I tend to ramble along like that. I know my assistants have problems understanding what I say sometimes. Maybe it’s the accent (laughing) not the mumbling or its a combo.

I do take the work seriously, but I try to have fun.

I’m fortunate to shoot regularly. When you’re working for a magazine or a commercial client, and there are time constraints, if you work once a month it’s very difficult when you get that one shoot, you’re totally invested. You’re nervous, and you over think it. It’s difficult.

But if you’re shooting regularly, for me anyways it’s so much looser and freer. The pictures come so much easier. If I have a bad day, I know I get to go again tomorrow, so some of the pressure is off, somewhat.

Will I beat myself up? Yes. Am I ever happy? No. But I do try to have no regrets after a shoot. If only I had done this or that or asked the subject if they would be willing to do such and such. So I always ask and if they say no that’s okay at least I asked.

JB: You’ve used the word creative several times, and we’re talking about portraiture. And about the fact that you’re out and about in the world.

This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Workshops, because you’re going to be teaching a workshop there this summer called…Creative Environmental Portraiture.

AH: (simultaneously) Creative Environmental Portraiture.

JB: There you go. It’s what you do, and what we’ve been talking about. So we covered that, with respect to being a working photographer. But what about teaching? Is this something that’s in your wheelhouse? Do you do it a lot? Do you enjoy it?

AH: This the first time I’ve done something like this, so I’m really excited. I have done quite a bit of mentoring, which I thoroughly enjoyed, because it’s actually quite therapeutic. It gives me new ideas too.

Usually, it’s with photographers starting out, and we get into a dialogue, and I’m good for that, provided I have the time. I’ve learned just as much through these sessions.

With respect to the workshop, I’ve been brainstorming the curriculum. I value people’s time and money, so I am totally invested in making it worth their while on all levels.

JB: It’s a few months out, so I don’t expect you to have it all dialed in, but what do you think your students can expect to learn?

AH: All the things you don’t learn in photo school (laughing).

Participants will execute portrait assignments in various situations under real shoot conditions.
I have a lot of experience in the school of how to make something out of nothing and I’ll throw them the crazy curveballs that have been thrown at me over the years.

More often then not its these type of shoots are more about problem solving on your feet all the while having to create a compelling image no matter how shitty the location, weather or what not turns out.

Also, how do you work on developing a signature style, because I think that’s important, especially when you’re starting out. It’s important that the photo editors and art buyers can recognize your photographs. That’s definitely been important for me.

In the beginning, I thought I could do everything, and I’d go into meetings with photo editors with three or four different portfolios. While the work was decent, people were confused, because there wasn’t a single visual language.

The course will be the full immersive Hetherington experience, accent and all if that takes your fancy.

JB: Have you ever been to Santa Fe before, or is this going to be your first time?

AH: This is going to be my first time in Santa Fe too.

JB: What are you expecting out of New Mexico? Is it all informed by “Breaking Bad?”

AH: I have been to Albuquerque, so it is all informed by Albuquerque. Yes.

Hetheringtyon_OReillyJB: How did I know? I’m mildly psychic. Because you’ve been so diplomatic the few times I tried to draw you out, I had a question where I was going to put you on the spot about Bill O’Reilly, but I won’t do that.

AH: Try me.

JB: Is he Satan?

AH: (laughing) (pause)

JB: You’re like, “Damn. He’s right. I do have to be diplomatic. I can’t answer that.”

AH: When you’re shooting someone like that, and you do not share their political beliefs, does that taint my approach? I have to say not.

JB: Of course. You’re a pro.

AH: I try to be even-keeled. But someone like that, he’s smart. He’s not going to fall into any visual traps. The image that ran in “Newsweek” was shot right before he taped his TV show.

The bane of a lot of these shoots is these guys end up getting caked in TV makeup, which really isn’t photo-friendly at all. So I liked the fact that he looked like weird made up old white guy.

JB: Regular people have a fascination with fame. That’s why fame exists, and why those famous people make so much money. When you do your job, you have to become inured to it. It doesn’t shake you up.

When you’re so used to shooting people like that, would you admit to having a bucket list? Is there anyone that you really want to photograph, and you’d get all excited about it? Obama? Rihanna?

AH: I don’t even care. I don’t.

JB: Nobody?

AH: Nobody. I’m just happy to be anywhere with anyone. It’s not just the pictures it’s the life experience and the best have come from the most unexpected assignments.

The celebrity thing is not the be all and end all for me. And I don’t necessarily go out of my way to make people look attractive. My lighting is pretty in your face. I don’t come with a lot of bells and whistles.

I’ll be looking at stuff in magazines, or online, and think “I wish I could light like that guy. It’s just beautiful.” And then I’ve got to remind myself, “That’s not what you do.”

JB: I figured you were going to say that. But what if you got hired to shoot Putin? How would you deal with that?

AH: Well in my case it would be on camera flash and boom.

Platon has a great story of his shoot with Putin.

JB: Right.

AH: I assisted Platon a little bit, so when I had to photograph Clinton, I emailed him, because I knew that he’d photographed him. I wanted to get his advice, which was stellar.

Basically, he said, “Be yourself. But be prepared. Be prepared. Be prepared. Be technically prepared. Make sure nothing will go wrong, technically, and if it does, make sure you have a backup to the backup to the backup. Be prepared and be yourself. Oh and enjoy the moment.”

I took his advice and made sure that if Plan A failed, Plan B would work, and that my assistants and I were all drilled. You realize that in a situation like that, the time you’re given is the time you’re going to be given.

There is no extra time. 10 minutes quickly becomes 5 minutes which can become 30 seconds in an instant.

In that case, the magazine had two scenarios they wanted covered in limited time, so I had to make sure that was possible. For me, it was a little harder too because he’s not going to pick his nose. Or bend over and scratch his bum. Or do anything wacky. In this case I knew going in that these pictures were going to be relatively straight forward and I was comfortable with that. It’s a photographic record of this man at this time in his life.

JB: I once saw a video with Platon discussing that shoot he did at the UN where he got something like 30 seconds with every world leader. It made me realize how little your average photographer knows about that level of cutthroat perfection.

AH: Platon is a great example of that. Delivering a telling iconic image in a signature way, in challenging situations. Not only do you need to be a talented photographer but you literally need to be a diplomat too to navigate all the stuff happening on the periphery.

JB: He’s got the accent too.

AH: He’s got the accent too. I learned a lot from him. Including how to exploit the accent (laughing).

JB: Well, I’m from Jersey, so I could always amp it up and pretend that I sound like Tony Soprano if I had to. But then again, I don’t do that kind of work.

If you don’t have an accent, you have to make one up, I suppose.

AH: But it still has to be genuine.

JB: Dammit.

AH: I can’t have a funky haircut. But I do have an accent and a beard (laughing).

JB: There it is. It helps with the branding. But we’ve covered so much ground, why don’t we bring it back to the beginning. Since you’re going to be in New Mexico in the not-too-distant future, why don’t we have a friendly little wager on Saturday’s game.

How about we bet a pint on the Arsenal-Liverpool game?

AH: Sure.

JB: We’re going to end the interview on a wager.

AH: By the time the interview’s published, we’ll have a result.

JB: Exactly. Maybe we’ll do an editor’s note. (Editor’s note: Arsenal won the match, 4-1.)

AH: If Arsenal win, it’s an all expenses paid trip to Santa Fe. On me.

JB: OK. It’s on the record. Thanks again for doing the interview, and I hope all is well in NYC.

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SFPW_APhotoEditor_Jan2015

This Week In Photography Books: Roger Eberhard

by Jonathan Blaustein

I met Bruce Springsteen a long time ago. When I still lived in New Jersey. Back when he was a GOD.

It must have been 1992, or thereabouts. I was working in a restaurant in Sea Bright. Down the Shore. The joint was built right upon a brackish inlet, across the street from the Atlantic Ocean.

I’d heard that Bruce liked to show up in an open-topped red Jeep, with Patti in the passenger seat, and the kids in the back. So I HAD been warned. But still, I was not prepared for what it felt like, being in his presence.

My tenure there was rather short, as I ran my mouth a lot, and made the mistake of allowing someone to buy me a drink in the bar, after my shift. I was patently underage, and they got rid of me as quickly as they could. Not the last time I would be fired, but it stung.

So I was doubly-lucky to be working the night Bruce showed up. I stood in the front, near the parking lot, next to two cute hostesses. Bruce pulled up in that Jeep, and bow-leg-strutted straight up to me. There’s no solid explanation as to why he came my way, instead of talking to the pretty girls whose job it was to greet him.

But approach me he did. My palms were sweaty, like a large man in a steam room, and I did my best not to stammer.

“Of course, Bruce. We have a table for you. Of course. We’d be happy to help you and your family. We’re so glad you’re here.”

“Thanks, kid, thanks.”

“Oh, and Bruce? I’m going to your concert next week. I hate to ask, and hope you don’t mind, but is there any way you’d play ‘Blinded by the Light?'”

“Maybe, kid, maybe.”

He didn’t.

But I couldn’t hold it against him. In fact, that night in the restaurant, I put sugar packets under his table to stabilize it, and filled his children’s ice tea cups when they were two sips below the top of the glass. I was attentive in the extreme.

He didn’t seem to mind. Bruce must have been used to the pure adulation of native Jersey boys. Especially Down the Shore. (That’s the local expression for at the beach, for those of you reading this around the world.)

Sometimes, certain people find themselves sitting on top of a pedestal carved from Carrara Marble. They peer down at the rest of us, uncomfortable at such heights, but seem willing to adjust their balance to keep the seat. (With others, like Michael Jordan, you’ll have to cut out their hearts and chop off their heads before they’ll give up their rightful place atop the perch.)

In the Photobook world, one I’ve managed to cover for you, here, for more than 3.5 years, one name reigns supreme: Martin Parr. I’ve got two interviews that we’ll publish in the coming months, with two genuinely excellent photobook publishers, each of whom agreed that the planet is currently inundated with photobooks. (The streets are flowing with four-color pages, all with photographs embedded in ink.)

That’s the way it is these days. So if you’re Martin Parr, it’s a rather good time to be the King of Photobooks. At least, if you like having lots of subjects. (Long live the King.)

That being said, there are probably more people in Albuquerque who’ve heard of Michael Jordan than there are humans alive who’ve heard of Martin Parr. Our culture still needs a sub- in front of it, if we’re being honest.

So “Martin Parr Looking at Books” is definitely a niche product, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a new photobook by Roger Eberhard, published by B. Frank Books, that shows us exactly what the title claims: Martin Parr looking at (photo) books.

Clearly, this is not for everybody. Especially as the pictures are not-particularly-compelling. Mr. Eberhard gets around that fact by giving us a colorful front-cover, a mirror-metallic inside cover, and a few big-font pages with quotes establishing Mr. Parr’s preeminence.

Then, it’s photo after photo of nothing but what you’d expect, given what I’ve already told you. But it is funny. Not LOL funny, but chuckle and smile funny. Ridiculous. It’s a goof on all of us, yet a good-enough-goof that I’m writing about it.

Some of you have taken to the comment section recently to ask why I’d review a given book, when there are far-more-worthy offerings to discuss. I’m guessing some of you will share that sentiment this week. Here’s the only rule: if it inspires me to write, I write.

Before the close, we’re provided with some blank-lined-white pages, ostensibly to write up our own “Best Photobook of the Year List,” because Lord knows there aren’t enough of those already. Hilarious!

But then again, the pictures are not even special. Party Foul! The end notes tell us they were submitted, or provided, to the artist. It’s a collaborative effort, apparently, stalking Martin Parr, and taking his picture while he looks at books.

One can imagine a sister-publication where Robert Parker is photographed while sipping Cabernet Sauvignon? Seth Rogen smoking blunts? Or Bruce Springsteen, papparazzoed, while chowing down on greasy burgers Down the Shore?

Then end notes also claim that Mr. Parr appreciated the joke. I hope you do too. There are so, so many weeks when the books I write about explore tragedy, destruction, and sorrow. So today, “Lighten Up Francis,” and have a laugh at our collective-photo-geek selves.

Bottom Line: Zany, odd, niche photo book that skews itself, and us

Go here to purchase “Martin Parr Looking at Books”

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This Week In Photography Books: Alexandra Huddleston

by Jonathan Blaustein

Today is Tuesday. The day I’m writing this. Tuesday.

But it’s also Friday. Because that’s when you’re reading it. Friday. Strange, no? The existence of twin temporalities? It’s enough to give me a headache.

Fortunately, that prospective malady will be the only one I complain about today. Because I’m finally feeling better. It only took 3 weeks, but hey, who’s counting?

Today (Friday) is no ordinary day, though. It’s Good Friday, which is holy in the Christian tradition, because it was first holy to the Jews. Jesus’ last supper was a Seder, because he was Jewish, which explains why Passover and Easter always seem connected.

They are.

If you were here in Northern New Mexico today, (Friday) and you drove along the highway, you might see pilgrims walking along the side of the road. There are hordes of them who head from all directions towards Chimayo, where they’ll convene to pray, and commune with the seemingly-sacred healing dirt.

I don’t know much about it, to be honest. But I do know that I’m sitting here in a mostly empty classroom, today, because many of my students celebrate. Some of them are even on a pilgrimage of their own, walking South from Costilla, on the Colorado border, to Questa, 20 miles away.

I should have asked them why they do it, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time. 20 miles is a long stretch, if you ask me. So I’d guess the suffering relates to the nasty business Jesus faced at the end of his life.

People often feel the need to walk until their bodies are begging to give out. To push their flesh to the breaking point, in the hope that their spirits will ascend to new knowledge planes. I’ve been known to drive to the Post Office, a mile away, so I’m clearly not one of those people.

But Alexandra Huddleston is. And she’s a New Mexican to boot. So perhaps we might learn a thing or two from her experience.

I know this having just looked through “East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage” her new book, published by Blind Cat Valentine. As I said earlier this year, I’m trying to expand my definition of a reviewable book, and this one helps me do just that.

Apparently, in September of 2010, Ms. Huddleston set off on an 800 mile walk around the Japanese island of Shikoku, so she could follow the Buddhist pilgrim’s trail to the aforementioned 88 temples. Her diary entries, which are included within, seem to indicate that she made the trek over 7 weeks time. Which means her feet must have been really f-cking tired, when all was said and done. (Her blisters must have had blisters.)

The intro text also mentions that she completed the 500 mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain the year prior, which means 1300 miles all told, in search of understanding in two religions. East and West.

Now, the reason why I’d normally not review this book is that the pictures are not amazing. They’re very good, for sure, but I normally prefer a shade more pizazz. More oomph. More edge.

But they are personal, and in conjunction with the diary entries, which tell tales of poisonous centipedes, Korean monks, and free mochi, I get a real sense of who Ms. Huddleston is, and what she’s searching for in this life.

The book is intimate, and thoughtful, and it feels like something she’s sharing with the world, even though it was really meant for her. A way to flesh out her thoughts, to codify her memories, and to honor her journey.

That’s my takeaway, at least, and I felt that it was worth sharing with you, today (Friday? Tuesday?) so that we could acknowledge the power of other peoples’ beliefs, and wish them well as they pray, walk, and ponder.

Bottom Line: A personal, pilgrim’s journey around a Japanese island

Go Here To Purchase “East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage”

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This Week In Photography Books: Ingvar Kenne

by Jonathan Blaustein

I often reference movies in this column. Have you noticed? You must have. Otherwise, you haven’t been paying attention.

What’s wrong with you? Why would you bother coming here, every Friday, if you weren’t going to pay attention?

What’s that? You do pay attention? I’m making unfair accusations? Jumping to conclusions based upon spurious assumptions?

I’m sorry. Forgive me. After 17 days of being under-the-weather, I’m grumpier than an alcoholic-undercover-Russian-soldier, fighting in Eastern Ukraine, after the daily vodka ration’s run out.

But I often find a good photo book will make me think of a film, and once the idea’s in my head, the fingers dance upon the keyboard like a Spring Break frat boy trying to impress a bevy of pretty ladies. (Sadly, it’s all in the hips, but most meat-heads are not flexible enough to move them.)

The movie I’ve got in mind at present is “Groundhog Day.”

Such. A. Classic.

Harold Ramis, RIP, had all sorts of Buddhist motivations, but nobody laughs in Meditation group, so he clearly needed Bill Murray’s genius to make this one fly. What a scenario. You wake up every day, and it’s the same day all over again.

How long did it take Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, to turn to a life of crime and perpetual suicide? Not that long. Monotony is a killer, even if you CAN fill your day torturing groundhogs, eating pancakes, or chasing after peak-hotness Andie MacDowell.

In the end, we all learn a valuable lesson, through Phil’s evolution towards enlightenment: Life without growth and change is meaningless. Even fun stops being fun, when that’s all you know. (When you’re trapped in a pleasure prison of your own making.)

Where is this coming from? Clearly, I’m not talking about me, because you already know I’ve been sick for two-and-a-half weeks. No, I haven’t had much fun at all.

I’m thinking, rather, of “The Hedgehog and The Foxes,” a new book that turned up in my mailbox recently, all the way from Australia. It was made by photographer Ingvar Kenne, produced by the MAUD design studio, and forced me to ask the questions, above, for reasons I will elucidate for you. Now.

This book is about the legendary porn star Ron Jeremy. He may be the man living the oddest existence on Earth, or at least, the one with the least-expected life.

Have you ever seen Ron Jeremy?

I’d like to think we all have, but then again, not a safe assumption. Though this is the second book I’ve reviewed this year that delves into pornography, I should probably mention I’m no expert on the subject. But I’ve certainly seen Ron Jeremy’s ugly mug in the past, and I might have even seen his private parts.

The story is that his johnson is so prodigious that he’s had a long-standing career sticking it into various orifices, for money. It was never about his looks, or his sad sack physique. Always, it was about his penis.

Mr. Kenne got to spend some quality time in the presence of “The Hedgehog” as he bounced from one vapid party to the next. He seems to have always been in the company of ladies, some of whom are very attractive. He signs boobs with sharpies, and shoves his hands up women’s pants, presumably at their request.

Through it all, Ron Jeremy exudes an Angst that would chill Vladimir Putin’s soul, if it weren’t already in cryogenic territory. Wow, do I feel bad for this guy. He seems so depressed, amongst the depravity, that I doubt he’s even capable of crying anymore.

Trapped in a world of his own making. A scenario many men would kill for, so I’m told. Getting paid to have sex with pretty women. But I wouldn’t trade places with “The Hedgehog” for all the money in the world.

Kudos to the artist for really showing no boobs or butts or cocks at all. The book is essentially clean, focusing on the emotional tenor of the tale, rather than the dirty goodies. We see the story unfold with lots of black-page-breaks, enhancing the noir quality.

In the middle, Mr. Kenne manages to zoom in and zoom out at the same time, as the contact-sheet-style gives us smaller images, but many more of them. It makes it feel like we’re there for every moment, rather than just the best shots.

There’s a sad poem at the end, which gives words to those emotions. Apparently, all Ron Jeremy ever wanted was to be a serious actor. To be known for his talent, rather than his member. A letter, which the artist included in his packet, states that despite being in each other’s company for close to 24 hours, “no show of human interest and interaction took place between” Ron Jeremy and the artist. (Again, the pictures gave that one away too.)

Apparently, there’s a short documentary video that accompanies the book, and a Limited Edition too, but I’m not sure what they’re about. I don’t want to know, really. Because I need to put on a stupid movie, right now, to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.

Bottom Line: Very well made book that shows us the road to Hell is paved with good intentions

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This Week In Photography Books: Andy Freeberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got a lot of good feedback on last week’s review. Honestly, I wasn’t that surprised. Who doesn’t love to read the ramblings of a slightly deranged mind?

It was as if I were Raskolnikov for a few moments. Fleetingly crazy, only without the menace. Who knew what I might say? I could have written the whole thing stark naked, having a laugh at everyone’s expense, and no one would have been the wiser.

This week, however, I’ve moved past the pain-killer phase of this particular illness. As two of my students correctly predicted, it migrated from my throat to my chest. Now, I have bronchitis, which is less painful, but more annoying.

All day long, I’ve been hocking up phlegm.
Cough. Cough. Chest boogers.
Cough. Cough. Chest boogers.

Not. exactly. sexy.

And yet, as I said last week, the trains must run on time. Books must be reviewed. Content must be produced. It is the way of the 21st Century, and who am I to question reality?

(Were I still in the Dostoyesvky-impersonating phase, I might do just that. “The world. It is bleak. People. They are dark, miserable animals. Happiness is an illusion. We are all capable of murder. Why go on living? What is the point? I really should kill myself. Or better yet, someone else. They don’t deserve to live. I hate them. I love them. I am thoroughly confused.”)

Are you confused? Shall I make things less complicated for you?

How’s this? Andy Freeberg’s new book “Art Fare,” published by Sojourn, is awesome and hilarious, in a dry, insider-kind-of-way. He laughs at the type of powerful, humorless people that normally intimidate the shit out of regular folks like us: Contemporary Art Dealers, and their bespectacled minions.

This book requires little explication, which is why it is perfect for today. The pictures below will amuse you, for certain, and allow me to wrap this column up quickly, so I can go back to my obnoxious, Russian-level suffering.

Cough. Cough. Chest boogers.

The pictures were made in the Miami Art Fairs, and feature gallery owners and workers in front of the goods they buy, sell and trade. Not much to figure out.

There are connections between the people and the art, occasionally. Like the guy in front of his own painting, with his wiener hanging out.

But what I really loved was the fact that almost all of these people have adopted the kind of affected, bored-of-the-world, I’d rather check my Iphone than stare at a wall, I’m-better-than-you-are kind of postures. It makes you want to punch them in the face, collectively, but then, not really. They’re just flawed human beings, as are we.

Everyone gets bored, I suppose, and if you stare at the art too long, perhaps your mind will explode.

I’m sure they’re secretly insecure, these Art World Denizens, and trying to fit in, like the rest of us. So they wear faded black T-shirts, like their buddies do, and pretend not to care. (Like their buddies do.)

Bill Hunt, who writes an essay, is also featured in a photograph, at his former gallery Hasted Hunt Krautler. In fairness, his pose affects no such ennui. (Which really ought to be a Russian word, instead of French. Don’t you think?)

He ends with Chuck Close, in his wheelchair, looking at an Andy Warhol “Soup Can” on the wall. What a great way to “close” a book. Perfect, really.

Blaustein out.

Bottom Line: Hilarious, well-observed investigation of the Art-World-Gorillas in their natural habitat

To Purchase “Art Fare” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Carolyn Drake

by Jonathan Blaustein

I didn’t sleep well last night. Forgive me if I ramble on. I’ve got no other options.

That’s the thing with a weekly column. The deadline is always there. Over the years, you learn to live with it. Rather than a demarcation of stress, the looming responsibility becomes a comfort, as my young daughter always clings to her fuzzy pink blanket. (Which she calls Cokie.)

It’s been years now, that I share my musings and life experiences with you: the nameless audience. You’ve been around for my ups and downs. As I write, some of the downs come back around again, like a decrepit ferris wheel in a faraway carnival.

The cages creak, in need of oil. The rust has overtaken the paint. Soon enough, it will all be a cacophony of textured brown. Like the desert, if it were only slightly darker in color.

Why didn’t I sleep last night? Because I’ve caught one hell of a wicked virus. The kind that makes my throat feel like a thousand tiny knives are puncturing my skin, every time I swallow. I had one of these bugs a few years ago, and wrote about it then. (Do you remember?)

Now, I’ve gotten another. Not two seconds ago, I swallowed, and the scratchy pain flooded my brain with cortisol. Yet the ferris wheel keeps spinning, and the book pile looms in the background, filled with goodies about which I expound, for your pleasure, every week.

What about today? Can you tell that I’m half-bonkers? Does it matter? What if I found a book, on my very first try, that matched my loopy mood perfectly, like yin abuts yang, forever in harmony?

Would it be possible? What would such a book look like?

I’m glad you asked.

“Wild Pigeons” is a new book by Carolyn Drake, recently produced by Colour & Books. That is was one of two books in my stack with pigeons in the title seems beyond coincidental. That it is the second book in a week that dares to “Put a Bird on It” is less surprising, as there would not be a cliché, there would be no smoke, without the fire.

I didn’t know it was Ms. Drake’s book though. Her name, and the title, are on the spine only, and I didn’t bother looking. So all I got was three white birds on a white cover. Honestly, such a book could be about anything. Presumably birds, but last week’s bird book was about the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake, so I was curious.

Oh yes.

It opens with a section of pages that are shorn shorter than what will come later. Two text pages greet us, the second states “I cannot tell if I am dreaming or awake.” Which is exactly how I feel at the moment, hopped up on honey tea and pain killers.

Then, we see a grave, below prayer flags, in a desert. After, a portrait on a wall: four boys with their heads covered with a certain kind of hat, like a yarmulke, only bigger. Then, more desert. And more desert still. A brown-skinned man on a motorcycle. A woman on the ground. A boy perched upon wires, tied by rope to a man on the ground.

Where are we? What is going on?

Time to guess, I thought. I supposed we were in Central Asia, though Mongolia did pop in my mind as well. Not enough grassland for Mongolia, though. We see headscarves, and farmers, yet lush things grow as well.

The words “fever dream” popped into my head, but that’s really not a phrase I ever use.

We get to the wider pages, and the orientation shifts entirely. You flip the book sideways, and are met with collage images. Some have text written on them. It is trippy, this book, and I like it very much. Very much indeed.

At some point, I see the word Uyghour, and then it makes sense. The asiatic features. The vast deserts. The head scarves. We are in Western China, I realize, and it has all been hinted at perfectly, so far.

Eventually, the pages shrink again, and we are back to straight photography. Apple carts, and pit bulls lunging. Cow throats slit in the streets, blacksmiths, and billiard games too. There are still blacksmiths in 2015? (Of course, silly American. Of course.)

Holy shit. This book is wild. If I were in a normal state of mind, I’m sure it would induce a sort of temporary insanity. As I am already temporarily insane, I feel like this book was made just for me.

The pages widen again, the orientation flips. Again. And now the photographs are at night. The close of the story. When the bats fly, and trouble canvasses the streets like a beat cop trying to avoid boredom.

Eventually, we reach the end text. A long story, translated for our benefit. A statement by the artist, who explains that the collages were her way of getting the local Uyghurs in Xinjiang to participate in her project. Anonymously. (She spent years visiting the place, and dug deep into the culture.)

Stranger still, there is a brief interview between the artist, an old grandfather, and an interpreter. Why is it stranger still? Because it’s printed on the back cover.

Somewhere, the ghost of Jack Kerouac is reading this review. He is judging me, and unfortunately, I’ve come up short. (“Listen, man. I get the vibe you’re grooving for. I do. I do. But it doesn’t feel quite right to me, man. Like, maybe you were trying too hard? Or maybe you weren’t on enough drugs? You know what I’m saying? The book though… it’s pretty hip. Hip, man. Hip.”)

Bottom Line: Amazing, innovative, mind-altering book made in the true hinterlands of Earth

To Purchase “Wild Pigeons” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Rinko Kawauchi

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m glad they call it Climate Change these days. (Instead of Global Warming.) Makes more sense that way.

At first, I thought it was a euphemism, meant to seem less-threatening. But then I realized that despite the fact that something like thirteen of the fourteen hottest years on record have come in the 21st Century, it’s really the preponderance of extreme weather that will get people’s attention.

Nothing shakes things up like death statistics.

When the Climate Changes, we get things like what’s going in Boston. Where the snow is higher than Bob Marley at 4:20am, the night after a Reggae Festival in Kingston. (And have you heard the Marley family is getting into the legal weed business? Genius!)

As for Taos, we spent most of the winter enjoying unseasonable 55 degree days. Two weeks ago, I took my students shooting around campus, and they were all wearing T-shirts. Again, this is the Rocky Mountains, for goodness sake.

But last Friday, OMG. Winter came roaring back like a kiln-fire surrounded by hippie potters. It was raging. We had a four-day blizzard for the first time in I can’t remember. It was so beautiful. Outside my door, everything looked like a Japanese Landscape Painting.

So. Very. Quiet.

What do you do during a four-day-snowstorm? Right. Watch movies.

We caught “Chef,” a really poor Indie film from Jon Favreau, of “Swingers” and “Iron Man” fame. I’ll spare you my treatise on why it was both implausible and hollow. What really got my attention was the manner in which Favreau, as the titular Chef, was driven to temporary insanity by a particularly difficult online critic.

All I could think was: been there. It’s hard for me to believe how personally I used to take the comment section criticism here. It was always so cruel and personal. Still, I cringe thinking about how angry I used to get at those anonymous trolls.

Now, we moderate. Keeps the discourse civil, though there’s rarely any discourse at all. The past two weeks, though, I noticed that someone questioned my choice of book, as I’ve been trying to vary my selections a bit. Both comments were civil, open-hearted, and thoughtful. So I replied.

You don’t have to agree with me. But if you have an intelligent thought, and take the time to share it with me, I’m willing to write back. Frankly, it was all I ever wanted. Conversation is interesting. Hate? Bo-ring.

But what did I promise you last week? That this week’s book would be right in the eye of the storm. The average, normal, medium-type of book that I often review.

What would that look like? Talented artist. With other books to his/her name. Respected career. Political and/or relevant subject matter. Handsomely produced. Most likely not from the United States.

Right?

Right. Here we go.

“Light and Shadow” is a new book by Rinko Kawauchi, recently published by Super Labo in Japan. I’m always asking for books that tell us what we need to know. Preferably though the pictures, but that type of communication can be difficult.

This book does just that. It’s clean, spare, and white, with a picture of a bird on the front. (Put a bird on it.) As befit’s Ms. Kawauchi’s style, the first few pictures are in color, and well-composed. The second photo has sun flares that look like emoji. (Is emoji a Japanese word? Must be, right?)

If you look carefully, the next two pictures reference rubble, seen from afar. Then, we get two inserted pictures of birds, the first of which clearly shows them soaring over a garbage heap. Broken down wooden things.

First thought, I love that the inserts look like 4×6 pictures from Walgreens. (Or its Japanese equivalent.) Second thought, earthquake damage?

The book continues in this manner. A broken street, rendered in twilight blue. A bright yellow dandelion spouting up out of a patch of green grass. The next time we see the bird inserts, there are three photos instead of two.

Growth. Change.

There is more rubble. More flowers. More light flares. More twilight blue. A pink balloon. And a dog roaming the streets to boot.

Even with our short-news-cycle-attention span, it’s not hard to connect this to the Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear Disaster phase that hit Japan a few years ago. Almost any viewer would connect the dots.

There is a short statement that confirms what is by then obvious. And the back page states that a portion of the proceeds will be donated to disaster relief. Which is a good thing. Because while I never look at prices, I happened to notice this one sells for $80. You can feel good about spending that, if you want one.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, haunting photos of Japan, after the quake

To Purchase “Light and Shadow” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Andrew Macpherson

by Jonathan Blaustein

I watched “Breaking Bad” for a little while, but then had to I quit. Cold Turkey. No more Heisenberg blue meth for me.

No sir.

I was doing a Netflix-binge-watch-thing, and made it into the beginning of Season 3. Darker and darker went the ride. Darker and darker still.

All of a sudden, after one more adrenaline dump, it became clear to me. There is no happy ending here, only a vortex of misery. Redemption is not interesting to Vince Gilligan. He’s just hooking people, deeper and deeper, so that the whole show
becomes a metaphor for addiction.

This train only runs in one direction, I thought, and it’s time to get off. Now. Before this shit gets any darker. Darker and darker, like the moonless night sky. That’s what’s ahead.

I don’t regret my decision, despite the near-universal-plaudits of the later era, and the mass-American-hysteria that accompanied the final season. It seemed like everyone but me was emotionally invested in the outcome, and that was just what I had planned.

That said, I’m completely in love with “Better Call Saul,” the newly introduced spin-off. First of all, Big Shout Out to Bob Odenkirk, who is brilliant. I know he gets plenty of props, but add mine to the list.

And having just been in Albuquerque the other day, it is oddly satisfying, as a New Mexican, to see scruffy Burque bathed in the glow of good camerawork. It might not be as warm and fuzzy as a breakfast burrito from the Frontier, smothered in scathingly spicy chile broth, but it comes close.

The story, if you’re not familiar, covers the backstory of Saul Goodman, Mr. Odenkirk’s character from “Breaking Bad.” Turns out he used to be a small-time hustler named Jimmy McGill. At what point does he adopt his new persona? His alter ego?

I don’t know.

They’ve just finished Episode 4, and most series like this take years to unfurl, like the American flag once had 13 stars, and then more, and more still. Hell, New Mexico didn’t even become a state until 1912, so they were adding stars for more than a century. Each time, making the previous flag irrelevant. Or, more likely, a very expensive collectible.

Even when you adopt a new identity, you’re mostly altering your name, at first. Authenticity takes time to develop, like a good green chile stew. We cook ourselves to condense the flavor, and build up complexity. Bit by bit.

Why am I waxing philosophical about such things today? (As always, good question.) It’s because I’ve just finished looking at “Pink: 10 Years,” a new book by Andrew Macpherson, published by Bravado. As I said last week, readers are sending me things these days, and this one popped up in my PO Box a little while ago.

It’s about as different from what I normally review as you can get, but I think that’s a good thing. As far as I know, Pink started out as a girl named Alicia, who could sing really well. I think maybe she’s from Pennsylvania, but you know how much I hate Googling things to be sure.

Truthfully, I’ve never been a fan of her work, nor have I gone out of my way to dislike it. She’s a massive Pop Star, so her music isn’t meant for the likes of me. She has a great voice, I know, and a rocking body too.

What else can I tell you?

Well, no one knows this, but before my wife and I moved to Brooklyn, in 2002, we spent 6 weeks criss-crossing Mexico by bus.
We ended up in Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo, in the middle of summer. It was hot as a bowl of habañero salsa. Your eyelids wanted to melt into your eyeballs, each time you walked down the Quinta.

When we weren’t in the ocean, we stayed in our hotel room, air condition cranking, watching TV and reading books. My wife would certainly be shocked to know I’m sharing this seemingly random detail, stolen from the bowels of my memory, but she spent hours at a time watching music videos, mostly in Spanish, which she doesn’t speak, to catch a Pink song, each time they brought it back around.

She might not remember that at all. And it would probably take me a fair bit of time on YouTube, which didn’t exist back then, to figure out which link to post here. So I won’t. (Update: Jessie confirms the story, and claims she was interested in “Get the Party Started” because it had a killer dance number.)

As for the book, it’s vibrant, and snappy, filled with well-made publicity stills, album covers, and behind the scenes concert shots. There is a running commentary, by Mr. Macpherson and Pink, which gives their current take on things that happened years ago.

Inspirational statements are graphically imposed, from time to time, and they all reflect a vision of positivity and hard work.

As for the pictures? I was mostly taken by how clearly Pink was “faking it until you make it,” in the beginning. The tongue came out, and the hair was bleached. True. But there was no gravitas in her expression, early on. No piercing intelligence behind the eyes.

More than once, contemporary Pink refers to her former self as a “baby,” and you can see why. She may have been captivating America’s teen-aged girls, and building a brand, but she was still figuring herself out.

As the book goes on, you think it’s going to be gradual, but really, it’s not. You reach a certain page, and there it is. Strength and confidence appear, like a black-hatted bad guy on the horizon. Soon after, we see her daughter. The baby has become a mother, and any and every parent can relate that feeling.

(“If I don’t grow up now, on the double, I’m going to ruin this little human, and that is one mistake I can’t allow myself to make.”)

There was one detail that really stuck out, like the shocking neon pink of the page edges. Pink shares that when she first wanted to sing and do acrobatics at the same time, her trainer was dubious. So Pink instructed her to punch her in the stomach, repeatedly, while she sang.

Can you imagine thinking of that, much less asking someone to do it to you? Totally. Fucking. Insane.

But I suppose that’s what it takes, if you want to become a Global Icon. A One-Named Brand. A color: personified. (My young daughter’s favorite color, incidentally. Like every other two-year-old girl on the planet…)

OK. We’re done here. This book is not like everything else I review. And last week’s book was about as typical of what I normally cover as you can get. So I guess that means next week, we’ll end up somewhere smack in the middle.

Bottom Line: Glossy look inside the evolution of a Pop Star, and, a human being too.

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This Week In Photography Books: Dafy Hagai

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got a fat stack of books in Santa Fe the other day. Fresh meat. Yum yum.

I never know what I’m going to get, when I re-up at photo-eye. If it’s new, I’m willing to look at it. And these days, people also send me things, so that opens up new worlds of possibility.

As such, I’m wondering if it’s time to be a shade more discriminating in what I review, like a coin collector who won’t spring for just any old piece of silver. (“Excuse me, Bertram, but if you think I’m going to pay $2 million for an 1875 Buffalo nickel, you must be smoking the super-skunk.”)

The first book I reached for today was a Thomas Struth number made in Israel; part of the “This Place” project that I’ve mined for content on many an occasion. Struth? A German in Israel? It’s got to be good, right?

Well. I guess. If you’re into boring pictures.

I hate to throw another photo legend under the bus, but there you go. I’m sure he’s going to read this and have a good cry, but I’m no hater. When the man was good, he was genius, so we’ll always have the old days.

Co-incidentally, the very next book I grabbed, seduced by its snappy blue-on-white color palette, was also made in Israel. Now, I’m sure some of you will think that I have a predilection for such things, as I’m known to be Jewish. But I assure you, I’m as keen to see what’s going on in Kyrgyzstan, Kathmandu, and Kuala Lumpur.

As it happens, this book, the second one I grabbed with grubby hands, like a drunk frat boy reaching for one more In’n’out burger…it’s a doozy. And not necessarily in a good way.

Some weeks, I write about shit you’ve never seen before. Other weeks, like last Friday, I try to highlight really smart and innovative offerings that you might actually want to buy. And then there are the columns, like this one, where you might get agitated.

Consider yourself warned.

“Israeli Girls” is a new book by Dafy Hagai, recently published by Art Paper Editions, in Ghent. I’m writing about it now, because I’m so darn confused. Sometimes, seeing the words pop up on screen helps me suss out my thoughts. (That so many people are reading the results is almost ancillary.)

What’s my favorite catch phrase, beyond “The 21st Century Hustle?” That’s right: Boobs Sell Books℠. They must, or photographers wouldn’t insist on jamming them into their narratives like a Tokyo salaryman wedging onto the subway at rush-hour.

This book is one where, after the very first picture, of a young woman flashing her tennis-skirt-covered tush like a baboon in heat, I knew the boobs were coming.

Sure, the title, “Israeli Girls” hints at the subject: Israeli Girls. But, I thought, there has to be more to it than that? Not long ago, I wrote about Christopher Everard’s meticulously researched investigation of the pornography industry. Billions of dollars are spent helping people get their rocks off.

Does anyone really buy a photobook for that, when they can get it for free on the Internet, minus the classy production values? Or for $39.99 from Vivid Video, with more bells and whistles? Does it matter that these girls are Israeli? As opposed to Dutch? Or Californian?

The book features kind-of-edgy pictures, and we could whip out the Balthus reference, though these young women seem to be of proper age. But I don’t know anything about them, because the book lacks any supporting text at all.

It’s just a bunch of pictures of pretty girls, made in an arty style. Yes, there’s a pink tennis visor on a children’s slide. And when the boobs come, they’re accompanied by under-arm hair, which I’m sure is meant to counter-balance the traditional notions of beauty.

But I’m just not sure what to think. Is this book the equivalent of an ironic mustache, one of my all-time pet peeves? If you want to grow a mustache, grow a f-cking mustache, OK? Don’t pretend that you’re better than your mustache, and you’re only wearing it to make fun of every other tool who wants to look like a 19th Century barkeep. (“May I offer you gents a libation this fine afternoon?”)

If you like pictures of pretty girls, fine. Go for it. Get a job at Playboy, and shoot boobs to your heart’s content. More power to you.

But this book wants to have it both ways. So why am I writing about it? Because I’m annoyed that it’s crawling around inside my head. I don’t know much about VICE, though I’m aware it’s become a Billion Dollar Brand. Is this book made for VICE guys? Or has VICE become respectable these days?

Again, I don’t know, because there is no essay, no titles, no rambling narrative meant to give me so much as a clue. Just some pretty Jewish girls, seducing the camera with their pouty lips and firm flesh. (On general principle, I won’t show you the boob shots, as a faux-protest, but I’m just too wound up not to write about this one.)

OK?

OK. I’m done here. You might hate me for taking up your time to discuss a book I only like “ironically,” or you might thank me for giving you a properly pretty diversion on what’s likely to be a frigid Friday.

Either way, see you next week. (Same Bat time. Same Bat channel.)

Bottom Line: Odd, mysterious, and probably vapid book about pretty Israeli girls

To Purchase “Israeli Girls” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Sugimoto/Misrach

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve been watching a lot of John Wayne movies lately. I was always a Clint Eastwood guy, so I’d never really understood the Duke, until recently. It’s stupefying to discover the way one man stood as a symbol for an entire nation.

John Wayne captures the rough, charismatic, violent and patriarchal vibe that permeated the US in the post-WWII years. If his middle name were actually Manifest Destiny, would anyone really be surprised?

He led with his big, hamhock fists, and we all needed to trust that he knew what he was doing. He was John Wayne, after all, a facade built upon poor Marion Morrison, just as our fair country was crafted upon the bones of a conquered race.

I even read a quote in which Mr. Wayne said he had no problem with the fact that America stole all this land, because the Native Americans weren’t using it properly. For real. I read that. (Though in our suspicious Internet age, I guess that doesn’t mean he said it.)

I was discussing my newfound fascination with a friend of mine just after Christmas. Iván was my professor in graduate school, and he studied film at NYU. He agreed that John Wayne represented America during it’s reign as the big-swinging-dick-World-Power, but suggested he had been supplanted by another fictional hero for the post-Vietnam era: Forrest Gump.

We had a good giggle at first, because it’s hard to even believe how much everyone cared about Forrest back in the nineties. (Run, Forrest, Run.) But afterwards, he said he was dead serious. Forrest was a bumbling, compromised, win-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth, trust-in-the-luck-of-the-Universe kind of guy. Nobody thought he was a real superhero, but he managed to turn out OK.

These days, Forrest Gump seems quaint to the point of irrelevance. We like our heroes ironic and snarky, like Robert Downey Jr, beefy and dim, like Channing Tatum, or not-even-American, like Chris Hemsworth and Michael Fassbender. And as for Forrest, he’s been relegated to the cultural dustbin.

He did leave us with a few words to live by though, didn’t he? “Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.”

How can you argue with Forrest on that one? You can’t. Especially when, like me, you’ve just opened up a plastic sleeve to find “Assignment No. 2: Sugimoto/Misrach: San Quentin Prison,” published by TBW books in Oakland.

My first thought was very 21st C: WTF?

You find what looks like an institutional file folder, replete with a water stain up top, and a red ink smudge closer to the bottom. It sits there, that red ink stain, judging me. The more I look at it, the more it resembles a tornado.

Open it up, and the left side has a succession of names, including those two aforementioned art stars. Then, on the right, we see a statement claiming that an essay, to follow, was written by a prisoner in San Quentin named Michael Nelson. Whatever we’re to read was apparently written while he was in solitary confinement.

They had my attention all along, but now my eyebrows have stood at attention like a Guantanamo prison guard. What are we about to see, I wonder. And will it be filled with facts about the tragic, embarrassing incarceration rate in this country? It is to be an essay that makes us question how such a dilemma came to pass?

No. Not at all.

Flip out again, and you’re staring a sheet of lined, yellow paper, with text handwritten in blue ink. Or so it seems. I’ve seen enough photobooks to know that it’s a high grade reproduction, but still, it’s interesting.

The flap on the righthand side states that all the proceeds of this publication will go to support the prison education programs that spawned this project. Things begin to fall into place.

The first page of the essay is a letter, in which Mr. Nelson apologizes for missing class, as he cannot attend in his current circumstance. He wonders if he’ll be able to achieve full credit, while locked up by himself in what must be some form of hell.

Again, can I get a WTF?

Open the last two flaps, and we see a reproduction of a famous Sugimoto picture from his movie theater series, and a photo of a drive-in movie theater screen from Misrach’s seminal “Desert Cantos” work. We’re looking at two examples of seminal work from the 20th Century.

Flip up the first page of the yellow-paper-stack, and we find a thoughtful, well-written essay that compares and contrasts the two images. It’s a copy of an actual prison class assignment from 2011.

Wow.

I’ve seen a lot of things in my day, and a lot of books in the 3.5 years that I’ve been writing this column. But I’ve never seen anything like this.

The essay is smart, but takes a turn towards poignant when Mr. Nelson alludes to his own situation in life. The metaphor of a world changing beyond recognition, seen in the pictures, also seems well-chosen, for someone living on the inside.

At the end, we get a page that explains a bit more about Mr. Nelson’s background. Jailed for murder at 15, 17 years into a 25 year sentence. Like many a good Bay Area liberal, he’s found himself working within the system to help others.

His info is followed by straight bios for Mr. Misrach, Mr. Sugimoto, and Mr. Dertinger and Ms. Poor, who both teach at CSU Sacramento, and work with prisoners as well. It was a rare mis-step, I thought, the conventional bio page in a production this original. Good information to have, of course, and smartly placed, when your curiosity is at its peak…but then, we all have bios. (One more piece of PR that makes us feel like we’re products to be bought and sold, in lieu of our prints and services.)

Regardless, I hate to quibble, as this is a very inspiring piece of work. Definitely one to buy, as your money will serve others, and this feels like something rare that people will look back on, down the line.

Bottom Line: Incredibly innovative production

To Purchase “Assignment No. 2: Sugimoto/Misrach: San Quentin Prison” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Gill

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s Thursday, which means this column is due later today. Unfortunately, the writing will be sub-standard. We all know things are better once they’ve had some time to marinate, whether it’s pictures or words or chicken teriyaki.

My apologies. It couldn’t be helped. This has been one crazy mother f-ing week, and last week was just as challenging.

Have you ever found yourself in a phase where you were forced to stand by your words? When it seemed like the Cosmos was waking up each morning with the express intention of testing you to your core? Checking whether you actually had the stones to follow through on a promise?

Welcome to my world.

Yesterday was one of the hardest days I’ve had in a while. It began at 6:30 am, with a prompt wakeup by my ever-energetic son. Lots of errands, paying bills, getting the kids off to school. Then I had to teach a class. (Got a new student, too, so it was back to square one.)

From there, still more errands, then a trip to Santa Fe to drop off a picture for a show, and pick up more books with which I can entertain you. (We hope. I always wonder if I might have a day where I’m more obnoxious then helpful.)

Then, and only then, did I drive to Albuquerque to be interviewed for a PBS television show about my project “The Value of a Dollar.” I’d sworn to the producer at the outset that I’d be helpful, relaxed and engaging. The perfect subject, I assured her.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “No matter what, I’ll be low-maintenance.”
(Cue the ominous foreshadowing music in your head.)

The shoot went well, and then after a quick beer with a friend, I drove the nearly 3 hours back home at night. The big moon lit the road, but I was too busy trying not to have my brains fall out of my ears to notice its beauty.

I’m done, I reminded myself. Done. I did it.
It’s over.

The phone rang early this morning, and I missed the call. I noticed the 505 area code, and realized it was the aforementioned producer. Calling to congratulate me, I wondered?

No such luck. It seems one of the cameras wasn’t working right, and we have to shoot the whole interview over again. I took a deep breath, smiled, and told her “No problem. I’ll do even better the next time.”

Inside, my soul was crying like an inexperienced actor. Deep, overly-emotional sobs, with a shaking chest. But I pretended not to notice, and just got on with being a good sport.

It’s one of those core life lessons, I think. If you do the hard work, and push yourself, your life will be richer, and your pictures will improve too.

Some of those lessons, once learned, are hard to unlearn. With respect to photography, one of the classics I picked up years ago was to try to put the camera in odd and unexpected places. (I tell my beginning students that every semester.)

Be creative where you put the camera. Up high, down low, and into the randomest corners you can find. In fact, I said it just yesterday, to that new student. His classmates concurred, assuring him they’d already stuck their cameras inside nasty holes in the wall, into the musty innards of their school’s structure.

They loved the resulting pictures, and encouraged their new colleague to do the same.

Because as many of us know, when you stick the camera into wacky places, you never know what you’ll find. (Or what boring subject the camera will transform into a bit of ephemeral magic.)

Such is the case with “Pigeons,” a new book by Stephen Gill, published last year by the Archive of Modern Conflict in London. Now, I know that bird pictures, and bird books, are something of a cliché. Like I’m always saying about boobs, birds also sell books.

But we’ve never seen a bird book like this one. Oh no. I’m quite confident of that. Because Mr. Gill stuck his camera into some pretty nasty and dodgy crevices. Under girders, around steel beams. Up where these grayscale flying rats reside, when they’re not busy pooping on statues and cooing you to sleep at night.

While I might have gone out of my comfort zone with last week’s book, this one is right in line with what I normally like to show. It’s innovative, strange, and likable in it’s funky ugliness. A great idea, well executed, will always grab my attention.

The use of shallow depth of field is strong, as it highlights the awkward textures inside the birds’ nests. You almost feel the cold and damp, but in a good way. (It won’t make you Siri up the EasyJet website to see how cheaply you can get to Sevilla next Wednesday.)

Personally, I hate vermin. Some mice have just eaten the wiring to my car’s speedometer for the second time in a few months. It’s going to cost me a couple of hundred bucks to fix. Little bastards.

Pigeons I don’t mind so much. Probably because we don’t have any here in the mountains. (And if we did, we’d likely call them doves.) I get to look at magpies, ravens and eagles instead. Now I’m wondering what their homes look like, and hoping some enterprising photographer will show me where they hide.

Bottom Line: Very cool look inside pigeons domiciles.

To Purchase “Pigeons” Visit Photo-Eye.

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Sarah Silver Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: Your bio states that you were born in Tokyo, but your parents are American?

Sarah Silver: Yes, my parents are American. My father was teaching there at the time, but he’s been working internationally for years, and is currently based in Sydney.

I basically spent my entire life visiting him, though I grew up in Chicago. I traveled extensively as a kid.

When I was finally able to make an adult choice as what to do, I spent a year living in the Middle East, while I was studying at Vassar for my undergrad.

JB: Vassar? My wife went there.

SS: To Vassar?

JB: Yeah. But I won’t date you. If I ask you what year you graduated, I’m automatically dating you. So I’m not going to do that.

SS: OK.

JB: What was your college experience like?

SS: I was a very serious student. I spent a lot of time in the library doing homework. I think I was one of those students that took every assignment and said, “Yes, I completed it 100%.”

But every minute I wasn’t studying, I spent in the darkroom at school. At the time, Vassar didn’t offer a photography department, so I pretty much created classes and taught them to students. While spending every waking free moment printing.

And inhaling chemicals.

JB: Which may or may not have anything to do with your…

SS: …current state of mind? My grandfather was a baby photographer in Michigan from the 50’s through the 80’s. He had a darkroom in his basement, and my earliest childhood memories are of printing with him.

He would show me how to vignette baby photos. My coloring books, all through growing up, were black and white pictures, and I would take the oil pencils to draw onto them. He showed me how to change the color of things. I always though it was fun to make the colors unrealistic.

When I told my grandmother I was going to become a photographer, the first thing she thought was, “Oh God, not those stinky chemicals.”

JB: (laughing) Little did she know, the digital revolution was just around the corner.

SS: When I was coming up through grad school, I had the choice of going straight digital, or keeping with film. It was still that time when you could have a choice. Now, it’s not even a conversation.

I was a big nerd anyway, so the digital darkroom was something I was always a fan of. Luckily, no chemicals for me.

I went to grad school at SVA, and spent all the rest of my waking hours printing color. Which is really fun, except you’re completely in the dark.

JB: I feel you. I did a stint in a chromogenic darkroom as well. And what about after school? How did you get into fashion in particular?

SS: I started working as a photo journalist in the Middle East. That year abroad, at Vassar, I worked for a not-for-profit organization in Israel that would send me all over the country, and abroad. I spent some time in Ukraine, shooting all of these projects they funded.

For instance, I went to Ukraine to shoot a federation of Jews from the US who came to see where some of their ancestors had been saved by righteous gentiles during World War II. We visited the now-defunct Jewish community where they came from. It was pretty awesome.

I loved working as a photojournalist, and was honored that I didn’t even have a portfolio, but the company that I worked for just cared that I was coming from a place of interest. It was basically how I built my portfolio.

I had no experience in photography. I have a degree in Middle East studies from Vassar.

JB: Right.

SS: Which is awesome. But it’s not a photo major. So after I graduated, I went right to SVA, which was the best decision I ever made. Because not only was I learning all the technical stuff that I had missed, but I also got a full Masters of Fine Art, which has all the trappings of art, film and history. All the things I think me a better visual thinker now.

JB: Absolutely.

SS: I would never trade the MFA for anything. I’m a proponent of education. First of all, you should never stop learning. You don’t need a degree to be a photographer, but I loved it.

JB: Hearing your background, it sounds like you took the long and winding road. But now, you’re in an exclusive niche in the industry, working with fashion, that most people don’t know that much about…

SS: As much as I loved Middle East studies, my other passion was Dance. Although I am a severely challenged and failed dancer. I took ballet for a long time. In fact, tomorrow we’re shooting this company that I’ve been shooting since grad school. I still shoot the same company I did my thesis on, every year.

I love movement, and I think that fashion and movement are best friends. Clothing becomes alive, and the model becomes energized.

When I was finishing grad school, my focus was on the history of dance photography, so it was a really easy transition. It has trickled down into everything I do.

I do “movement hair” in hair shoots, and “movement beauty,” in beauty shoots, and “movement fashion” in fashion shoots.

It brings energy to a picture. If you can hear the “Boom! Bang!” sound of the energy coming through, that’s always moved me.

JB: I had a sneaking suspicion, and it even made it onto my question list, as to whether you had a background in dance. So I’m glad you answered that for me.

Before we move on, though, I have a technical question, even if it makes me look stupid. There always seems to be a distinction between beauty and fashion, but I don’t get it. Is it just that beauty represents close-up portraiture, and fashion represents stepping back and showing clothing? Is it as simple as that?

SS: It can be.

JB: So what’s it about then?

SS: I shoot a lot of fashion, a lot of beauty, and a lot of hair, which is technically its own genre, if you want to get specific.

JB: Sure. Let’s get specific.

SS: If you’re a fine artist, I think you can blur the lines. But ultimately, if someone’s commissioning you to take a picture, the genre is defined by what the focus is.

So fashion photography is about fashion. It’s about the clothing. Beauty photography is often about the product being photographed. AKA, mascara.

JB: Makeup. There it is. That’s what I didn’t get.

SS: So if we’re doing a big hair shoot, then your focus is on the hair. Yes, it’s also about the model, and her energy, because it’s all about the talent. But it’s also all about the hair.

Shiny, beautiful, bouncy. Or straight. Blonde or brunette. Ultimately, you need a coherent, beautiful visual, but you always have a nod to the subject.

I love the distinctions, and I’ve turned into a sort-of product-crazy junkie. I love shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, and mascara. I love playing with the products that I shoot, which I think is one of the coolest things about being a woman in this industry.

I am the target audience, 99% of the time. I’m not ashamed to admit it but I have stayed home, nights, and played with every mascara in my drawer.

Do you even know the difference between a volumizing and a lengthening mascara?

JB: I definitely don’t. I most certainly don’t.

SS: Exactly.

JB: (laughing.)

SS: Wow. I am the target audience. And I love it.

JB: So then you must get more free shit than you can possibly imagine?

SS: You never have enough money, or enough free shit from photo shoots. Period. Exclamation point.

JB: (laughing.) Period. Exclamation point. Never enough free shit. On the record.

SS: And nail polish. Listen, before I walked into this industry, way back in the day, I was a student who loved to spend time in the library, and loved to read, and do my homework. But I also loved to bite my nails.

But now, every day, I have a perfect manicure, because I turned into a nail shooter. So in some ways, the industry has changed me, and I feel like hopefully I’ve had an influence on the visuals as well.

JB: Well, speaking of visuals, and movement, I noticed on your website that you’ve got a couple of short films posted, so I watched them.

With the music kicking, and the dancing, it made me wonder if you weren’t interested in directing music videos some day, especially as the technology has converged?

SS: I love directing, and technology is moving so fast. I remember being on set, for the photographer I was interning with, when the first digital backs came along, and I was the only one who knew how to use the computers.

Then, video became more prevalent on still shoots, and now I just get hired for video, straight up.

But my theory in life is, if you never say no, then the opportunities are endless. So, would I direct a music video? Absolutely.

If the opportunity presents itself, the answer is, of course. And when you think about directing, the genre of the early music video has influenced all filmmakers, right?

JB: Even people who are coming out with their first feature film, you look at their bios, and they shot music videos, or they worked in commercials.

SS: I’m the early MTV generation. We won’t age me in this interview, but I remember early MTV, and it was art. When you look at the early music videos, there’s some genius stuff going on. They were paving the way for new forms of visual art in the mainstream.

MTV. My God, right? And then VH1. When you’re talking about the medium of film, it’s impossible not to talk about the music video.

JB: So I guess that means that I zeroed in on an inspiration appropriately?

SS: Sure.

JB: Hell yeah.

SS: I’m so inspired. I grew up in Chicago, and music was a really big deal. I’m an ex-Goth, as much as my mother hated it.

JB: We really are learning a lot about you.

SS: Now I have to wear black clothing, because that’s all we wear on set, right?

JB: You were a Goth, and a nerd, and a journalist in the Middle East, and now you’re addicted to beauty products?

SS: Hang on. Wait a second. If you were a good Goth, you had lots of eye-liner on. I just got better at applying it.

JB: There it is.

SS: Being a Goth-punk in Chicago, with all the music, and the cool stuff that happened, I wasn’t nearly as cool as the kids with the half-shaved head and the dyed black hair. I was kind-of the suburban version, that I could get away with, walking out of my house.

Did you ever spend any time in Chicago?

JB: Next to none.

SS: I’m allowed to ask how old you are, because you’re a boy. How old are you?

JB: I’m 40.

SS: Seriously, it was so, so cool back then. And all the clubs we went to, there was always a film playing, by Ministry, or someone like that. It was really ahead of its time.

I was obsessed with music. So we would go downtown and buy CD’s, because they were just becoming popular.

JB: If you would have said cassette tapes, you really would have dated yourself. We’re dancing around the issue.

SS: Yes, I remember cassette tapes. The minute CD’s came, because they were bigger, I became obsessed with the artwork. There are some seminal visuals that I can tell you, 100%, made me want to become a photographer. The Cocteau Twins. The Pixies. This Mortal Coil had a beautiful cover and inset, an album called “Blood.”

People were using photography, but it wasn’t in a gallery, and it wasn’t untouchable. You would look at the booklets, and you would look at the art.

Do you remember Lenny Kravitz’s “Mama Said?”

JB: Sure.

SS: All that amazing black and white photography? I wanted to do that. It was fashion, and it was cool. It was celebrity. Wow. It blew my mind.

JB: Well, in a very short time, I think we’ve gotten a pretty good sense of how you became you. That’s pretty badass.

SS: Yeah. I will tell you, this is the first ever interview that really talked about that music influence in my life. I don’t think I ever made that connection until you led me there.

Thank you.

JB: You’re welcome.

SS: I really do like that. It’s funny. I was a Goth-punk, and now I love eyeliner. But I just got better at it. (laughing.) I got more sophisticated.

JB: I read that one of the things you do for inspiration in New York, beyond looking at art, is taking super-long walks around the city. People watching. So few of us have time to do that, and it’s such a joy.

What do you think about all the changes over the years?

SS: I’ve been in this city for a long time now. And I never didn’t think I was going to end up here. From the first time I ever came to New York, which must have been when I was 9.

I used to dream about New York. There was never a question that I was coming here. Vassar was really close to the city, and I was inspired by all the kids I went to school with who grew up here.

But the city has changed. I loved the seediness of it, and I love the off-the-beaten path places too.

JB: That’s why I’m asking.

SS: I don’t know the first thing about Chicago, and I lived there for 17 years. But I can tell you literally every little detail of every little corner I’ve traveled in New York City. Every once in a while, I’ll take myself to a neighborhood I don’t know well, and I’ll try to get lost.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited every neighborhood in New York, and I’ll never be able to have that experience again. I get delighted by finding things I don’t know.

I like to celebrate the city, because it took me in.

JB: What’s your favorite little down-low micro-hood?

SS: What I’m obsessed with these days is Japan-town. All the little restaurants. Everyone who comes on set with me, I make them write down their top three Japanese restaurants, and invariably, they’re in the same four block radius.

JB: Where is Japan-town?

SS: 9th Street, between 2nd and 3rd. There’s also a Japanese grocery store on the second floor of 3rd Avenue and 9th St. Restaurants come and go, but it still feels right, for me. It’s one of my favorite neighborhoods.

I love biking around the city too. I’ve lived in so many spots over. . . I’m not saying how many years.

JB: Right. You’re in the fashion industry, so we’re both working really hard to allude to time periods without giving anybody anything specific.

SS: I know.

JB: We’re going to stick to it. Don’t you worry. I’m a classy guy.

SS: (laughing) I can tell. The other thing I do that is so throwback is I will put on a playlist, and walk for hours. I just kind of look at things. My hunger for visuals has never abated in my time here. I stare out the window, and I love to take buses, because you’re above ground, and you get to see everything.

JB: I noticed that across your career, you managed to work with both “America’s Next Top Model,” and “Project Runway.” Is that true?

SS: Yes.

JB: OK. I’ve got a crazy question. Tyra Banks. Heidi Klum. They’re tall. They’re fit. They’re moguls as well as models. In a throw-down, who wins in a fight? Tyra or Heidi?

SS: (pause.) You know, I really think I can’t speak to that, because Heidi and I were never on set together.

JB: OK.

SS: It’s funny, but I will always be the diplomatic one. I’ve actually had a lot of experience with Tyra. I’ve shot her personally, as well as for her show. It would be so much fun to make some sort of comparison, but I feel like I’m not really qualified to do so.

I will say that Tyra Banks is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Every single time I see her, on her show too, she comes up to me, she knows where my family lives. She remembers what my mother likes. She asks me if I changed my hair. She remembers every little detail.

She blows my mind. Every single time.

JB: It’s a great little tip, as far as how super-successful people behave. You answered that question diplomatically, which kind of took my legs out. Because it was a ridiculous question. Come on, now. Give me a little credit. They’re not really going to fight…it was meant to be funny, but you took it so seriously that I feel embarrassed.

You didn’t give me anything.

SS: No, no. If you were to here in person with me, you would know that it’s as far away from my personality as you could possibly get. I’m a light-hearted person, but you won’t usually be able to get a comment like that out of me.

JB: Fair enough.

SS: There won’t be a sound bite.

JB: OK. There won’t be a sound bite about Tyra knocking out Heidi in the octagon. It was a joke, obviously, but we did get a bit of insight into how people roll when they’re that good at their job.

I’ve been teaching college to high school students for a long time now, and I’ve used “America’s Next Top Model” as a reference point for them. When we talk about portraiture, and I’m discussing how to bring emotion into a subject’s eyes, to create that energy.

I used to watch the show, back in the day, so I’ll say to them, you know how Tyra says you’ve got to make the eyes look “fierce?” It works.

SS: She knows what she’s talking about. And not only does she talk a good talk, but she does it herself. When we’re on set, and I’ve shot her, she owns it. She’ll look at me and say, “Sarah, I think I’ve got it.”

She’s the best editor I’ve ever worked with, who’s also the subject of the photos.

JB: Big Shout Out to Tyra.

SS: Shout out.

JB: Well, we’ve talked about New York and Chicago. What I want to know now is, have you ever been to Santa Fe?

SS: No.

JB: Never?

SS: No. It’s really exciting. Santa Fe has always been on the list of places I wanted to go, but I didn’t know how I would get there.

What was going to bring me there? Being invited to Santa Fe was an opportunity to experience a new city, but I love nothing more than working. So this is the best of both worlds.

JB: Let me explain what we’re talking about. This interview, like several I’ve done over the last few years, is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Workshops. They’re my buddies. I’m up here in Taos, they’re just down the road, and everyone knows they do a great job.

You’re coming out to do a workshop for them in March that is titled, “Movement in Fashion, Beauty and Dance.” Is this the first time you’ve taught this workshop? What is this going to be for you, beyond your first opportunity to come to Santa Fe?

SS: Both my parents were teachers, and my father taught at the graduate level. Being raised by teachers, everybody’s always explaining the “whys” of everything, because they think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Being a teacher was an obvious part of my life as a creator, no matter what. One of the reasons why I went for a Masters degree is then you can teach at the college level, which I always wanted to be able to do.

The minute I graduated from grad school, I told them, “Use me.” SVA certainly has, and all the photo schools in New York have. I also have interns, and I’m really into them. I think teaching the next generation is so important. If you can teach, you must. Must, must, must.

JB: What is this workshop going to be like? What do you have planned for your students?

SS: I basically took my three favorite subjects, beauty, movement and fashion, and took one day each to focus on each. The way we have it structured, you can start to see how there’s crossover on all three.

Everybody loves the opportunity to shoot a dancer, and everybody loves the opportunity to go in close and shoot a beautiful face. And talking about all the ways I have found to really get up in there and make beautiful visuals. But also to understand the ideas behind it.

By teaching my own personal workflow, I think it will make a lot of sense for most of the students to see there’s a lot of methodology in the way I shoot. There’s a lot of thought that goes behind it.

You can’t really take beautiful pictures unless you understand why they’re beautiful. Why you do what you do.

JB: Are you going to be working exclusively in studio?

SS: Yes, exclusively in studio. I wanted the maximum amount of time to teach, and I didn’t want to lose even one minute of travel time. So I decided to teach more and travel less.

JB: Efficient. I can dig it. And what about New Mexico? What are you excited to see yourself? This is kind of a mythical place…

SS: That’s what everyone keeps saying. The funny thing is, I have a feeling that every picture I’ve ever seen, and all the descriptions, don’t really do it justice. I know it’s an important art town, and that, visually, it’s supposed to be beyond stunning. Everybody always talks about the colors and light being vastly different than anything you’d experience on the Eastern Seaboard.

I’m sure being in uncharted territory will also inspire me, concurrently, while teaching, because you do learn so much while teaching. It’s going to have a big impact on me. I can already tell.

JB: You’re excited.

SS: Super-excited. Listen, this is a huge honor. And I keep getting emails from people saying, “Oh my god, you’re doing a Santa Fe Workshop?” Literally, I got one yesterday.

Awesome. Yes I am.

JB: (laughing.) “Awesome. Yes I am.” And then you pound the table with your fist. Right?

SS: Completely. If one student walks out and says, “Eureka,” I’ve done a good job. If everyone walks out and says “Eureka…”

JB: Then you ask for a raise.

SS: (pause) It’s not about the money. Right?

JB: (laughing) Of course. So now we know how you broke into fashion. I think most people associate the industry with Fashion Week, and red carpets. Velvet ropes.

In 2015, how would you talk to younger people about legitimately breaking into a world that seems so shut off from everybody else?

SS: This is a question that I get asked all the time.

JB: I’m sure. I’m not saying every question I’m going to ask is original, but people want to know.

SS: They do. New York is a city of opportunity. Every visual person, and you don’t even have to be a student, if you have a strong vision, and a really good work ethic, I think you have a pretty good shot of doing something worthwhile here.

The best piece of advice I would give anybody, and I give it to myself, is that you have to be diligent, and work really, really, really hard. Because lots of people are creative, and lots of people have good ideas, but it’s the ones who keep at it, and keep at it. Every day is a new challenge.

My first lesson to new students is that if you’re complacent, then everyone can smell it. And if you don’t care, then why should I care?

If you wake up every morning with purpose and drive, and you work really, really, really hard, good things come back to you. Even though this is one of the hardest cities to make it in, in any field.

JB: I remember when I first moved there, something really jumped out at me about the famous cliché, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” After I lived there for a little bit, what stuck with me was the “if.” Oh. Right. “If” you can make it here, because if you don’t, the city tries to shit on your head and slit your throat for sport, on a daily basis.

You have to be really on your toes. Three years was enough for me. Drove me back out to my horse pasture in the mountains.

SS: That doesn’t sound so bad.

JB: It’s amazing. I’m not complaining in any way, and I love to come back and visit NYC. I’m just saying, New York is a tough town. But I think you’re giving good advice. People need to be almost cutthroat in their determination to not quit, and not fail.

SS: The word “cutthroat” has such a negative connotation, and the one thing I can say about myself is that I’ve been consistent. And I’ve been consistently me throughout this entire time.

It’s the best I can do. I never try to be anybody else, and I never tried to be something I wasn’t. Because it’s so much easier to be you than to pretend. And then again, you can work really, really, really hard when you believe in yourself, because you’re being exactly who you are.

JB: (laughing) Totally. That might be our end right there.

SS: (laughing) I like that. Listen, I’m super-excited about this workshop, and that the people there were really open to all of my ideas.

In class, I want to talk about making professional photos. Taking yourself from someone who really likes photos, to somebody who can be on set. You have to be consistent, you have to have clear and focused vision, and you have to be a good communicator.

I’m going to have these students act like professional photographers. The minute you walk in the door, you’re no longer a student. You’re a shooter. You’re going to have to do mood boards, and talk about your ideas.

I am the client, and not because I’m trying to be an asshole, but because I want you to tell me what you’re talking about. And I want you to be clear, and professional.

That’s the best thing I took away from Vassar, and my grad school days. If you can talk intelligently about what you’re doing, that’s your ticket.

Can you talk about your visuals, and get everybody else on board? If the answer is yes, work really, really, really hard, and it’s all going to be OK.

JB: Boy, I’m glad we didn’t end it with that first ending, because the advice bombs are dropping fast and furious right now.

SS: I’ve had 1-2 interns every semester, for the last few years, and we talk every day about the stuff we’re talking about now. We talk as people. I try not to be the person in charge.

This shit is scary. This city is scary. Putting yourself out there is scary. I know.

You think your ideas don’t matter, and you’re not going to take a good picture. You don’t know until you try.

I could wax poetic for hours.

JB: I know. Right about now is when we normally end, but you’re just getting started. Unfortunately, we’ve already covered everything I wanted to cover.

SS: I’m kind of inspired. You ask me where I come from, and it all comes full circle. Every year, I shoot for this dance company, the Stephen Petronio Company.

The inspiration I draw from the photo shoots I do with him, movement wise, kind of trickles down and inspires all the beauty, and fashion, and hair that I do for the next year.

There’s no rules, and it’s just collaboration. And I’m still shooting for him, and it’s just such an amazing opportunity. Not only is it a total thrill, because Stephen and his dancers are amazing, but it’s an honor to have a long relationship with somebody like Stephen and

to see the fruits of our labor over several years.

I’m looking at this gorgeous set we’ve built, and looking at the pre-light pictures… it’s one of those days where I especially love what I do.

JB: And I like that we’re still not mentioning how many years you’ve been working with these guys…

SS: Nope.

JB: Right. We’re not going to go there.

SS: The funny thing is, I was always the youngest person in the room. I used to lie about my age, so that my art directors wouldn’t think I was a kid.

It’s never bad. It just doesn’t need to be in print. Right?

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SFPW_APhotoEditor_Jan2015

This Week In Photography Books: Margaret Morton

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, you’ve got to mix things up. Even though it’s harder than sticking with what you know. I like easy as much as the next guy, but it CAN make a person complacent.

Just look at McDonalds.

Why did it become a massive capitalist behemoth? With tens of thousands of locations? Because you only have to be smart enough to walk up to the counter, or drive up to the window, and point at a number.

I want combo #2.
You could grunt, and it would still work out.

If you can string together enough syllables, in proper order, to say, “Combo #2,” and you can cobble together enough pocket change to pay the $2.99, then you can have yourself a burger, some fries, and a highly-sugar-and-caffeine-laden beverage.

What could be easier than that? And as to the cows that go into that burger? Why bother to make them run around a grassy pasture? Why not just let them stand in their own shit, all day long, until it’s time to kill them?

What’s easier, letting them stand where they are, or going to the trouble of designing a cow-exercise program?

No contest.

But just the other day, I was reminded why the hard way promotes growth. I was headed in to teach my second straight class in the new semester: “Beginning Digital Photography.” I asked for an extra class, THIS class, in fact, because I can teach it in my sleep. I know my patterns. I know my lectures. Cold.

No drama at all.

Except there were only 5 students in the room, instead of the usual 25. And the University didn’t want to cancel. So, on the fly, I realized I’d have to re-tool everything I know, in order to keep a very small room entertained and enlightened for 2.5 hours straight, for 15 weeks.

My first thoughts were based in fear and frustration. My desire for the lazy way was screeching in my consciousness, like a wolf that just chewed off its own leg to get out of a trap. Then, I caught my breath, and realized I had no option but to make it work.

I began to ask the students questions I normally wouldn’t. I established a completely new vibe, and laid down ground rules. By the end of class, we were all laughing, and I was excited as hell.

Often times, change is forced upon us. We resent it, and then realize it was in our best interest. This time, I went through the stages of grief in warp speed. Which allows me to give you my high-minded advice all the quicker.

What does that have to do with a book review, though? I’m glad you asked. Because, as always, I’m trying to reach a cogent point before I’ve hit 1000 words, and your attention span begins to wane.

Today, I want to highlight “Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan,” a new book by Margaret Morton, recently published by the University of Washington press. That’s a long title, yes, and it likely gives you a clue to its subject. Not a lot of room for surprise.

This book is one that I’ve looked at several times before, and decided not to review. (Yes, I know we’ve had this conversation before.) But this morning, I changed my mind. (And not because I’m out of books, which has been the motivation in years past.)

No, I decided to write about this book because I chose to change my criteria a bit, to keep things from getting stale. This book is not inherently exciting and dramatic, and I don’t think the pictures will change your life. They’re not brilliant, nor are they particularly innovative.

Before you hate me for damning the book with faint praise, let me continue. The pictures are kind of washed-out, bleached, and bereft of people. They’re not razor sharp, nor are they showy. The tonal range is minimal, so they don’t grab you in the guts either.

But they are consistent, in their tone and compositional style. They keep coming at you, like the less-talented fighter who out-works the flashy favorite. (Hello Buster Douglas, what are you doing in 2015?)

They transport you somewhere else. Somewhere quiet, where everyone’s already dead. The aesthetic reinforces the content, and there is a distinct narrative structure. You start far away, pull in very tight, and then drift back out again.

Very smart.

Perhaps I fall victim to shiny visuals, or off-beat and absurd concepts? I show you books that are edgy, or already famous, or that reflect an arty style you’ll like for sure.

This book, however, does something that I’m always asking for, despite it’s grayscale production: it shows me, (and you) something I’ve never seen before. Frankly, even in this ever-more-connected world, I suspect it depicts something almost no one has seen before: vacant cemeteries, in the form of mini-cities, in the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan.

That’s about as far off the beaten path as anyone can get these days. I wouldn’t even know how to fly there if I tried? Do you route through Tajikistan? Or am I a fool, and everyone knows that Uzbekistan is the best layover, what with their killer mutton stew?

Kidding aside, these pictures have a sere, world-weariness that didn’t seduce me. It put me off, even though I was inherently curious. But I never forgot the book, so I came back to it again.

It’s not the grand vistas that grab you here, it’s the details. Is that a scalp nailed to a wooden post? What do the rams horns mean? The deer? Are these competing warrior clans, with different spirit animals?

The stars and sickles jut up into the sky, whose color we can’t know, as we’ve been denied the opportunity.

Why the cages? What do they mean? Is that a desiccated eagle? Or a falcon? How hard is it to train a falcon anyway?

This book is not something I’d normally review, and I think that it’s healthy for me to keep expanding that definition. It does have a lot to offer. And it’s my job to sit still long enough to share that appreciation with you.

Bottom Line: Austere publication highlighting graveyards at the end of the line

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Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

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