Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography Books: Luciana Pampalone

Proper civilizations depend upon the rule of law, in my opinion.

It might not work as a general rule, though, because China is an impressive civilization, for sure. (I guess Russia is too, if for Dostoevsky alone.)

But since the times of Hammurabi’s code, the idea of a system of justice has long been at the heart of most idealistic, successful societies. (I’d include America on that list, though our justice system is heavily imperfect.)

Even when they’re functioning, laws require distinctions to be made, as well as decisions.

This act or behavior is permitted. But that one is not.

Sometimes, though, things get murky.

Even the idea of pornography, sexual imagery that is considered illegal for traditional methods of media distribution, is unclear as a category.

Famously, the US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart declared in Jacobellis vs Ohio that the standard was essentially: “I know it when I see it.”

Which means what?

Penetration is always porn, but boobs alone rarely are? Female frontal nudity is considered more acceptable than male, and why is that?

(Or the amazing “Broad City” girls can talk about pegging, on cable TV, but probably couldn’t use the word fuck.)

Speaking of laws, we’ve almost always kept our content SFW here at my APE book review column. (Safe for work.) Rob asked me to run it that way from the beginning, and then was open-minded as I experimented with showing a bit of nudity and light sexual behavior stuff here, years ago.

But it didn’t feel right for the audience, and we tightened up the restrictions ever since.

(One time, I specifically remember using my finger to tactically cover a hippie-dude’s-johnson in a photograph.)

I don’t mind the restriction.

I don’t think the column would be better if I could show sexually explicit photo books.

I’ve made plenty of “Boobs Sell Books” jokes over the years, but adding intercourse would not make my articles better, in my opinion.

One photographer, Luciana Pampalone, reached out to me recently to see if I’d consider reviewing her exhibition catalog.

She said the pictures were erotic, not porn. And there were enough images for me to present that lacked out-right nudity. (Another photographer sent me a sample recently that was too hardcore, and I had to politely decline.)

The self-published catalog accompanied an exhibition that took place from December 2017 to January 2018 at The White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York.

The pictures were made over a long range, dating back to 1990, so clearly it’s a subject of passion for the photographer.

An opening statement tells us she’s had a long commercial and editorial career, draws inspiration from Helmut Newton and Deborah Turbeville, and that she “depicts women as strong central figures in her work, allowing them to take on the roles of heroine or harlot, captivating onlookers and creating complex black and white compositions.”

Now, I’m not going to photograph the nude shots, as is our policy, but there are more than enough that suggest, but don’t show. As to the ones that are too racy, there are a few that contain women’s breasts, a few that simulate a soft-core orgy, and a whole set showing women’s butts through fishnet stockings.

I’m not sure what I think of these pictures, honestly. They’re not exactly to my taste, but they are well made.

Who is the audience for work like this?

Art that titilates?

And what about the context, that they’re made by a woman instead of a man? Nudity is problematic for men these days, and rightly so in my opinion, but what are the rules that apply to female photographers?

(Kind of like Sofia Coppola can get away with opening “Lost in Translation” with Scarlet Johansson’s butt in see-through panties, but a male director probably wouldn’t make that move these days.)

To be clear, I kind of like this booklet. It’s honest, as the word erotic is on the cover.

It’s in the title of the project, for heaven’s sake.

If you don’t like those sort of things, you won’t look. And as the artist is a woman, the politics align with 2019.

It’s certainly something different, which I try to offer you on a semi-regular basis.

Stay warm out there.

Spring will be here soon enough.

Bottom Line: Cool catalogue of 30 years worth of erotica

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Tony Fouhse

Did you hear about the guy who choked out a mountain lion?

Some Colorado-mountain-runner-guy got attacked by a cougar, from behind, and fought back.

The second I read it, (the story made national news, and you’ve likely already heard about it by now,) I thought, “I bet that guy does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.”

Or martial arts of some sort.

I should know, because last week, within 24 hours, I found myself put in two potentially neck-crushing choke holds, (a rear-naked and a guillotine,) and then a proper sleeper hold, in which I woke up on my knees, facing the mat.

(I hadn’t realized quite how vulnerable our necks are, but there you go.)

We always minimize the risks out there, else how would we leave the house each morning to drive a car, trust the subway, or ski down the hill? (Three people have died at Taos Ski Valley since New Year’s.)

But back to the dude who killed the mountain lion.

Can you just imagine how that scenario played out?

You’re running along, you’re fit, you’re strong, and then you hear something behind you, and it’s the VERY WORST CASE SCENARIO, as it’s a FUCKING MOUNTAIN LION.

It starts biting and scratching you, trying to eat you.

TO EAT YOU.
RED ALERT.
INSTINCTS, KICK INTO OVERDRIVE!

Now, how many of us, even those who go to fighting class on a regular basis, would have the peace of mind to get behind the mountain lion, to take its back, and then crush its windpipe and choke it to death, while practically tasting its fur in your mouth.

Your heart is racing, your mind is thinking, “this can’t be real, this can’t be real.”

But it is real.
You’re choking out a fucking mountain lion, and then it’s dead.

It’s over.

You’ve won. You fought for your life, and he’s dead on the ground.

Now, a story like that is interesting now matter how you tell it. I opened by telling you how it ends, and still we’re fascinated.

I didn’t drag it out, teasing with tension.

Does the mountain lion prevail?

Does our intrepid hippie-mountain-runner-martial-artist-guy get eaten alive, a cougar baby nibbling on his jawbone?

But that’s not how I told it. I lead with the ending…

We all enter the pop-culture-continuum at different times, but I remember when I first saw “Reservoir Dogs,” as an 18-year-old, and was introduced by Quentin Tarantino to non-linear narrative.

Just last week, in this very column, I said that a good book should have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Just last week.

But today, I think it’s important to consider the alternatives, like non-linear, repeating, or reverse narratives.

It’s easy to think of movies, like “Pulp Fiction,” “Memento,” “12 Monkeys,” or “Looper.” (Man, what is it with Bruce Willis and weird-ass narratives?)

Given how many books I see, sometimes it’s fair to wonder, is the artist thinking two ways here?

That’s certainly what I came away pondering, after looking several times at the excellent photobook “After the Fact,” by Tony Fouhse, published by his company, Starlight Press, in Ottawa.

(This is the winter of the Canadians, I guess.)

The cover is a dream-scape in silhouette of black on blue, with ravens and a tree and the sky.

This will be a repeating motif within, birds, and while I was OK with it, maybe it did seem a bit obvious.

Open it up, and there’s a globe. The North Atlantic Sea is prominent, and I think it’s a pretty damn smart way to ground the story.

Then, a disaffected portrait of a tall guy crammed under a short ceiling.

Then bleak, cold, yet undeniably beautiful landscapes of what I take to be Canada in Winter.

We start with a smart quote by Bertolt Brecht about singing in the face of darkness, which I took to mean that we need to make our art, to speak our peace, to sing our songs, in particular when we think things are going to shit.

(And of course many people regard our current situation as a particularly dangerous one, relative to the Post World War II era.)

Then, some redacted text, and then a slew of excellent images.

Like I said, the bird theme is a bit on-the-nose for me, and I normally don’t use that expression. But I’d also like to ask that people stop including pictures of trash on the street or sidewalk. (We had them in last week’s book too.)

What do you say, folks?
A moratorium on garbage in the street pictures?

But other than that, the photography is spot on.

The portrait of the dog in the muzzle?
Amazing.

The yellow brick road, the policeman’s gun, the bloody bed, the sad portraits, the public places, it all adds up to a feeling of dread and impending doom.

Impending doom is the same as maybe-not-yet arrived doom. You can feel it coming, but is there still time to affect the outcome? To hope?

There’s a guy in camouflage unfurling a wire of some sort. Mennonite women, a power-company worker at night, more sad portraits, dead-people feet, power washing a building, and then that little girl looking right at you, from the side, like a young-21st-century-Mona-Lisa.

Towards the end, the book’s title page, “After the Fact.”

Then, another quote, this time from Martin Heidegger, “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”

Idealism before realism, I suppose?

Next, another portrait of a guy looking away, (behind the hoodie,) the birds, and a cold Canadian landscape.

A last credits page, which quotes Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten,” and states, unequivocally, “This book is a work of fiction. The real people, places and incidents portrayed are used fictitiously.”

The end.

Is it, though?

If you open it in the back, and start here, doesn’t the book make just as much sense?

You get opening quotes for context, and you’re explicitly told to see this as a work of visual fiction.

It opens similarly, motif wise, (birds/landscape/dude portrait,) and this way, it includes the title page in the beginning, where it would normally be.

Plus, it’s just so easy to flip-it back to front, given its design.

There are narrative waves and repeating motifs that work just as well this way, and even better, you can reverse direction whenever you want.

It’s a good reminder, perhaps, that we not get too rigid in our thinking. That books should be made this way. Or that.

Book making is a creative endeavor, and I’d like to hope we can continue to be surprised.

As as the Clash dude said, “The future is unwritten.”

Bottom Line: Smart, bleak Canadian story with a reverse narrative

To purchase “After the Fact” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Lorena Turner

 

I used to know Keanu Reeves.

It’s true.

Back in the 90’s, I worked on a couple of movies in New York, just before moving back to New Mexico. One of them, a major Warner Brother production, was called “The Devil’s Advocate,” and starred Keanu, Charlize Theron and Al Pacino.

I got hired as an office intern, was soon promoted to office PA, and then got a second promotion to location assistant. (Before I was fired in winter so they could hire a much more qualified person for the job.)

Because I answered the phones, made the coffee and took out the trash well before shooting, I was around to hear the gossip, pick up on the undercurrents, and generally make myself a part of the furniture.

Surprisingly, my fellow intern Sarah, who’d just gotten a film degree at NYU, told me she wanted to date Keanu, and then she went ahead and made it happen.

So it wasn’t that odd, in the end, to hang out in Keanu’s trailer and shoot the shit while he smoked, or keep him company while he was waiting for an actress to come in and test opposite.

The strangest thing was, though, that Keanu Reeves was insanely charismatic in person. He would do voices, and crack jokes.

Personally dripped off the guy.

But then, as soon as the cameras started rolling, he’d become stiff and wooden, and his line-readings made me cringe more than once. (Once a day, maybe. He was really bad.)

It was odd to see him behave one way IRL, but then freeze up, or shut down, once it was time to do his job.

At that point, in 1996, he was still known as the cute guy from Bill and Ted’s who couldn’t act for shit. (And I had to admit the reputation seemed appropriate.)

Then, after “The Matrix” came out, all of a sudden, he was a Sci-Fi action superstar, and his subdued on-screen persona made more sense. It’s hard to re-create the feeling of awe many of us had, seeing that film for the first time, but it obviously never would have worked with another actor.

Seemingly, after that, he went into another fallow period, and got super-into martial arts, so much that he directed a film about a Tai Chi fighter, and acted in an awful Japanese sci-fi Samurai film that ended in mass Seppuku. (Mercifully.)

Fast forward to 2019, and the world is eagerly awaiting the third “John Wick” movie, because Keanu managed to reinvent himself yet again, and his laconic, restrained acting is just perfect, when surrounded by the absurd, almost campy, but extremely-well-done action filmmaking.

While we all grow and change in life, (hopefully,) it seems to me like Keanu Reeves just can’t be understood outside of the context in which he’s seen.

Is he really a better actor as John Wick than he was as Neo, or Kevin, the literal son of the Devil?

I’m not so sure.

And what about that amazing personality of his? Does it change one’s perception of his wooden on-screen-persona to know he’s a hoot as a real guy?

I’m not sure of that either.

But my point today, if you haven’t gotten there yet, is that context really does determine most of how we receive our information, and make the judgements that imbue us with individuality.

It’s why you’re more likely to trust the same story published in the NYT over Fox News. (Or vice versa, if you’re conservative.)

Or why some people, who watched “The Apprentice” for many years, came to believe that Trump was a competent, intelligent, corporate titan. (If you haven’t, read the New Yorker piece on Mark Burnett, which offers a pretty fascinating context in which to view our President.)

Photo books, of course, the subject of this long-running column, rely heavily on context. In fact, I find myself telling students that if they don’t consider it properly, they have no shot at making a good book, much less a great one.

The way a photo book releases its information, teases out its narrative, and gives you what you need to know is as important, in my opinion, as the pictures themselves.

It’s what really separates an exhibition, in which you look at the pictures, (most likely big,) and then try to understand them as objects, from a book, which as I’ve written many times is an experience.

In fact, I was just talking with a book-designer-friend about the fact that even the number of pictures included will determine if a viewer looks at a book in one sitting, ingesting the entire message, or flips through a few pages, puts it down, and then picks it up another time and does the same thing.

Think of a photo book as a story, with a beginning, middle and an end, and the whole process makes more sense. (Unless you love non-sensical, non-linear video art, in which case, go crazy and make whatever weird shit you see in your head.)

I mention all of this because today, I spent some time with “A Habit of Self Deceit,” a self published book by Lorena Turner that showed up in the mail, unsolicited, last fall.

It’s important to me that we now show women and men equally here, as it allows us to present a much broader perspective than when I was mostly showing guys, because that’s what showed up in the post. (Let me say it again here folks, outreach is necessary to make change.)

But just as I don’t normally plan the themes that carry over from week to week, I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been a bit critical of some of the books I’ve reviewed by female photographers.

I doubt anyone else has picked up on it, (and my review of Josée Schryer’s book was glowing,) but as this is a column that embraces criticism, I guess it’s fair game.

This book fits the theme, because the individual images, and the style in which they’re shot, are pretty generic for 21st Century fine art photography. Just as I lambasted the Hartford-MFA-style earlier this month, there is a certain type of dry-but-poetic color photography that makes projects indistinguishable from one another, and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Based purely on the pictures, I’m not sure I’d review this book.

But as I said before, just looking at the pictures misses the point.

“A Habit of Self Deceit” is sad, and as soon as you get into the narrative, that context envelopes the experience like a shrink-wrapped house.

It opens with a short statement in which the artist admits to having contemplated suicide, almost calling a hotline for help, before abandoning the idea. (The piece also misspells Diane Arbus’s name, which I took to be intentional, but what is that supposed to imply?)

The writing is immediately followed by a series of bleak-light pictures featuring things hidden, covered, wilting, and alone.

Boom!
Emotional tenor established.

There are more textual interruptions, each very-well-written, which share that the artist was estranged for her adopted mother for years, but now she visits her in a home for the aging and demented, as her mom no longer knows who she is.

We read a story about how her Dad is likely lonely, living on his own in a new home, and how he visits his wife each day. The story tells us that his own mother married her rapist, and that the family history is not happy in general.

The heavy tale weighs down the pictures, throughout, in the best possible way.

And then, at the end, there’s another text piece that discusses the book’s title, which derived from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Obligatory intellectual street cred established.)

Add it all up, and I really enjoyed my time with this book, even though it’s sad, and made me feel glum until I took nice walk in the sun.

If I open it up again, and randomly pick a page, I immediately think, “That picture’s nice, it’s good, but it’s nothing special.”

Really though, so what?

In my personal and professional opinion, I judge the entire book not by it’s cover, but by its gestalt.

And this one is pretty good, all things considered.

Bottom Line: A poignant tale of family and loss

To purchase “A Habit of Self Deceit” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Douglas Ljungkvist

 

For whatever reason, I’ve never been to Sweden.

(Though I’m sure it’s a lovely place.)

I’ve been to Copenhagen, though, so the sum total of my knowledge of Scandinavia amounts to smoking insanely good hash in the commune of Christiania, watching my brother annihilate my friend Pappy in several games of backgammon.

(Yes, he beat me too.)

Something tells me, though, there’s more to Scandinavia than hippies and board games.

I may not have been to Sweden, it’s true, but my neighbors down the street growing up, the Kappy’s, were half-Swedish, and proud of it.

This is probably the first time I’ve thought of the Kappy’s in twenty years, but Alma Kappy was 100% Swedish, and her extremely-blonde children carried on the stereotype as well.

I vaguely remember that Ed Kappy bought a Porsche at some point, as he was a successful orthopedic surgeon, but I’m absolutely certain they always had a Volvo in the garage.

Always.

Back before the internet, you learned about a country from International Day at school, (it was a thing,) the Encyclopedia Britannica, or from whatever heritage pride your neighbors exhibited.

(The Su’s across the street were Chinese-American, the Carducci’s to our left were Italian-American, and the Whiteman’s across the street from them were Jews.)

Discovering Volvos (and then Saabs) was a way of understanding that there were other places in the world, far from New Jersey, that made cars with different shapes and features. (The Swedes, apparently, were safety-conscious.)

Our cars may have gone from oversized hunks of metal with no seat belts to computers that do everything while we sit there numbed out on Spotify and Sirius radio, but their main purpose is still the same: to take us places.

Out here in the mountains of New Mexico, a car is pretty much a necessity.

Other places, though, cities with good public transportation and ubiquitous Ubers, can make car ownership seem a bit silly these days. (So say the Millennials.)

When I lived in Brooklyn, early this century, I had my trusty old Chevy Blazer, but almost never used it in daily life.

Good Ol’ Blazer brought me and Jessie to Jersey for the occasional weekend getaway, but other than that, I mostly just moved it across the road on street cleaning days.

Honestly, the whole city-car-ownership thing was less stressful than I’d imagined it would be, but then again, I never drove in the city.

Too damn stressful.

Mostly, Blazer sat there on Diamond St, waiting for me to come say hello.

I guess lots of people in Brooklyn park their cars and forget about them. Forlorn, alone, these pieces of vehicular sculpture await the observant passer-by who might ogle the proper Datsun, GTO, or Camaro.

The kind of passerby who might have a camera, perhaps, (not just a smartphone,) and who might appreciate the inherent beauty of, oh I don’t know, let’s call her Molly.

Molly got waxed and everything, put on her best face, but what does her owner do?

That’s right.

He bought a fuckin’ bike!
The nerve a this guy!

I name my cars, and would be willing to wager that many, if not most of the cars inside Douglas Ljungkvist’s “Urban Cars,” (the fun and cool photobook released last year by Unicorn in London,) are named too.

Orange Crush.
Yellow Betty.
British Blue.
The Undertaker.
Blue Velvet.
Zebra Benz.
Super Bee.

(That last one was real. The rest I made up.)

I’ll cut to the chase on the review here, and just tell you that I really like this book.

They made some great design choices, like the theme of printing a color complimentary to the car’s color on the background page.

Or the regular use of multiple image panels to break up the narrative, in addition to a few short quote pages, including this one by Jonathan Ive: “One person’s car is another person’s scenery.”

There’s an introduction by a guy named Dean Johnson, but they don’t tell you who he is, and I didn’t know. There’s an implication he’s European, (he says so,) and funny enough, Douglas is a Swede himself, so the whole story on Brooklyn cars takes on an international flavor. (When I turned the book over, I discovered a Dean Johnson bio on the back cover.)

Beyond the great design, smart pacing, and well composed photographs, I’m inclined to believe these pictures also serve as something of a time capsule.

Their purpose for being “saved for the future” as a book makes sense, as they lock in likely an 80 year stretch of global car design, and place it firmly in a place in time.

Namely, Brooklyn, New York, USA at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

I know much of it was shot around my old neighborhood, and adjoining Williamsburg, and recognized the place, in particular the Army Navy store on Manhattan Avenue, which is fronted here by a sweet, two-tone cream 80’s Thunderbird.

There’s lots of graffiti art, and other small tags, including the genius “Rent My Mom.”

Now that I think about it, the severe, geometric, modernist compositions are definitely a nod to Scandinavian design, and probably help the book stick the landing.

I love that the car makes and models are listed at the back, and that there’s a multi-image panel of Volvos as a shout out as well. Hell, the one old sports car I couldn’t place was actually a Saab, so the Swedes won the day here for sure.

(Actually, the Chinese own Volvo now, and Saab doesn’t make cars anymore, so maybe we’ll call it a draw.)

Bottom Line: Awesome, fun book of car portraits in Brooklyn

To purchase “Urban Cars” click here 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

The Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography: Part 2

 

I never set out to be an opinion columnist.

It’s true.

Hell, before 2008, if you’d told me I’d become a professional blogger, much less do the job for nearly 9 years, I’d have taken you for a crazy person.

But everything realigned 10 years ago, in the eye-teeth of The Great Recession, and frankly, I don’t think the world has been the same since.

It’s funny, reading the papers, following the discussions about whether the 10 year bull market has finally turned bear.

Will the stock market’s tumble, or the government shut down, or Trump’s stunning incompetence, finally derail the strong American economy, and lead to a recession?

I find those articles patently absurd, and my guess is, you do too.

I’m glad the stock market has gone its run, sure, but in every other way, it feels like America is still not back to where it was before the mix of horrible home loans, and the toxic derivative instruments built upon them, created a financial bubble that finally burst in September 2008.

By January 2009, of course, the economy was in pure free-fall, and America inaugurated its first African-American President, tasked with putting the pieces back together. (Tough luck, Barack. You needed the crisis to get elected, I’d imagine, but it meant you spent your best years putting out another man’s fires.)

I admit, knowing it was exactly 10 years ago has been on my mind lately. I first approached Rob Haggart, my long-time editor, because he put out a call looking for Great Recession images in early 2010.

(He complimented the ones I emailed him, pictures from Southern Colorado I’ve mostly scrubbed from the internet, which I’m now re-visiting nearly a decade later.)

Since we were corresponding anyway, I pitched Rob on writing a couple of articles for him, gratis, as I was a fan of the blog, and had been writing on a small-time blog with friends for nearly a year by then.

At that point, when I wrote him, it was spring 2010, and my small commercial photography/printing studio in Taos had seen its business evaporate. I mean, I went from having clients to having none, all within a few months.

The tell-tale sign, I discovered, was I was getting hired a lot, near the end, to do Canadian passport photos, because all the Canadians wanted to make sure they could get the hell out of the country.

Pronto.

Going into the Great Recession, I was an unknown artist doing all sorts of photo and printing services to make a living, while also running the studio as a gallery. (I sold next to nothing.)

Afterwards, I was a somewhat-known artist, a professional blogger, and a college professor.

But all these years later, I’m just about making what I made before the career-changes happened.

Truth be told, I love the career exchange, and would make it every time, if I could. I get a lot of satisfaction and pleasure out of the work I do, despite the grind of permanent freelance living.

My wife makes more money now, as she went into private practice as a therapist, (after years of working in a local school,) so that helps for sure.

As I’m said, I’m personally very happy, but in no way do I think that things are “better” in the world than they were before the Crash, and in many ways they seem worse.

Seeing all the income growth go to such a small percentage of Americans wears away social trust, as once people believe a game is rigged, they have much less interest in maintaining said system.

And of course while Obama was left to clean up W. Bush’s mess, the real legacy of The Great Recession was Donald J. Trump.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the now-President here for years, and even I’m stunned to read that the FBI actively investigated whether Trump might be a Russian asset.

(And that he bought a room full of McDonalds and Wendy’s for the Clemson football team.)

This truly unstable world, I believe, was first born in the ashes of the Global Economic Collapse.

All of a sudden, America stumbled.
Hard.

Even worse than in Vietnam.

The extreme elements in our Capitalistic system wiped out extraordinary amounts of wealth, for ordinary people, and in many cases literally kicked them to the curb.

In the end, essentially no bankers went to jail.

Foreclosed Americans were left to pick up their own pieces, and American taxpayers paid the bill for bailouts.

Are we really surprised that so many people, doing so poorly in depressed areas, would fall for Trump’s con, feeling their pain and promising to bring their jobs back?

Or that other major nations, like China and Russia, would see our inherent weakness, and push that much harder to take our mantle of power, geo-politically?

I haven’t written a political column in a while, because I try to balance the style and tenor of these articles. It’s one way that I’ve managed to keep it interesting, given that the format is essentially unchanged all these years.

But as it’s early in 2019, and 10 years since that evil 2009, I felt it was a good time to go in this direction.

This story will ultimately be about the second batch of photographers I saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego last October.

And last week, I wrote my spiel about the city, and gave you all some advice to get out there and hit up the festivals, or travel more this year.

This column is meant to build upon that, if you can believe it.

Because beneath the super-structure of the political critique, (I can’t believe I’m explaining my own meta-level writing,) what I really meant to say was: reinvention is painful.

Change is hard.
And yet it’s always worth it.

One of the cardinal rules of being an artist is that once you realize how deeply you’re embedded in your comfort zone, it’s time to jump out of bed.

Doing these things is much harder than saying them, and pretty much no one chooses to change.

It’s normally forced upon us by life circumstances.

But knowing that you eventually have to shake things up, and then having the guts to make the tough call, these processes lead to growth, as a human and an artist.

I live by my own advice, I swear.

Just the other week, I gave up my beloved Wing Chun Kung Fu, and switched to Aikido, because I knew I needed a new teacher, and a new beginning.

It hurt, but I did it anyway. Because that’s how I was trained at Pratt.

Many of the artists I meet at events like Medium don’t have the MFA degree. They didn’t go to art school, and some haven’t even taken a formal class.

Many of the photographers had a first career. They didn’t follow their passion, initially, but when given the chance later in life, they took workshops, joined critiquing groups, and threw everything they had at their new career as an artist.

Other times, I let my opinions fly, and I might be sitting across from an MFA photographer. Or even better, sometimes, I’ll be critiquing a professor from a really established school.

This visit, a photographer came up to me to re-introduce herself, as I’d been really strong in my advice, during a previous review at Medium. (I insisted that she change her paper type from matte to a photo surface.)

I published her work here, and never thought about it again. But apparently, the woman told me, I’d gotten under her skin, as she resented the advice at first, but then had finally done what I suggested, and found success with the change.

Another person verified that this professor had told the story many times, as I was the “paper guy,” and it had been a big deal in her life.

Honestly, I can’t keep giving beginning-of-the-year-advice-columns much longer. February is right around the corner, and anyway, after today, it will be enough.

The best I can say to you is to try to embrace some change, in 2019, and push yourself hard.

Try a different medium. Go somewhere new. Sign up for a class at a local community college. Switch to black and white. Make a video.

Times of upheaval have a way of re-writing the rules of the game, and why not make yourself stronger, and pick up some new skills, for the decade to come?

Enough said, now we’ll look at the second batch of the Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in October 2018. (As always, they’re in no particular order.)

Victoria Fava was visiting from Monterrey, Mexico. She studied art as well as photography, and we spent much of our chat discussing what the optimal medium would be to express her ideas.

She’s been interested in the fact that astroturf, a chemical product developed by Monsanto, is highly utilized there, and oddly is often featured in wealthy homes. (From an American perspective, it seems downscale.)

I like the photos, but personally thought creating installations, making mock-outdoor-scenes indoors, might be the way to go. (Easy for me to say. That’s much harder to pull off than making a photograph.)

CJ Pressma is one of the types of people I alluded to above, as he’s been involved with photography at a high level since before I was born. CJ was visiting from Louisville, where he ran a residency program for many years.

He’s was also a master printer, doing portfolios for people like Meatyard, and my colleague Brian Clamp even mentioned to me during the festival that he had vintage prints that CJ had made back in the day.

At Medium, CJ showed me a book he’d made pairing (mostly) night photographs with faux dream diary statements he’d asked his friends to contribute. The one image of the frozen truck was probably the best single image I saw that week.

Bil Zelman is one of the few people in the world who make me jealous, as he lives in Encinitas, my favorite beach town in California. (Though all of North County is pretty cool, IMO.)

He’s primarily a commercial and editorial photography who self-financed a personal project looking at elements of the landscape that reflect our anthropocentric times. (Non-Native species, non-native trees, etc.)

Given the high flash at night, they’re super dynamic. And I had to lay it on hard to convince Bil that he shouldn’t lead with 15 tree pictures before showing the alligators and Burmese python.

Never bury the lede!

But Bil told me he mixed it up for later reviews, and received some really great responses.

Justin Nolan is another example of one of the types I mentioned above. He’s a professor at the University of Central Florida in Daytona, and he got his MFA at UNM in New Mexico not too long ago.

Once I knew his training, I pushed him pretty hard, and asked some difficult questions. I never would have gone down that interrogative rabbit hole, though, with someone who was new to the field, or hadn’t been trained in the critique process.

Needless to say, I didn’t love one of his projects, but found his take on Florida, his new home, to be witty and great. I make fun of Florida a lot on Twitter, (as does anyone paying attention to what happens down there,) but I liked that Justin’s subtle style contrasted with that over-the-top reputation.

Finally, we have Sheri Lynn Behr, whom I met at Photo NOLA back in 2012. (See what I mean about going to festivals. You can stay in touch with so many people.)

Sheri mentioned to me, in the hall before the review, that she’d heard I was tough, and that she wanted a tough critique. I knew her work was doing well, as she’d just had a solo show at the Griffin Museum in Massachusetts.

Sure enough, though, she showed me a bunch of projects that were mixed together, and printed on different paper surfaces. It was one of those crits where she had an answer for most of my issues, and was fairly wedded to her process, so I let it drop.

Her meta-project, which she made into a book, is called “BeSeeingYou,” and is all about surveillance culture. This one vertical piece stood out to me so powerfully that I’m going to show it by itself.

That’s it for today, and we’ll be back to the book reviews next week. I am planning to hit up a few festivals in 2019 though, including Photo Lucida in Portland, which will be my first time.

So I’ll be sure to report from the field again as soon as I’m able.

The Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography: Part 1

 

My kids are 6 and 11.

Right in that sweet spot where all the older people you meet say, “Cherish this time. It goes by so quickly.”

Seriously.
I’ve heard that a lot.

My wife and I are trying to appreciate it, but as my son told me the other day, (with respect to the natural beauty that surrounds him in Taos,) it’s hard not to take it for granted.

One thing I’ve discovered, one trick to make it last, is to try to make more memories.

To do it on purpose.

As a photographer, I’ll be honest, I don’t mean taking more pictures. (I might regret not doing more of that, I suppose, but whenever I have the camera out, I feel like I’m not living in the moment.)

Rather, traveling with my kids makes memories.

When we’re out of our natural environment, our senses sharpen, and we imprint more memories in the brain.

My wife and I realized that so much of our existence, living on the farm with the kids, was about the day to day. It was fun to go through, but not much stuck up in the cerebral cortex. (I’m guessing. It’s likely another part of the brain that stores memories, but I was lazy and didn’t bother to look it up.)

A couple of years ago, we made a conscious effort to plan more trips, even if it was staying overnight in a hotel in Albuquerque. (No offense, Burque.)

Visiting cousins in Colorado is an easy one, so we do it more.

Whether it was the Barbecue place we discovered off I-25 in Colorado City, (Shout out to Obies,) or the October blizzard on Theo’s birthday, or that great Thai joint we found in Boulder.

More experiences, more memories.

Along that line of thinking, for the first time ever, this past October, I had the idea to invite Jessie and the kids along on my trip to the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego, and somehow we made it work at the very last minute. (Really cheap flights being the main reason.)

I’d already booked a rental car, and a hotel in ABQ to leave for an early flight, so it didn’t take much to make it work.

I did forget one minor detail though. (But we’ll get to that.)

This now the fourth time I visited Medium, at the Lafayette Hotel in North Park, and 5 years ago, it seemed like a transitional neighborhood. It’s inland, so it was less shiny than all the other parts of the city I’d seen.

In late 2018, though, there were gleaming-modernist-condo-projects everywhere, and a sparkling gentrification vibe that was unmissable. There were still some homeless people, as it’s a California-wide-problem I’ve written about many times before, but the overall impression is now of hip-trendy-neighborhood.

(For example, parking went from free to $5 to $10 to $18 per day.)

As I’ve said before, there are many excellent, affordable restaurants in the immediate vicinity, so if you visit Medium, you can eat very well on a budget. (Shout out to Mama’s Lebanese, Luigi’s pizza, and Bahia Tacos, all on El Cajon Blvd.)

Regarding my problem…I mentioned that I had it all planned out…but for some reason, I just assumed I’d get a room with two beds.

It was crucial to my delicate plan, yet I’d made no preparations at all.

So I checked in to the hotel, agreed to pay the parking, and just as I turned to leave, with my family smiling behind me, I casually asked, “The room has two beds, right?”

And I turned back to the front desk.

“No, sir, it doesn’t,” he said. “I’m afraid those rooms are booked.”

I stopped.
Crestfallen.
Downcast.
Uncertain.

“But, but, they’re here. My family. I’ve never brought them along to anything, ever. But this time I did. And I never thought to ask about the beds. How stupid of me. Can you please help?”

The young, Latino man behind the counter was handsome, and polite.

But there’s one key detail I may have left out.

His name was Jesus.

“Can you help me, Jesus,” I asked?

I swear.
I’m not making this up.

Jesus looked at me, with beneficent eyes and said, “Let me see what I can do.”

His hands flew across the keyboard, gracefully.

Tap. Tap. tap.
Tap. Tap. tap.

“Well, would you be OK with a family suite out by the pool? It’s all I have. No charge.”

“Thank, you, Jesus,” I said. “Thank you.”

And sure enough, there was a chalkboard on the wall for the kids to draw, two big rooms mere steps from the beautiful pool, (one with a bunk bed,) two bathrooms, two TV’s.

I’d say that Jesus was the nicest person in San Diego, but that might be an overstatement. Because there are so many nice people in San Diego, it would be hard to just pick one.

Honestly. They’re that nice.

As this is the first of two pieces about Medium, I’ll come right out and say it: San Diego might be the nicest place I’ve been in America.

The weather is great. The people are friendly. The beaches are gorgeous. The food is amazing. The views are spectacular. The traditional Mexican-American and other immigrant cultures are strong.

Honestly, if you set aside my general-California-critiques that I won’t reiterate here, there is nothing not to like about San Diego. (You could say traffic, sure, but the apps these days let you know what you’re in for, and suggest alternate routes, so even that is not quite so depressing as it used to be for me.)

In the end, I got my family memories, thank you very much. It all worked out just right.

(Normally I’d give you details, but I’m keeping those bits for myself.)

The point, rather, is that when we get out of our routine, out of our towns, and our regular lives, we enrich ourselves, and keep a more detailed record in our memory banks.

So as a New Year’s resolution, get out there and visit a festival in your local area in 2019!

Photo festivals like Medium are great places to make friends and create networking opportunities, to hear artist lectures and see exhibitions.

It’s a no brainer.

As usual, when I go to these events, I reviewed a slew of portfolios, and gave critical feedback when I was asked. Sometimes I might help photographers brainstorm about what to do with a project.

But I always write an article or two for you guys, so you can get a sense of what I’m seeing at the portfolio review table.

Which brings us to this part of the story, where I show you the best work I saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in October 2018.

As usual, the portfolios are in no particular order, and the projects ranges in style dramatically, which is always the most interesting thing of all.

Daniel Kariko is a professor at ECU in North Carolina, and was the first person I met, if my memory serves me. (It’s weird writing three months later, I must admit, but I’m good with the recall, and took solid notes.)

His images were made with electron microscopes, and zero in on the super-mega-pixel detail of insects faces. In light of news about the potential insect apocalypse, these pictures are important both as documents of a disappearing world, and visual reminders of why protecting the environment is important.

I was pleased to see Janet Holmes again, (we’d met at Filter in Chicago,) because I’d previewed her project “Rescued Chickens” in Critical Mass, and gave it the highest possible score. She featured vegan women who rescue chickens, and the chickens themselves.

As she writes, “How do you decide which animals are family, and which are food? Why are we surprised to see a rooster gazing out the kitchen window or a hen investigating the laundry? After all, chickens are present in most homes, as flesh and eggs, just not as individuals with personalities of their own.”

Really, I couldn’t love it more.

Mark Lipczynski, a commercial an editorial photographer, was visiting from Phoenix. I didn’t love one project he showed me, but as so often happens, I offered to look at his other series, because you never know.

When he emailed me a link to his pictures in the American West, I happily clicked through. The photos are witty and fun. What’s not to like?

Brian Van de Wetering is a SoCal artist I met at a previous review and published here before. (As I recall, he’s a part of the Aline Smithson mafia, and those students always marry strong craft with a personal intention.)

I didn’t review Brian’s work directly this time, but met him in the aisle during the portfolio walk, and he told me about his new project, in which he exposes photograms in direct sunlight.

The resulting images are scanned, and really, they’re just so beautiful. People think I’m a tough critic, and I guess that can be true. But I’m happy to enjoy visual objects for their own pleasure when they look like this.

 

Wayne Swanson did the double-double with me on the 2018 festival circuit, as we met at the Exposure review in LA in July, and I published a set of his images that were made with a pinhole polaroid. (I believe.)

This time, we got into something more personal. Wayne suffers from spinal stenosis, which I must admit has afflicted both of my parents. My Dad had 3 major spinal surgeries, including two fusions, and my Mom had a fusion surgery as well.

My uncle just underwent his second.

A lot of Baby Boomers have dealt with these structural problems, which can lead to debilitating pain, and affect lives deeply.

The pictures are dynamic.

And speaking of personal, big shout out to Christina Angarola Hsu, who had images of her triplet girls, in the years before two of them took extremely ill.

She only showed me photographs from a segment of their lives, and said she hadn’t been shooting for quite some time. I asked her if she had more, and if she’d consider shooting again, so we could see the girls now that they’re older, and thankfully healthy again.

Christina dug into her archive so I could show you this terrific selection today. Keep shooting, Christina! And I’ll bring you guys Part 2 next week.

This Week in Photography Books: Josée Schryer

 

It was 9 degrees below zero here this morning. (Fahrenheit, for all you non-Americans.)

That’s insanely cold.

An army of icicles hangs off my roof, each a menacing, translucent dagger that could impale a person without trying too hard.

In other words, winter has arrived in earnest here in the Rocky Mountains.

Ironically, our weather patterns have little to do with what happens in our part of the Great American West. Our mountains, rivers, ravens, cougars, and humans have nothing to do with it at all.

Rather, the temperature of ocean water in the Pacific, thousands of miles away, determines whether it snows like crazy, as it is this year, or nothing drops from the sky at all.

They call it white gold, the snow, since it brings money to town, as Taos Ski Valley remains the heart of our winter economy. (Such as it is.)

In El Niño years, like this one, massive, regular storms march across Southern California and Arizona, on a direct line East, and crush us with waves of delicious, champagne powder.

Every time.

But last year, just 12 months ago, our December was marked by a string of 50-55 degree days, with their attendant purple-blue skies, and massive amounts of unchecked sunshine.

It didn’t snow at all, and had Taos Ski Valley not been bought by a hedge fund billionaire 5 years ago, the entire resort might have gone out of business.

Things were that bad.

As you might have guessed, we did not have an El Niño pattern last season.

Quite the opposite.

It was La Niña, which pushes all moisture directly up the West coast, into Washington and Montana.

When they get all the moisture, we get none.

From that standpoint, selfishly, La Niña is quite a nasty, unforgiving little girl. (That’s what it means in Spanish: little girl. I’m not being sexist.)

Young girls grow up tough around here, as they have little choice. Life in the Sangre de Cristos, with its raw nature, poor economy, and capricious weather patterns, is not easy at all.

If you don’t grow up strong out here, really bad things can happen. (No examples today, but after 7+ years of this column, I think you know I don’t exaggerate.)

Just yesterday, on the mountain, I took my daughter up the big hill for the first time, as she’d stuck to the bunny slope so far in her short ski career.

Coincidentally, an acquaintance had her young daughter there as well, also for her first-ever-run, and we bumped into each other exactly as the girls were beginning their adventure. (Again, such coincidences happen here so often that most Taoseños will just say it was “meant to be,” or that Taos Mountain must have interceded.)

At one point, Autumn, (who’s 4,) was in the lead, and she wiped out with Amelie right behind her. My 6-year-old tumbled directly over the smaller girl, launching into the air, with her skis flying skyward as she descended right onto her head.

We adults were only 50 yards behind, and rushed to the scene of the accident, as it was ugly, and the tears were likely flying faster than an Elon-Musk-designed spaceship.

It did not look good.

But the second we arrived, we saw the girls smiling and laughing, ready to jolt up like a Pop-Tart coming out of an old-school vertical toaster.

No tears.
No drama.

Just a couple of hardened mountain sprites ready for more, giving the pain of the accident no more consideration than Jon Jones might worry about a scratch on his finger.

Like I said, they grow them tough out here, and as an avowed feminist, I take great pleasure in knowing that my beautiful, honey-haired daughter has an iron constitution.

I think it’s something of a universal phenomenon in harsh, cold, difficult places.

Girls who hunt with bows and arrows, chop wood with axes, ski off of cliffs, and learn jiu-jitsu to kick some serious ass. (In fairness, Autumn’s mother grew up a mountain girl in Vermont, and recently sermonized on the proper way to gut, skin and hang a deer carcass.)

If 2018 was the year of #MeToo, where women came out in droves to challenge traditional narratives of male dominance, perhaps 2019 can move the ball down the field a bit further?

Perhaps it’s the year to celebrate the idea of equality, in which men and women can appreciate each other’s strengths and differences, while simultaneously accepting that neither gender is better or worse than the other?

That strength, which historically was associated with men, is of course the equal purview of women.

As is wisdom, intelligence, compassion, and ambition.

I know it seems like this column was generated by the weather, and the obvious status as “first column of the year,” but that’s not entirely true.

Rather, I was inspired by “sur-la-Rouge,” a photo book that turned up in the mail this autumn by Jo Schryer, from Montreal, published by Peperoni Books in Germany.

In a parallel universe, my “Blame Canada” opening last month was really meant for this book, as it’s the first Canadian offering I’ve reviewed in quite some time. Many years ago, in this very column, I actually shared a story about a couple of Canadian photojournalists I met who were discussing the taste qualities of eating bobcat versus other types of bushmeat.

Like I said, they grow them tough up there.

No question.

Canada, as you might know, is north of the US. Meaning no matter how cold it might be in Maine, Montana, or Minnesota, those Canadians have it worse.

It’s a massive landmass, smaller only than Russia, yet is populated by just 36 million people. (Thanks, Google.)

This book, thankfully, gives us an insight into life in the rural Quebec countryside. (I’m assuming, as there’s little text within.)

Unlike some books, which really need context, the imagery in this one, its pacing, and variation, seem to tell us what we need to know.

Unless I’m wrong, (which does happen from time to time,) it’s a visual narrative about Ms. Schryer’s world up there.

We see bright orange clothing, (associated with hunting,) and lots of bleak fall/winter light. Gold panners, and dead deer. Fallen leaves, and bleak horizons.

It’s all done in a poetic style that enticed me to look through it three times before writing, which is a rarity. (The subdued palette a reminder that quiet colors are not the same as no colors.)

Several times we see a young girl, posing with her eyes closed. Rather than hiding from the camera, though, we get the sense she’s self-possessed enough to serenely share herself with the viewer, denying eye contact to ruminate, rather than run from our attention.

At one point, we see her with a rifle in her hands, ready to shoot an apple off of a cart, where it will likely drop into a big pile of previously shot-up fruit. (They must have a lot of apples if they’d rather shoot them than bake them into pies, or cook them down into applesauce.)

Wooden cabins feature bear skins on the wall, “tacky” paintings of mallard ducks proliferate, and at one point we see an older man who may be the artist’s father.

Just last week, I admitted we often assume too much in a photo book narrative, and in art in general. But this story feels pretty straight, and honest.

Compared to Clare Benson’s “The Shepherd’s Daughter,” which I reviewed last year, I get the sense this is fine-art-documentary photography, rather than set-up situations dripping with metaphor.

My high school French came in handy, as the only text is a brief statement printed towards the end: “a mon pere, je regrette d’être partie aussi longtemps…” which is later translated for the rest of you to mean “To my father, I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long.”

Frankly, I don’t have any criticisms of this book at all.

I like it just the way it is.

But rather than start the year off with kudos only, I’ll stay on-brand and at least offer a tad of constructive feedback.

The credits page tells us that Ms. Schryer is another graduate of the now-famous Hartford low-residency MFA program. I’ve reviewed several books that have come out of there in the last couple of years, and seen even more than I’ve written about.

Always, the students thank their faculty members, including our APE friend/colleague Jörg Colberg, along with photo-world stars Alec Soth and Doug DuBois, and program head Robert Lyons, whom I’ve not met, but have heard good things about.

These days, I even make fun of their consistent aesthetic, (always the medium/large-format cultural landscape,) as I did in the “True Places” review late last year. The school has come on strong in a short time, and its students regularly get photo-books from the biggest publishers just as they graduate, including MACK, Twin Palms, and Dewi Lewis.

I doubt any of their professors are reading this, but JIC, let me make a small plea to broaden the student aesthetic just a touch. With the prominence the students are finding at young ages, it’s becoming a mini-Yale; another pipeline to success, and in my opinion, that type of acclaim ought to be accompanied by a bit more innovation, or at least differentiation between the students’ styles.

But that’s no fault of Ms. Schryer, who’s made a great book here, one I’m happy to share on this, the first review of 2019.

I wish you all a healthy, happy, and productive new year, and hope you’ll keep reading each week, because you can be sure I’ll keep writing.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, lyrical tale of life in the Canadian woods

To purchase “sur-la-Rouge” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Griggs & Kwiatkowski

 

Everything is connected.

I believe that’s true.

I often write of my Jewish-American heritage, but like many American Jews, I’m quite taken with Buddhism. And that idea of Inter-being, or Interconnectedness, is a core tenet of Buddhist philosophy.

Growing up in the age of secular Enlightenment, it’s been hard for me to accept the pure faith that religion requires. Especially as a Jew who doesn’t keep Kosher, or dress like one of the Orthodox in a black suit, I never felt like I measured up to the expectations and requirements of my tribe.

So perhaps I took the easy way out, by migrating my status to Jew-Bu, but on the plus side, I do come by it honestly. My wife almost became a Buddhist Nun before she married me, studying under Thich Nhat Hanh at a monastery in France.

Beyond that even, I’ve had the privilege to marvel at many, many a fantastic Buddha and Bodhisattva statue in museums like the Met or the Art Institute of Chicago, so I know first hand the peaceful power that comes off these objects.

And the Kung Fu I study is also based upon a mix of Taoist and Buddhist concepts.

OK. Did I establish my bona fides?

Or did I come off like an insecure jerk who’s obviously sensitive to be seen as just another-hipster-slacker, embracing the trendy ideas of the moment?

(We’ll assume you chose the former, and continue.)

The idea of Interconnectedness is like viewing the human body from a different perspective. We live our lives on the level of a shared, 3 dimensional reality of chairs and doors and mountains.

But in our very bodies, we know that a cellular level exists. It’s something they told all of us in High School Biology.

Mitochondria and shit.

Beyond that, of course, when we move to the code below the chemical level, is the atomic level. Our bodies are made of up electrons and neutrons and protons.

They taught us that in Physics. (Shout out to Mr. Armitrani.)

If you pinch your own arm, (ouch, I actually did it,) you feel pain. Yet you have no idea what your electrons and protons are doing, nor have you or will you ever see a strand of your own DNA.

Humans are like that.

Individually, we’re atomized. We live our own lives, as the protagonist in our own tale, and think these things happen only to us. (Credit card debt, friend loss, petty jealousy, etc.)

These days in particular, it’s each to his or her own clan, tribe, race or ethnic group, in so many ways.

But collectively, as a human race, we impact the planet, (writ large,) and each other, on an individual level. I know I’ve shouted out the Dalai Lama’s Twitter feed before, but really, you should be following this guy. (Is it OK to call him a guy, or a dude? Or is that too callous?)

Daily, he reminds us that our individual energy, positive or negative, impacts others each day. If we’re angry or rude to others, it spirals as each victim of our wrath spreads the energy further out into the world.

Or, conversely, if you’re kind, respectful, and generous to others, they spread that good juju down the line as well.

I know this can sound New Age, so either bear with me, or skip to the photos. (My Dad nods, smiles, and then skips to the photos.)

Religions are really operating systems for reality, when they’re taken literally. Whether it’s about worshipping thousands of deities, as the Hindus do, or a human-like god who sits on a Greek mountain-top, humans have always known that our actions have consequences.

In antiquity, they looked to the heavens, or asked oracles and sages for signs.

For confirmation of these connections.

Patterns.
Symbols.
Invisible webs littered with meaning.

Even our planet, which seems like everything, is only one of billions; our Sun one among countless stars.

Our Universe, even, might just be one unremarkable unit out of the multitude.

Why am I going all philosophical today?

Did I just finish explaining the Big Bang to a six year old, who then asked me what was the Nothing that came before?

Yes, I did.

But really, I’m more motivated by “Ghost Guessed,” an excellent photobook that showed up this summer, by Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatkowski, published by Mesaestander Editores.

I’m rarely troubled to synopsize for you, but this one’s a bit dense, so I’ll give it a go, and we’ll see how it works.

I believe Tom Griggs, (but I can’t be sure, as it’s a collaborative project,) had a cousin Andy who died in a small plane crash in Northern Minnesota in 2009.

(I think this because on one of the first pages, Sue Griggs sends and email with respect to the search, as the plane was not immediately found in such a massive open landscape.)

The story is told through some particularly excellent writing, and then a barrage of different styles of images from different types of capture. But it’s connected throughout to the amorphous link between the disappearance of Andy’s flight, and the lost Malaysian Airlines flight 370, as one of the artists (seemingly) went to Malaysia just after the plane vanished from the face of the earth.

It’s tricky for me, as I assume because of that email that this is Tom Griggs’ story, his life, because that’s what the book implies. (Or does each photographer add bits from his own experience?) But really, even looking at the back cover right now, there’s no confirmation who’s life this is, or even if it’s real at all.

They make mention of the fact that the flight Vlad Putin’s goons brought down in Ukraine was also Malaysian Airlines, which seems like an impossible coincidence.

And the book wonders if one person’s disappearance and death can set off a negative spiral in someone else entirely?

Watching night-vision war in Iraq for the first time on TV, hiding from reality in flight simulators, or learning about a grandpa who was bitter all his life that he got sick from meningitis, in an outbreak that killed 600 of 800 soldiers, so he could never fulfill his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.

The details weave together, and then spread apart again, like a raven’s wings. (OMG, flipping through the pages just now, I noticed a small plane named Crazy Horse, thereby referencing Native American history as well.)

It bugs me a bit that I want to ascribe these things and stories as real, but I can’t.

Should it matter?

The book’s title comes from a poem, included late on, and all the text is printed in Spanish throughout as well. I know Tom’s based in Colombia, and I previously reviewed another of his books that included both languages, so I’m not surprised.

But I must say, doubling the potential audience that can actually read a text-heavy book is a pretty smart idea.

Overall, it’s an excellent project. The design, structure, photography, and text are all standout, and help the book forge an emotional connection with viewer.

Assuming there was an Andy Lindberg, who crashed on a foggy night, despite having texted that the weather was gorgeous, I hope he’s at peace up there somewhere.

Happy New Year, and see you in 2019.

Bottom Line: Excellent, possibly diaristic book about a plane crash

To purchase “Ghost Guessed” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Paris Visone

 

I haven’t spent much time in Massachusetts.
It’s true.

Sure, I went there once or twice as a kid.

Saw the Faneuil Hall. Probably ate some clam chowder. Went to a Red Sox game.

But that was so long ago I barely remember it.

There’s lots of red brick in Boston, right?

I visited Northampton a few times when my wife was in graduate school, but even that was 20 years ago. And Northampton is its own little enclave, like Los Alamos in New Mexico.

Most of what I know of Massachusetts comes from popular culture, I must say.

Movies, mainly.

There’s a particular type of Massachusetts lowlife that you see on screen, again and again, and I’ve heard that damn accent so many times that it’s embedded more deeply in my brain than my aversion to coleslaw. (Or mayonnaise in general.)

Whether it’s Ben Affleck’s bank-robber-buddies in “The Town,” Johnny Depp playing Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” Sean Penn and friends in “Mystic River,” Jack Nicholson, Leo and Matt Damon in “The Departed,” Ben again with Matt and his Southie pals in “Good Will Hunting” or Casey Affleck in another of Ben’s directed films, “Gone Baby Gone.”

(I realize the list is Affleck-heavy. Clearly, much of what I know of lower-class white Massachusetts, and the Boston area in particular, comes through a very Affleckian lens.)

But that vision, of the heavy accent, the caricature, it’s out there.

Even my very-Jewish cousin Jeff, who’s from New Jersey, lived in NYC for two decades, and moved to Boulder a few years ago, can do a passable version of the Southie.

He said he learned it on “Ray Donovan,” another TV version of the Boston lowlife stereotype. (This time with Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight doing the accent work.)

I admit, I caught several episodes of “Ray Donovan” a few years ago, on a free Showtime marathon, and the actress who plays Schrieber’s wife, the Irishwoman Paula Malcomson, must have a slot in the lowlife TV Hall of Fame, having also had roles in “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

Quite the violent trilogy she’s got going there. I bet if they did a body-count-total on all three shows, it would exceed the population of a migrant-children’s-lockup in Trump’s America.

(To be clear, Paula Malcomson is probably a very nice lady. I doubt she’s been typecast as a criminal or a prostitute for any reason.)

But knowing what I know of poverty and violence here in Taos, the condition is definitely intergenerational, and often family or kin-network-based. (Gangs often being based on those self-same networks.)

There’s definitely bad blood out there, and it can sometimes express itself across a clan.

That’s what I began thinking about, anyway, as I put down “For Real,” a new photo book by Paris Visone, recently published by Peanut Press.

I swear, there’s never an intended connection between reviews, no pre-planned themes, but this book falls into a similar category to “Born,” from two weeks back, in that it feels right on the edge of what I’ll review here.

(Ultimately, the biggest criteria is, does it make me write, and here we are, with me writing, so there you go.)

The book opens with a screen-grab-facebook-message introduction from artist Cig Harvey, offering both praise and an odd character reference for Ms. Visone. (Apparently, she gave her fellow students the middle finger a lot.)

Then it’s on to the pictures, and like many books, there are maybe a few too many. The compositions are occasionally rough, with odd cuts, but it adds to the raw style. After a minute or so thinking on it, I decided the edgy-style was cool, and worked with the subject matter.

As each image is titled, and characters repeat, we suss out that the people seem to be the artist’s extended family, in Massachusetts.

One set of grandparents seems kind of normal, like regular old people, and the other, well, seems a fair-bit-different.

Her other Papa weighs 300 lbs, easy, and is all tatted out to boot. In one image, (I had to go back to double-check,) he also wears a blonde wig.

There’s a dyed-blonde cousin, or sister, who repeats named Paige. And others too.

At first, it seems like the narrative is centered around these folks in MA, but then odd destinations begin to pop up, like Russia or Amsterdam.

More and more characters are added to the story, and it becomes hard to keep track, beyond Papa’s huge belly.

I know my opening focused on criminality, and I must say, there no sign of it here. It’s not fair to call these people lowlives, like the fictional folks I referenced earlier. But lots of tattoo parlors, junk food, some drinking, and bikinis. It’s like a less charged version of the stereotype on TV.

Something more down to earth.
Something more real.

There are some great details, like the picture shot from behind a chihuahua’s butt, or the double-page spread where big Papa points a gun then aimed at little Papa.

When finally Dad makes an appearance, it is behind a car’s window glass, he wears sunglasses, looking menacing, like Anthony LaPaglia in some thug role.

Ultimately, we learn that the travel photos are related to a tour by the band Limp Bizkit, but I never figured out who was in the band.

Or why it was included. Probably her cousin or brother is involved? Maybe Wes is a dancer?

I know I’m hard on books, in the sense that I have high expectations.

Why not, right? I mean, this is a criticism column. We talk about the good and the bad.

I liked the photographs here, but felt like they weren’t quite out-there enough to be shocking, given all the things we’ve seen before.

But still, no knocking them.

Rather, my issue was I couldn’t figure out who was connected to whom and how, and why entirely I was supposed to care?

The photos are made over 10 years or so, and kids age, which is always nice. And again, it’s hard to knock a book of good photos that holds my attention and keeps me guessing.

That works.

But most books will then use end text, or some form of additional context to answer those questions. To make the cause of the tension, or the roots of the intention, known.

That was what was lacking in “For Real,” if we’re keeping it real.

Here we are though. It was worth reviewing, because I just reviewed it, and I liked it enough to recommend it.

More than anything, it makes me think it’s time to see Massachusetts for myself.

Go Sawx.

Bottom Line: A weird, fun and inscrutable family drama

To purchase “For Real” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Charles Traub

 

My kids love the Beatles.

Can’t get enough, really. (My son in particular.)

Who doesn’t love the Beatles, though?
Right?

Those guys might well have been the four most-likable-mugs the world has ever seen. (You’d have to have quite the cold, dead heart not to enjoy some chunk of their canon.)

Honestly, I listen to that shit all the time. I love that Beatles channel on the Sirius radio.

One time, riding with my son, we actually heard a fan takeover on the station.

Some Baby-Boomer-Jewish-guy bid at a charity benefit to play DJ on the Beatles Channel for an hour, and the first thing he chose to play, I swear to god, was him and his son doing a Beatles-jazz-cover together at someone’s Bar Mitzvah.

Theo and I burst out laughing, as the dude had a heavy Long Island accent, and the whole thing was so ridiculous. But then, after like five seconds, we shut up.

Because the guys were really good.
Excellent, really.

I mean, you just never know.

But I mention the Beatles because we were discussing them, as a family, at the dinner table last night. (Frozen pizzas, if you’re wondering.) We all love the Beatles, but for dinner music, just for something different, I put on the Rolling Stones.

“Exile on Main Street,” from 1972.

Right away, they started asking questions.

Who is this?
What is this?

When is this?

My daughter, all of 6, lead the charge.

“I hate this. It sounds like it’s from the cheesy 70s.”

My son: “You don’t know what cheesy means.”

“Yes I do. Daddy told me.”

“Yes, it’s from the 70s. She’s right,” my wife said. “Right?”

“Yes,” I said, “It’s from the 70’s.”

“Fine, he said, “she was right. But I don’t like the way they blend jazz with rock. It’s weird.”

“It’s not jazz,” I said. “It’s blues. Blues and rock.”

“Whatever.”

“You guys think the Beatles are the best. Lots of people think they’re the greatest Rock and Roll band of all time. I do. But plenty of other people think the Stones were the best.”

“Well, we hate it,” they said.

“Fine, If you all hate it, I’ll get up and change the station.”

I got to the speaker, and had the Spotify in my hand, dialing up something new.

Before I could though, the song changed.

The Stones’ crazy soul/funk/blues/rock spirit wailed through the house on a cold December night.

“Wait,” I heard.

“Wait.”

“What?”

“Wait. It’s different. It’s new. We’ve never heard anything like this before.”

I waited.

“I’m done waiting. I want to eat my Paul Newman’s pizza. I’m coming back to the table.”

I sat back down.

“We like this,” they said.

“You should,” I said. “It’s amazing music.”

“They stayed together, right? The Stones?”

“Yes,” I said. “They never broke up, and still tour today. The lead players, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts are still around.”

“They made this album after the Beatles broke up, right?” he asked.

“That’s true. 1972. And they kept making good music until 1981, with ‘Tattoo You.'”

“But what about now, Daddy? Is their music good now,” my daughter asked?

“Good god, no,” I said. “Nobody listens to what they make now.”

“Why not, Daddy?”

I paused. I looked at my wife. She arched her brow.

Huh. How to explain that.

“Most artists aren’t good forever,” I said. “Lots of them seem to lose their mojo, and don’t keep making great stuff later in life.”

I said, “Remember that Willie Nelson album I played the other day, that he made when he was 85?”

“Yes,” they said.

“Well, that’s the exception to the rule. Very few people keep their creative edge later in life.”

“Most people run out of steam,” my wife said.

It’s the truth.

But not everyone. There’s a Bill Murray for every Chevy Chase. A Martin Short for every Eddie Murphy.

I mention this today as it came up a few weeks ago, when I reviewed “True Places.” I said I’d sensed the book was made by someone who’d been around a while.

Not a youngster. (Turns out I was right.)

With “Taradiddle,” by Charles Traub, I didn’t have to wonder. He and I have corresponded a few times, but never met, and Charles was kind enough to send the book along, which was published this year by Damiani.

I know he’s in charge of the photo program at SVA in New York, and kind of assume he’s in his mid-to-late 50’s. (Somewhere in that range, anyway.) He’s been around the block, is what I’m saying.

And it shows, as this book oozes a well-traveled joie de vivre, and is definitely one of my favorites of the year.

There are so many incredible color, (likely) digital photographs in this book. Scores, really. The best of them, and there are many, manage to break down the picture planes into various layers; so many variations of fore-mid-and-backgrounds.

Given digital photography’s inherent flattening of the picture plane, the look often ends up nearly surreal, making me think of Magritte, in particular.

Beyond the consistently excellent compositions, and smartly connected pairings, these pictures are comprehensive in their global scope. The more pages I turned, (all without titles,) the more I thought “Damn, where didn’t this guy go?”

It felt like I was seeing a cross-section of human culture in the 21st Century.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying a younger person couldn’t have made these.

Sure, they could have.

I guess.

But the lived-in, masterful way these pictures are built, it feels more Bill Belichick than Sean McVay, for my NFL-fan-readers out there.

There were some photographs that mystified me more than others. Pictures where I stopped and stared, if you will. One, I couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity, but couldn’t place it either. I swore to check the titles at the end, and come back. (Turns out it was my old neighborhood, Greenpoint.)

On the negative side, I think the book was 10-15 pictures too long. Early on, I felt the narrative stop when a few average photos popped up. Just when I forgave him, after dozens of great ones in a row, by the 70’s, there was a bad run again.

Bad being a relative term, meaning average.
Or just OK.

(In a book with this many killer photos, just OK stands out.)

That’s me, though. I like things to be as taut as possible.

It’s a quibble.

Photography is unique, as a medium, in how much it relies upon literal depictions of the actual world. By crisscrossing the globe, and bringing a humor, pathos, and dare-i-say-it wisdom to this photobook, “Taradiddle” feels like an honest slice of life, to me.

Which is ironic, as the word means a petty, little lie.

The dates are a little unclear, as the statement says they were made from 2002-17, but there are images dated 2000 and ’01. It essentially covers the entire new century.

Basically, it’s an absurdist archive of life on Earth at a time of great import in human history.

Hard to ask for more out of a photo book, I’d say.

Bottom Line: Witty, wise, color photos from around the world

To purchase “Taradiddle” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Christina Riley

 

Blame Canada.

That just popped into my head, just this second. I was shaking off a first draft that I didn’t particularly like, (all the me, me, me,) and it hit me.

Blame Canada.

Such a funny musical number, in an audacious movie, which presents Saddam Hussein as Satan’s torturous gay lover.

I haven’t watched “South Park” in years, truth be told, but I did drive through Trey and Matt’s hometown in Colorado this autumn. It’s a shockingly beautiful and definitely strange place, and is cut off from the outside world by very big mountains.

My guess is, the show, “South Park,” is still funny. I bet the jokes are as offensive, juvenile and of-the-moment as ever, and maybe someone still kills Kenny?

If I turn on the next episode, once Cartman shows up, I’m sure I’ll laugh, because how can you not? He’s got as classic a cartoon voice as Beavis, Butthead and Homer Simpson, I’d venture. (“Respect My Authoritaaah!)

Those four would make quite the Mount Rushmore of animated American doofuses, would they not?

The tie binding these classic comedies, though, is that each satirizes the normal, or the everyday. These cartoons take life’s mundanity, and imbue it with the stench of the absurd, like a nasty wet fart hanging in the air. (I guess we could throw “Family Guy” in here too, if we’re being generous. Peter and Stewie Griffin would have fun dicking around with the other four for sure. )

The reason family and domestic stories are so damn popular, Imo, is that they wrap things we don’t know, (plot, concept, suspense, symbolism,) in the packaging of the world we live in each day.

Domestic stories, you could say, are the ultimate narrative Trojan horse.

Perhaps it’s the reason I write about my own family, and regular life, here so often. As this column is a weekly event, and has continued for so many years, my life and job have essentially merged.

But the line here is thin, I’d argue, because if everyone has a family, and everyone has daily-life-struggles-and-sqabbles, then if you’re not extremely interesting, or observant, or crazy, or strange, then your domestic story might fall a bit flat.

Right?

Today, you can see for yourself what I’m on about. I’ve got a photo book in mind, “Born,” by Christina Riley, which was printed by Edition One in Berkeley.

I’ll be blunt here, and admit this book is right on the edge of what I’ll normally review. It doesn’t give us a perspective we haven’t seen before, nor is it an insider’s view, as there have been countless books on the subject of motherhood.

It isn’t innovative either, but is rather a well-made, artistic, black and white family album, with Christina and her husband (or partner,) the hipster, Millennial parents dealing with a new baby.

The very first picture, with its huge blast of flash, and high key effect, seems like an edgy shot, but then most fall back on convention.

One photo drops in a “Nirvana” reference, and they will ALWAYS be cool, and the ease with which the camera is held at arm’s length, for selfies, meta-references the habits of Ms. Riley’s generation.

But…

I felt like I’d seen all these pictures before. Many times. Yes, it made me think of that phase in my own life, which is a good thing, but the generic nature of the photographs nagged at me.

As did the feeling that the images were a tad performative.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But…

There were two photographs that really grabbed me, as they were dripping with emotion, and felt authentic. In one, the family sits together, eating, and the camera is at a distance. It looks as if they don’t know they’re being observed.

The second, a similar moment. (These pictures would make quite the diptych in an exhibition, frankly.) The mother, on the toilet, with the baby. The camera, again at a distance. The angle of her bent neck alone signals her deep exhaustion.

Certainly, these weren’t truly unguarded moments, as the camera shutter clicked. (A tripod and timer, most likely, or a helper photographer.)

Regardless, they offered something, a jolt, a shot of emotion, that really resonated.

There is no text in this book, save an early poem, and then a late dedication to the artist’s two daughters. (That bit made sense, for me, as there was another super-lovely image of what looked like the back of slightly older child’s head.)

It means, though, that we don’t have any additional context in which to view these pictures, should there be any. We’re left to consider a set of new parents, figuring it out, artfully.

Certainly not bad, in any way.

Like Canada?

Bottom line: A sweet-yet-gruff, family-album-type-photobook

To purchase “Born” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Jack Carnell

 

Everybody makes mistakes.

(Even me.)

At the moment, I’m recalling the time I got snookered by a politician.

Genuinely hoodwinked.
Tricked out of my underpants.

The year was 2004, and I was living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As hard as it may be for some people to believe in 2018, liberal Americans hated George W. Bush, and his neocon cronies, about as much as the Millennials hate Trump.

He’d started two wars, including one based upon faulty evidence against a country that had NOTHING TO DO WITH 9/11, and oh yeah he also babysat the splintering of the global economy.

W. may have been affable to Trump’s nuclear-rage, but Democrats really wanted him out of office.

And John Kerry, the presumptive nominee, was a sure-loser, I felt. Yes, I voted for him eventually in the general election, but once the video was out of him wind-surfing in Oakley sunglasses, and he just wanted it SO BADLY, I knew he would fall to W.’s regular-guy-appeal.

So in the primary, even though deep down I knew he was too good to be true, I voted for John Edwards.

This was before people knew about the $350 haircuts, and oh yeah that he was cheating on his cancer-ridden, feminist wife, and oh that’s right, he fathered a baby with his side-piece.

It was before that.

Still, it was a horrible decision in retrospect, as I saw the slick veneer, and suspected it was only that, but given that Kerry was so uninspiring, I threw my vote in a riskier direction.

The one thing I liked about Edwards was he kept talking about Two Americas. Rich and poor. The land with opportunities, compared to the one without.

Sure, it’s hokey, and like I said, I’m embarrassed I voted for the guy.

But it’s certainly true today, and helps explain the enormous political divide in the US.

I’ve written about it in pieces, of late, but today I wanted to directly address the urban vs rural schism in America, and how it’s likely to get worse, not better.

Cities, as we all know, are almost always liberal. As one who’s lived in 3 big ones, (ABQ, San Francisco and Brooklyn,) I can attest to the power of mixing people together.

Food, culture, and proximity provoke an inherently mind-opening experience. Open-minded people are more free-thinking, or less fixed in their world views, and tend to vote Democratic.

Even in places as Red as Texas and Oklahoma, cities vote Blue.

I’m also something of an anomaly, as I live in one of the few rural, mountain communities that’s liberal, (much less deep blue,) as Northern New Mexico is.

In Red America, from Nebraska down to Mississippi, most people live in an Evangelical, white, agricultural culture in which farming, ranching, and growing things is a part of daily life.

Killing a chicken with your bare hands or fixing a pick-up truck with your buddy, for rural folks from Alabama to South Dakota, would seem as normal as drinking beer and eating beef.

Remember how vociferously Brett Kavanaugh yelled that he likes beer? It’s because that was code that even though he’s a rich kid who went to fancy private schools, he’s actually a regular-guy-rich kid, like Trump. (And W. before him.)

Not an effete-wine-drinking-snob like Barack Obama.

If you live in a hip part of Atlanta, your local coffee shop will be more similar to one in Oakland or Boulder than it will be to any establishment 150 miles outside the city.

That is the real two Americas.

Lifestyles, cultures, religions and demographics that are so different as to be unrecognizable to the other side.

As an optimistic pragmatist, (as I described myself at a recent lecture at UNM in ABQ,) I’d like to think that as America has knit her wounds before, we may again.

And living a hybridized experience, locally being surrounded by liberal ranchers, and then traveling each year to America’s best cities, I guess I understand connections between both Americas better than most.

It’s great, though, to be able to present a vision of one America to the other, and have it be a positive experience.

One dripping with respect and appreciation.

A vision, perhaps, that helps us view the past as it exists in the present. And today, we’ll see this homage to Red America in “True Places,” a book by Jack Carnell, recently published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta.

These days, I see books from all sorts of demographics, and basically show books in a 50/50 ratio between men and women. (Have you noticed?)

It means that over the course of a year, I’ll show books by 20-somethings, 70-somethings, and everything in between. (No lie.) From hipster ‘zines in Germany to staid historical compendiums by famous museums.

When I got a few pages into this book, though, I had the strong suspicion that the photographer had been around a while. That he was in his 60’s or 70’s.

Given the subject matter, (of the South,) and how many projects you see coming out of the Hartford MFA program that look like everyone wants to be Alec Soth-mixed-with-Eggleston, it could easily have been made by a younger artist.

(And not until the book’s end notes did I get confirmation, as Jack Carnell got an MFA in 1976.)

After the first picture, (which seemed way too generic,) and the second, (which was a bit boring,) this book really took off. Frankly, other than just a few street-scene pictures that seemed obvious, I thought the rest were both haunting and cool, which is a hard mix to pull off.

The compression of space makes the photographs personal, and maybe having been around a while helps him zero in on moments that are trapped in time, and likely won’t be around forever, like an old stationary store that’s hanging on against Walmart, selling one yellow highlighter at a time, but you know once the old lady retires there’s no way her son is taking over, and it will be gone for sure within two years.

This whole book feels like that imaginary anecdote.

It’s like an elegy to every hardware store that struggles and lingers, or every BBQ joint where the pit-master wakes up at 4am to tend the whole roast pig.

I think there’s a warmth to the light and the color palette, overall, that suggests the warmth of feeling for these dying, forgotten, or at least under-appreciated places.

The $2 shave.
Forgotten books on the staircase of the local store.
A Dentist’s office where you KNOW the toys are from 1989.

Even when the color palette shifts cool, the pictures still resonate with humanism.

The honest truth is, there are people living in rural areas that are cool as hell. They work the land because that’s the family culture they know.

They hunt or fish or four-wheeler because they’re surrounded by nature, and there’s not that much to do unless you’re active.

And Red America is far-from-exclusively-white, so there are rural Latinos and African-Americans living differently from their urban counterparts as well.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a little screed promoting understanding between these two Americas. This book is a love-letter from an MFA/art-professor/Guggenheim-fellow artist, (by definition a member of the elite,) to another America, and I think it’s an inspiration for all of us heading into 2019.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, hauntingly charming look at the forgotten South

To purchase “True Places,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Soraya Matos

 

It’s Thanksgiving morning. (It’s true.)

Some weeks, I get the column done early.
Like Tuesday.

If I write on Tuesday, it means I’m fresh as a daisy, and brimming with energy.

(Mondays are just not realistic.)

Thursdays happen often enough, because that’s how deadlines work.

Right?

You wait until the pressure of having-to creeps up, and then that bit of need kicks your butt, and rouses action.

Normally, though, you’d rather not work on Thanksgiving. It’s that totally secular holiday that people either love or love to hate.

There’s no in-between.

So many Turkeys die.
Football players get concussions.

And South Jersey breathes a collective sigh of relief once they’ve unloaded yet enough year’s worth of cranberries on the rest of America.

Other than a few cynical years, (I admit,) I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. I get why the roots of the holiday can rightly be given the side-eye, especially living here next to Native Americans.

But I grew up believing in many of the American ideals that were taught to me there in Central New Jersey, where the ghosts of George Washington were said to inhabit the area.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now, if you can temporarily set aside what you know about the flaws of the founders, those are some pretty idealistic notions. That Americans are granted the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That all people are created equal.

Despite our many problems, the rule of law still exists here in America, and we are essentially free. Most of us, (if not all of us,) have many, many things for which to be thankful.

I know I do.

I’m thankful for my wonderful family, and the fact that I live in a relatively safe place.

I’m thankful that I get to write about interesting photo books, as a job, and I’m thankful for those of you who read my musings.

But the truth is, today’s column is about to get dark. (Consider yourself warned.) I didn’t mean for it, as I might have rather kept it light today.

No, I wanted to start with the positive today, and ask you to think about the things (and people) for which you’re thankful. That was the appeal to the head.

The gut-punch-of-a-book will wind up your heart for sure, so please trust that I didn’t plan this. It was totally random; the luck of the draw. I reached in to the bottom of the stack for a book by a female photographer, and “The Ghost People of Tanzania,” by Soraya Matos, published by Edition One Books in Berkeley, was next in line.

I liked that it came tied in fabric, because who doesn’t like the extra touches, but only when I untied the bow did I see that it was covering an albino boy or girl, surrounded by darker-skinned African children.

The intro text sets up that the book is a part of an advocacy project that accompanied public exhibitions of the images in public places around Tanzania, where the albino population is both sizable and menaced.

Contemporary norms including witchcraft place albino Tanzanians at risk of murder or dismemberment, as their body parts are used for witchcraft medicine.

(I told you this was going to be unpleasant.)

The book features a series of portraits of Tanzanians who have the condition, and a photo of their handwritten answers to a few questions, which are then translated into English as well.

I must say, some of the smiling photos were disconcerting. In most photo books, featuring difficult subjects like this one, the people might scowl or look serious in some fashion.

And the backgrounds are both nondescript and bright, likely
featuring local fabrics. (Hence the fabric that tied the book when it arrived.)

Those smiling faces are a set up, because when you turn to the first page with a portrait of an attack survivor, and the arm’s not there, the blood drains from your face.

Can you imagine?

There are enough such stories in there that then you begin to think, aren’t these people putting themselves at risk, even if some are at a protected government facility?

Running for your life while someone chases you, and then they catch you, and chop your arms off and leave you to die, and then they get away with it, that has to go down as one of the very, very worst things that can happen to a person.

And for what?

Because they have a genetic condition?

Because they look different?

It’s like living in a permanent horror movie, where you always have to look over your shoulder for the boogeyman.

Anyone involved with this project, including Ms. Matos, puts themselves at risk to try to educate the public, and that takes some serious guts.

I applaud the effort here, and hope she and all these people stay safe. There’s nothing fair about a world where this happens.

So let’s use it as inspiration to be truly thankful for what we’ve got, and I hope you have a safe holiday, wherever you are.

Bottom Line: Tragic, heart-breaking stories of albino discrimination 

To Purchase: The Ghost People of Tanzania,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Robert Osborn

 

Kids today are a bunch of sissies.

(So they say.)

I’m willing to bet that’s always been the refrain of the older generation, but I know for sure it’s a popular opinion at the moment.

Because I heard it directly on two occasions in the past week.

Last Thursday, I had a beer and a plate of tacos with two of my teaching mentors, Jim and Ed. These guys are role models for me, as they each represent the Platonic ideal of a Renaissance Man. (How’s that for mixing time periods and metaphors?)

Each worked in the Taos school system for years, in various capacities, and each is equally comfortable out of doors. (Even as age catches up with them.)

Jim and Ed were bitching about how they can’t work as long as they used to, and how it’s hard to reconcile their current age with how they see themselves. The guys both reported that previous incarnations, when they were younger, felt like something of a dream at this stage in life. (They’re 69 and 71.)

Jim has broken himself twice in the last few years: once from a head injury, and the other from a busted bottom. The first time, he ended up with a brain hematoma after hiking 20+ miles into the mountains on an elk hunt, even though a doctor had told him to chill the fuck out.

As for Ed, he once told me about the time he was invited into a ceremony at the Picuris Pueblo, and in order to properly perform the dance, he had to cut a stone into his flesh, twist it until it embedded in his chest, and leave the wound for the duration of the ceremony.

Nowadays, he’s not as spry as he used to be, mostly because he spent the last year recovering from a horrible bout of Black Mold infection.

As they traded stories of their previous exploits, I admitted that except for a summer of irrigation back in 2017, I avoided ranch work out here to the best of my abilities.

I might watch my in-laws traipse back and forth across the pasture, feeding horses and chopping weeds, but I’d rather recline on my sofa watching Netflix.

They smiled, a touch condescendingly, as I told them about my Kung Fu practice, as it seemed like a silly hobby, compared with chopping your own wood, or fixing an underperforming well.

“It’s good to get strong,” Jim said.

“I am strong,” I replied. “But it’s making me tougher. I was soft, not weak.”

The guys smiled, and then moved on to telling other stories.

Coincidentally, two days later, I was at a Kung Fu workshop with my Sigong, my teacher’s teacher. This guy, despite not being of Asian descent, oozes “Kung Fu Master” in all the right, cinematic ways.

He pinned me to the wall with only a finger, and watching him move around an opponent was like water flowing in an irrigation ditch.

Effortless.

But sure enough, in a room with at least 4 Millennials in it, (not me, of course,) Sigong managed to mock that generation at least three times.

They’re weak. They’re soft.

They don’t like doing the hard work necessary to become an accomplished martial artist.

(Like I said at the outset, kids are sissies, these days.)

But they’re also growing up in a world whose rules have changed, and the results aren’t pretty.

Grownups designed the college system, and run it, but it’s the Millennials who are now saddled with so much debt, to pay for that college, that they can’t afford to buy a house or have a kid.

Grown ups are the ones who’ve rampaged through the planet’s natural resources, (and killed off so many of its species,) but it’s the young people who’ll have to figure out how to Save the World.

Despite the City vs Country divide that’s destroying America at the moment, I’d bet this idea, that young people don’t have what it takes, would unite elders in both communities. (For example, just yesterday, I read an article about American Judaism that insisted on mentioning that the victims of the Pittsburgh Synagogue attack were all elderly, as the young people couldn’t be bothered to attend.)

Out here in Taos, you constantly hear that traditional families have stopped growing crops on their land, because the younger generation doesn’t want to put in the time.

Rather, most of the younger farmers at the Farmer’s Market each summer are white hippies and hipsters, rather than 4th or 5th generation Hispanic and Native New Mexicans.

So I guess my question today is, are we surprised that younger generations of Americans don’t want to live lives that no longer make sense within a context of robots and AI and Climate Change?

It it appropriate to mourn the loss a lifestyle that has brought the planet to the brink of peril?

It’s a heavy subject, (yet again,) but how can we avoid big topics in an era when there are no easy days, and so little good news?

As usual, a photo-book got me thinking today, in the form of “The Cowboys of Central Montana: 50 Portraits,” by Robert Osborn, published by Montana Art Books.

This one turned up in June, when the alfalfa and grass were growing strong, but it’s taken until November to get to it. (I’m not kidding when I tell you guys, at the bottom of the column, that we’ve got a big backlog.)

By now, we’ve got snow on the ground here in the Southern Rockies, so they must have tons up there in Montana too. And the winter is just getting started, though I learned from the book that calving season, the real go-time of the cowboy’s annual schedule, won’t be upon us until February.

Admittedly, I’ve reviewed a few cowboy books over the last 7+ years, and try to spread them out to once or twice a year. (Sometimes, it seems like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.)

But of course that’s not true.

And this book, in particular, presents really strong portraits, in the traditional sense. These pictures are super-sharp, with solid lighting, tonal range, and compositions.

There are lots of craggy faces, true, but the book was sure to include women, as well as men, and the clothing here seems pretty authentic to the contemporary Cowboy west, rather than hinting at Hollywood stylists, just outside the frame, outfitting folks in fake-garb meant to evoke Buffalo Bill and such.

The book’s text tells us this way of life is disappearing, as the new generations don’t want to do this kind of work, because it’s too hard for too little pay.

Ironically, the allure of the romantic lifestyle has made ranches play-things for the super-rich, and allowed big ranches to be broken into small pieces for McMansions to pop up.

(The simulacrum of the working ranch being more appropriate for the 21st Century.)

Of course, this is always delivered as elegy, in books like this. The ways of the past are dying, and kids today aren’t willing to put in the work to maintain the tradition.

There’s even a statistic in this one that describes just how much land is required to raise cattle, not to mention all the water to grow the hay, or wash away the aggregated cow-shit.

It’s a double-edged sword, if we’re being honest. Watching the past disappear is sad, and automatically evokes nostalgia. And as I wrote at the beginning of this column, smart, old, tough guys are easy to appreciate. (Call it the Clint Eastwood effect.)

But our obsession with eating cows is killing our planet. If there are less ranches, and less cows, or if Millennials decide to be vegetarians to try to under-consume our way out of this mess, who can blame them?

As long as there are old folks and young folks, this narrative will play out again and again.

So I guess our job is to make sure we don’t kill everyone on the planet with our forest fires, hurricanes, floods and mass murders?

Sorry, I know it was a bit bleak today. I really do like these pictures, and think you’ll appreciate the book as well. But it’s hard not to dig into nuance at times like this.

Have a good weekend.

Bottom Line: Excellent, expertly crafted images of the Cowboy life

To Purchase: “The Cowboys of Central Montana: 50 Portraits” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Corinne Vionnet

 

Thanks for reading, and giving this column its legs.

Thanks for taking what I say seriously, but also having the self-awareness to know when I’m joking. Lord knows I’ve written some crazy things in this column over the last 7+ years, but I’ve never felt the need to dumb things down. (And I have the coolest editor in the world, which helps.)

But mostly I’m saying thanks because after last week’s nakedly honest column, I got several lovely, positive emails in reply.

I don’t do this for the feedback, obviously, or Rob and I wouldn’t have gone to war with the Trolls back in 2011.

Not all responses are worth considering, but I was caught off guard last week when several readers reached out to wish me well, and let me know they appreciated the candor we offer here, and the attempt to contemplate real ideas. (Rather than ripping off hot takes faster than Stephen A. Smith can say “New Yawk Knicks.”)

So today, rather than gloat at the Democratic House victory yesterday, or rip into Trump and his followers one more time, I’d like to do something different.

I’m going to speak to everyone at once.

Democrats and Republicans.
Urbanites and country-folk.
Artists and commercial photographers.
Haters and lovers.

All of you.

The experiment we have going on here in America, that of a massive, heterogenous, democratic Republic, is fairly new. Relative to China’s 5000 year history, we are newcomers.

And as we all know, the founding of America, and its subsequent expansion, was rife with corruption, misery, and genocide.

Yet I’m still proud of this country, and the system and values that were built by genius Americans like Ben Franklin and George Washington.

It’s easy to disparage those old Christian White guys, and to point out their sizable flaws, like slave ownership. In fact, it might be easier to dismiss them than mine for the brilliance of what they enacted.

The American system of government has allowed for our polyglot society to grow and flourish, and unless and until you can be legally shot for your opinions, then our free speech principle is one to support and uphold.

And perhaps, for once, it’s time to quote Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”

These days, I feel like most people are defaulting to the idea that we can’t. That some awful future is guaranteed up ahead, and we’re all marching to the ovens with our eyes firmly on the floor.

But that is simply not the case.

There are nice, family-loving people in Red and Blue states. And there are cool, hip, fascinating childless folks in both urban and rural Americas as well.

It’s foolish to assume we can leave all this accrued hate behind, but then again, what is our alternative?

If “Divide and Conquer” is such an obvious and successful strategy, then perhaps it’s time to employ the “Re-unite and Thrive” response?

My Uncle and Aunt, whom I love, are both Republicans. They hate Obama, and want a wall.

But I can talk to them.
I don’t wish them dead.

Quite the opposite.

Perhaps, that’s the best I can offer you guys today. The idea that maybe, individually, each of us can make an effort to reach across the (metaphorical) aisle and tell your political counterpoint that you don’t hate them.

You don’t wish them dead.

You disagree, but conflict can lead to change, which begets growth.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a book review? Isn’t there an implicit promise that if you sit with my ravings, at the end, you get to look at a book?

Yes, that’s the deal.

And not surprisingly, today’s book inspired my desire to knit together what years of discord have rendered.

“Total Flag” is a new, small-batch, self-published photo book by the Swiss-French artist Corinne Vionnet. One of her representatives reached out offering the book a few months ago, as I’d reviewed another of her publications (by Fall Line Press) late last year.

Ironically, the European PR person was traveling to Texas, and thought she’d be able to send me this French-artist’s-take-on-America more easily, once inside our formidable borders.

Like Robert Frank, or de Tocqueville before him, occasionally the lone European flaneur has raided our shores to reflect our society better than we can from the inside.

This book is about the furthest thing from street photography you can get. Frankly, to the naked eye, it doesn’t look much like photography at all.

Sure, they could be shots of a computer screen. Maybe they’re totally straight, unmanipulated pictures too. But that doesn’t matter much, as what we really see is a set of digital information as it degrades to nothing.

I’ll admit, the idea of the flag succumbing to entropy is not the subtlest, or most original symbol for contemporary America.

Let’s be honest, it’s kind of obvious.

But as a book, it’s effective. Slowly, bit by bit, the fabric of America has begun to come apart at the seams. We were one nation, and that sustained us, but are we any longer?

Or will the City vs Country war allow us to implode?

Normally, I focus on what’s wrong, and call attention to our problems.

Today, I don’t feel much like doing that.

Rather, this book has inspired me to push for reconciliation, because the alternative is much, much worse.

Bottom Line: Abstract, symbolic book about the rendering of America

To purchase “Total Flag” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Joshua Lutz

 

Holy shit, has it been a crazy week.

Sometimes, I feel like I can’t catch my breath, because no matter how hard I work, and how much positive energy I try to push out into the world, everything is just too big.

Too wild.
Too raw.

I’m helpless.

Most days, almost every day, honestly, I know who I am, where I’m going, what I’m doing, and what my goals are.

Be a good husband and father.
Make good art.

Write smart, entertaining and beneficial things for you, my large (and largely faceless) global audience.

But every now and again, I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and I just can’t understand how the world is so fucked, with people constantly talking about the impending extinction of humanity, the onslaught of fascism, or the likelihood of Donald Trump’s 3rd Term.

Since the Enlightenment, it has generally been accepted that human beings are predominantly rational creatures, and that we make decisions based upon our own self-interest.

Capitalism, the big idea that drives all global commerce, is essentially built upon the concept of rationality. It accepts that because people are greedy, governments are necessary to serve as a counter-balance to that greed.

Dirty rivers and dirty air are guaranteed, unless there is a bulwark to force corporations, (or in the past, rapacious individual owners,) to spend additional money to dispose of their waste properly.

Still, I think most of us believe we’re normal, as are our neighbors, and that almost all of us share a common goal: to provide for our families, give them the best life possible, live in a nice house, have time for leisure, and get to eat food that is better than the insect-jello they had to eat in that super-depressing movie “Snowpiercer.” (Damn that Chris Evans looks good in a beard!)

I always tell people that Taos, where I live, has a particularly high incidence of mental illness, and anti-social behavior. If you live here long enough, it’s super-obvious to see. (And it makes sense, when you know the history.)

Taos was the one place to rebel, when the US claimed and invaded New Mexico after the Mexican-American War, and the Taoseños killed all the White folks and fed them to the pigs. (No lie. You can look it up.)

And since “Easy Rider” dropped in 1969, misfits, outlaws and malcontents have flocked here like they’re giving away free reefer.

My personal experience with the Taos Crazies, (as we call them,) changed radically a few years ago. I took over as the Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the college where I taught, despite being repeatedly warned that the student body was unruly TO THE MAX.

Foolishly, I assumed that because I’m a nice guy, and relatively high functioning, I’d be able to straighten the place right out. My bosses assured me they had my back, and were serious about reforming the place, to make it work better for the next generation. (Ron Howard voice: They weren’t.)

If you’ve been reading for the last few years, (Hi Rob, Hi Jessie,) you’ll know how it all turned out.

There’s a reason people use the expression “driving me crazy.” It’s not that mental illness is contagious, like the flu or Ebola, but when a healthy person is continuously exposed to a sick environment, eventually it gets to you.

Without exaggeration, I remember the time I was accosted by a woman who shrieked at me for not inviting her into an art show, when I had verifiably done so in several ways. (Including an email that I retained, making her assertions “fake news.”)

Or the time a guy who was actually friends with Jessie’s family got so angry, when I was forced to deliver bad news from my superiors, that the spittle flecks flew at my face like snow flakes in a beautiful blizzard.

Or the time an older woman, who admittedly did look a bit like a witch, came up to me, got right in my face, and screamed “BOO!” before cackling and walking away, gobsmacked at the fear that was plainly registered on my face.

(I could go on, but I won’t.)

I will admit, though, that I became progressively testier, and grumpier, to the point that I was being short-tempered with my kids, and knew I had to quit.

I began this ramble by talking about our collective crazy week, and boy was it. One lunatic tries to blow up the entire power structure of the Democratic Party, while living in a van, another shoots a bunch of elderly Jews while they pray, and all the while, the Saudi government changes its story about the Jamal Khashoggi murder more times than Eli Manning got sacked by the Washington Redskins on Sunday. (7 sacks, if you’re counting.)

The plain truth, as near as I can gather, is that the world is genuinely bat-shit, and the best we can do is try to keep it all straight.

Human beings are not entirely rational, as Jung and Freud figured out, and expecting us to behave “normally” is a fool’s errand.

Or as my therapist likes to say, “Crazy always wins.” You can’t convince crazy with logic, or reason. Better to recognize it, and then figure out a workaround.

If you’ve followed along so far, and didn’t decide that Blaustein must have eaten a bag of mushrooms before writing today, I applaud you. (And I’m stone cold sober, other than some really strong coffee and a healthy dose of late-October sunshine.)

Instead, I’ll blame these musings on “Mind The Gap,” an excellent, mind-bending, and genuinely insane new book by Joshua Lutz, published by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam. (While we’re being honest, I did once go half-mad after eating an Amsterdam space cake, before boarding an inter-continental flight, and recall trying to talk myself down, looking in the mirror of the airplane bathroom while flying over the Arctic Circle.)

Rob wrote to me, after last week’s review of “Hidden Mother,” that he’d never seen a book quite like that one. I heartily agreed, and passed the compliment along to the publisher.

As always, I never plan the connections between books, but this week, I can clearly declare that I’ve never seen a book like this one either.

And that’s probably a good thing.

Given what I’ve learned about mental illness, this book channels it better than any I’ve previously read or perused. It is a genuinely crazy photo book, which explores actual insanity, for our sadly twisted times.

(Before you say it, I know there were assassinations galore in the 60’s, and that Michael Douglas was a sex symbol in the 80’s, but really, 2018 feels like it hits new heights on the WTF scale.)

This book doesn’t make sense, and clearly isn’t supposed to. There are interludes that refer to history, blending 17th Century Indian attacks and Walt Disney with Robert Moses stories, and others that relate the 1-10 scale for people contemplating suicide.

A couple considers buying a house where a family was killed, (outside on the swings, not in any of the bedrooms,) and a parable is included about a Prince who’s the heir to the Mad King.

The photographs, (this is a photo book after all,) seem straight, and mostly black and white, but they could easily include digital composting, and you wouldn’t know it.

At first, I felt like the references were mostly about New York, but then I picked up New Orleans and Florida. (There’s definitely a picture that speaks to the mass shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando.)

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention the book opens up with an admission that the writer might be suffering from schizophrenia, which he may have inherited from his mother?

We’d normally assume it’s real, but for some reason, right away, I gathered it wasn’t.

The pictures are strange, and compelling, but by themselves don’t answer any questions. We’re trained to figure things out, or at least to try, and I have to say that’s impossible here.

Which, thankfully, is the point.

This book drives you crazy, and what better way to explore the experience of insanity?

Finally, in the image-title page at the end, we get a tad of closure. The photographic locations are more comprehensive than they seem, and include pictures made at Sandy Hook, Columbine, Pulse, and other places that contain the resonance of terroristic violence.

On some level, all the mass shooters are crazy. They have to be, because their actions are in no way rational.

Even if you think George Soros is funding the migrant caravan, how does killing an elderly 80-something Jewish couple stop the brown people from getting to the border?

It doesn’t, and every time you try to understand where that kind of hatred comes from, your head hurts just a little bit more.

Bottom Line: An excellent, appropriate look at our crazy culture

To purchase “Mind the Gap,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Laura Larson

 

Have you ever heard of Bitty Schram?

(Probably not.)

Don’t worry. It’s a pretty obscure Pop culture reference. (Even for me.)

Bitty Schram is an actress who’s best known as the player in “A League of Their Own” at whom Tom Hanks shrieks, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

But if you think this is a column about the World Series, (Red Sox vs Dodgers,) you’re very wrong. I don’t give a shit about baseball anymore. The steroid era, (and the fact that baseball’s boring,) quashed any love I might have previously had for America’s former pastime.

Some of you might know Bitty Schram, though, as the sassy, spunky, spirited, Jersey-girl foil to Tony Shalhoub’s famous-early-aught’s OCD detective Adrian Monk, in the long-running USA series “Monk.”

Bitty Schram, (yes, I love typing that name,) co-starred as his assistant and sometime nurse Sharona Fleming, who was as Jersey as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi combined. (It helped that the actress was a Jersey girl herself.)

My wife and I occasionally watched the show back in the day, (it first aired in 2003,) and recently re-discovered it in its current incarnation as a streaming option on Amazon. (Or Prime Video. Whatever. Same shit.)

I remembered that they replaced the Sharona character at some point with a very bland, far-less-talented actress, and that we eventually stopped watching because the she kind of sucked. (No offense, Traylor Howard. If you’re reading.)

So this time around, I began to feel wistful for Bitty Schram, as the show evolved, knowing she was not long for this world. I even did a bit of Googling and discovered that she and two other co-stars had advocated for more money, (so they say,) and she was summarily fired and replaced mid-way through the 3rd season.

The male actors, who according to the internet were in solidarity with her, (including Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill of “The Silence of the Lambs” fame,) were not fired however.

And Bitty Schram was essentially never heard from again. (According to IMDB.)

We counted down the episodes until we knew she’d be kiboshed, and wondered how they’d handle it. An astute viewer could see that the chemistry was not quite right, towards the end, but as there was little warning for what the producers would do, Bitty Schram was there one week, and gone the next.

(They said she moved back to Jersey, and that was the end of it.)

Ironically, though, as they essentially cleansed her from the opening credits, there was one shot left in which her curly hair, just a hint of it, can be seen at the edge of the camera frame as she supports Monk’s arm.

It’s impossible to miss, if you know what you’re looking for, and that little bit of Bitty haunts the show each time I see it. (Sorry, that was a terrible pun.)

For a week or so, I felt really bad for her, and internalized her struggle.

Poor Sharona, treated so unfairly.

But then you could see the creators clearly wanted to pivot, as the meta-narrative became less about Monk’s paralyzing OCD and germaphobia, and less of a who-done-it murder procedural.

Rather, they wanted to increase the physical comedy, and give the brilliant Tony Shalhoub more time to shine. His new assistant, as bland as a piece of wheat toast with no butter, was there as straight-woman only.

No personality necessary.

Still, the hint of Bitty Schram sits at the edge of that frame, each episode, reminding me of all the under-appreciated women who stuck their necks out, only to get their heads chopped off. (Metaphorically. There’s no decapitation in “Monk,” to be clear.)

We take women’s issues seriously here at APE, which is why I’ve been on a year-long-crusade to increase our submissions from female photographers. Rob and I agreed that having balance was necessary, and vital, and it wouldn’t happen on its own.

You may have noticed our repeated request for such submissions at the end of each column, and you can trust that I also respond enthusiastically each time a publisher offers to send a cool book by a female artist.

And today’s no exception.

“Hidden Mother,” a recent photo book by Laura Larson, published by Saint Lucy Press in Baltimore, turned up in the mail recently, and I’m so glad it did.

Photo geeks are probably aware of the 19th Century trope of child portraits taken with mothers stabilizing their kids, hidden beneath a cloth so they didn’t become photo subjects themselves.

It leaves most people to question, “Why not just include Mom with little Timmy or Sally, (more likely Harriet or Woodrow,) and it’s a question the book poses directly too.

I assumed, when the book was offered, that it was a collection of these creepy pictures put together in one volume, and wouldn’t it be perfect around Halloween? (Coming next week, making this my official Halloween column.)

Boy, was I wrong.

Laura Larson has instead created a hybrid project that includes some intellectual-speaky essay writing, (replete with obligatory Roland Barthes reference,) but even that is a feint.

Mostly, the super-strange and unsettling “Hidden Mother” pictures are interspersed with poetic, lovely, personal stories about the process through which the artist adopted a little girl from Ethiopia.

As a single mother, no less. (Just like Sharona Fleming.)

Honestly, this is an excellent little book, and I love everything about it. The size is perfect, making it intimate, and just-right in the hand.

The writing is wonderful, and manages to straddle the line between formal language and a vulnerable spirit. And of course the pictures are great, in particular the set in which the “Hidden Mother” has literally been scraped away.

Sometimes, rather than leave her covered in the frame, they removed the emulsion, a complete eradication that is symbolically resonant in ways I need not explain in 2018.

Later, rather than expose the pictures she took of her daughter, Gadisse, (which she wants to keep for herself,) Ms. Larson describes the imagery in words.

Never too many, and never too few.

(It’s just right, like that fairy tale about the sassy, spunky, spirited girl who ate porridge that did not belong to her.)

According to the book, before she was united with her daughter, Laura Larson felt an almost umbilical-like connection to Gadisse via photographs she received through the Interwebs.

In turn, she sent selfies to Ethiopia that she made using Photo Booth on her Apple computer.

The 21st and 19th Centuries marry so well here, as do the imagery and text. It’s a killer book, and I hope you’ll read a few of the text pages below, rather than just look at the pictures.

It’s a great reminder, (to the many parents out there,) to take nothing for granted. If you’re lucky enough to have healthy kids, hug them tight, and make sure they don’t eat too much candy next week.

(But you can. You’re a grown up. Kit Kat’s for everyone!)

Bottom Line: Gorgeous, poignant story of the birth of maternal love

To Purchase “Hidden Mother” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Patrick Nagatani

 

“If fiction has given more to us than fact, then this is the greatest truth.” Ryoichi/Patrick Nagatani

 

There’s no such thing as truth.

That’s what they teach you in college or grad school, anyway.

Ever beholden to the French Philosophical titans Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, endless professors teach countless students that each piece of information is inextricable from the power dynamics that created and disseminated it.

It is the ultimate example of occupying the intellectual high ground, because the idea can’t be attacked.

If you try to undermine the principles, your counter-argument can be dismantled more easily than an Ikea Lack table. (Unscrew the four legs and you’re done.)

No matter what you say to critique the core essence of Post-Modern theory, your words will be deflected by attacking the vessel that hosts them: you.

Only a person from a very specific cohort, gender, or culture can critique that group, so if you’re not one-of-us, your words are too much a construction of your gender/status/culture for your opponent to give them credence.

(Each word must be parsed for its deeper social construct, like Bill Clinton musing about the definition of the word “is.”)

Unlike a few weeks ago, I’m not actually writing about the powers that be today, nor the intersection of varying levels of privilege.

Nor even will I attack Donald J. Trump. (Well, maybe just a little… for a laugh.)

Rather, I want to poke at some dead French guys, and the manner in which their very important ideas have come to undermine the collective fabric of society. (Since they’re dead, and French, we can mock them all we want. C’est vrai?)

There was something truly revolutionary in Post-Modernism, as it opened the door for various perspectives to be assimilated into the mainstream. (Going back to two weeks ago, Po-Mo was the operating system that allowed for minority voices to be taken seriously.)

By the time I got to grad school in the early aughts, though, I found the ideas a little restricting, with respect to helping us understand the burgeoning digital reality of the 21st Century. How would a philosophy that split the 80’s from the 60’s help us understand a world that was built on binary code?

Now it’s 2018, and we have a definitive answer.

Taken to an extreme, Derrida has given us Orwell, in the form of the President of the United States.

Like him or hate him, most people would be hard pressed to deny that Trump has a problem with the “truth.” He believes the larger narrative, the story he tells himself and his followers, is more important than what’s “true,” because there’s no such thing as true anyway.

I was concerned these radical leftist ideas would be co-opted by the right at some point, and that point is now. Unfortunately, given the stratification of media and information sources, these days there is essentially no way to provide new ideas to people that might challenge their entrenched worldview.

Even speaking for myself, I wonder whether I would be able to give Trump credit if he verifiably saved a young toddler from drowning in a Mar-a-Lago pool?

Can you imagine?

SCENE

A young child, drunk on too much ice cream, is stumbling around the edge of the resort pool. His parents, their backs turned, (they assumed the Burmese nanny was watching him,) are busy drinking gin and tonics, chatting with their neighbors about whether they should invite Brett Kavanaugh to dinner now, or wait until spring when it will seem less trendy.

All of a sudden, little Tad slips on the edge of the pool, and while he’s worrying about dropping his ice cream cone, he loses his balance and falls directly into the deep end.

(Unfortunately, he can’t swim.)

Thankfully, the President of the United States in is residence that day, and happens to be eating a triple-guacamole-bacon-cheeseburger, two tables away.

One might imagine the Secret Service would save poor Tad, but their job is to protect the President. So it’s up to DJT to jump into the pool, still wearing his Gandolfini-esque-POTUS-track-suit, and fish little Tad to safety.

END SCENE

Let’s say that happened.
For real.

How many Democrats in this country would come out and publicly say, “Great job, Mr. President. I really appreciate that you saved that pipsqueak from drowning!”

Would you?

I know this seems like a convoluted thought experiment, a stoner’s version of Schrodinger’s Cat, but bear with me here. In an era of fake news, where any sense of objectivity has been obliterated, what does the word “fact” even mean?

Or “real?”

True story: my 11-year-old told me the other day that he was more interested in the “virtual” LeBron James in his NBA 2K19 video game than he was in watching the “actual” LeBron James play an exhibition game against the Denver Nuggets. (Of course, the “actual” LeBron would appear on the same “digital” TV screen either way.)

To him, in that moment, the “fake” was more intriguing and compelling than the “real.”

I’m thinking about this today, if I’m being honest, having just put down “Buried Cars: Excavations from Stonehenge to the Grand Canyon,” by Patrick Nagatani. (Published by the Museum of New Mexico Press.)

I reviewed one of Patrick’s books last year, as he was my professor at UNM many years ago, and he passed away in the autumn of 2017 after a long bout with cancer.

He probably didn’t need to see 2018, though, as he had a pretty good handle on “truthiness” back when I studied with him in the late 90’s.

This book represents one of his stranger projects, and I recall him describing it to me before I’d read any of the French canon. (I was confused, but excited.)

The book presents this story as straight, all the way until the end, when they release the “truth.”

According to “Buried Cars,” Patrick collaborated with a mysterious Japanese archaeologist named Ryoichi, who had discovered some scientific evidence that would turn world history on its head.

Apparently, a series of sacred sites around the world included contemporary luxury cars that had been buried in previous centuries. The book features diary entries, and carbon dating information that proves that the cars, (like a Ferrari Testarossa,) were embedded in the Earth hundreds of years before they were actually built.

It is suggested that alien beings might have played a role in the car-burials, but whether they did or didn’t, worm holes were definitely to blame.

Wormholes that connected parallel universes in the multi-verse.

Now, if you’ve been reading for the last 7 years, you know I’m a sucker for parallel universe stories. (Though watching “The Flash” with my kids may have cured me of the predilection. Multi-verse stories get confusing VERY quickly.)

Patrick Nagatani conceived and created this project in the late 90’s, but had gone to graduate school at UCLA in late 70’s. These Po-Mo ideas would have been as familiar to him as his favorite dish at the Fronteir Restaurant across the street from the UNM campus.

When I first heard about this, like I said, I had a lot of questions.

What do you mean you have a fake-alter-ego?
What do you mean you made up a bunch of scientific data?
What do you mean you built models and pretended they were real?

You can just…do that?

These days, it seems quaint to think that photography tells the “truth” or provides “evidence.”

But in 1998, in just my second year as an art student, it was revolutionary.

Art is what you want it to be.

If you call it art, it’s art.

It’s not hard to see how that line of thinking connects directly to the underpinnings of contemporary, digitally-enhanced Global society.

Jamal Khashoggi left the Saudi embassy of his own recognizance. The water in Flint is safe to drink. The Arctic icecaps are not melting.

(You get the point.)

That this is a photo book, and one that was tied to a major exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum, seems almost secondary. The pictures of models painstakingly created are cool for sure, but they don’t have the same power they likely had when they were made. (Like Jerry Uelsmann’s stuff.)

Digital fakery is so easy these days that the “fools-the-eye” analog photography here doesn’t seem “real.” It’s more “cute,” and one can see how such work might have inspired contemporary model-makers like Lori Nix.

The “truth” is, I always found this work a tad kitschy, and much preferred “Nuclear Enchantment,” which I reviewed here glowingly last year. (I also preferred his meditative, contemplative, slightly-batshit, masking-tape-Buddhas.)

But I’m very glad this book was released this year, and the project lauded on the walls of New Mexico museums, because it could not be more timely.

As artists, we hope to make sense of the time and culture in which we live. We process those ideas into art for our own reasons, (often because of our need to make things,) but “Buried Cars” is proof that those musings might just be used by future humans to figure out what the fuck happened back then.

(Meaning now.)

Bottom Line: Trippy, intricate, false narrative about the multi-verse

To Purchase “Buried Cars” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.