Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography Books: Rebecca Memoli

 

I’m a little distracted at the moment.

Antidote starts tomorrow, and somehow I find myself playing roles of caterer, landscaper, teacher, entrepreneur, tour guide, and raconteur, simultaneously.

Be careful what you wish for…

Truth be told, I’m very excited. I promised you guys earlier this summer that I wouldn’t promote the retreat here, but technically I’m not, as it’s already good to go.

Following the advice I dispensed in the column a few months ago, (Build it and they will come,) once I decided to go for it, and started buying plane tickets for my instructors, the event fell into place.

But not before.

As my Dad used to say, back when he had the guts to walk away from a lucrative law career, with no guarantee of what the future would hold, “Commit to the path, and you’ll find the way.”

Things are coming at me quickly these days, so it’s great to be able to hit the couch each evening, after we put the kids to bed, and watch some high-grade content on Netflix and Amazon.

After years of having sub-par, over-priced Internet, (Thanks for nothing, Centurylink,) I’ve now got a fairly priced 40mb/second set up, so we stream to our hearts’ content. (Like the rest of you.)

Lately, Jessie and I have gotten into “I Love Dick,” the extreme, fascinating, feminist tale set in Marfa, Texas. You probably wouldn’t recall, but I did a travel series here about a trip to Marfa, back in 2012, and found the place strange as hell.

The show captures the odd mix of high-brow culture and fabulously wealthy people inhabiting a shit-box, formerly poor town in nowhere West Texas. I’m not sure I’ve been to a weirder place, unless you count Van Horn, TX, the creepy spot where we spent the night on our road trip South to Marfa.

“I Love Dick,” while putatively about the Marfa-Art-World Culture, is really a meditation on female sexuality. There have been a million think pieces, posted on a million message boards, seriously discussing the female gaze.

Shows like this are arbiters of the cultural changes afoot in the 21st Century. I could not be happier to see edgy stories like this told from the female perspective, made by female artists.

And this coming from one of biggest male feminists out there. (As I may have said before, with a wife who went to Vassar and Smith, I was always going to end up here.)

“I Love Dick,” though, has helped me distinguish between the parts of the female experience a straight white male can understand, and those he can’t.

For instance, a recent episode featured a digital ghosting effect, in which an amorphous white blob was digitally overlayed on a few of the female characters.

“That’s cool,” I thought.

But when the show was over, I turned to my wife and said, “What do you think that was all about?”

I genuinely didn’t know.

Without missing a beat, Jessie looked at me sympathetically and said, “It represents female desire.”

She was neither rude nor condescending, but it was clear that something I couldn’t figure out was exceptionally obvious to her. (Point taken.)

Speaking of points, how about I get to mine, as I have breads to bake, schedules to build, furniture to move, tents to raise, children to feed, etc.

Yesterday, “The Feeling is Mutual” turned up in the mail. It’s an exhibition catalogue produced by Rebecca Memoli for a show she curated recently in Chicago. (Rebecca has herself been featured here in articles about the Filter Festival.) The catalogue includes four emerging artists: three young women, and a gay male artist.

And as Rebecca states in the afterword: “This collection of photographs examines the concept of family values through a feminist lens.”

I think that tells you what you need to know, as each artist looks at the families they were born with, or created. Rebecca also stresses that many people don’t find support, understanding, and love from the families into which they were born, and need to build a new system from scratch.

(There it is again: Build it and they will come.)

I’m not going to describe all the projects in detail, as I think the pictures speak well for themselves. Basically, today’s book is a hot-off-the-presses, photographic equivalent of “I Love Dick”: unconventional, edgy, poignant, and showing us things from perspectives that were traditionally voiceless.

As I’m not reviewing each artist separately, I’ll tell you that the pics below are in order, and the artists are as follows: Samantha Belden, Nydia Blas, Blane Bussey, and Sarah Hiatt.

Hope you enjoy it, wish me a little luck with Antidote, and see you next week.

Bottom Line: Cool, edgy exhibition catalogue for a feminist photo exhibition in Chicago

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

The Best Work I Saw at the LACP Portfolio Review, Part 2

 

I haven’t written a Trump column in months.

I was going on about him weekly, for quite some time, so I decided to take a break. It seemed healthy, as this is not, in fact, a politics blog.

Rather, aPE is about photography, so I decided that #247Trump was not appropriate.

But it’s been a while, and this being the dog days of August, when most of you are on vacation anyway, it seems like the right time to exercise my First Amendment rights. (While I still have them.)

Now that I’ve given myself permission, though, the words don’t flow as easily as I expected. I feel like the Monty Python guy, who couldn’t eat another bite, because it really has been absurdity-overload lately.

I was discussing it with my Dad the other day, and we agreed that while the national crisis may have been bigger during the Nixon 70’s, with crazy protests and riots, the Trump political scandal is far worse.

I’ve got a good memory, and even I can’t keep all these daily dramas straight.

But here are a few.

The President’s chosen communications director sought an on-the-record interview with The New Yorker, for crying out loud, and then said, of the President’s chief strategist, that he likes to fellate himself.

Oh, and he also threatened to kill the President’s Chief of Staff. (Who was subsequently fired post haste.)

Ironically, the Mooch was out before his paperwork was filed. (And before godsend Mario Cantone could franchise this impression.)

What else?

Oh, right, there was that Trump Jr/Jared Kushner meeting with Russian spies who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton, after their government had stolen a trove of her campaign’s emails.

And Donald Sr started Tweeting about her emails the same day.

This, and so much more, has unfolded in the press while a non-partisan former FBI director looks carefully into the President’s shady-Russian-Mafia connections.

At one point this winter, as my mother likes to remind me, I said it all resembles “House of Cards” + “The Americans,” and that seems to get truer each day.

The stuff Netflix and FOX made up as dramatic fantasy is actually no less salacious, at this point, than the Real.Fucking.Thing.

Welcome to August of 2017.

As I wrote here last year, I had my first premonition things might go awry when I was in Los Angeles in late October, and watched the 3rd Presidential debate at a theater in the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

“Not a puppet, not a puppet, you’re the puppet” drew laughter like we were watching “Chapelle’s Show.” Trump read as entertainment, to us, and he was damn entertaining.

But we were in literally the bluest bubble in America, and I felt uncomfortable with the elephant in the room: that millions of our fellow countrymen took him seriously, and agreed with many of the deranged things he said.

Now, just minutes ago, I read on CNN that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President’s own spokesperson, was forced to admit that Trump had told untruths about two things. (He said he’d received phone calls that he had not.)

But she shied away from the word “lied,” because she felt it was too harsh.

Yes, that trip to LA gave my spider sense the tingles, but when I returned a couple of weeks ago, 6 months into the shitshow that is Trump’s presidency, few people were talking about him.

It’s almost like he’s Voldemort for many of us. Keep your head down, and hope it ends before he kills us all. (North Korea can now reach LA with a nuke, they say.)

I didn’t talk much Trump in Los Angeles, but I did see a lot of photography. I don’t have the exact number, but I saw at least 25 projects at the LACP Exposure portfolio review, and am glad to show you the best work I saw.

I liked Lisa McCord immediately, as she seemed honest in a way I connect with. She showed me some work from the early 80’s, done on her family’s tenant farm in Arkansas.

Basically, Lisa said she’d felt more comfortable with the African-Americans who worked on the farm than she did with her people, who owned the place. So she hung out a lot, including with the Nanny who raised her, and people let her make pictures, because they knew and trusted her.

Images like this are seen as fraught these days, with so much tension around racism and white privilege. It’s hard not to see them as controversial, yet I sometimes think that says more about us than the pictures themselves.

Because if we take Lisa at her word, that these were her friends, more like family, than there’s nothing radical about the pictures save the color of everyone’s skin.

Dawn Watson had landscape photos in which she’d inverted the tonal curves in Photoshop, so the colors were reversed. I’ve seen similar projects, and told her about Adriene Hughes work we published here last year.

But I think showing digital’s unmistakeable hand can be a sound visual strategy, and I liked several of these pictures a lot. I told Dawn to be careful about whether she wanted to make pretty pictures, or edgy ones, as her aesthetic sensibility seemed to waver.

Douglas Stockdale, a fellow reviewer, has long run the excellent blog The PhotoBook Journal. He also makes his own books, and shared “Bluewater Shore” with me, his latest.

I’ve never seen a book that came in a plastic ziplock bag before, and that was a novelty. But I also like the re-purposed archival family images, which resonate with old school California beach culture.

I saw Eleonora Ronconi’s work at the portfolio walk, and it turned out she was engaged to my friend Paccarik, which I didn’t know. (He’s made a few appearances in the column over the years.)

She had pictures made in her native Argentina, and I thought they were lovely. Her color palette, in particular, with those rose-peach hues, grabbed my attention the most.

J. Matt is a surfer dude from Hawaii who recently moved to LA after many years in San Francisco. He’s an architect, by trade, but seems like a generally-creative-type person.

He showed me some pictures of LA that looked a bit like Dan Lopez’s from last week, and a little sample of work shot at the beach. As that’s a huge part of who he is, I checked it out on his website afterwards, and we’re sharing some of them here.

Linda Alterwitz, based in Las Vegas, had photographs made with a thermal imaging camera. I asked her if she knew of Richard Mosse’s work, the stuff with the expired pink film, and she said she did.

Little did I know, but he’s done work with thermal imaging cameras as well. So what, though, as I highly doubt Linda knew about it when she was lent a camera by a manufacturer.

The figurative images are wild, as are the horse pictures. And there’s a monkey in there too? WTF?

Finally, Mara Zaslove had photographs of an elderly friend, and they’ll include the only nudity we show today. (Hope that’s OK, as we’re normally SFW.)

Aging is a subject most people want to avoid. Hell, I was watching some old Westerns on TV the other day, and couldn’t believe how many old people there were.

Modern entertainment casts must be 25 years younger, on average. So I like that Mara’s work makes me think about that, while retaining some grace too.

Well, that’s it for the LA roundup. We’ll be back to book reviews next week, and I hope you’re enjoying the summer.

The Best Work I Saw at the LACP Portfolio Review Part 1

 

Hollywood is hip these days.

It’s always been popular as an idea, of course.
As “Hollywood.”

But I’m talking about the actual part of Los Angeles; one section of the many that stitch together the Megalopolis. In that respect, Hollywood is just the North-Central part of LA where Hollywood Boulevard sits just above Sunset as they intersect with Vine.

The place where the Hollywood Walk of Fame resides, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

It’s like Times Square in New York, or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, in that it’s clearly built for, and subsists off of tourists. There are trinket shops galore, hotels aplenty, and lots of bars next to drunk-food-restaurants.

No lie, on Selma, 1 block from my hotel, a high-end Tao sat across the street from Danny Trejo’s Mexican bar & taqueria, which was itself next to a Poutine joint. (Which I couldn’t resist.)

The guys working the counter, where they sling the cheese fries and gravy, were dressed like Canadians, in lumberjack patterning. They told me they only open up outlets next to bars or colleges. (Makes sense.)

I got accosted by some drunk guys, as I awaited my poutine, even though it was barely 8pm. They took me for Israeli, which never happens, and pretended to slap me in the face as I stood there, daydreaming.

Minding my own business.

Cursing myself for being gluttonous enough to order cheese fries and gravy for dinner.

They offered poutine topped with bacon, beef, chicken, or lots of other artery-clogging-to-the-point-they-should-have-a-cardiologist-office-next-door toppings, yet I stuck with the plain version.

And boy did it give me indigestion later that night. Big mistake, getting the cheese fries and gravy for dinner.

Wait.
Where was I?

Right.
Hollywood.

I was there to work, of course, so I didn’t sample the clubs or the bars. Instead, I limped my tired dad-bod around the neighborhood to grab food, (lacking a car, as I mentioned,) or I was next door reviewing portfolios at the LA Center of Photography.

The organization, which is now non-profit, was long known as the Julia Dean Workshops, so Julia Dean is now the Executive Director of the LACP. Apparently, they changed the structure and name about 4 years ago.

Their portfolio review, Exposure, is held in their school space there on Wilcox, and also at the DNJ Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. (Hence the multiple Ubers.)

It was a well run event, and the people in charge are genuinely helpful and friendly. (Here’s your shout out, Brandon and Sarah.) The organization has been around for a while, but the review is relatively new, as it was the first time they were bringing in reviewers from the outside. (I was joined by Brian Clamp and Elizabeth Avedon, two New Yorkers.)

Most of the people at the reviews have taken classes there before, and many had studied with Aline Smithson, who teaches Fine Art Photography for the LACP, and has for years. We’ve shown many of her students’ work here before, and I’ve been consistently impressed.

But others were less trained, so as usual, I tried to be helpful, and point out to people where their strengths seemed to lie, and where they were weak.

Today and next week, we’re going to feature the best work I saw at the review. As usual, my criteria for what to show you are based on a few simple concepts.

1. Are there enough contiguous images to show you a proper sample of someone’s ideas? (Meaning 2 or 4 good pictures is never enough.)

2. Does the selection show a well-executed vision?

3. Are these pictures at least visually pleasing, if not genuinely brilliant?

If I see that range in someone’s portfolio, I’ll try to show it here.

As I’ll be doing 3 more portfolio reviews for you guys this year, (in Chicago, Santa Fe and New Orleans,) I thought it was worth the slight diversion to explain how I choose what’s worth publishing.

So let’s get started, and, as always, the artists are in no particular order.

Silvia Razgova recently moved to Los Angeles from Toronto, having spent the previous few years living in the United Arab Emirates. (I think I’ve got that right.) She showed me pictures from the UAE, that were cool, but I was far-more-seduced by these medium format gems from her hometown of Hradok, in Slovakia.

Her color palette is pretty dreamy, and I liked a few of these very much. But overall, they fit the conditions above, as they’re well made, consistent, and show us a slice of her world, which we’d otherwise never see.

Anto Tavitian was amazed when I guessed he was Armenian. (I felt confident I was right, but you never know.) Later, he realized my trick.

“Was it the ‘ian’ at the end of the name,” Anto wondered?

“Yes,” I said, “you got me.”

That said, Anto showed me the deconstructed book pages from his BFA project at Cal State Northridge. He’d made a photo narrative about his immigrant Armenian-Syrian parents, and included the repeating motif of the tight shot of a coffee cup.

As coffee was so important to the story, he also stained the book pages with it, creating a dappled-brown effect. And the few text pieces, and one drawing, that were interspersed are cool too.

Jamie Siragusa is currently enrolled in a one year program at LACP, and was working on street photography. She’s interested in photographing children, but didn’t want to do it in a conventional way. So she’s focusing on kids at political protests.

We all talk abstractly about what our actions will mean for our children, or grandchildren, so she wanted to make pictures about those descendants now. In particular, kids who are being vocal with their disapproval by protesting in public. (Mostly with their parents, of course.)

Dan Lopez showed me a book, “Constellation Road,” which featured these LA cultural landscape photographs. I thought his sense of color and composition was really strong, and he definitely captured some of the bright harshness of the California sun as well.

(Sidebar: part of why I didn’t go on huge walks through Hollywood, rather than snobbery, was that the sun is so damn strong in July. Be forewarned.)

I told Dan I thought it was hard to separate his work from the photographers who’d come before in this tradition, as he admitted being influenced by the usual suspects. (Shore, Eggleston.) It’s tough to find an original voice, I admit, but the more we try to push away from the things we’ve seen a million times before, the more likely we’ll get there.

Last, but not least, we have Brian McCarty, whose work is the edgiest of the bunch today. Brian makes a living photographing toys, as it’s his commercial specialty. (So he’s really good at it.)

As such, he ended up doing a project in which he tries to use toys to help children in war zones, particularly in the Middle East, to process their trauma. He’d just gotten back from Mosul, in Iraq, which is an extremely active fighting spot, and admitted that he’d been shot at twice, and had been lucky to survive.

He and his organizational partners, (he mentioned the UN,) ask children to make drawings of their horror stories. Then, they re-create the situation, sometimes quite literally, with toys, and Brian makes the resulting photos.

They are strange and cool, and some of them are very sad. He often exhibits them side-by-side with the drawings, so people can see the source material. Not surprisingly, the drawings are quite tragic.

That’s enough for today, so we’ll be back next week with part 2.

This Week in Photography Books: Henry Wessel

 

 

I’ve been to Southern California at least twenty times in my life, and I’ve always had a car.

Every. Single. Time.

You’ve got to have a car in Southern California.
(Or so I thought.)

Back in May, a friend told me she’d just gotten around LA using ride-sharing services, which for some reason are insanely cheap at the moment. (Much less expensive than taxis.)

She made me half-swear that I wouldn’t rent a car the next time I went to LA. So when I visited the city last week, I subsisted on cabs and Ubers alone, even though I wasn’t able to download Lyft or Uber on my phone the day before I left. (Long and boring story. I’ll spare you.)

I must say, not having immediate access to go where I wanted, when I wanted, was a seriously uncomfortable feeling.

It’s no surprise that cars are symbolically associated with freedom. I guess if I had a new Iphone, and my own ride-sharing app, that feeling might have abated, but I’m not so sure.

As one who’s lived in the American West for a chunk of my life, I know that things only work at car distances. Otherwise, the cities and towns dotted from the Rockies to the Coast would never truly be connected.

Cars are almost like water out here, in how necessary they are for survival.

We all crave the revelatory feeling of being on the open road somewhere, with your favorite music blasting. The yearning for discovery and adventure is hardwired into the human experience.

It’s the opposite feeling, in every way, to being stuck in traffic, staring at the same cars for an hour, while you inch along a concrete ribbon, and you could probably walk faster if you really tried.

Everyone hates that feeling.

Everyone.

The traffic-anger, which I felt getting in and out of LAX, reminded me of a photobook I’d looked at just before I left New Mexico, and which sits before me this very moment: “Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide,” by Henry Wessel, recently published by Steidl.

It’s one of the best books I’ve seen in a long time, (no doubt,) and features three of his seminal projects from the past. Mr. Wessel, if you’re not familiar, was a part of the famed “New Topographics” movement, documenting the California cultural landscape with a dry eye over many decades.

The thing that makes the “Traffic” pictures so immediate for me is the way he boxes in the compositions. We never see the front or back of the cars he’s showing us. You never get the compositional freedom, the fresh air, of open space.

Frankly, these pictures are great. They’re just so damn Californian. And all the period cars and outfits? What more do I have to say?

(Well, I guess I now see Lee Friedlander’s Post-Millennial series “America by Car” as being in dialogue with this project.)

But the “Sunset Park” images were my favorites, for sure.

Like many of you, I read the recent New Yorker profile of Gerhard Steidl, which presented him as a cross between Steve Jobs and Jesus. I won’t say it seems excessive, because I believe all these people, but I wasn’t a Steidl cultist before looking at this book.

And now I am.

The separations are mind-boggling. I’ve never seen shadow detail like this, in conjunction with three dimensional reproductions that pop off the page.

The luminosity of a few of these pictures compares to looking at a retina display, and I don’t understand how that’s possible.

Apart from the technical virtuosity, though, I love this group of images, and it reminds me that we understand so much of art by what has come before.

I lived in San Francisco back in the day, and saw Todd Hido’s “House Hunting” show at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery around 2000. It’s the exhibition, and project, that shot Mr. Hido to stardom, as the creeper-stalking-outside-people’s-houses-at-night vibe, along with the sharpness and color, was super-memorable for me.

Now that I’ve seen this book, though, I know that Todd Hido was heavily influenced by “Sunset Park,” as Mr. Wessel is a Bay Area legend, and longtime professor at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Last week, when I saw this book, I had that thought. And then this Saturday, at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, right there in their Summer group show, they had one of those Hido pictures hung just below one of Wessel’s.

No lie.

The “Continental Divide” series, the last of the bunch, is my least favorite. If I’m being honest, it seems to wrap up our little summer conversation about books by locals vs. travelers.

For me, the California pictures are more original, as they spring from deep knowledge. In the Western pictures, on road trips around dusty towns, Mr. Wessel was exploring, rather than reporting from his own little spot in the world.

The images look far less distinctive to me than the Colorado pictures by Robert Adams, Mr. Wessel’s contemporary, and I don’t think that should surprise any of us, at this point.

We ought to know more about our own world than the places we just visited for the first time.

Right?

Bottom Line: Masterpiece book, featuring work by a San Francisco legend

To purchase “Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Raphael Shammaa

 

It’s the middle of July, which means many of you are on vacation.

Yes, it’s holiday time again. No doubt about it.

I’m not getting to beach myself, this summer, so if you’re reading this on your Iphone, in between dips in the blue water somewhere… I hate you.

(Just kidding.)

I don’t hate you. What kind of writer would hate his audience? That’s insane.

Rather, I’m going to do you a solid. I won’t make you read 700 words today before I get to the book review.

Not today.

I’ll keep it short, and show more pictures at the end to make up for it. Think of it as my way of saving you a few extra brain cells, while you recharge your batteries.

You’ll need the help, as I’m off to Los Angeles tomorrow for portfolio reviews put on by the LA Center of Photography. I’ll have lots of fresh work to show you in the coming weeks, so today you get a reprieve.

Surprisingly, this week’s book comes right out of yesterday’s mail. It never even made it into the pile.

It’s a slim volume from Raphael Shammaa called “The Simplicity of the Moment.” (I believe it’s self-published.)

I don’t know anything about the artist, (beyond the fact that he has a great name,) and the book doesn’t have much to say either. There’s a short statement indicating the pictures were taken in various locations, and that he’s going for simplicity and truth.

Mostly, the words were vague because these are very visual pictures. They’ve got structure and sharpness, which are characteristics that will often get you reviewed in this space. And the printing quality is very high.

Frankly, I just like this little book.

Though I’m as happy to dig deep as the next guy, what I most enjoy about this one is that it suggests, gently, that you don’t need to bother. The beauty is of a Zen kind, but also of the synchronous temporal variety that photography does so well.

Like I said, today, we’ll keep it brief. In the PR letter that he sent out with the package, Raphael wrote, “There are so many ways we can work together.”

Well, Raphael, I just reviewed your book, so that’s about as much as I have to offer.

Enjoy summer, everyone, and I’ll be back next week.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, slim Zen book of travel photos

To purchase “The Simplicity of the Moment,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Michael Larkey

 

I’ll make you guys a promise.

I’m not going to promote Antidote, my new photo retreat, here in the column each week. In fact, this will be the last time.

I’m mentioning it now, as this week, we created a new Student/Educator Pass, for $499, which makes the event far-more-affordable for the next generation of photographers, and the under-paid professors who teach them.

I’m sharing the news, because rather than simply big-upping my own efforts, I think it’s important to stay honest here, as I always have. If I can criticize others, I should have the stones to do it to myself as well.

When it came time to create a price for Antidote, I didn’t give it much thought. I looked around at what some high end workshop places charge, and slotted in accordingly.

But everything I know about the creative life in 2017 flies in the face of such thinking. No one’s handing money out these days, and everyone is hustling hard to make ends meet. Whether it’s buyouts at the NYT, or galleries closing all the time, we all know you have to work for whatever you get, and opportunities don’t grow on trees.

I’m glad I realized my mistake, and am now making my event within reach of you guys, my readers, as well as students and teachers across the US. I should have done it before I launched, but I forgot to consider the most crucial of questions: could I, as an artist/writer/adjunct professor, afford to come to my own retreat?

Now, I can answer that question more appropriately.

Honestly, the only reason I started Antidote is because adjunct teaching pays so poorly. It is literally impossible to make a living doing it, and I say that having just spent a year teaching full time, and being the chair of my art department.

I’m going with the DIY method with Antidote, even if it’s not my preference. Building things from scratch is hard, and I’d rather be able to make a living working at the school I’ve taught at for 12 years.

But it doesn’t work like that anymore.

Despite your level of fear and anxiety about the current geopolitical climate, we all know things are much better than they were in the depths of the Great Recession. The economy has recovered, in some ways, but not in others.

Disposable income, a term I used to find hilarious, is no longer in wide use. It’s an anachronism, as nothing is easy to come by in the Post-2008 world. Making matters worse, income equality continues to rise, so that levels of extreme wealth and poverty now coincide in close proximity.

I don’t talk so much about the 21st Century Hustle these days, but even old catchphrases can come back around again. If you value my opinion, I’m recommending that after you chill out for summer, (everyone’s entitled to that,) try to make something entirely new.

Maybe start up a collaborative project with some friends? Make a movie? Or a T-shirt line? Or a photo ’zine?

I don’t know. But maybe this is the time for all of us to embrace the DIY attitude, even if we don’t want to use a dorky term like “maker.”

I’m on this rant, if you must know, having just looked at “squirrel fight,” a few issues of a photo ‘zine that turned up in the mail this week, from Michael Larkey. (Sometimes, I open submissions before they go into the stack.)

I didn’t think to look at the return address, and there was no contact info beyond Michael’s email address and website, so I have no context on these little ‘zines. I got to look at them fresh, yet they felt perfect for today.

Near as I can tell, “squirrel fight” has a hot-time-summer-in-the-city kind of vibe, straight out of NYC. (I’ve admitted New York gets a lot of coverage here. It’s not on purpose.) “squirrel fight” hearkens back in time, with the in-your-Moms-basement style of production, but even through they’re small, and some are on copy paper, they’re still carefully done.

It could not have cost Michael much money to make these, and they’re so brief. One has poems by Rilke, but the wordless ones are most captivating. My favorite, which might be because of the higher print quality, is the fold-out poster. It’s immediate, sharp, and contrasty.

The subway entrance gives context, and assures us we’re in New York. We see a cab, a pretty kid in flip flops, an Asian person of indeterminate gender, and a guy who has a gigolo hairstyle, circa Richard Gere in the 80’s.

I know Rob shows promo-mailings all the time, and that many of you professional shooters make them. Maybe this is similar, and I just don’t see a lot of that stuff.

But one “squirrel fight” seemed to be a washed-out ode to the viewing platforms at the Empire State Building, and another has a picture of the same tall spire seen through a scrim of some sort.

These ‘zines are a bit Romantic. More “someone who moved to the city” than a “kid who grew up there” kind of love, because a native would be more cynical. (I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t bet on it.)

These ‘zines are cool as hell, and I think you’ll like them too. Now, once you’re done with your holiday, your assignment is to make something cool like this too.

Bottom Line: Cool, throwback photo ‘zines about New York

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

This Week in Photography Books: Matthew O’Brien

 

This column is nearly 6 years old, and over time, I’ve told you guys a lot about my family horse farm here in Taos.

It’s a very special place, as the 60 acre property has 1/4 mile of streamfront, verdant pastures, rolling hills, ancient basalt cliffs, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains right outside the window.

This week, my wife and I launched a new photo retreat program, called Antidote, so we can share this place with our friends and colleagues in the global photo community.

Since we’ve developed a loyal audience here over the years, Rob and I thought it would be a good idea to tell you about the program, in case any of you wanted to apply. I’ve built an impressive group of instructors, and designed a retreat in which you can get critical feedback about your work, inspiration for new ideas, and opportunities to rest and relax here in Taos.

You can learn more about the retreat at our amazing website, (Thanks, Rob,) or by watching the short video I’ve embedded below.

 

That said, this is a book review column, and not an infomercial space, so I promise to get to the matter at hand.

One thing I do like to do with the column is develop themes over time, and create relationships between books from week to week. Rarely is it planned, but things always seem to fall into place naturally, a phenomenon for which I am grateful.

Lately, we’ve been alternating between projects made by locals, in their home regions, and wandering flaneurs who visit exotic locales, and bring stories back home with them. Last week, Marisa Scheinfeld showed us the ruins of the Catskills Borscht Belt, which means this week, we get to see a book by a traveling photographer.

Luckily, “No Dar Papaya,” a book by Matthew James O’Brien, turned up in the mail recently. (Published by Placer Press in San Francisco.) Matt reached out a little while back, as he thought I might appreciate his project.

He was right, as I think this is a cool, charming, surprisingly positive book. The premise is simple, as Matt shot in Colombia for 10 years, and the book is made up exclusively of Polaroids. (Mostly diptychs.) None of the images has been enlarged, and the consistency, the white image borders swimming in plenty of clean white space, makes for a pleasurable viewing experience.

The introduction, from a Colombian arts professional, suggests that Matt has been embraced by his Colombian hosts, but tells us little beyond that. The pictures tell the story, and then an excellent afterward by the artist uses words to confirm what the pictures imply.

There seem to be a surprisingly large number of young, attractive women in the book, and the end text shares that Matt was first drawn to Colombia to photograph two beauty pageants, which are the biggest things going down there. He also mentions a cultural addiction to plastic surgery, which is also hinted at in at least one picture featuring a woman with suspiciously large breasts.

But in general, the images show a beautiful country with a diverse topography and population. There are many portraits, and almost of all the of the subjects present themselves to the camera as open, warm and friendly.

Then the text confirms as much.

According to Matt, who received a Fullbright to support the work, despite the country’s difficult history of war and drug cartels, the hardscrabble Colombians have not closed their hearts to each other, or to outsiders.

As long as people understand the context of the title, “No Dar Papaya,” that is. In English, it means “Don’t Give Papaya,” but it’s an exlusively Colombian idiom that means, don’t be a sucker. Watch your back.

Apparently, Matt sees this book as a love letter to Colombia, and that came across to me. It’s a great reminder that there are positive stories, and visions, in even the darkest of places. (OK, maybe there aren’t any happy tales coming out of Syria these days, but you get the point.)

So wherever you are, as the heat blares down on your head, or the Southern Hemisphere winter begins to kick your ass, I hope this book will put a smile on your face, and show you something you’ve never seen before.

Sometimes, that’s enough.

Bottom Line: Lovely book of Polaroids of Colombia, by an outsider

To purchase “No Dar Papaya” click here

To submit a book for review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Marisa Scheinfeld

 

I started irrigating on the farm this summer.

Our property came with water rights, which means we’re allowed to use the ancient acequia system, designed by Spanish Colonists in the 19th Century.

The main pasture used to belong to our neighbors, before they sold it off, and I’m told their father raised corn, or alfalfa, depending on whom you believe. (I just use it to water the grass.)

Each Saturday, I head outside, all geared up with my shovel, and dig out the ditch, a few feet at a time.

Not surprisingly, it’s hard work, but the joy and sense of accomplishment are palpable. Lifting the gates, and watching the water flow down hill feels primal, as out here in the desert, water is life.

Putting on my work boots, and slopping out the muck, doesn’t seem strange, as I’ve lived in Taos a long time. Cutting sluices, and watching where gravity moves water, is not rocket science, and I even use my daughter’s pink sled to direct the water where I want it to go.

But sometimes, if only for a moment, I’ll look around and wonder how a Jewish guy from suburban New Jersey ended up in such a place?

I’ve certainly come a long way, but living in a lush field in the mountains is a great way to beat the heat. And as I water trees we’ve planted, and watch them rise, it’s hard not to imagine them growing tall and strong, providing shade for my children as they grow too.

A generation ago, when my parents were my children’s age, they lived in New York City, as their parents were born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. As beastly hot as NYC can get in the summer, with all that nasty humidity, back then, people didn’t even have air conditioners. (WTF!)

Nor were Jews necessarily welcome in the WASPY country and beach clubs where less-immigranty Americans escaped the heat.

Rather, both of my parents, and everyone they knew, went to the Catskill Mountains, (which out here we’d call hills,) and stayed with friends and families in bungalow colonies. My Mom said she shared a bed with her grandmother, and always, people were squashed together, because money was tight.

Her Dad, (my grandpa Sy,) was a musician and bandleader who worked in the fancy hotels, so Mom used to hang out there during the daytime. Those places had pools, which were more glamorous than the lakes where her family stayed. She got to play with the wealthier kids during the day, and then return to her bungalow at night to sleep.

It was a lot like “Dirty Dancing,” she said, and recalled one time when my Aunt Lynda, who is 5 years older than Mom, stayed out until 1am with her new boyfriend. When she got home, my grandfather chased her around the bungalow, screaming and hitting her with a broom.

You can’t make this shit up.

The Catskills were home to the Borscht Belt, a huge resort and entertainment industry that sprung up in the 1920’s, and continued through the early 80’s, though by then it had already declined tremendously.

I remember hearing stories about those places, when I was young, but given that we had our own swimming pool by then, and I went to sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, I can’t say I cared too much about the history as it was recounted.

Frankly, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” famously uttered by Patrick Swayze, (RIP,) had more of an impact than any story my Mom told me, back in the day.

However, when I got a look this morning at “The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland,” a new book by Marisa Scheinfeld, published by Cornell University Press, the first thing I did was call up Mom and ask her to tell me what it was like.

Ms. Scheinfeld was raised in the Borsht Belt, in the town of Kiamesha Lake, so this book fits in with our recent exploration of the divide between local versus wandering photographers.

In her very-well-written statement, she said that Arthur Ollman, the former director of MOPA in San Diego, once told her to “shoot what you know,” so she headed back East to document the places that have succumbed to time.

We all know there’s a genre of ruin-porn, which often features weeds and trees growing up in the man-made environment, and if you close your eyes, I bet you can conjure such a picture of Detroit without trying too hard.

But this project is something different. Ms. Scheinfeld has done copious research on the cultural history of our respective ancestors, which overlaps with learning more about where she was literally raised, and what’s become of all these former palaces and huts of leisure.

Much as I was touched when I walked through Ostia Antica, crumbling ruins outside Rome, or Teotihuacan, the massive pyramids near Mexico City, looking through this book gave me the willies.

The photographs are a testament to the finite nature of culture, and our lives, because they manage to cut beneath the surface of a once vibrant world that has disappeared in my lifetime.

There is a sculptural nature the pictures, and the desaturated colors speak to the reality of the weak light on the East Coast. (The mountains outside my house are called the Sangre de Cristos, because they turn red each night as the perfect light illuminates them like the blood of Jesus.)

The essays come before the pictures, and one, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, focuses on chairs. As I hadn’t seen the plates yet, I thought it was a pretty random subject, and wondered why she focused on such an esoteric symbol? But once you start flipping the pages, it makes a lot of sense.

The chairs have a totemic quality, much as I complimented Anthony Hernandez for his handling of concrete block walls. Here, the empty seats stand at attention, or slump into irrelevance, but always they remind us of the people who are no longer there.

On Facebook today, someone posted the weather forecast for Tucson this week, and it ranged from 110-118 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you imagine? Your fucking brains cook in your head at that temperature.

No thank you.

The temptation to escape the worst of summer has been around a long time, and over the years, I’ve reviewed books from lakeside and beachfront hangouts around the world. But this is the first time I’ve seen a book like this.

So next time the mosquitos are biting me, the water gets inside my yellow leather gloves, and I slip and fall into the muddy ditch, I’ll likely think of my grandfather, blowing hard on his trumpet, while the ghosts of my people’s past dance through empty halls.

Bottom Line: Fascinating look at the abandoned Borscht Belt

To Purchase “Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland ” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Priscilla Briggs

 

Just this morning, I was trying to explain Communism to a 9 year old.

Fortunately, he’s very bright for his age, and seems to be interested in history. But it’s still hard to break down planned economies, and the Bolshevik Revolution, to a person who was born on the cusp of The Great Recession.

Basically, I contrasted Capitalism, which is obsessed with extracting money and value from all things, with Communism, which intended to put ownership of the means of production in the hands of workers.

Karl Marx wrote thousands of words about the exploitation of labor by Capitalists. (It’s a rather famous book that railed against endless greed.) I told my son about how in practice, Soviet Communism meant the state had control over where you lived, what you did for a job, what you could eat, and where you could travel.

America, by contrast, offers freedom and choice. But in 2017, it’s pretty clear that regular people and the entire planet are cannon fodder for the big guns.

Cash rules everything around me indeed.

The Soviet Union collapsed, as we all know, and Russia is now a Capitalistic dictatorship. There may still be a Communist Party there, (I didn’t bother to check,) but if so, it’s one among many, and all are subservient to Putin.

But the Soviet Union was not the only major Communist power, of course. Not to be outdone by Stalin’s cruelty, Mao Zedong led a Communist revolution in China, in 1949, and eventually ruled over the massive, populous country for decades.

The upshot of Communism, supposedly, was that everyone would be guaranteed a place to live, a job, food, and time off. Theoretically, that would obviate things like homelessness, and it was meant to create a level playing field.

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

These days, though, China is Communist in name only. It has become a global economic powerhouse, and has begun to transition into being a political one as well. Capitalism is alive and well, in the Middle Kingdom, and its conspicuous consumption and income disparity seem rather familiar, if you ask me.

If the middle class in America continues to hollow out, we’ll be left with nothing but the rich and the poor. But in China, with their rapid development, hundreds of millions of people have been brought out of poverty.

Their middle class is booming while ours disappears, but still, the lifestyle difference between rural farmers and wealthy urbanites in China is still probably wider than in America at present.

Consumption is all the rage in China these days, and I can say that with some confidence, having just put down “Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism,” a new book by Priscilla Briggs, recently published by Daylight.

It’s funny, the way themes develop from week to week. Last Friday, I talked about that certain homegrown authenticity that projects have, when photographers work where they’re from. Aaron Hardin and Evgheny Maloletka made very different pictures, in the American South and Eastern Ukraine, but their photographs had that special sense of local juice.

Today’s book, by contrast, belongs to the far-reaching tradition of artists traveling to new places, camera in hand, and shooting what they see and explore.

From what I can gather, Ms. Briggs went to an artist residency in Xiamen, which likely kicked off her investigation. Regardless, the titles at the end confirm she shot in China between 2008-13.

I don’t mean to knock this book before I even get started, as the wandering eye can often bring a more distanced, perhaps critical view. Certainly, irony is often boosted by the outsider’s perspective.

And that’s mostly what we get here. The series is heavily ironic, as the most prominent repeating motif is the backdrop. The fake world, enmeshed with the real thing, comes up again and again.

(In fairness to Ms. Briggs’ observations, after writing the column, I discovered this Ai Weiwei Op-ed, in which he calls China “a place where everything is fake.”)

We see a real boat in front some very realistic-looking fake water, a park bench in front of a painted train car, which itself is in front of a virtual horse farm. Plastic geese before a faux Tahitian village. A fake snow scene, a fake tugboat, and a fake locomotive barreling down the tracks.

You get the picture.

There are also amusement parks, clothing factory workers, and a subset of young women who she photographs before the sea. (Which is real, I think.)

We’ve got hair extensions, fur coats, and pink lingerie that says luxury on it. And lots and lots of photographs of advertisements of women in bras and panties.

I mean lots of photographs.

Are the ads that ubiquitous in China, or is it something she zeroed in on to make a point? I’m not sure, since I’ve never been to China.

This is one of those books, though, that carries a clear point of view. It shows a tacky China, one that builds fake monuments from other places, (Hello, pyramid of Giza,) while simultaneously bulldozing its own history in an orgy of new.

I’m always interested in books that show me things I haven’t seen before, so this qualifies. It shows an absurdist strain of Chinese Capitalism, and I chuckled once or twice. The use of repeating motifs, and the way the edit is structured, shows me a lot of care went into making this book.

Well worth discussing on a Friday in June.

Bottom Line: Ironic, wry take on Chinese consumerism

Click here to purchase “Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism”

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

The Best Work I Saw at the NYT Portfolio Review, Part 2

 

Today was meant to be a book review.

Aaron Hardin, whom I met at the New York Times portfolio review in late April, had given me a copy of his self-published photo-book, “The 13th Spring.”

Aaron’s a Southern photographer who got an MFA from the Hartford low-residency program, and lives in Tennessee, where he teaches college. His pictures are of that genre of Southern photography that is lyrical, poetic, vibrant, evocative, (insert appropriate adjective here.)

We’ve discussed the genre many times in this column over the years, and Aaron’s work reminds me a bit of my friend Susan Worsham. But that’s the point: from Eggleston through Sally Mann and right on down, photographing the South is a grand tradition, and I never hate on anyone for being an adherent.

I think Aaron’s pictures are strong, and he’s able to communicate a warmth and emotional sensitivity that separate his work from many a Southern photographer.

The book chronicles the time around his daughter’s birth, which a poem, (at the end,) says happened during a birth year for cicadas. Hence the little bug dude on the front cover, which was imprinted on a stately piece of canvas.

The second photograph, of a snake trying to sneak into a house, (despite the two door obstacle,) is pretty fantastic. He swears the snake was trying to get in, that it wasn’t set up in the least, and I believe him.

But it’s a photograph I’m sure he’ll get asked about for years.

The peacock as a repeating motif is pretty cool too. We’ve got the bearded, Jesus-looking guy, the tree growing up through a house, a white cat, a boarded-up shotgun shack, and some nasty bug-sex. (Hence the title.)

It’s a very cool book, I must say. Really well done. Alec Soth and Doug Dubois teach at Hartford, and one can see the influence of their styles, which make for an interesting mashup with Aaron’s Southern roots.

It’s like how the Three Six Mafia represents Memphis, but still sampled from artists on the coasts too. (Big shout out to “Hustle and Flow.” That movie never gets old.)

But like I was saying in the beginning, Aaron was going to get a book review all to himself.

Was.

Past tense.

No sooner did I plan a column on his book alone, than two journalists I met at the review, Evgheny Maloletka and Emelienne Malfatto, emailed me after getting back to internet service in the danger zones in which they were shooting.

Given what we discussed last week, you almost couldn’t make this up. Evgheny was working in the war zone in Eastern Ukraine, near where he grew up, and Emelienne is down in the chaos of Venezuela.

As such, I’m able to show you some of their work as well. So Aaron’s will have to share the spotlight a bit, but as he’s a nice guy, I’m pretty sure he can handle it.

Emelienne Malfatto is a French-Italian documentary photographer who is rather itinerant. When we met in New York, she’d come off of a stint in Iraq, a country at war at the moment, but then jetted off to Caracas, which is not a safe place. And then she pushed off to the hinterlands of Venezuela.

Pretty hardcore.

She showed me pictures of a community in Iraq that had risen against Saddam Hussain, and to retaliate, he drained the swamps of their native lands. I thought some of the pictures were great, but she wasn’t able to access those for me, being out in the field with little internet.

Emelienne is resourceful, though, and managed to transfer me a group of photos she made in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. They’re dynamite.

Evgheny Maloletka and I met at the review in New York, and then again on the F train to Brooklyn. Zenhya came up and introduced himself before the review, and was the only person to do so. Given that we use this blog to help educate young professionals, (among other things,) I have to say, things like that make an impression.

He said he had me on his list, and Good Morning, nice to meet you, I hope you have a good day.

You remember things like that.

Even better, his pictures were great. He showed me photographs of the war in the East that were so raw, but were made with visual sophistication, which is a difficult combination. Like Aaron’s pictures are clearly of the South by someone from the South, I’d argue a foreigner would be hard-pressed to make such emotional news photographs.

We also looked at a series about young cheese-makers in the Carpathian Mountains that had echoes of a medieval lifestyle, here in the 21C. And then we saw a project about a community of Romanians who were trapped in Ukraine, when the borders were redrawn.

We’ll look at the war photographs today, but I could easily show you any of the three projects. The dude is very talented, and I expect all three of the young people we’re featuring today will go on to have great careers.

Overall, I was thrilled with the quality of the work I saw in New York, and am glad to be able to share so much of it with you guys. Enjoy the beginning of summer, and we’ll be back with a book review next Friday.

The Best Work I Saw at the NYT Portfolio Review

 

Though art and news photography commingle these days, artists and journalists are very different breeds.

I studied art at the undergrad and graduate level, and spent the last 20 years learning to understand the language, so it’s pretty natural to me, at this point.

The journalistic ethos I’ve learned on the fly, as I went from starting a little blog here in New Mexico, (that nobody read,) to writing for the New York Times in 4 short years.

Artists mostly do the work for themselves, because they enjoy it. Maybe it’s a path to sanity, or for those with ambition, to having a conversation with an audience of strangers.

But while a small group of artists are overtly political within their practice, for most, it’s about personal expression. (I paint the mountain because the mountain is there.)

Journalists, though, are more mission-driven, on the whole. They might have been nerds in high school, rather than hipsters, but they use their intelligence for the greater good.

Journalists face tough job prospects here in America, and dangerous violence in other places around the globe. Six Mexican journalists have been killed this year alone.

This very morning, in fact, the Republican candidate for Congressman in Montana physically assaulted a reporter from The Guardian, because he asked the man a question.

And just when things seem like they could not possibly get more surreal, the Fox News team, who were about to interview the politician, supported their British colleague as fully as possible.

Their first-hand accounts led to the jerk’s arrest. (And he’ll still probably win the election.)

The point is, while most artists have a cushy, if poorly paying job, many journalists, in order to tell their stories, are forced to put their lives on the line.

When I went to the New York Times portfolio review last month, I was very aware that the young journalists I met were on something of a quixotic trip, as far as careers go.

It’s been said that data, and information in general, are the world’s most valuable currency. Reporters and photojournalists traffic in highly dangerous information, and it makes them targets for murder. More so now than ever before.

I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but it truly is a slippery slope from reporters being beaten to reporters being killed. If we’re not careful, we’ll find our voices here in America, creative or journalistic, have been intimidated into silence.

Most, but not all of the photographers I reviewed came from the journalistic arena. Beyond admiring their gumption, several times I offered technical criticism suggesting the photographers consider embracing a more geometric, formal, “artsy” structure into their compositions.

Clean crops and solid shapes help pictures pop, in my opinion, whereas most news compostions care more about dynamism than structure.

I wasn’t able to procure images from all the photographers I met, but a quick memory-trip tells me they hailed from Colombia, France, China, Egypt, Ukraine, Nigeria, Argentina, South Africa and the United States. (Plus, the Argentine was based in Mexico.)

Today, we’re going to show you the best work I came across at the review. As usual, the photographers are in no particular order.

Miranda Barnes caught me completely off-guard, because she looked like she was 12 years old. Her big smile was disarming, and then her story was even more interesting. She’s born and raised in Brooklyn, and was currently studying law. But she’d fallen in love with photography.

I highly encouraged her to keep both things in her life, for now, because it can be so hard to make a living in photography these days. Miranda taught herself how to use a medium format camera, and then scan the negatives, with a truly impressive level of skill.

She showed me two series; one looked at Upper East Side rich folks after Trump’s election, and the other, which we’re showing here, featured African American Twins. When I asked her why she chose the latter subject, she said that when she’d looked up twins in Google Image, there were no kids of color at all.

Annie Tritt, who shoots editorially, had a project “Transcending Self,” about transgender and gender expansive children. It’s a subject that’s getting a lot of media coverage, so I appreciated that the pictures were topical, as well as being well-made.

We discussed whether she might want to do a deep dive on one particular subject, rather than a survey of many, so that the viewer can get a richer, more nuanced take on an issue that can be hard for some people to understand.

Yan Cong is a Chinese photojournalist and blogger, and she showed me a pretty strange project. Apparently, Beijing is preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympic games, which I didn’t know. That, along with the city’s wealth, created the need for ski areas in Northern China, within range of Beijing.

Yan is documenting the changes in one small town, as it’s transformed over the next five years. But that project is ongoing, and not ready to show, so I checked out a multi-media piece she’d made about the trafficking of Cambodian brides in China.

I found the audio track to be remarkable, and extremely sad. It’s worth a watch/listen, as it’s a good lesson in how adding to the photographic experience can increase a viewer’s emotional connection.

Rujie Wang was also from China, and was finishing up her BFA at the School of Visual Arts. I really loved her project, “Made in China,” in which she photographed cheap crap from the dollar store, alongside her friends from China, who were the models.

Eventually, she started composting in the studio, so the kitchy objects and neon palette create a visual aesthetic that is very contemporary. Even better, she’s begun to turn the photographs into .gifs, in which certain image layers dance around the surface of the picture, like characters out of Pokemon Go. Once she’s sorted out the proper way to exhibit the .gifs, I think they’ll be massively successful.

David “Dee” Delgado was my room captain for the review on Sunday, and we chatted a bit during breaks. I always offer to look at people’s work once I get home, if we can’t sit down, so Dee sent me a set of files the other day.

Apparently, for “Bike Life,” he’s shooting street riders in his home borough of the Bronx. I’m always telling you guys I want to see things I’ve never seen before, and these pictures definitely qualify. The high-contrast, hyper-real, black and white look makes them feel of the moment as well.

Lujan Agusti had maybe my favorite work, at least of the things that were totally resolved. Though she’s Argentine, she’s based in Veracruz, Mexico, the Western Hemisphere’s most dangerous place to be a journalist.

Lujan has photographed indigenous Mexicans from the area, in the clothing they wear for local festivals and ceremonies. I love that she updated a trope by bringing the subjects into the studio, and using their costume fabrics as backdrops.

Along with the creepy-clown vibe, the colors and patterns give these pictures some major visual tension. They’re great, and I love the way they manipulate color to channel the festive, reverential spirit of the ceremonies they’re meant to represent.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of typical bonnet used by dancing clowns. Each member creates his/her own bonnet, they sometimes put religious images on it. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of hand with castanets, usually used while dancing. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait the leader of the gang, showing the images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He represents a Spaniard and is in charge of giving order to the dancers. Many of the clowns go out to dance by promise to the Virgin of Guadalupe.From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Jose Luis takes off his mask. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of Claudio. The use of the handkerchief is also typical. They do it to reveal even less of their identity, and wear it under the mask. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of typical costume and fabric used by the dancing clowns. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of dancing clown with the typical costume. When they use their masks they prefer not to reveal their identity. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Portrait of Mayra. There is no requirement to participate in the gang, and people of any social class participate. They should only respect the leader’s orders, not drink alcohol, or have uncontrolled or violent attitudes during the dance. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Detail of typical bonnet and mask used by dancing clowns. Each member creates his/her own bonnet, and mask. The mask is used to hide their identity, and dance freely. From the gang “Cuadrilla de Juquilita”, Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico, 2016.

Last, but not least, we have Andres Millan. My editor Jim Estrin grabbed me, at one point, and said I had to talk to this young guy, so I said sure.

Andres had two projects I thought were very cool, the first of which featured panoramic images of Colombians battling illness. They were excellent, and the odd aspect ratio definitely helped them to stand out.

The other project, “The New Gold,” which we’re featuring here, contains pictures made in the Amazon basin. I liked that he intervened in the landscape, painting things gold to match the title, as it made the pictures more memorable. (Always a good thing at an event where you’re seeing so much work in a compressed amount of time.)

This Week in Photography Books: Anthony Hernandez

 

There are more photo-books out there than ever before.

The market has proliferated, with the advent of crowdfunding, and publishers who will make you a book if you’ll pay their fee.

So if you’re planning on joining the crowd, I’d recommend you ask yourself a few questions first.

Why do I think my work needs to exist in book form?
Who is the potential audience?
Why will it be necessary for people to buy it?

Occasionally, I like to get you guys thinking about the reasons behind this photo-book industry I cover each week. By now, my tastes are well established, if broad.

One week, I’m praising pictures from the 19th Century, and the high quality of the packaging in which they’re presented. The next week, I’ll big up a little ‘zine that looks like it was made by some very talented teen-agers.

Any type of book can be excellent, if it gets the right balance of content, form, and intentionality. And I’ve interviewed several artists who prefer books, for their permanence, to exhibitions, which are ephemeral.

I love a good show, myself, because it allows scale to become a far more valuable element. Just as people go to the movies to see things on the “really” big screen, I like that in museums, I can see paintings that are 40 feet long, or photographs 8 feet high.

The book’s strength, in addition to longevity, is that it’s intimate. You control the experience in a more personal way. No pushy crowds. No bumping into people in the elevator. No dirty looks from the uptight gallery staff.

You can turn the pages backwards and forwards. Skip ahead. Or dash back to a favorite picture.

But in general, photo-books are linear narratives. The viewer will pick it up, start at the beginning, and carry on through to the end.

Therefore, what you do or don’t tell someone at the outset determines the context in which they understand your work. Some books want you to guess what’s going on, (like last week’s offering,) others ask you to read dense, academic essays before you even get to peek at a pic.

If I’m thinking about these things as a reviewer, I expect you to consider them before you spend the money to make a book.

What are you trying to say, and to whom are you speaking?

Given what I know of Anthony Hernandez’s work, I was a little surprised with what turned up in the mail the other day. The folks at MACK, in London, were kind enough to send me a copy of Mr. Hernandez’s new book, “Forever.”

I reviewed his excellent Amon Carter Museum exhibition, “Discarded,” last year, and was lucky enough to interview him a few months later about his retrospective at SFMOMA. (Since closed.)

He grew up in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, and has been making some pretty smart, considered, and at times beautiful photographs in and around LA for most of his life.

Much of his career has focused on examining the secret haunts and hidey-holes of the city’s homeless community, and the bleak public spaces left for those without Maybachs and mansions in Beverly Hills.

“Forever,” I learned, is a project in which he visited homeless encampments, boxes and jimmy-rigged shelters, and laid down where people sleep. Or where they catch a few minutes of rest, in the midst of the stress-horror-show that is life on the street.

Then he photographed from that vantage point.

I was entranced, as he said, “If you stop, and start thinking about, where I am? How can I be sitting here, or laying down on this bed, you won’t be out there. You won’t be making those pictures.”

I think it’s vital to know that about the photographs, to truly appreciate them. Some are too dry, or too reminiscent of things I’ve seen before, but others are absolutely perfect.

Like the twenty, beat-up, sad-looking copper pennies in perfect rows, sitting atop a thin strip of curb, set against the less-shiny brown of the pebbly dirt.

I think it’s amazing, visually. You can sense how deeply he stared at it. And then, you think, why would anyone living on the street leave money like that?

Are pennies now that worthless?

Or was the place tucked-away-enough they considered it safe?

Maybe they took off in a hurry, or were too high to remember the change?

It’s only one picture, and there are seven or eight I thought were that mesmerizing. Like the matchbook. The brick wall. The concrete block wall. (He does walls well.)

And, most of all, the curled, slightly faded portrait of a weepy-looking young girl. A studio portrait, made somewhere, by someone.

It’s taped or glued to the front of a hollowed-out concrete block. Presumably, in this context, it’s the first thing someone sees after they wake up, and the last vision before closing their eyes at night.

The picture is screaming in my ear: This is the last place I’d ever want to end up. The worst spot in the world. Alone, sleeping on rocks, thinking of the daughter I left behind.

Or maybe she’s dead? And the grief drove her father or mother insane?

The book is set up in such a way that it’s difficult (or impossible) to acquire this context, before looking at the pictures. I suspect it’s intended for art world people, who already know what his work is about.

They bring the knowledge with them, as I did. And I think MACK figured the book buyers would be cool with it. No didactic description necessary.

We can agree to disagree.

There’s only a bit that really hints at it, in the book’s closing essay by Judith Freeman. She uses a style in which the narrative and interview bits are jumbled together, distinguished only by font style.

Her words say, “To find a bed or chair, a place you can sit, look out from their point of view.” As it shades towards inscrutable, on first reading, I’d say they’re still assuming people will know what’s going on.

There is nothing wrong with making a book for art collectors and photo geeks. Most established photo book publishers are definitely going for just that market.

But, setting aside one’s preference for knowing versus guessing, I think it’s a very cool book. The best pictures are almost perfect examples of the anti-aesthetic.

Of ugly beauty.

I know from our interview that Mr. Hernandez was friends with Lewis Baltz, (RIP,) who was a genuine master at that skill. Composing so well within ugliness, mastering tone and texture, amid garbage and industrial spaces, that beauty emerged despite itself.

Design-wise, I have to give a shout out to the patterned purple cover followed by a rich, red, inside-cover paper . It’s pretty gorgeous, and makes me think of tailors on Saville Row with a taste for the naughty.

It’s a pretty interesting contrast to the glumness inside, and hearkens back to earlier in this article. Every choice you make, when you build your book, reflects your intention.

MACK, as a publisher, tries to make art objects. They don’t see books as information dissemination vehicles, but rather art itself. And art objects, unlike opinion columnists, need not explain themselves.

Bottom Line: Cool, well-designed, but slightly inscrutable take on homelessness

To purchase “Forever,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Jim Jocoy

“…it was like the only thing left that made any sense was to try and bash your head against it and hope to wake up somewhere new…”

 

Unlike other book reviewers, I detest opening my articles with a quote. In all the years I’ve been writing this column, I think it’s the second time I’ve pulled out this trope.

Why now?

Well, when I woke up this morning, (Wednesday,) I learned that President Trump had just dismissed FBI Director James Comey.

He had his personal security guard deliver a letter that basically said, “YOU’RE FIRED!!!”

It finally happened.

“The Apprentice” and the government of the United States of America have finally merged into one massive entity, all in the service of money and power.

I’m in a tough spot, myself, as I spent a year and a half before the election warning about our now-lunatic-Commander-in-Chief. And given the ridiculous nature of what’s transpired since he won, I find myself reluctant to continue the barrage here.

It all seems so pointless.

A few months ago, when everyone was talking about how “unprecedented” this all was, I scratched my head, and asked, “What about Nixon?”

I even asked my father directly, as Nixon’s break-in buddies were indicted on the day I was born, March 4th, 1974.

How is this not the same, I wondered?

“No, this is different,” Dad said then, though I suspect he’s since changed his tune. (Though in fairness, he has said for months he thought a 9/11-style special commission would eventually be empowered to look into the Russia mess, leading to Trump’s ouster.)

To be clear, I’m no sage, as I certainly didn’t predict the Donald would win. And I’m wrong often enough, so this is no ego-trip.

Rather, it’s the honest admission of an opinion columnist that I’ve reached the point where the degree of absurdity has exceeded my capacity to ruminate.

Sure, he must think, let’s fire the one guy who has the power to indict my buddies. Maybe no one will suspect my motives? And even if they do, at this point in time, there are no human beings alive who can stop me. So I’ll just have a private meeting in my office with the very Russian operatives that caused this whole mess to begin with.

What does a simple, rural, photo-book reviewer have to say that will stand up to a Hollywood-nightmare-plot-gone-wrong-from-which-none-of-us-can-wake-up?

The answer, my friends, is Punk Rock.

I was never a Punk Rocker, if we’re being honest, even though my cousin Jordan caught on to The Clash and all that good stuff while I was still bopping my head to Billy Joel.

My parents would play Donna Summer all night long, as the Disco era and then the early-80’s-one-hit-wonder phase dominated our 8-track, and the car stereo.

I wore my Izod shirts, and let my mother comb my hair like a good boy. I grew up playing sports, in the suburbs, and didn’t even know my parents hated Reagan until I was older.

“Just say no, Nancy Reagan? Ok. If you say so. Good boys don’t smoke weed.”

That was me. (Then.)

Punks were true rebels. They stuck pins through their flesh, and wore ripped clothes. Nowadays, I’m pretty sure you can spend $1000 on a pair of pants that are sold covered in fake mud.

Back then, in the late 70’s, after Nixon’s fall, this country was hanging on by a thread. (Sound familiar?)

And kids responded by throwing up their hands, saying “fuck it,” and then vomiting on each other. Or pissing in their own van.

Mohawks and skinny jeans and a sense that the world was too crazy to change. Political organizing was for squares, man. Punk was about violent music, fighting with your friends, and living with the calm assurance that the grownups running the world were morally and financially corrupt.

(Sound familiar?)

Rather than claim my current ennui stems from a Punk Rock ethos I’ve never possessed, I’ll just admit this rant was inspired by “Order of Appearance,” a new book by Jim Jocoy, recently published by our friends at TBW Books in Oakland.

I’ve interviewed their publisher Paul Schiek before, and that man, unlike me, is Punk Rock. He lived it, and told us so. He met his buddy, Mike Brodie, (he of the train-hopping punk photographs,) at a party where I’m pretty sure the pink puke was fresher than the beer.

So seeing this book turn up in the mail, from his imprint, made sense to me. I’d never heard of Jim Jocoy before, nor did I know this book was about Punk Rockers.

But it didn’t take much time to figure that out. The vibe, the style, and people were all just right. The book, however, denies us any dates, times or places until the end.

It’s sly, but a sticker affixed to the shrink wrap contains a quote from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, so I guess that’s the only clue that sets the scene, until the captions.

The book features a look at the original Punk scene in San Francisco in the late 70’s. Mr. Jocoy, like many a photographer before him, was the guy in his crew who liked to take pictures. (I’m guessing, but the proof is in the pudding.)

These photos, which were recently scanned from nearly-40-year-old slides, feel like they’ve been rescued from some old age home for Punks.

Can you just imagine?

The furniture would all be ripped. The carpet smelly. The fridges filled with only ketchup and a few stray cans of PBR, and the nurses would give you your pills at random times during the day, just to screw with you.

Some pictures are sharp, others blurry, and the color palette is vibrant, but not hyper-real. The blue of dyed hair, the ochre of Allen Ginsburg’s man-purse, the yellow of a club wall all feel like they were made in a world of chemical color.

The San Francisco I knew when I lived there, from 1999-2002, was on a roller-coaster ride of consumption and decline. The dot com boom, the dot com bust.

The San Francisco of these pictures was more dire, as there was no Internet. No email. No cell phones. No one to have your back, unless they were standing right beside you.

The photographs don’t scream action. They are more structured than that, though we do have an up-the-crotch vision of a dancer, probably at some club on Broadway. (The caption confirms as much, though I guessed b/c that’s where the go-go bars have always been.)

There’s an overturned car, a dude bashing an ambulance with his head, and a bevy of people passed out from whatever cocktail of booze and drugs they chose that evening.

I can’t say I’ve never seen anything like this before, as other books by TBW have mined the same broad territory. (Rebellious or down-scale white folks. Like “Lost Coast,” which we also featured.)

But what I like most about this book is that it’s not broad. It’s super-specific. These were the kids, and musicians, that responded to 70’s America with disdain, and an arrogant sense of their own righteousness.

They weren’t trying to change the system. Rather, they chose to opt out, in their own way.

These days, we don’t really have that option. It’s hard to hide when you’re bombarded by information and noise, no matter where you lay your head.

Which is why I opened this review with a quote. Sometimes, we do all want to “…bash your head against it and hope to wake up somewhere new…”

So if you’re feeling that way this week, take comfort. You’re not alone. And also remember, they got Nixon in the end. Trump might be on top now, but history has a way of flipping the script.

Bottom Line: San Francisco OG Punks, back in the day

To purchase “Order of Appearance” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Sigrid Ehemann

 

“If you build it, they will come.”

Has such a line ever been uttered in the history of cinema?

How is it possible that one tiny part of an 80’s baseball movie, (when no one even cares about baseball anymore,) could have become a mantra for so many varied things in the ensuing decades.

Sure, “Field of Dreams” had both James Earl Jones and a peak hotness Kevin Costner, but I’d argue that one line is more meaningful than the plot of the entire film.

Ghosts coming back to play baseball?
Sorry.
Not remotely plausible.

But that one line, rather than just being a movie quote that nerds like to bandy about, is a philosophical conceit that can apply to life itself, industry, creativity, you name it. (For pure quotability, it’s always “Caddyshack.”)

If you build it, they will come presents the idea that sometimes, you have to commit to something before you know if it will work. Or even ever come to exist.

It’s like, are you the kind of person who would move to a new city without a house or a job, or does that seem unimaginable to you?

Are you willing to self-finance your next photo project, because you believe in yourself, or do you only do something once the funding is in place first? (Grant, commission, sales, whatnot.)

I’m thinking of such things, having recently returned home from the New York Portfolio Review, which is produced by the New York Times Lens blog, and is held each April at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, just up the block from the Times Building, near Times Square. (Shout out to the excellent CUNY hosts.)

I’m going to write about the best work I saw in the coming weeks, but straight off, I have to tell you guys that in a day and a half, I was able to look at work from photographers on five Continents.

That’s all of humanity, save for Australia.

I’ve reported here before that James Estrin, David Gonzalez, and the Lens team work very hard to build a diverse event. Their outreach efforts are extensive, and result in the most well-mixed room I’ve ever been in.

Ever.

It’s like the 7 train of photographic talent, and I actually paid my own way to get there. Because I think it’s that important to get the chance to hear stories from such varied places, filtered through the lens of such capable photographers. (And videographers, these days.)

The review is free, and the NYT carries serious weight, so you get people applying from everywhere, and even the breadth I encountered was less than in past years, I was told, as multiple photographers had visa issues under the Trump administration.

If you build it, they will come.
You put the intention out there, and see what follows.

I’ve told you guys many times that this column is now user-supported. What I get, I can write about.

And I recently lamented that so much of the column had been about historical projects or heavy political issues of late. I practically begged for someone to send me the kind of thing I often got at photo-eye.

Self-published, or small batch.
Funny. Absurd. Reacting to life’s surreality with a dose of the ridiculous.

Send me something like that, I asked.

And wouldn’t you know it, but “Bruno is a Celebrity,” a new, self-published 2017 offering from Sigrid Ehemann, from Dusseldorf, Germany, turned up in the mail this week.

Thank you, Sigrid.

I’ve been waiting for this for some time now. I love great production values as much as the next guy, and praise them often. But I’m a Marshall McLuhan acolyte at heart. (The medium is the message.)

Some books need to be slick, and some don’t. This one looks like it could have been made at a high end Kinkos. It’s bound like a book report circa 1997, if you were really trying to impress your teacher.

Except for the pink on the cover, which adds a touch of whimsy. (Kooky colors inside too.)

It quickly becomes evident that Bruno is a small dog. I’d call him ugly, but then I know people think chihuahuas are cute too, so I’ll accept he might be adorable.

The book is broken up with text pages, in all caps, that are of-the-moment-critical of our contemporary-digital-narcissistic-Trumptastic-surveillance-state-NOW times.

It’s nominally about Bruno, (also a Sasha Baron Cohen alter ego,) but is really about all of us.

HE BEFRIENDS HIS OWN IMAGES ON TWITTER
HE CURATES HIS OWN BREAKFAST
HE LOVES HIS CHAINS & LEATHER BANDS (Well, that one actually makes sense.)

I could quote most of the text, because it’s funny in the OMG-this-is-actually-happening-kind of way. It’s resigned to our Trumpian moment, but also manages to say Fuck You while still being irreverent.

Humor does that.

Other than just being silly pictures of cute, little Bruno, (who has 5,475,127 followers on Instagram,) there are also strange, appropriated-looking images. Like the preacher hands or the celebrity singers.

Others, of dog toys, seem like they could have been shot for this book.

I love this thing, because it feels hot off the presses. Because it is hot off the presses. Rather than just being one more set of opinions on a screen, (like this one, I know,) it’s a bound group of pictures and words.

A book.
Old school.

When a man gets to be President who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy, why can’t a photobook say, about a dog, for crying out loud, “Bruno loves to fuck beautiful bitches.”

2017 is definitely that kind of moment.

Later, on another text page, we see

HE HAS MET DONALD TRUMP & HIS FAMILY
DONALD TRUMP IS SUCH A WONDERFUL ICON
HE LOVES THE PRESIDENTS HAIR & DANCE MOVES
HE ADORES THE PRESIDENT’S CURRENT WIFE
HE LOVES PRETTY SPICY, THE PRESS SECRETARY

This book is about Bruno.
And it isn’t.
It manages to push ideas, and critique culture, while also having fun in the process.

Kudos, Sigrid.
Keep up the good work.

Bottom Line: A fun, cool, silly self-published book about Bruno

To purchase “Bruno is a Celebrity,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Per-Anders Pettersson

 

Well, this is embarrassing.

I could pretend it didn’t happen, I suppose. That would be the smart move.

Instead, I’m going to admit that I just got two completely different artists confused. Sure, that happens sometimes. But when you tell one person you like their work, when you’re really thinking of another, you should probably keep that to myself.

But since when do I do the conventional thing?

When I recently got an email from Per-Anders Pettersson about his new book, I conflated him with Anders Petersen, whose books I’ve reviewed in the past.

Sure, they’re both Swedish, and their names are nearly identical, but still, that’s definitely a party foul.

My bad.

I didn’t even figure it out until I began leafing through the excellent new book, “African Catwalk,” by Per-Anders Pettersson, recently published by Keher Verlag. Once I started flipping through the pages, it didn’t take me long to figure out something was amiss.

Anders Petersen typically makes edgy, black and white pictures of drunks at the bar. I’ve seen a few of his projects, including his partnership with JH Engstrom. The pictures are unflattering, and unsparing, but very engaging.

This book, on the other hand, featured extremely colorful photographs of various fashion weeks in Africa, shot over a number of years. I scratched my head a few times, trying to figure it out.

For context, just yesterday, I forgot my cellphone at home and had to drive all the way back to get it, then I got out of the car without putting it in Park, and finally, later in the day, I sat on my favorite sunglasses and broke them.

In other words, I’m not exactly operating at maximum efficiency these days, as my brain is more compromised than Jim Comey’s moral compass.

So, Per-Anders, my apologies.

It wasn’t until I went to the book shelf, and picked up an Anders Petersen production from MACK, that I figured out where I’d gone wrong.

Because while that Swedish photographer is known for capturing the downtrodden, in all their liquored-up glory, this book came from a far more optimistic and empathetic place. It’s all about documenting, and publicizing, the grassroots fashion scene in Africa.

With respect to the pictures here, there’s not much I can say that the jpegs below won’t tell you. The book is filled with cool, well-made, fascinating, behind-the-scenes photographs of a culture none of us would likely penetrate. (As Mr. Pettersson is based in South Africa, he has home court advantage.)

And despite the evident glamour, the essays within indicate there is a massive DIY element to the various fashion scenes. This is an art movement of the people, by the people, and for the people.

What’s not to like?

There’s a quote in one of the essays, by a UN Ethical Fashion executive Simone Cipriani, in which he says, “An African designer is similar to an artist, insofar as he or she smells the wind that blows among the trees of society. African fashion tells the story of society: its positivity, creativity and capacity to do a great deal with scarce resources.”

Personally, I’d quibble with saying designers are “similar” to artists.

They are artists.

As such, this book basically codifies the energy driving these thriving scenes. There is not a lot of money to be made in African fashion yet, we’re told, but the market is being built over time.

The marketplace came up several times in the writing, which is not surprising, as fashion is also a highly capitalistic venture. That’s the part that people tend to focus on the most: the money. (We can’t really think of fashion shows without imagining the wealthy, famous folks occupying the front row.)

This book, however, celebrates makers. It highlights talented, committed people who are working hard, far from the international spotlight. We get to see the team-work inherent in this field, and I suppose ogle some beautiful people in the process.

Basically, this is a very cool book that shows us things we haven’t seen before. It’s stylish, colorful, dynamic, and very well-produced.

Good thing they can’t knock off photo-books at Zara, or this one would be churned into a fast-fashion equivalent in no time.

Bottom Line: Excellent, positive book highlighting African fashion

To purchase “African Catwalk,” click here

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

 

Drone Imagery from Archeologists in Jordan

 

For my seventh birthday, my parents took me and a few friends to the movies.

In case you’re GenZ, “the movies” was a physical place, a theater really, where you’d go to see films and buy candy. These moving pictures would be projected onto a very large screen, and you’d watch the movie, in its entirety, in the company of total strangers.

Weird, right?

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was such a big deal at the time, it’s hard to come up with a contemporary cultural parallel. Maybe if Drake and Rhianna had a son, Raptor, who grew up, was in a band with Ivanka Trump, and they had an affair, which led to another child, (the one born to Raptor and Ivanka Trump,) who grew up to be President.

Like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, his Indiana Jones reeked of charisma. It was the old Hollywood story: people either wanted to do him, or be him.

And Indiana Jones, in case you are under 20, was actually an archaeologist.

A scientist, for God’s sake.

He was a classic cinematic hero: handsome, dashing, brave, he could fight, had a trademark bull whip, and battled Nazi’s for a treasure bestowed by God himself: the lost ark of the covenant.

There must have been thousands of young boys who grew up in the 80’s wanting to be archeologists. Indy made it seem sexy, and thrilling, and I’d bet almost anything there are a ton of  “scholars” sweating in the field today because of those Steven Spielberg stories.

I almost wish I could ask an archeologist.

What if I could?

Yorke Rowan is an archeologist who works in Israel and Jordan, and he and his project partner Austin (Chad) Hill, have an exhibition currently on display at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It features their aerial drone photographs of petroglyphs and archeological sites in “The Black Desert” of Jordan.

I stumbled upon a web description of the exhibit, and the OI was kind enough to put me in touch with Yorke, so I could learn more about the show, and see some pictures.

First things first, when I asked Yorke about my Indiana Jones hypothesis, he threw dirt on the fire immediately, because he said he was too old for the movie to have been seminal.

But he disputed that an archeologist’s job included “going in, stealing things, and running from the natives.”

The duties are far more mundane, apparently, as he described the work as “trying to make sense of the junky, broken parts of ancient people’s garbage.”

Just when I was beginning to believe him, (about the job being over-hyped,) he told me the story about how, back in the 80’s, he’d lived in Egypt, and then traveled on transport trucks down the Nile, all the way to Khartoum, Sudan.

For fun.

As soon as he arrived, he got word, (having called his parents collect,) that he was due in Sicily for his first big dig, so he turned around and headed back the way he’d come.

No.
That doesn’t sound romantic or dangerous at all.

His project partner, Chad, who grew up in the 90’s, was addicted to remote control aircraft as a kid, in Northern New Jersey. His father was into the hobby, and Chad has been flying things since he was 3.

From what I can gather, Chad knows about as much about flying drones as anyone out there. As he’s in his mid-30s now, and began putting 35mm cameras on balsa-wood planes when he was in High School, I’d say his street cred is solid.

I asked Chad if he felt like a cross between Indiana Jones and MacGyver, and he laughed. But then he said, deadly serious, “I enjoy that description, but I would not actually describe myself as either Indiana Jones or MacGyver.”

OK, then. We’ll play this straight.

Yorke and Chad have been working for years at two sites in “The Black Desert” of Jordan. Apparently, the aerial view is extremely important in archeology, so photography has always been a key component to the work. At the end of each season, it’s important to chart the changes in the site you’re working, so before/after mapping is a must.

They used to hire planes, helicopters or hot air balloons, which was extremely expensive. This in a field of diminishing resources, as it sounds like academia is strapped for cash, just like the photography world. (Though Yorke was clear to state their support from the Oriental Institute is substantial.)

At one point, when they were working in Israel, Chad had the idea to jimmy-rig a drone, like he’d done when he was younger.

“This was 2011, and I said, ‘Hey, when I was in High School, I did all this aerial photography myself. We could buy our own equipment, put a camera on a model airplane that we can buy locally in Jerusalem, and take our own aerial photography at the end of the season.

We can do it whenever we want, we would have our own control over it, and it would cost us less than one time of getting this professional company to shoot for us.’”

“So we did that,” he said. “The first year, we bought an off-the-shelf model airplane, and mounted a GoPro to it. I flew it fully manually, as this was not a high-technology drone.”

These days, they still use some homemade technology, but DGI gave them a Phantom 3 quad copter, and Chad confirms its ease of use is the main reason behind the super-popularity of drones.

“The newest crop of drones, you have no experience, you go and buy a $1000 drone. You watch a couple of videos maybe, and you press a button and the drone will fly. You can intuitively make it go where you want it to, and if you get into trouble, you press a button and it will return to you, and land,
without you having to figure out how to make it land.”

“The barrier to being able to effectively control them has dropped dramatically
in last 5-6 years.” In the old days, he said, “you needed to know a lot or you would crash.”

What first caught my attention, when I looked at the pictures and video they sent me, was the fact that the Jordanian desert reminded me so much of the volcanic fields outside my window here in Taos. The pictures were familiar and exotic at the same time.

Beyond the initial jolt, I was myself entranced by the formations on the desert landscape that looked like Nasca Lines, the famed geoglyphs in Peru.

What could those be?

It turns out, the low rock walls are called “kites.” Unlike the Nasca Lines, which were actual images meant for some deity in the sky, kites are not visual at all. Rather, they were Neolithic hunting traps that run for long distances in a given direction.

The kites, designed between 7000-10,000 years ago, funneled gazelles, like a crude maze, towards an ultimate spot, (or killing field,) where our ancient forebears could hunt with relative ease. Some kites even used the edges of the basalt mesa tops to hem in their pray.

“One of the things I find most fascinating about the kites,” Yorke said, “is that not only did they take a lot of planning and thought about where they’re going to go on the landscape, and how they’ll go up the side of a mesa, and spread out on top, using the edges as further barriers so the the animals can’t escape that way, or they fall down the side of a cliff.”

“What’s more amazing even than planning that, and setting it up across the landscape for kilometers, is that we’ve started to realize they’re linked. There are actually chains of these kites going hundreds of kilometers across the desert, all of them open to the East, which must be the migratory patterns of the gazelles.”

Yorke, Chad and their colleagues did not discover the kites, which were first spotted by English pilots flying mail between Baghdad and Cairo in the 1920’s. But their drone technology makes it that much easier to make photographs of them, which can be used as scientific evidence, as well as art.

They have discovered some interesting things, in particular that huge slabs of basalt were actually roofs on pre-historic houses. The size, and difficulty moving such slabs, implied people spent more time in the inhospitable climate than one might imagine.

This also suggests there was more water there than there is now. One site, the Wisad Pools, is so remote that the team has to take an extra vehicle with them, each time, in case the main transport breaks down. Two flat tires at the same time might be a death sentence, so the archeologists plan ahead, even if the extra car ends up mostly serving as a wind block for the kitchen.

Though the drone technology has enabled this work to exist, and the archeologists to function on smaller budgets, it turns out that the drone revolution is creating some serious backlash. They reported that drones have recently been banned in Kenya, and one of theirs was confiscated by the Jordanian government, despite their previous openness to the technology.

“The downside in general, is that there are so many drones, it is not wrong to be concerned about them being used by bad actors,” Chad said. “Those people who don’t know any better. Who don’t think bad things will happen to them using their drone, and don’t think the rules should apply to them.”

“And one thing we haven’t talked about is that even though lots of these new drones fly exceedingly well, they also occasionally fail. They tend to fail at some point, and they can be dangerous. They have fast-moving blades that can cut you, and they can fall out of sky and into people.”

I still remember the time my family and I were given a drone demonstration above our horse pasture here in Taos, a couple of years back. My kids were cheering on the little flying machine, as if it were Indiana Jones running away from that huge boulder.

Run, Indy. Run!

But I was pretty impressed too. It made me think of the future, in which we’re obviously living. (Now that flying cars are real.)

It makes one wonder what our ancestors, 10,000 years ago, fresh from a gazelle hunt, might think if flying robots descended from the sky?

Maybe someone will write that one up as a screenplay one of these days? I don’t know about you, but I’d pay to see it.

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This Week in Photography Books: Tom Atwood

 

Everyone’s a little grumpy this time of year, and I’ve bitched about April as long as I’ve lived in Taos.

Allergies. Ditch cleaning. Windy, gray skies.

Taxes.

It sucks, basically, and each year, I yearn for May like a kid awaiting summer vacation. It never comes fast enough, but then again, I learned years ago that waiting for a future event, in order to get happy, never works out so well.

The irony, of which I am aware, is that I’ve got it pretty easy. With respect to the global game of life, I was dealt a pretty sweet hand, but still don’t always find a way to win.

Others, here in America or elsewhere in the world, face far rougher challenges than I do. The truth is simply that the world is not fair, and some people face discrimination, or violence, through no fault of their own.

The history of humanity is littered with the corpses of the oppressed.

Part of why I’ve always loved America, despite our copious flaws, is that one can see a march towards a more equitable society, over the course of our history. There has always been the backlash, (which we’re seeing now with #Trump) but over the course of time, we’ve corrected many of our errors.

Whether it was overcoming slavery, giving women and minorities the right to vote, overturning anti-immigrant legislation, or the break-up of Jim Crow laws, the changes in our society from the 17th to the 21st Centuries have been profound.

The improved rights of the LGBTQ community would have to be considered one of those successes, despite the near-daily-deluge of tweets about gender-neutral bathrooms.

Just now, the morning after watching the finale of “Grace and Frankie,” Season 3 on Netflix, I learned that Lily Tomlin, who married her partner in 2013, said that she had to wait until after her mother died to come out of the closet.

At 76!

She said if she’d told her mother while she was alive, it would have killed her.

Ms. Tomlin is one of the titular stars of the show, but oddly, she plays a straight woman who was married to a man, (played by Sam Waterston,) who left her because he was gay. And then, during the show’s run, he married his law-partner, played by Martin Sheen.

Sheen and Waterston are straight, playing gay. Tomlin is gay, playing straight. Jane Fonda, easily the best actor of the bunch, has no such sexual identity confusion. And somehow, it all holds together.

To say popular culture has come a long way from Will & Grace, at the beginning of the Millennium, is an understatement. Think about it: back in 2000, if you said the word trans, by itself, people would assume you forgot to include the last two syllables.

Trans-mission.
Trans-ition.
Trans-action.

You get the point.

These days, now that LGBTQ issues are again symbolic of America’s endless culture wars, it seems more important than ever to depict members of that community three dimensional.

It’s vital that people can see flesh and blood human beings, not stereotypical Gay bff’s who never wear pants. (Now that “Girls” is over, maybe Andrew Rannells will find some roles that are less-obvious in how they objectify his body?)

Thankfully, I’ve just put down “Kings & Queens In Their Castles,” a new book by Tom Atwood, published by Damiani. Now that I only review books by submission, Mr. Atwood was determined to get my attention, as he emailed several times, and then hit me up on Twitter.

He seemed to think I’d be a good person to look at this book, and frankly, he had excellent instincts. This one is almost-tailor-made for a jblau review. (Thanks, Tom.)

The premise here is not difficult to discern, as Mr. Atwood spent years building relationships, and meeting fellow members of the LGBTQ community. He was allowed into people’s homes, into the heart of their lives, and made pictures across a very wide spectrum of contemporary LGBTQ culture.

Before I say anything else, I’ll admit there are a lot of celebrities in this book. (Some are totally expected, like George Takei, John Waters, and of course Alan Cumming.) The artist, in his opening statement, admits that people like to look at pictures of famous people.

No surprise there.

But it works well in this project, as it mashes up the concept of “celebrities, they’re just like us,” which comes from the world of US Weekly, with the promise of outing a few people you didn’t know were queer. (There weren’t many, for me, but I didn’t know Heather Matarazzo was gay.)

Beyond the thrill of seeing what Steve Kmetko’s home office looks like, (I jest,) what works best about this book is that it studiously avoids over-worked production values. (This is not a book suffused with Liberace’s ghost.)

Rather, we see a multi-racial group of “regular” seeming people. They have jobs, and kitchens. They shop at Trader Joe’s, and live in trailers.

They’re doctors, and social workers, and yes, they work in theater.

Ironically, one of the funniest bits of “Grace and Frankie,” this season, was a recurring plot in which some homophobic protestors disrupt a San Diego community theater play. As they walk around with placards, they chant about wanting theater to be reserved for straight people again.

It’s a great joke, and in his statement, Mr. Atwood does make mention of the high proportion of gay Americans in the arts.

(Again, no surprise.)

In the past, I’ve addressed the fact that you guys, our audience, are almost entirely composed of Blue-State-Liberal-Artsy-types. This column, therefore, is often the epitome of preaching to the choir.

But I recently got an email from a regular, Republican reader who assured me you’re not all so consistent in your beliefs. It was a polite note, I must admit, and lacked any name-calling or inappropriate vitriol.

Basically, we engaged in a bit of cross-party communication, which is pretty rare these days.
As such, I’ll try to assume, from now on, that you’re a more heterogenous mix.

But people keep coming back here, each week, because I spout off a bunch of words, and show a really cool book too. This one qualifies, as its insider access gives us glimpses into normal lives.

Regular places.
Regular people.

Like the gay bartender, from Utah, hanging out shirtless in his trailer. He’s not glamorous, and in another photo book, in a different context, we might think he was embroiled in the Opioid epidemic.

Instead, we can imagine a bit about his story. Do the guys at the bar know? If so, are the cool with it?

Or rather, does he live in the closet, making off-color jokes about boobs and harlots?

Does he have to pretend, to stay safe?

Without asking further questions, we’ll never know. But good books get conversation started, and this one definitely qualifies.

Bottom Line: A cool, important look at gay Americans in their homes.

To purchase “Kings & Queens In Their Castles,” click here

 

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

 

This Week In Photography Books: Zackary Canepari

 

The best art connects to something universal. (That’s why it’s the best.) It has a quality that speaks to people across our many divides.

Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” or a Van Gogh olive grove, can inspire almost anyone. Even better, look at Jackson Pollock’s seminal paintings, which attempted to represent Jung’s collective unconscious, and many believe they do. (Myself included.)

Pollock’s work doesn’t look so great in reproductions, because the scale, texture, and color patterns all need to be experienced in the flesh.

Sometimes, size matters.

(But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.)

There are universal aspects to humanity.
We love. We hate. We eat. We die.

We sleep, and dream.
We work, and aspire.

Some parts of humanity are the same, no matter when or where you live. (Even Neanderthals would have hoped for a cave with better-tasting-water, I’m sure.)

It is easier, I’d say, to focus on where we differ. Each tribe concerned with its own, excluding others. My history is not your history, and you can’t take mine, if it’s not yours.

In general, I’m open to critiques of cultural appropriation, when appropriate. In light of where things ended up, Marvel definitely should have cast an Asian actor as the lead in “Iron Fist.” (Opportunity missed.)

But where to draw these lines can be murky. How much sampling is OK? What belongs to all of us?

I bring this up in light of the Dana Schutz controversy. Her painting, in the Whitney Biennial, has drawn countless words because she based it on a disturbing image of a dead Emmett Till, a young boy tragically murdered during the Civil Rights Era.

The work was threatened with boycott by certain African-American artists, who wanted it removed, or even destroyed, to prevent her from profiting off the collective pain of their culture.

My colleague Maurice Berger, writing in the Lens Blog, sided with those who thought this use of appropriation uncouth. Calvin Tomkins, in The New Yorker, had a long piece on the artist, including up-to-the-minute details of the controversy, and her responses were exactly what I predicted.

When you try to look for that spark of the universal, you think in terms of the collective. Emmett Till’s story, and the Civil Rights era, are American stories. They happened here. If you’re born and raised in the US, our country’s legacy is yours too.

We hear a lot about white guilt, but not so much white shame. When you’ve been taught, for most of your life, that your country has done awful things in your name, you develop a certain cynicism. A willingness to explore the edges of things.

Furthermore, we were encouraged, in art school, that it was best to keep your mind open to all ideas. (Ms. Schutz and I went to NYC Graduate Art schools around the same time.) We were pushed to explore creativity, and then judge its aftermath once the work was done. Is it good, bad, brilliant, offensive, un-showable, ridiculous?

That’s what I thought she’d say, Ms. Schultz, and it’s exactly what she said.

She explored the ideas, knowing they were risky. She made her painting, based upon a symbol of hatred from America’s past. If you look on Google Images, you can see the style is consistent with her other work.

Censorship denies people the right to even make up their own minds about whether something is worthy of their consideration. Provocative work makes people think and talk, which is part of its point.

When things are made public, and put on display, we all get to decide whether something meets our moral standard or not. And with respect to publicity, those who sought to minimize the painting’s impact inadvertently fanned the flames of dialogue.

I’m fascinated, and I haven’t even seen the painting in the flesh yet.

But I do believe artists have a right engage with any culture or idea they want, and then see what happens.  (Just because you’ve made it doesn’t mean you have to show it). And as one who has taught in minority communities for nearly 12 years, I can affirm that cross-cultural communication is a good thing.

I’m on the subject today, having just put down “Rex,” a new book by Zackary Canepari, recently published by Contrasto books in Italy. I was anxious to get my hand on this one, as I first saw the project in Critical Mass in 2015, and fell in love.

It has since garnered much acclaim, as the story of a young, female boxer in Flint, Michigan spawned a movie, an interactive website, a book, and presumably print exhibitions as well. This thing thing spun off content like Disney around a new Marvel franchise.

(Dr. Strange! Not as funny as Tony Stark, but he has magic!)

The documentary film, “Rex,” was a hit, and even received a Guggenheim Fellowship this week. Big ups to Mr. Canepari, I’d suggest.

I like the book, and thought the gold cover was a terrific touch, as it alludes to the gold medal at the metaphorical heart of the story. Claressa and Briana are two sisters, living in the same water-poisoned town, living lives on separate trajectories.

The ravages of poverty that ensnare so many in towns like Flint have hit hard, as the family has moved around a lot. The girls’ mother had difficult, live-in boyfriends.

No stability at all.

The photographs of the girls’ lives are interspersed with text bits. The hand-written nature of the words suggests intimacy. Honesty. Direct to us.

It’s an engaging book, and the pictures are really well-made. I normally don’t quibble about such things, but having every picture spread over both pages, split in the middle, was a bit distracting. (I’m guessing they thought it was worth it, to make the pictures pop a little larger.)

Oddly, one of the most memorable parts of the book was the silent opening. Quiet, sad, empty, green neighborhoods beckon us. The pictures were visceral, and put me in the mood. (It’s funny how words sometimes get in the way.)

The book is well-produced, and has a nice narrative pacing. The portraits are always well-lit, and there’s a slickness to the photographs that belies a skilled technician as well.

I have to admit, though, I wonder when a story is mined in this many ways, whether some media aren’t more effective than others? Given last week’s book review, you know I’m a fan of cinema.

One advantage to that medium is how quickly we can create empathy with characters, when we have sound and motion and music. When facial expressions are not frozen, but fluid. In book form, some of the text segments tugged at my heartstrings, but most of the pictures did not have that visceral energy.

From the thank you page, it’s clear that Mr. Canepari has grown very close with these people. I don’t doubt he is thoroughly engaged in his subject’s lives, even though their culture is not his.

The short version is that Claressa, who won a Gold Medal in boxing at the 2012 London games, wasn’t able to escape Flint’s drama, so instead she escaped Flint entirely. She had boyfriend trouble,

coach trouble, and family trouble, so she moved to Colorado Springs to train full time at the US Boxing facility.

Her sister Briana had a kid, called fatdaddy, because she wanted a person in her life who’d love her completely. Their brother Peanut had a child too.

Their struggle represents other families, who are battling odds in dying cities, where you can’t even turn on the faucet.

In this regard, I don’t pretend to relate, which is why I turn to art to learn things I don’t understand. I would not make a photograph about what it feels like to be a poor African-American living in Flint, Michigan. Despite what I said about our commonalities as people, not everything is universal.

I applaud Mr. Canepari for having the guts to go tell a story he found fascinating. Clearly, the sisters embraced him in their lives, and want their story shared with others. I think I’ll have to see the movie, because I’m curious, but the book’s pretty good too.

Bottom Line: Slick, dynamic story about a young, female, Gold Medal boxer from Flint

To purchase “Rex” visit Contrasto’s website

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