Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Robert Mapplethorpe at the Getty & LACMA

Over Christmas, my wife insisted I read “Big Magic,” a book about creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Of “Eat Pray Love” fame.)

I’m normally skeptical about self-help books, so I dragged my feet for a while. Eventually, I gave up, because there’s no point in fighting when you’re certain to lose.

Turns out, the book was really insightful, once I parsed prose meant so specifically to inspire. But inspire me it did, in particular by helping me appreciate the fleeting nature of creativity.

These days, I imagine my creativity as a little baby bird, ever-so-fallible in my cupped hands. Her examples were a bit more out-there, but suffice to say Ms. Gilbert makes a strong case that the creative instinct is sacred, fragile, and needs to be treated as such.

Again and again, she returns to the point that when we try to milk our creativity for a consistent income stream, it can leave us faster than logic at a Trump rally. (Exit, stage left!)

According to “Big Magic,” when we put too much economic pressure on our creativity, or place it firmly in the service of others, we must be prepared to face the consequences: our best ideas will dry up like an Arizona creek bed in summer.

Why am I on about a self-help book? Can I get to the point?

Sure. Glad you asked.

I’m sitting in a comfortable chair right now, contemplating the excellent joint Robert Mapplethorpe exhibitions I saw last week in Los Angeles. Both the Getty Center and LACMA teamed up to display an exhaustive, categorical retrospective of the famous, (or infamous,) artist’s life’s work.

Ironically, or inevitably, the shows were really about two artists, and the other was not Patti Smith.

No, Andy Warhol was the other mega-star looming over everything, and having read “Just Kids” a while back, I have to say I’m not surprised.

Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe shared a common narrative, so it’s understandable they were rivals. Each came to New York City as a young, unknown, freakishly talented artist with boundless ambition, and sexual preferences that were not-yet-mainstream, as they are today. (Andy was nominally asexual, but was clearly pulsing with desire.)

Andy and Robert both wanted fame and fortune. They lived with a hunger for the approval of the wealthy, and craved the actual wealth as well. They were desperate to be a part of the in-crowd, or perhaps just to BE the in-crowd.

The joint exhibitions give us a sense of both men, though obviously Mapplethorpe takes center stage. At LACMA, we see evidence of his broad abilities as an artist. Jewelry is on display, and it’s so easy to imagine the skinny, beautiful waif-boy selling his wares to men who really wanted more than a jangly necklace, if you catch my drift.

We also see drawings, paintings, and an altar installation. The dude was capable, for sure, and I know from reading Smith’s book that she and Robert hit the scene as hard as anyone could. They felt destined for success, which they manifested by working it.

Haaaaaard.

Mapplethorpe’s transgressive images need little introduction. Radical gay sex. Massive penises. Bondage fetishes. A whip sticking out of his own asshole.

Much has been made of, and NEA grants altered by, his best known work. It carries the spirit of innovation and rebellion, and the gelatin silver prints nearly jump off the wall.

“Look at me,” they taunt! “I dare you!”

I was admittedly shocked, but only because a man walked through the most explicit LACMA gallery with his 7 year old daughter, which I couldn’t quite believe. (A female gallery guard and I exchanged eye-rolls and sardonic laughter at that one.)

Like Andy Warhol, when Mapplethorpe was good, he was transcendent. I’d argue that Andy had a longer run, and that his genius work was more varied and broadly important than Mapplethorpe’s.

Others might disagree.

But in each show, I couldn’t ditch the image of both of these fantastically nimble social climbers, warily circling each other, driven by the Alpha instinct.

The late phases for each artist were not pretty; your body betraying you, your talent now-questionable, then dying before your time.

In each museum, there were images of Mapplethorpe’s glamour shots of important uptown types and aristocrats. The Debbie Harry/Iggy Pop/Patty Smith gritty pics, in earlier rooms, were replaced by gauzy lighting and soft-focus, edgeless perfection.

With both artists, acceptance by the Upper Class seemed concomitant with work that almost parodied their initial breakthroughs. Andy making 4 panels for each new rich person, Mapplethorpe setting up a studio curtain like some high-end Sears shooter.

The crowning moment in this little story I told myself was the contact sheet display at LACMA. You could see for yourself how well Mapplethorpe zoomed in on the best pic: here Debbie Harry, looking gorgeous, is pouty. There she’s fierce.

Expressions changed, as did body positioning. You close your eyes, and see the feline photographer slinking around, directing, trying to summon what he sees in his head.

And then there’s Andy.

He’s older, and wearing an obvious wig. But 12 times he stands there, denying Mapplethorpe any expression at all. To say he is stoic is to insult Scandinavians.

Andy Warhol was clearly dropping an iron curtain across his eyes, so that each photo is a copy of the others.

“Fuck you, bitch,” says his expression. “You won’t draw me out. You’ll get what I give you, and nothing more.”

Every frame was the same. It was a battle, to my eyes, and it seems that Warhol won. (Nearby, there’s also an excellent Warhol portrait of Mapplethorpe.)

The Getty show was the less edgy of the two, but it gave me a brief glimpse into things I didn’t expect. There were two pictures, platinum prints to be precise, that depicted a lonely battleship cruising through the sea.

They looked more like something from Anne Tucker’s “War/Photography” show than anything Mapplethorpe would make. Powerful, talismanic, there were two of them, sitting side by side.

Each ship lonely, powerful, iconic, yet placed next to the other, rather than inhabiting the same frame. (Metaphor anyone?)

In another room, most all of the pictures were pretty. (The harder-core photos were definitely at LACMA.) Yet there was one photo of a man’s midsection in a leisure-suit. The fabric was so sharp, the lines minimal, the tones subdued.

But sticking out of the unzipped pants was a huge, uncircumcised, African-American penis.

Everything about the picture went one direction, yet the massive cock blocked out the sun, so to speak. It managed both to sneak up on you, and completely change your reality, all at once.

Warhol showed up again, in a photo-booth strip of 4, in the adjacent exhibition of work from the Wagstaff collection, which belonged to Mapplethorpe’s lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff.

Young Warhol mugged for the camera, barely containing his wattage. He was ready to take on the world and WIN, looking nothing like the man locked in battle with Mapplethorpe decades later.

Rarely do I circle back to my intros, but allow me to mix it up today. If you’re reading this, you’re mostly likely a photographer or artist of some sort. A creative person, if you will.

I’m ambitious, and you likely are as well. We always want more than we have. We ride ourselves to produce more, sell more, make better shit than our friends and competitors.

For me, there was a valuable lesson on display in LA. (A city filled with youngsters who’d kill for fame and fortune.) Be careful what you wish for, because like Genies offering 3, the deals necessary to get what you crave might just cost you everything.

For the record, the exhibitions close on July 31. So if you happen to be in SoCal, and haven’t hit up the shows yet, now’s your last chance. Get moving!

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More (including the explicit images) can be seen here.

This Week In Photography Books: Tetsuya Kusu

by Jonathan Blaustein

I woke up in LA yesterday, and went to sleep here in Taos. As no airplanes were involved, you can trust it was a REALLY FUCKING LONG DAY.

16 hours on the road, all told, with two mostly-well-behaved kids in the back, and an occasionally grumpy wife sitting next to me.

Now I’m here, with a computer on my lap, rocking the boxers & a T-shirt look, listening to the room fan white noise, watching the shadow of an aspen tree through the translucent window curtain.

We came home after 2 glorious weeks in California, which were desperately needed. (Not that I need to tell you that.) I was quite-the-fried columnist for many months, but no longer. At the moment, even accounting for the difficult drive, I’m feeling fresher than some Santa Barbara sushi.

Mmmm, sushi. So yummy.

It was our first time attempting to travel like that with a 3 year old, (nearly 4,) and it was a resounding success. We had a proper bougie holiday: a week on the beach, 4 nights on a cliff in Big Sur, and then two days in LA so I could see some great art.

Yes, we hit a Whole Foods. Yes, I ate more beef than I have in the last year. And yes, California is currently teeming with Chinese and South Asian tourists.

Despite the fact that we drove, this most classic of American Road Trips, we mostly encountered the aforementioned foreign fun-seekers, and heaps of sun-drenched Californians. Basically, people with money, driving rented Mustang convertibles, leased Teslas, or recently-purchased Porsches.

Intentionally or not, (and unlike my San Francisco adventure in May,) I saw very few homeless people. Almost none, in fact. The drifters ambling along highways were in short supply. Or perhaps I was simply too self-involved to see them?

Basically, my experience was the exact opposite of the ramblings captured by Tetsuya Kusu, in his new book “American Monuments,” recently published by Zen Foto Gallery in Japan. He and I might have both occupied space in the Golden State, but beyond that, our worlds diverged completely.

I met Tetsuya at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego in late 2014. He was just hanging out, helping out, finishing up a big travel adventure in which he slept in his car, and roamed around California and the West Coast with his camera. The book’s end notes inform he was re-visiting a 3.5 year phase when he was a proper drifter, in which he voyaged with his mentally ill (then) wife.

The book presents a series of images in which he grappled with his divorce and re-found himself, by meeting and photographing people in the very underclass I conveniently ignored.

The pictures travel well-worn turf, but I don’t really care, because they’re really cool. There is always a place in the world for well-made photographs, in particular ones that treat disadvantaged humans with empathy and grace.

It’s very easy to imagine this Japanese surfer-dude chatting up the drunks at the bar. Telling stories. Asking questions. Gaining trust. Enjoying the process, and coming back with these monuments to an American reality that most of us don’t bother to see.

My body is still reverberating with the vibrations I-40, even 10 hours later. I close my eyes, and the LA palm trees pop right up in my visual memory. (California certainly is a beautiful place.)

But I also see Barstow, and Needles. Dry, nearly uninhabitable places teeming with grizzled faces, sun-bleached tattoos, and big-red-drunkard noses.

Places you drive through without stopping.

“American Monuments” takes the time to talk to these people, rather than passing them by at 85 miles an hour. It was odd for me to open up the package this morning, and view a parallel universe to the one I lived in the past two weeks.

Something tells me you’ll enjoy it too.

Bottom Line: Cool book showing life on the road on the West Coast

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This Week In Photography Books: Taryn Simon

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s been almost 6 years since my photographic project, “The Value of a Dollar,” went viral on the internet. 6 years since my life changed for the better, as the after-effects of the phenomenon were massive.

I sold a lot of work. Enough to have another child. And some of you have been following along the entire time.

But in the midst of the virality, one odd little blog post stuck out for me, more than almost any other. Some random person, in some random place, posted a handfull of quotes one day. I was featured, and just below me was Stringer Bell, from “The Wire.”

For some reason, being in such proximity to a massively influential fictional character made a big impression me. If I’m in the same conversation as Stringer, I thought, things just might work out OK.

Idris Elba, the actor who played the duplicitous criminal, has since become a Massive Global Icon. If you haven’t seen him in the brilliant BBC series Luther, do yourself a favor and Netflix that shit immediately.

Mr. Elba is also a DJ, apparently, but is mostly known for being a big, handsome, charismatic, extremely talented actor. (If you saw him in “Thor,” just forget it ever happened. Could you act if you had such ridiculous contact lenses?)

I mention it all, frankly, because Idris Elba really needs to be the next James Bond. Fuck Tom Hiddleston, or anyone else you might suggest. It must be Idris Elba.

No one else in the British Isles has his combination of suave confidence, flinty gravitas, and the raw physicality that Daniel Craig invested in the role. (Who wants to see a soft, posh, Roger-Moore-type Bond now?)

I don’t remember who it was, but someone came out last year and complained that Idris Elba would be too “street” to play Bond. Street being code for Black. Black being a stand-in for not-properly-English.

A few weeks past the Brexit, we’re all familiar with the seething sea of racism underpinning English culture. Even Leicester City’s hero, Jamie Vardy, was busted on video being a racist prick a while back. (Oi! Tell us something we don’t know, mate.)

The idea of a Black James Bond is anathema to the self-image that many an Englishman clings to, these days. Times gone by. The Sun rising and setting on the English Empire. A steady supply of subsidized tea.

That sort of thing.

But we’re not living in the 19th Century anymore, I can assure you. England can no more shut itself off from the world than I can properly spell Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious properly on my first try. (No way I got that right.)

I’ve mentioned Neal Stephenson’s seminal, futuristic masterpiece “Snow Crash” before, I’m sure, and among its many prophetic themes was hordes of refugees becoming the norm in the future. You simply cannot stop people from fleeing for their lives, unless you’re prepared to kill them. (Definition of irony, anyone?)

England, and the entire UK for that matter, are in for a rough few years, it would seem. The new millennium has not been kind to the old order, unless you believe the old order represents the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. (On second thought…)

But new ideas are out there, new systems of communication, and different types of entertainment. Hell, we just let my son buy his first video game, and it turns out that even a hand-held-Nintendo-machine can create seamless virtual reality, for cost of 5 beers at a baseball game.

James Bond, however, keeps going. He might be England’s most ruthless, sexy version of itself, but the system he represents, glorifying violence, gadgets and hot chicks, seems a bit antiquated in a world in which all the ladies on Game of Thrones are clearly WINNING!

The illusion of being forever young is at the heart of the James Bond narrative. He might age a little, but once the hair piece is no-longer-believable, you’re shown the door. (That means you, Sean Connery.)

The ladies, even more than Bond, are perfectly replaceable. (And far more vulnerable to bullets.) So many of them have died, in all these movies, that it’s hard not to discern a serious strain of misogyny in the source-code.

But what do all these props, as the female actors were more-or-less treated, look like now? As actual humans, they must have aged, right? And all that cutting-edge-tech, for which the Bond films are also known? Would space-age-60’s gadgets still look cool in the 21st Century?

Glad you asked, as I’ve just finished putting down “Birds of the West Indies,” a book by Taryn Simon, published a few years ago by Hatje Cantz. (Not sure how an older book ended up in my pile, but I’m glad it did.)

I’m a big fan of Ms. Simon’s work, and my review of “A Living Man Declared Dead” enabled me to create this now-familiar, rambling, discursive style. (Thanks, Taryn!)

Apparently, an ornithologist named James Bond was the inspiration for the super-spy’s name, and his main achievement was a book of the same title. (That one was presumably about actual birds, instead of the English slang term for women.)

There’s an index section at the back that actually does list the genus types of all the avians, but it seems tacked on, and purely ironic. But it’s her book, I suppose, so she can do what she wants.

The rest of the volume, including all the plates, feature the aforementioned guns, cars, and chicks that populated the Bond films from 1962-2012. If you’re wondering what Maud Allen or Tanya Roberts look like these days, seek no further. Some actresses refused to be photographed, presumably out of fear of destroying the illusion of perpetual beauty.

But most all are present, including a rumpled Grace Jones, a self-consicous Michelle Yeoh, and a see-through-shirt-wearing Sophie Marceau. (According to the text, the actress chose their wardrobes and poses.) Halle Berry and Famke Janssen take their place alongside fake nuclear devices, half shark heads, and more blades, guns and Aston Martins than you can believe.

It’s her signature style now, this categorical, dry, meticulous rendering of a subject mined for its metaphorical potential. We get it. Keep backdrop, swap out subject, click the shutter. (The end notes thank Phase One, so we can surmise she’s using a very, very expensive camera.)

Taryn Simon’s work also hinges on access; her rolodex that means she can ring up Barbara Broccoli, make her pitch, and hang up with a yes. If you or I tried that, we’d never even get the phone number.

C’est la vie.

As for this book, it’s certainly not genius, and I’m not sure you’ll want to buy it, but it is a very cool collection of bound pages. She cuts through one of the greatest ongoing illusions in contemporary culture. We get to go backstage along with her, and can have no doubts that the James Bond myth is alive and well in the 20 teens.

Which is more than we can say for England’s soccer team at the European Championship. (Burn!)

Bottom Line: Thorough book that demystifies the James Bond legacy

To Purchase “Birds of the West Indies” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Toni Greaves

by Jonathan Blaustein

We all make choices in life.

Some imagine this as fate, believing our desires are pre-destined by some deity or other. Others believe in free will, countering that our decisions are our own to make.

Most of the time, what we choose to do impacts us, and perhaps our loved ones or co-workers. (A few others, but not THAT many.)

Then there are people like LeBron James.

LeBron, who reclaimed his mantle as the Best Basketball Player in the World last night, crushed the hopes of an entire region when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. (I’m writing on Monday.) If you’re not up on sports, LeBron switched teams back then, joining the Miami Heat, in one of the more tone-deaf PR moves of the 21st Century.

“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” he said, thereby dooming gloomy North East Ohio to more basketball misery. The city had not had a Championship in 52 years, until last night, and it’s hard for anyone outside of that area to understand how many hearts were broken when LeBron left town.

Shockingly, in 2014, LeBron chose to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, claiming the pull of home was too great. (He was raised in nearby Akron.) It was unprecedented, both what he did and how he did it, this time engendering a PR coup by writing an open letter to the city of Cleveland, announcing his triumphant return.

It seemed like a somewhat insane move, as the Cavs were by then the worst team in basketball, and trading South Beach for Cleveland makes as much sense as Donald Trump’s campaign accounting.

The numbers people began spewing estimates of how much money would flow back into the Cleveland metropolitan area, and it was in the tens of millions. One man, who’d grown up under difficult circumstances, was hailed as a mini-stimulus-package, personally impacting the economy of an entire region.

He promised everyone a Championship, and last night he made good. It was a spectacular feat, from a sporting perspective, as the Cavs fought back and won a series, after being down 3 games to 1, a situation that had never been reversed in the HISTORY OF THE NBA.

Quite the magical ending.

There were videos showing downtown Cleveland as one massive party. People wept, including LeBron. (No team had won anything of note there since 1964.) It was revelatory, and came about, once again, because of the decision of one human being, and his concomitant devotion and belief.

LeBron James had a vision, and he made a seemingly odd choice, because the little voice in his head told him it was the right thing to do.

The same goes for a young woman named Lauren, who realized in her early 20’s that she had fallen in love with God.

Say what now?

Well, Lauren is the main subject, or perhaps we should say dramatic lead, in the beautiful “Radical Love,” a photo book by Toni Greaves, published recently by Chronicle Books in San Francisco.

“Radical Love” follows Lauren’s path as she eschews life in the outside world, and joins a cloistered convent of nuns in Summit, New Jersey. (The site of my own biggest sports fail, as I managed to just-miss scoring the game-winning goal, as the ball trickled across the goal line, in a huge playoff game back in high school.)

Lauren is attractive and photogenic, and, as Toni points out in the afterword, is living in a place and time in which she could follow so many paths. This is an unprecedented time to be a woman in the West, because despite the lingering stench of sexism, there are freedoms available that have never been available to women before.

Ever.

And yet Lauren, who apparently had a boyfriend at the time, felt that her future lay beyond closed doors, praying to that same God, on behalf of the rest of us. (The Nuns of this order live to pray for others.)

It’s obviously strange to see, as we’re accustomed to Nuns as asexual, older women, whose wrinkles keep them company in bed at night, rather than a man’s hairy arms. We imagine Nuns as dour; whacking palms with rulers, or wagging fingers at our filthy language and continued indiscretions.

But this book, which really functions as a long-form photographic narrative, dispels such cliché notions. These pictures depict happy people, engaged in a community that supports them, (and apparently us,) with love.

There are some remarkable pictures, in particular a recurring motif in which Lauren, and others, lie prostrate on the ground. One even captures Lauren making a snow angel, that most child-like of joyful activities.

Over the course of this 7 year project, we do get to see Lauren age and grow a bit; the ebullient sheen slowly wearing off of her skin as comfort and confidence replace the pallid flush of the new.

This is a lovely book, and it is clear that both its maker, and subjects, approach each day with positivity and grace. Those feelings emanate off the paper, an offering to anyone who picks the object up to take a peek.

As I sit here staring at the cover, I notice the barren black trees against deep navy. (And the implied crucifix as well.) It’s a heavy image, resonant of winter and death. It fits what I expected to find inside, but the innards were nothing like that at all. Instead, they shined like the freshly mopped floors of a convent kitchen.

Lemon-fresh scent included.

Bottom Line: Lovely, long-term project following a young woman as she devotes her life to God

To Purchase “Radical Love” Visit Photo-Eye

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“Collected” at Pier 24

by Jonathan Blaustein

You know me by now.

Opinions typically flow from my mind to my keyboard faster than OJ Simpson running through an airport to catch a plane.

It’s rarely hard for me to write, and by the time I’ve finished an article, I don’t even know how long it’s taken me. I live and die by the flow, and normally it’s all about the living.

But not today.

Today, I’m struggling to gather my thoughts, like a chef who just can’t figure out the final ingredient to give his soup the proper complexity. (Thyme? Red Chile? Oregano? Paprika? Help!)

I guess it was bound to happen, as the end of my crazy academic year dove-tailed perfectly with my recent trip to San Francisco, and an over-abundance of writing projects.

Basically, I’m burned out, yet finally staring at a summer schedule that will give me a chance to recharge, and summon new ideas with which to bombard you every Friday. I’m only human, and muscling through a column every now and again is not the worst thing in the world.

The problem is that, like last week, I’m trying to figure out a way to write about a small, brilliant part of a larger, still- interesting exhibition. I get the feeling that SFMOMA did not exactly appreciate my efforts last week, as the PR folks there have suspiciously ignored my emails since.

Those guys gave me swag, which was a first, but likely didn’t realize that I speak my mind, and am not afraid to offend. Similarly, Pier 24, the free photo exhibition space on the Bay in San Francisco, also welcomed me graciously.

They arranged for me to visit in-between slots, (there are 3 per day,) and then Associate Director Allie Haeusslein met me for an impromptu interview as well. I felt special, which is one way that organizations encourage journalists to dull the blades of their metaphorical rapiers.

So let me state the obvious here: Pier 24 is pretty amazing. It is a 20,000 square foot exhibition space that is free, open to the public by reservation, and devoted to crafting an unparalleled viewer experience. They only let in 30 people at a time, (excluding the rare journalistic privilege,) so you never have to worry about tripping over your neighbors.

Their current show, “Collected,” is devoted to the collectors who support the Bay Area scene, as is the new “California and the West” show at SFMOMA. It is hard for me to write that, and still tame my sarcasm, but it is simply the reality in America 2016.

We all know about the 1%, and the 1% of the 1%. We know that America is literally, TRILLIONS of dollars in debt, and that China has overtaken us as the most dynamic, if not largest, economy in the world.

Oil-rich kingdoms may drip black gold, but everyone in the US is busy trying to cleave off a slice of some billionaire’s cake. And as art has not been deemed particularly necessary in a STEM-obsessed world, museums and artists alike are now extremely beholden to the contemporary patrons. (Everything old is new again, right?)

The stark truth is that the degree of wealth concentration has only increased the power of those with mega-resources. And the Bay Area art scene was proof positive: pride of place goes to the capitalists, right now, not the content creators.

There was no gallery guide at Pier 24, when I visited, as it had yet to be printed. But there was a little catalogue devoted to the collectors, each of whom had a room displaying their treasures. And we’re talking about “World Class” work here, including luminaries like Robert Frank, (who gets his own gallery,) Gerhard Richter, and Cindy Sherman.

There was an excellent room filled with the F.64 female artists: Alma Lavenson, Connie Kanaga, and Dorothea Lange. Irving Penn popped up, unannounced, with a wicked portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, and contemporary work sat beside mug shots of anonymous 1950’s women, whose sorrow will never be properly revealed.

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Pier 24 rocks, and we should all be thankful that the Pilara Foundation chose to turn its necessary storage space into a cutting-edge exhibition facility. (Gleaned that little tidbit from my interview with Allie.)

Basically, the first 1.5 hours of my visit there were spent looking, thinking, and occasionally trying to guess who made the work. (Unless it was blindingly obvious, like the Frank room.) Allie also said they were intentionally challenging viewers by denying them wall text, so that the pictures could drive conversation, rather than the artist’s name.

Point taken.

But at the end of my visit, I bumped right up against the kind of “Spectacular Artistic Vision” that reminds you why you got into this business to begin with. (Courtesy of William Eggleston, the god of color photography.)

This show, “Collected,” features two rooms filled with nothing but images from the artist’s seminal “Los Alamos” series. If color photography had an ur-text, this would likely be it.

All around me, I saw snazzy old cars, burger stands, Coca Colas, and saturated skies. I saw a naive America, one packed with racial tension, as we are today, but with a chest puffed up with its sense of destiny.

I saw an America that was united in its favorite color: Coca Cola red. Again and again, Eggleston utilizes it, often distinct from Coke itself. Matthew Weiner, another great artist, chose to close his seminal “Mad Men” with a Coke and a smile, and we all know that Coke is a powerful, wealthy, publicly traded corporation, selling toxic sugar-water.

But back in the 60s, I think it represented more than that. It was American entrepreneurship, sugar and caffeine married together, bubbles of effervescence, and a depth of color that we now associate with Target.

Coke was America, as it saw itself. Energetic, world-beating, sweet, earthy, and endlessly satisfying. It was America’s mega-export, before McDonalds.

I always tell my students that light creates color, and color creates mood. These pictures, stacked with deep Red, White and Blue, are as romantic as it gets, in particular because they make sure to balance with loneliness and ennui, rather than veering towards boosterism and propaganda.

(I asked last week when exactly Donald Trump thinks America was great, and I suspect this is what he has in mind.)

I’d bet anything that Mr. Eggleston never thought of this work as a paean to America at the height of its power, with undercurrents of controversy and violence. But a country built on violence and controversy can not begrudge, if it remains deeply embedded in its national character.

He’d probably just say he was out taking pictures, because that’s what you do when you’re a photographer.

Part of why I do get burned out sometimes, in the dual role of artist and critic, is that I yearn to see work this good more often. When Eggleston was out there shooting all the time, (because he apparently didn’t need a day job,) there were dozens of photographers chasing the same desire.

Now, there are tens of thousands of us. And greatness does not go around in that type of supply.

If you want to get better, I’m always telling you, go look at the best stuff. If you’re lucky, you don’t even have to get on an airplane to do it. (I do.)

But if you live anywhere near the Bay Area, hit up the Pier 24 website and book a place to see this show. You might well be seduced by the beautiful-if-veneerish Richard Learoyd room, or the dazzling music-industry gallery featuring the collection of Nion McEvoy.

There are millions of dollars worth of work on the wall, and even rooms that challenge what you think you know about photo history. (In particular two galleries teeming with lesser-known, feminist photographs from the 70s. Yes, there were a lot of boobs.)

For me, spending twenty uninterrupted minutes with Eggleston’s genius was a blessing. It reminded me that finding your own voice is necessary for true cultural impact, and that we’re living in a time when our culture is so striated that almost no one can touch all of America at once. (Good luck, Beyoncé. Have fun, Disney.)

But when we get the chance to steep ourselves in the vestiges of innovation, and the color palette of a once-dominant Empire, it normally costs more than what Pier 24 is charging.

Nothing.
Nothing at all.

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“About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change” at SFMOMA

by Jonathan Blaustein

Trump. Trump. Trump.

I promised I wouldn’t talk about him anymore, yet here I am. The man is simply inescapable.

With all the fear about Trump being the Republican Presidential nominee, I’m sure you’ve looked at an electoral map in the last day/week/month, right?

Of course you have.

The map, with it’s massive blocks of red and blue, tells a story that we all-too-conveniently forget. This nation of ours, the United States of America, has not always been United.

No sir.

Back in the 1860’s, all hell broke loose. America was cleaved in two, and bodies piled up higher than Dr. Dre during an all-night recording session. (Yes, that’s pretty high.)

But you know that as well, because you learned about it in history class. We all did. Civil War. Slavery. Abe Lincoln good, Jefferson Davis bad.

That’s the narrative we’ve all been told, again and again. But I suppose I ought to clarify who the “we” is here. I grew up in New Jersey, in the heart of Yankee country. (Though parts of NJ did have slavery, unfortunately.)

There was never any question as to who the “us” was, as opposed to the “them.” Southerners. Rednecks. Racists. KKK lovers.

They deserved what they got. Right?

While you’ll never catch me questioning the validity of the Civil War, it’s easy to side with blue, 150 years later. And wouldn’t you know it, but that “blue” team’s map lines up pretty neatly with the current “blue” crew as well.

The South is united in its support for Donald J Trump, and most artsy/liberal/creative types, (meaning you and me,) have a very hard time understanding the mass appeal. The man is an orange, braggadocious prevaricator, and I’m being kind.

So why would so many people, across so much terrain, see this lunatic as a potential savior? Why would they trust him to “make America great again,” and when exactly was America great?

I’m glad you asked.

I had the chance to visit the new SFMOMA when I was in San Francisco, as I mentioned in last week’s column. The museum has more than doubled in size, after a 3 year, $305 million renovation. As San Francisco has arrived, so has its most prominent art institution. (Though the deYoung Museum might quibble with me on that.)

I had the good fortune to spend almost 3 hours in the museum, looking looking looking. Paintings, sculptures, photos: the new museum has it all. You might have even heard they now have 15,000 square feet of exhibition space in the Pritzker Center of Photography. (It made the rounds on social media a few weeks ago.)

To say that I saw a lot of art in my time there is a simple understatement. I saw hundreds of images and objects, as I flitted from one wall to another.

Look, think, step to the side.
Repeat.

I wanted to see the “California and the West” show, as I’m writing about it. But there are two major photo shows occupying all that choice real estate, and the other was just as good: “About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change,” curated by Corey Keller. (through September 25th)

No matter how good the art is, there’s only so much our brains can absorb, in a marathon session. So I like to give myself a little test, and just focus on the things that really grab me. It’s fun to have excellence radar, or in my case, a “things I’ve never seen before” gauge.

The more you see, the harder it is to send that meter into the red, but it does happen.

The first time was essentially by accident, as I was standing in front of some images by the LA artist Phil Chang, and the lady behind me made a loud, unhappy snort, like a horse that hates its supper.

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“Excuse me,” I said, “but did I step into your viewing path? If so, I apologize.”

“No, she replied. Her voice became inaudible, as she was clearly distressed, and she finished with “Emperor’s new clothes.”

“If it wasn’t me, is it the art?”

“Yes. I don’t get it. It’s making me angry.”

Before you knew it, I was right back in art professor territory, and tried to explain to the woman what there was to “get.” Apparently, Mr. Chang makes gelatin silver prints, like many photographers, but he chooses not to fix the images.

He invites people, like the curator, Ms. Keller, to watch the images as they slowly fade to black. It’s meant to be performative, I suppose, and it’s possible no one has ever thought to do that on purpose, or to turn it into a concept.

That’s what I told this grumpy stranger, who nodded, accepting that there was more to the work than met the eye. (Simple, all black images, the photo equivalent of Ad Reinhardt.) She walked away, determined to find something of which she approved. (And I Googled Phil Chang when I got home. He’s a part of the super-trendy “Photography is Magic” clique, so I understood things in that context.)

Will I remember his work now? Absolutely. Am I surprised that a concept as simple as not fixing your work has gotten this dude famous? Not really.

I understand the way the world works. I might be obnoxious, but they don’t call me stupid.

That work stuck out because of its concept, as it was meant to. Paul Graham had a diptych in the show that was hung just above the floor. Again, you could call it a gimmick, or you could say it’s challenging orthodoxy, and both would be right.

(But I don’t remember the images as clearly as where they were hung.)

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So many pictures, so little brain space. It’s an excellent show, that much is clear, and you should go see it if you can. But nothing really shook me inside and out until I got to the very last room in the exhibition.

There I stood face to face with a suite of images by George N. Barnard, a photographer of whom I hadn’t heard before. Not surprising, given he’s been dead for more than a century. (There was no Facebook to promote yourself in the 19th Century, unfortunately.)

His images were a part of a series, “Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign,” that looked at the South, during and after the Civil War. It focused on locations that had been wrecked, destroyed, annihilated, by the famed march of William Tecumseh Sherman. And I had never, ever seen pictures quite like this before.

Sure, we’ve all seen a Matthew Brady or two, and if you read regularly, you know I have a soft spot for Roger Fenton. But this was something different, for me at least.

The prints just felt so real. So lived. So ancient. And there were so many of them.

The photographs were obviously well-made, with terrific compositions and excellent tonal range. You can almost see this man, living in an unrecognizable world, standing among smoldering ruins with a big camera.

Looking.

You don’t have to imagine what defensive Earthworks look like, if you don’t want to. These pictures show you quite well. Bulwarks, bastions, who the hell knows what these are called, but the spiked wooden fences were pretty hardcore, if you ask me.

There’s an image of a soldier in a stove-pipe hat, sitting on top of some ramparts outside Atlanta. (Are they ramparts?) I stared at that picture for a few minutes, my brain trying desperately to comprehend it was real.

That’s one of the true curses of our digital age: we are all so ready to accept the digital world is “real” that it can make us question reality as it actually transpired. If everything can be faked, how are our eyes to recognize lived history?

Sure, I know who won the Civil War. And yes, we’ll always condemn slavery wholeheartedly, even when the Donald equivocates. (I need more info before I disavow the KKK, OK? I want to have an informed opinion, you losers.)

But these pictures, more than any I’ve ever seen, helped me understand that aforementioned electoral map. Half of our country was conquered by the other half. Its landscape was altered, its soul diminished, but its pride remains in tact.

Perhaps we ought not blame the Southerners who feel ruled by outsiders, and wittingly join leaders who promise a return to prominence. But empathy is hard, especially with a bloc of people known for a dark, exploitative history.

I get it.

But I went into an art show, and came out with a different perspective. That’s about as much as I ask of any museum, or any photographer for that matter.

SFMOMA was kind enough to provide an entire set of Mr. Barnard’s images, as jpegs, of course, so you can view them on your screen of choice. (Phone, tablet, computer, TV…)

That’s right. Some albumen prints, made before any human being alive today, have been digitized, for our pleasure. (Bringing the Civil War into the 21st C.)

So next time you make a crack about the hicks in South Carolina who just don’t know any better, just remember that they’re likely carrying grievances we really can’t understand. And the best photographs help us see the world from someone else’s perspective, even if that person has returned to dust.

George N. Barnard, Whiteside Valley below the Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 13 15/16 in. (25.4 x 35.4 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Whiteside Valley below the Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 13 15/16 in. (25.4 x 35.4 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Railroad Depot, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (25.72 x 36.2 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Railroad Depot, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (25.72 x 36.2 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Pinckney Mansion, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.56 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Pinckney Mansion, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.56 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1865 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fractional gift of Paul Sack, and collection of the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

George N. Barnard, Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1865 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fractional gift of Paul Sack, and collection of the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 4, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 4, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Nashville from the Capitol, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Nashville from the Capitol, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Destruction of Hood's Ordnance Train, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Defenses of the Etawah Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Defenses of the Etawah Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, City of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/16 in. (25.56 x 36.04 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, City of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/16 in. (25.56 x 36.04 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

 George N. Barnard, Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/8 in. (25.56 x 36.51 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust


George N. Barnard, Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/8 in. (25.56 x 36.51 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Buzzard Roost, Georgia, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Buzzard Roost, Georgia, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Battle Ground of Resaca, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Battle Ground of Resaca, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

 George N. Barnard, Battle Field of New Hope Church, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust


George N. Barnard, Battle Field of New Hope Church, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

Impressions From The Bay Area

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by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m sitting in a black vinyl seat in the Oakland Airport, staring out at the San Francisco Bay. Puffy white cumulus clouds hang in the air, like loiterers in the pale blue sky. All around me, people stare at screens, or shove their faces with over-priced food.

(Stay classy, Oaktown.)

The last time I was here, they sold hand-made sweet potato pies at a stand run by Black Muslim gangsters, and you had to take a grungy shuttle bus to get to the BART station at Oakland Colosseum.

Now, there are expensive wine bars, trendy sunglass stores, endless Warriors T-shirt shops, and a gleaming new, space-age, elevated monorail to get you to the train.

If you hadn’t heard, the Bay Area is booming these days. It’s the Gold Rush all over again, only this time they’re mining data, and selling your personal information instead of picks and shovels.

Times have changed indeed.

It’s Thursday afternoon, and this column is due tonight. (Hence my last-minute airport musings.) But while I normally wait a while to download my details for your amusement, this time, I thought I’d try something different, and share stories while they’re fresh.

It’s hard to concentrate, I admit, as directly to my right, a grouchy-looking, middle-aged woman stabs some grilled-chicken salad out of a tupperware, while playing “Words with Friends” on her Ipad. (But I’ll do my best, because that’s how I roll.)

We last gave you a scoop on the San Francisco scene back in 2012, when the city was just emerging from the Great Recession. Now it’s 2016, and this place is in the news constantly, as there is more money flowing into the metropolitan area than I can rationally comprehend. News stories are rampant about “regular” people getting displaced, smash and grab burglaries being de rigeur, and shiny new buildings popping up like my back-yard gophers checking whether the coast is clear.

(Damn gophers. I’ll get you yet!)

I was invited out to SF by the Academy of Art University to review portfolios on Monday, so I did my duty for a day, and was then free to pack my brain with art, and my stomach with food.

Shanghai soup dumplings, Thai green curry, Salvadoran pupusas, Ahi Guacamole tacos, Palestinian Chicken, Vietnamese Bahn Mi.

Yummy.

As for the art, I have to say, all the resources here seem to have elevated this place to the “World Class Level.” SFMOMA just underwent a huge and expensive renovation, in which they grafted an entire new structure onto the host, and the sleek white halls shine like my daughter’s rosy cheeks.

The museum is pretty fantastic, but suffers a bit from the obvious temptation to put lots of big pictures on the big walls. Because big pictures represent big ambition. Right? (Think ginormous early-century Gursky and Struth, which were exhibited alongside a magnificent room of Becher grids.)

I visited Pier 24 again, the amazing, free museum/gallery/exhibition space that juts into the Bay, and saw some genuinely brilliant photography there. (I promise a specific article on that show, because it really was worth it.)

Bruce Davidson at the deYoung Museum, Ken Josephson at Robert Koch, Christian Marclay at Fraenkel, Ai Weiwei at Haines. Heavy hitters all. (And men, if you haven’t noticed. Though Pier 24 did have 2 galleries dedicated to feminist art from the 70’s.)

Just this morning, I saw 6 Google buses and a $150,000 Mercedes driving through the Mission District, which was incongruous with the city I once knew. The homelessness issue is heartbreaking and tragic, as vulnerable, mentally ill people are sleeping on the streets EVERYWHERE.

Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.

I had drinks at a photo-world Ladies night on Tuesday, while the Warriors were getting dismantled by the Thunder, and someone compared modern-day-SF to Calcutta. Last night, I saw a similar comment on Twitter as well.

Though I haven’t been to India, I get the point, as the wealth disparity here has reached 3rd World Proportions. Just yesterday, when I got off BART at Civic Center, the entire station smelled so pungently of piss that I had to cover my nostrils with my hand.

Welcome to San Francisco in the 21st Century.

If you can’t tell, I’m genuinely conflicted about my time here. I enjoyed myself immensely, living like a glutton, and then walking it all off. (20 miles in 4 days. Not bad.)

There is still diversity everywhere, thankfully, but it seems as if San Francisco’s famous liberalism won’t be able to hold out for another decade of rampant growth. This amazing city is on the Manhattan trajectory, and I only hope something short of another economic crash is able to arrest the situation.

The photography community, and the institutions supporting it, are clearly thriving. (Though a handful of galleries were forced out of the famed 49 Geary St building, due to rising rents.) Guggenheim fellowships are being handed out like candy corn on Halloween, and there are tens of thousands of square feet of exhibition space where the best pictures can hang.

From what I gather, the local collector scene has also never been broader or deeper, with pockets as big as my current headache. (The lady next to me finished her salad, but just took out a bag of apple chunks. Each time she crunches, a small part of my soul descends to Hell.)

Anyway, I’ve got to board my plane in a few minutes, so I best wrap this up.

I don’t think I’ve witnessed a more fascinating photo scene in years. (Maybe ever.) My mega-Texas road trip this Spring was rad, sure, but I didn’t encounter much that really made me think.

This time, almost every conversation I had centered around photography, politics, social issues, and the seeming impossibility of curing some of the Great Ills of our Time. The photo people here are special: creative, liberal, nice, thoughtful, smart, and in many cases, funny.

I was constantly reminded how much I loved San Francisco when I lived here, back in my 20’s, which made its confusing present that much harder to process.

Case in point: back when I was a local, just off 24th St. in the Mission, my beautiful Edwardian building was populated with artists. Now my friends, (and former landlords,) told me everyone living there commutes to Palo Alto.

Enough said.

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This Week In Photography Books: Magda Biernat

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

(Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)

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

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

My people good.
Other people bad.
Fire scary.

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

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

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

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

Diptychs?

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

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

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

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

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

Full stop.

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

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

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

Of course not.
Ridiculous question.

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

Bottom Line: A meditation on Climate Change

To Purchase “Adrift” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Zora J Murff

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

Yes, you’re having a really bad day.

For sure.

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

Pure. Bloody. Chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It allows for catharsis.

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

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

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

Kids who had nothing handed to them in life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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

Sadness chief among them.

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

Heartbreaking stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Beautiful book about life inside the system

To Purchase “Corrections” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sara Terry

by Jonathan Blaustein

I am blessed.

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

Or good enough.

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

We all do.

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

That much is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank god for that.

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

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

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

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

Wow, is this thing powerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photographers Quarterly Issue no. 4

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

I get it.

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

But my life changed.

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

I apologize. Mea culpa. Je regrette.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Emma Phillips

by Jonathan Blaustein

My kids love yogurt pretzels.

I do too.

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

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

Like fruit.

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

Wait. Where was I?

Right.
Yogurt pretzels.

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

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

Say what now?

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

Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

How’s that for a symbol?

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

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

Somewhere.

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

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

Nevada?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Salt” visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Colin Delfosse

by Jonathan Blaustein

I quit my job last month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it does.

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

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

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

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

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

No artifice necessary.

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

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

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

What’s not to like?

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

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

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Mary Virginia Swanson, Executive Director of the LOOK3 Festival

 

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

Mary Virginia Swanson: Yes. Thank you.

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

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

JB: Right.

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

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

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

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

MVS: Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

JB: At that time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Working with Ansel Adams.

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you love photography so much?

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

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

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

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

JB: Sounds wild.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan: It was like analog tagging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you say yes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: What are some of the programs this year?

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

JB: Of June.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Sounds exciting.

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

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

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

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

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

JB: What else can you tell us about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: BUT! There’s always a but.

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

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

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

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

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

MVS: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Darius Himes.

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

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

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

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

MVS: Nick’s backyard.

JB: Right, Nick Nichols back yard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MVS: Oh my god.

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

MVS: Oh you are. I’m really stumped.

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

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

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

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

JB: All right, there’s one.

MVS: One of the neighborhood joints.

JB: OK.

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

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

MVS: Yes.

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

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

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

JB: And you love it.

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Any last thoughts, before we go?

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

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

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

MVS: You know I have this dream actually.

JB: Of course you do.

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

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

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

Impressions From Texas

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by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfathomable!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathtaking.
Beautiful.
Totemic.

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

I believe it.

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

Why is that relevant?

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

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

No sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the lesson here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something new.

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

Mission accomplished.

Discarded: Anthony Hernandez at the Amon Carter Museum

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.
I guess.
It’s possible.

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

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

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

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

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

You’ll thank me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But things don’t work like that.

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

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

And always, that blazing, unforgiving light.

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

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

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

Uplifting stuff.

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

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

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Brian David Stevens

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

You begin to go a little crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Beautiful ocean horizons, and the yearning beneath

To Purchase “Brighter Later” Go Here

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This Week In Photography Books: Haley Morris-Cafiero

by Jonathan Blaustein

I used to be overweight as a kid.

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

I still don’t.

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

Sample conversation:

“Tonys!”

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

“No prahlem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really striking stuff.

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

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

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

So let’s get on with it.

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

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

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

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

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

Really, that’s the gist of it.

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

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

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

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

A few, yes.

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

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

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

Those people are dickheads.

There.
I said it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “The Watchers” Visit Photo-Eye

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA