Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books: Ingvar Kenne

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such. A. Classic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever seen Ron Jeremy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Andy Freeberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

Not. exactly. sexy.

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

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

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

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

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

Cough. Cough. Chest boogers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blaustein out.

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

To Purchase “Art Fare” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Carolyn Drake

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m glad you asked.

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

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

Oh yes.

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

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

Where are we? What is going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Wild Pigeons” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Rinko Kawauchi

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

Nothing shakes things up like death statistics.

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

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

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

So. Very. Quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

Right. Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

Growth. Change.

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Light and Shadow” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Andrew Macpherson

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

No sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

What else can I tell you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Dafy Hagai

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider yourself warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK?

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

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

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

To Purchase “Israeli Girls” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Sugimoto/Misrach

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first thought was very 21st C: WTF?

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

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

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

No. Not at all.

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

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

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

Again, can I get a WTF?

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Incredibly innovative production

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Gill

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

Welcome to my world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Very cool look inside pigeons domiciles.

To Purchase “Pigeons” Visit Photo-Eye.

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

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

Sarah Silver Interview

- - Photographers

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

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

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

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

JB: Vassar? My wife went there.

SS: To Vassar?

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

SS: OK.

JB: What was your college experience like?

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

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

And inhaling chemicals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Right.

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

JB: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS: It can be.

JB: So what’s it about then?

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

JB: Sure. Let’s get specific.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS: Exactly.

JB: (laughing.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS: Sure.

JB: Hell yeah.

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

JB: We really are learning a lot about you.

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

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

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

JB: There it is.

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

Did you ever spend any time in Chicago?

JB: Next to none.

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

JB: I’m 40.

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Sure.

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

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

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

Thank you.

JB: You’re welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: That’s why I’m asking.

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Where is Japan-town?

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

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

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

SS: I know.

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

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

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

SS: Yes.

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

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

JB: OK.

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

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

She blows my mind. Every single time.

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

You didn’t give me anything.

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

JB: Fair enough.

SS: There won’t be a sound bite.

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Big Shout Out to Tyra.

SS: Shout out.

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

SS: No.

JB: Never?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: You’re excited.

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

Awesome. Yes I am.

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

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

JB: Then you ask for a raise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SS: That doesn’t sound so bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could wax poetic for hours.

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

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

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

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

to see the fruits of our labor over several years.

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

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

SS: Nope.

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

SS: The funny thing is, I was always the youngest person in the room. I used to lie about my age, so that my art directors wouldn’t think I was a kid.

It’s never bad. It just doesn’t need to be in print. Right?

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This Week In Photography Books: Margaret Morton

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, you’ve got to mix things up. Even though it’s harder than sticking with what you know. I like easy as much as the next guy, but it CAN make a person complacent.

Just look at McDonalds.

Why did it become a massive capitalist behemoth? With tens of thousands of locations? Because you only have to be smart enough to walk up to the counter, or drive up to the window, and point at a number.

I want combo #2.
You could grunt, and it would still work out.

If you can string together enough syllables, in proper order, to say, “Combo #2,” and you can cobble together enough pocket change to pay the $2.99, then you can have yourself a burger, some fries, and a highly-sugar-and-caffeine-laden beverage.

What could be easier than that? And as to the cows that go into that burger? Why bother to make them run around a grassy pasture? Why not just let them stand in their own shit, all day long, until it’s time to kill them?

What’s easier, letting them stand where they are, or going to the trouble of designing a cow-exercise program?

No contest.

But just the other day, I was reminded why the hard way promotes growth. I was headed in to teach my second straight class in the new semester: “Beginning Digital Photography.” I asked for an extra class, THIS class, in fact, because I can teach it in my sleep. I know my patterns. I know my lectures. Cold.

No drama at all.

Except there were only 5 students in the room, instead of the usual 25. And the University didn’t want to cancel. So, on the fly, I realized I’d have to re-tool everything I know, in order to keep a very small room entertained and enlightened for 2.5 hours straight, for 15 weeks.

My first thoughts were based in fear and frustration. My desire for the lazy way was screeching in my consciousness, like a wolf that just chewed off its own leg to get out of a trap. Then, I caught my breath, and realized I had no option but to make it work.

I began to ask the students questions I normally wouldn’t. I established a completely new vibe, and laid down ground rules. By the end of class, we were all laughing, and I was excited as hell.

Often times, change is forced upon us. We resent it, and then realize it was in our best interest. This time, I went through the stages of grief in warp speed. Which allows me to give you my high-minded advice all the quicker.

What does that have to do with a book review, though? I’m glad you asked. Because, as always, I’m trying to reach a cogent point before I’ve hit 1000 words, and your attention span begins to wane.

Today, I want to highlight “Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan,” a new book by Margaret Morton, recently published by the University of Washington press. That’s a long title, yes, and it likely gives you a clue to its subject. Not a lot of room for surprise.

This book is one that I’ve looked at several times before, and decided not to review. (Yes, I know we’ve had this conversation before.) But this morning, I changed my mind. (And not because I’m out of books, which has been the motivation in years past.)

No, I decided to write about this book because I chose to change my criteria a bit, to keep things from getting stale. This book is not inherently exciting and dramatic, and I don’t think the pictures will change your life. They’re not brilliant, nor are they particularly innovative.

Before you hate me for damning the book with faint praise, let me continue. The pictures are kind of washed-out, bleached, and bereft of people. They’re not razor sharp, nor are they showy. The tonal range is minimal, so they don’t grab you in the guts either.

But they are consistent, in their tone and compositional style. They keep coming at you, like the less-talented fighter who out-works the flashy favorite. (Hello Buster Douglas, what are you doing in 2015?)

They transport you somewhere else. Somewhere quiet, where everyone’s already dead. The aesthetic reinforces the content, and there is a distinct narrative structure. You start far away, pull in very tight, and then drift back out again.

Very smart.

Perhaps I fall victim to shiny visuals, or off-beat and absurd concepts? I show you books that are edgy, or already famous, or that reflect an arty style you’ll like for sure.

This book, however, does something that I’m always asking for, despite it’s grayscale production: it shows me, (and you) something I’ve never seen before. Frankly, even in this ever-more-connected world, I suspect it depicts something almost no one has seen before: vacant cemeteries, in the form of mini-cities, in the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan.

That’s about as far off the beaten path as anyone can get these days. I wouldn’t even know how to fly there if I tried? Do you route through Tajikistan? Or am I a fool, and everyone knows that Uzbekistan is the best layover, what with their killer mutton stew?

Kidding aside, these pictures have a sere, world-weariness that didn’t seduce me. It put me off, even though I was inherently curious. But I never forgot the book, so I came back to it again.

It’s not the grand vistas that grab you here, it’s the details. Is that a scalp nailed to a wooden post? What do the rams horns mean? The deer? Are these competing warrior clans, with different spirit animals?

The stars and sickles jut up into the sky, whose color we can’t know, as we’ve been denied the opportunity.

Why the cages? What do they mean? Is that a desiccated eagle? Or a falcon? How hard is it to train a falcon anyway?

This book is not something I’d normally review, and I think that it’s healthy for me to keep expanding that definition. It does have a lot to offer. And it’s my job to sit still long enough to share that appreciation with you.

Bottom Line: Austere publication highlighting graveyards at the end of the line

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

This Week In Photography Books: Christopher J Everard

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever heard of Sasha Grey? Maybe?
Maybe not.

As it happens, she’s a young actress from California. I first saw her in Steven Soderbergh’s taut little film, “The Girlfriend Experience.” She is lithe, Sasha Grey, with long, fine dark hair, and oil-black eyes. Those eyes are world-weary like Scarlett Johansson’s, but not in that same I-grew-up-in-New-York-so-I’m-smarter-and-cooler-than-you sort of way.

Do you know what I mean?

She was hard not to watch, Ms. Grey, as she played a very expensive call girl who provided a particular service: she pretends to be her John’s girlfriend, beyond just sexing him up.

Her acting is languid, sure, but again, it’s hard to look away. She was oddly mesmerizing. Then I saw her during her multi-episode cameo on “Entourage,” which I’m loathe to admit I ever watched.

At that point, I’d already learned her somewhat-but-not-really shocking story: Sasha Grey was a porn-star, despite her small boobs and overall lack of looking the part. What did I think, when I first heard the news?

That poor girl. She must have gotten all worn out. Apparently, she’d made a tremendous amount of movies, in which she often had sex with multiple partners at once.

My first thought was not, “Good for her. Making something of herself. Commodifying her compelling sexuality. Way to go. The American dream in the making.”

No. I half-worried that she was tarnished goods.

At no point did I consider tracking down some of her X-rated material online. That seemed a bit like peeking through the curtain at your neighbor undressing, as I’d first seen her in a “mainstream” film, though she did get naked, as I recall.

Can we all agree that my reaction was strange? Or maybe not strange, as it’s normal to be embarrassed by pornography, even though most people use it in some form or other.

No, my reaction was not strange. It was inappropriate. Yes, that’s the right word. I was practically Puritan, which is unpleasant to admit.

Our collective guilt at our carnal urges, and the manner in which we occasionally satisfy them via visual means, was the cause of the awkward thoughts I had vis a vis Ms. Grey, and her choice of professions.

My bad, in retrospect. More power to you, Sasha. (Because I’m sure you’re reading this, right?)

It’s one of the great hypocrisies of our time, the way we all engage in the same kind of behavior that we’re all pretty sure is wrong. I think the subject is worth investigating, which we can easily do via “Denied Reality- Episode 1: Our Industry,” a new book out by Christopher J Everard, published by Interlife Pictures.

The artist sent me a copy, suspecting that I might like it. If I didn’t know better, I’d think some people were paying attention with respect to the types of books I prefer. Because this one hit the mark in almost every way.

Mr. Everard is based in London, and is British by birth, near as I can tell, though he did spend many years living in the US. So his predilection for our culture is understandable, as is his curiosity about our prurient interest in sex, which he deems a “Denied Reality.”

Open up the book, and there are a succession of well-made-but-not brilliant images that come without an explanation. So I thought, “Gee, I wonder what I’m looking at?”

As if he perfectly anticipated the question, the very next page had small black and white thumbnail images, with well-written captions. I had a desire, and the book satisfied. (No pun intended.)

It appears that this book is a research-based, first-person narrative exploration inside the porn industry which is based, primarily, in Los Angeles. As the book is being released while Larry Sultan has his retrospective at LACMA, he is referenced appropriately within.

This is a book that speaks to photo-book-geeks, because it varies up its delivery like a crafty pitcher who can no longer throw the heat, so he has to keep the batters on their toes.

Immediately after a few more photos and caption pages, there’s an honest, hilarious essay by Daniel Blight. It’s also in a first person style, and breezy, without being pretentious. No art-speak, but lots of references to masturbation, smoking hash, and improper behavior.

Basically, it was the exact style I like to read. Mostly because I also like to write that way, as you well know.

This book, unlike almost everything I review, was one I had to put down and come back to. Because there is good, engaging writing interspersed throughout. It’s too dense to breeze through it like a normal photo-book, or read it in one shot, unless you’ve allotted the proper time.

In that regard, it’s different from what I normally see, which is something I’m always begging for in this space. Do it differently. Make the book into an experience I/ we’ll remember.

Mr. Everard seems to have interviewed a lot of subjects in the industry, walked red carpets, attended award banquets, traveled to Arizona to meet some professionals living outside the LA bubble, and road-tripped to Utah, after he learned that its residents are the highest per capita consumers of porn in the US. He actually mentions statistics in several places that suggest that most of the Red States/Republican States/States with the highest rate of church-goers actually top that list year in, year out.

Hypocrisy, anyone?

The conclusion reached, and perhaps dispensed a few too many times, is that the people in the pornography industry are hard working Americans. They bust their humps (no pun intended) to put food on their table, support their families, and have time on the weekends to play with their kids. They’re great dads, moms, and children.

The industry supplies jobs, and pays taxes. It is an American success story that we all pretend doesn’t exist. Because we are ashamed of ourselves; not the people who supply our fix. They deserve better, the artist suggests.

All in all, it’s a great book. The pictures within, which contain surprisingly few “nasty” images, and even fewer boobs, are not the type to blow you away. They’re not AMAZING. Just really good, particularly in illustration of the overall narrative.

But they don’t need to be more than that. It’s the book we judge, and the way in which the text and images support each another, and the pacing, degree of information, accessibility of the concept, it all makes for a genuinely excellent experience.

Mr. Blight has another great piece at the end, mocking Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and I’m still not sure if it’s a reported story, or if he just made it up. There’s even a “Designer’s Cut” edit of pictures that wouldn’t have otherwise made book. That’s extra content that you get if you’re special, and buy this particular edition of the book. Extra stuff, like those porn sites are always offering, so I’m told, if you’re only willing to drop your credit card number.

Bottom Line: Honest, smart, very-well executed look at the things we like to see, but never discuss.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 3

- - From The Field

A couple of months ago, in this very space, I joked about being terrified to mock ISIS. I, who likes to make fun of almost anything, was afraid to offend those homicidal maniacs. And I said as much in a book review.

Around the same time, I also wrote a column proudly proclaiming my Jewish heritage. (Though with a last name like Blaustein, there’s only so much you can do to deny it.) I said, at the time, that my people have targets on our backs, often from those aforementioned lunatics, (and their ilk,) and that it felt a tad uncomfortable to out out myself as a Jew so publicly.

It’s 6am now, far earlier than I normally write, but I woke up before the sun, and started thinking about the Charlie Hebdo massacre last week, and the subsequent attack on a Kosher grocery store in Paris. Psychopaths lashed out at journalists who communicated through humor, and at Jews.

I’m far from the action, thankfully. Thousands of miles away. But it stuck in my mind this morning, and it won’t let go.

The sheer depth of the tragedy is mind-boggling. The anger, the hate, the efficiency with which those lives were taken. Since Cain killed Abel, and someone else wrote it down, most of the world has agreed that taking someone’s life is the worst thing you can do.

We human animals have a limited lifespan. We know this. For the most part, we choose not to think about it. When a person kills another, they rob them of their future. They steal their soul. Out of spite.

When it is done simply to shut someone up, or because they choose to call their God by another name, it seems even more heinous.

Now, I haven’t Tweeted “Je Suis Charlie,” nor have I changed my Facebook profile photo in solidarity. Not to disparage anyone who has, but to me, it somehow felt hollow. What difference will it make, I thought? Who wouldn’t be in support of these victims, who died for freedom of speech, a concept I’ve defended, so many times, in this very space?

Yesterday, I wrote a good opening to this article. It was about a coyote who walked right up to my house, just outside the sliding glass door. His coat was thick, resplendent, even in winter. (It practically glowed.) I relate to those coyotes, so I always pay attention when they present themselves.

He trotted away when he heard my iPhone beep, as a text had come in at that moment. So I wrote a piece about how he was turned off by technology. And how I turned off my technology this Christmas break, and suggested you consider doing the same, when you can.

But this morning, as I couldn’t sleep, I began to compose this new version of the article. In my mind’s eye, I imagined those poor people being killed. (The result of watching all that violence on a marathon of Soderbergh’s excellent “The Knick” this weekend, perhaps?)

I remembered that this column, in which I spout off each week, is a sincere privilege. Rob gives me the freedom to speak my mind, to a very large audience of people who live around this huge planet of ours. It is unique, this 21st Century experience, in which one can talk to so many, who ingest the information, instantaneously, for free, on their screens.

I was ready to slag it off, in a column, this Internet of ours, and remind you how vital it is to unplug, from time to time.

But today, I chose to pivot, even though this introduction has so little to do with the amazing time I had in New Orleans, at Photo NOLA, nor the terrific photography I saw, which I will soon discuss. The photos will be there too, below these words, for your perusal.

I decided, however, to make use of this platform, yet again, to pontificate. The forces that utilize terror and violence to silence people rarely win. Even in the totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, there were some who chose to make art, and write. Underground networks disseminated information.

Though of course fear drove the masses silent. Would I have the courage to speak my mind in such circumstances? It’s doubtful.

I chose not to provoke these monsters, who pull triggers as a way of lashing out, and the brave men and women at Charlie Hebdo shared no such reservations. They knew they had targets on their backs, and continued to do their work, and bring humor into the equation.

They died for their beliefs.

Today, let’s all salute their efforts.

Rather than suggest there is no link whatsoever to those sentiments, and the photographers I will highlight now, I’ll just write what ought to be obvious: when you make art, and share it with the world, you’re really communicating your ideas in image form.

Visual communication is a massively powerful methodology, as it needs no translation, as does French, when it wants to be understood in English. When these artists came to New Orleans, and shared their work with me, they hoped that I’d put their pictures up on a website for countless people to see. In fact, I was able to do that for the vast majority of people I met, because the quality of work was so high.

I take this responsibility seriously, and it gives me great joy to promote their work on this space, where I so often goof around while trying to discuss serious issues. I do hope you enjoy the work, and as I said last week, the book reviews will return next Friday.

On to the photographers.

Bruce Morton had a big smile on his face, the entire time we sat together. And every time I saw him thereafter. It’s easy to understand why. Bruce got an MFA in the legendary Arizona State Program back in the day, studying with legends Bill Jay and Bill Jenkins.

But he gave it up shortly thereafter, to get a more practical job. He built a landscaping business in Phoenix, which was his focus for many years. (Imagine how hard it must be to work outside in that heat, all the time.) But about 8 years ago, he decided to rededicate himself to his photography.

He packed up and moved back to his original family home in a small town, Bowen, in rural Illinois. He’s currently working on several projects at once, all focusing on the local population and cultural landscape. I liked all of his work, as well as his attitude, which screams passion and joy.

These pictures are from his mini-series “Bowen,” though I could easily have shown you some photos from his other projects a well.

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Sandra Klein is a member of the Aline-Smithson-LA-photo-mafia, which I chronicled at length in my two-part series on the Medium Festival last year. Those folks are doing some impressive work, and have built themselves a supportive community that speaks to the power of Aline’s teaching ability and force of will.

Sandra showed me two projects, the first of which I’m sharing here. She has a background as a print-maker, and these images reference that medium heavily. She photographs plants and cacti, and then weaves them into a constructed aesthetic that also includes actual sewn thread. The addition of the 3-D manipulation, alongside her genuinely excellent color palette, left me impressed.

There was also a group of pictures made in Japan, which I found much-less-resolved. But there was one picture, of a park setting in falling snow, that was so beautiful and Zen that I questioned whether she needed anything else. Sometimes, one perfect picture is enough.

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Klein_Sandra_07CelestialMyrtle

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Gloria Baker Feinstein is a photographer based in the Mid-West as well, yet showed me a project made in Uganda. She visited a village there 8 years ago, on a tour with an NGO, and fell in love with the place. As a result, she formed her own non-profit to support the community, and goes back for 3-4 weeks each year.

I thought the pictures were extremely well-made, and communicate a warmth that stems from her knowledge of the people and the place. They are the antithesis of photographs made on a one-off visit to a Third World locale, where people step off the bus, snap a few frames, and then head on to the next destination.

Gloria also showed me some newer, black and white work made in a community in Eastern Kentucky in which she’d spent very little time. As such, I thought they compared poorly to the work that was richly developed over many years. We agreed to disagree…

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Finally, yes finally, I come to the two artists whose work I looked at after my official 24 reviews had come to an end. First, I peeked in at Monika Merva’s new project. She and I have a few friends in common, and I had heard of her project “The City of Children,” which was published as a book, and has been exhibited widely.

Monika said that after the all-consuming nature of a specific, successful project, she was showing a group of pictures that she took simply because she wanted to click the shutter. There was no over-arching narrative beyond, “I am a photographer. I made these photographs. Have a look.”

At the end of a long slog, I found the pictures refreshing, along with her willingness to free up her process, simply because she could.

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After that, with my brain cells mushier than a freshly baked burger bun, I met with Margo Cooper. She’d approached me earlier in the day, swearing that she’d wanted to get a review with me, but the lottery had not been kind. Margo told me she’d heard through the photo-grape-vine that I was a “very nice person,” and might I be willing to look at her work after everything was done?

I’m a sucker for a compliment as much as the next guy, and in this case, I do try to be as nice as I can to everyone. So how could I say no?

Unfortunately, as I was so crispy, and Margo is high-energy, our meeting was a bit tense. These things happen. But when I got a look at her gelatin silver prints, of photos made in poor rural communities in New England, I said yes right away. (And that’s what we’re publishing.)

Apparently, Margo is an attorney, a public defender in particular, and makes photographs of these folks, and of blues communities in the Deep South, as her outlet. She’s committed to long-term projects, which you can see as some of her subjects age in the pictures. I didn’t have too much to say to her at the time, but I think the photographs below speak for themselves.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 2

My daughter got a staph infection late last year. Right on her butt cheek. It was awful.

At first we thought it was a spider bite, but with two doctors in the family, we were quickly corrected. It rose majestically from her tush, like the Sangre de Cristo mountains jut out of the New Mexico high desert.

Not good.

I knew nothing of the malady, before it settled comfortably into our home. The treatment is gruesome, and entails painfully squeezing out the toxic, contagious puss, day after day. She was a good sport about it, my little girl. Before and after the treatment, twice a day, she acted as if nothing was wrong.

But during? O.M.F.G. She screamed louder than a coked-up bond trader trying to get out of a bad deal. “Help. Help. Please stop, Daddy. Stop. No, Daddy, no. Ayuda me. Ayuda me.” (That last bit was fueled by lots of Dora the Explorer, to keep her semi-occupied.)

It took weeks to make the whole thing better. Unfortunately, during the infection’s run, my wife Jessie and I were meant to get away for a couple of days in Albuquerque. It was the best we could manage, to celebrate our 10th Anniversary, which had come and gone at the end of May. (It was to be our first parenting break since before Jessie got pregnant.)

Little girl was just old enough to leave with my folks for a couple of days. We’d been looking forward to the trip, meager as it was, for month and months. And then, with the staph infection in full swing, we had to cancel.

No fair.

We dropped the kids off at my folks for just a few hours instead, and must have looked as down-hearted and miserable as Barack Obama on Election Day 2014. We were crestfallen. Disappointed. Borderline suicidal.

So my Mom suggested that we book Jessie a ticket to go along with me to New Orleans. At first it seemed impossible. Surely, the tickets would be too expensive. And they wouldn’t really let us get away for 5 days, when even 2 had seemed so impossible?

It couldn’t work, could it?

I’ll cut to the chase, and bring some brevity into an otherwise rambling narrative. It did work. The tickets were reasonable, and the plan came together tighter than a spendthrift’s wallet.

I swear, I never, ever would have imagined we could pull it off. But we did. Out of the depths of our sadness, deep in the pit of despair, came a genuinely amazing few days together in a magical city.

Leave it to preachy-yours-truly to make a lesson out of an article about the portfolios I viewed at the Photo NOLA festival last year. Isn’t that just like me?

But it’s a valuable lesson, from where I’m sitting. We really don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and sometimes, the nastiest problems lead to the best solutions. Even when things look bleak, they can turn around quickly.

It happened while I was at Photo NOLA too. A micro-version of the same type of scenario.

Jessie and I were waiting outside the International House hotel, along with a throng of other festival goers. There was a school bus due to take us to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where Emmet Gowin was about to lecture at the big NOLA Gala. The crowd grew and grew, as the bus was clearly late.

I was in the midst of a good conversation with Dewi Lewis, the English photo book publisher, so I didn’t mind the delay. Eventually, I was roused by the shuffling of feet, the groans of unhappiness, and the piercing yell of Jennifer Shaw, Photo NOLA’s Executive Director. (Whom we interviewed here in early 2013.)

Apparently, the bus was stuck in unprecedented traffic on I-10. It was so late that it was not coming back to get us. People were left to fend for themselves, as the traffic had snarled up the entire city center, in addition to the Interstate.

The lecture started imminently. There was no clear plan of attack. Take a cab? Why? The roads were impassible, we were told.

Miss the lecture? Unwise, as Mr. Gowin is famous for his inspirational talks, as I said in the last article. But Jessie and I were dressed up, and there were so many nice restaurants within a few blocks. I contemplated blowing the whole thing off, but it left a sour taste in my mouth, like a turned tangerine.

Eventually, we decided to make no grand decision, but simply walk with the herd. Follow the crowd, which was headed towards Canal Street, with Jennifer in the lead.

I’m not much of a follower, but in this case, it seemed the wisest course of action. We tromped and tromped. All the while, watching the cars not move at all.

The bus and the streetcar were both shot down as options by people who knew more than I did. So we just kept walking, each moment taking us closer to missing the main event. Jennifer was keeping a cool face, but I knew she was seething inside. How could she miss her own Gala?

After 15 minutes, we came to a break in the traffic, and the street crowd thinned. “This is as good a place as any,” Jennifer said. So I launched into hero mode, and stepped confidently into the street with my right arm raised.

Sure enough, three minutes later, I spied a mini-van cab, and hailed away. He was free, and headed our way. By then, our group numbered 12 people.

The cabbie said he could take 5, and no more. Miraculously, another min-van pulled up in front of the first, and 5 people piled in. Immediately.

That left us with 7. The cabbie agreed to stretch it to 6, but no more. So we filled up, and left Jennifer Shaw standing on the street, looking so sad it almost broke my heart. How she kept from crying, I really don’t know.

“We can’t leave her here,” my wife said. “It’s not possible. Of all the people, she needs to be there the most.”

“It’s true,” I said. “We can’t leave her. Can you please fit one more,” I asked the driver? “Otherwise, we’ll get out.”

“Sure,” he said. “But only this once.”

I offered to sit on the floor, sans seat belt, and the day was saved. We stayed off the highway, and were there in 10 minutes. (With just enough time to chug two glasses of cava, so we’d have a nice little buzz for Emmet’s lecture.)

I’ll spare you too much gushing about how that man fired up the crowd. He spoke to the deepest motivations of why we make art. And he insisted, time and again, that if you’re not willing to trust your instincts, and accept that there are always forces at work, far greater than you… you’re in the wrong line of work.

I listened intently, absorbing the wisdom, and finally had to type some quotes into my phone, as they were just too good not to share with you.

“Hold constant to the stars that seem to be organizing your life.”

“Do you have room inside yourself for what religious people call the Holy Spirit?”

“Speak out of your feelings.”

“Don’t put anything off.”

“The sun doesn’t care what we’ve done to the Earth.”

“You have to make all the mistakes yourself.”

I’ll end there, as Emmet did. I’ve already gone on long enough that some of you will have skipped down to the photographs. C’est la vie. And as they say in NOLA, L’aissez les bon temps rouler.

On to the photographers.

Susan Berger showed me some of my favorite work I saw. It’s a strange project, in that it seems like someone would have thought of it already. She photographed Martin Luther King Boulevard. In 40 cities around the United States.

Look closely, and you notice that in almost every case, the street was dedicated in an African-American neighborhood. But not always. She uses the street sign often, but not always. Sometimes, there’s a statue, or a hair salon named after him, or a low-income housing project.

Evocative stuff. I loved that she shot it medium format, black and white, and presented gelatin silver prints. All that work, it makes a difference.

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Francis Crisafio had another project that I loved. He teaches photography in an after school program in Pittsburgh, and has been doing it for years. His efforts are genuinely creative and collaborative.

He showed me several interlocking projects he does with the children. In one case, he shoots portraits of them, and makes prints. From there, the students make self-portrait drawings. Then, they hold them up to their face, and he shoots new portraits, with the drawings standing in for their faces.

I really loved those photographs, many shot in front of the classroom blackboard. There were other incarnations too, including some self-portrait collages the students make. All in all, a very impressive showing.

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Jen Ervin also showed me a collaborative project, though it was evident only in her words. The pictures didn’t really indicate the process. She shoots her children, at a family cabin in the woods, but she claims the entire family is responsible for the work.

Jen uses an old school Polaroid Land camera, and the small, unique black and white prints had some of that famed Southern Lyricism. They were very lovely. (And reminiscent of Sally Mann, who’s casts a long shadow down South.)

We discussed the fact that she’d been encouraged to make larger edition prints, by scanning and re-printing the originals. The copies were just that, far less effective than the one-of-a-kinds. Not sure you’ll agree, but I encouraged her to slap a big price tag on the Polaroids, and show and sell them exclusively. I saw no reason to water down the project by showing an inferior version. Do you agree?

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Ben Marcin is a photographer from Baltimore, and he first showed me some pictures that were straight out of “The Wire.” He did a typological project in which he shot individual B-more row houses, detached from anything but the context. I’d seen them before, as they were published on so many blogs around the Web.

His follow-up project, which I’m showing here, was also made amidst the poverty of his home city, and would likely make good old David Simon proud. Ben, who’s a confident sort, and loves to hike, trekked around the homeless camps that he said pop up almost anywhere there are some trees and grass.

He photographed these humble shacks and dwellings, which resonate with tragedy and resilience. He told me that he went back to each of these locations, and in every single case, the structure had been destroyed, razed, or burned to the ground.

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Rebecca Drolen showed me work in fortuitous circumstances. Apparently, one of the people I was meant to see was a no-show, so Rebecca won a quick lottery for the slot. I knew nothing of how it came to pass, but was thrilled, as I thought her work was some of the strongest I saw.

She studied at Indiana University, with Osamu James Nakagawa, whose excellent book we featured earlier in 2014. So I knew her training was solid.

Rebecca pulled out some black and white self-portraits that she told me were all about the relationship women have with hair. Ever the blunt reviewer, I told her that didn’t seem so significant to me, as her pictures were charmingly surreal. Yes, I thought of Magritte, but that’s a great reference for any artist.

They were just so weird, but also well-done. I loved them, and think you will to. We’ll feature the rest of the photographers next week, and then bring back the book reviews.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 1

- - From The Field

It’s Wednesday morning. I’m sitting at my kitchen table, where I like to write. Outside the window, the snow has just begun to fall. White flakes drop from the sky like so many perfect coins, tossed into Trevi Fountain.

In the black wood stove, piñon logs gurgle as their latent energy is converted into heat. The flames crackle too; the only sounds I hear in this otherwise silent, winter world.

It’s the Holiday Season, and we’re all getting ready to shut things down for a little while. To spend time with our families, perhaps take a vacation. Do our best to regenerate for 2015.

Just this morning, I was thinking about that word. Holiday. Clearly, it stems from the two words Holy and Day. Holy? That’s a word that’s been mostly bled of meaning, outside of true believers.

How might we re-interpret it, bring it down to Earth, give it a connotation that seems more relevant in our confusing, futuristic, and yet anachronistic times? (2014 being the year in which territorial land grabs became popular again. Just like the old days.)

As I said last week, I live in a magical place. This is known. The big mountain to the East is revered as sacred by the local Native American Tribe. They see the land as Holy.

Others, hippies mostly, call that same mountain a vortex, one of the few places in the world where energy carries mystical properties. Or maybe you’ve heard of the Taos Hum, which is not an actual topic of discussion here in town.

Regardless, there is enough evidence, personal and historical, for me to call this place special. When you live here, you realize that not all things can be explained. Science is great, but some knowledge comes from elsewhere. Just like the Big Bang is much like any other creation myth.

Once you’re comfortable assigning magical properties to one place, it’s not so hard to do it to another.

But where?

I’m willing to put the great city of New Orleans on that list too.

During my recent visit, I found there were some odd similarities between this little mountain town in the High Desert, and that classy city in the Louisiana swamp. (Odd, but true.)

I’d guess it’s because each locale was not founded by Puritan America. New Mexico was a Spanish Colony before anyone had ever seen Plymouth Rock. The French built New Orleans, and the resulting gorgeous architecture speaks to their legacy.

Here, the Catholic tradition believed in Saints. Mysticism was real. Penitentes whipped themselves in small mud huts. Those aforementioned Native Americans, even today, perform ceremonies that amalgamate animism with Catholicism. Spooky, beautiful stuff.

I know nothing of Voodoo, myself, but New Orleans clearly has a history of religious mashup too. Slaves from Africa mixed with Acadians. Local Native American tribes were thrown into the mix, resulting in parades filled with African-American “Indians.”

Americans came late to this particular party.

That’s a long introduction, I’m well aware. But this is to be my last piece for 2014, so I thought I’d go down swinging. Plus, the luxurious snowflakes have put me in a thoughtful mood.

My trip to New Orleans a couple of weeks ago re-enforced these ideas. There is something special in the air there, and it’s clear I’m not the only one that thinks so. It’s a tourist mecca for good reason. You don’t just go for the food and the drink and the chance to see flashed boobs. (I saw none.)

You go because in such places, we can be reminded that it’s a good thing, that the inexplicable exists. Who wants to live in a world where all the answers are at our fingertips?

Not me.

Google is great for offering up the illusion of omniscience. But it just that, I assure you. Illusory.

I’m betting you’d like some evidence.
How’s this?

When the time came to leave, my wife and I hopped into a taxi cab. Immediately, it was clear that our loquacious driver was that type of local. Witty, charismatic, and dripping with down-home wisdom.

When discussing the propensity of professional football players to find themselves in trouble, he pointed out that we all have the capacity for violence. And murder. Those guys are just people, like the rest of us. We all have our stresses, which lead to bad decisions.

“Pressure bursts pipes,” he said. How true.

As he continued, one story hilariously leading to the next, I happened to look down at his name. Lucien.

Lucien? I rubbed my temples. That was the name of the cab driver I had when I last left town, back in 2012. He even made it into the story I wrote, published on this very blog.

Could it be? What were the odds?

I mentioned my theory about why people loved New Orleans so much. Because the locals, as much as they cherish their culture, are happy to share it with everyone. They clearly relish the fact that people revel in the spirit of the place, and take a smidge of it home with them. (As opposed to places like Taos, where each new visitor wants to shut the door behind them. And the descendants of Conquistadors give tourists a good mad-dog look whenever they can.)

Responding to that theory, Lucien said, “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice.” Which was the exact same thing he said two years ago, on which I quoted him.

That sealed the deal. The heavens had intervened. Chance reared its head, and then went back to sleep, allowing some Holy Spirit to give my wife and me the perfect escort to our plane.

Call me crazy. Call me a hippie. I don’t care. Just don’t call it a coincidence.

As artists, it’s important that we be willing to suspend our disbelief, from time to time. After all, our calling is alchemy, not science. Creation is messy, and can not be written up into an algorithm.

The keynote lecturer at photoNOLA was the great Emmet Gowin. This was more or less the crux of his lecture, which had everyone transfixed. I took notes on my Iphone, but think, this many words into the article, that I’ll save that conversation for the next piece.

I saw so many good projects at the portfolio review that I will be writing three stories, so there’s plenty of time to meander into the bigger ideas that motivate us. (The good stuff, as far as inspiration goes.)

Rest assured, the New Orleans Photo Alliance, the non-profit that runs Photo NOLA, does a bang up job. They run a terrific festival, and showed me a hell of a good time. I’m thrilled to have seen so much to share with you, and will commence with that now.

Before I stop musing, though, I’d like to wish you a magical Holiday season. May you get all the gifts you desire, and let’s hope some of them don’t cost anything at all.

On to the photographers.

As with the articles about the Medium Festival, I’m not putting these fine artists in any order. We’ll look at some this week, and the re-start the process in 2015.

Larry Colby is a photographer from Boynton Beach, Florida. This is his second career, as he was originally a financial planner. But he’s all in on photography, these days, and his work was the first I saw.

Larry photographs in a local soup kitchen, which feeds a collection of Central and South American immigrant communities. He’s been focusing primarily on the children. Their portraits, in particular. I encouraged him to step back a bit, give us the cinematic equivalent of establishment shots. But also to dig deeper into the issues of poverty and immigration on a grander scale.

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Jan Arrigo is a Southern photographer who did stints in the publishing world, including a stretch at Oxford University Press. Jan has spent 20 years photographing animals in zoos, at night, with the intention of publishing a book. It all began with the kangaroo picture, which she took after getting boxed by one of the creatures in Australia.

We discussed whether she ought to try to market the project as a children’s book, which was her original intent, or try to make something for the mass market. Alternatively, she’s also considering doing a small-run photo book for the photo community.

Clearly, she’ll have to decide where the project will fit best, and what’s most important to her. Then it will be easier to accomplish her goal. But all good books need good photos, and I thought these were pretty cool. Even better, her leave-behind was a box of animal crackers covered in small versions of her photos. Very clever.

A black bird perched on a tree outside a window appears as if from a dream in this black and white photo portrait taken in Orlando, Florida.

A Florida raptor stares intensely ahead in this black and white photo portrait by Jan Arrigo.

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Black and white photo portrait of a flying monkey by Jan Arrigo.

A snake stares into the camera's lens in this Jan Arrigo black and white photo.

Two bear cubs show their claws in this fight captured by Jan Arrigo in a black and white photograph.

A Louisiana brown bear stares into the camera in this black and white photo portrait taken at the Audubon zoo in New Orleans.

A male lion pants under a moonlit night in this landscape photo portrait.

As if posing this Western Lowland gorilla gazes into the camera in this black and white photo by Jan Arrigo.

Two black birds react to a photographer in the Florida Everglades in this black and white photo.

This black and white photo portrait of a large white rhino shows him eating an herbivorous diet.

Black and white photo portrait of a boxing kangaroo by Jan Arrigo.

Brad Hamilton was visiting from New York. He’s been working on a project that attempts to add a digital, 21st Century twist to classic street photography. Not unlike Barry Frydlender, he mashes up multiple images, taken over time, into one frame.

I was intrigued by the fact that Brad often chooses neutral backgrounds, out in the real world. He sets himself in front of construction sites, places where a large swath has been painted white. Then he shoots tens of thousands of pictures, so he said.

The photographs enable him to create narrative or symbolic connections. He often titles them by the street corner that he adopts as his temporary home.

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Ashley McDowell is a young photographer from the Boston area. She studied photography at Syracuse, where she worked with Doug DuBois.

Ashley’s work is as personal as it gets. She’s been working on a long-term project that focuses on her sister’s heroin addiction, and the havoc it’s wreaked on her family’s collective life. Some images were fraught, and others were too subtle for the subject matter, I felt. The lists, held up in several photos, represent the items her sister stole from her family.

The best work is so personal that it allows an artist to tap right into the collective unconscious. The more honest we are, the more likely we are to tell a story with which many others can relate. I thought Ashley’s strongest images were well on their way to creating the type of empathy with tragedy, and addiction, that will captivate an audience.

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Bob Bright is a long-time commercial photographer based in Los Angeles. And he’s a life-long resident as well. One of those people who remembers when the megalopolis felt like a small town. When the dreams of the world were focused on Hollywood. Fame. Glamour. A better life.

Bob’s photographs parallel that by looking at the aging architecture and infrastructure of LA. He’s got a great medium format digital camera, and the high-resolution, modernist renderings match well with the faded, modernist glory. As we sifted through the project, finding the strongest through-line, I felt the metaphorical qualities begin to shine through.

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Finally, we’ll end with Leigh Webber. As I wrote last week, I mostly treat these meetings as critiques, these days. I’ll tell people immediately if I can publish their work here, or pitch it to the Lens Blog. No secrets about that, so I don’t leave tension hanging in the air.

It allows me to ask questions about why someone has come to the table. Where they are in their career. What type of feedback I can offer to be as helpful as possible.

For Leigh, it was difficult. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and has been shooting commercially, and doing weddings, for years. That’s her comfort zone.

She came to Photo NOLA, though, to introduce her work to a fine art audience. She knew nothing about it, and was taking a chance. Putting herself out there.

What she showed me was understandably jumbled. There were five different groupings of two or three pictures. Nothing coherent, but all well made. And everything focused on her son, as he grew up.

I told Leigh if she wanted to go through her archive, when she got home, and find a consistent voice, I’d be happy to take another look and see if I could publish it. Many photographers would have seen that as a rejection, not a challenge.

Leigh, true to her desire to grow, and learn new things, took me up on the offer. She sent the edit I’m showing now, which has something of the wild spirit of youth, mixed up with a mother’s love. I dig the photos, and hope you do too.

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As always, the lesson is not to settle with what you know. Not to get lazy with your skills. I hold myself to the same standards, and am working on some new ideas for next year. Things I currently have no idea how to accomplish.

That’s where we find the good stuff. All the best, and see you next year.

A Visit To The Getty

- - From The Field

The phone beeped in the middle of the night. A text. Must have been Dad, I thought, shaking off my dreams. He wakes up at 3:30 in the morning. He must have sent me good wishes on the trip.

Jesus Christ, Dad. It’s the middle of the night. Give me a f-cking break.

I swatted at the phone to shut it up, and went back to bed. I was due up super-early to head to California, so I was none-too-pleased to have my anxiety-ridden sleep interrupted any further.

Parents.

When the phone beeped again, this time as an alarm clock, I rolled out of bed at 5. My eyes refused to open, like a recalcitrant clamshell. I looked at my messages, mentally composing a text to Dad that would have included some impolite language.

Except it wasn’t Dad. It was Southwest airlines. They’d texted me at 3:55 am to say my flight had been cancelled.

Ouch.

I had a serious cortisol drop, and tried to reschedule through the website, but that was useless. So before you know it, I was talking to a grumpy customer service rep, who’d been working straight through the night, trying to figure out how to salvage my trip.

At 5am.
Not fun.

(You try being civil and polite under such circumstances.)

When all was said and done, I made it to LA. But I routed through Vegas, and lost a bunch of time. Time I meant to spend at the J. Paul Getty Museum, looking at art, so I could report back to you.

They’d graciously set up a few meetings on my behalf, to have some of the curators show me work, as their photo exhibitions were changing over. They had to move things around to accommodate, and I had to apologize for the airline shenanigans. No harm, no foul, I suppose.

I only mention the drama because I’d been bragging to my wife the night before about how good I’d gotten at avoiding and managing stress. I’m a road warrior, I said, or something like that.

Which only guaranteed that things would go to Hell as quickly as possible. Cancelled flight? Yes. 25 minute wait for the rental car shuttle? Sure. 1 hour wait for the rental car? Of course. Construction on the 405 that rendered my careful directions useless? Naturally.

By the time I turned up at the museum, improperly dressed for the 85 degree day, I was salty and grouchy and spent. Not much good to the world, unfortunately. Much less as a journalist who was meant to at least APPEAR intelligent.

Luckily, for those of you who don’t know, the Getty Center is set on a hilltop overlooking all of Los Angeles to the East, and the Pacific Ocean to the West. It is as beautiful a setting as you are likely to find, for a museum, anywhere.

So I sat down for a few minutes, when I finally arrived. Caught my breath. Took in some sun. Breathed deeply. And I felt better.
Who wouldn’t?

My first move was to go to see Peter Paul Rubens’ gigantic tapestries in an exhibition that had just opened. Apparently, in the Baroque period, some Spanish royalty commissioned him to design 20 foot wide tapestries that depicted the victory of the Eucharist. The dominance of Catholicism.

Spain controlled the Southern Netherlands, which is now Belgium, and wanted to take over Holland, which was Protestant. The artist first made a series of phenomenal oil paintings, which were also displayed, and then had those pieces transcribed into cloth, on an enormous scale, by other artisans.

As near as I could tell, it was straight-up propaganda. (Nothing new, if you’ve seen European art before.) The Catholic Church was the prevailing power structure, and had plenty of funds, so it was a solid patron, albeit one with a clear agenda.

I looked at the work for a while, in the dark room, and then stepped outside and looked at the Pacific Ocean. I repeated the pattern two more times. In all my years of looking at art, visiting museums, and traveling around, I’ve never done anything like that before.

The fresh air helped me suss out my thoughts. The paintings were taut and packed with energy. Once translated into another medium as tapestries though, they lost the viscerality of the originals. What was forfeited in emotive power was more than likely gained with the impressive scale, as far as delivering the message. Fear us. We are coming to convert your souls. The Eucharist bows before no man. (Or something like that.)

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Soon enough, I found myself in the innards of the museum, still wearing my puffy vest in the 85 degree weather. At least it will be freezing in there, I thought, so I’ll be glad to have it. This place, unlike every other museum I’ve visited, was not chilled to perfection, though.

So I ended up sweating as the meeting got started.

Not. Very. Classy.

I took the vest off, allowed the air-con to do its job, and began to parse what was going on before me. Which I will report to you, finally, now…

The Getty had arranged for me to meet Nancy Perloff, a curator at the Getty Research Institute, who was putting on a large exhibition about World War I, and the propaganda imagery that flooded the Continent. (In honor of the Centennial.) She was interested in the visual language that was used to depict the War, but also the manner in which imagery was manipulated to present one’s enemies in unflattering ways.

The exhibit, “World War I: War of Images, Images of War,” has since opened, so you ought to go see it. I did not have the opportunity, I’m afraid. We were joined in our conversation by Mazie Harris, a curator from the photography department.

Ms. Perloff presented us with a 6-photo panel piece made in London in WWI. She said it was the only photography that was included in the exhibit, so they carted it over to show me. Very decent of them.

The images were made of a German dirigible that hung over London, in 1916, lobbing bombs down below. It seemed like an early version of a drone, where superior technology enabled one side to pummel another from a safe distance.

But those Brits were crafty, so the series showed the floating beast lit up from below by spotlights. And then it was shot down, probably by airplanes, though that was not entirely clear in the pictures.

The first two were straight black and white, then a third was more of a sepia color. The last three pictures, while the wreck descended in flames, were rendered in red. Totally expressionistic.

We discussed the photographer, H. Scott Orr, of whom I’d never heard. Had he made money off the images by releasing post cards? Ms. Harris showed us some provenance work she’d done, when other such images came on the market. We discussed the degree of research that goes into the job.

Curators are often seen as glamorous these days. Practically art stars, in the public’s opinion. But I must say, whenever I spend quality time, I see them as scholars and historians. Right there in LA, talking about history, war, culture, and research, it was clear that I was dealing with people who’d devoted their lives to discovery.

Were the flaming blimp pictures propaganda, I was asked? I thought not, because H. Scott Orr was just making his work; doing his thing. If he’d been commissioned, like Rubens, and supplied with a message beforehand, I would have said yes.

We wondered how the colors were achieved? As the resident photographer in the room, I suggested toning. I’d seen a heap of hand-colored Russian images at FOAM in 2013, and they look very different.

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

After a while, our discussion broke up, and Ms. Perloff and Ms. Harris moved along. Amanda Maddox, who’d been quietly doing her work, right there in the room the whole time, looked up from her notes and introduced herself. She’s also a photography curator, and was working on the new Josef Koudelka exhibition that has since opened.

She’d spent the better part of six years on the project, which was meant to be the first major, complete retrospective of the artist’s career. They’d given over their entire photography exhibition space for the show, which was also a first.

Ms. Maddox showed me “The Wall,” an accordion-fold book that Mr. Koudelka had made for “This Place,” the Israeli photo project we’ve discussed thrice in my book review column. Apparently, Mr. Koudelka’s solution to being invited was to focus on the wall dividing Israel from the presumptive Palestine, and then make only two copies of the book.

As they stretched the book wide, which would ultimately reach nearly 40′, I was reminded of that classic SoCal accordion-fold book, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” by the ultimate LA guy, Ed Ruscha.

At that moment, in walked Virginia Heckert, the chief photo curator at the Getty. I pointed out the comparison, and she mentioned the book review I wrote where I called “bullshit” on Mr. Ruscha for claiming he’d never heard of Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, or Nicholas Nixon. (FYI, Mr. Baltz has since passed away. RIP.)

I asked Ms. Maddox why Koudelka? If she was going to devote 6 year of her life to something like this, marrying her passion, work ethic, research skills, and all the other component parts, why him?

There must be a reason.

She replied that Mr. Koudelka had demonstrated a level of commitment she found fascinating. After he had to leave Prague for publishing anonymous photographs following the Soviet invasion, he based himself in London. But he soon began photographing the Gypsy, or Roma communities, for which he became famous.

For years, she told me, he was essentially homeless. Following the human migration, sleeping outside, where he could. He’d head back to London for the winters only, as it was too extreme to live outdoors. He’d given his life for his art, Ms. Maddox said, and so she was devoting a chunk of her own to honor that.

She also showed me some mini-accordion-fold books that he makes, by hand, and keeps in his back pocket. They’re his maquettes for book ideas, though they look as much like a Hello Kitty version of a photo book: adorable, and the kind of thing you want to touch. (They didn’t let me, though. Touch them.)

After a couple of hours, I let everyone get back to their jobs, and set out to do more of mine, which meant wandering around the museum until it closed, looking at art. Chatting up the people who worked there. Having a good time.

Honestly, the staff I encountered at the Getty were just so nice. And helpful. The folks at the info desk, the security guards, the coat check lady, the curators, media contacts. Everyone. I’m sure it takes a ridiculous sum of money to keep that place running, though with the name Getty attached, I doubt we have to worry about their endowment.

Aside from a fee to park, the museum is free. There is a vast amount of amazing things to see. Gardens to walk through. Views to take in.

If you live in Southern California, or are heading there any time soon, I’m telling you to go there. As soon as you can. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never been to visit before. Now, I can’t wait to go back.

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This Week In Photography Books: Brad Moore

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just flew in from New Orleans, and boy, are my arms tired. (Ba doom boom. Tch.)

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. It flowed out of my fingers, and then, there it was. As ridiculous as that bad joke is, the underlying truth stands.

I did just get back from New Orleans.

And every bone in my body is aching from the deep exhaustion of ten hours of travel each way, with 26 critiques sandwiched in between. (Plus the amazing parties and such. It’s not a drag, by any means.)

Since this column is as much a running commentary on my life as it is a series of book reviews, I must share that I feel like sleeping for 3 days straight. Instead, I came home to my two young children, and that’s just a daily marathon.

Enough bitching. What can I tell you today? NOLA rocks. I’ll be featuring it at length in the coming weeks, so I’ll spare you too much backstory in the here and now. Suffice it to say, it is a city that has “The Magic.”

I live in Taos, a small mountain town that is renown for it’s spiritual juju, so I know of what I speak. New Orleans has an ineffable something that makes it an addictive locale for many a tourist.

Let’s face it, the world is big. Far bigger than any one person could ever explore. Even Tony Bourdain has seen but a fragment, no matter how tired HIS bones might feel.

Places, cities, such as we know them, are nothing but an aggregate of people, structures, and landscape. That’s it. Yet somehow, they manage to develop distinct identities. The Castro is not the Lower East Side.

North London is not the North side of Chicago. These statements are so obvious as to be practically meaningless, and yet I type them still.

Why?

Because as photographers, or lovers of photography, we know that the best work manages to tap into the Zeitgeist of a place. To allow us to learn something crucial about a spot we might never have seen with our own eyes.

The camera is the proxy for the artist, and the artist is the proxy for the tourist. Here, declares the artist, is something you ought to see. Now, declares the artist, I will show you things that will embed in your memory, and make you think you know more than you do.

Speaking of which, I was in Southern California in late October, as you well know. (If you were paying attention at all.) I love that place too. It’s pretty, sure, but there is a seedy normality to the joint that I find alluring.

I’ve spent next-to-no time in Beverly Hills, or its ilk. Give me a low-rise little beach town any day. (Big Shout Out to Leucadia.)

Brad Moore has managed to capture an essence of SoCal that I’m pretty sure you’ll love. The SoCal of the Inland Empire, and Orange County, and mismatched patches of pavement. We can all see it in “Brad Moore,” a new book recently released by the nascent publisher Acuity Press, also from Southern California.

Why will you likely love it? Because it mashes up the anonymous modernism of the super-structure with the random chaos of real life. Korean churches behind geometric facades. Buddhist temples in half-abandoned-looking row houses.

And a seamless, flat, gray sky that references the smog, for which the place is often known, and the fog, that ever-present menace to coastal sanity. (Hey Fog, if you blow out now, so I can see the sun for a few minutes, I’ll give you $500. What, you can’t spend money, because you are an apparition made of moist sea air? Fuck you, then, fog. Fuck you.)

The book is really well-made, the images razor sharp. The repetitive shapes jump out at you, but just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, you’re given a surprise.

A big blue truck on a lawn, where we’d otherwise expect to see a house. What? And there are two dark smudges with streaks running down. Was the truck struck with paint-ball pellets? A group of miscreant teen-agers marring the otherwise “perfect” suburban existence?

No explanation necessary, really. Who doesn’t love a good mystery?

Later, a pile of green lawn beckons, the color as intense as a magic mushroom ride. What is that on the grass? Oh, it’s a tarp, holding a heap of grass shavings that are no longer a part of the territorial integrity of said lawn.

Brilliant illusion. Maybe the ideal metaphor? The gloss, disembodied from the host.

OK. That’s as much as I can squeeze out of my tired brain. I’m leaving Southern California, in my imagination, so I can look out my window to the shocking number of gopher mounds that dot my backyard.

Fucking Gophers. Why don’t you move somewhere where they’ll actually appreciate you?

Bottom Line: Terrific pictures of Southern California

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

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

Work From The Medium Festival of Photography 2014 – Part 2

- - From The Field

I love portfolio reviews. It’s true. Believe it or not, I used to be a harsh critic of the process. Before I got involved, I raged against the system, in which photographers pay for meetings with industry professionals.

Then, I decided to listen to some advice from a few colleagues, and give it a try. It worked out very well for me, as my reviews at Review Santa Fe in 2009 and 2010 helped my work break out on the Internet, which led a host of sales and exhibitions.

Now, in my capacity as a writer here and at the New York Times Lens blog, I go to the reviews to look at work and write about it. You know this, as we’re in part 2 of my series about the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego.

I’m pretty sure you guys enjoy looking at the work I see, because I always get great feedback on these articles. And of course, I do like to keep it entertaining, to ensure that you make it to the bottom of the piece to see the pictures. (Oh. Right. You could always skip to the photos? I suppose that’s true.)

Where am I headed? Is there a point? Yes, it’s that I’ve noticed in my last few reviews that these events are not just about people pitching. It’s more than the “what can you do for me” that you think it is. (That is, if you’ve never attended one before.)

In my experience, and perhaps it’s because I’ve been teaching for nearly 10 years, many of the artists come to the table seeking feedback. They want advice on how to get better. They ask all the right questions about where they are weak, and where they are strong.

For the artist, it’s like spending a few hundred dollars to go to grad school for the weekend. If you’re not frantically pitching someone, 20 minutes is a good amount of time for a conversation. You can learn a lot, if you’re willing to listen.

There are the big national reviews, sure, but there is now a system firmly in place with regional reviews, at festivals, all over the country. You can get some great advice, and benefit from participating in a mini-idea-cluster, without having to buy a plane ticket and rent a hotel room.

I’m off this week to photo NOLA, so we’ll have another slate of articles coming up for you in the New Year. But these festivals are everywhere. Just off the top of my head, I can throw out New York, Chicago, San Diego, Portland, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Denver and San Francisco.

I’m sure there are many more too. Which means that you might consider looking into what’s available in your neck of the woods. It’s hard to get genuine critical feedback from your friends and family. Certainly, it’s tough once you’re out of school.

Medium is a great example of a festival that was designed to serve its community. It brings people together to celebrate shared passion, and I think that’s something we could all use more of. Certainly, living as I do in the middle of nowhere, I sometimes get jealous of the opportunities available to my urban colleagues.

Back to the photographers, though, and let’s finish this off. As with last week, it’s in no particular order.

John DuBois was one of two artists on whom I was pretty tough. He’s a full-time software engineer, and showed me a project that I thought wasn’t quite up to snuff. Our signals got a bit crossed, as I could tell he didn’t think my criticism was quite appropriate. (I wanted more from him, and wasn’t afraid to say so.)

Then, he showed me a second project that I liked very much. It had all the elements I was craving: a personal connection, a sharp eye, and a more consistent image quality. John spends a lot of time out on the road, in his day job, and sees a series of hotels and motels where he beds down for the night. So he takes pictures to keep himself busy. These are great.

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Lisa Layne Griffiths was the other photographer I tore into a bit. She showed me a series of set-up studio portraits that were a long way from ready. We broke down all the ways she could improve the project, and she knew how much work she had to do. But she was very enthusiastic about improving.

At the portfolio walk, I stopped to chat with her again. She showed me a small series that she’d made of soldiers returning home from the Iraq War. I was impressed. I like that the pictures are not exactly neutral, but neither are they sappy or overly emotional. They’re just right, and a great reminder to those of us not directly connected, that these continual wars have a real cost to far too many people in this country.

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Jonas Yip is an Asian-American photographer based in Los Angeles. He spent some of his youth in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and worked on a series in Mainland China. It was difficult for him, he told me, to look like everyone else, while obviously being an outsider inside his skin.

I like the way his pictures made the smoggy sky into a positive element, by celebrating the drab color palette. And the repeating use of the people, always with their back to him, was smart as well.

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Martina Shenal is a professor at the University of Arizona, and she recently spent a sabbatical in Japan. (China’s rival for power in the Pacific.) Martina and I spent a good deal of time talking about paper choices.

Many of the artists I met were using matte paper, which naturally decreases an image’s contrast, and, by extension, the illusion of three dimensionality. Pictures look flatter, and less vibrant, than they do on a lustrous, pearl, or glossy surface.

Despite the fact that Martina is a working professional, I shared with her the idea that her photographs would simply look better if she made some other choices. On screen, of course, we don’t have those problems. Several of her photos really captured that Japanese-Zen-vibe, and I’m sure you’ll like them below.

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Amanda Hankerson and I met briefly at Review Santa Fe in June, and then again during Medium. We had a drink at the bar with a few friends, and despite the horrific lighting, she pulled out a Magcloud-type-publication to show me. Her project is called “The Hankersons,” and I love the premise.

Apparently, there are only Hankersons in the United States, and nowhere else. There aren’t many of them either, and as an early ancestor was a slave owner, there are African-American Hankersons, and Caucasian Hankersons. Random, no?

Amanda uses Facebook to track down her fellow Hankersons, and then photographs them. Because that’s what photographers do. I think there was a Hankerson who played for the 49ers in the 90’s, so maybe she can look into that.

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Finally, we’ve got Dalton Rooney. He’s a photographer who recently moved back to Southern California, after living most of his life elsewhere. He’s been trekking around the landscape, re-familiarizing himself with the desert vernacular.

He showed me a few images that were printed rather dark, and that made for a moody viewing experience that I really enjoyed. There was almost a sense of foreboding in a landscape I normally associate with sunny-happy-joy-land. Nicely done.

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Work From The Medium Festival of Photography 2014 – Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last year, when I went to visit the Medium Festival of Photography, I practically leaked energy.

I stayed out drinking, chatted with every possible person, dispensed advice incessantly, and worked through my portfolio review breaks. Only then, when it was almost done, did I give a public lecture in which I bared my soul to a crowded room. (Yes, even more nakedly than I do here each week, if you can believe it.)

In the end, I had a bad series of interactions with a fellow artist, and labeled him a “dick” in this forum. Which almost cost me one of my best friends. Honestly, he stopped talking to me over it, though we’ve since patched things up.

I’m nothing if not adaptable, so I vowed to do it differently this year. Driving down the 405 from LA, where I had a day at the Getty that I’ll chronicle in an upcoming piece, I near-chanted to myself that I’d take it easy.

Chill, if you will.

There was plenty of time to think, as the traffic was thick as Thanksgiving gravy, despite the late hour. I didn’t arrive at the Lafayette Hotel until 9:30pm, which I assumed made me the last reviewer there. (I was wrong. The reviewer across the hall showed up at 3:30 am, and woke me with a closing door. Ironically, it turned out to be a friend, so I couldn’t be too mad. Thanks, Maren.)

Anyway, the plan worked out swimmingly, as I even managed some time in the blue pool one sunny afternoon. (When in SoCal, after all.) I hit the gym, took my quiet time, walked through the corridors with my head down, avoiding eye contact. Anything to make sure I had good, positive energy for the reviews, and that I came home able to work. (Rather than losing 2 weeks in a fog, as I’ve done before.)

Fortunately, I did get to see a nice variety of photography to share with you here. And I even get to use the word “dick” again, as it was tossed about with shocking abandon by the keynote lecturer, Duane Michals. I kid you not, that dude said “dick” at least 15 times within the first three minutes of his lecture.

He was playing a character called Dr. Duanus, and opened with a story about needing a penis reduction. I watched the crowd, and people were in various states of disbelief. He was like a cross between Larry David and Robin Williams. Not what you expect in a photography lecture.

I ought to give him a more fitting shout-out than that, though. Mr. Michals lecture was by far the most entertaining and enlightening I’ve yet heard. He was profane in a way that was endearing, rather than discomfiting, and also managed to show a large selection of his work. Pictures and words that gave the crowd energy, and permission to experiment.

Afterwards, at his book signing, people stood in line for at least an hour, or I should say lines. There were two, in opposite directions, that snaked throughout the entire hotel lobby. No lie. People couldn’t wait to take pictures with him, catch a moment, get a book signed. It was electric.

But back to the reviews, which were my main priority. (That, and eating at the many insanely-good-cheap-ethnic-restaurants within 5 blocks of the hotel. Thai? Check. Pizza? Check. Falafel? Check.)

I’m going to break this down into two articles, as I’ve done in the past. So that you can actually look at the photos without it all blending into infinity, like the great Pacific Ocean. I want to keep your attention crunchy, like a perfect fish taco. (OK. No more cheesy SoCal similes. I promise.)

In no particular order, let’s lead off with Samantha Geballe. She’s an artist working in the Los Angeles area, who’s studied with Aline Smithson. (Who just won Center’s Teaching Award. Well deserved, I’d say, as I’ve gotten to see her students’ work 2 years running.)

Samantha is a very large person, and gay. As such, she has to live squarely in the crosshairs of people’s prejudice. Twice. She presents as a very calm presence, but told me that things are chaotic on the inside. Her visceral, black and white self-portraits aim to channel her actual emotions. Powerful stuff.

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Brian Van der Wetering is another of Aline’s charges. He works full-time for Epson, which means I now have a super-hookup for lots of swag. He already sent me a new 44″ photo printer, so you should be very jealous. (Just kidding. I’ve received nothing of the kind.)

Brian’s set-up photos were hilarious, and also a shade poignant. They share the sense of play and misbehavior of a ten year old who loves lighting his sister’s dolls’ heads aflame. They are well-made, but also well-thought-out. I thought they were pretty excellent.

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Jane Szabo is also an LA-based artist. Her training is in other media, and she came to photography rather recently. She showed me three portfolios, and I could actually see her working it out, sequentially. The third project caught my eye, as she’d created non-functioning dresses for the camera, and I thought I’d share it here.

Notice the way it mashes up fashion, sculpture, installation and photography. She’s able to bring her various interests together into one artistic package. I particularly liked the way the pictures could almost be installation photos from an actual art exhibition, but are not. She utilizes the white space well.

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Mike Sakasegawa has a full-time day job as well, as an engineer, I believe. He photographs his family, as we all do, but attempts to take the pictures beyond the average snapshot. He wants to communicate the sadness he feels at his children growing up, and the joy he relishes with each day.

The pictures resonated with me, despite the well-worn subject matter. We can all relate, which also helps an audience appreciate a project.

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Adriene Hughes teaches at UCSD, so she didn’t even have to travel down the coast. Surprisingly, though, she showed me some pictures that were taken in my town of Taos. I did a double-take at first, exclaiming, “What the hell?” or some such.

Adriene made a performative project in which she always dressed up in her favorite deer head. Many of the pictures felt like documents of performance, rather than photographs made as original art objects. But there were more than a handful I really enjoyed, and the picture with the little dog sitting on the naked dude’s lap was simply priceless.

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Finally, we come to Tetsuya Kusu. He was hanging around the lobby when I came in that first night, and planned to volunteer for the festival. I craned my neck in all directions, looking to spy anyone I knew. Tetsuya approached, and seemed to know who I was. He gave me regards from Miki Hasegawa, a photographer I profiled here after meeting her at Review Santa Fe.

It seems as if the Japanese photo crew is rather tight, and I guess my own “image” is out there on the Interweb enough that I will occasionally get noticed. (Down, ego, down.) Anyway, Tetsuya and I spoke a few times over the weekend, and he showed me his pictures on his iPhone.

He’s currently traveling around the West Coast, sleeping on a surfboard in his car. He posts images each day on a password protected Tumblr, so the project is updated in realtime. There’s an edgy vibe to his portraits, so the whole thing made me think of a Japanese-surfer-on-the-road-Mike-Brodie-type-of-deal. Very cool.

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Sayonara until next week.
Jonathan-san out.

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