Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography Books: Barbara Diener

 

Nobody likes a know-it-all.

It’s the reason some people hated Barack Obama so much. (Including my own aunts and uncles.) Obama was so confident in his intelligence, so suave in his mojo, that he never really thought to mask either.

Some people, insecure though they may be, find that sort of attitude arrogant, and the use of mental acumen as “professorial.” (Despite the fact that being a professor is a high-status job, the term is normally used as a pejorative.)

Arsene Wenger, the legendary Arsenal soccer coach, who stepped down recently after 22 years, (it wasn’t voluntary,) was painted with the same brush. With his oversized glasses, big 90’s suits, and weird Gallic accent, he was an easy target. (I still maintain that Sacha Baron Cohen imitated Arsene in “Talladega Nights.”)

Beyond the perception of arrogance, the other main irritant is that people don’t like being “lectured.” It’s a subset of reality that people don’t like to be told what to do in general, but they hate being “lectured.”

In college, a lecture is a positive experience. It’s where you go to learn, and hang out with friends and colleagues.

Lectures are where we build community.

As an opinion columnist, (and long-time professor,) I’m always in that place; trying to inform, but not lecture you or get preachy. It’s always best to stop before enough is too much, but knowing there’s a line, and then trying to find it, is tricky.

I try to keep the direct-admonitions and from-on-high-proclamations to a minimum, but I don’t avoid them.

Today, for instance, I want to go back to that word: community. It’s something many of us crave, and it needs to be watered and nourished when it does spring into being.

But man, getting people together, not knowing exactly what will happen, but knowing FOR CERTAIN that good things will come, it’s a great feeling.

I’ve learned about it watching others, and recently wrote of the New York Times efforts to foster diversity IRL. In the 9 years since I first went to Review Santa Fe, I’ve learned about community-building from other festivals, like Center, Filter, Photo NOLA, and Medium.

As I’m building Antidote, our photo retreat program here in Taos, one thing I’ve realized, FOR CERTAIN, is that artists do better when they have a support group of fellow artists.

The job is too difficult, too original, and so many of us “work” alone. Plus, there are so many intricacies to marketing, and building a career.

Success as an artist is like raising a child: it takes a village.

So when I went to Chicago last week, to meet a few consulting clients and hang out with my friends, I decided to arrange an Antidote Meet Up, as two of our 2018 Session 1 students live in the city, and another lives three hours away in Indianapolis. (I was confident she’d drive in, and she did.)

I knew these ladies would hit it off in August, when they met here in Taos, so why not let them become friends/colleagues a few months earlier? They’d have each other as sounding boards all-the-sooner.

The four of us booked a gallery tour last Thursday afternoon. In that same spirit, I invited two young, talented, female photographers to join us, just in case they were free.

The more the merrier.

One of them, Barbara Diener, was featured in this column last year, as the former-Santa-Fe-artist I bumped into on the street in Chicago. (After I paid for a Buddhist blessing in what is a really long story.)

Barbara, who moved to Chicago to get an MFA at Columbia College, is now the collections manager in the photo department at the Art Institute of Chicago, and graciously, generously offered to host our meet-up at the museum.

For free!

How classy is that?

In what can only be described as that good-Chicago-juju I’m always writing about, our group then bumped into legendary photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker, as she was ducking into a private tour.

She stopped what she was doing, came over, met the group, and told everyone about her new exhibition, curated from the Library of Congress collection, that’s currently on display at the Annenberg Center of Photography in Los Angeles. (Go see it. I’ll be catching it in July.)

What are the odds of that happening?

1 in a million?

I got to introduce a group of female artists to one of the most important role-models this industry has ever seen. All because I chose to follow those instincts towards being generous with my new-found ability to bring people together.

One of the students was running late, shortly before we all met Anne, so Barbara was kind enough, at my request, to do a little presentation on her new photo book “Phantom Power,” recently published by Daylight, with essays by Allison Grant and Gregory Harris.

As professors, we encourage our students to dig into their own experiences, and mine their own lives, their expertise, to find the strands of curiosity that lead to exploration.

Formally, this takes shape in a “project,” but really that’s just a fancy word for our artistic inquiry, and, best case, a mastery of certain visual skills.

Barbara explained to us that she was thinking about her father’s death, as he’d died suddenly, and it was obviously impactful. (One of our students, Jessica Paullus, is dealing with a similar experience in her work.)

Barbara grew up in Germany, before moving to America, and was exploring farm country in Illinois that reminded her of the landscape of her youth. She met a woman named Kathy, and they spoke of ghosts.

It was a thread, and she pulled at it.

Eventually, she met a medium named Irene, who claims she can connect to the dead.

(Obviously, it’s a much longer story, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to revisit it, but the night before I saw Barbara’s book, I found myself in conversation with the ghost of Garry Shandling, via a medium named Jim, over a Subaru-bluetooth-phone-system.)

Back to the book.

The use of color here is strong, and worth mentioning, because on second viewing, I realized, (surprisingly,) that the book is not creepy.

Or scary.

It’s not really haunting at all. The photographs metaphorically deal with the practice of communing with the dead, and reference spirit photography. (Including all the lights.)

They’re moody, sure, but there are rainbow colors throughout this book. Pops of illumination everywhere. One picture simulates a field of fireflies.

Who doesn’t like fireflies?

There is a short story insert, which Barbara wrote, that tells of her first meeting with the medium Irene, in a group setting, in which she purported to speak for Barbara’s Dad.

But in a second, private session, held later, Irene at first forgot, and believed Barbara’s father was alive and well.

It’s hard not be cynical about the underlying premise, unless you believe in ghosts. (Do you?) Barbara admits in the text she’s a cynic.

When I was talking to Garry Shandling’s ghost, all I could think was, “Stay open. Stay open.”

Meaning: experience this as intrinsically real, in the moment, because it will be more fun that way. Can I say I’m 100% certain I’m NOT talking to Garry Shandling’s ghost?

No, I can not.

Because I stayed open, I had an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

The short story echoes the sentiment. In the end, once Irene figured out that Barbara’s Dad has passed on, she told Barbara her father said he loved her.

He never said that in life, she writes. (Heart-breaking stuff.) But once it was said, she felt better, and was able to move along.

That’s why this book isn’t creepy, even though it’s about ghosts.

The dead.

Instead, it’s a weird, sci-fi, love-letter, and what more could you want, really?

Bottom Line: A look at ghost culture in the country-side

To purchase “Phantom Power” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers.

This Week in Photography Books: Philip Trager

 

One of our readers sent me a powerful and arresting email today.

I’m not going to divulge details, but a man wrote that he’d been deeply affected by the information in Laia Abril’s book last week.

I don’t get emails like that often, so props to the sender, but it also ratifies my decision to continue to use this platform to talk about real ideas.

Things that matter.

Rob encouraged me to write this way back in 2010. (That’s right, I’m celebrating my 8th anniversary next month.) And I’ve stuck by it ever since.

Take today’s book, “Photographing Ina,” for instance.

It’s odd that I’m reviewing it, as it’s been on my shelf for a couple of years now, still in plastic wrap. It had been sent in a small shipment by Steidl, (a rare occurrence,) and I’d reviewed another by Philip Trager, along with a sister book of NYC images by Richard Sandler.

(An NYC double-double back in 2017.)

For some reason, I’d never looked at this one.

The light hitting the plastic caught my eye, otherwise I would have kept right on past. (I was returning my first choice book to the stack, as it was also by Dewi Lewis, and I didn’t want to repeat publishers back to back.)

The cover is pale green, like sun-bleached St Patrick’s day decorations. The image, cropped and vintage, features a young-ish woman with eyes closed

OK.
I was curious.

The book opens with little warning, and then set of images of a woman in older middle age, who’s photographed in a variety of ways, including mirrors.

Are they digital composites, or clever placement of objects in the real world?

I guess, (correctly, I later find,) that the woman is Ina Trager, and the photographer is her husband, Philip Trager. I learn a few things about his art practice in an essay that is oddly placed in the middle, but which I chose to read after seeing the second set of plates.

The first group, digital, in color, was made from 2007-11. The images lack the clarity of high-end-digital-capture, or medium/large format film, and therefore register as digital-SLR-without-a-$1200-lens images.

The second set, in black and white, from 1980-84, on the other hand, are formal, structured, dry, and definitely made with a larger format machine.

They’re sharp, crisp and affected, in a weird-but-cool kind of way.

The early images feel like resolved ideas to me, while the new color pictures seem more like practice, or experimentation. The essay, by academic Andrew Szegedy-Masak, confirms as much, as Mr. Trager says he wanted to do a digital color project, and then thought of doing a follow-up-project with his wife as a consequence.

(The essay also states Mr. Trager works in clearly-defined projects, and rarely repeats subjects, so the photos of his wife are differentiated from those by Harry Callahan, Alfred Stieglitz, Emmet Gowin, Lee Friedlander or Nicholas Nixon.)

And it’s those last two names that drove today’s review. (Especially after seeing the subtle-but-still-nude images of the younger Mrs. Trager.)

In the last few months, Lee Friedlander’s son-in-law, Thomas Roma, stepped down from his job running the photo program at Columbia University because of allegations of sexual misconduct, or abuse of power. Then, a month or so ago, Nicholas Nixon left the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he’d taught for ages, after students alleged that he’d been sexually inappropriate during his teaching practice.

(ie., Encouraging nude photos, making students uncomfortable with lewd or sexually explicit assignments, hitting on models.)

So when I see “Photographing Ina,” I can no longer view it outside of that context. Nor can I forget what I wrote just last week, that men have been controlling women’s bodies for millennia.

(And continue to control women’s bodies, in most of the world.)

I understand that Ina Trager was a creative partner. But it is still her husband taking pictures of her boobs, and showing other people.

It’s not, NOT that, if you feel me.

And the new work, in which she’s unsmiling and dour, alongside the mirror-props, also reinforces the stereotype that older women are no longer interesting, by themselves. (And are little-seen in media and popular culture as a result.)

I don’t think work like this will be made by the next, or even current generation of photographers. Not un-ironically. Not un-apologetically.

And the book is probably not something I’d review, outside this context, but then again, that’s the whole point.

The entire context in which “heterosexual-white-men-photographing-attractive-naked-women” is normal, and fine, has been exploded.

That world is gone.

And now, every time we look at the artifacts of the previous paradigm, they appear not to fit quite right anymore.

Bottom Line: A provocative look at the photographer’s aging wife

To purchase “Photographing Ina,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers.

This Week in Photography Books: Laia Abril

 

Sometimes in life, people find themselves in what is known as a “no win” situation.

Basically, it means you’re fucked.
(No matter what you do.)

Take Michael Cohen, for example.

I remember the first time I saw him on TV, vociferously defending his boss, Donald J. Trump, in the summer of 2016.

“What a clown,” I thought. “A buffoon. A caricature of a wanna-be gangster.” I knew so many guys like that back in Jersey, because the real mob kids didn’t need to front.

As we all know, his boss did become President, and it appears Cohen was an actual criminal, not just a Fugazi. (Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t a very good one, as he was so easily caught, once they started looking.)

Setting aside one’s personal political beliefs, this is Peak-American-Absurdity right here. Rudy Giuliani, another NYC 80’s player, and formerly “America’s Mayor,” has now inserted himself into the mess, and went from “we’re going go wrap this Mueller investigation up shortly” to incriminating his client on Fox News in two short weeks.

Compared to the Scaramucci era, two weeks is practically an eon.

But back to Cohen.
The rock, and the hard place.

MC is currently facing a long prison sentence, (for campaign finance and potential money laundering violations,) or he has to roll over on Trump, the Number 1 worst thing a fixer can possibly do.

It’s a long stint in jail, or turn Rat.
Snitch.
Traitor.

Can’t say the guy doesn’t deserve it, but he’s most certainly facing no good options. (And I hate that he gives Jews a bad name.)

There are worse situations, though.
Far worse, if you can believe it.

Can you imagine being a mother, with cancer, and being told you can’t get an abortion to save your life, but they’re going to shut off your cancer drugs, so they don’t further hurt the life of your unborn child, who has no chance of survival.

So the mother and the child both die.

Or being forced to decide whether keep a baby you can’t afford to raise, or drop it in an outdoor-slot down at the orphanage, knowing once that door slams shut, you’ll never see him or her again?

Or being so desperate to induce a miscarriage, because you were raped by a psycho, that you’ll swallow poison you ordered off the internet, or stick a needle through your belly?

Michael Cohen might be justifiably up shit’s creek, but like I said, there are far worse outcomes in the world, in particular if you’re a woman.

I know these things, because I just finished reading Laia Abril’s brilliant “On Abortion,” published this year by Dewi Lewis in Manchester. (Congrats to Man City for winning the EPL title, at the expense of Mr. Lewis’s beloved Manchester United.)

Sorry, trying the lighten the mood.

When I interviewed Dewi Lewis a few years ago, he singled out one of Ms. Abril’s previous books as genius, so when I saw a PR email about this one, I requested a copy, and they were kind enough to send it along.

I’m sure it will make all the “Best Of” lists, come December, because it’s incredibly well done.

Remarkable, really.

The end notes say it was originally mounted as an exhibition in Arles in 2016, and I wonder how it was brought to life IRL? Because in book form, (which works better for reading than standing in front of a wall card,) the experience is taut, and fraught.

Story after story of the history of the horror, where photographic styles are constantly mashed up, but certain fonts repeat, which is one way it all holds together.

The obvious comp here is Taryn Simon, as there are a lot of similarities in the use of research and text. (Though the end notes credit only Ms. Abril for the research, while Ms. Simon is known to have a team.)

There are a few positive stories within, like the Dutch organization that has an abortion boat, and drops pills into Poland via drone.

But even then, they’re just aiding women who have to make such an awful, tragic, terrible decision.

To kill an unborn child.
Or a fetus.
Or a handful of cells, depending on when it happens.

Whether or not the style is entirely original, the imagery, text, and story-telling-decision-making are all top notch. It’s informative, powerful, and got under my skin emotionally as well.

Men have controlled women’s bodies throughout the millennia. The power dynamic has always been there, and at least we’re now living in a Me Too world where these public discussions can be had, driving change.

It’s already happening.

Hell, my high school nemesis, Jodi Kantor, just won a freaking Pulitzer Prize, and will now be the subject of a movie, because women are chopping down the traditional, and oft-abused trees of power, which protected monsters like Harvey. (No, not you Dad.)

If you buy books from the reviews I write, this one comes highly recommended. (Though you may need a shot of whiskey when you’re done with it.)

Bottom Line: Incisive, exhaustive look at the History of Abortion

To purchase “On Abortion” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers.

This Week in Photography Books: Matthew Brandt

 

Within the African-American community, the idea of reparations is a popular one. (As far as I understand it.)

The plan, which calls for a massive payment to be made to all African-American descendants of slaves, is not without precedent, as West Germany paid reparations to Jews after World War II.

After hundreds of years of breaking up families, and precluding community from emerging naturally, the actions of Southern Whites are still felt today, and can explain the vast chasm in income inequality that exists.

It’s also an idea that gets lots of Conservative White People angry as hell, as it contravenes their sense of “individual responsibility.” Not to mention, money for reparations would clearly come from taxes on all other Americans, including White People.

Hopefully, most of us have seen Dave Chapelle’s hilarious skit on Reparations, or the one with Clayton Bigsby, the blind, black white supremacist. Chapelle used humor to both present these ideas, and also slough off any sense that they might happen IRL.

Some ideas are too radical to seem possible even in the 21st Century.

Short of the US Government dispersing Billions of dollars to try to level an unequal playing field, it is often left to individuals with power to do what they can to boost those who come from less-privileged circumstances.

If Diversity Matters, but is hard to achieve without concerted effort, then it makes sense to pay attention to the people who are putting their money where their mouths are. (So to speak.)

In this case, I’m thinking of the New York Portfolio Review, which is presented by my editors at the NYT Lens Blog, in conjunction with Photoville’s Laura Roumanos, and hosted by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in NYC.

I attended the event on Saturday, (and am still discombobulated as a result,) and am here to report that the Lens team has responded to contemporary circumstances with full force. Long-time readers know I’ve been there before, and have reported on previous attempts to build a diverse community.

It is admittedly a rough count, (and I could be wrong,) but of the 100+ photographers in the room, I only encountered 2 White American Males, and I was one of them. (I also counted 3 White Non-American Males, though of course there were likely more, as I was busy attending my reviews.)

Every other photographer I met, saw, or reconnected with was female, a person of color, or both.

In other words, almost everyone there was a Non-White-Male.

It was as if to end the privilege enjoyed by White Guys over the years, the Lens team made an effort to give almost all the slots over to those who have been ignored for so long.

We’ve all seen the statistics from Women Photograph, and other organizations, showing how disproportionate the jobs are in favor of the group in power.

Here, the script was entirely flipped.

It was done on purpose, obviously, as Jim Estrin and David Gonzalez are fierce advocates of supporting minority communities and women.

All to the good, as far as I’m concerned.

But as a reporter, I do have to mention the one Achilles heel of such efforts, at least given what I noted in person: almost everyone congregated into easily-observable groups defined by their skin color or likely area of origin.

All around the room, the pockets were visually obvious. Gaggles of people together, with very little cultural diversity within each group.

As an example, there was a moment when I was waiting in line for lunch. (Free Pizza. Hard to beat.) The young woman behind me appeared to be African, and I struck up a conversation.

When she said she was from South Africa, the African-American guy in line in front of me immediately turned and said, “Your from SA too?”

I interjected, “You’re from South Africa?” (He lacked the accent.)

“No,” he said, “but I was there recently.”

The two began speaking rapidly about the country, and his experience there as an African-American. He told how people were constantly trying to place him by tribe, and how he never felt he knew himself until he went to Africa.

I asked questions, as the two of them understood each other so easily. They told me that there are 11 tribes in the country, and they’re easily distinguishable by skin color, style, but more importantly by their vibe. Apparently the Zulus are most aggressive, and end up doing a lot of taxi-driving work.

I continued to ask questions, but almost imperceptibly, the two began talking more to each other. Finally, I realized I was not in the conversation at all, and turned to talk to the woman behind me, who was white, and lived in the mountains of the American West. (Like me.)

Behind us, two women of South Asian descent spoke in another pair.

While no one would have been the wiser, inside, I was disappointed, as I’d clearly tried to break beyond the boundaries that pervaded the room, and while it worked for a minute or two, that was it.

(To be clear, I had many conversations with people of diverse backgrounds all day long, from a Korean guy from Argentina to an Afro-Colombian woman from Brooklyn, because I like to talk to people, and see my efforts as reporting for you.)

Rather than suggesting there was fault on the part of the organizers, I’m sharing my observations because I think it pushes the ball further down the field.

It’s difficult and vital to get people in the same room. But perhaps it’s also important to then go one step further, and create organized activities that force people to get out of their own comfortable micro-communities, and talk to each other across boundaries?

When you think about it, it says a lot about human nature that racial divides are still as prominent as they are in America in 2018.

We evolved as tribal species, Homo Sapiens, and survived for eons by sticking with our kind. It offers safety, and understanding, but also allows for a kind of intra-cultural blinder phenomenon that can lead to evils like the Holocaust, or African Slavery.

The pre-Civil War South likely contained some “very fine people,” but collectively they came together to perpetuate monstrosity on a GRAND SCALE.

And we suffer from their actions still.

Why am I talking about the Civil War again? Haven’t I written enough about race relations these last few years?

Well, (as usual,) I’m glad you asked.

This morning, I spent some time looking at the excellent “1864,” a new book by Matthew Brandt, published by Yoffy Press in Atlanta. (With a nice essay by High Museum curator Gregory Harris.)

“1864” is a book that takes its pacing seriously, as it comes with a peach bow tied around it, (hinting at the contents within,) and then shows a couple of plates to whet the appetite, before explaining itself with the aforementioned essay.

By the second picture, I thought, “Man, this reminds me of those amazing George Barnard pictures I wrote about for APE a few years ago.”

Do you remember? I saw a show at SFMOMA that was meant to feature edgy, contemporary processes that manipulate time, and came away agog at those perfect, magnificent images of Post-Sherman’s-March Atlanta.

Coincidentally, the essay proved me prescient, as all the images in the book are based on Barnard’s stereoscopic images from Atlanta in 1864. (Well, not all of them, as the last image in the book was made of the Capitol Building under construction.)

Mr. Brandt found Barnard’s images on the Library of Congress website, when he was looking for inspiration for an upcoming show.

I first became acquainted with Matthew Brandt’s work when a friend curated him into a show at MOPA a few years ago. He’s a part of the California Craft style, where his fellow artists, like Meghann Riepenhoff, use chemical, one-of-a-kind, analog processes to counter our digital realty.

For example, he once used polluted lake water to process his images that were made of those same polluted lakes. Images of a subject often contain the existential materials of it as well.

In this case, as Georgia is famous for peaches, he actually included ingredients for peach pie into the chemicals that developed his albumen prints, (which themselves contain egg whites,) and the book claims the resulting tones are due to the confectionary nature of the process.

I’m not sure if he appropriated jpegs, or made photographs of computer screens or actual prints to “take” Barnard’s source material, but the resulting aesthetic is consistent with Mr. Brandt’s previous work.

What do we have, in the end?

They’re textured, and creepy, feeling more ancient than contemporary. But the mashup of temporal eras is real, even if it likely needs textual support to be understood.

The title of the book, too, hints at the metaphorical images within, as good book design often drops clues in all the right places.

Great art shows us things we haven’t seen before, or helps define a time and place for future generations. While this seems more like a minor project for an important young artist, (to me,) it makes for a cool little book.

And a perfect one to codify today’s musings:

You all, our audience, are high-ranking members of the creative class. You offer jobs, and build organizations. You take pictures to move the needle on public opinion.

So today, with a book that shows the scars of a still-divided country, I leave you with this thought.

How can we all transcend our borders, get out of our lanes, and learn things from people who grew up in different worlds, with different knowledge?

How can you help make things better?

Bottom Line: A cool, smart, Georgia Peach of a photobook

This Week in Photography Books: Jo Ann Chaus

 

Control is an illusion.

Human beings, IMO, see themselves as far more important to the Universe’s ecosystem than we actually are.

It explains why we took over Earth, subjugating all other species to our needs. (Seriously, did you see that viral story about the baboons escaping from a Texas research facility by boosting over barrels?)

We are far from the only intelligent life form here, yet we act as if we are.

Perhaps I’m not telling you anything you didn’t know, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I work to sublimate my ego. (I’m not trying to get all Buddhist on you, but I have been enjoying the Dalai Lama’s Twitter feed lately.)

What could be more 21st Century than the Dalai Lama, and the President of the United States, spreading their ideas around the planet, in real time, via an app created by (likely) stoners in NorCal?

Basically, I’m suggesting we’ve reached “Peak Absurdity” in 2018, and it’s time to admit that none of us know what the fuck is going on.

Not me.
Not you.
Not anyone.
(Especially not DT Junior. Boy, does that kid seem dim.)

Here’s the hard truth: not everything makes sense, and the good guys don’t always win. While that might be a great synopsis of “Westworld” Season 1, it’s also an apt description of our Global times, with authoritarianism on the march in so many places.

And that reality is the impetus for today’s book review, as I recently put down “Sweetie & Hansom,” a cool, self-published photobook that showed up in the mail a few months ago, by Jo Ann Chaus.

I met Jo Ann at Photo NOLA in December, and we hit it off. As I wrote in my post-review-review, she is a Jewish grandmother from Northern New Jersey, and I couldn’t shake this sense of familiarity, as we obviously come from a similar “tribe.”

She was making edgy self-portraits, including dressing up in a French maid’s outfit, and I loved the series. It was cohesive, and I understood her POV.

Which is a stark contrast to “Sweetie & Hansom,” which I could not suss out, no matter how hard I tried. (Editor’s note: As I was going back through the book again to photograph it, it seemed like maybe this was about three neighboring families? But I wouldn’t swear to it.)

Normally, I’d bristle at something that doesn’t explain itself, and is difficult if not impossible to parse. Normally, I’d criticize it for a muddy vision.

But as long-time readers of this column know, I often get onto multi-week themes, even if they’re not intentional. And our current module is about opening your mind, getting out of that blasted comfort zone, and growing by expanding your range.

To be clear, I like this book a lot. I like the pictures within, and I like its vibe. I never review a book I don’t find interesting, nor one that doesn’t make me think, and compel me to write.

I suspect you guys will dig it too.

At first, I assumed that Sweetie and Hansom were nicknames for Jo Ann and her husband, and it would be about them. When the book opened with an older, naked man’s ass, I thought of Susan Rosenberg Jones’s project about her oft-naked husband, Joel.

And the array of family photos, composted together, made me think of Nancy Borowick’s “The Family Imprint,” though this book precedes it. (Sweetie & Hansom was published in 2016.)

Then I read some poetry which alluded to loss, and the protagonists changed to another late-middle-aged couple. Who may have lost a son to a drug overdose?

Like I said, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, as Jo Ann & her husband return to the story’s forefront again, so it’s hard to get a proper sense of who the protagonists are, or what the narrative is here. (Second editor’s note: Or perhaps I guessed right in my first editor’s note?)

Death is a part of this book. I know that, because there’s a photo of a death certificate, and poem about someone discovering their dead son Larry.

But is it real?

Is any of this?

The images are obviously staged, and take inspiration from Larry Sultan and Gregory Crewdson, but they’re weird in a way that I appreciate.

There is a thank you page at the end, but even that doesn’t really explain WTF just happened.

And for once, I’m OK with that.
It feels appropriate to our moment in time.

The end notes do suggest that Jo Ann studied in one of the ICP programs, so perhaps this was her final student project? As with everything else, I can’t be sure.

So today, I might leave you slightly confused, rather than entirely satiated, but at least we’re keeping it real.

Bottom Line: Weird, cool, inexplicable book from Jersey…

To purchase “Sweetie & Hansom” contact the artist here

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

The Lost Rolls America Archive

 

Last week, I said I like to shake things up.

And I meant it.

So today, we’re going to pivot away from book reviews, and bring you a special feature about the Lost Rolls America Archive, a project led by NYU professor Lauren M. Walsh, and photojournalist Ron Haviv.

I wrote a piece about the endeavor for Lens in late 2016, just as it was getting started. The gist is that Fuji offered to develop and scan one roll of lost or forgotten film from anyone in America. All you had to do was dig the film canister out of your couch cushions, or the back of your fridge, and send it in. (Apparently, the archive is now closed.)

They sent back the scans, and then each person picked one (or more) of the photos to be included in an archive of lost images from contemporary America. (And occasionally beyond, as you’ll see below.)

Now that the Lost Rolls America archive has gathered steam, there are several hundred images posted online, in a database of forgotten moments.

Lauren and Ron were kind enough to answer a few questions about the project, and mass-culture-photography in general. They also allowed me to edit the following series for you, as a way of looking for through-lines in the burgeoning archive.

There’s an exhibition of images from the LRAA in an airstream in Los Angeles this week, in conjunction with the MOPLA, so if you’re in SoCal, go check it out.

(Photo credits: All images copyright Lost Rolls America Archive, and the photographer. The photographers are as follows: Rikki Reich, Ed White, Russel Gontar, Stephen Desroches, Scott Ellerby, Jessica Lipkind, Jeremy Harris, Jonathan Schaefer, Mary Croft, Beth Urpanil, David Burnett, Terry Bliss, Philip Maechling, Orquidea, William Bennett, Beth Urpanil, Nora Curry, Tamika Jancewicz, Alan Wong, Mary Keane, Valerie Ferrier, J Printen, Deb Treanor, Valentina Zavarin, Rikki Reich, Alex Cave, Linda Walker, Stephanie Heimann, Lisa French, Jeffrey Robins)

 

Q&A with Professor Lauren M. Walsh and Photojournalist Ron Haviv 

 

JB: Why did you think people would submit their personal memories to the public Lost Rolls America Archive?

LW & RH: The process allows participants to re-engage with a time from the past, to literally view a forgotten moment and re-experience it. And the experience isn’t just for the individual. In contributing to the archive, you become part of a collective dynamic, where you realize that there are points of commonality across these once-lost images and the memories they call forth.

Additionally, the memories written in the archive often reflect a desire to share deep feelings about life experiences. In consisting of all kinds of photography—not just professional, but the snapshots of amateurs and hobbyists—Lost Rolls America celebrates the average person’s personal experience. In this sense, it works to offer a sense of community and a space to acknowledge and commemorate all of our pasts.

 

JB: Do you think the archive, in its current form, says anything about contemporary America?

LW & RH: Today, when the perception is often that we are a divided country (politically, economically, and so forth), the archive stands a powerful reminder of the many ways that we are in fact more similar than different. There are shared themes that appear through the photos and memories, such as the attention to family, the celebration of youth, the nostalgia for lost loved ones, the exuberance of travel, and even the value of the mundane in all of our lives.

 

JB: Has the ubiquity of cellphone cameras changed the nature of photography, or are there just infinitely more photographs?

LW & RH: The ubiquity of camera phones has indeed influenced our photo-taking habits. We self-document with photos more than ever before, but what is the role of these sometimes enormous personal archives? Moreover, how has the ubiquity of cellphone cameras changed the way historical narratives are recorded? These are two of the central questions we address in a talk we’re giving on Sunday, April 15th, at 4pm at the LINE Hotel (3515 Wilshire Blvd) in Los Angeles. For those who can’t make it, it’ll be streamed and a record of the talk will eventually appear on the Lost Rolls America website: www.lostrollsamerica.com

 

JB: If you could go back in time and re-shoot one roll of film in your life, which would it be? (Or where would you be?)

LW: In college, at one point, I was traveling in France. My suitcase, in the back of the train, was stolen. The most important items (passport, laptop) were in my backpack with me in my seat on the train. So I mostly just lost clothes, which are replaceable. But in that suitcase were eight rolls of film. That was the worse part of the losing the luggage – because those were irreplaceable. If I could go back in time, I’d try to recapture those college travel memories. I imagine such photos would only become more valuable over time, taking on a wistful tinge as I look backward reliving those younger days.

RH: The dream of all photojournalists: to transport oneself to a moment in time where the history and future of humanity was being decided. From documenting a time when there were no cameras to pivotal events in war/politics/culture/etc, my choices are endless. It will remain an unanswered question as the answer changes moment by moment as I think I should go there or here or somewhere else…

 

JB: How would you describe the difference between the celluloid aesthetic, and the hyperreal digital aesthetic that’s taken its place?

LW & RH: One of the most significant differences that Lost Rolls America celebrates is the “delay” inherent to analog film. In the digital age you can see your image immediately. This changes the experience, both of picture taking and of the memory of the moment captured. With analog, you can’t see your photo right away, you don’t know exactly what the picture looks like. That slice of recorded time from the past is returned to the photographer only after the film is developed – that could be a few hours or a few days, or in the case of this archive it can be years and even decades. It has been nothing short of magical to view the responses of participants in the archive who are seeing moments from their past after such long periods of time. It’s a revelatory experience and for many, the memories, summoned up in response to the once-lost photo, are raw, fresh, powerful, and poignant.

 

JB: How will the photographs be exhibited in LA? What are the exhibition details? 

LW & RH: The photos from the archive are exhibited in a retro-style Airstream at The LINE Hotel. We invite visitors to step backward in time as they experience others’ photos and memories. It’s simultaneously a collective Americana experience and personalized one, as if stepping into someone’s home, seeing their old photos and hearing their memories. The Airstream–outfitted with a picnic table, rocking chairs, and picket fence–displays the archive contents in unique, interactive ways – through journals, photo albums, with large prints and small, in a bedroom, a kitchen, outside and inside the Airstream. We encourage anyone in the area to visit!

This Week in Photography Books: Gabe Wolf

 

Getting out of your comfort zone isn’t easy.

You’d think it would be, as the phrase has become a parody
of a cliché of an aphorism.

I dispense advice here, almost weekly, and pontificate on issues big and small.

(Politics. Economics. Art. Racism. War. Movies. Sports. Family.)

I’ve found it’s easier to give advice than to take it. Nobody likes to be told what to do, so teaching and inspiring work better without sanctimony.

Part of how I try to stay fresh is to force myself to grow and change, even though it’s hard. (Just the other day, I reminded a family member that not doing things, just because they’re hard, is the opposite of the artist mentality.)

But with respect to taking my own advice, (which I could be better at,) this week, I accepted help from a friend, when all my traditional instincts were pushing me to figure it out on my own. I’ve had print-head issues lately, and have to make a new portfolio for the NYT Portfolio Review later this month.

I was on the verge of paying a fair amount of cash for mediocre machine prints, when my buddy was offering to use his considerable expertise, badass printer, and high-end-Hahnemuhle paper for free.

My wife and friend both pointed out that it seemed reasonable and wise to accept his offer.

To take the help: better prints, no money.

But every part of me, which isn’t used to asking for favors, was trying to find a way out. Then I remembered a comfort zone
is the place where we do what we always do.

Our patterns and habits.

So I shut up for a moment, thought about it, thanked my friend profusely, and started thinking about some great presents to buy him to show gratitude.

Likewise, I try to keep this column from getting stale. Rather than be OK with showing more male artists than female, we engaged in some outreach last year, and are now able to alternate male and female artists each week.

50/50.

(Keep those submissions coming in, ladies…)

I also get in habits in the kind of books I show. Weird, edgy, fine-art goodies, or journalistic, socio-political documentary books about those aforementioned major issues.

Along those lines, most of the books I review come from the perspective of the urban, artsy hipster/journo, rather than a regular dude living in the country.

Like, way out in the country.

Deep in the Heart of Texas.

I don’t feature a lot of books like that.

So…obviously…that’s what we’ll do today.

Gabe Wolf, who goes by the name Lone Wolf, sent me a copy of his self-published, hard-cover book, “XV: On the Road with Lone Wolf,” which covers 15 years of his documentary photographs of cowboys, and rodeo culture in general.

This book hails from Kempner, which is as close to the heart of Texas as you can get. (Near Killeen, Southwest of Waco, Northwest of Austin. I got a burrito near there two years ago, and it was delicious.)

It feels categorical in a way I appreciate. The series is lived-in, meaning you really got the sense that Gabe Wolf put in the miles.

Along those lines, the photos are taken all over the greater Southwest, including TX, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Tennessee. (Maybe I missed a few?)

The images are well made, and the consistent change in size, format and picture placement speak to the self-published aesthetic. It feels DIY, and I dig it.

At some point, I noticed a sub-series of images of a young rider who appeared to be a Native American. Given the 4 Corners locale, I figured he might be a Navajo.

The captions said his name is “Derrick Begay,” which is a Navajo surname. And then I re-looked at the title page, and it said the book was published by Ma’iitsoh.

Maybe I need to break my rule and use Google for a minute?

(Pause.)

No, Lone Wolf does not appear to be a Native American guy.

And the word I’ve been hesitating to use so far, “commercial,” does show up on his website in several places.

There’s a lack of edge, here, that would normally preclude me from showing the book. But by opening my mind a bit, I’m appreciating the behind-the-scenes vibe. The book feels “authentic,” to use the parlance of our times.

And the best images, including the black and white silhouette of Begay set against the backlight, are pretty awesome.

If this came from a major publisher, it would be slicker. And there would less images.

I’ve leveled the criticism at a bunch of books lately, too many photographs, but I don’t feel that way here.

The captions in the end give detailed information, and the sponsors are not Aperture or some fancy gallery, but rather, The Original Team Roping Association and Lone Star Ag Credit.

How can you not love that?

Bottom Line: 15 years of cool cowboy photos across the West

To purchase “On the Road with Lone Wolf,” click here

If you would like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Victoria Will

 

This is a true story.

Back in 2013, almost five years ago, I began writing for the New York Times.

Though I’d been blogging for four years by then, it still seemed like a major leap.

I remember thinking that people were whispering, can he write in a serious way? Isn’t he just the guy who obsessively talks about himself, and says fuck a lot, and makes jokes?

(Obviously, five-years-ago-me thought people actually talked about him. 44-year-old-me knows people are too busy just-getting-by to wonder what I’m doing out here in my horse pasture.)

Anyway, it will be five years in May, and I’ve written 45 articles, so I guess it was always going to come around again.

I recently sent a pitch to a local magazine, and included a few of my NYT clips. I heard back that they liked the idea, but wondered if I was also able to write in a more light-hearted, whimsical style?

After the LOL, I quickly sent them last week’s column. The one with an opening sentence that includes the word shit.

I admitted the subject matter was serious, mental illness and darkness and all, but the jokes showed I could handle it with a light touch. I explained that most documentary photo books, which include most of my submissions, often have a heavy socio-political theme.

I’ll admit that I’m writing on a Thursday, and my kids are binge-watching on a Kindle Fire in a bedroom nearby, because they don’t have school today.

I’m in Full Dad Mode.

That’s the context.

But the first book I picked up, which I’ll review in a different week, when I’m not on deadline, it was another one with a powerful, political subject matter.

And lots and lots of reading.

I rarely do this, but I put the book down.

After all the heavy books lately, it didn’t feel right for today.

I wanted something lighter.
Something visual.
Digestible.

(Like I said, this is a true story.)

I knocked on my son’s door, as my book stack is in his closet, and interrupted the digi-gorging so I could grab something else.

I swear I never do this.

The first thing I found, from the top the stack, had a woman’s name on the envelope, and I’m trying to alternate male and female artists each week.

This was the one.
I could feel it.

It came with a nice note, from someone named Victoria Will, and she complimented the column. (Thanks, Victoria.)

Very kind.

The cover featured what looked like a tintype of Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it reminded me of an image I once saw on Vulture’s best photos of the year, of Philip Seymour Hoffman shot in that style.

It stopped me in my tracks.

I included that one on a list of my favorite images, on fototazo, and then it receded into my memory.

Filed away, like so many other things.

LeBron James scorelines.
Restaurant names.
That sort of thing.

But the second I saw this Maggie Gyllenhaal image, it made me think of PSH.

That’s a powerful imprint.

That one was one of Victoria’s too, and this book, “Borne Back,” was published in 2017 by Peanut Press, and features a set of tintypes made at Sundance. (Including Robert Redford himself.)

I admit, in the context of this review, the book serves as the metaphorical “Us Weekly,” something light and easy, when I don’t feel like exercising my brain too hard.

(I’m saying it so you don’t have to think it.)

But, to be clear, that’s not true.
And this is a true story, remember?

Actors are professionals at communicating information through their bodies. It’s not just the eyes, though they’re of course the most important part, if we had to rank them. (And Hollywood loves a good ranking, no? A list, B list, C list_)

I know professional models do it too, but actors emote in real time, all the time, for a rolling camera. They master the subtle nuance of movement, and the good ones can bring that out for a still camera too, under proper direction, from someone who knows what they’re doing.

That’s the premise I felt behind this work.

An intro by actor Jason Momoa confirms that Victoria Will makes people feel comfortable in their skin, and then she makes tintypes, which naturally contrast the old school with the contemporary.

I’ve seen a lot of people work with tin types lately at portfolio reviews, and remarked on that in this column, after my trip to Photo NOLA last December.

Here, though, it has a defined purpose. It creates this temporal clash.

Add the textural power of the gloopy or sliding chemistry, and it allows for a stylistic structure that gives a boost to the famous faces.

Like a trampoline.

Which explains why that image of a dead actor came back to me
so quickly.

I remember him best as Brandt in “The Big Lebowski,” more than anything. And then how I felt when I read that his performance in “The Master” was closer to reality than I could have known.

Poor guy.

But of course I never knew him.

Celebrities are in the odd position of having millions of people know who they are, and feel some odd connection. They actually ARE gossiped about by people all the time.

People in Spokane.
Or Des Moines.

In that sense, we imagine celebrities perfect the public face; the extension. “I’ll show them this, this outer skin, and it will keep them happy, and they’ll buy their movie tickets, or downloads, or however the kids are consuming content these days, and the real me I’ll keep for myself.”

Kevin Bacon looks a little like an orangutan.
Elijah Wood looks like Billy the Kid.

Scoot McNairy looks like Caravaggio himself, and that dude
was so good in “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Godless.” (Shout out to Scoot McNairy.)

Flea really brings it.
Anna Kendrick looks like Morticia Adams.

Billy Crudup looks like an Edward Weston vegetable.
Lance Reddick looks like he knows what I’ve done when no one’s looking.

Nick Cave looks like he was drawn, not photographed.

And Scott Weiland stopped me in my tracks.

I was 19 when Stone Temple Pilots first got hot. Now that the 90’s are trendy again, we should give those guys their due. No, they weren’t Nirvana, but then who was?

STP were loud, and brash, and they had that theme song to “The Crow,” which I saw in the theaters with Evan Lucash back in Jersey. (Shout out, Evan.) It featured Brandon Lee, another tragic hero, and he died during the filming.

We mark our lives, sometimes, by the art we consume, popular or otherwise.

We use elements of culture to understand who we are.

The biggest movie stars become parts of America, be they John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Denzel Washington.

“Borne Back” gets this, which is why the edit leaves Scott Weiland for the final photograph. (And Sam Shepard as the first.) He’s far from the most famous, Weiland, nor the most important artist in this book.

But he died recently. And people of a certain generation (X) will know that.

It exacerbates that final part of why I like this work.
The permanence.

Sure, these are scans.
But they’re scans of plates.

Those plates are one of a kind, and if treated properly, should last for hundreds of years.

There’s a plate somewhere with Scott Weiland’s face.
It outlasts him already.

In this obsessedly-digital-world, reminders of the analog, of the 19th Century, give these pictures extra frisson.

It’s the perfect book for today.
See you next time.

Bottom Line: Dynamic, fun, excellent set of celebrity tintypes

To purchase “Borne Back” click here 

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

This Week in Photography Books: Roger Ballen

 

The last season of “House of Cards” was a bit shit, if I’m being honest.

And still, I watched.

The main plot premise, (spoiler alert,) was that the Republican nominee for President was working with a social media network to mine and scrape their data, so he could micro-target and manipulate people into voting for him.

(Pause.)

I swear. I’m not making this up. Those guys wrote it, and of course it seems to have actually happened.

In reality.

To counter this, the crooked President, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, used NSA software to do some data mining of his own, so he could counter their highly-unethical program.

Kevin Spacey’s performance was probably what kept me glued to the TV for 5 seasons of binge-watching. He’s the kind of actor that everyone loved to watch, for years, as he brought a powerful intelligence to his roles, dating back to his brilliant performance as Keyzer Söze.

The master-manipulator-criminal-genius.

In “House of Cards,” of course, he murdered, cheated, lied, and was also secretly gay. He played a sociopath with such conviction, it was almost as if he were plumbing the depths of his own psyche.

In reality.

Of course, now we all know that’s true. According to multiple news reports, which came out in the early part of the #MeToo movement, Kevin Spacey is a lying, raping, pedophile.

He appears to be an actual sociopath.

In reality.

And now we’ll never know how Frank Underwood was meant to meet his fate, as Spacey was rightly fired from his job quicker than DJT can make it through a single Big Mac. (Shout out to Dave Chapelle, as his Kevin Spacey joke in one of his new Netflix specials was much better than anything I can come up with.)

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we should all tread lightly, each and every day, lest we find our friends and loved ones are secretly awful.

Rather, my point is that people are far messier and more complex than we’d like to believe, and each and every one of us has a shadow. (Shout out to Carl Jung.)

In Kevin Spacey’s case, it seems he was able to channel his charismatic-evil, believably, into some of his roles. But for the rest of us, the dark parts of our psyche are there, and those of us that admit it, and shine a little light down into the basement from time to time, seem to be a tad healthier than those who deny their demons.

And that’s just talking about those of us who consider ourselves sane. Once brain chemistries get shaken around, or life circumstances get too difficult, or we were simply born with faulty genetics, mental illness can change the game entirely.

Just the other day, I was telling a new Taos resident that our town is famous for having a super-high incidence of mental illness. As a Wild West enclave for outlaws and weirdos, it’s always been a draw for those that have a hard time with conventional society.

There’s even a part of Taos County, dubbed “The Mesa,” that is essentially lawless, and has an extremely high proportion of mentally ill people living together, miles from everyone else.

People disappear out there all the time.

But mental illness, according to some, is really a construction, as who is anyone to judge what’s “normal” and what’s not?

What if the darkness was really the light?

My longtime readers, (Hi Dad, Hi Rob,) might rightly remember that phrase from my extensive interview with Roger Ballen back in 2013. He’s an American-born, South Africa-based photographer and artist renown for skulking the depths of the nastiest corners of the human condition.

(Sorry, Joel-Peter Witkin, but I think Roger has surpassed you as the King of the creepily surreal.)

It’s a great interview, IMO, as he had some pretty interesting things to say, and decades of experience to back it up. We stayed in touch, tangentially, and I felt fortunate when he offered me a copy of “Ballenesque: roger ballen: a retrospective,” his new career-spanning tome recently released by Thames & Hudson.

First off, as Roger Ballen has always preferred books to exhibitions, due to their permanence, he’s published a lot of them in his career. If you already have one, or some, you might not need this one.

It’s big, and bold, and includes a long-running, diaristic statement by the artist, that’s broken up through the chapters. If you’re a serious fan, I’d say this book is a must-purchase. And if you’re new to his work, and dig the style, which now has its own adjective, (hence the title,) then I’d say you should buy this one too.

Though I was familiar with many of the images in the book, there were some genuine surprises, like the few fashion photos he made for the New York Times, of the actress Selma Blair, in 2005. Whoever had the idea to take a slim, Hollywood It Girl and put her through these paces should be fired.

Not surprisingly, Roger admits he was not offered another fashion gig thereafter.

But he’s done music videos, like Die Antwood’s amazing “I Fink U Freeky,” built scary Ballen houses for art installations, (no thank you,) and also did a project with fellow creepster Asger Carlsen, whom I also interviewed back in the day.

(I’m no prude, as you know, but seeing Carlsen’s gorgeous, naked, young female bodies digitally morphed left me feeling a little queasy, in 2018, as it seems simultaneously too easy, and too misogynistic for my liking.)

The French painter, Jean Dubuffet, comes up a few times in the text as well, and I was glad to see it, as personally, I think his work had a tremendous influence on the raw, naked, visceral style that is now called “Ballenesque.”

I always loved Basquiat, and found him super-oringial, until I saw Dubuffet’s work, and realized that all of us have influences, and even radically new things take their inspiration from somewhere. (Like Orville and Wilbur trying to fly like birds, which are also a common Ballen subject.)

The most controversial part of this work, without a doubt, is Ballen’s photographic treatment of mentally ill people. Work like this is always pilloried for being exploitative, though the artist develops deep and longstanding relationships with his subjects.

The text gives us some really juicy quotes on the issue, including the part where Ballen admits that when people ask him what his subjects think of the work, he says, “I am not sure what anybody thinks.”

Tough to argue. But he questions whether mental illness is a societal construction, at one point, wondering who has the right to declare what’s normal?

As we discussed in our interview, he spent much of his career as a mining engineer in South Africa, as he didn’t want his art practice to get corrupted by the need to make money. (The lengthy biography also emphasizes he grew up throughly counter-culture.)

Anyone that looks at this work, and hears him discussing the need to plumb the depths, will have no trouble making the metaphorical connection.

So on that note, I’ll leave you with his direct thoughts on the subject, and suggest you consider your own darkest thoughts, rather than pretending they’re not there, and then locking the door behind them.

“Delving into the deepest parts of one’s subconscious is like going down the mine, down the shaft. You get there, and now you are on level ten, whether in the mine or in the mind, Things are not going to manifest themselves down there, so I have to go from level ten back up again and make visible what I have found, bring them to the surface. That is the hard part.”

The hard part indeed.

Bottom Line: Massive, through retrospective for a master of darkness

To purchase “Ballenesque” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Debi Cornwall

 

I’m listening to the hum of the fan beside me.

A magenta bag, filled with birthday socks, sits glowing in
the sunlight by the window.

Thankfully, I’m free.

Free to say what I like in this space each week. (Thanks, Rob.) Free to wear what I’d like, and go where I please.

These freedoms come at a cost, as we all know.

The United States government, through war and covert (i.e. CIA-led) actions, has undermined freedom, democracy, and sovereignty elsewhere. Countless have died in wars in other places, like Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, as we’ve maintained our position at the top of the global economic food chain.

Given our original sins, slavery and the genocide of Native America, we shouldn’t be surprised that we also fomented revolution, claimed territory by force, committed assassinations, and installed puppet regimes in foreign countries.

(As much as I dislike Vlad Putin, he’s always pointing out that we’ve done the same things he’s accused of…)

The Monroe Doctrine was conjured to claim our sphere of influence over this part of the world. We’re seeing a return to that bygone era, (Shout out to Professor Timothy Lomperis, Freshman Year at Duke,) where major powers like the US, Russia and China patrol their own waters, and balance each other out.

Add to the list of things nasty things we’ve done in the name of democracy: torture.

Yes, in the early years of the War on Terror, George W. Bush had some lawyers, (we’re looking at you John Yoo,) come up with legal justification for “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Including: water boarding, slapping, sleep deprivation, sexual touching, being forced to live in your own shit and piss, no access to light, little activity, hooding, general humiliation, and being shackled in painful positions.

I’m likely leaving a few out.

These black sites are on all of us, as citizens.
We’re complicit.

These discussions will be before us again, as Trump’s new nominee to head the CIA once ran a black site herself, and has been outwardly in favor of torture, according to this article in The Atlantic.

But Barack Obama famously promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and didn’t, so again, this issue crosses political affiliations.

I’ve been thinking about it all morning, having read/looked at Debi Cornwall’s excellent “Welcome to Camp America,” published by Radius Books in Santa Fe.

Straight up, I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy this one as much as some of the others I’ve reviewed lately. It’s a bit clinical for my liking. Such opinions are, of course, subjective, and it’s obviously a well-made production of important work.

It’s informative, and rich, and succeeds in many ways.

But since I try to always keep it real, and have been gushingly-over-the-top in my praise of late, I thought I’d tell the truth.

I like that the book forced me to pay attention. Like the other books I’ve featured lately, this one has multiple themes that repeat throughout, interrupting each other in a rhythm, so you’ll never get bored.

There are dry, formal landscape photos taken from inside the areas she was allowed to photograph at Gitmo.

Then, there are fold out pieces, untethered and interspersed, which feature former detainees who were freed, and have been patriated to other countries, Uighurs and Egyptians in places like Albania.

Always these men are photographed from behind. (A nod to the military regulation at Gitmo that says no faces are to be photographed? More likely, as Fred Ritchin suggests in his essay, it was out of empathy for the men’s privacy.)

Personally, I don’t like the unbound tactic. But I’m a big fan of the use of Arabic text, as it reminds us there is more than the American perspective to consider.

My favorite photos are the still life objects available at the gift shop. Dolls, and stuffed animals and lip balm?

Dial 911 for the tacky police.

There are smudgy, difficult-to-read pages depicting the actual torture techniques employed in the Bush Era, and a lawsuit/ story that plays out, slowly over the book, in first person.

Eventually, we realize it’s from the standpoint of a soldier who was playing an unresponsive inmate in a drill, only the soldiers kicking the shit out of him didn’t think it was a drill, and then the tapes were destroyed.

There are always tapes, with people like this, and they’re always getting destroyed. It’s like something out of that Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson movie from back when they were both important.

What was that called?

That reminds me, in the book, that soldier who got beat up by mistake even said the safe-word was literally “Code Red,” like that movie, god, what was its name?

At first, jolting between that many types of images, and words, and styles of viewing, with overfolds and pull outs, it felt like a bit much.

I questioned what the personal connection was, between the artist and the subject, because clearly there was one. Nobody jumps through that many military hoops to get access, and publishes damaging information, in a photobook, without an ax to grind.

It goes against human nature.

So there it was, in Ms. Cornwall’s statement at the end of the book. “For twelve years I practiced as a wrongful conviction lawyer representing innocent exonerees in civil rights suits in the United States.”

That would do it.

I learned a lot from this book, and think it’s kickass in many ways. It’s just that it left me feeling a bit cold.

You know who else was cold?

One of the torture victims, when he was left shivering, naked, in his own excrement, while the air conditioning was turned on full blast.

I read that in this book. I expect it will stay with me for a while.

As it should.

Bottom Line: A fascinating, multi-layered look at Gitmo

To purchase “Welcome to Camp America,” click here 

This Week in Photography Books: Tom Griggs

 

Hey guys.

Thanks for coming back.

After the last couple weeks, with the anger and the sorrow, I wasn’t sure if I’d see you today.

You might not realize it, but I always try to keep the balance in mind. If I hit you with some really heavy stuff for a few weeks, then I think it’s time for breather.

Lately, I’ve also had the opportunity to alternate male and female photographers each week.

Like I said, balance.

So today, we’re going to have a really short review. On the off chance you really like the long articles, and want to see them every time, I’ll offer my apologies.

Last week, I began making connections between the books that were sent to me by some very talented female photographers. I’m fairly sure I use the word emotional.

It’s a tricky word, emotional, and a tricky premise to suggest that women are more emotional than men. It’s often used as a pejorative term, and I should know, as it’s been hurled my way many times.

We all have emotions. (That should be blindingly obvious.) But traditionally, men have been less comfortable exploring and understanding their emotional reality. We all know the stereotype of the macho, stoic, heroic, cowboy type.

It’s been held up as a model forever, and only recently has “emo” been an acceptable state of mind for certain subsets of the male population.

Today’s book, “Herida y Fuente,” was made by an American photographer, Tom Griggs, who’s been living in Colombia for a long time. (Published by Mesaestander) He runs the blog fototazo, and works hard to support Latin American photography.

He’s definitely a good guy.

But I hadn’t seen his work before this book showed up a few months ago. I finally got to take a look at it today, and found it to be soulful, soft, and definitely emotional.

There’s a lot of visual darkness in this book, but it’s mostly the kind that serves as a foil for little spots of illumination. (Chiaroscuro, if you will.) The pictures are lovely, moody, and indirect. As the title is in Spanish, and there’s no English text at all, you’re on your own as far as interpretation goes, unless you speak Spanish.

(I know some, but not enough to decipher the title without Google’s help.)

Beyond the repetition of the black color palette, there are hints of discord. We see glimpses of the female body, but rarely the whole thing. A partner? A wife?

There’s one photograph that reminded me of a breast self-examination, so I wondered if there was an undertone of cancer?

But then we see pillows piled on the couch, like someone had to sleep there. Later, there’s a made bed that no one has slept in. In that sense, the book feels like a set of stills from a movie by one of those crazy Mexican directors.

There are flowers, and butterflies, and a sensibility I would feel comfortable describing as feminine. Unlike some people, I don’t see that as a negative term. Lots of artistic guys are comfortable with their emotions.

Eventually, I did translate the title, which means “wound and source.” I have no idea if this is a literal narrative, but the title clearly pushes us towards seeing this as a romantic breakup, a tumultuous relationship, or a legitimate battle with illness.

There’s a long poem on the back cover, also in Spanish, but I didn’t bother to run it through the software. I figure if Tom wanted us to read it in English, he would’ve written it in English.

Here are some of the words I made out: Contacts, tangents, proximity, separation, distance, bodies, corrosions, rooms, concrete forms, poetic manners…you get the point.

After the disconcerting reviews the last two weeks, I see today’s book as a heartfelt love poem tucked inside a photo book.

Hope you like it too.

Bottom line: A beautiful, poetic meditation on love? 

To purchase “Herida y Fuente,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, to maintain the balance.

This Week in Photography Books: Nancy Borowick

 

IKEA has it all figured out.

They rope most of us in with their cheap, stylish furniture. (Everyone loves a good deal, right?)

But that’s not enough for IKEA. They throw in Dollar hot dogs, cheap Swedish meatballs, free childcare, and I swear one time I saw a sign for free coffee.

It’s a heavy pitch indeed, but it makes sense, as they’re trying to convince people to walk around a space that is at once maze-like and cavernous. (We practically hugged the employee in Denver last time, when she finally showed us a shortcut.)

I like to be a student of success, when I can, and have learned a lesson or two from the Swedish behemoth. Most of the time, I try to be funny and/or witty in this part of the column, and then entice you into reading about a photobook. (At least that’s what I tell myself. I’m sure some of you skip right to the book each time.)

I never planned to be entertaining, or political, though as last week attests, it’s best to step away from the keyboard when I’m in a bad mood.

But there’s nothing funny about the book I read and looked at this morning. It was a completely unique experience in all my years reviewing photo books.

I cried the entire time.

Not bawling, if I’m being honest, but the tears streamed down my cheeks at a consistent pace, like the lines of Taiwanese people buying toilet paper at the store, when it was announced the prices would soon rise. (Apparently, it led to shortages. Napkins, anyone?)

Right, I was writing about crying. I was preparing you for a sad review.

So why am I in a decent mood?

I guess it’s because excellence makes me feel good. Seeing things done well, in particular photobooks, gives me inspiration and excitement to keep pushing forward.

Last fall, Women Photograph, the advocacy organization that recently won an ICP Infinity award, was kind enough to nudge some female photographers to submit books for review in this column.

I thanked them recently on Twitter, and am doing so here, because it lead to reviews of Kathy Shorr’s “SHOT”, Nina Berman’s “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” and now “The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss,” by Nancy Borowick, published by Hatje Cantz.

(We’ll also be looking at Debi Cornwall’s “Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantanamo Bay”, by Radius, and it’s good, as Debi gave me a preview in NYC last spring.)

I know the books that were recommended were pre-selected for being successful, but their commonalities are impossible to ignore.

These books are personal, and emotional. They’re exhaustive, and incorporate text that is as strong as the pictures. They use nontraditional materials within, like cards and medical forms, to break up the monotony of the narrative.

And each discusses a subject that is at the outer edge of human experience, while simultaneously being entirely human.

(At this point, I’ll stop lumping Nancy’s book in with the others, and tell you why it’s so great.)

Nancy Borowick grew up Jewish, in New York, to loyal, loving parents. Her father, like mine, was a lawyer, a baby-boomer, a Giants fan, and his initials were HB.

Like my folks, her parents went to costume parties, took their family on skiing vacations, and had photographs of embarrassing 80’s fashion.

It’s no surprise that life in the New York City suburbs might be similar.

I get it.

But that’s where our stories diverge. (If you don’t make that hard right turn, at just the right time, you’re sure to crash into the concrete stanchion up ahead.)

Cancer runs in Nancy Borowick’s family, and Nancy’s mother, Laurel, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, and it recurred in 2009 and ’11. Her father, Howie, developed terminal pancreatic cancer in 2012, so her parents slowly died together.

Her father was buried 364 days before her mother, who had to live that last year of her life without her soulmate.

The book opens with a heartfelt essay, by my friend and mentor James Estrin, who warns of the extreme emotional nature to follow. He said he cried many times, as this project evolved, and I thought, “Yeah, well, I don’t cry. It’ll never happen.”

Like I said: water works.

The bulk of the book is comprised of black and white photographs that document this phase of the Borowick family’s life, including a wedding, and unfortunately two funerals.

There are diary entries, pain journals, statements from each of her parents, reproductions of handwritten greeting cards, old photos from family albums, and even scans of needlepoint that collectively rocket the reader into the story.

Having two parents die of cancer simultaneously is a hardcore, unlikely experience. It’s the kind of thing everyone prays will never happened to them.

The book is therefore an allegory, as much as a family album. My greatest teacher, Allen Frame, always preached that the deeper you dig into your own personal life, the more likely you are to tap into a universal story.

That’s what Nancy Borowick has done here. There is an inherent shock value in her premise, in her life, that will always draw curiosity. So this book could’ve been mediocre, and I think people still would’ve paid attention.

Instead, by varying the narrative techniques, and ratcheting up the sadness, the power of this family’s love comes through loud and clear. That’s why I felt inspired, rather than wretched.

It’s why I was excited to write about this book for you, instead of sheepish. (Ironically, as the morose emotions coursed through my system, I thought about losing my wife, or dying without seeing my kids grow up, rather than focus on my own aging parents.)

The narrative, design, and photographs here are all top class, so together they create the gestalt of a talismanic object. If I hadn’t been so blown away by Nina Berman’s book a few weeks ago, I’d be happy to tell you this is the best book I’ve seen in a long time.

Instead, I can gladly say the books I’ve been receiving from female photographers are kicking some serious ass. They’ve all been dynamite, so I don’t have to pick a favorite.

Fellas, you best bring it, or step to the back of the line.

Bottom Line: A brilliant book about tragic circumstances

To purchase “The Family Imprint,” click here

This Week in Photography Books: Mario Lalau

 

Sometimes, it feels like the world is run by idiots.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Regular people don’t quest for power. They’re too busy trying to get the bills paid, their children fed, and their posts liked on Instagram.

It takes a special kind of ego to yearn to control others. (I know there are a few idealistic public servants out there, like former President Obama, but they are certainly the exception to the rule.)

Just this morning, for instance, the Taos School system head-honchos refused to cancel classes, despite the massive snowstorm sitting over town. Any fool could’ve looked at the radar and seen what was coming, especially as it began snowing last night.

But our town is most definitely run by morons.

Instead, they made thousands of people drive on icy, snow-covered roads to get their kids in on time.

And then they canceled school an hour later, making everyone repeat the hairy drive a second time.

If I hadn’t seen the same scenario play out year after year, I would’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. But they don’t deserve it. Dumb fucks.

Few things make me angrier then risking children’s lives for no reason.

Of course, one can always pull out an empathy-cheat-sheet to handle the press conference afterwards. Are you kidding me? By now, you’ve all seen the photo of Trump’s tiny hands surrounding a numbered list, required to remind our current president how to talk to children who survived a deadly mass shooting.

The last time I wrote about mass shootings, and predicted another with absolute certainty, I actually got a nasty email from one of our readers. Apparently, in the United States of America, dead children are seen as nothing more than collateral damage to an assault weapons addiction.

So if the guy who wrote me that email is reading this column: fuck off. I didn’t respond to you last time, and I won’t this time either.

I live in a place where the police can’t get to you in time, if something really bad happens. Lots of people have a weapons for self defense.

I get it.

The only reason these lunatics want their AR-15s is to potentially revolt against the government one day. That’s it. You don’t need a semi-automatic rifle to kill a deer, or an elk, or even an endangered species.

But like I said at the beginning, it’s often the biggest douchebags who make the important decisions that govern our lives and safety.

I’m no nihilist, but I’m certain the world is neither orderly nor sane.

Thankfully, today I opened up a photo book by Mario Lalau, a Brazilian photographer I met at Review Santa Fe in October. The dude was cool as hell, and like me, has occasionally been accused of looking like a terrorist. (If you have a slightly swarthy complexion, and wear a beard, it’s bound to come up.)

Mario lives in Texas now, and he told me a hilarious story about making friends with his gun-loving colleagues down there. (He has a strange day job, but I don’t remember what it is.)

After the festival, he sent me a copy of “Tropeço,” published by Foto Editorial, and it felt like the perfect publication for today. (For the record, because of all the portfolio review articles I wrote over the last five months, I’m backed up at looking at the book submissions. If you sent something in to me, please be patient. I look at everything eventually.)

I’m not going to tell you this book is brilliant, because it’s not. It’s barely even a book.

According to some notes he sent along, they actually jumble up the pages of every copy. As it is not hardbound, (or bound at all,) this would certainly be possible.

Mario was really funny in person, which I always appreciate, and these images are representative of a witty vision, as someone wanders the world with a camera.

The pictures are fun, smart, and well-observed.

There’s a randomness to it all that feels very appropriate in 2018. Many of the pictures are phallic, with cones, and buildings, and trees jutting up from the Earth.

The one repeating motif I could discern with certainty was the absurdist, winding Lombard Street in San Francisco. What could be a better metaphor for now than tourists flocking to see a little stretch of asphalt that makes no sense?

I’ve occasionally mourned the fact that I rarely get strange, weird, small-batch, art book submissions these days. I’m sure many of you prefer it that way, as most of the books I review now have a strong sense of mission.

The photographers document an issue, and try to raise awareness.

Not today.

While I admit I woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning, even if I’d arose cheerily, my morning-social-media-check would have assassinated any latent optimism.

But this book, with its emphasis on finding little moments of bliss, or synchronicity, in the face of unending chaos has definitely put a smile on my face.

Thanks, Mario.

Bottom line: A strange and hip little jumble of a publication

PS: It’s crazy that I’ve never done a PS before two weeks ago, and here I am again. But I saw this quote from Mario in an email, and it’s too good not to share: “I’m the guy who told you a story about a lonely, wild boar BBQ with an armed patriot, who called me Omar instead of Mario because of my suspicious beard.”

To purchase Tropeço, click here

This Week in Photography Books: Nina Berman

 

I’m not feeling very creative at the moment.

The sky is gray out my window, and the dreary light is making me lazy. In a perfect world, I’d get back in bed, pull the covers around me tight, and take a big fat nap.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

I bitch and complain as much as the next guy, but in general, I’m aware of how good I have it. While life can turn on any given day, I’m healthy, have a beautiful family, and live in a wonderful place.

If I feel hunger, I go to the refrigerator and make myself some food. So in the grand scheme of things, I have little to complain about.

Living with comfort and security is the root of the American Dream. Without question, we take it for granted. It’s hard not to, as the micro-stresses of daily life add up, and in the aggregate make it difficult to maintain perspective.

As artists, we have a built-in stress relief mechanism, as long as we have the energy to use it. I’ve written many times that I taught abused teenagers for 10 years, and was able to see firsthand how creative outlets allowed them to channel the powerful emotions they have, in response to their tragic circumstances.

Art is its own form of therapy.

I knew my students had undergone horrific situations. As I wasn’t their therapist, I never asked for details. (It didn’t seem appropriate.) My wife, who is a therapist, and works with the same population, has heard frightening stories that would make most people reach for a bottle of whiskey.

Or a big fat joint.

She doesn’t tell me the details, because she’s not allowed. (It’s all confidential.) So she keeps it inside, and sometimes goes to therapy herself, but when things are really bad, I can see the stress energy wafting off her skin like the heat waves that rise from my old wood stove.

Frankly, it’s rare that we find ourselves inside someone else’s nightmare. Sure, some people like to get scared, and pay to watch a creepy movie.

But that’s fiction.

Occasionally, we find ourselves privy to someone else’s darkest secrets. Occasionally, we choose not to look away. (Even when it’s the stuff of pure darkness.)

In my six and half years writing this column, I’ve often shared that my favorite photobooks are experiential. They carefully consider how to unspool the thread of their narrative; how to engage an audience by divulging details in just the right way.

I love books that show me things I haven’t seen before, and give me insights I couldn’t otherwise access.

I’ve also admitted to being something of an Anglophile, as I’m addicted to English football, and wrote stories on this very blog about my remarkably joyous trips to London in 2012 and ’13.

It’s easy to idealize a place when you only see its slick surface. People do that with Taos all the time. They come here thinking it’s a quaint, little tourist mecca, with hip art galleries and magnificent nature.

But as I’ve said before, it’s the most hard-core place I’ve ever lived, and I did a three year stint in Brooklyn.

There are plenty of entertainment options that glamorize English gangsters, like the stylish “Peaky Blinders,” the several movies about the Krays, or (insert random Guy Richie movie here.)

But I just put down a photo book that made my head spin, in a good way, though its contents are shockingly awful. (The kind of awful that enlightens, not the kind that comes from poor execution.)

“An autobiography of Miss Wish” is a new book by Nina Berman, in conjunction with Kimberly Stevens, which was published in the fall by Kehrer Verlag in Germany. It’s generated a fair amount of positive press, and I feel fortunate to have been sent a copy a few months ago, when I was actively soliciting submissions from female artists.

(By the way, the first round of outreach was successful, but I’m down to my last two books by female photographers, so hopefully you guys can help spread the word to get a new batch of submissions for us.)

Kimberly Stevens is the latest name adopted by an Englishwoman who’s had as difficult a life as I’ve ever encountered. This book shares the kind of stories my wife keeps to herself. It’s hard to read what is presented here; to look at Nina Berman’s photographs, and Kimberly’s drawings and diary entries.

The shortest version is that Ms. Stevens was adopted at two into a family of violent, murderous, child-purchasing, sex traffickers. She was raped, tortured, and prostituted for her entire childhood. Even worse, the gang that ran her continued to kidnap her anytime anyone stepped in to help.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ll photograph the drawing she made of a dismemberment, part of a series of flashbacks that were symptoms of extreme mental illness brought on by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In what can only be described as a coincidence, or an act of God, Nina Berman bumped into Kimberly in the early 90s in London, when she was still going by the name of Cathy Wish. She photographed her roaming the city, and they struck a friendship.

As Kimberly’s captors were so well-connected that the police couldn’t protect her, an officer from Scotland Yard suggested she escape to America, and even gave her the money to buy a ticket.

So she came to the United States, (the exact type of immigrant our current president despises,) and made a life for herself on the streets, in the shelters, jails and mental institutions of New York City.

Throughout, Kimberly has suffered from multiple personality disorder, suicidal tendencies, drug addiction, HIV, and dissociative fugue states.

(Like I said, this gives hard-core a new definition.)

The book, which is remarkably well done, shares the story with us in a variety of ways. From medical reports to text messages, consistently interspersed with Ms. Berman’s documentary images, we’re given access to Kimberly Stevens’ life story.

Throughout her time in our country, Nina Berman proved to be her support system.

Her family.

Her rock.

I interviewed Nina Berman for this blog many years ago. She struck me as an extreme personality. You have to be, to somehow believe Kimberly Stevens could carve out a life worth living. That she wouldn’t be better off just jumping off a bridge, or out a window, both of which she tried to do.

Instead, they made this book as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the ultimate survivor.

As far as I’m concerned, photobooks don’t get much better than this.

Bottom line: A collaborative masterpiece

To purchase “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” click here


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

This Week in Photography Books: Paul Gaffney

 

Any idiot can deny something.

It’s takes no effort at all.

What could be easier for a lazy person?

Here.
I’ll show you.

I hereby deny that gravity exists. Even though the book I just dropped fell, and hit the couch, still, I insist there’s no such thing as gravity.

Here’s another.

I deny that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is an inherently conservative institution, founded by the famously anti-leftist J. Edgar Hoover.

Who cares that he assassinated Black Panthers?

And that as recently as 2016, we all thought James Comey was a conservative fascist who ruined Hillary Clinton’s chances of getting elected.

Now, these stiff-suited-corn-fed-white-boys are suddenly smoking weed with Jerry Brown?

It’s ludicrous.

But I didn’t mean to get off on a political rant today. Rather, I was thinking about all the people out there who deny that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate patterns.

Theoretically, that should not be a political statement. There is vast empirical evidence supporting the idea that gas emissions trap heat within the planet’s atmosphere, which affects different places in different ways.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” a movie now almost 12 years old, predicted an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events. In addition, traditional weather patterns were meant to shift as well.

Any sentient person can see that in America alone, we’ve been hit with massive floods, hurricanes, droughts, mudslides, and wildfires. (Hell, we even have man-made earthquakes these days too.)

Here in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah are having their worst winter in recent memory. There’s almost no snow at all. (Though here at Taos Ski Valley, our new billionaire owner has certainly been willing to pay for man-made snowmaking. Until the water allotment runs out…)

It was so warm in December, January and now February, it seems as if winter were only a rumor.

Just last year, we had tons of snow, and I’m sure we will again next year. But each random catastrophic weather event, wherever it hits, cost billions of dollars, and wreaks havoc across all strata of society. (Though of course low income people suffer disproportionately.)

Some might say Nature is fighting back.

That we, tiny humans, think that we can do whatever we want, but we’re wrong.

I don’t know who or what controls the wind, the clouds, the rain, the sky. But I do know I’ve been looking out my window at dry grass all winter, instead of white frozen Wonderland.

And I know my trees are thirsty.

I recently saw a headline on Twitter that plants lost certain activity function when exposed to anesthesia. I admit I didn’t read the article, but it implied some sort of sentience.

When you live among raw nature, as I do, it’s not hard to believe such things.

I admit I just came back from my daily walk, but really I’m ruminating, having just looked at “Perigee,” a new book by Paul Gaffney in Ireland, which turned up last autumn.

I reviewed an earlier book of his, “We Make the Path By Walking,” and recall he spent an inordinate amount of time on solo walks in the Irish countryside. (That’s a lot of quiet time, bro.)

This new book is simply beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it. So much clean white paper, in a double fold.

The stiff black binding. So many empty pages. And the images within are special as well.

We learn at the book’s end that the series was made during an artist residency in Luxembourg. (Seriously, do they just give you the whole country for the residency? Sitting here on the other side of the world, I imagine Luxembourg being about as big as Disney World. No offense.)

I’m sure Paul spent a lot of time walking in the woods there, though the book gives us almost no words at all. He thanks his family and friends at the end, which I think is super-classy, and there’s only one fraction of a song lyric.

“But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzled”

It’s interesting context, after-the-fact, because with the strong contrast, and yet consistently dynamic total range, the pictures made me think of electricity, as much as anything else.

Bioluminescent undersea creatures pulsating with life. Or a network of neurons in a Pelican’s brain.

On some level, I understand that they’re just simple black-and-white landscape pictures made in forests. Lots of people do that.

But between the exquisite, minimal design, and the vibrant energy within each picture, (much less the entire edit,) I think this book is just about perfect.

I’m sure you will too.

Bottom line: a little Zen gem, like a poem

PS: I’ve never done a PS before, but when I just went to find the purchase link, I learned another book that was in the package was also a part of “Perigee.” It had no words, and I had no way of knowing they were connected. Apologies.

To purchase Perigee, click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Carolyn Marks Blackwood

 

I never get homesick.

Not for New Jersey.
(Where I’m from.)

It never happens.

But lately, my home state has crept back into the dark recesses of my consciousness. It began recently enough, when I found myself reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

My son, Theo, was writing his first term paper, and chose Franklin as his subject. I saw the book sitting there, and picked it up out of curiosity, more than anything else. When I read that old Ben first landed in New Jersey at Amboy, not 10 miles from where I grew up, it definitely piqued my curiosity.

The book was a bit of a tease, if I’m being honest, because as fascinating as it was to be inside Franklin’s mind, he died writing it, before he got anywhere near the Revolutionary War.

The man spent pages and pages describing a system for removing dust from the streets of Philadelphia, but never thought to speed it up so we could hear what he thought of George Washington, or the Revolution in general?

Mind-melding with Ben Franklin, straight out of the 18th-century, reminded me of the feeling I had walking the Monmouth Battlefield, or going on school field trips when I was young, and being told that Washington had slept there.

At the moment, I’m deep into binge watching an AMC show about the Revolutionary War, with the awkward title of “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” (Seriously, for all the money these people make, nobody thought to come up with a better title?)

The show is exceptional, so you certainly have my recommendation to watch it yourself, but it’s also been feeding the odd homesickness as well. (As an aside, the show gives good evidence that the New Jersey/Long Island Island rivalry goes back to the old days, when Jersey was Patriot territory, and Long Island was a Tory stronghold.)

My hometown, Holmdel, had its fair share of 18th-century architecture. Not to mention graveyards. (Can you imagine how scary it would be to live next to some of these places?)

Right now, I definitely feel some chills up my spine, having just put down “The Story Series,” a new book by Carolyn Marks Blackwood, recently published by the Roberto Polo Gallery in Brussels. (She just had a show there, and it’s now up at Von Lintel in LA.)

When Ms. Blackwood originally wrote me, she mentioned that she lives in upstate New York. In a sense, it doesn’t matter, because the pictures in this book channel that 18th-century creepy vibe better than just about anything I’ve seen.

The book mentions that these pictures are meant to be exhibited at a very large scale, so when I was looking, I tried to imagine projecting them as wall size, which helps explain the sort-of-painterly, soft focus, lower-resolution aesthetic presented within.

According to an opening interview, Ms. Blackwood is also a screenwriter. It makes perfect sense, as each of the snowy, or dark, wintry pictures is accompanied by a one or two sentence narrative.

They’re novels, for the Twitter age.

I think there’s a range in quality between the pictures, and some would be banal, without the text. Regardless, when combined, I think they give off a strong, local, historical mood.

The paper is dark. The pictures are dark. They’re like ghost stories, without the ghosts.

My one quibble here, and it’s something I’ve mentioned a bit lately, is that I think there are too many pictures. I know that books differentiate themselves from catalogs by being bigger, and having more images, but I definitely think that more is not more, in most cases.

Less is more.

See you next week

Bottom Line: Cool, creepy, painterly book of East Coast landscapes

To purchase “The Story Series,” click here

The Best Work I Saw at Photo NOLA: Part 2

 

If you live long enough, you’ll see all manner of science fiction come to life.

Like right now, for instance.

My busted hand is healing more slowly than I might like, so I just figured out I can dictate my column on my new-ish computer.

It’s blowing my mind.

So many of us use technology, these days, to take us out of our everyday world, away from the thoughts that clutter our minds. Whether we’re looking at computers, phones, tablets, watches, or television screens, digital reality transports us away from our mundane lives.

I’m getting a rush, at the moment, because I’ve had the same way of writing for the last nine years, (you know, typing…) and it feels like the 21st-century has finally come in earnest to my remote little horse pasture in the Wild West.

If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you’ll know there are some themes I return to again and again over the years. One idea I like to consider, from time to time, is the way art functions in the very manner I’m currently discussing technology.

Art can expand our minds.

Like the perfect psilocybin trip, movies, paintings, books, photographs, (etc.,) help us understand more about the world we inhabit. Art can definitely make us smarter, which is why some people find it so threatening.

But art can also make you forget the world. It can wipe your mind clean, and leave you feeling all sorts of emotions, as your neurons blaze with bio-electrical energy.

Last year, during my travels, (which I reported on extensively here,) I had a couple of art experiences that transcended what I normally get out of looking at objects on the walls of a museum.

Each time, I got swept up in the music.

I admit that back in the 90s, I went to my fair share of concerts, and had a shit-ton of fun. But it’s been so long since I’ve seen live music, what with dinners to cook and kids to put to bed.

So when I was in Chicago for the Filter Photo Festival back in September, I found myself eating late night scraps at a party with some local jazz musicians who had just wrapped their set. I asked them where they would go if they were me, to see something special, and they mentioned a place called The Green Mill.

When I told my friends, they assured me it was famous, as it used to be a hangout for Al Capone. Now that I’ve been to Chicago three times, I get the sense there’re a lot of places that lay claim to the old gangster. His name still comes up constantly, this deep into our futuristic present.

Anyway, there was a cheesy-old-timey-white-guy-jazz-band playing when we arrived, which my friend Erin likened to listening to NPR live, and the bouncers kept insisting everyone be quiet to listen. (Lots of shushing.)

It was a total bummer.

All of a sudden, the band welcomed an Old-Spanish-Female-Gypsy singer to sit in with them, and within seconds of her opening her mouth, I was transfixed. Everyone shut up willingly, like something out of a movie, when the odd duck walks into the wrong bar.

Oh my God, it was so good.

Before you know it, I was the one telling Erin to shut up, and then after two songs, she was gone. The band went back to its lame previous set.

Then this December, when I was in New Orleans for the Photo NOLA festival, I swore I would not leave town without hearing some kick ass music. New Orleans is renown for being one of the best music cities on Earth, yet I had never seen so much as a tambourine rattled on previous visits.

Certainly, no Second Lines, or anything special like that.

Each time I’ve gone, I’ve been told that Frenchmen Street is the place to go, but I hadn’t ventured that far before. This time, I refused to take no for an answer, and luckily recruited a great group to join me. (We hailed from Chicago, London, Taos, Savannah, Dallas, Atlanta, Tucson, and Phoenix, so it was a polyglot affair.)

The first bar we went to had some hack singing “Happy Birthday” to a bunch of drunk tourists who didn’t know any better, even though we were told this was more a local’s part of town.

We left, (of course,) and found a bar called d.b.a. The bouncer let us in for free because the cover charge hadn’t started yet, but told us if we left we’d have to pay 10 bucks to get back in, because the band was THAT GOOD.

He suggested if we were smart, we’d hang tight for a couple of hours, and wouldn’t be sorry. Man, was that dude right. (Thanks for the advice, random-NOLA-bouncer-guy.)

It was a Mississippi Hill Country Blues duo featuring Cedric Burnside, the grandson of the famous bluesman RL Burnside, and his sometimes partner Lightnin’ Malcolm.

Holy shit, could these guys wail. The music was violent, but in a good way. I was yelling and screaming, dancing like a teenager, and sweating from the heat of their awesomeness.

It was one of the best art fixes I’ve had in a very long time.

I know on this blog we show photographs, and there’s rarely any sound, beyond the odd-random-video-link. You guys come here to read the writing, and look at the pictures, and I hope in the best case, some of the things you look at might take you out of your head, in addition to expanding your mind.

Some artists I meet have political things to say, and critique the cultures in which they live, and others just want to make something beautiful, peaceful, or memorable.

So today, I’m showing you the second and final group of portfolios that represent the best work I saw at Photo NOLA last month.

Becky Wilkes hails from Ft. Worth, Texas, and has a house on a lake down there. She likes to go on walks, and picks up trash that she finds along way, before taking it to her studio to make art. She showed me one group of pictures that was very linear, and literal, and I felt it could use a little loosening up.

Then, she had a second series that was far more playful and light hearted, as she makes little tableaux. It presented the objects in stark contrast to the manner were normally accustomed to seeing them. I think they’re kind of cool, and I’m sure you will too.

Christos Palios is a Greek-American hailing from the Baltimore area. Rather than showing me pictures of the Inner Harbor, or all the locations David Simon filmed in during “The Wire,” he had a series of photographs from across the world in Greece.

The pictures represent unfinished, concrete structures dotting the landscape, abandoned after The Great Recession. Christos prides himself on his craftsmanship, and I don’t blame him, as he’s teasing some really high resolution landscape imagery out of a full frame digital 35 system.

Technical-speak aside, I think the pictures a really interesting. There’s a calm, bleakness to them, but they’re also traditionally beautiful as well, with their formal structures and subdued-but-evident color palette.

I first saw Mary Anne Mitchell’s work out of the corner of my eye at the portfolio walk, and it appeared she was working with tin types, which were popular at the festival. (Frankly, now that I think about it, I saw a fair bit of that style of work in 2017.)

When we sat down at the table the next day, she showed me that, like others I’ve reviewed, she had scanned and enlarged the tintypes, and was printing her images digitally. At first I questioned the technique, because why bother going old-school if the final results don’t really show the work?

But then I saw the large prints, with all sorts of texture captured from the plates, and I thought they were great. Mary Anne, who’s based in Atlanta, shoots mostly in her backyard, and uses friends and family as models, yet involves masks in ways ways that reference photo history, and art history in general. (Like Julia Margaret Cameron meets Ralph Eugene Meatyard.)

Crazy stuff.

Jan Arrigo was one of several people who returned to my table to show me how their work has evolved from a previous meeting several years before. (I took that as a compliment.)

Jan lives nearby, on Lake Pontchartrain, and had multiple series of well-crafted pictures that showed off the lyrical, Southern, baroque beauty of the landscape. In particular, I liked a group that tracked the place in the years before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Black and white photo of a wooded area in Slidell, Louisiana taken after a storm shows bent tree trunks leaning into each other under a grey sky.

A black cloud releases a darkend sheet of rain over Lake Pontchartrain in this black and white photo vertical seascape taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

A funnel cloud appears to touch down on the Twin Spans bridge in this black and white photo taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

This black and white photo portrait of a piece of floodgate sign washed up on Lake Pontchartrain includes the printed words Orleans and floodgate.

Crochet design and yarns draped inside a tree appear as fiber art created by hurricane Katrina in this black and white photo by Jan Arrigo taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

An open-beaked flying black bird is captured in motion inside a foggy landscape in this black and white photograph taken in Slidell, Louisiana. Following Hurricane Katrina the photographer, Jan Arrigo began to document her surroundings and this image continues that series.

Hanging organic matter dangles from a tree in a awampy area of Slidell, Louisiana two years after Hurricane Katrina in this black and white still life photograph.

A black bird in shadow looks down with his beak behind a tree branch torn and storm tattered in this black and white photo still taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

Extreme close up of a hibiscus blossom stamen shadow black and white photo taken in New Orleans by Jan Arrigo.

MOSS SCROLL

Five seagulls in shadow fly among and over clouds in this black and white photograph taken of the sky in Slidell, Louisiana.

Finally, we’ll end with George Nobechi. (As someone wrote me in an email this week, sometimes you save the best for last.)

George was visiting from Japan, though he’s Japanese-Canadian, and told me he was heavily inspired by the National Geographic photography done by legend Sam Abell. As I often think of that style as being represented by “single images,” and George said he had traveled the world by himself, but the resulting pictures did not have a coherent theme, I admit I was concerned.

But all it took was one pass through the photographs to see how tight, and Zen his vision was. I could look at some of these pictures all day, and walk away totally blissed.

The fact that I ran into George at the end of the festival, and he offered me some brilliant sake from a tiny distiller, high in the remote mountains of Japan, had no bearing on my opinions about his photography. (But it definitely made me like him more.)

Okay, that’s all for now. Hope you have a great weekend, and I’ll have a book review for you next Friday, as usual.

The Best Work I Saw at Photo NOLA: Part 1

 

I’ve been to New Orleans four times in my life.

Each visit, I’ve gone in December. It’s not entirely a coincidence, as that’s when the Photo NOLA festival takes place. (I’ve attended in 2012, ’14 and now ’17)

Despite the fact that New Orleans is situated on the Gulf Coast, and is reputed for its lovely winter weather, two of my visits were met with freezing-rain-ice-storms that made me want to cry in a pillow.

(The other two times I was met with humid, sunny, 70-80 degree weather, so I guess it all depends on luck.)

The fact the weather was awful this year was mitigated by the fact that I’d planned the trip with little time scheduled outside the International House Hotel, where the event is held each year. (It’s just a few short blocks outside the French Quarter.)

Mostly, I was either in the hotel or adjoining conference center, or safely ensconced inside a bar/restaurant/museum/gallery/party/Uber. So any whinging I now provide is mostly for comedic effect.

There was a brief moment, the first night, when I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the heat in my hotel room, and I actually did cry into a pillow, but beyond that, I had a smashing time at Photo NOLA last month.

Like many portfolio review events these days, Photo NOLA is run by a non-profit, in this case the New Orleans Photo Alliance, which is a member-supported organization. (We did an interview on the subject years ago with Jennifer Shaw, if you’d like to learn more about it.)

So Photo NOLA is imbued with a sense of mission, and everyone clearly loves being a part of such a vibrant local photo community. Like Filter in Chicago, another of my favorites, this festival puts heavy emphasis on socializing, as they have several parties and events lined up, including a gala at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and a yellow-school-bus-led gallery tour.

Photographers have a lot of choices these days, as far as review events to attend, so I think the fact that you can have so much fun at Photo NOLA, in addition to the fact they clearly get a few reviewers each year who normally aren’t on the circuit, makes it a very wise place to invest your obviously-limited resources.

(If you’re one of the few out there who’s doing really well, getting rich off of being a photographer, you can ignore the previous comment, but have the decency to keep it to yourself, OK?)

For whatever reason, I had a lot of people visit the table this year who were looking for advice and feedback, but weren’t quite ready to be shown here. I do the best I can to help, obviously, but only publish work in the column that demonstrates a high degree of craft, if not concept, over 8-10 pictures.

As such, I’ll show you a handful of projects today and next week, and then we’ll be back to the book reviews. I attend most of these events in the summer and fall, so this will be the end of the review stories, for a while.

As usual, the photographers are in no particular order.

Ok, they’re in no particular order beyond the fact that I’m starting with Jared Ragland. His work was the most complete, compelling project I saw, and I voted for it for the Photo NOLA prize.

Jared used to work with Pete Souza in Obama’s White House. (An era that now seems like Martin Sheen’s TV presidency, for all the similarities it shares with contemporary reality.) But Jared is originally from Alabama, and returned home to turn his attention to the meth epidemic that is ravaging the NE part of the state.

The pictures are genuinely visceral, as they make a viewer feel uncomfortable. They show something decidedly ugly, and real, but the strong aesthetics give the ride a bit of turbo boost. Additionally, Jared worked with a sociologist to give the project a sense of academic rigor.

Brilliant stuff.

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Ellie Ivanova had a new take on a subject matter we’ve all seen before: war re-enactors. It’s not hard to see why people are drawn to the subject, as it’s incredibly visual, and also goes pretty far down the road of creating the impression of time travel.

I feel most photographers neglect to really push the element of time in their work, so when the clothing and props are already there for the taking, it’s not hard to see why people with cameras get curious.

Ellie is from Bulgaria, but based in Denton, TX, where she got her MFA degree. She is using a fairly original analog technique to make prints that don’t look real, using some strange acid trick. The chemistry acts in funny ways, and eats away at the emulsion, so the visual effects enhance the emotionality, I think, and also imbue the subject with a bit of originality.








I first saw Amilton Neves‘s work during the portfolio walk, and stopped in my tracks, as it is clearly compelling. Luckily, he had a review with me the next day, so I got the full backstory.

Amilton recently moved to Tampa from Mozambique, where he was both a photographer and an anthropologist. Back home, he became intrigued by a community of women who’d been encouraged to write letters to Portuguese colonial soldiers during a war of independence in the 60’s and 70’s.

Portugal was eventually ejected, after 500 years of Colonial exploitation, and the women were deemed enemies of the state. Surprisingly, they’re still demonized, all these years later, so Amilton photographed them in their homes, and gained access to some of the letters as well.

I think it’s a striking project, and look forward to seeing what he comes up with down there in the craziest state in the Union. (Keep f-cking that chicken, Florida.)

Jo Ann Chaus and I got along swimmingly. She’s a Jewish grandmother from Northern New Jersey, and we openly discussed how hard it can be to focus on a career in the arts, coming from that local culture. (I’m sure I wouldn’t be an artist today if my folks hadn’t left for Taos in the 90’s.)

Though I admit women of her generation doing self-portraiture-based projects is a bit trendy at the moment, (which I told her,) I found an honesty, and visual strength, in many of these pictures, and heartily encouraged her to continue, and push it even further.

Lisa M Robinson and I go way back, as she used to be married to my friend Ken. (Who featured in the ridiculous Marfa article series we published in 2012.)

Lisa, who’s represented by our friends Klompching Brooklyn, got a lot of traction years ago for her project, and Kehrer Verlag book “Snowbound.” They were lovely, meditative, large format images, which she followed up with a series about the sea.

Though I know she was not enamored of Tucson on first site, apparently she made her peace with the desert, because I think this new group of pictures, Terrestra, rocks. I saw it at the portfolio walk, and the prints, trimmed borderless, were the best I saw in NOLA. (The show is up at Klompching as we speak.)

All images © Lisa M. Robinson/Courtesy of Klompching Gallery, New York

We’ll end today with Rich Frishman, a funny guy who’s based in Washington. I was talking with Frish Brandt, the Director of the Fraenkel Gallery, who was my table-mate, when Rich walked up to my table, and she said he was her brother.

They both smiled, and I was totally sure they were spontaneously busting my balls. You know, two people who get in on the joke immediately, like improv performers.

But no, they insisted, her name Frish came from Frishman, the two hugged, and then she told me he should have been a better big brother when they were young. (He confirmed as much.)

In all my years reviewing, it was one of the most surreal little moments I’ve had. (Is there a book in that? All the craziest stuff I’ve seen at portfolio reviews? Probably not.)

Rich’s pictures are panoramic visions of Americana, shot across much of the country, and are meant to be printed very large, so people can dive into the details. The photos are obviously likable, and kitschy, but I told him the more visually compelling they were, the more people would engage with his vision.

©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allen’s Filling Station on US Route 66; Commerce, Oklahoma
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Total solar eclipse over McDonald’s; Baker City, Oregon
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Midway Drive-In Theatre; Quitaque, Texas 2016
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Segregation wall at Templin Saloon; Gonzales, Texas 2016
The wall was constructed in the early 20th Century and is decorated with an original pre-1929 Dr. Pepper logo.
At the time of its construction (circa 1906) only Caucasian customers were allowed to sit in the front of the saloon. All Hispanic, Latino and African-American customers had to sit behind the wall.
When the saloon was remodeled and re-opened in 2014 the wall, no longer used for its original purpose, was retained as a historical reminder.
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Stark’s Sporting Goods in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin features an assortment of items, including boats, booze and bullets. One stop shopping American-style: shots of whiskey and shotguns.
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

See you next week with more great photography. (If we don’t get nuked first…)