Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books: Mark Power

by Jonathan Blaustein

I hate being cryptic. It’s not my thing. Ever since 2010, when Rob suggested I be as honest as possible, I’ve tried to do just that. (Sometimes to my detriment.)

Today, though, I find myself in something of a pickle. I had a very rough week, and normally would spill the beans forthwith. Straight-away. Right now.

But as my career has grown, and I’ve realized just how small is this photo-world of ours, the habit of discretion seems to have taken root. It would be a very bad idea to give the details of what just went down. But as much as I hate to tease, I also hate to miss out on a teachable moment. (You all roll your eyes at that, right?)

The crux of what happened, though, I can most definitely share: Someone dangled a life-long dream in front of my face, and then snatched it away. It went something like this.

Suppose I was a fox. A hungry fox named Reginald. Now Reginald was a bit more hungry than he was smart. He was walking down the normal dirt path through the forest, thinking about food, and all of a sudden he heard someone whisper.

Come here, kid. Come here.

Reginald turned to look, and he saw a big coyote.

I’m Carl, he said.

Carl the coyote?

Just so. And kid, you’ve got to see what I have behind this hedgerow. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. A hundred chickens. Just for you.

What, said Reginald. That’s impossible. Do you know how hungry I am? I’d eat my way through the year on 100 chickens. I’ve dreamed all my life of running into a small city of chickens.

Well, said Carl, here you go then. Step right through this hedgerow here.

Reginald stepped through the hedgerow. He was sweating profusely from all the anticipation.

Just as he had his fingers within range of the first chicken, the amuse bouche… WHAM! Carl’s hand wrapped itself around his rear left paw, and he felt himself flying through the air. He landed on his head, back across the road, in a daze.

Stupid fox, said the coyote. Did you really think it would be that easy?

Most dreams don’t come true. That’s me talking. Not a coyote or a fox. Mine still might, and I have plenty to be thankful for regardless. But that doesn’t change the fact that most dreams don’t come true.

I know that.

And I also know that good fences make good neighbors. But what about walls?

The Berlin Wall, in particular. What must it have felt like to stand there, watching as it opened on that fateful day in 1989? How many people had dreamed of their freedom?

All those East Germans, dreaming of a better life. And then it happened. Someone made a call, after the rumors had spread, and the guards at the gates said let them through. What might that have looked like?

Well, we don’t have to wonder. I just finished looking at “Die Mauer ist Weg!,” a new book by Mark Power, published by Globtik Books. Yes, we’ve got a great one this week, folks.

Take it out of the wrapping, and it’s a weird cardboard thing all in German. The cover looks like a tabloid paper headline. (But I don’t read German.)

After a title page, we get a very cleanly written, engaging statement by the artist, setting the scene. He was about to quit his photo career, back then, and a friend convinced him to give it one more go, and sported him some cash to boot.

He used the money to buy a plane ticket to Berlin, maybe on a whim? And he’s standing there, somehow, when it all goes down.

These pictures are so cool. All those cameras. All that 80’s German style. All that history. In real time.

In the statement, Mr. Power suggests that such a thing could not happen now, a few people with cameras, shooting film, and telling the story for history. Now, of course, there would be thousands and thousands of live video feeds on Periscope.

(As I’ve said before, the 20th Century seems like a long time ago.)

The few pictures of empty East Berlin are dynamite. The whole thing is thoughtfully produced, with a cardboard inner wedge to keep the pages in place. (Removable, which is handy.)

This book captured a seminal time in modern history, but takes the effort to embed the pictures in a book package that doesn’t leave those photos to do the work alone. Very instructive, I think, for the rest of us.

Bottom Line: A great book that shows the fall of the Berlin Wall

To Purchase “Die Mauer ist Weg” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Alejandro Cartagena

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just watched a horse walk in circles. There were two gates, in front and behind, that marked his turf. Slowly went the horse. Slowly turned the rotor.

No one was there minding him, outside the barn. I happened by at the end of my run, and decided to play spectator for a moment. It seemed so obviously metaphorical. (And put there just for me.)

We believe ourselves so different, each from another, each race distinct. But the majority of people in the world will do these things, day in and out. Sleep. Eat. Wash. Work. Walk. Talk. Copulate. Procrastinate. Etc.

Our media, social and old fashioned, binds us together through an electronic web. It’s real enough, though we can’t see it. What have I learned from the great InterSphere?

Twitter is the news these days. And it’s also the reason I know that Donald Trump said some nasty stuff about Mexico. Or was it Mexicans? And what did he say exactly? Does it matter?

What I came away with was that racist, idiot Donald Trump offended an entire nation. Is that the gist? You can only glean so much from 140 characters at swipe speed.

Or what about “El Chapo” escaping a maximum security prison in Mexico? Did you hear about that one? Do you know who he is?

Was anyone surprised the most powerful cartel boss in Mexico got away from the authorities? If so, did they tweet their dismay? What might that have looked like?

“OMG. Can’t believe they let him get away again. #Corruption #Jailbreak #Oralé”

Personally, I would have said something like, “Of course he got away. If those monsters in New York State could figure it out, with nothing going for them outside of charm, paintings, and a large penis, then how could any prison hold a man with limitless money and power?”

Twitter didn’t exist when the Mexican Drug War started. We’re so self-involved here in the US that most people have forgotten about it entirely. After Enrique Peña Nieto went on his own charm offensive, after his election, the PR gurus pushed the story down below the fold. It was all about the Mexican economy. Let’s not rock the boat.

But now they have egg on their faces, or huevos, if you will, because this story perfectly fit the entrenched narrative that the inmates are running the country. If you can pay, you can play. (Insert further random cliché here.)

This is not a news site, and I’m not a proper journalist. But we do attempt to discuss big ideas, and pragmatically dispense advice about the way things are. As such, I interviewed Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena a few years ago, and he told what it was like living on the front lines of the Drug War, in Monterrey.

Alejandro is a friend, and a prolific artist, so I was not surprised when “Before the War” turned up in my mailbox the other day. Apparently, the pictures within were shot between 2005-7. (Hence the title.) So let’s take a look.

This is one of those publications that I pretty much had to review. Not because of my personal connection, but because it pushes the boundaries of what we’d call a book. The title is actually printed on the envelope, so even the packaging is a part of the production.

In that regard, it reminds me of something that TBW books might make. (As we learned from their publisher Paul Scheik, it’s the little details, done properly, that make all the difference.) It’s also note-worthy in that the pictures are really not that special, which is a subject we’ve highlighted of late as well.

Pull the tab to open the envelope, and you’re faced with some explanatory text. The war began in 2008. There are more than 80,000 deaths recorded since then. It has been a clusterfuck of tragic and enormous proportions.

Slide the plastic sleeve out of the envelope, and open that too, and there is a pile of smaller inserts, seemingly printed on newsprint. (Cheap to produce, and a built-in Marshall McLuhan reference to the old way news was disseminated, pre-Twitter.)

The first leaflet has text from a press conference in which President Felipe Calderon, who began the War, spoke directly to a heckler. There are pictures interspersed, and then stories. Poignant tales that make you feel something.

Kidnappings. Murder. Appropriation of property. All crimes that fester in the vacuum of Chaos.

There is a subsequent fold-out-poster with portraits, and text snippets that refer back to one of the previous stories. Then a faux-postcard. Then still more leaflets filled with the kind of empty, blurry photos, including soaring birds that make me think of vultures.

A few weeks ago, I critiqued another book for using the horror motif gratuitously. Here, it’s different. The pictures were made before-the-fact, but the production elements enable the pages to channel a certain type of emotional tenor, for a very particular reason. (You see people, you think ghosts.)

It’s almost Baroque, as the darkness that inspired the “book” drips back off the pages, taunting you to imagine what other people’s lives are like. Do you really want to know?

I’ll try to write something funny next week, as the last two reviews were a tad heavy. You know I like to keep the balance. But today, while it’s Summery, and hopefully you’re getting ready for a great weekend with your friends and family, maybe pour a little bit out for the homies now beyond.

Bottom Line: Innovative, experimental, and emotional “book” about the Mexican Drug War

To Purchase “Before The War” Visit: http://tienda.alejandrocartagena.com/product/before-the-war-2nd-edition/

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This Week In Photography Books: Zun Lee

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just stormed into my bedroom in a huff. I didn’t exactly slam the door, but closed it demonstrably, and then turned the lock.
Obvious message: Do Not Disturb.

From whom was I fleeing? My beautiful family, of course. We’re well into Summer, by now, and the kids have been out of school for seven weeks. Which means we’ve all been together, seven days a week, since then.

(Primal scream!)

As I suspect you’ve surmised by now, I love my family more than anything. My two children, 7.5 and nearly 3, are fantastic human beings. Sugar and spice we call them. I could not love them more.

But everyone needs some space to think, much less write book reviews, and I’ve had little of either for quite some time now. It’s mostly a pleasure and a privilege, to spend so much quality time together, but there is an element of claustrophobia as well.

I’m a Jewish guy from a good background with a very solid education behind me. Despite the facial hair, and perhaps because of the lack of tattoos, I know I look the part of a doting middle-class father.

When people see me holding my daughter’s hand in the supermarket, they smile. When people see me cheering at my son’s soccer game, they nod in approval. When people see me walking down the street, alone, they don’t recoil in fear.

It’s a freedom that so many people in the United States lack. The ability to be out in public space, and not seem a Menace to Society. I don’t know what it is like to be African-American, or Latino, and I clearly never will.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with the impact of racism on the lives of men of color. Racism is an inescapable conversation in this nation at present, for good reason. #BlackLivesMatter

It’s quite the conundrum. The stories are everywhere, and impossible to avoid. And yet the experience of living in someone else’s skin- skin that doesn’t look the same color as mine- is something I will never know.

Thankfully, I just finished looking at Zun Lee’s book, “Father Figure,” recently published by Ceiba, and it’s been the catalyst of the musings above. Given how cleanly this production shows us something we haven’t really seen, I’m sure you’ll be interested in the photos below.

This is one of those books that seems to support all the advice I’ve tried to give out here of late. If you want to make something original, and perhaps important, you’ve got to start from your own lived experience. It has to be personal. And the more honest, the better.

Apparently, Zun Lee was raised in Germany, with an abusive father. He took comfort in the home of American GI’s stationed there, in particular with a changing roster of African-American families. They offered him the support and nurturing he lacked, and craved.

Fast forward many years, and Mr. Lee learned that his biological father was in fact an African-American, (who deserted his mother,) as opposed to the man who actually raised him. Quite the Mind-Fuck, I’m sure. It troubled him to feel like one more statistic with an absent Dad. One more piece of kindling on the conflagration of stereotype.

So he decided to use his photographic practice to learn more; to see for himself what “proper” loving African-American fathers looked like. To search out the type of environment he wished he’d had, and in the process, provide ample evidence that what we think we know is far from the complete story.

I like these pictures. They’re really well-made, but surprisingly, they didn’t touch my emotional core. My eyes never teared, and my breath never left my chest for long periods of time. I’m not sure why that is?

Could it be that I’m callous? Or that my lack of understanding for what these men’s lives are really like clouded my heartstrings? I don’t know, but I always like to check in and see what I’m feeling and why.

The book contains some excellent writing, in particular Mr. Lee’s opening essay, which overshadowed the brief piece by Teju Cole that preceded it. If you want to learn how to share your secrets with others, reading his story will give you a boost.

But there are also interview blurbs spread throughout, on pages opposite the photographs. Each was poignant, giving solid parenting advice that resonated deeply with my own acquired knowledge. It was Universal, I felt, and in a way undercut the notion that races are inherently and irrevocably different.

Even though we are, to a degree. I can wear a hoodie without being shot.

I’m not surprised these pictures are popular, nor that they’ve gotten support from major African-American photographers, and photojournalistic power-brokers. (Including my editors at the NYT, apparently.) This is the type of messaging that people are desperate to see, because it’s real, and it’s a giant, bony thumb in the eyes of the Fox News assholes who demonize men like this, 24/7.

This is an excellent book of solid photographs, showing us something we really ought to see. As such, I’m happy to highlight it, and would not be surprised if many of you wanted to buy it. The more people who see these pictures, the better.

To tie it back to this little run of reviews, in which I’m lecturing a tad more than normal, I’d also suggest that it’s an inspirational book. (Beyond the way you might think.) Most photographers don’t have the courage to use their art process to dig deep into their gaping wounds. It’s painful, and difficult.

But as the great Roger Ballen told my students this past Spring, the darkness is where the very best material resides.

Bottom Line: Excellent book examining the lives of loving, African-American fatherhood

To Purchase “Father Figure” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Shore

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just got home from a family vacation. In Colorado. So my brain is not working as well as it normally does. (Must. Activate. Remaining. Braincells.)

In fact, I just deleted several paragraphs, and jumped right back to this spot. I never do that. These columns normally flow like the water in the Rio Hondo, right after the snow pack begins to melt.

But not today.

Today, I want to talk about nostalgia. Or, more correctly, the way in which some temporal markers take on a power that is far greater than what they have earned. I’ve got a handy example, so you know exactly what I mean.

I was at Review Santa Fe a few weeks ago, as I’ve mentioned. The articles highlighting the work I saw will be coming out in the near future, but I wanted to share an unrelated anecdote. (What’s that you say? I’ve never met an “unrelated” anecdote? Point taken.)

One of the photographers at the event had a previous career as a TV journalist back in the 90’s. It’s not important whom I’m discussing, but let’s just say that the person held an outsized place in the culture at the time, despite never being a superstar.

During the weekend, I watched as one GenX photog after another seemed starstruck and smitten. Again, this is not Tom Cruise we’re talking about. But some things that are important to us, at critical times in our youth, never really lose their power. (That’s why the rest of us can’t really understand how much Baby Boomer guys love Mickey Mantle.)

Speaking for the 90’s, I think that “Seinfeld” was such a cultural touchstone. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) It’s freaking 2015, and it still seems like Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are America’s weird, narcissistic best friends. Who would have thought a show about NOTHING could make such a lasting impression?

Sometimes, NOTHING is the best possible subject, because it allows an artist to super-impose his or her own vision, or range of emotions, directly onto a historical stage. Even time can feel more important, when it’s supporting a flimsy premise; when all that matters is the way color, light, and composition meld together into an enduring scenario that would otherwise escape notice.

Am I talking about anyone specific?
Stephen Shore. American master.

The last time I wrote about him, I mostly-trashed his book of photographs made in Israel. I pined for the less-complicated, almost breezily brilliant pictures made in his heyday. Back in the 70’s.

So that’s what we’ve got for today: Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places: The Complete Works,” recently released by Aperture. It simply doesn’t get any better than this, my faithful readers. No irony required. This shit is fantastic.

It took me a lot of brain power just to make it this far, so that means I’m going to wrap it up rather swiftly. I’ll shoot an extra few pictures so you can enjoy the ride a little longer, but for once, there’s not much I can say.

The pictures really are about “NOTHING,” in the sense that the collection merely records one man’s travels, and the things he saw, back in the 70’s. There were many images made in mid-1974, and my imagination ran wild, visualizing this guy, moseying around with a big camera, while I was drinking formula and spitting up on my Mom back in Jersey.

The truly iconic pictures, like “Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974″ stand out, in that we’ve seen them before. They’re etched in our minds, like our grandmother’s face. But they fit into the continuum of Mr. Shore’s journey, and deliver about as much pleasure as the other plates. (Beyond giving a quick jolt of nostalgic thrill, reminding us of the phase when we first discovered them.)

The last two weeks, I’ve talked about developing your own voice. It is hard, I admit. Starting from your own passion and knowledge base is a good idea.

Another way to go about it is to obsess about your favorites. Look at their work until your eyes bleed. That way, the next time you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’ll recognize when you’re about to snap one of “their” pictures, and then slowly let your finger off the shutter.

Bottom Line: A classic, meant to be appreciated over time

To Purchase “Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places: The Complete Works” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Yusuf Sevinçli

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. ”Tis some midnight visitor,’ I muttered, ‘rapping at my chamber door. Only this, and nothing more.'”

Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven,” as I remember it from 7th grade

You never know what will stick in your head. Some things stick that we’d rather not, like an image of James Foley getting his head hacked off. Other things hang around, and we savor them, like the aftertaste of some magical Ecuadoran chocolate.

In general, it’s good to be memorable, if you’re a photograph. It means there’s an element, embedded in your pixel or grain structure, that enables you to stand out from the literally endless crowd.

The numbers of pictures made each day, week, or year, are simply too large to process. They might as well be infinite, these jpegs, because I can’t imagine anything stemming the tide. Even in the end of the world, as imagined by Sci-Fi genius Neal Stephenson, the jpegs and .mov files withstand the apocalypse.

Given this reality, (tons of pictures, not the end of days,) it’s the job of a conscientious photographer to try to figure out the secret code to originality. It’s often said that developing a voice, or Point of View, can help differentiate oneself.

I’d say that’s true, but perhaps it’s easier said than done. In a world of 7 billion people, it can be a tad tricky to figure out what makes you different from everyone else. Even self-awareness is not the magic bullet it might have been back in the day, when the “Average American Male” was as cognizant of his emotions as a pile of railroad ties.

Then again, you, the audience, are not limited to America. That’s one of the very best things about the Internet. It brings us all together. British photographers know what’s on the wall in Los Angeles. Japanese book makers know what’s on the shelves in Roman stores.

It’s all out there.

Normally, we think this is a good thing, in that we keep abreast of our community. Sure. That’s true.

But it can also make it that much easier to ape someone’s style. To allow the creative creep to happen, in which you’re subtly absorbing information you might not even realize. Before you know it, you’re not exactly appropriating, but your pictures are less original than they might have otherwise been.

Which brings me back to “The Raven,” or at least, what I remember of its opening stanza. How do scary movies work? They use scary music, with lots of low-timbre, asynchronous drums, strings, and piano. The color palette revolves around some shade of Black.

The world that Edgar Allen Poe conjured, before cinema even existed, haunts us still. (Pun intended.) Scary movie tropes are there because they work. Lots of light, with shiny colors? Not scary. Skeletons emerging from black muck? Scary.

It’s the same thing with a certain style of photography. Black and White. Grainy. Low light. Blurry. Creepy. Discomfiting.

Having said those words, do any images come to mind? I bet they do. I reviewed Ken Schles’ book “Invisible City” a month or so ago, and it would fit the bill. But it was done back in the 80’s, and those pictures conjured a mood that by all accounts resonated with the New York City that actually existed.

“Good Dog,” a book in my photo-eye pile, by Yusuf Sevinçli, made in Istanbul, may represent that city just as well. I have no idea, as I’ve never been to Turkey. (Though I’ve heard it’s a lovely.)

The book, though, reminded me of so many others that I was not able to take it seriously. I apologize, as normally I lavish praise on the books I write about. This one certainly has redeeming qualities, and some of you may even want to buy it.
(I’m not suggesting it’s worthless.)

Rather, it’s devoid of creativity, despite its edginess. Last week, I deviated from my normal style, and wrote a critique directly to a young photographer. Having received a thank you note, I feel I hit the mark. And the comments were favorable too, though one person did suggest I was in attack mode because the pictures were so traditional.

Everyone knows I like edgy work, but what does that even mean? I’d suggest it refers to photographs that contain an element of tension and surprise. They throw the viewer off-guard, with unexpected choices. I enjoy sitting with such pictures.

“Good Dog,” therefore, does not match up with that description. The trope does, with it’s darkness, grain, big eyed kids, dangling Eggleston light bulb, flowers, panty-covered vagina, flies, dogs and birds. It’s supposed to be edgy. I get that.

But after seeing such things more times than I can count, I was bored of this book well before I finished. I even made a game of it, saying, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” until the boob shots showed up. They had to be there. It was inevitable.

Why?
Because Boobs Sell Books.℠

I’m sure Yusuf Sevinçli is a talented artist. He shows in galleries, and might well sell a lot of his work. I’m not suggesting he’s a hack. Surely, these are the types of photographs he enjoys making. (And with Ken Schles thanked in the end notes, he appears to have some well-placed supporters.)

However, I didn’t want you, the audience, to think I took a shot at Seth Hancock last week because of the style of work he likes to make. Rather, I sought a teachable moment, where I could speak to all the image-makers out there. In particular, because it’s a message I’ve heard directly from other colleagues at portfolio reviews.

Make the pictures you want to make. Do what gives you joy, or satisfaction, or scratches the incurable mental itches that cloud your sleep.

But when it comes to making a book, and putting things out there for the rest of us to see, don’t sell yourself short. There are many ways to tell the same stories. And tropes can even be broken. In fact, it’s the subtle tweaking of tradition that tends to create the deepest resonance.

Bottom Line: Weird, dark photos from Istanbul

To Purchase “Good Dog” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Seth Hancock

by Jonathan Blaustein

A picture is worth a thousand words. So they say. And “they” are normally right, so we repeat the cliché ad nauseam.

But what if they’re wrong? What if words ARE better at some forms of communication? Are we all in the wrong business?

It’s an interesting question. These days, images are more popular, and by assumption powerful, than ever before. We discussed the idea a while back with curator Russell Lord, a photography expert if ever there was one.

The idea is that photographs convey information beyond the boundaries of language. A picture of fire will read as fire in China, Chattanooga, or Timbuktu. Fire warm. Fire cook food. Me like fire.

We don’t need words to recognize an object, or even a set of actions. Soccer/Football is a global sport, and a portrait of Lionel Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo, will be recognizable in most parts of Earth, with no further explanation.

But what about emotions? What about the subtle nuance that resides inside a human being’s soul. (Should we accept the existence a soul, which is DEFINITELY a conversation for a different day.)

I’m waxing philosophical, as my brain is still in some form of image-induced stasis, after looking at dozens of projects at Review Santa Fe this past weekend. I’ve come to find that the best work gains quick acceptance in a portfolio review environment.

You can always spot the artists whose work is breaking out. They stand up a little straighter. Look you in the eye. They know they’ve got the goods.

But that leaves a rather large percentage of photographers who are making good photographs, or even just decent. They mostly get silence from their reviewers, or quiet nods. It’s hard when you’re not getting compliments or criticism, so I go in the other direction.

I give honest, kind critiques, and now, people seem to be seeking me out just for that. They know I’m there to help.

So today, we’re going to attempt such a thing in a book review. It’s more of a catalog, really, called “10 Minutes With A Stranger,” sent to me directly, by the photographer Seth Hancock. (Now of Los Angeles.)

I received it a while back, and just took a look. It’s not like anything I’d normally review, and you regulars know I’ve tried to expand my range of late. So let’s go there.

Seth, I’m guessing you’re a commercial photographer. By calling it a personal project, and the shooting style you adopt, I’m inclined to read the situation thusly. Perhaps you do editorial work too, but I don’t think your training is in art.

The project, which we’re looking at here today, consists of images you made of random strangers, on a long and winding American Road Trip, while you were moving from New York to LA. You limited your time with all the people you met, and beyond photographing them, you also got them to share very personal information with you via a diary.

You must have some very impressive people skills. (Rico Suave, my friend. Rico Suave.) I liked the idea, and I like the book, but perhaps not in the way you intended.

The pictures have a very “commercial” look to me. They’re shiny, and some of the people are even smiling. (The big no-no in the art world.) I can tell straight off that you know how to operate a camera, and a set of lights. And I did like the two images in which you had the subject hold a light to their face. (Very meta.)

But if I were judging the photos alone, they really don’t tell me much about who the person is, nor are they distinctive from other photographer’s pictures. There is no edge. No overtone of emotion. The wall between subject and camera is thicker than Donald Trump’s bullshit. They’re neither off-putting, like early Thomas Ruff, nor are they poignantly beautiful, like Rineke Dijkstra.

The journal entries, however, are often heartbreaking. I can’t believe you got people to open up to you like this, in such a non-traditional way. (At least for a photographer.)

A young man writing a tragic letter to his dead wife. A young woman sharing her fears and pain after having a stroke, brought on by faulty medication. A man, chilling on a stoop that says “No Loitering,” writing of his trip down the wrong path, and subsequent redemption.

An African-American cowboy quietly bemoaning racism. An older man, who raises wolves, and wishes humans could only be a shade more lupine. Or a young Latino woman who said the best day of her life was when her father abandoned her family. (We can only imagine…)

I read each and every page. Word by word. Wow, were these stories powerful. I felt connected to the subjects on levels profoundly beyond what the pictures allowed me to access.

Yet, I’d never have read the words, had the pictures not existed. Not only do the images anchor the project, but I only review photo books. No photos, no review.

So, Seth, I’d encourage you to figure out how to imbue your future pictures with the depth and emotional intensity found in these incredibly honest admissions. Is it even possible for you? I don’t know.

But the best portraits obviate the need for explication. They leave us with more questions than answers. And typically, the best stories don’t have pictures. Perhaps you’ll break new ground one day?

Either way, I’m glad you sent your book my way. It held my attention, and made me think. It gave me access to new information: in this case, the inner world of a set of strangers I’ll never meet.

Bottom Line: An interesting personal project that illuminates a set of random lives

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This Week In Photography Books: Sol Neelman

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s a Thursday. You know what that means. Yup, this is a column
I’m going to pull straight out of my _________.

Sorry. It can’t be helped.

It’s not that I’m lazy. Just the opposite. The last few weeks have been as busy as any I can remember, and I’m about to leave for Review Santa Fe to look at portfolios to publish here. My brain feels like it sky-dove out of a plane and landed on a concrete basketball court.

Ouch.

Normally, I’d like to be fresh heading into an immersive festival weekend, but as I said before, it can’t be helped. Instead, I’m going to make lemons out of lemonade, and listen more than I talk at RSF, because I’m too punch drunk to charm anyone, even if I wanted to.

But a column is a column, and that means I’m here to gut it out. Man up. Leave it all on the field. (Insert random sports cliché here.)

Are you sensing a theme? Shall I spell it out for you? Yes, we’re going to talk about sports today. And not just any sports. (Or sport, as the Brits say.)

Today, we’re going to riff on “Weird Sports 2,” a new book by Sol Neelman, published by Keher Verlag in Germany. Sol’s appeared in this column twice before. I wrote a blurb about “Weird Sports,” before I adopted my now-patented-ridiculous-rambling style, and then we chronicled his habit of wearing Lucha Libre masks in an article about the New York Times Portfolio Review in 2013.

Now he’s back, in all his Weird Sports-loving glory.

This is the kind of book that is very hard not to like. In fact, if you hate it, I’ll have to accuse you of lacking any sense of humor whatsoever. Which means you’re no fun, so I’d rather you spent your Friday reading time elsewhere.

Leave, I say. Leave.

Just kidding. But it is a book that chronicles the odd and sometimes depraved way that human beings choose to spend their spare time. Are there inspirational photos? Yes, like the picture of blind sprinters cruising down the track at the Paralympic games in Beijing.

But those are the exceptions, not the norm. Ostrich racing. Monster Wrestling. Zombie 5k runs. Sandboarding in Morocco. Musical chairs. Quidditch. Bog snorkeling in Wales. (Sorry, but that’s just gross. You might find Richard III’s crushed skull down there, if you’re not careful.)

What did I learn? That an astonishingly large number of weird sports seem to exist in the Pacific Northwest. Portland and Seattle, are you really that funky? What gives? Haven’t you ever heard of basketball and soccer? You know, normal past-times?

I might quibble about whether a Beard and Mustache Championship counts as a sport, and let’s not hate on Sol for including “World Naked Bike Ride,” (again in Portland) because, say it with me now, Boobs Sell Books.℠

As to the Lightsaber Fencing practitioners, can we really be surprised that they’re getting their game faces on in San Francisco? (No, we cannot.) And if George Lucas wasn’t cashing royalty checks from those nerds before the book came out, I’m sure he is now.

That’s what I’ve got for you today. The clock is running down, and I need to pack for RSF. Frankly, I’m a little pissed I’ve got to miss Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight. I’d tell you to watch some Lebron James brilliance, but by the time you read this tomorrow, the game will be over.

To Purchase “Weird Sports 2″ Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sachiko Kawanabe

by Jonathan Blaustein

The sun doesn’t care if you live or die.

It’s true.

The glowing orb, impossibly far away, hangs in the sky, while we spin around it. Its heat and light enable our existence, yes, but don’t fool yourself.

The implacable star has no feelings about any of us. It just is, and so are we. The only difference, near as I can tell, is that we are here for the briefest of times, aware our journey is finite.

The sun, on the other hand, will outlive us all.

I’m sitting at my white kitchen table, musing as usual, enjoying the ambient sounds of chirping crickets. Outside, the aspen leaves shimmer as only they can; proof of the slight breeze that animates them. Bird calls complete the scene.

There is nothing else, at the moment.

I just finished meditating, which is a practice I’m trying to adopt. It might explain my metaphysical mood. Meditation is one of those things that are clearly good for you, like spinach, but it takes dedication to adopt it properly. (We’ll see if it sticks.)

So I AM calmer than I might otherwise be. But it’s not just the silence, and the sweet muscle relaxation that comes from sitting still, breathing in and out in rhythm. No, my mood was further enhanced by just the right photobook, at just the right moment.

I’ve really come to love this job, because I have a routine that revolves around entering other people’s worlds, each and every week. I’m rather picky about what I like, when I see things on the wall. I want NEW. I want innovation.

But with books, I’m far more interested in crossing the threshold of an immersive experience. Losing myself, as I do when I have a camera in my hand. (Don’t we all.) Or when I’m swimming laps.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe.

What engendered this New-Age-Reverie? “sononite,” a new book by Sachiko Kawanabe, recently published by Omoplata/Superlabo in Japan. I’m sure you’re not surprised, because nobody does Zen like the Japanese.

This is a genuinely lovely book. It ticks all the right boxes: beautiful, quiet, contemplative, philosophical, and well-made. I’ll do my best to write about it, but books like these really do need to be held.

It opens with a horizontal orientation, back to front. Immediately, we’re interacting with the book in a non-traditional way. After the cover, we get a short bit of thoughtful text that gives the crucial details: the story is about an apple orchard that the artist found, and visits regularly.

She loved the place so much, in fact, that she and her young daughter spread her beloved grandmother’s ashes among the trees. This is not just a grove raising food for people. It is also a final resting spot, but grandmother will not rot, as the apples do. The fires put an end to that.

Thereafter, the orientation shifts to vertical, and we begin in Winter. The snow reflects those sun rays, and the white set against the blue sky is just right. Nature may not care if we live or die, but it does know how to give the perfect backdrop on which to play out our daily drama.

Winter to Spring, Spring to Summer. At one point, despite the uniform loveliness of the images, I found myself wanting something new. On the next page, I noticed a picture with a blue cast that seemed unnatural, even in evening light. My attention returned.

That happened again when the artist’s daughter appears, and yet again when I turned the page and found a lovely burgundy book-mark-string. As always, pacing details are important, and respected, in well-made books.

Summer gives way to Fall, and the fully grown apples desiccate on the ground, as we all will, one day. (Unless we ask them to burn us.)

This book works on several levels. It allows you to contemplate your mortality without grief, because everything is impermanent. (Even the sun.) But it also gives us the opportunity to shut out those thoughts, if we so choose, and luxuriate in some very beautiful pictures of a sweet little apple orchard in Japan.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, Zen book that shows us the cycle of life

To Purchase “sononite” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Alessandra Mauro

by Jonathan Blaustein

The cursor blinks. Blue on white. Blink. Blink.

Taunting me.

“What are you going to say this week, Blaustein? Are you going to tell us a story about your kids? Or deconstruct a Hollywood movie? How are you going to keep it fresh?”

It’s a surprisingly annoying cursor. Poking at my insecurities. And yet I’m fond of it. (Him? Her?) It’s kept me company for years, and only now have I even realized it’s blue.

I guess I’m not that observant. Blink. Blink.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m pretty fried at the moment. Yesterday, I drove to Santa Fe, then Albuquerque, then Santa Fe, then home. 6 hours and 250+ miles of Wild West road-tripping, all to drop off pictures for an exhibition, and shop for clothes along the way.

Everything I bought was either made in India or Bangladesh. Some items were extremely inexpensive, others more reasonably priced. But it all came from a sweatshop, or so I’d imagine. Normally, I don’t think very carefully about that. But I recently saw a John Oliver rant on the truth behind the international clothing industry.

It’s not pretty.

And I was left with a mental image of children stuck behind sewing machines. It’s dancing through my mind, just now, and igniting some serious guilt about my purchases.

As I’ve learned, and tried to share with you here, sometimes you just need to turn your head sideways to see something with a completely new perspective. It can make obvious things that were obscured, like dropping a pair of corrective lenses over your young son’s faulty eyes.

Today, I’m going to review a book unlike any I’ve covered. And I’m going to do it in a way that’s different from the manner in which you’re supposed to review such a book. Watch, as I break two rules at once.

It won’t hurt a bit.

“Photoshow” is a recent offering from Contrasto in Italy. It was edited by Alessandra Mauro, and contains interviews and essays that explore the history of the photographic exhibition. Yes, it’s a publication that attempts to corral a 3-dimensional experience into 2-dimensions, and compress nearly 200 years into a few hours of reading.

Or so I’d imagine. Because I didn’t read a word.

This is a book you’re supposed to read. It even included an interview with Quentin Bajac, the head curator at MoMA, whose opinions and expertise are certainly worth exploring. (I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days..but not today.)

Rather than skipping a review, because I write about pictures, not words, I decided to open the book and look at the photos. Why not review this as a photobook, and acknowledge that many of you would likely enjoy the essays too?

Why not indeed?

It’s the rare publication that starts with pictures by Talbot and Daguerre, and ends up with a photo of Erik Kessel’s room installation of 24 hours worth of pictures from Flickr and Facebook. In fact, it may be the only such publication ever made.

We see a killer image by one of my favorites, Gustave le Gray, and a trio of pictures by Roger Fenton, including the classic that shows his mobile horse buggy/ photo studio. My long-time readers know how much I love Fenton, so that selection got my attention.

Marcel Duchamp’s famed urinal at Edward Steiglitz’s gallery? Installation shots from “The Family of Man?” Joseph Kosuth’s seminal three versions of a chair? All mashed up with Jeff Wall’s work and lots of work on walls?

Skip the words, and this is one cool book. Read the words, and you come out with more education than you started. Either way, it’s a win win.

I’m sure some of you will be shocked at my perceived laziness. That’s understandable. You’re not supposed to review a book without reading it. But you’re not supposed to support a system that enslaves children either, and we all seem tragically OK with that.

Bottom Line: Cool pictures, lots of words, and a heap of photo history

To Purchase “Photoshow” Visit Photo-Eye

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Sandro Miller Interview

Jonathan Blaustein: Given the thickness of your Chicago accent, and the plethora of sports photos on your website, I have to ask… what do you think about Derrick Rose’s game-winning shot the other night?

Sandro Miller: The shot was absolutely, off-the-charts amazing. But unfortunately, the man down in Cleveland, Lebron James, answered right back yesterday. With the exact same shot, but from the side.

Both shots were amazing, but Derrick’s was just off-the-charts. He’s a killer basketball player. What I loved most about it was when he got into the arms of (Joachim) Noah, and there was no smile on his face, and he looked at the crowd and goes, “If you had any question if I was back, there you go.”

JB: Right. And he’s a local boy, isn’t he?

SM: Oh yeah, he’s local. He’s a Chicago boy. A South Side boy. He’s a really good kid. His Mom did a good job bringing those boys up in a very, very, very difficult neighborhood.

JB: Not only did he come up hard, but he lost essentially 3 seasons to injuries. You guys must be rooting for this dude on an almost-unprecedented level.

SM: You know, I think everyone in the league is. Even the other players are. He had three almost-career-ending injuries, so to see a kid like this, who plays the game so well, with so much honor… to see his career almost taken away, if you’re a basketball fan, you were rooting for D Rose to come back.

JB: And yet, when Lebron hit that shot yesterday, I imagine there might have been quite a few people choking on their Polish sausage sandwiches around the city.

SM: Arrgh. I was sitting here with my wife’s Mom, and all of her sisters, who are Moms. We had a big Mother’s Day feast over here, and when Lebron hit that shot, we just couldn’t believe it. But anytime Lebron gets the ball in his hand, you give him the rock, and he’s going to do something with it.

He’s the best in the game. And anything is possible.

JB: We’re talking about Chicago, and basketball, and everyone rooting for Derrick Rose.

SM: Yeah.

JB: We’re talking about Lebron being the best. And, I bet you’re more familiar with Michael Jordan than I am. But this weekend, my sister-in-law was in town, and randomly asked if I thought there would ever be another athlete with the sort of dominating presence and cultural import that Michael Jordan had, back in the 90’s.

What do you think? Could there ever be another phenomenon like Michael Jordan?

SM: I worked with Michael a lot, back in the day. In fact, ESPN magazine had an issue that came out, a 12 page spread, and it was all about how much I had shot Michael Jordan, and these great pictures I had done.

I worked with Michael really closely, and he was first class in every way he presented himself. On the court and off the court. Michael was the essence of perfection in everything he did. There will never be anyone as competitive as Michael. He hated to lose. There was something in his blood.

Michael would beat an 8 year old kid in ping pong, just because he couldn’t stand to lose.

JB: (laughing) He’s trash an 8 year old kid? I love it.

SM: He would. His competitiveness was beyond, beyond, beyond. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be another Michael, but does there need to be?

JB: I’ve learned, over the years, that when you talk to people from Chicago, and you bring up Rahm Emmanuel, that he’s not a very popular figure. Could Michael Jordan be the Mayor of Chicago?

SM: Michael Jordan, in 1995-6, could have run for President and won. Could he run for Mayor today? (pause) No. Michael’s absent from Chicago. It’s a known fact he’s no longer a Chicagoan. He spends very little time here. You don’t see him at a Bulls game, at a playoff game.

Michael’s gone through some changes. He’s bitter about the NBA, and he’s bitter about Chicago. About how he was treated. So today, no, he couldn’t.

But Rahm is the boss man. You don’t run Chicago with kid gloves. You’ve got to have an iron fist. I don’t know if you heard, but Spike Lee is coming to town to make a movie called “Chiraq.”

JB: I didn’t hear that.

SM: Yeah, he’s comparing Chicago to Iraq. We’ve got a huge, huge gang problem here, and there are a lot of killings. Most of it is not in the news, it’s completely overlooked. We’ve got SWAT in town, and almost an army-load of police watching what’s going on in Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

It’s do or die. Spike Lee is going to put out a powerful message, and Rahm was against the name of the film. It’s pretty embarrassing, when you’re known as Chiraq. But I think Rahm’s doing a good job. He was just re-elected, and as with any Mayor, he’s done some things that aren’t popular.

But we’ve got 4 or 5 films being shot in Chicago right now, and we’ve got a lot of TV series too. There’s a lot of different things he’s doing that are really good for Chicago. And it’s an extremely clean city for its size.

George Lucas is doing a museum here. It’s a great place of culture. We’ve got something like 50 million tourists coming in each year now, because it’s got pizzazz. And great restaurants.

JB: Well, that’s the reaction I was expecting. Rahm is an Obama guy, and most people I talk to are fans of Obama. But whenever I asked Chicagoans about Rahm, they really hated him.

SM: I don’t know if they hate him. He’s a tough, badass guy. He wasn’t very popular when he closed down about 14 schools, but in the long run, it really was a good decision. They were only 1/3 full, and in terrible running condition. When you’re in a position like that, you have to make some really tough decisions.

I wouldn’t invite him for dinner…

JB: You have standards.

SM: Yeah. But he’s got a job to do, and it’s a big job. Filling Mayor Daley’s shoes wasn’t an easy thing to do, and Mayor Daley made a bunch of mistakes.

It’s a tough job, running Chicago. It’s not an easy city.

JB: Fair enough. But this is not a podcast, so only I get to hear the purity of your Chicago accent.

SM: (laughing)

JB: That’s why we had to start with Chicago. But since we did, maybe we can pivot to photography. We’ll start at the beginning. How did you get into photography? Where did the bug come from?

SM: When I was about 16 years old, I picked up a copy of “American Photography” for the first time. I’m sure there was something very interesting on the cover, that made me pick up the issue, and I ran across two portraits by Irving Penn. I didn’t know who he was.

I saw a portrait of Picasso, and the French theater actress Celeste. Those two portraits changed my life. They were bold, gutsy, and very dramatic. There was a rawness to them.

I hadn’t heard of any of those three people, but two days later, I knew everything about all three of them, because the photographs were so powerful, they made me want to know more. That’s what a powerful portrait does: it stops you, it begs for you to ask questions, and you go research and you figure it out.

JB: After those few days, you thought, “This is what I want to do with my life?”

SM: No, it was after I saw those two portraits. I knew, sitting there on my bed. I didn’t have to do the research.

JB: OK.

SM: I already knew.

JB: That was that.

SM: I knew that I wanted to create great, great portraits. I wanted to photograph and document people: to surround my life with people who were important, and had something to offer to the world.

With that said, some of my greatest portraits have been of people that are normal. People outside of my studio door that are so interesting, I need to put them in front of my camera.

JB: One minute, your life was on one trajectory, then you see a couple of photographs, and it changes the course of your life.

SM: I came from a small immigrant family. My mother came over on the boat. I was raised by a single mom from Italy, and she had very little education, so education was not on the top of our list.

We were what most people would consider poor back then. So there wasn’t that big push for a college education, and there was no culture in our home. So it was a huge fluke that I would become this internationally world-renowned photographer.

It wasn’t in the cards. We didn’t have the money to send me to the big photography schools, so I had to become self-taught. It’s kind of miraculous that I am where I am, coming where I came from.

I think that when one has something that moves them, that moves their heart, and they become passionate, you can do anything. I was ready to do whatever it would take to become a great photographer.

JB: So what did you do? I imagine the first move would be to get your hands on a camera.

SM: Yeah. It was a few months later that I bought a used Nikon F film camera, and I took a course in high school. Learning the basics. I had no idea what composition meant. Decisive moment. Contrast. It was all so foreign to me.

I learned from the bottom. But I started to collect photography books at 16, and today, I have close to 800. It was those books
that have become my education. The pictures became ingrained in my head.

I did a couple of semesters at a community college, and then got a job with a photographer, when I was 18. I worked for other photographers for about 5 years, and then I opened my own studio. That’s where it all began.

I started with small accounts of mostly catalogue work. 90% of it was product related. But I was taking pictures, and making money. I gave up a lot to become what I’ve become, because it’s not an 8-hour-a-day job.

It’s every single minute of your life, if you want to become great. I can’t tell you how many dates, how many concerts, dinners, events, happenings that I couldn’t make because I was working.

My work always came first. Besides my family, my work always came first.

JB: It takes a lot to push to the top. The athletes we talked about at the beginning are no different. That’s how you got here. But what about now? Where do you turn for inspiration?

SM: My inspiration still comes from books, magazines, poems, theater, music. Children’s drawings. It comes from everything in the world, because I walk with my eyes wide open. I look, and I take in everything: the way people wear their clothes, or their hair.

My mind is like a train, and there are so many projects that I’m working on, or are going to work on. It’s almost a slight, slight illness. It’s an addiction. I’m grateful for it, because it makes me who I am today.

If I wanted, there would be no stopping me until I was dead. But I have other things I’d like to do in my life, so I don’t know that photography will carry through to the end. I’m sure it will in some aspect, but there are other things I’d like to do with my life.

JB: Like what?

SM: Well, I would absolutely love to paint, and this is going to sound strange in an interview like this, but I love to golf. Writing poetry, and creating artwork is going to become important for me. Something creative will always be close to me, and I’m sure photography will always be the nucleus.

JB: How does one come to have a muse like John Malkovich?

SM: I started shooting John about 17 years ago, when he was an ensemble member at the great Steppenwolf Theater. I got a call to photograph the ensemble team to start working on their ad campaigns, playbills and marquees, and I’m still working with them today.

Along with John, they had Joan Allen, John Mahoney, Gary Sinise, and Martha Plimpton. The list just goes on. They’ve all been in big films.

JB: Sure.

SM: It was probably the greatest ensemble of any theater company in the world. The first time I got the call about John, I just couldn’t believe it. I’d always wanted to photograph Malkovich.

I was really prepared for John, because I always do my homework. I set up the shots, and everything was perfected. And no matter who you are, I treat everyone the same, and that’s with a tremendous amount of respect.

John came in, and I was who I am. Just very respectful. We chatted for a half an hour, and then went into our photo session. He loved the way I worked and presented myself. He understood that I really got the light.

He loved what we did together, as they were extremely powerful black and white shots. We walked out of there with a deep mutual respect. Over the years, John spent a lot of time in Chicago, and when he’d come in, we’d get together for another photo session.

He became my white piece of canvas. He became my muse.

JB: That’s crazy.

SM: Over the 17 years, John has never once said “No, I don’t like that idea, Sandro. I don’t want to participate.” Never once. He has gone with whatever I’ve asked him to do, sometimes with very little explanation of what I was thinking about. He’d sit down, listen to the idea, and then say “OK, let’s do it.”

All together, we’ve produced about 110 portraits, and had a grand time doing it.

The latest idea was my homage to the master photographers, called “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to the Masters.” What happened was, about 3.5 years ago, I came down with a Stage 4 cancer. It was very much on the edge whether I was going to make it or not.

JB: Oh my god. I had no idea.

SM: I had a lot of time to think about my career, my past and my future. There was a point where I began to think, why did I make it to where I’m at today? Where did it come from? Was it one certain person? It came to me that it was the great photographers of the past, the iconic images from the masters that would make my knees buckle.

That’s why I am who I am. I wanted to be great enough to make images that did the same things to other people what these images are doing to me.

So I picked the 40 images that moved me more than anything in the world, and I went to Malkovich with a selection of those. I got on an airplane, went to the South of France, where John lives, and he loved the idea. I could see his head was turning, because this was perfect. He’s a theater guy. He becomes other people all the time.

This was going to be his greatest challenge. Becoming Marilyn Monroe. Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother. Bette Davis. Alfred Hitchcock. Warhol. Capote. Hemingway.

The idea is very powerful. And we both knew that we had to do this to perfection. Because, done incorrectly, it could have become a laughingstock. We both knew it.

JB: It’s interesting, because you’re talking about it in an earnest, straightforward, serious way…

SM: Yeah.

JB: …but the photographs themselves are almost the height of absurdity, because you played it so straight. Many of them are hilarious in their shockingness.

SM: Yes.

JB: But you’re not talking about this project as having had that kind of motivation?

SM: It was never to be a humorous project.

JB: It was NOT?

SM: No.

JB: You don’t see the humor in it?

SM: Yeah. How can you not, in seeing John Malkovich play Marilyn Monroe? I get that.

JB: OK.

SM: And I don’t mind that it brings a smile to your face, or a giggle to your heart. But it wasn’t meant for people to bust out laughing. It wasn’t a comedy.

It was a serious thank you. “You guys are the greatest photographers, my Joe Dimaggios, my Babe Ruths, and thank you for what you did. I wish I could have done what you guys have done. Thank you.”

It had to be done with such seriousness, every single detail had to be perfect.

JB: Right.

SM: Otherwise, it wasn’t going to work.

JB: Sure. I just went back and re-watched the scene on Youtube, just to remind myself, but the title of the project, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich” comes from the Spike Jonze movie “Being John Malkovich.” The scene where he gets inside his own head, because other people have been getting inside his head. Just a classic.

SM: I thought very little about that film when I did this project with John. For me, it was so natural to use John. There was never a doubt about who I’d work with.

I love the film. Don’t get me wrong.

JB: Such a good movie.

SM: That film never crossed my mind. It wasn’t about the film. It was nothing more than to say thank you to the masters.

JB: But the success comes back to your muse relationship. People love this stuff.

SM: There’s no question the stars have aligned perfectly. The fact that I met him 17 years ago. The fact that it was John Malkovich, and not Sean Penn.

JB: (laughing)

SM: Other than John, I think Sean Penn could have pulled it off.

JB: That’s hilarious. Can you imagine Sean Penn as the Arbus twins? That’s awesome.

SM: (laughing) It’s impossible. But all the stars aligned. I can’t overlook John’s generosity of the time and the willingness to do this project.

When I look back on the time, the effort, the research. The perfection I had asked from every single person. The cost of recreating it. And while I was getting sicker than a dog, while we were shooting it. I had put every ounce of energy, everything that Sandro had left in him went into that project.

At first, people said, “Ah, you did it all on the computer.” No it wasn’t done on the computer. That’s the ignorance of so many of the younger photographers. They think everything’s done on the computer.

Well, I’m old school. We do it the right way. In camera.

JB: You’re not just old school. You’re old school, and you’re from Chicago.

SM: You got it. (laughing) You got it.

JB: I’ve never done an interview with someone who mentioned in passing that they had been that ill with cancer. Are you OK?

SM: Yeah. I’m fine now. I had a Stage 4 neck and throat cancer. I was never a smoker. Never a big drinker. It’s just so odd that some of the healthiest people get sick. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. You have that cell or that gene in your body, and it finds some place to land, and does its damage.

It was tough. It was a really hard-core part of my life, and thank god my wife is very, very strong, and willing to do whatever it took to nurture me, and make sure I ate. What happens with neck and throat cancer is you just stop eating, because of the pain.

It’s one of those cancers that a lot of people don’t make it through. But I was very fortunate. I wasn’t ready. I gave everything. I never thought for a minute that I was going to die. It never crossed my mind, because I didn’t believe it was my time.

But sometimes, reality, and what we believe are two different things.

It changed the way I thought about a lot of things in my life. How much I give to my work. At one time, it was what consumed me, but as I said, I always found time for my family.

JB: You’re in remission? You’re going to be all right?

SM: It’s been three years now that the cancer is gone. I believe they say remission is after five years, if it’s completely gone. I’m sure you don’t hear me back here, but I’m drinking tons of water. What happens is you lose all of your saliva glands, so you’re constantly dry. I have to drink a ton of water.

You lose your taste buds. I lost almost 100% of my hearing in my left ear, because of the radiation. You have to treat it very aggressively, because you don’t want it to spread. You want to get it that first time. If it recurs, your chances of making it through that are slim.

JB: Understood.

SM: I saw my mother go through cancer, and she did it with such grace. I tried to follow the way my mother was, and not make everything about me, and my illness, but to make it about good things in life.

It was the biggest challenge of my life. In the end, what came out of it was all worth it for me. How I see my life, my work, my family. How I love every minute that I have here.

You’re never sure that it’s gone forever. It’s always in the back of your mind. Little things that happen in your body, and I think, Uh oh, it’s back.

It changes your life.

JB: It certainly explains the desire to play golf. I’ll say that much.

SM: (laughing) You’re so right. That’s exactly why there’s this strong desire to play golf. The golf course is a beautiful place. It’s always on some pretty gorgeous property. Out in the woods.

JB: It’s quiet.

SM: Watching birds or squirrels. Watching the deer run across the course. There’s just something about it. It’s very spiritual.

I’ve always been a very spiritual man. But now it’s probably become much more important in life. To see the little things that are so beautiful.

JB: Have you ever been to Santa Fe?

SM: Years ago, I did a little trip out West, and I stopped into Santa Fe. I was really moved by the mountains. The color of the Earth, and how beautiful it was. In the back of my mind, I thought that I would partially move out that way some day.

I’m leaving this Wednesday to head out to Palm Springs, which I know is not REAL close to Santa Fe.

JB: What’s a thousand miles between friends. Right, Sandro?

SM: Exactly. My wife and I both ride motorcycles, so we’re looking for a place to do more riding. Play golf. Still do photography, but live in a part of the country where there’s a whole different type of spirituality.

JB: That’s why I brought it up. We’re famous for it.

SM: Yeah.

JB: This interview being sponsored by my friends at the Santa Fe Workshops. You’re going to be teaching a workshop there this summer?

SM: I am, and I’m very excited about it. It’s a lighting workshop. For 40 years, I’ve been working on lighting, and I think the Malkovich piece will show how I understand light, because I recreated the light of some 37 or 38 photographs.

Light is so important to creating an iconic image. I have so many different ways of lighting. If someone walks into my studio, I have an idea of how I want to light them, and in 10 minutes, it could change 180 degrees from how I end up lighting them.

So many people, when they look at their photographs, they don’t have any idea about lighting. So I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to take small, tight group and be very hands on with them, and share every bit of knowledge that I have about light.

We’ll bring it to another level.

JB: Most long-time photographers will say it takes a lifetime to understand light. The knowledge comes from experience, and comparison. And the light here in Northern New Mexico is pretty spectacular.

SM: Right.

JB: How does one go about imparting your experience to others? How do you condense things that took you years to learn into a workshop? What’s your strategy for that.

SM: I’ll be bringing in 400 of my images to share with them, and a lot of books from my collection. I think I need to introduce people to other types of lighting, and that will get their curiosities going.

Each day, we’ll be working with different models. I’m going to pull out my bag of tricks, and show people 10 or 20 different ways to light people. I’ll show them contemporary light, and classic light.

We’ll talk about why I choose to use certain lights at certain times. I’m going to bring in 40 years of knowledge and share it over a 5 day period. I’m sure the people will walk away with a tremendous amount of knowledge.

Even if they walk away with 2 or 3 really great ideas for them to like, that’s 10 years of my life that they’re going to walk away with.

JB: Are you planning on doing anything exterior?

SM: Absolutely. We’ll see if they’re ready to get up at 4am, or if they’re going to be shooting those portraits at 9 or 10 at night. We’ll see how passionate these guys are.

JB: (laughing)

SM: (laughing) I can go 14 hours a day if I have to.

JB: I’m glad we’re talking about this. You hear that, people? If you’re thinking about it, you better bring your A game.

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SFPW_APhotoEditor_Jan2015

This Week In Photography Books: Mike Slack

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Mad Men” ended this week.

Did you see it? Were you dissatisfied? Personally, I like to imagine Matthew Weiner’s recurring nightmares about “The Sopranos” last episode, and its less-than-stellar reception.

Can’t you see him tossing and turning in a king-sized bed, replete with high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets? Unconscious, with the Pacific Ocean shimmering out the window, he wonders how to live with himself if he fucks up the end of “Mad Men” the way David Chase faded to black.

He must have been a neurotic mess in the days/months/years leading up to Don Draper’s denouement. I’m certain of it. Because otherwise, he wouldn’t have over-thought things to the degree he did.

SPOILER ALERT

Ending the show with a meditating Jon Hamm’s beatific smile would have been just about perfect. The skeptical, stoic Don Draper, finally merging with the emo-boy Dick Whitman. The straight-laced beefcake, who looked Iconic in his 50’s hat, finally trusting in the Universe enough to go easy on himself.

To forgive.

That would have been a profound message about mankind’s ability to grow and change. (And woman-kind, of course.) But no. Matthew Weiner had to take it one step further, and ambiguously suggest that the momentary enlightenment was put directly in service of inventing that famous Coke commercial that we will all have stuck in our heads forEVER.

A classic bit of over-thinking, especially as he didn’t bother with the epilogue showing Don Draper’s triumphant return to pitch the idea. That would have made more sense, traditionally, than the half-done act of running the ad.

But then, most of us get in our own way, from time to time. We overcomplicate things. Normally, it’s better to keep it simple; to see your job as making the donuts, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. (What if we made the wheel square? Instead of round? We could build pyramids with this newfangled contraption.)

Today’s book does just that. (Keep it simple, that is.) Mike Slack’s “Shrubs of Death” had me at the title. I might have rushed past last week’s telling book cover, but this one grabbed me by my chakras and didn’t let go.

Shrubs of Death? How great is that?

And then, it delivered on its promise. We see a lot of shrubs. Each picture is cropped just right, to anthropomorphize a bit of shrubbery. (There’s a Monty Python joke in there somewhere. I’m sure of it.)

I giggled for the first few photos, and then started flipping more quickly. It was like a paper version of an animated gif. What would you call that? A flip-book? An analogue cartoon?

No matter. Halfway through, I thought to myself, “This is cute and witty, but honestly, Mike Slack could have shot this whole project in 25 minutes.”

I really thought that. I swear.

I even made puns in my mind about Mike being a Slacker, and making a book out of the experience just because he could. Then, the end notes claim that he did, in fact, shoot the entire group in one day. (The consistent light was a giveaway.) Apparently, he made the pictures at a cemetery in Indiana. (Hence the title.)

Let me be clear here. This is not a great book. And charging $32 for the thing requires some genuine hubris. But at least Mike Slack didn’t over-think anything.

He got a funny idea to shoot shrubs in a cemetery. Maybe he always thought it could be a book. And then he did it. The fact that I had it in my hands proves its existence.

Why am I highlighting it today, if I only like it ironically? Because art is in the making. We all have lots of ideas. But sometimes, it’s best to just get out there and make something. Anything.

The truth is harsh. No matter how smart you are, sometimes, you just need to photograph those shrubs… before you’re the one 6 feet under the ground.

Bottom Line: A funny little book that won’t change your life

To Purchase “Shrubs of Death” Visit Photo-Eye

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Paul Schiek TBW Books Interview

Jonathan Blaustein: I just called you on the phone. We’re not Skyping. And I noticed that your phone number was 444-BOOK.

Paul Schiek: Yeah.

JB: Who did you have to bribe, as a book publisher, to get BOOK as your phone number? How much money did they make you pay?

PS: OK. Awesome first question, because I love these little details that most people don’t notice, or care about. A lot of people don’t have landlines anymore, and to me, a landline represents this classic way of doing business, so people can just call you at 444-BOOK.

It was sort of, I don’t want to say kitschy, but it was…

JB: Cute?

PS: I’ve had this long goal of being a business in the Oakland community, and that TBW would sponsor a Little League team. In the same way that Joe Schmo the plumber buys a Little League team their uniforms.

JB: (laughing) You’re gonna do that?

PS: That’s been a dream of mine for my publishing company. When I set up a landline, I said, “How much would it cost to have my number be 1-510-TBW-BOOK? But that was taken just numerically, by chance. So I just said well what about 444-BOOK?

They said it was available. So I said, “OK, how much is it going to cost to have that for the rest of my life, as my landline for my business.”

They were like, a one time charge of…$35.

JB: (laughing.) There it is. 35 bucks.

PS: So that’s the office phone number. In certain circumstances, it’s totally appropriate to tell people that’s the number. Sometimes, it’s goofy, and I just say the numbers 444-2665. But I like having it. It’s cool, and it references the workmanlike qualities that I like to instill in this company.

Some people get it, some people don’t.

JB: Listen, that was the fun first question. The next question is more traditional, but something that I’m really curious about. You’re a successful artist, as well as being a publisher. Why did you gravitate towards art to begin with?

PS: The short version is that I was out in the world, shooting a lot of bands that I would go see. I always had a camera with me, but I didn’t have an understanding of photography. I’d moved to California, and was working whatever menial jobs were possible, just to get by.

I was having a great time, away from a seemingly culturally oppressive environment where I grew up, in Wisconsin. At the time, for a 17 year old, it sure felt that way. Anything left or right of center was frowned upon. So I moved to California, and lived that lifestyle for a long time.

I made the decision that I was going to take something seriously. I think I was 26 at the time. I applied to one local art school, which at the time was California College of Arts and Crafts, but now it’s California College of Art.

JB: Right. They dropped the last C.

PS: Yeah, but when I was there it was CCAC. I got in, and it was an immediate life-changing experience. This isn’t my quote, but I became like the jock of art school. I would stay there 24 hours a day. I had no email account. I had never been on a computer, and here was a room filled with 25 computers, and you could do whatever you want on it.

I was blown away at the idea that I was encouraged to challenge things. It didn’t matter what I did at school. They were like, “Oh that’s interesting. Why did you choose to do that?”

That was extremely liberating and fascinating.

JB: Did you get to work with Larry Sultan?

PS: Yes, I worked with Larry my last year, but the whole time I was there I became really close with Jim Goldberg, and worked with him extensively. He’s 100% responsible for introducing me to photobooks and sparking that interest in me.

I worked with Larry, in 2005, but I didn’t become extremely close with him. He was a very influential person on my work there though. He was a extremely smart man, and someone I was very honored to have a opportunity to work under.

JB: In working with Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg, you were introduced to super-star artists just as you were beginning your career. That must have been foundational for you?

PS: I knew that they were well-respected, and great artists, but I was just excited by what they were willing to offer up in terms of them being interesting people with interesting perspectives on things. I knew that they had books out, and I could go in a library and look at their book.

To me, that was something. That these guys, that I knew, that I could go sit one-on-one with, and talk about photography, I could also go in a library and, amongst these stacks of books, pull out a hardcover, coffee-table book with their images in it.

That amazed me. I’d never known people that had books out. You know? In a lot of ways, that inspired me to say, “I’m going to make a book.”

JB: And now, it’s 10 years later, and everybody’s got a book. That whole idea of it being a super-exclusive career marker, it seems like that mystique has been watered down a bit. Would you agree?

PS: I would agree with that. Yeah. Somewhat frustratingly, I agree with that. It bums me out a little bit, because I loved the exclusivity of it. It was this defining thing.

JB: Well, you can see everything from grumpy cats to gestating grandmas on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great pictures there too, right?

PS: Yeah.

JB: Well, in 2005, which is when I’m guessing you graduated, you decided to publish your own book. It’s a perfect segue. You were fascinated by books. You had professors who knew how to make them. And well, well before everyone was doing it, you said, “I’m going to make my own book.”

Is that how it happened?

PS: That’s exactly how it happened. The more intricate part of it was that part of our requirement to graduate is that we had to mount a show, and make a post card announcing it. We had to print and frame it ourselves.

That was what we had to do to graduate, and prove that we are photographers. To me, it was just absurd. No one knew who I was. I had friends who were on the East Coast, in the Mid West, and Down South. I wanted to share what I was doing in school with these photos, and it just made no sense to spend this money to print these large photographs and frame them.

No one was going to see it. No one was going to care. Then, I was going to have to sit on this product that I didn’t know what to do with, that no one wanted to buy.

It made a lot more sense to me that I would be a publisher, and I would make a book. Then, I could mail it to those people, and use it as a promotional tool. Et cetera, et cetera. I had asked for Jim and Larry’s blessing, to do the book instead of a show, and they said it was fine.

I should also say that at that point, I’d been making ‘zines for years.

JB: OK.

PS: So the idea of a book to me was the next level ‘zine.

JB: I’m glad you pointed that out. It didn’t come from nowhere.

PS: No. I was looking at, and participating in these things that were happening alongside the music world. I’d collected and seen fan ‘zines for years. Ever since I was 13 years old in Wisconsin, I’d seen ‘zines. More importantly, I was buying and seeing records.

A lot of times, a record was hand-printed, and on a random, nothing label. It was just like a name. So I just applied all those same concepts to publishing a book. In my classes, people would say, “You can’t just say you’re going to make a book. You need a publisher.” So I’d be like, “Well, I’m the publisher.”

JB: (laughing) That’s awesome.

PS: They’d be like, “What does that mean? Who’s going to print it?” So I said, “I’ll print it.” Then they’d be like, “Well, you need a distributor.” And I’d say, “I’m the distributor.”

JB: (laughing) That’s rad. Oh my god.

PS: This, to me, was not foreign whatsoever.

JB: Right.

PS: This was just how you made something that was yours, and you put it out in the world. For me, it wasn’t weird at all, but to some of the people I was studying with, they thought it was a circus sideshow. They said, “This dude says he’s going to have a book in a month for his senior thesis.”

To me it was just, I’ve got to get to work. I’ve got to figure this out. So that’s the way it worked out, and how I published what essentially was my first art book. It’s funny to call it a book. It was 4″x6″, and 40 pages, but I really did the best I could to challenge the materiality of what a ‘zine was, and to make a book out of it. To bring it into the feel of what a book is.

Really, I gave them away. I had a book release party at my friend’s little book/zine shop here. I said, “First 100 people get a free copy of the book.” That was just this technique for me to say, “There’s gonna be 500 people there.” Probably 30 people showed up. But on the flyer, I wrote first 100 people at the door get a free copy of the book.

That was just me trying to be funny, but it was also allowed me to believe in myself, in a strange way. So we screen-printed flyers, and had the party. It was what I’d seen other people do, having record release parties for their band.

You do it in this little space with 7 foot ceilings, and cram a bunch of people in, and hang up a few photos. It was cool, and it was fun, and it felt like mine.

I never played in band…

JB: I was just about to ask you that.

PS: No, I never played in bands, but I was around that, and was living with and knew people in bands. I watched how they operated, and ran little businesses. I never felt a part of that. I was always making photos of it, but was never a part of it.

I tried to apply those same techniques and understandings and operations to this new thing that I was starting, which was making books. I should also mention that at that point, I was becoming obsessive about photography. I was looking at everything I could get my hands on.

Spending as much time as possible either making photos, or printing photos. I was becoming really entrenched in it. While I was in school, I was making so much, but also working jobs, because I needed to pay rent and basic life needs.

So I really wasn’t able to focus, for a bunch of different reasons, on the reading assignments. I wasn’t really getting the History of Photography. After school is when I started to take a moment and go back to read. I really wanted to study the medium. I just wanted to be the kid who knew everything. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say to me, “Do you know those early daguerreotypes by blah blah blah?” and I’d have to say, “No, I don’t know it.”

I wanted to be able to say, “Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and we can have a conversation about it right now.” I really wanted to be able to back up the decisions I was making. I was aware people would want to pigeon hole me and while in no way am I an intellectual, I wanted to at least be able to know the history of the medium to a T.

JB: Yeah, I had a buddy in school like that, back at UNM in the late 90’s. My friend Scott B. Davis looked like he worked in a record store, and he knew everything. He had the background.

I came to it at 23, so I didn’t have the background. Everyone would just look at him, and the eye-rolling was ridiculous. It was like, “How the fuck do you know that? I don’t know that. I wouldn’t even know how to learn that.”

So you were that guy.

PS: Here’s the thing I want to be clear about. I wanted to be that guy as a defense mechanism. I was insecure in the art world because I was really just a dirt bag from Wisconsin. I felt like this new world that I’d discovered, which was the art world, I was seen as the kid who could go to a house party, or a show, and make pictures of kids throwing up, or whatever. And I did make those photos!

But I was making tons of photos. I was shooting everything and later relying on the editing process to extract meaning and try to create new narratives. I was trying to use images as signposts. This was the time when VICE was doing their annual photo issue.

This style of photography was hyper-on-the-radar. You shoot with a point-and-shoot…flash at night. From my perspective it was a really exciting time for photography.

JB: Listen, I was living in Brooklyn when Ryan McGinley had that show at the Whitney. The whole Beautiful Losers thing.

PS: So you know exactly what I’m talking about. I wanted to be a part of the academia side of things also. I wanted to prove that I was deeply invested in this. That this wasn’t by chance, that I was working really hard at something.

It’s funny, but I haven’t thought about this work in a long time. I was shooting with a point-and-shoot, 35mm, but I would crop my photos like a 6×7, to give it a more formal quality. Larry was shooting with a 6×7, so I would take these 35mm photos, but then I cropped them so they had a snap-and-shoot aesthetic, but they were presented more formally.

JB: When you say crop it like a 6×7, you mean use that aspect ratio, so people would think it was made with a bigger camera?

PS: Exactly. Maybe it was grainy, or had a bright flash. Or it was in a situation where you wouldn’t use a big camera. But then the prints would look like something Larry would do. It would be more serious, not the snap-shot thing. Perhaps it was staged, that whole conversation of fact and fiction in photography.

I was trying to do both things; to be in two places with the work. I’m digressing…

JB: There’s no such thing in one of these interviews, man. You’re supposed to. That’s part of the deal, and why these are different from everyone else’s interviews.

We don’t stick to a script. We want to give the readers a chance to learn from your experience. People have their own big ideas, and don’t know where to go with it. Or they don’t feel like they have permission to just do it themselves.

I’ve done it in my career, and it’s always been helpful.

PS: Sure.

JB: Sometimes, you just have to self-declare. Like you said earlier, “I am a publisher,” and then you are one. We manifest these aspects of our personalities, and our careers, through hubris.

PS: That’s exactly right. That’s a main tenet of what I was privy to growing up. You say you’re a guitar player in a band, not because you either have a guitar, or you know how to play it, but because you do it. That can obviously translate into any facet in life. You determine it.

This is sounding corny, so I want to stop talking. Next question. I feel like I’m on a soap box now.

JB: You can stop right there, but I actually know what you’re talking about. Back in graduate school, I had a friend who asked me, “How do you get a show?” I said, “The easiest way to get a show is to make a show?” So he said, “How do you make a show?”

I said, if there are pictures on the wall, and people in the room to look at them, and they have wine in plastic cups in their hand, then you have a show.

PS: That’s right.

JB: He said, “Oh, it’s that easy?” So I said, “Watch. I’ll show you.” We had a beautiful apartment in Greenpoint, with white walls and hardwood floors, so I just did it. I invited my grad school buddies, and hung pictures, and there were some people there. Then, in the second show, there were more people there, and then in the third show, it was a wall-heaving jammer, and I thought that was great, until I had to clean up the next day.

PS: (laughing) Yeah.

JB: I had to mop up all the dried, stinky beer from my kitchen floor, and I thought, “OK, I think I’ve made my point.”

But a lot of people don’t necessarily give themselves permission to take risks, and let it hang out. I try to use these interviews as a way of giving people some confidence to do what they want to do, even if it’s not necessarily related to what you and I are talking about.

I’ll put myself on the soapbox, so you don’t have to be. How’s that?

PS: OK.

JB: But back to the publishing. You made one book for yourself, and then a couple more, but then at some point, you decided that you were going to publish other artists. You must have woken up and said, “Well, I do have a company. And I might not have a Little League team under sponsorship yet, but this is no longer just for shits and giggles. This is a real thing.”

PS: Yes.

JB: And then you managed to cultivate relationships with some really successful artists. Can you walk me through the genesis of that, from doing your own work to publishing other artists, and selling books, and really trying to push the envelope?

PS: That is another example of form following function. I’d gotten out of school, I’d made that book “Good by Angels” as my senior thesis, and I wanted to do another book. By that point, I was making different photographs, and I wanted to show them again. But I still hadn’t cultivated a following, beyond my immediate friends, and I didn’t know how to reach a larger audience.

It was really just a practicality thing. I’d been studying with Jim, and he and I had become close, so I asked him, “Hey, I want to make another book. Would you also do a book with me?” He agreed to it, and I always think of it as him extending an olive branch to me, you know?

This is something I don’t normally talk about, but I feel comfortable talking with you about the business side of things.

JB: Sure. Thanks.

PS: I didn’t have any money. Big surprise. I had no money to print anything. So I developed this system where I said, “I’m going to make these four books. One’s going to be by Jim, and I got two other artists, and one will be mine. People are going to buy these books because Jim’s involved in it. And I’m going to force people to look at my own book.”

They’re going to have to buy my book, because they want to get Jim’s book. They’re only sold as a set. That’s going to be a way to expose my work to a larger audience, and also, more importantly, it’s going to secure some funds for me to pay for this thing.

Once Jim agreed to do it, I promoted it, and got some orders coming in, and I took that money and I developed a program where the books would come out individually over the course of the coming year. The reason that I did that was because it was an opportunity for me to make the money to produce them as they came out, to pay for production of the other books.

I took the money from the initial orders and go to the printer, pay them, and then go and pay the bindery. Then I’d have the first book, but people already paid for all four books. So I’d ship the first book to the customers, and then I’d start praying.

I’d be like, “Fuck. I need more orders.”

JB: Right.

PS: Then I’d do more promotions, and more emails, and I’d ask some friends and tell them about it, and a couple of more orders would come in. You can see what I’m saying here.

JB: Yeah. It was a great hustle.

PS: Eventually, I got enough cash together, and I’d print book number two. And then I’d start praying again. And then repeat.

Finally, it got to my book, and I was shipping it out to my subscribers. I was like, “Wow. Here’s a subscriber in England, man. England! I’m shipping a book to England!”

JB: (laughing) Right.

PS: Anyway, I realized that I was doing something of value, and that I should continue pursuing it. That opened up opportunity, because I was cultivating a client list, and was able to print better books, because I could start relying on these people to order.

I was really trying to build an old school business, no different than a plumber. “Hey, you’re going to hire me, and I’m going to come in and provide excellent service, and give you and excellent product, and next time you need that again, you’re going to call me.”

That’s really what I believe in. It’s how I grew up.

JB: I was just going to say, this has to be a Mid-Western thing.

PS: Yeah, I’m from Wisconsin. 100%. And it’s really funny, because when I was there, I was miserable. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this. Did you grow up in New Mexico?

JB: I grew up in Jersey, man, so I can relate.

PS: Jersey. So you understand what I’m talking about.

JB: Yes.

PS: Because you have this dichotomy in your ethos and approach to things. The cultural differences, right?

JB: Absolutely.

PS: I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but when I was in Wisconsin, I really couldn’t appreciate it. This year’s really important for me, because it’s my 18th year in Oakland. So this year marks the same amount of time in Oakland as I was in Wisconsin.

It’s a strange feeling. Maybe that’s beside the point.

Now that I’m in California, steeped in the art world, I find there’s a lot things I don’t appreciate. Things I’m not in line with. When I break it down and look at it, it’s because of the way I was raised.

JB: Jersey gets a bad rap, and I couldn’t wait to get away, frankly. But one person’s “Bridge and Tunnel” is another person’s grounded, down-to-Earth, everyday American.

PS: Absolutely.

JB: I could see the Twin Towers from my town, but it was so different from New York City.

PS: That’s exactly right. Do you feel that now that you’re in New Mexico, which couldn’t be more different from where you’re from?

JB: It’s like what you were saying with your 18 and 18. My folks first brought me out here when I was 14, and they moved here permanently when I was still in college.

PS: Moved here, meaning New Mexico?

JB: Yeah. Taos. They still live here. So I’ve been around this place, on and off, for 27 years. This is home, and Jersey is the place that made me, that I still go visit occasionally.

In my own psyche, I don’t relate as an East Coaster so much.

PS: All my family is still in Wisconsin, and I go back to visit, so I’m still connected to it. I think about it a lot. And then I come back from these trips, and within four hours, I’m back in this liberal, hippie bubble that we live in in the Bay Area.

JB: The sun is shining, and the palm trees are swaying.

PS: Totally. And I find it comforting, and I love it. At the same time, so much of it is not in line with how I want my life. In a lot of ways, I create this environment for myself, like the phone number, that harks back and references this nostalgic America. I don’t know…

In a lot of ways, I’m antiquated, and still not in touch with the way things really are. But, whatever. It’s this weird world that I’ve created for myself. I assume it’s idealized in a lot of ways.

JB: Let’s go into that world a little bit. I’m looking at the “Subscription Series Number 1″ on your website, which I assume is the project we were just talking about, without naming it.

That’s the first time I see Mike Brodie’s name pop up on the website, and it was put out in 2006.

PS: Yeah.

JB: I’m going to go ahead and assume that people will know who Mike is, without having to do a lot of backstory. I’ve reviewed his first book, by Twin Palms, and he’s had a ridiculous amount of success in the last few years.

How did you guys meet? How did you come to become friends and collaborators?

PS: I was introduced to Mike through a friend of ours: Monica. Mike would travel through Oakland, and Monica lived in a punk house that we’d go to and hang out at, they would have parties and shows there. He’d stayed there a couple of times, and she told me, “This kid comes through town, and he’s great. His name is Brodie, and he’s got all these Polaroids with him.”

At the time, I shot a lot of Polaroid stuff. It was natural, and that simple. There was a party at the house, I think it was actually Monica’s birthday. My good friend DV and I were there. We all just hung out, I remember I made a photo of Brodie that night with his dog Pucci. My wife recently put it in this special cabinet at home. Brodie looks like he’s 12 years old in the photo now!

I told him to bring some Polaroids next time he was in town, and he did, so we sat there and talked about them. He was showing me these Polaroids he was getting while he was traveling, and I was already becoming versed in the Fine Art world. I was hearing terms like “archiving,” because of school. You know?

JB: Sure.

PS: I was like, “Archiving. OK. Acid free.” I said to him, “OK, why don’t you send me these Polaroids, and I’ll archive them and for you, and catalogue them. Because I think these things are pretty incredible.”

He and I started hanging out. He was younger than me, and I had a little more knowledge than he did at the time, so I was kind of…

JB: Big brother?

PS: Maybe A little bit. Maybe like I could help this kid, in some way, because I was pretty sure he was going to get steam-rolled pretty soon. Based on how good these things are. That’s all.

He and I became pretty fast friends, so when he came through town, he’d stay with me. I enjoyed his stories.

There were other things happening. I got in a gallery around the same time, so I was really getting into the art world. I was seeing prices, and how important art became on the secondary market. Understanding and learning the habits of collectors.

When I was thinking about the stuff that Brodie was making, I thought there was probably an opportunity for us to collaborate a little more than just hanging out as friends, and looking at photos. He had no interest in the art world whatsoever, and I did, so I thought maybe he and I could work out some sort of system.

I could help oversee things, and help ensure that they were done properly. Not butchered.

JB: It’s come across in the interview that you have a good business mind, to go along with your work ethic. But if I understand things right, the creative collaboration worked both ways.

I’m pretty sure I remember from when I first reviewed your excellent book “Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me,” that Mike Brodie is the one who first found the pictures that became your art project. Is that right?

PS: That’s exactly right. At one point, he was traveling in Georgia, and was spending time in an abandoned prison. When you’re 23, it sounds really fun to go to an abandoned prison.

He found all these mug shots, and sent them back to me, and said, “You got to look at these. They’re incredible.” And I looked at them, and I thought they WERE incredible.

I don’t know if you’ve pulled this together, but I have a real interest in vernacular photography. I think a lot of people do at this point. I’m interested in found photography, and re-contextualizing images that were never intended to be seen in certain ways.

How history can re-shape the meaning of photographs. I love all that stuff. So this was really up my alley, and he knew that, so he sent them to me in a big, beat up box. My nature is to organize and archive, so I began immediately to put them into groups and categories, to make sense of it. Because there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

I made categories: Black guys, white guys, old guys, young guys. I wanted to make some sense of what he sent me. Eventually, I edited the images to become a book with the conceptual approach that I was choosing images with likeness to myself. That in an almost Becher-esque way, you could see all the images and get a generic idea of the Author. In this case, me.

JB: It’s funny, because you keep using the word archive, and the word we haven’t used yet is appropriation. I’m constantly surprised that the idea of appropriation is still as dangerous and edgy to some people as it seems to be. You know?

Richard Prince is held up as a god and a devil, depending on which side of the fence you sit. Is that something that you were thinking about at the time, with this work? You mentioned archiving and vernacular, so that makes me think maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision on your part to say, “I’m appropriating this. I’m taking it, and making it mine.”

PS: It’s interesting. Appropriation, in my mind, has a negative connotation to it. So I think earlier, I said re-contextualizing, which is another way of saying appropriating. I archived and organized, at first. Then afterwards, when I was making the book, it certainly can be argued that yeah, I appropriated those photos for my own artistic enjoyment.

I certainly did that.

JB: Yeah, I think you’re probably right that it’s seen as a pejorative term, but the process is so well-established within the tradition of art that I almost wonder whether we’re selling the word short.

Frankly, I had a different read when I saw the pictures as over-sized prints on the wall at Pier 24 than I did with the book. I much preferred the hand-held experience.

PS: Yeah. Books and prints have very little in common. They are very distinct and separate experiences to me.

JB: That’s why I wanted to talk to you about this. Aside from the word itself, do you think that it ought to still be controversial, in 2015, when people have been doing it successfully and intelligently for decades?

PS: I personally don’t see any problems with it. It’s a response to the appropriation that happens every day on the Internet. My personal belief is that we live in a time, for better or worse, where images are made, consumed, and used by everyone at all times.

We live in a borderless, fenceless, Wild, Wild West when it comes to images online. It sounds arrogant and pompous, because it is, but my job as an artist, as a person who thinks about and consumes photography at every level, as a person who attempts to contextualize images in our culture, my job is to use images any way that I feel is responsible and appropriate

There might be repercussions from that, but that’s a world we live in now. (pause.) Now I’m thinking about what I just said. Certainly, if there’s copyright on things, that’s a legal binder to an artist and complicates this whole conversation above my pay grade and expertise.

(pause.) Hey look, can we chalk it up and say I don’t know the answer. I’m just reacting. I’m doing what I do, and I don’t necessarily know the answer to your question.

JB: I wanted your opinion, and you gave it. It’s a great opportunity to talk with someone who’s working with that practice, and doing it well. How could I not want to touch on that in the interview?

But there are other things I’d like to talk about. Let’s jump back into photobook publishing, before our brains burn out.

The most recent thing that I saw, and reviewed, by TBW is the “Assignment Number 2″ project, with the Sugimoto and Misrach photos. The book made with a prisoner who had been held in solitary confinement in San Quentin prison. I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about this.

PS: OK.

JB: Both Rob and I thought this thing was really, really dynamite. Creative, smart, political, positive. You’ve been publishing for ten years, and now it seems like you’re in a place where you’re almost re-inventing what a photobook could be. Do you think that’s a fair statement?

PS: Well, yes. But also no, in the fact that I wish you had a copy of my first book, and it wasn’t much more than a bunch of glued together postcards. So I really have always had that idea that a photobook is not what we’re told a photobook is. How it’s experienced. The materiality of it.

A large portion of what I do with TBW are these limited editions. They’re objects in a way that’s interactive, and sculptural. I have parts that are machined by motorcycle builders. I’d like to hope that the work I’m doing with TBW is always questioning the format of books.

This particular project, “Assignment Number 2,” was just a great opportunity to explore and think about what this thing should be. It went through many different incarnations, in the design phase. That project was 3-something years in the making, and it was always talked about that it was going to be a book.

We just finally got to a point where it just was telling us it didn’t want to be a book. You’re photographing that yellow-hand-written paper against a black backdrop, so you can lay it out on a page. Then, against a white backdrop. Then, it’s against concrete, which will reference the idea of a prison cell.

Nothing’s working. It’s not feeling right. At some point you just say, “What we need to do is reprint it at scale, page for page. That’s the way it wants to be.” It needs the tactile, interactive experience, so that the person can get the sense of what this thing is.

So you come to that conclusion. It’s an organic, natural process when designing a project, where you say “OK, so if we have this yellow paper, we have 10 of them, and it looks exactly like his original paper, then how do we bind it into the hardcover book?”

It’s not enough pages. It’s not in signatures, so we can’t stitch it. We don’t want to staple the side of it.

JB: It’s a process.

PS: It’s a process and you have to trust the process. The real story is, I was going to FedEx, and I go to these really great ladies near my house, to drop off my packages. They’re these old school ladies that have this packing and shipping store. You know those stationary store type places?

JB: Sure.

PS: I went in and asked, “Anne, do you have any old clips?” Because everything in there is from the 70’s. Dead stock. I asked for clips for a binder folder, and she pulled out three different options.

So I had one of each, and one of them happened to have those old two-hole punches. So we mocked it up, and I said, “What if we just punched it two times, and put in a folder like this? Actually, that feels really good. That feels right. Let’s do that.”

Then, we’ve got into developing and aging this folder. That’s the process. I’m as excited these days about the design of these things. Coming up with those solutions.

For a lot of people, the dream is to be a photographer. You travel the world, you make photographs. And that’s it. You know this.

JB: I know this.

PS: 99% of what you do as a photographer is not photographing. The actual photographing, or working with photos, is very limited. Most of it is going to Fed Ex and trying to find the exact two hole punch.

So in the process of designing this, we wanted it to have this exterior feeling. Really grubby, dingy, worn out. And then the inside you open it up, and you have these perfect reproductions of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Misrach photos.

How do you achieve that? We sampled out all these papers, and we found a manufacturer who did double-sided paper. One side uncoated, and the other with a gloss UV varnish.

That whole process: How does a viewer see this? How do they touch it? How do they open it? What’s the feeling they get when they slide it out of the package? If they open this flap first, what are they presented with?

There’s a whole process to looking at books. You know this as a reviewer. You look at them in a certain way, in a certain environment. Are you standing up, or are you sitting down? Are you drinking a beer, or are you not?

I take all these things into consideration. Who is my audience? How are they going to experience this? I love, love, love thinking about all those things.

JB: It comes across. I kind-of wanted to hear you say that stuff, because, in my experience, these things are never arbitrary. They can’t be.

PS: That’s right.

JB: When something works that well, I wanted to hear you talk about all the thought that goes into it. You must have learned quite a bit about process these last ten years, or am I assuming incorrectly?

PS: My process has never changed. Now, I’m balancing this thing where I have to run a business now. I know through your writing that you have kids too. I have a kid now.

Things change when there are real life issues that need to be dealt with, so I’ve had to make certain adjustments that I wouldn’t have made before.

It used to be, “Hey, I’m going to hand stamp all these covers, and if it takes me three weeks, all night long, I’m happy to do that.

And I thrived on that. But now, I can’t do that, because I have these other things that I have to pay attention to. I’ve had to make certain decisions, in production, and how to stream-line day-to-day business, to make it more efficient.

But I still am doing insane things that make no sense. Like hand-stamping that cover with the date, and the red tornado that you talked about.

JB: Exactly.

PS: I’m not kidding when I say I tested that hand stamper 100 times, so that I learned when I stamped it, to twist it at the same time, so that it smudged. Lester, who runs the office, said, “Why are you stamping it twice?” I said, “I think, from a design perspective, it looks more interesting if the date is there, and then also there’s this weird red smudged date. As if the person who stamped it made a mistake.”

And he just looked at me like, “If you want to stamp it twice, go ahead.”

JB: (laughing)

PS: So I was stamping it twice. Here’s the thing: the reason that I started hand stamping things is because on that first book I did, “Good by Angels” I didn’t have a budget to print a cover.

So I found a printer, and they were like, “Here’s what we’ll print for you. And if you want a 4 color cover printed, it’s this much more. If you want black and white, it’s this much more. I said, shit, I don’t have any money. So what I’m going to do is buy a rubber stamp with my title on it, and I’ll hand stamp them to save money.”

I had this book at the time, called “The Self-Publish Bible,” or something like that, and there was literally 10 commandments. One of them was, “Make sure that your title can be read from 10 feet away. Use a bright color, and bold font, so that when it’s on the shelf in the book store, people flock to it like a moth to a flame.”

I thought, this is insane. This book is not going to be in a book store, so that doesn’t apply to me whatsoever. So in an antagonistic approach, I did my cover black on black in a Old English font. You could just see it slightly reflecting in the sunlight, but I hand-stamped them all, and that became this thing that I’ve done ever since.

Each one is subtly different. Now I have the resources to print 4 color covers, and we did. On “Assignment Number 2,” all that weathered edging is printed 4 color. So all I had to do was make a stamp logo with the date, and print that on there too, and it would have eliminated me hand-stamping thousands of covers.

JB: You’re risking carpal tunnel syndrome for your creativity.

PS: (laughing) Exactly. But I was really driven to be able to provide something that was subtly unique to each person. I think it’s awesome that on the review copy you got, it looked like a tornado. Somebody else buys it, reads your review, and thinks, “Why doesn’t mine look like a tornado.” And then they say, “Oh shit, mine doesn’t look like a tornado because they’re different. Are these hand-stamped? Who on Earth would hand-stamp these? Why? What does it matter?”

Well, when you think of an institution like San Quentin prison, and you think of the office there, there’s some lady there who got the thing, and received it on July 18th and…stamped it. That’s why. You know what I’m saying? That’s why. Because that makes sense with what we’re trying to get across in that project.

I love all that stuff. I want to tell you one other thing, because I want you to understand why these things are in my head. I told you earlier that I would order records direct from record labels when I was younger.

JB: Right.

PS: I ordered a record a long time ago, and it had a white booklet with the lyrics of the song. Some photographs. And really delicately placed on the sleeve, and some of the pages, were these perfect, black fingerprints. And, I thought, “Oh my god, this is the best design ever. Somebody subtly took fingerprints, scanned them, adjusted the levels, and printed these fingerprints to reference a ghost. Or a person of the past, flipping through.

It fell in line with the aesthetic of the band. It made sense. I thought, “This is brilliant design. I love it. Super-smart. Super-subtle. Super-beautiful and poetic.”

Well, flash forward 8 years, and I was having a hard time. I was pissed off at the world, needed some cash, and sold all my records. I quickly realized that was a mistake, and went on the hunt to buy back the records that were important.

I ordered that record again, and I open it up: no fingerprints. I was totally crushed, because I realized that there wasn’t a smart designer that designed this with these fingerprints. But I was also amazed that someone had flipped through the booklet, and it got slipped back into the pile and packaged, and my record was unique in that way.

JB: Right.

PS: I thought I’d bring it up. Those nuances are so powerful, and I try to put that into the books that I make now. Whether or not anybody gets it, or cares, I don’t know.

But for me, it’s that important.

JB: Don’t they stay that about Apple? That their engineers always want the innards that nobody will ever see to be as elegant and efficient as the design is outside?

PS: I heard the story that Steve Jobs said, “This motherboard is cluttered, and has to be redone,” and someone said, “No one’s ever going to see it,” so he fired them.

JB: Urban legend.

PS: There’s a madness to it. An arrogance to it. But maybe a reason for it? I don’t know.

JB: I don’t believe these things are accidental. When people are willing to do the kinds of things that you’re talking about: take risks, stay true to themselves, meld the different parts of their personality into a holistic object, people can tell.

They might not be able to break it down in the specific way that you build it up, but it’s communicated properly, and they understand they’re looking at something powerful. Something that’s really well built.

When you break it down for the readers, you’re giving them an opportunity to think a bit about these ideas might impact their work, and their careers.

You talk about paying attention to the smallest details, and no one would know this, but our interview was briefly interrupted when my phone line went down. And I didn’t need to go back to check my email to find your phone number.

510-444-BOOK. It was embedded in my brain. Like it or not.

PS: Man, I like that!

JB: True story. And thanks so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

Above door entering TBW Books offices, Oakland Ca.

Above door entering TBW Books offices, Oakland Ca.

Packing station,TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

Packing station,TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

Detail of Subscription Series #4, TBW Books

Detail of Subscription Series #4, TBW Books

Detail of wall above packing station, TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

Detail of wall above packing station, TBW Books, Oakland Ca.

TBW Books product

TBW Books product

http://www.tbwbooks.com/books/ASSIGNMENT-NO-2

http://www.tbwbooks.com/books/DEAD-MEN-DONT-LOOK-LIKE-ME

 

This Week In Photography Books: Lindsay Morris

by Jonathan Blaustein

My daughter is a spitfire. A wild-cat. A force of nature. She is genuinely fierce, and has tried to kick me in the face more times than I can count. (Luckily, I’m quick enough to dodge, and of course, she isn’t trying to hurt me. But she did tag my wife just last night.)

She also loves the color pink, and wears her Elsa-themed Disney princess dress as often as we’ll allow it. I’ve seen her in a tiara, and it’s cuter than a waterskiing squirrel. But she won’t let us put her hair in pig-tails.

Ever.

Honestly, like many a hetero-guy, I was frightened of having a daughter. I imagined future scenarios with boys at the door, waiting to take her out on the town. I was one of those boys, years ago. Their minds are not very complex, I’m afraid.

Once she was born, though, I realized that you take each day as it comes. We’re not yet 3 years in, and I’m eternally grateful that she wasn’t a boy, as it’s expanded my world immeasurably, learning to live with this head-strong, moody, gorgeous little blue-eyed girl.

And, on several occasions, I’ve wondered whether she’ll be interested in those boys that come to the door, or if she’ll prefer girls instead. I don’t mean to shock here. If I had to guess, I’d suspect she’s straight, like her brother and her parents.

But it’s 2015, and thankfully, most of us are comfortable with the idea of gender mutability and homosexuality. It’s cool with me that my little girl likes to wrestle and fight, in addition to playing with her dolls.

Who am I to judge?

It’s ironic, tragic, and a bit thrilling that we live in a country, and a world, that offers unprecedented rights for LGBT people, while concurrently, hordes still try to restrict their freedoms. It’s so of-the-moment to watch things evolve this quickly. (#YOLO)

Hell, I wrote a story for Lens in March, in which I profiled an artist who’d photographed Hijras in Bangladesh. Those are men who gender identify as women, and occupy a stratified position in the Muslim society. The article’s text was slightly amended, after a qualified commenter claimed I’d used improper gender nomenclature in my explication.

It doesn’t get more real time than that.

I’m always interested in the way photographers show us things we haven’t seen. Things that are relevant to the here and now. So it was inevitable that I’d want to review “You Are You,” a new monograph by Lindsay Morris, recently published by Keher Verlag in Germany.

And so I shall.

The key to the book sits on the cover, but I didn’t notice, as I opened it rather quickly. The first photos give the sense of a camp environment, but not much more. Picnic tables around a campfire. Lush green vegetation. An archery target affixed to a tree.

Then, after the title page, we’re treated to a visceral, and not-too-long poem by Victoria Redel, that describes a young boy with the courage to publicly acknowledge his love of glitter, and other “girly” things. It was a moving piece of writing, and then the next page, (the cover image I’d skipped past) shows what appears to be a short-haired boy, with a flower in his hair, frolicking with a gaggle of girls.

OK. I get it now. This is not just any summer camp. Interesting things are happening here, and I want to know more.

In each subsequent photo, I found myself scouring the images more carefully. Is that a boy? Could it be? What’s going on here? What’s the deal?

The pictures are uniformly well-made, and the sense of joy and play leaps off the page. I’ve been not-so-patiently awaiting summer, and this book made me want to bellow at the gods to make the good weather come that much sooner. (Or at least bellow at the fuzzy bunny staring at me, just outside the window, in case he has a direct line to Mother Nature. Make it warm, little bunny. Make it warm.)

There is a fair bit of text at the end of the book that gives us the context we’ve mostly guessed at. Ms. Morris spent several years visiting, and photographing, at Camp You Are You, which takes place over a weekend every summer. It allows “gender-nonconforming children and their families” a space to hang out together, play, and explore their identities collectively.

The end section features resources for people wanting more specific info, several essays, and testimonials directly from some of the parents. It’s a photo-book with the heart of a instructional pamphlet. Or maybe it’s both.

People like us, we’re the target market for this sort of publication. Open-minded, liberal, supportive. I’m sure some of you might break that stereotype, but creatives in general tend not to be small-minded homophobic racists. So this book might well be for you.

Personally, I’d be more curious to see the expression on someone’s face, someone who believes in denying others the freedom to be themselves. What might they say, while flipping through these pages? How much evidence of joy would it take to set them off, to fire up their anger? How many kids would they rather see cooped up inside an oppressive box?

Bottom Line: Excellent, positive, life-affirming look at a summer camp for gender-nonconforming children

To Purchase “You Are You” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Christopher Williams

by Jonathan Blaustein

The strangest thing happened to me yesterday. I was chatting with a neighbor while photographing his Apache sweat lodge. (Long story.) We’d met for the first time the day before, so I was making small talk about our little valley.

I asked him if he’d seen the pair of golden eagles that lived around here, and often roosted in the tall cottonwoods near the stream.

He said he had no idea there were a pair of golden eagles around here. His tone was dubious. Then he mentioned that there WERE a couple of red-tailed hawks living in the canyon, but of course that was something else entirely.

It was the third time in as many weeks that someone had told me my eagles were hawks. The first two times, I shrugged it of as misinformation. But yesterday? I realized I might have been the one mistaken.

So I ran home and hit up my trusty friend Google. My heart sank. My favorite birds, the one’s from whom I’d learned so much, were not eagles… but hawks.

Should it matter?

The birds are no less beautiful. Or majestic. Their hunting prowess no flimsier, nor their stupefying ability to soar through the air without seeming to move at all.

So what was the problem? In my mind, they were eagles: rarer and more special than common hawks. I identified with them as being the kings of the sky. That they lived in my yard made me feel special. I told many people about my eagles.

But they were never eagles. At least, not outside my own mind. They nested inside my expectations, and laid eggs that gave me courage and confidence.

And now?

Now, I have to get over myself. I’m still freakishly lucky to live in a place where I get to watch red-tailed hawks circle over my yard on a near-daily basis. The fact that I’m even conflicted about this says quite a bit about my ridiculous character.

But expectations are powerful things, even if they don’t have a tangible presence. Take books, for example. We “expect” them to make sense. To tell a story. To inform us of their meaning, at some point, before we cease to flip the pages.

That’s their job. To tell us stuff, either in pictures, words, or both.

But what if you found a book that absolutely refused to bow to convention? That reveled in fucking with your head, while simultaneously depicting a set of images made during an artist’s career?

What would you think about that?

I’m glad you asked. Because I just finished looking at a red monograph of work by the conceptual photography/art star Christopher Williams, and I’m still scratching my head.

I knew it was his book, because photo-eye had affixed a tag that said Christopher Williams, printed in Germany, $120. That’s all I got, even after looking at the whole book. (Though the “Printed in Germany” did appear at the end of the book too, on an insert, which was a tad reassuring. That they knew how to print words at all, that is.)

I would have figured out it was his book, had I not known, because I’ve seen some of his seminal images before. They’re always inscrutable. Pictures of cameras, deconstructed. Cars, tipped like cows in a pasture. Models, obviously on set, with color bars in the frame. Corn in the husk.

I’ve read a bit about him in the past, and know there are strong motivations behind the work. Big ideas. Political, even. But you’re never going to suss that out just by looking at the pictures. I’m a bright guy, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.

But start I did, and the first handful of pages in the book are red. Like, red red. Bright red. Cherry red. Coca Cola red.

There’s no name on the cover. When you finally find a photo, on a white page, it’s a piece of yellow foam wrapped into a sculptural form. The kind you might put upon your child’s bed to make it softer. (My son was praising his yellow-bed-foam just yesterday, coincidentally.)

That picture repeats later. As do others. There are seemingly African workers in front of a Heidelberg printing press. Some images, of apples, run off the page, and reference the printing process. That, I can say with confidence.

There is one picture of boobs, that repeats, because, as we all know, Boobs Sell Books℠.

Random repeating images. Lots and lots of red pages. No words. Pictures that are odd, and perhaps discomfiting. Maybe a little hypnotic. But they give you nothing concrete.

It’s like the whole book is the spawn of a mad scientist who had sex with a bespectacled artist. It only makes you angry if you think you’re supposed to get it.

But what if you don’t try to get it? What if there’s nothing to get? The world is a messy place, as I wrote last week. Logic and reason exist, but so do chaos and terror. Money rules the day, and it always has. (Though it might have taken the form of salt, gold, oil or jewels.)

When I was done, I practically chuckled at the chutzpah it takes to make a book with no words. There’s even an insert at the end, the type that typically contains an essay or two. Maybe an artist’s exhibition history?

Nope. It was blank. Only red.

Like the look on your face, perhaps, while you’re reading this. Will you like this book? I don’t know. But I think it’s awesome, because it undercuts almost every sane idea about how to make a photo-book.

And all that red made me realize my red-tailed hawks are perfect, just as they are. What’s in a name, anyway?

Bottom Line: Inscrutable, almost offensively strange, yet perfectly awesome book by a brainy art star

To Purchase “Printed In Germany” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Michael Danner

by Jonathan Blaustein

Life in the 21st Century is a futile attempt to answer a set of unanswerable questions. (I’m sorry for the downer, but it’s true.) We’re faced with existential problems that lack easy, digestible solutions.

And yet, we persevere.

How do we reconcile the fact that we are not-so-slowly killing the Earth, but many of the radical things we might do to arrest the changes would likely slow our economy? Which would impact our competitiveness as a nation. And perhaps lead to unrest.

Of course, many people with the political power to enact change, here in the United States, don’t actually believe in science. Or at least they publicly disavow accrued knowledge, so that it doesn’t impede the steady progression of corporate cash into their campaign finance accounts.

I’m not nearly as cynical as it might appear, but honestly, it’s hard to see how we’re going to solve our environmental problems. Because they are inextricably linked to money, and as we all know, cash is king.

Even if, by some miracle, a corporation invents a device that scrubs carbon from the sky, how much do you think they’ll charge for that machine? Can you imagine? Rich countries get to “buy” a cleaner environment, and little Third World backwaters will be shit out of luck.

And yet, we persevere.

I’m musing, mostly because it’s Earth Day today. (We should all wear green, I’d think, but St. Patrick’s Day got there first.) But also because I just opened up “Critical Mass,” a book by German photographer Michael Danner, recently published by Keher Verlag.

This book falls squarely in the category of experiential, which my regular readers know is one of my favorite types of photobook. The pictures within are not drop-dead amazing, but they don’t need to be. Their formal structure screams German, as does the methodical nature of the project.

Mr. Danner photographed in 17 nuclear power facilities in Germany, and brought the results back out in a haz mat suit, I’d imagine. Of course, I thought of Homer Simpson, at times, and once of Thomas Demand’s amazing “Control Room,” but other than that, this book felt fresh to me.

It opens with a set of black and white archival images, which refer to protests in the past. I assume it’s protests against nuclear power plants, but there is no text in the beginning to corroborate. (That comes at the end.)

From there, we enter a world of color, though much of the exterior reality is drained of vibrance. Then we head to the entrances to the facilities. At that point, we realize that the book is segmented into “chapters,” which offer the repetition of showing us the same thing at different plants. (I couldn’t do it justice in the photos below, as I have spatial constraints.)

The entrance gates. The locker rooms. The haz mat suits. The cafeterias. The conference rooms. The gym. The gym?

We can imagine some nameless drone walking through the turnstiles, clocking in, grabbing a presumably free currywurst, changing in the locker room, suiting up, and then going about a “routine” that carries with it the risk of melting down a whole region of a prosperous country, and potentially polluting the air of an entire continent.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Nuclear power provides near-boundless energy, without polluting the air, but the waste is beyond toxic. The Fukushima disaster, and Chernobyl before it, remind us that the economic cost of the megawatts can exceed what is written in a profit-loss ledger.

Do we have a choice about Nuclear Power? Or is it a necessity?
I have no idea. As I said at the outset, these questions bely easy answers.

Back to the book, and we finally move along the vent tubes into the reactors. Industrial-looking behemoths. How do they work? Fuck if I know. Uranium? Plutonium? The methane from aggregated rhino farts?

From there, we enter the bowels of the facilities. One long, dark tunnel after another. This was my favorite part, because the imagery was visceral and striking, as opposed to much of the book, which was clinical and intelligent, but not dynamic.

We finish with a bookended set of archival pictures of protests from back in the 20th C. An era when most people thought the Earth’s resources were limitless, and our political rivalries binary. Us or them. Capitalist or Communist. Good or bad. Black or white. Life or Death.

Bottom Line: A methodical, experiential look inside German nuclear power plants

To Purchase visit http://dannercriticalmass.com

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Andrew Hetherington Interview

Jonathan Blaustein: You’re from Ireland. Is that right?

Andrew Hetherington: Correct. Yes.

JB: How far does a good accent take you?

AH: Good question. It certainly helped get my foot in the door and I have certainly laid it on thick at times to break the ice. Then sprinkle some irony, sarcasm and charm on top for the full Irish effect.

One has to use what one has. You know?

JB: Don’t hate the playa, hate the game. Right?

AH: We wouldn’t say that in Ireland. But…I guess, yeah.

JB: (laughing) There’s the sarcasm. I guess. Whatever.

AH: Let’s face it. It is partly a game, and how you choose to play it. I think you’ve got to use all the tools in the arsenal. Do you need to take good photographs? Absolutely, but what else sets you apart from the pack?

I recently photographed Conor McGregor the mixed martial arts fighter aka The Notorious AKA from Dublin here in New York for Esquire magazine. We hadn’t met before but he knew where I was from as soon as I spoke my first word. I said off the bat that I was a shite photographer and the only reason I was on the shoot was that I was Irish. Ice broken.

Doesn’t matter to me whether I am photographing a celebrity, a person in the street or a slice of bread I try to be as genuine and sincere as possible.

JB: You could not have set me up more perfectly for the next question. You used the word arsenal, I’m curious as to whether you’d agree that Arsenal Football Club are likely to beat the pants off of Liverpool this upcoming Saturday?

AH: I have a funny feeling they will, yes. They are the form team and we are lacking in world class players like Ozil and Sanchez in the middle of the park. So I expect us to get well-beaten, although secretly I hope we will win. Being a Liverpool supporter, naturally.

JB: That was not the answer I was expecting. The guy I interviewed last week (Dewi Lewis) was a Manchester United fan, and he was such a homer, he defended them to the death under all circumstances. So I thought I was going to get your goat, but instead, you were honest.

AH: Well, we are having a mixed season. The usual highs and lows. I’m very much a realist. We haven’t played particularly well against the big clubs. If we’d beaten Manchester United the weekend before last, I was hopeful we would make a charge for a Top 4 spot, but I don’t think we’ll get there. We are looking at 5th, and Tottenham and Southampton are nipping at our heels.

The dreamer in me thinks we can win the whole thing of course. I photographed the Liverpool owner, John Henry, right before the end of last season. We were both really optimistic, believing that we would do it. He hit me with some statistics he had run, being a statistically-minded owner, saying that we had a really good percentage chance of winning the league title. The shoot was right after the Manchester City game and the day after the Hillsborough documentary aired on ESPN. It was a very emotional session that one.

JB: Isn’t that the beauty of sports, no matter how you crunch the numbers, there’s no algorithm that can predict that Steven Gerard’s going to slip, or lose his mind and get red carded against Manchester United.

The two defining moments of the last 8 months of Liverpool football could not have been predicted by a computer on Earth. Isn’t that crazy?

AH: Yes, it’s a funny old game as the saying goes. Both events were gut wrenching. I couldn’t look at the UTD game. Already dreaming about next season at this stage.

JB: I only know you’re a Liverpool fan because I watched a video on your website called “Meet the Hetheringtons.” It’s awesome, and everyone who reads this interview should go watch it now.

Did you direct it? Who was the official “maker” of this video, which inter-spliced interviews with you and Tim Hetherington? Was that your baby, or collaborative?

AH: That was my idea. I’d always known of Tim.

One hoped that one was the only “Hetherington” photographer. If there were 20 Andrew Hetheringtons, how do you differentiate yourself from one another?

So I remember seeing Tim’s name in “Vanity Fair,” when I was getting my thing going, and just being in awe of his talent. Early on, in the first couple of years that I was getting into American photography, it was always alphabetical, so I would be before him.

I’d have some portrait, and Tim would have some Earth-shatteringly brilliant picture from Afghanistan, or whatever. It was inevitable we would meet one day, and the opportunity came at the New York Photo Festival, when that was going strong. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Jon Levy, who was at Foto8 at the time.

I had no idea what to expect. And then it turns out he’s literally larger then life in person, tall, handsome, engaging. The complete package. And I’m bald, and 5’8″.

He was the sweetest, most generous charismatic life force, and I figured I had to do something fun with him for the blog so the idea of the video popped into my head. He was totally game and on board, up for some fun. I shot video of him answering the questions. Through our conversation, we figured out that we had some stuff in common, like both being Liverpool supporters.

JB: That was what struck me. I never met the man. Just knowing his work, which was so life-and-death serious, I assumed he was a serious guy. But in the video, he had a wry smile on his face, and came across as funny and down-to-earth.

You’re confirming that he was a fun, cool dude?

AH: Yeah. People close to him hadn’t seen the video until after his death and were touched when they saw it.

We weren’t best friends, by any means.

JB: I understand.

AH: We were friendly. We did an event together for Resource Magazine, I think, out at Root Studios in Brooklyn, where they had a little film evening, inviting photographers who were dabbling in motion to showcase some material. They got in touch with me to show the “Meet the Hetheringtons” video, and in turn I put them in touch with Tim with a view to them screening his “Sleeping Soldiers” piece.

He agreed to have it shown, and showed up for the evening himself. I think he was working in Amsterdam, and managed to get back for the evening. The two of us are sitting there, and they show mine first, and then they show his right afterwards. They couldn’t have been more polar opposite content wise, but it was a fun.

A special moment I will treasure.

I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me that opportunity, and for spending a little time with me. He was definitely one of the greats. Talent, creativity and humanity just oozed from him. I had the utmost admiration for what he did, and who he was.

JB: Well, you’re really anticipating my question. This one sets up perfectly. Sure, you had some things in common, and were both Liverpool supporters. But you are Irish, and he was English.

Here’s the real question: Who are better drinkers, the Irish or the English? Who takes that one?

AH: (laughing) Oh wow. Can we have a score draw on that one?

JB: That’s a politically correct answer right there.

AH: Well, I mean, I have a lot of English friends and a lot of Irish friends. And what about the Scots? And the Welsh? I think on any good night, as in any good day on the pitch, anyone can play a blinder, getting back to the sporting analogies.

JB: OK. Fair enough. I asked the question, you answered it. You mentioned a few minutes ago that back in the day, you were a serious blogger. Let’s talk about that. There’s something I’m super curious about, and I’m sure you’ve been asked before.

What is the, or a, Jackanory? It sounds like a mythical animal.

AH: If you were Irish or English, you would know all about this. When we were kids in the 70’s, there was a children’s television show called “Jackanory,” where a celebrity, a writer, or a reader would basically read a story, from a book, on television. You don’t get any more high tech than that.

It became a slang term. What’s the Jackanory? means what’s the story?

I knew early on that something interesting was happening with the blogs. I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to figure out how to use this tool, partly for fear of getting left behind too (laughing).

The idea was to treat the blog as if it as my own online magazine, so it wouldn’t be Andrew Hetherington’s blog just about Andrew Hetherington. Whats The Jackanory? seemed like the perfect name. So I searched the URL, it was available and I bought it. And that was that.

JB: I expect that our readers will know who you are, and that you’re working like crazy for the biggest magazines, but how much of your current success would you attribute to the fact that you built a following, got name recognition, and people learned more about you through the blog? Do you think it had a significant impact on what came next?

AH: Yes. I really do. I’d been in the game a long time. I started off in Ireland, and began again in the US. In the late 90’s, I started shooting for magazines like “Cosmopolitan,” and “Mademoiselle.” Primarily doing fashion and beauty photographs, but mixing it up with portraiture and music photography.

Like a lot of young photographers, I thought I could do it all. After the tragedies of September 11th there was a period of uncertainty in the publishing world as companies circled the wagons unsure of the immediate future. A few of my clients closed up shop including “Mademoiselle” who would have been my biggest at the time. I also realized I had got as far as I could in the world of fashion photography.

I do appreciate the art. I think you have to live and breathe fashion to for the work to be genuine, and I was losing interest. Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to adapt, and change.

I saw the blog as a chance to be creative, to promote myself and also as a way to promote other people and work I liked. It was a great venue for me creativity because I could do little photo projects, little videos, little whatevers. If it didn’t work no worries, move on, next. It pushed me.

The timing was right too, because it was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram. The feed was less cluttered. It was also a very exciting time, with bloggers like Alec Soth, or Rob here at A Photo Editor, the Bitter Photographer.

People in the photo industry started to use blogs to find photographers, look at work, information and so on.

JB: You’re talking about being adaptable, and being slightly ahead of the curve, by setting up a blog at the right time. I discovered the blogosphere in 2009, back when Jörg Colberg had a blog roll on Conscientious, and for me, that was what was going on. I used that as a portal, and found your blog that way.

AH: That’s what happened to me too. When I was working as an assistant, I worked a lot at rental studios. It was very social, and I got to meet other photographers and assistants at the studios or at the labs.

Then when you start to shoot, it becomes a little less social, but at the time there was a communal darkroom called Print Space where everyone went to make C-prints. That’s where I met just about everyone: established and young photographers.

With the advent of digital, naturally the darkroom wasn’t as heavily trafficked as before. So someone turned me on to Jörg’s blog one day too, and I went through the blogroll as well, and started clicking, and before you know it, I’d spent two days on these links.

JB: It was crazy.

AH: I said, “Wow.” Because this was what I was missing. I used to see all this new work, and prints before they were in magazines, at that darkroom. I missed that whole community thing, and with Jorg I discovered a new community online.

I was curious and I reached out to Jörg and said how much I liked what he had going on. As well as being a friendly email, there was a method to the madness, because I sent him the link to a photographer friend of mine whose work I knew he would enjoy.

I knew my work wasn’t for Jörg, but I said “Check this out. I think you might like it, and it may be something you could feature.” He posted it a few days later, and I said to my friend, “Hey, can you check your site visits?”

He did, and the numbers were phenomenal, and I thought, this is really something. Things are moving in a new direction.

JB: You had your finger on the pulse then. Good things happened. You’re in a prime position in the industry now, so let’s look forward a little bit. Do you ever think about what comes next?

If you were to theorize about what the industry landscape might look like in five years, what would you say?

AH: (laughing.) Wow. That’s a loaded question. I don’t know. Is it all going down the shitter? Who knows?

JB: Nobody KNOWS. That’s the whole point.

I’m putting you on the prognostication seat. You can choose to sit there, or you can choose to pass. That’s your choice.

AH: I might have to pass on this one, I always feel like I’m just beginning anyways. I like to think I am still emerging. But then someone said I was a veteran recently and I took umbrage (laughing) to that so a photographer friend said I was an emerging veteran and I liked that (laughing).

JB: Well, let’s go there then. When we’re starting out, I think we all have role models. People we admire and want to emulate. Who was that for you? Who do you look to and think, “Damn, I just love how they conduct themselves, or what their work looks like?”

AH: I admire anyone who’s had a long career, whether it be a photographer, an artist, a filmmaker. Anyone in the creative field. That’s all I want to do. There are so many one hit wonders. So many people who come and go.

Being an assistant, and working with a lot of photographers here in New York in the 90’s who had very established and lucrative careers, a lot of them have disappeared. You never know what curveball life or your career can’t throw you at any moment.

I try to take a very measured approach, and be cognizant of change. I try to adapt. I want to learn new things, because I don’t have all the answers, by any means.

I admire people who are in it for the long haul. You’ve got to hand it to the Rolling Stones. Even U2. You have to admire them. You can’t not. How many bands started when U2 did, and are no longer around. I am not a fan of their music by the way.

JB: Looking at your website, you shoot people, places and things. Even among celebrities, you’ve got the hot chef foodies, like Tony Bourdain. You’ve got actors, comedians, athletes. Anyone who knows photography understands that to do that kind of work, you’ve got to be good with people.

What are your go-to moves to put people at ease? Beyond presumably just being a grounded human being, what are your tricks to make people comfortable, when you don’t have a lot of time with them?

AH: I put the accent on thick, for starters (laughing).

JB: That’s why it was my first question! I’m no dummy, man.

AH: (laughing) I’m usually a bumbling idiot I think. I like to be engaged so I try to have a conversation, which might be detrimental, if you only have 30 seconds with somebody.

JB: Did Tony Bourdain actually eat the pig in the photo, when you were all done?

AH: So the Tony story was great, because I’m a big fan, and I like to cook. That one was for “People” magazine. Anyone who knows Anthony Bourdain will know that he’s had a colorful past, so the “People” angle was that he’d recently gotten married and had a young child.

This was the new, post-heroin Anthony Bourdain. Softer around the edges. So the magazine had arranged for me to scout his place in advance, which was great. I remember that it was a really wet day here in New York, and I got totally soaked.

He lives in Mid town, in one of those hi rise towers, and the door man sends me up, and I’m just drenched. I knock on the door, half expecting there to be an assistant or housekeeper to answer, and there’s Tony.

I was like, “Oh Shit!” I said to him, “What if this doesn’t go well? If I say the wrong thing now, will that scupper the shoot? Will you request somebody else?”

He was incredibly gracious, showed me around and when we came back to shoot a week later, he couldn’t have been more professional. He knows how it works, and said, “Let’s just do this,” so we got stuck in and did it.

At the end of the shoot, we hung around and ate pig, and he had a spread of cheeses, and we chilled out for a half an hour which is very unusual. And he was sweet enough to sign my copy of “Kitchen Confidential.”

Every now and again I’ll do the selfie thing or get something signed, but that’s always the furthest thing from my mind on the shoot.

JB: So the answer is that he ate the pig. He had to eat the pig. That was a given.

AH: Yes. That was a given.

Hetherington_Bourdain

JB: You’ve interviewed people. You know how this works. That’s why I led with the accent. In my mind, I imagined that it would go over well.

It puts people at ease, when you can be a bit self-deprecating. Not seem full of yourself. Do you see your job as putting people at ease, and getting them to feel relaxed and comfortable in your presence?

AH: Absolutely. I’m looking for a moment. I’m hoping that a moment’s going to happen at some stage, whether it be in someone’s office or on seamless. The more relaxed and comfortable they are with me the more likely that’s going to happen.

I like to keep things pretty simple technically, so I’m able to move around and react to whats happening in front of me.

I like to watch people when they’re doing what they do. That’s not always possible, but I encourage people, “If we weren’t here, what would you do? Or how would you sit in that chair?”

Obviously, once the camera comes out, people can become very self-aware and I have found that some of the best moments come when I am physically packing the camera in the bag, and I look around and say, “Hold on! That’s perfect!” So I bring the camera back out.

What was the question?

JB: Well, you got it. Don’t worry. The answer was good enough.

AH: (laughing) So I tend to ramble along like that. I know my assistants have problems understanding what I say sometimes. Maybe it’s the accent (laughing) not the mumbling or its a combo.

I do take the work seriously, but I try to have fun.

I’m fortunate to shoot regularly. When you’re working for a magazine or a commercial client, and there are time constraints, if you work once a month it’s very difficult when you get that one shoot, you’re totally invested. You’re nervous, and you over think it. It’s difficult.

But if you’re shooting regularly, for me anyways it’s so much looser and freer. The pictures come so much easier. If I have a bad day, I know I get to go again tomorrow, so some of the pressure is off, somewhat.

Will I beat myself up? Yes. Am I ever happy? No. But I do try to have no regrets after a shoot. If only I had done this or that or asked the subject if they would be willing to do such and such. So I always ask and if they say no that’s okay at least I asked.

JB: You’ve used the word creative several times, and we’re talking about portraiture. And about the fact that you’re out and about in the world.

This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Workshops, because you’re going to be teaching a workshop there this summer called…Creative Environmental Portraiture.

AH: (simultaneously) Creative Environmental Portraiture.

JB: There you go. It’s what you do, and what we’ve been talking about. So we covered that, with respect to being a working photographer. But what about teaching? Is this something that’s in your wheelhouse? Do you do it a lot? Do you enjoy it?

AH: This the first time I’ve done something like this, so I’m really excited. I have done quite a bit of mentoring, which I thoroughly enjoyed, because it’s actually quite therapeutic. It gives me new ideas too.

Usually, it’s with photographers starting out, and we get into a dialogue, and I’m good for that, provided I have the time. I’ve learned just as much through these sessions.

With respect to the workshop, I’ve been brainstorming the curriculum. I value people’s time and money, so I am totally invested in making it worth their while on all levels.

JB: It’s a few months out, so I don’t expect you to have it all dialed in, but what do you think your students can expect to learn?

AH: All the things you don’t learn in photo school (laughing).

Participants will execute portrait assignments in various situations under real shoot conditions.
I have a lot of experience in the school of how to make something out of nothing and I’ll throw them the crazy curveballs that have been thrown at me over the years.

More often then not its these type of shoots are more about problem solving on your feet all the while having to create a compelling image no matter how shitty the location, weather or what not turns out.

Also, how do you work on developing a signature style, because I think that’s important, especially when you’re starting out. It’s important that the photo editors and art buyers can recognize your photographs. That’s definitely been important for me.

In the beginning, I thought I could do everything, and I’d go into meetings with photo editors with three or four different portfolios. While the work was decent, people were confused, because there wasn’t a single visual language.

The course will be the full immersive Hetherington experience, accent and all if that takes your fancy.

JB: Have you ever been to Santa Fe before, or is this going to be your first time?

AH: This is going to be my first time in Santa Fe too.

JB: What are you expecting out of New Mexico? Is it all informed by “Breaking Bad?”

AH: I have been to Albuquerque, so it is all informed by Albuquerque. Yes.

Hetheringtyon_OReillyJB: How did I know? I’m mildly psychic. Because you’ve been so diplomatic the few times I tried to draw you out, I had a question where I was going to put you on the spot about Bill O’Reilly, but I won’t do that.

AH: Try me.

JB: Is he Satan?

AH: (laughing) (pause)

JB: You’re like, “Damn. He’s right. I do have to be diplomatic. I can’t answer that.”

AH: When you’re shooting someone like that, and you do not share their political beliefs, does that taint my approach? I have to say not.

JB: Of course. You’re a pro.

AH: I try to be even-keeled. But someone like that, he’s smart. He’s not going to fall into any visual traps. The image that ran in “Newsweek” was shot right before he taped his TV show.

The bane of a lot of these shoots is these guys end up getting caked in TV makeup, which really isn’t photo-friendly at all. So I liked the fact that he looked like weird made up old white guy.

JB: Regular people have a fascination with fame. That’s why fame exists, and why those famous people make so much money. When you do your job, you have to become inured to it. It doesn’t shake you up.

When you’re so used to shooting people like that, would you admit to having a bucket list? Is there anyone that you really want to photograph, and you’d get all excited about it? Obama? Rihanna?

AH: I don’t even care. I don’t.

JB: Nobody?

AH: Nobody. I’m just happy to be anywhere with anyone. It’s not just the pictures it’s the life experience and the best have come from the most unexpected assignments.

The celebrity thing is not the be all and end all for me. And I don’t necessarily go out of my way to make people look attractive. My lighting is pretty in your face. I don’t come with a lot of bells and whistles.

I’ll be looking at stuff in magazines, or online, and think “I wish I could light like that guy. It’s just beautiful.” And then I’ve got to remind myself, “That’s not what you do.”

JB: I figured you were going to say that. But what if you got hired to shoot Putin? How would you deal with that?

AH: Well in my case it would be on camera flash and boom.

Platon has a great story of his shoot with Putin.

JB: Right.

AH: I assisted Platon a little bit, so when I had to photograph Clinton, I emailed him, because I knew that he’d photographed him. I wanted to get his advice, which was stellar.

Basically, he said, “Be yourself. But be prepared. Be prepared. Be prepared. Be technically prepared. Make sure nothing will go wrong, technically, and if it does, make sure you have a backup to the backup to the backup. Be prepared and be yourself. Oh and enjoy the moment.”

I took his advice and made sure that if Plan A failed, Plan B would work, and that my assistants and I were all drilled. You realize that in a situation like that, the time you’re given is the time you’re going to be given.

There is no extra time. 10 minutes quickly becomes 5 minutes which can become 30 seconds in an instant.

In that case, the magazine had two scenarios they wanted covered in limited time, so I had to make sure that was possible. For me, it was a little harder too because he’s not going to pick his nose. Or bend over and scratch his bum. Or do anything wacky. In this case I knew going in that these pictures were going to be relatively straight forward and I was comfortable with that. It’s a photographic record of this man at this time in his life.

JB: I once saw a video with Platon discussing that shoot he did at the UN where he got something like 30 seconds with every world leader. It made me realize how little your average photographer knows about that level of cutthroat perfection.

AH: Platon is a great example of that. Delivering a telling iconic image in a signature way, in challenging situations. Not only do you need to be a talented photographer but you literally need to be a diplomat too to navigate all the stuff happening on the periphery.

JB: He’s got the accent too.

AH: He’s got the accent too. I learned a lot from him. Including how to exploit the accent (laughing).

JB: Well, I’m from Jersey, so I could always amp it up and pretend that I sound like Tony Soprano if I had to. But then again, I don’t do that kind of work.

If you don’t have an accent, you have to make one up, I suppose.

AH: But it still has to be genuine.

JB: Dammit.

AH: I can’t have a funky haircut. But I do have an accent and a beard (laughing).

JB: There it is. It helps with the branding. But we’ve covered so much ground, why don’t we bring it back to the beginning. Since you’re going to be in New Mexico in the not-too-distant future, why don’t we have a friendly little wager on Saturday’s game.

How about we bet a pint on the Arsenal-Liverpool game?

AH: Sure.

JB: We’re going to end the interview on a wager.

AH: By the time the interview’s published, we’ll have a result.

JB: Exactly. Maybe we’ll do an editor’s note. (Editor’s note: Arsenal won the match, 4-1.)

AH: If Arsenal win, it’s an all expenses paid trip to Santa Fe. On me.

JB: OK. It’s on the record. Thanks again for doing the interview, and I hope all is well in NYC.

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This Week In Photography Books: Roger Eberhard

by Jonathan Blaustein

I met Bruce Springsteen a long time ago. When I still lived in New Jersey. Back when he was a GOD.

It must have been 1992, or thereabouts. I was working in a restaurant in Sea Bright. Down the Shore. The joint was built right upon a brackish inlet, across the street from the Atlantic Ocean.

I’d heard that Bruce liked to show up in an open-topped red Jeep, with Patti in the passenger seat, and the kids in the back. So I HAD been warned. But still, I was not prepared for what it felt like, being in his presence.

My tenure there was rather short, as I ran my mouth a lot, and made the mistake of allowing someone to buy me a drink in the bar, after my shift. I was patently underage, and they got rid of me as quickly as they could. Not the last time I would be fired, but it stung.

So I was doubly-lucky to be working the night Bruce showed up. I stood in the front, near the parking lot, next to two cute hostesses. Bruce pulled up in that Jeep, and bow-leg-strutted straight up to me. There’s no solid explanation as to why he came my way, instead of talking to the pretty girls whose job it was to greet him.

But approach me he did. My palms were sweaty, like a large man in a steam room, and I did my best not to stammer.

“Of course, Bruce. We have a table for you. Of course. We’d be happy to help you and your family. We’re so glad you’re here.”

“Thanks, kid, thanks.”

“Oh, and Bruce? I’m going to your concert next week. I hate to ask, and hope you don’t mind, but is there any way you’d play ‘Blinded by the Light?'”

“Maybe, kid, maybe.”

He didn’t.

But I couldn’t hold it against him. In fact, that night in the restaurant, I put sugar packets under his table to stabilize it, and filled his children’s ice tea cups when they were two sips below the top of the glass. I was attentive in the extreme.

He didn’t seem to mind. Bruce must have been used to the pure adulation of native Jersey boys. Especially Down the Shore. (That’s the local expression for at the beach, for those of you reading this around the world.)

Sometimes, certain people find themselves sitting on top of a pedestal carved from Carrara Marble. They peer down at the rest of us, uncomfortable at such heights, but seem willing to adjust their balance to keep the seat. (With others, like Michael Jordan, you’ll have to cut out their hearts and chop off their heads before they’ll give up their rightful place atop the perch.)

In the Photobook world, one I’ve managed to cover for you, here, for more than 3.5 years, one name reigns supreme: Martin Parr. I’ve got two interviews that we’ll publish in the coming months, with two genuinely excellent photobook publishers, each of whom agreed that the planet is currently inundated with photobooks. (The streets are flowing with four-color pages, all with photographs embedded in ink.)

That’s the way it is these days. So if you’re Martin Parr, it’s a rather good time to be the King of Photobooks. At least, if you like having lots of subjects. (Long live the King.)

That being said, there are probably more people in Albuquerque who’ve heard of Michael Jordan than there are humans alive who’ve heard of Martin Parr. Our culture still needs a sub- in front of it, if we’re being honest.

So “Martin Parr Looking at Books” is definitely a niche product, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a new photobook by Roger Eberhard, published by B. Frank Books, that shows us exactly what the title claims: Martin Parr looking at (photo) books.

Clearly, this is not for everybody. Especially as the pictures are not-particularly-compelling. Mr. Eberhard gets around that fact by giving us a colorful front-cover, a mirror-metallic inside cover, and a few big-font pages with quotes establishing Mr. Parr’s preeminence.

Then, it’s photo after photo of nothing but what you’d expect, given what I’ve already told you. But it is funny. Not LOL funny, but chuckle and smile funny. Ridiculous. It’s a goof on all of us, yet a good-enough-goof that I’m writing about it.

Some of you have taken to the comment section recently to ask why I’d review a given book, when there are far-more-worthy offerings to discuss. I’m guessing some of you will share that sentiment this week. Here’s the only rule: if it inspires me to write, I write.

Before the close, we’re provided with some blank-lined-white pages, ostensibly to write up our own “Best Photobook of the Year List,” because Lord knows there aren’t enough of those already. Hilarious!

But then again, the pictures are not even special. Party Foul! The end notes tell us they were submitted, or provided, to the artist. It’s a collaborative effort, apparently, stalking Martin Parr, and taking his picture while he looks at books.

One can imagine a sister-publication where Robert Parker is photographed while sipping Cabernet Sauvignon? Seth Rogen smoking blunts? Or Bruce Springsteen, papparazzoed, while chowing down on greasy burgers Down the Shore?

Then end notes also claim that Mr. Parr appreciated the joke. I hope you do too. There are so, so many weeks when the books I write about explore tragedy, destruction, and sorrow. So today, “Lighten Up Francis,” and have a laugh at our collective-photo-geek selves.

Bottom Line: Zany, odd, niche photo book that skews itself, and us

Go here to purchase “Martin Parr Looking at Books”

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This Week In Photography Books: Alexandra Huddleston

by Jonathan Blaustein

Today is Tuesday. The day I’m writing this. Tuesday.

But it’s also Friday. Because that’s when you’re reading it. Friday. Strange, no? The existence of twin temporalities? It’s enough to give me a headache.

Fortunately, that prospective malady will be the only one I complain about today. Because I’m finally feeling better. It only took 3 weeks, but hey, who’s counting?

Today (Friday) is no ordinary day, though. It’s Good Friday, which is holy in the Christian tradition, because it was first holy to the Jews. Jesus’ last supper was a Seder, because he was Jewish, which explains why Passover and Easter always seem connected.

They are.

If you were here in Northern New Mexico today, (Friday) and you drove along the highway, you might see pilgrims walking along the side of the road. There are hordes of them who head from all directions towards Chimayo, where they’ll convene to pray, and commune with the seemingly-sacred healing dirt.

I don’t know much about it, to be honest. But I do know that I’m sitting here in a mostly empty classroom, today, because many of my students celebrate. Some of them are even on a pilgrimage of their own, walking South from Costilla, on the Colorado border, to Questa, 20 miles away.

I should have asked them why they do it, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time. 20 miles is a long stretch, if you ask me. So I’d guess the suffering relates to the nasty business Jesus faced at the end of his life.

People often feel the need to walk until their bodies are begging to give out. To push their flesh to the breaking point, in the hope that their spirits will ascend to new knowledge planes. I’ve been known to drive to the Post Office, a mile away, so I’m clearly not one of those people.

But Alexandra Huddleston is. And she’s a New Mexican to boot. So perhaps we might learn a thing or two from her experience.

I know this having just looked through “East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage” her new book, published by Blind Cat Valentine. As I said earlier this year, I’m trying to expand my definition of a reviewable book, and this one helps me do just that.

Apparently, in September of 2010, Ms. Huddleston set off on an 800 mile walk around the Japanese island of Shikoku, so she could follow the Buddhist pilgrim’s trail to the aforementioned 88 temples. Her diary entries, which are included within, seem to indicate that she made the trek over 7 weeks time. Which means her feet must have been really f-cking tired, when all was said and done. (Her blisters must have had blisters.)

The intro text also mentions that she completed the 500 mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain the year prior, which means 1300 miles all told, in search of understanding in two religions. East and West.

Now, the reason why I’d normally not review this book is that the pictures are not amazing. They’re very good, for sure, but I normally prefer a shade more pizazz. More oomph. More edge.

But they are personal, and in conjunction with the diary entries, which tell tales of poisonous centipedes, Korean monks, and free mochi, I get a real sense of who Ms. Huddleston is, and what she’s searching for in this life.

The book is intimate, and thoughtful, and it feels like something she’s sharing with the world, even though it was really meant for her. A way to flesh out her thoughts, to codify her memories, and to honor her journey.

That’s my takeaway, at least, and I felt that it was worth sharing with you, today (Friday? Tuesday?) so that we could acknowledge the power of other peoples’ beliefs, and wish them well as they pray, walk, and ponder.

Bottom Line: A personal, pilgrim’s journey around a Japanese island

Go Here To Purchase “East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage”

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