Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography Books: Steven Bollman

 

The internet’s out, so I’m grumpy.

Yesterday, it was the electricity.

That’s life here in the Rocky Mountains. (And in New Mexico in particular.)

You learn quickly that everything is a trade-off.

On the one hand, we have the nature and the culture, both among the most unique and astonishing in the US. On the other, we have the poverty and incompetence, which compete daily in a twisted dance of darkness.

If you study ancient religion and philosophy, it’s clear that different groups of humans, in disparate parts of the planet, came to an understanding of the power and ubiquity of opposites.

In places as widely spread as Far East and Southern Asia, the Middle East and Peru, iconography or words developed to specifically describe the phenomenon.

We’ve all seen cheesy tattoos of the Yin Yang symbol, but that doesn’t strip it of its import. We Jews have the separation of Earth and Sky in the opening of Exodus, and the Chavin de Huantar culture, in the Andes, made art in which graphic lines had two purposes: strands of hair also functioned as snakes.

These days, when someone wants to discuss dualistic thinking, without any nuance, they describe it as being black and white. (We’ve all said it: he or she doesn’t understand complexity, and only thinks in black and white.)

Ironically, as any photographer knows, black and white photography is all about shades of gray. Tonal range is defined by it: how many different gray tones have you produced to create a rhythm with your whites and blacks?

Black and White photography was the gateway for almost all art students, before the 21st Century. It was the first language you learned, before moving on to color.

These days, only a tiny percentage of photographers learn one before the other. It’s almost all color now, and black and white is a niche, or a filter to slap on in Instagram when you want to be artsy. (Or when your light is crap.)

In the art world, there will always be black and white, but here too it has migrated into the realm of “alternative process.” It represents the past, from a McLuhan-esque perspective, so it can be utilized for nostalgic purposes, or to mess with viewer’s temporal expectations.

Occasionally, though, we’ll find a project that is straight-up throwback. It presents the kind of pictures that feel like they were made by a member of the Rat Pack, reincarnated for the Justin Bieber era.

That’s what I felt about today’s book, “Almost True,” by Steven Bollman, published this year by F8 publications in the Bay Area. He sent it in a few months ago, and it sat on the pile, patiently waiting its turn.

I popped it out of the cardboard yesterday, and was very glad I did. (Normally, I look and write, but this one required a bit of contemplation, as far as how to approach it properly.)

“Almost True” sounds like “Almost Famous,” another throwback project, when Cameron Crowe summoned his halcyon days as a young reporter onto the big screen.

The title also messed with me a bit, as I kept waiting until the end text to learn whether the book was something other than it appeared to be.

It seems, on surface level, to be an exceptionally well-edited group of old-school, black and white street photographs. We sense the stylistic influences of Cartier-Bresson, Frank and Friedlander everywhere, but that’s OK.

Who hasn’t been influenced by those lions, and how does one even begin to make work like this without seeming derivative?

Well, there are a few ways.

1. Make really damn good photographs, and show us a wide range of times and places.

2. Drop in temporal references that cement the project in the now, as opposed to the then.

3. Give the pictures a way to live together that doesn’t evoke someone else, thereby making room for your own voice.

I don’t think I’ve ever dropped into listicle form here before, so there’s a first time for everything. But it reinforces my point: structure can have power.

This book is broken down into sections, with clear themes, and I could feel it from the start, before I knew what it was. “Almost True” made me guess from the get-go, but I didn’t get it right away.

In Chapter 2, I noticed the contortionistic positions of the subjects, and that gesture and body positioning were the hook. So I flipped right back to Chapter 1, and noticed that every picture featured people looking up and away.

Chapter 3 was pictures within pictures, including a nudie poster, (Boobs Sell Books,) and a cool Tupac reference. Then we have people separated by barriers, and Chapter 5 is about connections between consecutive images.

For example, one image has a finger pointing, and the next is of a bird in the sky, in that exact spot. This section also gives us our first dead body. (Seemingly.)

In my read, the subsequent chapters were about women, then transcendence, men, and finally the last one screamed “film stills.”

The artist might quibble with me, for all I know, but that’s also part of creating these implied narratives: they always leave room for the viewer to complete the story.

Frankly, I think this is a killer book. I’m glad I waited a day to write, because the appreciation sunk in, despite the fact that I liked the book immediately.

Yesterday, I was in suspense, waiting to find out of any of this was fake, because of the suggestive title. But the well-written essay, by Alfredo Triff, and the simple, geographic titles, (from 1987-2017) prove it is a collection of straight photos.

There’s lots of chiaroscuro, and a high-key style in general, (not so many creamy shades of gray,) but it fits the neo-noir vibe perfectly. And including images of things like drones, (See Listicle #2 above,) also sets this apart from images made in earlier eras.

Basically, this one comes highly recommended.

Now if they can just get the internet running again, my mood might turn around completely.

Bottom Line: Excellent, compelling collection of black and white street photography

To purchase “Almost True” click here 

 

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

This Week in Photography Books: Sigrid Ehemann

 

It’s cool to be funny.

Funny has power.

It’s why a female comic with frizzy hair and a high-pitched voice went from little-known, to globally famous a few months ago. As I don’t regularly watch The Daily Show, (despite what a recent column suggests,) I certainly hadn’t heard of her before the Huckabee-Sanders-Kerfluffle of 2018.

(Try saying Huckabee-Sanders-Kerfluffle five times fast. I could only make it to four.)

Anyway, I was re-watching “Back to School” with my son last night, and unsurprisingly, it held up. (As did “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which we saw last month.)

Rodney Dangerfield, a fellow Jew, was a genuinely strange-looking guy. From our contemporary vantage-point, there is no f-ing way that anyone who looks like THAT would ever be the romantic lead in a comedy.

Ever.

But still, Rodney pulled it off, bug-eyes and all. (Seriously, he bugged out his eyes A LOT.)

And Sam Kinison, another not-looker with very strange style, (and crazy hair,) also held his own on the screen. (They don’t make them like that anymore.)

Funny has gravitas because it is often a coded way of speaking truth to power. (Or in Ms. Wolf’s case, not-so-coded.)

Funny allowed Donald J Trump to become the third most powerful man in the world. (Xi Jinping, Putin, then Trump, if we’re counting.)

Trump uses funny to disarm, but also because it allows him to say and do terrible things, and then deny he meant them.

“I was only kidding. Locker room talk.”

“I didn’t openly mock a disabled person, even though they caught it on tape.”

“God, why are you so serious. Can’t you take a joke?”

Funny is entertaining, and Trump honed his entertainment skills on NBC for ten-ish years before being famous and polished enough to claim his ultimate prize.

We all need to lighten up a bit, IMO, even in the face of a scary world. Because neither Trump, nor Putin, is coming into your living room this evening.

Nor are they coming into your kitchen. (Shout out to John Raztenberger, who’s an avowed Republican.)

It’s OK to have fun, crack jokes, and enjoy your life, even if you hate the President. Frankly, when I heard Tony Bourdain had killed himself, I wasn’t surprised at all.

In a recent episode in Uruguay, he’d said that Happiness was a sickness, and that he hated happiness and happy people. (I’ll find the segment and quote it, if I have time. It’s still on my DVR. I can’t bring myself to watch the episodes that aired since he died, nor can I delete them.)

Humor is powerful, but also a rational response to the irrational parts of human nature. Our logical brains are strong, but as much of what we do, and the outcomes of our collective efforts make no sense, (private prisons?) having a laugh, as the English say, can be wise as well as cathartic.

Speaking of English, I’ll have to ask Sigrid Ehemann why her new “Pussy Magazine” is written entirely in English, when she’s German. (Based in Dusseldorf.)

The obvious answer is that it’s the world’s default language, and she wants it read around the world.

Still, it’s curious there’s no German within, isn’t it?

No matter, because I absolutely love this new project, and if it weren’t in English, I wouldn’t have the chance to read it.

Sigrid sent in another publication last year, about a charming chihuahua, and I knew she had talent, ingenuity, and a great sense of humor.

I said as much here in my review.

This time out, she’s gone a step further and moved beyond Trump, (an obvious target for all of us,) and taken on the #MeToo movement, and the awful men’s behavior that spawned it.

Issue 1, which is by far the best, sets up the dynamic of image and text, which we had last time, but it’s pushed into a fashion direction this time. (Style credits and such.)

It’s aimed for women of a certain age, (older than 40,) whom society deems irrelevant. It tackles issues directly, whether grabby bosses, male/female pay imbalance, or the fact that women are still vastly underrepresented in exhibitions. (We see the statistic 10 men for every woman.)

Just yesterday, Jörg Colberg and some other colleagues on Twitter were questioning the demographics at Arles, where it was reported white-guy-exhibitions were totally dominant.

I chimed in that as it’s simply unacceptable not to have a more diverse representation these days, I went out and solicited more female submissions for this column directly. Outreach has made a difference, so ladies, please keep those books coming in.

“Pussy Magazine” is a perfect example.
No man on Earth should, would or could have made this.

And the world would be a sadder place without “Pussy Magazine.”

Like Sacha Baron Cohen pranking Sarah Palin, humor is sometimes the only way to get at an issue.

Speaking of issues, only Issue 1 here feels vital. It’s perfect, and as I looked through it, I wondered how it could be topped. (The answer is, it wasn’t.)

The first time out, the combination of the odd model, the insane bag-on-the-head fashion, and the text are shocking in their perfection.

Like “Glow” earning a “10” for Season 2, and then muffing the landing with a tone-deaf-2-minute-ending, (bringing its score down to a 9.90,) sometimes you have to know when you’re done.

Issues 2 and 3 felt like the second and third best ideas, and the repetition of the same model and style was just extra. There were two brilliant, laugh-out-loud-funny images in the 3rd issue, though, so editing is a tricky business.

I’m going to photograph all of Issue 1 down below, so you get a full sense of the rhythm of what Sigrid has done.

It’s so fantastic it should speak for itself.

But it definitely shows us why ensuring male and female artists have an equal voice is not just fair, but also to our massive benefit.

Pussy power indeed. (Can I say that?)

Bottom Line: Hilarious new Post #MeToo “magazine” from Germany

To purchase “Pussy Magazine” contact the artist here

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

This Week in Photography Books: John Divola

 

Growing older isn’t sexy.

(And it isn’t always fun.)

I rolled my eyes in deep mockery when I heard the millennial term “adulting” for the first time. As a bona fide adult, (with two kids, a mortgage, student loans and car payments,) I thought it was a cheeky way to trivialize how hard it is to keep all those balls in the air at once.

But as I thought it over, I realized it was kind of an absurdist word for an absurd concept.

Growing up.

Most people stop growing, physically, by the time they’re 18. Just yesterday, in the newspaper, I saw an 18 year old referred to as a “man.” Personally, I’d say an 18 year old boy, or a kid, but the Santa Fe New Mexican obviously disagrees.

People can grow, physically, by getting fatter or building muscles, but we mostly use it to refer to the process by which we get taller, and then it stops for a while, before we begin to shrink.

But growing, emotionally, is a process that need not be bound by age. Rather, in my experience, it’s a mentality.

Are you willing to look carefully at your flaws and weaknesses?

Are you willing to admit when you’re wrong and apologize meaningfully?

Are you curious about how your life might look if some of your flaws became strengths?

It’s that kind of attitude that allows people to grow, no matter their age. And it can take positive forms too, of course.

What have I always been dying to learn?
What would I like to try before I die?
Where am I desperate to visit, and am I willing to move mountains to make it happen?

You get the point.

Personally, I like being 44. Since I turned 40, I committed to a 4 year stint in therapy, (which I recently wrapped,) and have also invested in exercise and martial arts.

I’m fitter, happier, healthier and stronger than I was at 40. Or 35. Or 30.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, because lord knows I’ve made mistakes, (and pissed people off along the way,) but when I know I’m wrong, I say I’m sorry.

And as a part of “growing up,” I’ve found it fascinating when I revisit certain things, or ideas, and see them completely differently.

Take today’s book, for instance.

“Vandalism,” by John Divola, was published this year by MACK in London. I was excited when I heard it was imminent, because I’ve loved this project from the first time I saw it, and happen to know the artist as well.

I was fortunate to interview John about these pictures for a VICE story two years ago, and it was one of the few interviews I’ve ever done where I was consistently wrong-footed.

This dude was one step ahead of me, for most of the conversation, and never gave the answers I was expecting. Much of the time, it seemed like he thought my ideas about his work were hopelessly naive.

I saw the pictures in “Vandalism,” many of which are collected in this book, as an act of anarchic, early West Coast Punk and Graffiti art.

They were made in 1974-75, just as I was born, and from the contemporary perch, they perfectly channeled that sensation of breaking things to parallel a then-breaking America.

The pictures became counter-culture counterpoints to the gas shortages, Nixon and Carter, Vietnam, and America’s diminished standing in the world.

They felt like a colossal “fuck you,” and anyone who’s been a teen-ager can relate. (Or a rebel. Some of us are, some are not.)

John Divola told me I was way off.
It was all about mark-making for him.

It was about the abstractions.
The shapes.
The interventions.
The act of painting.

In this read, the pictures are documents of events and actions. The homes were well and truly abandoned, so it’s not like the graffiti was affecting anyone’s property.

Rather, they’re pictures that capture the actions of a heady, well-trained art student. A SoCal boy who went to good schools, and exercised theories while Zenning out and making abstract art in quiet places. (Which he still does.)

Though I eventually realized I was talking to an incredibly bright, talented, cool legend within the field, I still didn’t get where he was coming from.

I was sure I was right, even though it was his freaking art.

Needless to say, when I opened “Vandalism” this morning, and went page by page, I could only see it his way.

Shapes after shapes. Circles and patterns. Bulls-eyes and spirals.

Again and again.

The background, the houses themselves, with their dust and their rot, recede into the background. They become stages for the young artist who was playing with circles like a latter-day Malevich; these wall-forms competing for attention with the ghosts who roamed the halls.

In fact, while I appreciate the work differently, and perhaps more now, it was that sense of repetition that actually became the book’s Achilles heel.

MACK is rightly known as one of the best photobook publishers in the world. They make beautiful objects, and Michael Mack told me here in the column, in 2012, that they see the books as art pieces themselves.

I get that.

The production values here are phenomenal, as the tonal range of the images really comes to the forefront. There are no essays, or any text really, so that Zen vibe is strengthened by the quiet and the minimal design.

All to the good.

But in books like this, (and others I’ve seen them do,) I feel like the narrative becomes a record rather than an experience. It’s a collection of reproductions of important art, rather than a story to be unlocked, or a trip to be taken.

It’s not that I have such a short attention span, but as I look at and review books every week, I’ve come to appreciate the ones that try to vary their approach to keep me guessing.

It’s no different from the way most filmmakers use suspense.

I’m sure the book was produced this way intentionally, and as I said above, there are benefits to this approach. But as much as I like to focus on the details within each picture, after 50 of them, the eyes do begin to glaze.

Perhaps I’m quibbling, but then again, the other approach, which we’ve seen recently with reviews like “War Sand,” can also be pushed too far, resulting in mish-mash books instead.

Because “Vandalism” is spare, I’ll finish with my current, 44-year old version of why these pictures are so Rad.

The world often feels like it’s straight-up chaos. Pure insanity. It may always be crazy out there, but some time periods are certainly more rambunctious than others.

2018 is 50 years after 1968 and 100 years beyond 1918.

Whether you like round numbers are not, the symmetry with other times of great upheaval is difficult to miss.

But there is still order, and stillness, and quiet, even in the craziest of times and places. These photographs speak to that sense of order within chaos, because that’s exactly what they present.

In these sad, weary, abandoned spaces, shapes and patterns don’t just emerge.

They declare.
They stand proud, in their ugly beauty.

The creative act, and its aftermath, will continue to survive while are there are people alive to enact them. John Divola’s photographs in this project are twisted, hipster-youngster-driven-cave-paintings.

And I love them.

Bottom Line: A classic project, brought back from the 70’s

To purchase “Vandalism” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Kristine Potter

 

“I would argue that Manifest recapitulates the dehumanizing role of division in the conquest of the Frontier, by divorcing agency from lifeworld.”

–Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, November 2017, in the official essay for Manifest

 

You might need to read that quote a couple of times to understand it.

I’m pretty bright, (so they tell me,) and I’m still not sure what it means. In effect, I’m tipping my hand about the book I’m reviewing today, but we’ll get to that later.

(As always.)

Rather, I’d like to focus on the use of language itself up above. One of the things that distinguishes this column from other spaces that investigate photography is that I endeavor to come across as a “regular” guy.

We talk about big ideas, sure, but I wrap them in jokes, or Pop Culture references. There was a time when I was a fan of flowery similes, but after the NYT got a hold of me, I began writing clause-packed sentences dense with information. (Like this one.)

Even so, it’s important to me that the language I use is accessible, as I want people to understand what the fuck I’m talking about.

In the tradition of the great inscrutable Frenchmen, (Derrida, Foucault,) some writers, and their attendant writing, rather aim to create barriers around their concepts. They utilize words like solipsistic, tautology, hermeneutics.

I’m sorry, but most Trump voters, the populi to his populism, would get angry reading a sentence like the one I lead with today. (And in fairness, the sentence that followed it DID include the word solipsistic.)

It makes people mad to feel like they don’t understand something.

That they’re dumb.
That you’re smarter than they are, and you know it.

I think that feeling, that sense of inferiority, of being looked down upon by rich people in the fancy house up on the hill, (Shout out to Luke Cage Season 2,) is at the core of what people mean when they say “elites.”

Elites are college educated urbanites. (Or in some cases, suburbanites.) They like arugula, and The Daily Show. Even better, they like the opera, and caviar.

Heartland America, when it rebels against “elite” culture, is reacting to a sensation. It feels bad to be looked down upon, but now, in 2018, these folks are having their moment.

(But before I get too empathetic, you have to watch this Daily Show clip about what Trump voters think of the Space Force.)

The history of the US is littered with pendulum swings: the liberal 60’s begat Nixon, the Reagan-era gave us Clinton, whose sleaziness made W. Bush seem wholesome. Then he ushered in Obama to clean up the Great Recession mess, and those who hated him have their savior in Trump.

But in classic Trumpian fashion, Il Duce managed to take the rhetoric to previously unseen heights at a recent rally.

He said, “We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are and they say they’re the elite. You’re the elite, we’re the elite. Let’s call ourselves, from now on, the super elite.” (Courtesy of The Hill)

That’s where we are in 2018, people.

It’s all happening.

But still, I’ve been pushing myself lately to remember that Red America is still America. If we want to remain one country, at some point, we have to accept that the other “bloc” that has different opinions gets to win elections and enact policy too.

The American West has been solidly Red for generations, though places like New Mexico, Colorado and even Nevada have recently cleaved off from the herd.

Most of the West, with its wide-open landscapes, and unimaginable space and scale, still feels like it always has, at least in the 30 years that I’ve been around the joint.

Beyond the people who were born here, some places draw new residents with their “outdoor lifestyle,” “hip coffee shops” and (Insert random developer’s phrase here.)

Places like Denver.

And there are glamorous-view-spots throughout the West too, like Telluride, Sedona, or here in Taos.

Still, these spots are specks of dust compared to the enormity of the West. Most of it is dry and dusty. People are poor, and in some places live in conditions that one can reasonably call “Third World.”

In some cases, like The Mesa community here in Taos, people live simply, in trailers, huts or teepees, out of choice. Because they’re turning their backs on mainstream culture.

Desert rat types.

They’re all over this region, in ways that create their own kind of anonymity.

And ultimately, that’s why I liked “Manifest,” the new book by Kristine Potter, recently published by our friends at TBW books in Oakland.

I appreciate this one because it manages to capture that sense of the general-ness of the light, and the heat, and the landscape.

Rocks and scrub.
Glare and sand.

I also really appreciated the production values too. I rarely mention separations here, (the last I remember is the Henry Wessel book by Steidl,) but there was one image where the shadow detail in a rock face was so impressive that I almost gasped.

(I think that sentence would also draw the ire from our imaginary, aforementioned Trump voter.)

Then there are portraits of men, shirtless, which smack of the female gaze. (As the title of the book references Manifest Destiny.) These are cool too, and I get that they’re trying to be subversive, undercutting the traditional methods of representation, but even that feels a touch stale.

I made fun of the essay at the beginning today, (Sorry, Stanley,) but it mentions that Ms. Potter comes from a long line of Western families, and that she went to grad school at Yale. (The most infamous of photo-world mafias.)

It explains all the big-word-theory-driven sentences, and the attempt to try to make this work more conceptual, more theoretical than it really is.

When you go to Yale, you can’t say, “I like taking black and white photographs of the West.”

It has to be more than that. Justifications are created. It can’t just be, “I like it. It’s fun.” Or, “I want to make pictures that help me connect with the landscape of my lineage.”

Because those are the reasons I like this book. It keeps it real in ways I can respect, (and others I might mock,) but it definitely knows what it wants to be.

And it’s executed flawlessly.

Bottom Line: Dry, glaring, Western photos for a hot, dry summer

To purchase “Manifest” click here

If you would like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so that we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Donald Weber

 

Hi everyone.

How’s it going?

Did you miss me?

I took last Friday off, as you may have noticed, as once a year Rob gives me a break from the weekly deadline. This time out, I wisely eschewed email and social media, got in the new family cruiser, and headed North with the wife and kids to Colorado for a little R&R.

Or that was the plan, at least.

We had a great vacation; maybe the best ever. It was fun, and filled with lots of family QT, (including swimming in pools and springs,) but relaxing it was not.

As it happens, my 10 year old son has become addicted to basketball over the last six months. At first, he was just watching it on TV, LeBron James in particular.

Then, about three months ago, he got interested in playing, and has been insanely obsessed ever since.

It’s all he talks or thinks about, and if he’s not practicing at the court, he’d like to be. (Just so you can visualize, our local hoops are behind the volunteer firehouse, next to an irrigation ditch and a goat/sheep pen.)

Luckily for Theo, there was a great park across from our motel, with a pristine basketball court, and another in the tourist district of the town we visited, so we played there too.

I dragged my tired, 44 year-old-carcass to the court three times a day, including in the blazing Rocky Mountain mid-day sun, to make him happy.

Also, because it seemed karmically appropriate.

I learned about sports from my Dad, and as I’ve written over the years, it has been a massive passion since childhood. I played three sports growing up, (one per season, including basketball,) and watched endlessly on TV. (Which I still do.)

I even blog about my favorite soccer club, Arsenal, FOR FREE, because it’s so much fun to be a sports writer, like the guys I read growing up. (Shout out to Joe Adelizzi of the Asbury Park Press.)

Lately, though, (Sorry, Theo,) the addiction seems a bit much. I mean, I’m 99.9% supportive of the new habit, but .01% of me finds it obnoxious as hell. “Take it down, a notch, bro,” thinks that tiny part of me.

But of course, so often in life, the things that annoy us in others are the things we don’t like about ourselves. I actually had someone complain to me recently about another person’s behavior, when this person had done the exact same things to me.

(Self-aware, he was not.)

With Theo, I feel deep pride, all the time, watching him grow and compete. He played his first five-on-five pickup game one evening, and got up in the face of the biggest, most-talented 15 year old in the park. (Ballsy, if unwise.)

Seeing behavior play out over the next generation, and then wondering if I don’t need to amend my own personality a bit, is one of the wonders of parenthood, and of the genetic encoding that underpins it.

How much of who I am is dependent on my Dad, who’s an energetic powerhouse? (To say the least.) Or my maternal grandfather, who defied the odds to be a professional musician for decades?

When I recognize my flaws, how much can I really do to make them better? I’ve always believed self-improvement is possible, (and still do,) but are there some levels of our personalities, some parts of our psyche, that will always lurk below the surface, like a miniature submarine?

I’m wondering, having just spent the better part of the morning with “War Sand,” a fascinating, well-timed, yet genuinely odd publication from Donald Weber, whose brilliant “Interrogations” was reviewed here in the column years ago.

As soon as I plucked this one off the book stack, I was sure I’d be writing my intro about Trump. You know, the whole setting up concentration camps thing. The taking babies from their parents thing.

That one.

As a 4th generation Jewish-American, I grew up hearing stories about the Holocaust, (all the time,) and about the greatness of America, facing down the Nazis and saving the world.

High School and College taught me about our darker history: slavery, the genocide of Native America, Japanese-American Concentration Camps, CIA assassinations.

Things like that.

So as a writer who spent years, in this very space, warning about Trump, and the ideas he represented, I’m obviously disturbed and upset.

Aren’t we all?

But instead, as I started writing about “War Sand,” it was the idea of lineage and legacy that came to the forefront, because it’s at the heart of this book. (If obscured until late.)

“Interrogations” was one of the freakiest books I’ve ever seen, as Weber photographed actual scenes of violence, like a B movie come to life.

I assumed he’s a tough guy with an extreme personality, or rather a personality that doesn’t shy away from the extreme. (Instead, he seems drawn to it.) Ultimately, that unlocks the puzzle this book presents: why it was made, and what ties it all together.

From an opening cover featuring embossed graphics of martial arts, to a set of sky photographs with scientific data and hidden-coded-crossword puzzles, to photographs of the ocean, this book doesn’t explain itself so much as force you to ask questions.

But then you consider the title.
War Sand.

The fighting, the sky, the beach: I think Normandy.

This must be Normandy.

And it is.

Subsequently, we see dry photographs of the landscape as it is now, then a whole section about microscopic and electron microscope images of shrapnel embedded in the “war” sand, followed by a long story, on pink paper, that also features a meta-criticism of itself via footnotes.

By that point, you’re on page 277. (Did I forget to mention this is a dense book?)

Buried in there, in all those competing image styles and different motifs, I found one line. Writing in the first person, Donald Weber says he collected the sand on the beach in a shopping bag, unlike his grandfather, who might have used a glass vial.

It was a small little detail, but it nagged at me, and I almost went to the Goggle. Earlier, one of the text sections had spoken about the team of British commandos who’d snuck into France to steal samples of the sand, so tests could determine if the beaches could handle heavy equipment during the D-Day invasion.

Unlike his grandfather?
What did it mean?

After the pink-paper-essay, we see a new section, in which toy photographs narrate the story of the commandos, which did, in fact, include Donald Weber’s grandfather.

What was only hinted at earlier is told explicitly, and even that isn’t the end of the weirdness. After that section, we finish with a montage of images of actors in movies about D-Day, including the obvious, (Lee Marvin, James Coburn,) and the less-expected. (Tom Selleck? Robert Duval as a Nazi?)

So odd. Especially as all these styles, or mini-series really, are mashed up in one book. (Which then ends with an index, and a story about the Englishman who learned Jiu Jitsu and Kung Fu in China and then taught it to the entire Allied army.)

This book reminds me a bit of Debi Cornwall’s “Welcome to Camp America,” or Laia Abril’s “On Abortion,” as that style of mixing up disparate image groups to tell a larger story is en vogue at the moment.

I think the technique is effective, insofar as it keeps people from getting bored, or tuning out. It keeps them guessing too, and allows for the rhythm of different chapters.  And “War Sand,” a book about what happened the last time the world faced a run of right-wing extremism, (Germany, Italy, & Japan back then,) could not be more topical.

It’s methodical as it forces us to contemplate where all of “this” might be headed, by facing the nasty past. (And with the shrapnel-sand, how the past still exists in the present.)

Books like this inform, using visual language, which is why they’re popular. But for me to be completely, totally entranced, I like art to get under my skin emotionally as well.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, multivalent look at D-day, and a photographer’s legacy

To purchase “War Sand” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Claire Rosen

 

Imagine an alien planet, teeming with life.

There are plants, trees, rivers, oceans, and lots of creatures. Bunnies, of course, but also lizards, horses, orangutans, beetles, rhinoceros, and thousands of other species.

(Or their alien-planet equivalent.)

Then, all of a sudden, (in geo-time,) a new species emerges, called the Krackstock. These Krackstock are rapacious, and begin churning through the planet’s resources.

Soon, they enslave the chicken, cow and pig-like creatures, and set up death camps for each species. After the ritualized killing, at massive scale, the Krackstock would then eat their victims.

Eventually, most of the existing species were in peril, as was the health of the entire eco-system of the planet. (I don’t know, let’s call this fictional planet Narcinon.)

If you were watching a movie, a great early-George-Lucas-style sci-fi flick, wouldn’t the Krackstock be the bad guys?

They’d have to be, right?
Devouring an entire planet?

We’d hate the Krackstock, and actively root against them, as some Super-Bunny came along to save the day!

(I’m guessing you’re on to my sly metaphor by now…)

According to all science, we, humanity, are living in a burning building of our own making, yet many actively deny it’s even happening. (Frog, meet pot.)

As Climate Change seems so enormous, yet not-sinister, it’s a menace that might make Earth uninhabitable for almost any life.

How is this not a greater priority for people?

I think it’s exactly because the problem is immense but faceless. It seems like there’s nothing to be done, but that’s not true.

Sure, you can install LED lights and save electricity. Put in solar panels. Eat less meat. Buy a more gas-efficient or electric car. Minimize your use of packaging.

Recycle.
Re-use.

But there’s one, concrete maneuver that you don’t hear enough about…

Planting trees.

Trees, as we all learn in 3rd grade science, breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Trees actively battle Climate Change, and as places can be de-forested, so too can they be re-forested.

We just planted in 3 aspens and a pine tree last week, and eventually they’ll provide plentiful shade, which will keep our house cooler as the planet warms. (We make such considerations at this point. Don’t you?)

Fighting back by beautifying your yard, and adding to the splendor of nature is a no-brainer. And now’s your last chance before Fall, as it will be too hot to plant in a week or two. (Most places.)

This idea, though, that we’re girding ourselves for tougher times ahead, feels like it’s in the air. Similar periods of political upheaval and partisan turmoil have been messy, in America’s history, not to mention increasing pressures being put on governments, economies and societies by extreme weather.

I haven’t written about the 21st Century Hustle for a while, as even great catch-phrases get old. (Then they go off to Arizona and retire quietly to a life of “Murder, She Wrote” and bad Chinese food at 4:30pm.)

The 21st Century Hustle was an idea borne of necessity, which theorized that in a perma-freelance world, creatives should build multiple skill sets, so they can offer more value to the community, but also because it makes a person stronger and better.

Learning to paint can make you a better photographer, essentially. (Or learning to cook, dance, sing, etc.)

But while it’s easy to espouse advice like “get out of your comfort zone,” it’s much more difficult for a person to get a
“How To” guide, a set of parameters, without learning from a teacher directly.

Though I actually became an artist after serving self-help guru Julia Cameron at a restaurant back in 1995, (long story,) I don’t normally read those types of books myself.

One great way to break out of habits is to actively try new things, so after a friend recommended a great book about dharma and Yogic philosophy, (which I loved,) I decided it was time to push further in the opposite direction, and read “Imaginarium: The Process Behind the Pictures,” by Claire Rosen, published by Rocky Nook.

I don’t normally review books like this, as you know, but a colleague recommended it a few months ago, after reading in the column that we’re looking for submissions from female photographers. (We still are. Come on, ladies, please help me keep some balance here…)

I’ll say from the outset that I didn’t exactly find myself cozying up to Ms. Rosen’s voice in my ear, but I appreciated almost everything she said.

Having been through graduate school, therapy, and 13 years of teaching, I was familiar with most of her ideas and references: Jung, the Collective Unconscious, meditation, getting enough sleep.

I nodded along for most of the book, constantly impressed at how thorough Ms. Rosen was as a guide. She offers ideas on:

How to search for ideas in your own past.

How to use different techniques to stimulate creativity, like exercise or getting enough alone-time.

How to build teams of capable people.

That a book that quotes Tony Robbins also has exacting sample schedules for commercial photo shoots, and graphs and charts for how to brainstorm or find personal branding information, is kind of rare.

Basically, I was flabbergasted that this book is just So. Damn. Thorough.

That word, “commercial,” used to pop up more here in the column than it does these days. I think, back in 2010, there were still more stringent lines between aspects of the medium: commercial, documentary, fine art.

These days, such notions of consistent, long-term employment with one publication, or of firm striations within the industry, seem quaint.

Rather, Ms. Rosen comes across as the consummate hustler herself, and I appreciate her game, if not her personal photographic aesthetic.

It was the one part of the book that stuck in my craw a bit, (along with the oddly changing fonts,) the attempt to make it part-photo-book by including small selections of Ms. Rosen’s work throughout. I could see the strings behind it, the attempt to brand in many ways as possible, because a part of the book quotes directly from a branding consultant that Ms. Rosen hired, Beth Taubner.

There was corporate-branding-speak alongside ideas about Feng Shui, color theory, suggestions for organizing your desk, and other small-scale concepts that I admit I’m still thinking about.

I’m also not-too-far away from doing some of the brainstorming exercises Ms. Rosen recommends, or at least forcing myself do journal and make lists. (Other ideas she discusses.)

While her voice is not my voice, (jokey-and-discursive,) she communicates effectively, and I was able to read it for chunks at a time. (Today’s Wednesday, and I finished the book yesterday after staring Monday morning, as I promised you.)

Basically, I read this book to review for you guys, but came away feeling I had some fresh motivation to push myself, and a few new ideas too.

Most people think they have things sorted, and don’t need help. But a jolt of someone else’s energy every now and again, even if it means reading, (rather than listening,) is a great idea.

If you’re up for a kick-in-the-pants, and a lot of practical advice, this book might be perfect for your summer reading list.

(Again with the lists?)

Bottom Line: Serious, thorough guide to creativity and success

To purchase “Imaginarium” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Katsu Naito

 

Once upon a time, Billy and Sally Bunny were frolicking in the front yard.

Behind them, Aspen trees swayed in the light breeze; the leaf-flutter shadows dancing on the wall.

(Yes, bunnies know what shadows are. Duh! What did you think, bunnies were dumb, because they have small brains?)

Sally Bunny had her back to the trees, and the rich, red fence behind them. Billy Bunny faced her, his back heels sitting on the concrete steps that divided the front yard in two equal parts.

(Of course bunnies can do math. Get with the program!)

Sally and Billy faced off, and then Sally pounced at Billy, her front legs a blur, like vintage Cassius Clay, as they forced Billy back.

“I didn’t have to step back, you know. I wanted to,” he taunted.

“You wanted to? Are you fucking kidding me? I made you step back. My Bunny-Fu is far too quick for the likes of you. Puny bunny,” Sally replied.

“Oh yeah, let’s go again. Again, I say. Again!”

The bunnies resumed their positions, and upon some instinct-driven signal, Sally pounced, and Billy retreated.

Again.

“I did it again! Admit it. You’re no match for me.”

“Whatever. You’re faster. A better bunny-fighter. I get it. You win. Satisfied?”

“Not really. When you put it like that, it takes all the fun out of it,” Sally said.

“Fine. I’ll try again. You’re the best bunny fighter I know. Much quicker than I will ever, ever, ever be. (Pause) Is that better?”

“I’ll accept it.”

“Do you think the humans know we can see them,” Billy asked?

“What do you mean, do the humans know we can see them?”

“Standing there at the window. The four of them. Do you think they know that we know that they’re watching us,” Billy wondered again in earnest?

“They must know,” Sally replied. “They must. How could they not? Just because they’re humans, and we’re bunnies, that doesn’t mean we don’t have eyes and brains? That we can’t distinguish a human from a hawk from a field mouse? Why would they think that?”

“Good point, cousin. That wouldn’t make any sense. They must know we can see them, and that we can talk to each other, same as they can. And that you’re a better fighter than I am, but my Greek Salad is the bomb.

“Speaking of which, I hope the human boy watches “Chopped” again tonight so I can pick up some more tricks,” Billy said, and then the two bunnies hopped off.

END SCENE.

We watched those bunnies this week, after my daughter noticed them facing off. I’m 100% certain the above story is true, and you’ll never convince me otherwise.

But I thought about the whole thing again today after looking at “Once in Harlem,” a new photobook by Katsu Naito, published by TBW Books in Oakland.

Man, is this a cool book.
I love it.

(Pause)

Now that the transition is over with, I have an announcement to make. This is the first week in many months that I didn’t publish a female photographer in this slot.

I made up my own rule to alternate male and female photographers, as a way of creating a balance to a book selection that had become wholly unbalanced. (Almost all men.)

Today, (I’m writing on Thursday,) I honestly didn’t have a book in the stack I could review by a female artist, and I’ve put out the call many ways, as you’ve seen. I’ll do more outreach in the coming weeks, and do have a potential book for next week that is reading-heavy, so I’ll get started on that first thing Monday morning.

But I’m not going to compromise the integrity of the column, and am featuring a photographer of color today instead, so I think that satisfies the spirit of diversity we’re trying to foster here at APE.

Back to the book.

The end notes confirm that the Katsu Naito lived in Harlem from 1988-94, but really, it doesn’t matter.

The looks on the subjects faces, of suspicion, disdain, hopeful curiosity, sardonic humor, or straight-up-stare-down, are so damn good.

Some of these people look at Katsu Naito like he’s an Alien with three arms sticking out of his head. Or the Earth-bound ghost of Andre the Giant.

Or a talking bunny!

This book is one of the rare occasions where you really don’t need words at all.

We can imagine them.

When I looked at one photo, I heard Gary Coleman’s voice spontaneously in my head, “Whachoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

(I swear.)

And when I got to the picture of the little baby holding a bottle, mad-dogging the camera, I nearly peed in my pants. (And I never pee my pants.)

Oh man, this stuff is funny.

It’s rare that photographs so clearly depict the residue of the interaction between photographer and sitter. The exchange is written all over their faces.

The photographs are evidence that getting out of your lane in life can provoke strong reactions, but also opportunities for massive growth and new knowledge.

I don’t know Katsu Naiuto personally, but I’d be willing to bet he came out of his time living in Harlem, (six years,) a wiser, different person.

It serves as another great reminder why supporting diversity matters. When people from different backgrounds and cultures mix, new ideas emerge.

Until next week…

Bottom Line: Fantastic portraits by a Japanese guy in Harlem

To purchase “Once in Harlem” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: M L Casteel

 

Last Friday, my dog died, and I sold my car.

In the same morning.

By Monday, I had a better car, and a profound sense that a new phase in my life had just begun.

You can dismiss it as Taos-New-Age-mumbo-jumbo if you like, but in my experience, our lives are almost always divvied up into chapters.

You move.
Take a new job.
Break up with your spouse.
Have a falling out with your friends.

Sometimes, the delineations between one iteration of our “self” and another are hard to parse.

Other times, like last weekend, it’s impossible to miss the signs. (Especially as I traded up to a much nicer ride.)

By now, if you’ve been reading this column for a long time, you’ll know I had privilege, comfort and safety in my childhood. My father was a lawyer when I was young, so we had a nice house, and nice cars.

Harvey drove a Mercedes, a BMW, and a Porsche at different times, back in the 80’s and 90’s. (Now, it’s a sensible, 4 cylinder Honda SUV.)

Throughout my childhood, it was always assumed I’d be a lawyer, like him. Everyone I knew, adult-wise, was a lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant, stock-broker, bond-trader, or something of that ilk.

Ending up as an artist, living in New Mexico, was a pretty hard left-turn. (If I had told my 15 year old self where I’d end up, I think he would have had a nervous breakdown.)

But the one thing I never, ever, ever would have considered doing as a career?

Going into the military.

If you’d told the 15 year-old-me to make a list of professions, soldier would have been at the bottom of the list.

For real.

Following orders. Shaving your head. Getting yelled at. Sleeping in uncomfortable beds. (Or no beds at all.)

No thank you.

And one more thing: you might get exploded by a bomb, shot in the head by a sniper, or gutted with a hunting knife by an angry Afghan on a mountain-top, far from home.

That last bit, the part about potentially getting killed in awful ways, meant that I never thought, for even one second, that I might join the Army.

Or the Marines.

Never, ever, ever, ever.

It’s a class issue, basically. Given the culture in which I was raised, and the opportunities that were presented, (some of which I chose to spurn,) I didn’t have to think about joining up.

The American Military, since the end of the draft, has become progressively less a representation of the entirety of America, and instead is heavily populated by certain demographics.

It’s overwhelmingly Christian, and features so many men and women from less-privileged circumstances, and rural areas that lack economic opportunity. In many places, joining the military offers a job where there may be none at home, plus training, money for education, and the chance to see the world.

What it does not offer is a decent living, financially, or an obvious path out of poverty. (I guess maybe Colonels and Generals make some bank, but I’m pretty sure you don’t get to be an officer by being a grunt-private-from-the sticks.)

I get tired of these rants sometimes, but it’s egregious that the people who we hire to fight and die get paid so poorly.
And they suffer from mental illness to alarming degrees, with suicide rates that are beyond acceptable.

This is the America we’re living in, and I’ve been considering such things this morning, having just put down M L Casteel’s excellent “American Interiors,” a new book by Dewi Lewis in Manchester, with essays by Jörg Colberg and Ken MacLeish.

I was curious about the concept, when I was first made aware of the book, but was far more impressed once I got to see the actual photographs.

The idea is that M L photographed the inside of veteran’s cars as a way of presenting metaphorical portraits. It’s a concept that makes sense, but also seems like it could easily skew gimmicky.

Thankfully, the pictures preclude that from happening.

There are American Flags, as you might expect. And Bibles. Lots of pictures of Jesus.

But also more canes that I cared to count. Cane after cane, each representing a mangled limb, injured joint, or maybe a body worn out from the all-of-it.

It’s hard to see the canes and not feel something inside.

The dirty underwear is heart-breaking too.

So many filthy cars.
So many stained cloth seats.

It feels like Chaos to me, and this comes from a guy who’s next clean car will be his first.

These are not the type of photographs that will fly off the walls of a commercial gallery, because they’re hard to look at, and use the anti-aesthetic fully, but not to the point where anything looks pretty.

The messages about poverty, religion and neglect are simply un-missable.

I may have dropped nearly 1000 words on you, but the best part of a book like this is once you know what’s going on, (it starts with an intro-stats-page that sets the scene,) the pictures do all the talking.

And the point, sad though it may be, comes through loud and clear.

Bottom Line: Cool, smart, poignant look at soldiers’ cars

To purchase “American Interiors,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Barbara Diener

 

Nobody likes a know-it-all.

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

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

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

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

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

Lectures are where we build community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The more the merrier.

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

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

For free!

How classy is that?

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

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

What are the odds of that happening?

1 in a million?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a thread, and she pulled at it.

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

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

Back to the book.

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

Or scary.

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

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

Who doesn’t like fireflies?

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

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

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

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

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

No, I can not.

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

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

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

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

The dead.

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

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

To purchase “Phantom Power” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Philip Trager

 

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

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

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

Things that matter.

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

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

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

(An NYC double-double back in 2017.)

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

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

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

OK.
I was curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not, NOT that, if you feel me.

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

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

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

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

That world is gone.

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

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

To purchase “Photographing Ina,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Laia Abril

 

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

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

Take Michael Cohen, for example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the mother and the child both die.

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

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

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

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

Sorry, trying the lighten the mood.

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

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

Remarkable, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s already happening.

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

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

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

To purchase “On Abortion” click here 

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

This Week in Photography Books: Matthew Brandt

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, the script was entirely flipped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we suffer from their actions still.

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

Well, (as usual,) I’m glad you asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we have, in the end?

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

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

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

And a perfect one to codify today’s musings:

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

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

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

How can you help make things better?

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

This Week in Photography Books: Jo Ann Chaus

 

Control is an illusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suspect you guys will dig it too.

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

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

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

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

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

But is it real?

Is any of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To purchase “Sweetie & Hansom” contact the artist here

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

The Lost Rolls America Archive

 

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

And I meant it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

This Week in Photography Books: Gabe Wolf

 

Getting out of your comfort zone isn’t easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To take the help: better prints, no money.

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

Our patterns and habits.

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

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

50/50.

(Keep those submissions coming in, ladies…)

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

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

Like, way out in the country.

Deep in the Heart of Texas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pause.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can you not love that?

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

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

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

This Week in Photography Books: Victoria Will

 

This is a true story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m in Full Dad Mode.

That’s the context.

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

And lots and lots of reading.

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

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

I wanted something lighter.
Something visual.
Digestible.

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

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

I swear I never do this.

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

This was the one.
I could feel it.

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

Very kind.

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

It stopped me in my tracks.

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

Filed away, like so many other things.

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

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

That’s a powerful imprint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the premise I felt behind this work.

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

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

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

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

Like a trampoline.

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

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

Poor guy.

But of course I never knew him.

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

People in Spokane.
Or Des Moines.

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Cave looks like he was drawn, not photographed.

And Scott Weiland stopped me in my tracks.

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

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

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

We use elements of culture to understand who we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To purchase “Borne Back” click here 

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

This Week in Photography Books: Roger Ballen

 

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

And still, I watched.

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

(Pause.)

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

In reality.

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

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

The master-manipulator-criminal-genius.

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

In reality.

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

He appears to be an actual sociopath.

In reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People disappear out there all the time.

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

What if the darkness was really the light?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hard part indeed.

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

To purchase “Ballenesque” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Debi Cornwall

 

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

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

Thankfully, I’m free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m likely leaving a few out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dial 911 for the tacky police.

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

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

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

What was that called?

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

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

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

It goes against human nature.

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

That would do it.

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

You know who else was cold?

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

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

As it should.

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

To purchase “Welcome to Camp America,” click here