Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography Books: Tom Griggs

 

Hey guys.

Thanks for coming back.

After the last couple weeks, with the anger and the sorrow, I wasn’t sure if I’d see you today.

You might not realize it, but I always try to keep the balance in mind. If I hit you with some really heavy stuff for a few weeks, then I think it’s time for breather.

Lately, I’ve also had the opportunity to alternate male and female photographers each week.

Like I said, balance.

So today, we’re going to have a really short review. On the off chance you really like the long articles, and want to see them every time, I’ll offer my apologies.

Last week, I began making connections between the books that were sent to me by some very talented female photographers. I’m fairly sure I use the word emotional.

It’s a tricky word, emotional, and a tricky premise to suggest that women are more emotional than men. It’s often used as a pejorative term, and I should know, as it’s been hurled my way many times.

We all have emotions. (That should be blindingly obvious.) But traditionally, men have been less comfortable exploring and understanding their emotional reality. We all know the stereotype of the macho, stoic, heroic, cowboy type.

It’s been held up as a model forever, and only recently has “emo” been an acceptable state of mind for certain subsets of the male population.

Today’s book, “Herida y Fuente,” was made by an American photographer, Tom Griggs, who’s been living in Colombia for a long time. (Published by Mesaestander) He runs the blog fototazo, and works hard to support Latin American photography.

He’s definitely a good guy.

But I hadn’t seen his work before this book showed up a few months ago. I finally got to take a look at it today, and found it to be soulful, soft, and definitely emotional.

There’s a lot of visual darkness in this book, but it’s mostly the kind that serves as a foil for little spots of illumination. (Chiaroscuro, if you will.) The pictures are lovely, moody, and indirect. As the title is in Spanish, and there’s no English text at all, you’re on your own as far as interpretation goes, unless you speak Spanish.

(I know some, but not enough to decipher the title without Google’s help.)

Beyond the repetition of the black color palette, there are hints of discord. We see glimpses of the female body, but rarely the whole thing. A partner? A wife?

There’s one photograph that reminded me of a breast self-examination, so I wondered if there was an undertone of cancer?

But then we see pillows piled on the couch, like someone had to sleep there. Later, there’s a made bed that no one has slept in. In that sense, the book feels like a set of stills from a movie by one of those crazy Mexican directors.

There are flowers, and butterflies, and a sensibility I would feel comfortable describing as feminine. Unlike some people, I don’t see that as a negative term. Lots of artistic guys are comfortable with their emotions.

Eventually, I did translate the title, which means “wound and source.” I have no idea if this is a literal narrative, but the title clearly pushes us towards seeing this as a romantic breakup, a tumultuous relationship, or a legitimate battle with illness.

There’s a long poem on the back cover, also in Spanish, but I didn’t bother to run it through the software. I figure if Tom wanted us to read it in English, he would’ve written it in English.

Here are some of the words I made out: Contacts, tangents, proximity, separation, distance, bodies, corrosions, rooms, concrete forms, poetic manners…you get the point.

After the disconcerting reviews the last two weeks, I see today’s book as a heartfelt love poem tucked inside a photo book.

Hope you like it too.

Bottom line: A beautiful, poetic meditation on love? 

To purchase “Herida y Fuente,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Nancy Borowick

 

IKEA has it all figured out.

They rope most of us in with their cheap, stylish furniture. (Everyone loves a good deal, right?)

But that’s not enough for IKEA. They throw in Dollar hot dogs, cheap Swedish meatballs, free childcare, and I swear one time I saw a sign for free coffee.

It’s a heavy pitch indeed, but it makes sense, as they’re trying to convince people to walk around a space that is at once maze-like and cavernous. (We practically hugged the employee in Denver last time, when she finally showed us a shortcut.)

I like to be a student of success, when I can, and have learned a lesson or two from the Swedish behemoth. Most of the time, I try to be funny and/or witty in this part of the column, and then entice you into reading about a photobook. (At least that’s what I tell myself. I’m sure some of you skip right to the book each time.)

I never planned to be entertaining, or political, though as last week attests, it’s best to step away from the keyboard when I’m in a bad mood.

But there’s nothing funny about the book I read and looked at this morning. It was a completely unique experience in all my years reviewing photo books.

I cried the entire time.

Not bawling, if I’m being honest, but the tears streamed down my cheeks at a consistent pace, like the lines of Taiwanese people buying toilet paper at the store, when it was announced the prices would soon rise. (Apparently, it led to shortages. Napkins, anyone?)

Right, I was writing about crying. I was preparing you for a sad review.

So why am I in a decent mood?

I guess it’s because excellence makes me feel good. Seeing things done well, in particular photobooks, gives me inspiration and excitement to keep pushing forward.

Last fall, Women Photograph, the advocacy organization that recently won an ICP Infinity award, was kind enough to nudge some female photographers to submit books for review in this column.

I thanked them recently on Twitter, and am doing so here, because it lead to reviews of Kathy Shorr’s “SHOT”, Nina Berman’s “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” and now “The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss,” by Nancy Borowick, published by Hatje Cantz.

(We’ll also be looking at Debi Cornwall’s “Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantanamo Bay”, by Radius, and it’s good, as Debi gave me a preview in NYC last spring.)

I know the books that were recommended were pre-selected for being successful, but their commonalities are impossible to ignore.

These books are personal, and emotional. They’re exhaustive, and incorporate text that is as strong as the pictures. They use nontraditional materials within, like cards and medical forms, to break up the monotony of the narrative.

And each discusses a subject that is at the outer edge of human experience, while simultaneously being entirely human.

(At this point, I’ll stop lumping Nancy’s book in with the others, and tell you why it’s so great.)

Nancy Borowick grew up Jewish, in New York, to loyal, loving parents. Her father, like mine, was a lawyer, a baby-boomer, a Giants fan, and his initials were HB.

Like my folks, her parents went to costume parties, took their family on skiing vacations, and had photographs of embarrassing 80’s fashion.

It’s no surprise that life in the New York City suburbs might be similar.

I get it.

But that’s where our stories diverge. (If you don’t make that hard right turn, at just the right time, you’re sure to crash into the concrete stanchion up ahead.)

Cancer runs in Nancy Borowick’s family, and Nancy’s mother, Laurel, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, and it recurred in 2009 and ’11. Her father, Howie, developed terminal pancreatic cancer in 2012, so her parents slowly died together.

Her father was buried 364 days before her mother, who had to live that last year of her life without her soulmate.

The book opens with a heartfelt essay, by my friend and mentor James Estrin, who warns of the extreme emotional nature to follow. He said he cried many times, as this project evolved, and I thought, “Yeah, well, I don’t cry. It’ll never happen.”

Like I said: water works.

The bulk of the book is comprised of black and white photographs that document this phase of the Borowick family’s life, including a wedding, and unfortunately two funerals.

There are diary entries, pain journals, statements from each of her parents, reproductions of handwritten greeting cards, old photos from family albums, and even scans of needlepoint that collectively rocket the reader into the story.

Having two parents die of cancer simultaneously is a hardcore, unlikely experience. It’s the kind of thing everyone prays will never happened to them.

The book is therefore an allegory, as much as a family album. My greatest teacher, Allen Frame, always preached that the deeper you dig into your own personal life, the more likely you are to tap into a universal story.

That’s what Nancy Borowick has done here. There is an inherent shock value in her premise, in her life, that will always draw curiosity. So this book could’ve been mediocre, and I think people still would’ve paid attention.

Instead, by varying the narrative techniques, and ratcheting up the sadness, the power of this family’s love comes through loud and clear. That’s why I felt inspired, rather than wretched.

It’s why I was excited to write about this book for you, instead of sheepish. (Ironically, as the morose emotions coursed through my system, I thought about losing my wife, or dying without seeing my kids grow up, rather than focus on my own aging parents.)

The narrative, design, and photographs here are all top class, so together they create the gestalt of a talismanic object. If I hadn’t been so blown away by Nina Berman’s book a few weeks ago, I’d be happy to tell you this is the best book I’ve seen in a long time.

Instead, I can gladly say the books I’ve been receiving from female photographers are kicking some serious ass. They’ve all been dynamite, so I don’t have to pick a favorite.

Fellas, you best bring it, or step to the back of the line.

Bottom Line: A brilliant book about tragic circumstances

To purchase “The Family Imprint,” click here

This Week in Photography Books: Mario Lalau

 

Sometimes, it feels like the world is run by idiots.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Regular people don’t quest for power. They’re too busy trying to get the bills paid, their children fed, and their posts liked on Instagram.

It takes a special kind of ego to yearn to control others. (I know there are a few idealistic public servants out there, like former President Obama, but they are certainly the exception to the rule.)

Just this morning, for instance, the Taos School system head-honchos refused to cancel classes, despite the massive snowstorm sitting over town. Any fool could’ve looked at the radar and seen what was coming, especially as it began snowing last night.

But our town is most definitely run by morons.

Instead, they made thousands of people drive on icy, snow-covered roads to get their kids in on time.

And then they canceled school an hour later, making everyone repeat the hairy drive a second time.

If I hadn’t seen the same scenario play out year after year, I would’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. But they don’t deserve it. Dumb fucks.

Few things make me angrier then risking children’s lives for no reason.

Of course, one can always pull out an empathy-cheat-sheet to handle the press conference afterwards. Are you kidding me? By now, you’ve all seen the photo of Trump’s tiny hands surrounding a numbered list, required to remind our current president how to talk to children who survived a deadly mass shooting.

The last time I wrote about mass shootings, and predicted another with absolute certainty, I actually got a nasty email from one of our readers. Apparently, in the United States of America, dead children are seen as nothing more than collateral damage to an assault weapons addiction.

So if the guy who wrote me that email is reading this column: fuck off. I didn’t respond to you last time, and I won’t this time either.

I live in a place where the police can’t get to you in time, if something really bad happens. Lots of people have a weapons for self defense.

I get it.

The only reason these lunatics want their AR-15s is to potentially revolt against the government one day. That’s it. You don’t need a semi-automatic rifle to kill a deer, or an elk, or even an endangered species.

But like I said at the beginning, it’s often the biggest douchebags who make the important decisions that govern our lives and safety.

I’m no nihilist, but I’m certain the world is neither orderly nor sane.

Thankfully, today I opened up a photo book by Mario Lalau, a Brazilian photographer I met at Review Santa Fe in October. The dude was cool as hell, and like me, has occasionally been accused of looking like a terrorist. (If you have a slightly swarthy complexion, and wear a beard, it’s bound to come up.)

Mario lives in Texas now, and he told me a hilarious story about making friends with his gun-loving colleagues down there. (He has a strange day job, but I don’t remember what it is.)

After the festival, he sent me a copy of “Tropeço,” published by Foto Editorial, and it felt like the perfect publication for today. (For the record, because of all the portfolio review articles I wrote over the last five months, I’m backed up at looking at the book submissions. If you sent something in to me, please be patient. I look at everything eventually.)

I’m not going to tell you this book is brilliant, because it’s not. It’s barely even a book.

According to some notes he sent along, they actually jumble up the pages of every copy. As it is not hardbound, (or bound at all,) this would certainly be possible.

Mario was really funny in person, which I always appreciate, and these images are representative of a witty vision, as someone wanders the world with a camera.

The pictures are fun, smart, and well-observed.

There’s a randomness to it all that feels very appropriate in 2018. Many of the pictures are phallic, with cones, and buildings, and trees jutting up from the Earth.

The one repeating motif I could discern with certainty was the absurdist, winding Lombard Street in San Francisco. What could be a better metaphor for now than tourists flocking to see a little stretch of asphalt that makes no sense?

I’ve occasionally mourned the fact that I rarely get strange, weird, small-batch, art book submissions these days. I’m sure many of you prefer it that way, as most of the books I review now have a strong sense of mission.

The photographers document an issue, and try to raise awareness.

Not today.

While I admit I woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning, even if I’d arose cheerily, my morning-social-media-check would have assassinated any latent optimism.

But this book, with its emphasis on finding little moments of bliss, or synchronicity, in the face of unending chaos has definitely put a smile on my face.

Thanks, Mario.

Bottom line: A strange and hip little jumble of a publication

PS: It’s crazy that I’ve never done a PS before two weeks ago, and here I am again. But I saw this quote from Mario in an email, and it’s too good not to share: “I’m the guy who told you a story about a lonely, wild boar BBQ with an armed patriot, who called me Omar instead of Mario because of my suspicious beard.”

To purchase Tropeço, click here

This Week in Photography Books: Nina Berman

 

I’m not feeling very creative at the moment.

The sky is gray out my window, and the dreary light is making me lazy. In a perfect world, I’d get back in bed, pull the covers around me tight, and take a big fat nap.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

I bitch and complain as much as the next guy, but in general, I’m aware of how good I have it. While life can turn on any given day, I’m healthy, have a beautiful family, and live in a wonderful place.

If I feel hunger, I go to the refrigerator and make myself some food. So in the grand scheme of things, I have little to complain about.

Living with comfort and security is the root of the American Dream. Without question, we take it for granted. It’s hard not to, as the micro-stresses of daily life add up, and in the aggregate make it difficult to maintain perspective.

As artists, we have a built-in stress relief mechanism, as long as we have the energy to use it. I’ve written many times that I taught abused teenagers for 10 years, and was able to see firsthand how creative outlets allowed them to channel the powerful emotions they have, in response to their tragic circumstances.

Art is its own form of therapy.

I knew my students had undergone horrific situations. As I wasn’t their therapist, I never asked for details. (It didn’t seem appropriate.) My wife, who is a therapist, and works with the same population, has heard frightening stories that would make most people reach for a bottle of whiskey.

Or a big fat joint.

She doesn’t tell me the details, because she’s not allowed. (It’s all confidential.) So she keeps it inside, and sometimes goes to therapy herself, but when things are really bad, I can see the stress energy wafting off her skin like the heat waves that rise from my old wood stove.

Frankly, it’s rare that we find ourselves inside someone else’s nightmare. Sure, some people like to get scared, and pay to watch a creepy movie.

But that’s fiction.

Occasionally, we find ourselves privy to someone else’s darkest secrets. Occasionally, we choose not to look away. (Even when it’s the stuff of pure darkness.)

In my six and half years writing this column, I’ve often shared that my favorite photobooks are experiential. They carefully consider how to unspool the thread of their narrative; how to engage an audience by divulging details in just the right way.

I love books that show me things I haven’t seen before, and give me insights I couldn’t otherwise access.

I’ve also admitted to being something of an Anglophile, as I’m addicted to English football, and wrote stories on this very blog about my remarkably joyous trips to London in 2012 and ’13.

It’s easy to idealize a place when you only see its slick surface. People do that with Taos all the time. They come here thinking it’s a quaint, little tourist mecca, with hip art galleries and magnificent nature.

But as I’ve said before, it’s the most hard-core place I’ve ever lived, and I did a three year stint in Brooklyn.

There are plenty of entertainment options that glamorize English gangsters, like the stylish “Peaky Blinders,” the several movies about the Krays, or (insert random Guy Richie movie here.)

But I just put down a photo book that made my head spin, in a good way, though its contents are shockingly awful. (The kind of awful that enlightens, not the kind that comes from poor execution.)

“An autobiography of Miss Wish” is a new book by Nina Berman, in conjunction with Kimberly Stevens, which was published in the fall by Kehrer Verlag in Germany. It’s generated a fair amount of positive press, and I feel fortunate to have been sent a copy a few months ago, when I was actively soliciting submissions from female artists.

(By the way, the first round of outreach was successful, but I’m down to my last two books by female photographers, so hopefully you guys can help spread the word to get a new batch of submissions for us.)

Kimberly Stevens is the latest name adopted by an Englishwoman who’s had as difficult a life as I’ve ever encountered. This book shares the kind of stories my wife keeps to herself. It’s hard to read what is presented here; to look at Nina Berman’s photographs, and Kimberly’s drawings and diary entries.

The shortest version is that Ms. Stevens was adopted at two into a family of violent, murderous, child-purchasing, sex traffickers. She was raped, tortured, and prostituted for her entire childhood. Even worse, the gang that ran her continued to kidnap her anytime anyone stepped in to help.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ll photograph the drawing she made of a dismemberment, part of a series of flashbacks that were symptoms of extreme mental illness brought on by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In what can only be described as a coincidence, or an act of God, Nina Berman bumped into Kimberly in the early 90s in London, when she was still going by the name of Cathy Wish. She photographed her roaming the city, and they struck a friendship.

As Kimberly’s captors were so well-connected that the police couldn’t protect her, an officer from Scotland Yard suggested she escape to America, and even gave her the money to buy a ticket.

So she came to the United States, (the exact type of immigrant our current president despises,) and made a life for herself on the streets, in the shelters, jails and mental institutions of New York City.

Throughout, Kimberly has suffered from multiple personality disorder, suicidal tendencies, drug addiction, HIV, and dissociative fugue states.

(Like I said, this gives hard-core a new definition.)

The book, which is remarkably well done, shares the story with us in a variety of ways. From medical reports to text messages, consistently interspersed with Ms. Berman’s documentary images, we’re given access to Kimberly Stevens’ life story.

Throughout her time in our country, Nina Berman proved to be her support system.

Her family.

Her rock.

I interviewed Nina Berman for this blog many years ago. She struck me as an extreme personality. You have to be, to somehow believe Kimberly Stevens could carve out a life worth living. That she wouldn’t be better off just jumping off a bridge, or out a window, both of which she tried to do.

Instead, they made this book as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the ultimate survivor.

As far as I’m concerned, photobooks don’t get much better than this.

Bottom line: A collaborative masterpiece

To purchase “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” click here


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

This Week in Photography Books: Paul Gaffney

 

Any idiot can deny something.

It’s takes no effort at all.

What could be easier for a lazy person?

Here.
I’ll show you.

I hereby deny that gravity exists. Even though the book I just dropped fell, and hit the couch, still, I insist there’s no such thing as gravity.

Here’s another.

I deny that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is an inherently conservative institution, founded by the famously anti-leftist J. Edgar Hoover.

Who cares that he assassinated Black Panthers?

And that as recently as 2016, we all thought James Comey was a conservative fascist who ruined Hillary Clinton’s chances of getting elected.

Now, these stiff-suited-corn-fed-white-boys are suddenly smoking weed with Jerry Brown?

It’s ludicrous.

But I didn’t mean to get off on a political rant today. Rather, I was thinking about all the people out there who deny that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate patterns.

Theoretically, that should not be a political statement. There is vast empirical evidence supporting the idea that gas emissions trap heat within the planet’s atmosphere, which affects different places in different ways.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” a movie now almost 12 years old, predicted an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events. In addition, traditional weather patterns were meant to shift as well.

Any sentient person can see that in America alone, we’ve been hit with massive floods, hurricanes, droughts, mudslides, and wildfires. (Hell, we even have man-made earthquakes these days too.)

Here in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah are having their worst winter in recent memory. There’s almost no snow at all. (Though here at Taos Ski Valley, our new billionaire owner has certainly been willing to pay for man-made snowmaking. Until the water allotment runs out…)

It was so warm in December, January and now February, it seems as if winter were only a rumor.

Just last year, we had tons of snow, and I’m sure we will again next year. But each random catastrophic weather event, wherever it hits, cost billions of dollars, and wreaks havoc across all strata of society. (Though of course low income people suffer disproportionately.)

Some might say Nature is fighting back.

That we, tiny humans, think that we can do whatever we want, but we’re wrong.

I don’t know who or what controls the wind, the clouds, the rain, the sky. But I do know I’ve been looking out my window at dry grass all winter, instead of white frozen Wonderland.

And I know my trees are thirsty.

I recently saw a headline on Twitter that plants lost certain activity function when exposed to anesthesia. I admit I didn’t read the article, but it implied some sort of sentience.

When you live among raw nature, as I do, it’s not hard to believe such things.

I admit I just came back from my daily walk, but really I’m ruminating, having just looked at “Perigee,” a new book by Paul Gaffney in Ireland, which turned up last autumn.

I reviewed an earlier book of his, “We Make the Path By Walking,” and recall he spent an inordinate amount of time on solo walks in the Irish countryside. (That’s a lot of quiet time, bro.)

This new book is simply beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it. So much clean white paper, in a double fold.

The stiff black binding. So many empty pages. And the images within are special as well.

We learn at the book’s end that the series was made during an artist residency in Luxembourg. (Seriously, do they just give you the whole country for the residency? Sitting here on the other side of the world, I imagine Luxembourg being about as big as Disney World. No offense.)

I’m sure Paul spent a lot of time walking in the woods there, though the book gives us almost no words at all. He thanks his family and friends at the end, which I think is super-classy, and there’s only one fraction of a song lyric.

“But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzled”

It’s interesting context, after-the-fact, because with the strong contrast, and yet consistently dynamic total range, the pictures made me think of electricity, as much as anything else.

Bioluminescent undersea creatures pulsating with life. Or a network of neurons in a Pelican’s brain.

On some level, I understand that they’re just simple black-and-white landscape pictures made in forests. Lots of people do that.

But between the exquisite, minimal design, and the vibrant energy within each picture, (much less the entire edit,) I think this book is just about perfect.

I’m sure you will too.

Bottom line: a little Zen gem, like a poem

PS: I’ve never done a PS before, but when I just went to find the purchase link, I learned another book that was in the package was also a part of “Perigee.” It had no words, and I had no way of knowing they were connected. Apologies.

To purchase Perigee, click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Carolyn Marks Blackwood

 

I never get homesick.

Not for New Jersey.
(Where I’m from.)

It never happens.

But lately, my home state has crept back into the dark recesses of my consciousness. It began recently enough, when I found myself reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

My son, Theo, was writing his first term paper, and chose Franklin as his subject. I saw the book sitting there, and picked it up out of curiosity, more than anything else. When I read that old Ben first landed in New Jersey at Amboy, not 10 miles from where I grew up, it definitely piqued my curiosity.

The book was a bit of a tease, if I’m being honest, because as fascinating as it was to be inside Franklin’s mind, he died writing it, before he got anywhere near the Revolutionary War.

The man spent pages and pages describing a system for removing dust from the streets of Philadelphia, but never thought to speed it up so we could hear what he thought of George Washington, or the Revolution in general?

Mind-melding with Ben Franklin, straight out of the 18th-century, reminded me of the feeling I had walking the Monmouth Battlefield, or going on school field trips when I was young, and being told that Washington had slept there.

At the moment, I’m deep into binge watching an AMC show about the Revolutionary War, with the awkward title of “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” (Seriously, for all the money these people make, nobody thought to come up with a better title?)

The show is exceptional, so you certainly have my recommendation to watch it yourself, but it’s also been feeding the odd homesickness as well. (As an aside, the show gives good evidence that the New Jersey/Long Island Island rivalry goes back to the old days, when Jersey was Patriot territory, and Long Island was a Tory stronghold.)

My hometown, Holmdel, had its fair share of 18th-century architecture. Not to mention graveyards. (Can you imagine how scary it would be to live next to some of these places?)

Right now, I definitely feel some chills up my spine, having just put down “The Story Series,” a new book by Carolyn Marks Blackwood, recently published by the Roberto Polo Gallery in Brussels. (She just had a show there, and it’s now up at Von Lintel in LA.)

When Ms. Blackwood originally wrote me, she mentioned that she lives in upstate New York. In a sense, it doesn’t matter, because the pictures in this book channel that 18th-century creepy vibe better than just about anything I’ve seen.

The book mentions that these pictures are meant to be exhibited at a very large scale, so when I was looking, I tried to imagine projecting them as wall size, which helps explain the sort-of-painterly, soft focus, lower-resolution aesthetic presented within.

According to an opening interview, Ms. Blackwood is also a screenwriter. It makes perfect sense, as each of the snowy, or dark, wintry pictures is accompanied by a one or two sentence narrative.

They’re novels, for the Twitter age.

I think there’s a range in quality between the pictures, and some would be banal, without the text. Regardless, when combined, I think they give off a strong, local, historical mood.

The paper is dark. The pictures are dark. They’re like ghost stories, without the ghosts.

My one quibble here, and it’s something I’ve mentioned a bit lately, is that I think there are too many pictures. I know that books differentiate themselves from catalogs by being bigger, and having more images, but I definitely think that more is not more, in most cases.

Less is more.

See you next week

Bottom Line: Cool, creepy, painterly book of East Coast landscapes

To purchase “The Story Series,” click here

The Best Work I Saw at Photo NOLA: Part 2

 

If you live long enough, you’ll see all manner of science fiction come to life.

Like right now, for instance.

My busted hand is healing more slowly than I might like, so I just figured out I can dictate my column on my new-ish computer.

It’s blowing my mind.

So many of us use technology, these days, to take us out of our everyday world, away from the thoughts that clutter our minds. Whether we’re looking at computers, phones, tablets, watches, or television screens, digital reality transports us away from our mundane lives.

I’m getting a rush, at the moment, because I’ve had the same way of writing for the last nine years, (you know, typing…) and it feels like the 21st-century has finally come in earnest to my remote little horse pasture in the Wild West.

If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you’ll know there are some themes I return to again and again over the years. One idea I like to consider, from time to time, is the way art functions in the very manner I’m currently discussing technology.

Art can expand our minds.

Like the perfect psilocybin trip, movies, paintings, books, photographs, (etc.,) help us understand more about the world we inhabit. Art can definitely make us smarter, which is why some people find it so threatening.

But art can also make you forget the world. It can wipe your mind clean, and leave you feeling all sorts of emotions, as your neurons blaze with bio-electrical energy.

Last year, during my travels, (which I reported on extensively here,) I had a couple of art experiences that transcended what I normally get out of looking at objects on the walls of a museum.

Each time, I got swept up in the music.

I admit that back in the 90s, I went to my fair share of concerts, and had a shit-ton of fun. But it’s been so long since I’ve seen live music, what with dinners to cook and kids to put to bed.

So when I was in Chicago for the Filter Photo Festival back in September, I found myself eating late night scraps at a party with some local jazz musicians who had just wrapped their set. I asked them where they would go if they were me, to see something special, and they mentioned a place called The Green Mill.

When I told my friends, they assured me it was famous, as it used to be a hangout for Al Capone. Now that I’ve been to Chicago three times, I get the sense there’re a lot of places that lay claim to the old gangster. His name still comes up constantly, this deep into our futuristic present.

Anyway, there was a cheesy-old-timey-white-guy-jazz-band playing when we arrived, which my friend Erin likened to listening to NPR live, and the bouncers kept insisting everyone be quiet to listen. (Lots of shushing.)

It was a total bummer.

All of a sudden, the band welcomed an Old-Spanish-Female-Gypsy singer to sit in with them, and within seconds of her opening her mouth, I was transfixed. Everyone shut up willingly, like something out of a movie, when the odd duck walks into the wrong bar.

Oh my God, it was so good.

Before you know it, I was the one telling Erin to shut up, and then after two songs, she was gone. The band went back to its lame previous set.

Then this December, when I was in New Orleans for the Photo NOLA festival, I swore I would not leave town without hearing some kick ass music. New Orleans is renown for being one of the best music cities on Earth, yet I had never seen so much as a tambourine rattled on previous visits.

Certainly, no Second Lines, or anything special like that.

Each time I’ve gone, I’ve been told that Frenchmen Street is the place to go, but I hadn’t ventured that far before. This time, I refused to take no for an answer, and luckily recruited a great group to join me. (We hailed from Chicago, London, Taos, Savannah, Dallas, Atlanta, Tucson, and Phoenix, so it was a polyglot affair.)

The first bar we went to had some hack singing “Happy Birthday” to a bunch of drunk tourists who didn’t know any better, even though we were told this was more a local’s part of town.

We left, (of course,) and found a bar called d.b.a. The bouncer let us in for free because the cover charge hadn’t started yet, but told us if we left we’d have to pay 10 bucks to get back in, because the band was THAT GOOD.

He suggested if we were smart, we’d hang tight for a couple of hours, and wouldn’t be sorry. Man, was that dude right. (Thanks for the advice, random-NOLA-bouncer-guy.)

It was a Mississippi Hill Country Blues duo featuring Cedric Burnside, the grandson of the famous bluesman RL Burnside, and his sometimes partner Lightnin’ Malcolm.

Holy shit, could these guys wail. The music was violent, but in a good way. I was yelling and screaming, dancing like a teenager, and sweating from the heat of their awesomeness.

It was one of the best art fixes I’ve had in a very long time.

I know on this blog we show photographs, and there’s rarely any sound, beyond the odd-random-video-link. You guys come here to read the writing, and look at the pictures, and I hope in the best case, some of the things you look at might take you out of your head, in addition to expanding your mind.

Some artists I meet have political things to say, and critique the cultures in which they live, and others just want to make something beautiful, peaceful, or memorable.

So today, I’m showing you the second and final group of portfolios that represent the best work I saw at Photo NOLA last month.

Becky Wilkes hails from Ft. Worth, Texas, and has a house on a lake down there. She likes to go on walks, and picks up trash that she finds along way, before taking it to her studio to make art. She showed me one group of pictures that was very linear, and literal, and I felt it could use a little loosening up.

Then, she had a second series that was far more playful and light hearted, as she makes little tableaux. It presented the objects in stark contrast to the manner were normally accustomed to seeing them. I think they’re kind of cool, and I’m sure you will too.

Christos Palios is a Greek-American hailing from the Baltimore area. Rather than showing me pictures of the Inner Harbor, or all the locations David Simon filmed in during “The Wire,” he had a series of photographs from across the world in Greece.

The pictures represent unfinished, concrete structures dotting the landscape, abandoned after The Great Recession. Christos prides himself on his craftsmanship, and I don’t blame him, as he’s teasing some really high resolution landscape imagery out of a full frame digital 35 system.

Technical-speak aside, I think the pictures a really interesting. There’s a calm, bleakness to them, but they’re also traditionally beautiful as well, with their formal structures and subdued-but-evident color palette.

I first saw Mary Anne Mitchell’s work out of the corner of my eye at the portfolio walk, and it appeared she was working with tin types, which were popular at the festival. (Frankly, now that I think about it, I saw a fair bit of that style of work in 2017.)

When we sat down at the table the next day, she showed me that, like others I’ve reviewed, she had scanned and enlarged the tintypes, and was printing her images digitally. At first I questioned the technique, because why bother going old-school if the final results don’t really show the work?

But then I saw the large prints, with all sorts of texture captured from the plates, and I thought they were great. Mary Anne, who’s based in Atlanta, shoots mostly in her backyard, and uses friends and family as models, yet involves masks in ways ways that reference photo history, and art history in general. (Like Julia Margaret Cameron meets Ralph Eugene Meatyard.)

Crazy stuff.

Jan Arrigo was one of several people who returned to my table to show me how their work has evolved from a previous meeting several years before. (I took that as a compliment.)

Jan lives nearby, on Lake Pontchartrain, and had multiple series of well-crafted pictures that showed off the lyrical, Southern, baroque beauty of the landscape. In particular, I liked a group that tracked the place in the years before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Black and white photo of a wooded area in Slidell, Louisiana taken after a storm shows bent tree trunks leaning into each other under a grey sky.

A black cloud releases a darkend sheet of rain over Lake Pontchartrain in this black and white photo vertical seascape taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

A funnel cloud appears to touch down on the Twin Spans bridge in this black and white photo taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

This black and white photo portrait of a piece of floodgate sign washed up on Lake Pontchartrain includes the printed words Orleans and floodgate.

Crochet design and yarns draped inside a tree appear as fiber art created by hurricane Katrina in this black and white photo by Jan Arrigo taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

An open-beaked flying black bird is captured in motion inside a foggy landscape in this black and white photograph taken in Slidell, Louisiana. Following Hurricane Katrina the photographer, Jan Arrigo began to document her surroundings and this image continues that series.

Hanging organic matter dangles from a tree in a awampy area of Slidell, Louisiana two years after Hurricane Katrina in this black and white still life photograph.

A black bird in shadow looks down with his beak behind a tree branch torn and storm tattered in this black and white photo still taken in Slidell, Louisiana.

Extreme close up of a hibiscus blossom stamen shadow black and white photo taken in New Orleans by Jan Arrigo.

MOSS SCROLL

Five seagulls in shadow fly among and over clouds in this black and white photograph taken of the sky in Slidell, Louisiana.

Finally, we’ll end with George Nobechi. (As someone wrote me in an email this week, sometimes you save the best for last.)

George was visiting from Japan, though he’s Japanese-Canadian, and told me he was heavily inspired by the National Geographic photography done by legend Sam Abell. As I often think of that style as being represented by “single images,” and George said he had traveled the world by himself, but the resulting pictures did not have a coherent theme, I admit I was concerned.

But all it took was one pass through the photographs to see how tight, and Zen his vision was. I could look at some of these pictures all day, and walk away totally blissed.

The fact that I ran into George at the end of the festival, and he offered me some brilliant sake from a tiny distiller, high in the remote mountains of Japan, had no bearing on my opinions about his photography. (But it definitely made me like him more.)

Okay, that’s all for now. Hope you have a great weekend, and I’ll have a book review for you next Friday, as usual.

The Best Work I Saw at Photo NOLA: Part 1

 

I’ve been to New Orleans four times in my life.

Each visit, I’ve gone in December. It’s not entirely a coincidence, as that’s when the Photo NOLA festival takes place. (I’ve attended in 2012, ’14 and now ’17)

Despite the fact that New Orleans is situated on the Gulf Coast, and is reputed for its lovely winter weather, two of my visits were met with freezing-rain-ice-storms that made me want to cry in a pillow.

(The other two times I was met with humid, sunny, 70-80 degree weather, so I guess it all depends on luck.)

The fact the weather was awful this year was mitigated by the fact that I’d planned the trip with little time scheduled outside the International House Hotel, where the event is held each year. (It’s just a few short blocks outside the French Quarter.)

Mostly, I was either in the hotel or adjoining conference center, or safely ensconced inside a bar/restaurant/museum/gallery/party/Uber. So any whinging I now provide is mostly for comedic effect.

There was a brief moment, the first night, when I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the heat in my hotel room, and I actually did cry into a pillow, but beyond that, I had a smashing time at Photo NOLA last month.

Like many portfolio review events these days, Photo NOLA is run by a non-profit, in this case the New Orleans Photo Alliance, which is a member-supported organization. (We did an interview on the subject years ago with Jennifer Shaw, if you’d like to learn more about it.)

So Photo NOLA is imbued with a sense of mission, and everyone clearly loves being a part of such a vibrant local photo community. Like Filter in Chicago, another of my favorites, this festival puts heavy emphasis on socializing, as they have several parties and events lined up, including a gala at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and a yellow-school-bus-led gallery tour.

Photographers have a lot of choices these days, as far as review events to attend, so I think the fact that you can have so much fun at Photo NOLA, in addition to the fact they clearly get a few reviewers each year who normally aren’t on the circuit, makes it a very wise place to invest your obviously-limited resources.

(If you’re one of the few out there who’s doing really well, getting rich off of being a photographer, you can ignore the previous comment, but have the decency to keep it to yourself, OK?)

For whatever reason, I had a lot of people visit the table this year who were looking for advice and feedback, but weren’t quite ready to be shown here. I do the best I can to help, obviously, but only publish work in the column that demonstrates a high degree of craft, if not concept, over 8-10 pictures.

As such, I’ll show you a handful of projects today and next week, and then we’ll be back to the book reviews. I attend most of these events in the summer and fall, so this will be the end of the review stories, for a while.

As usual, the photographers are in no particular order.

Ok, they’re in no particular order beyond the fact that I’m starting with Jared Ragland. His work was the most complete, compelling project I saw, and I voted for it for the Photo NOLA prize.

Jared used to work with Pete Souza in Obama’s White House. (An era that now seems like Martin Sheen’s TV presidency, for all the similarities it shares with contemporary reality.) But Jared is originally from Alabama, and returned home to turn his attention to the meth epidemic that is ravaging the NE part of the state.

The pictures are genuinely visceral, as they make a viewer feel uncomfortable. They show something decidedly ugly, and real, but the strong aesthetics give the ride a bit of turbo boost. Additionally, Jared worked with a sociologist to give the project a sense of academic rigor.

Brilliant stuff.

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Jared Ragland, from the series, GOOD BAD PEOPLE: Methamphetamine Use on Sand Mountain, Marshall County, Alabama.
jaredragland.com

Ellie Ivanova had a new take on a subject matter we’ve all seen before: war re-enactors. It’s not hard to see why people are drawn to the subject, as it’s incredibly visual, and also goes pretty far down the road of creating the impression of time travel.

I feel most photographers neglect to really push the element of time in their work, so when the clothing and props are already there for the taking, it’s not hard to see why people with cameras get curious.

Ellie is from Bulgaria, but based in Denton, TX, where she got her MFA degree. She is using a fairly original analog technique to make prints that don’t look real, using some strange acid trick. The chemistry acts in funny ways, and eats away at the emulsion, so the visual effects enhance the emotionality, I think, and also imbue the subject with a bit of originality.








I first saw Amilton Neves‘s work during the portfolio walk, and stopped in my tracks, as it is clearly compelling. Luckily, he had a review with me the next day, so I got the full backstory.

Amilton recently moved to Tampa from Mozambique, where he was both a photographer and an anthropologist. Back home, he became intrigued by a community of women who’d been encouraged to write letters to Portuguese colonial soldiers during a war of independence in the 60’s and 70’s.

Portugal was eventually ejected, after 500 years of Colonial exploitation, and the women were deemed enemies of the state. Surprisingly, they’re still demonized, all these years later, so Amilton photographed them in their homes, and gained access to some of the letters as well.

I think it’s a striking project, and look forward to seeing what he comes up with down there in the craziest state in the Union. (Keep f-cking that chicken, Florida.)

Jo Ann Chaus and I got along swimmingly. She’s a Jewish grandmother from Northern New Jersey, and we openly discussed how hard it can be to focus on a career in the arts, coming from that local culture. (I’m sure I wouldn’t be an artist today if my folks hadn’t left for Taos in the 90’s.)

Though I admit women of her generation doing self-portraiture-based projects is a bit trendy at the moment, (which I told her,) I found an honesty, and visual strength, in many of these pictures, and heartily encouraged her to continue, and push it even further.

Lisa M Robinson and I go way back, as she used to be married to my friend Ken. (Who featured in the ridiculous Marfa article series we published in 2012.)

Lisa, who’s represented by our friends Klompching Brooklyn, got a lot of traction years ago for her project, and Kehrer Verlag book “Snowbound.” They were lovely, meditative, large format images, which she followed up with a series about the sea.

Though I know she was not enamored of Tucson on first site, apparently she made her peace with the desert, because I think this new group of pictures, Terrestra, rocks. I saw it at the portfolio walk, and the prints, trimmed borderless, were the best I saw in NOLA. (The show is up at Klompching as we speak.)

All images © Lisa M. Robinson/Courtesy of Klompching Gallery, New York

We’ll end today with Rich Frishman, a funny guy who’s based in Washington. I was talking with Frish Brandt, the Director of the Fraenkel Gallery, who was my table-mate, when Rich walked up to my table, and she said he was her brother.

They both smiled, and I was totally sure they were spontaneously busting my balls. You know, two people who get in on the joke immediately, like improv performers.

But no, they insisted, her name Frish came from Frishman, the two hugged, and then she told me he should have been a better big brother when they were young. (He confirmed as much.)

In all my years reviewing, it was one of the most surreal little moments I’ve had. (Is there a book in that? All the craziest stuff I’ve seen at portfolio reviews? Probably not.)

Rich’s pictures are panoramic visions of Americana, shot across much of the country, and are meant to be printed very large, so people can dive into the details. The photos are obviously likable, and kitschy, but I told him the more visually compelling they were, the more people would engage with his vision.

©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allen’s Filling Station on US Route 66; Commerce, Oklahoma
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Total solar eclipse over McDonald’s; Baker City, Oregon
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Midway Drive-In Theatre; Quitaque, Texas 2016
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Segregation wall at Templin Saloon; Gonzales, Texas 2016
The wall was constructed in the early 20th Century and is decorated with an original pre-1929 Dr. Pepper logo.
At the time of its construction (circa 1906) only Caucasian customers were allowed to sit in the front of the saloon. All Hispanic, Latino and African-American customers had to sit behind the wall.
When the saloon was remodeled and re-opened in 2014 the wall, no longer used for its original purpose, was retained as a historical reminder.
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Stark’s Sporting Goods in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin features an assortment of items, including boats, booze and bullets. One stop shopping American-style: shots of whiskey and shotguns.
©Rich Frishman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

See you next week with more great photography. (If we don’t get nuked first…)

This Week in Photography Books: TBW Books Subscription Series No. 5

 

Taos is a famously spiritual place.

Our mountain is sacred, and considered one of the world’s energy vortices, if you believe that sort of thing.

So people around here are pretty open to seeing the hand of fate, rather than ascribing any and all oddities to coincidence and chance.

As such, last summer, I chose to take a different route home, which I never do, and drove past my former Kung Fu teacher, walking a dog with a little girl by his side. (I hadn’t seen him in years.)

Not believing it was a coincidence, I parked the car, walked across the street, and said “Hello.” It felt like a sign, so I decided to start studying again, and have been training now for nearly 5 months.

Wing Chun is not for everyone, but I’m enjoying myself immensely. It’s exercise, self-defense, and Buddhist/Daoist philosophy all rolled into one.

The downside, though I hadn’t really contemplated it, is that you can get hurt. Fighting, apparently, can lead to injuries. (Who knew?)

My left hand is strained at the moment, as I hurt it punching a bag a couple of weeks ago, and re-injured it during training last week. Typing right now hurts like hell, and I have to keep it to a minimum, so I can get better and drop 1200 words on you next week.

As such, I”m going to keep it short today. Like super-short. Shorter than DJT’s attention span. Shorter than the line at Chipotle. (You get the picture.)

But to counteract the effects of an abbreviated review, I’m going to show a 4 book set, called “Subscription Series No. 5,” put out last year by our friends at TBW Books in Oakland. (We hate the Warriors in my household, but love Oaktown.)

The series, overseen by Paul Schiek, features books by Mike Mandel, Susan Meiselas, Bill Burke, and Lee Friedlander. How’s that for a line-up?

Pretty badass.

Each grouping comes from the past, though Friedlander snuck a few contemporary images into his edit.

What do they have in common?

I’m not sure.

They’re all black and white, and show people in interesting subcultures: Santa Cruz boardwalk beach kids, Downtown NYC schoolgirls, Appalachian snake-handlers, and people with heads. (OK, “people with heads” is not a sub-culture, but I’m trying to tie a bow on this, so I can stop typing and ice my hand.)

The suite of books is really cool, and Mike Mandel even features images of cunnilingus behind a beach shack, which I have never, ever seen before. (And I won’t photograph here, as Rob likes to keep things SFW.)

Anyway, I’m out, and will be back next week with portfolios from Photo NOLA.

Have a good one, and if you’re going to punch a bag this week, make sure to use proper technique.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, slightly absurd book series by some masters

To purchase “Subscription Series No. 5,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Naomi Harris

 

I haven’t been skiing yet this year.

Mostly because we don’t have any snow. As I’m writing this, the East Coast is under a blizzard watch, and the American South just got more snow in a day than we’ve had in a month.

But I’m not going on a Climate Change rant today.

Rather, I’m moping because I miss flying down the white mountain while the snow falls all around me. It’s magical, standing on top of a white peak, frozen conifers dotting the landscape.

I’ve been skiing in Taos Ski Valley since I was 14, and now I’m 43, so the place is like a second home. Furthermore, one of my wife’s good friends is a Blake, the family that owned the resort for 60 years, so that always made it more special.

Though Taos is famous for our adobe-style architecture, most of the buildings in TSV were designed in a Swiss Alpine style, and feature European names like the Edelweiss, or the Bavarian.

And there are trails named after the men who engineered a failed coup against Adolph Hitler, for crying out loud. (Stauffenberg, Fabian, Oster, Tresckow)

To be clear, Taos Ski Valley sits on land once “owned” by the Taos Pueblo Native Americans, which was then appropriated by colonists from the Spanish Empire, before being taken as war spoils by the United States in the 19th Century.

So where does the Euro-centric architecture/culture come from?

Well, Ernie Blake, the founder, came to America as Ernie Bloch. He was a Swiss German Jew who left Europe, founded a little ski area at the edge of the world, yet still wanted to create an atmosphere like home.

Pretty weird, right?

Well, yes and no.

Because all of contemporary America was founded by European expats who came over here to begin again, and brought their culture with them. (To be clear, I’ve written many words over the years about the exception that is African-American history, but we’re not going there today.)

If you drive through parts of Texas, you see signs advertising kolaches, a Czech snack food that is fairly far from home. Why? Because it was mostly Czech and German immigrants who beat back the Comanche in the 19th Century.

We all know there are a shit-ton of Scandinavians in Minnesota, Polish-Americans in Chicago, Irish in Boston, French descendants in Louisiana, and so on.

There are weird-ass European town names that pop up all over America, including places like Brooklyn, which has become synonymous with American cool. (Or obnoxious, bearded hipsters, depending on your POV.)

How could it be otherwise, when an entire Continent has been populated with riffraff from elsewhere?

That much I understand.

But what about the other way around? Are there places in Europe that are obsessed with America, even though our histories officially diverged around the time of the Boston Tea Party?

I’m glad you asked.

Because I just put down “EUSA,” a fun, new book by Naomi Harris, recently published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, so I feel pretty qualified to answer your question.

To begin with, I believe Naomi Harris is Canadian, so the entire premise of a book looking at the overlap between America and Europe begins with a touch of absurdity. Thankfully, it meshes perfectly with the vibe of the book, and the style of the images, so don’t bother with this one if you lack a sense of humor.

The last few weeks, I’ve discussed how certain books utilize the cover to generate interest. This is no different. As the below picture attests, this cover is made from the sort of plasticy-rubbery composite that makes one think of travel guide books of old, or maybe textbooks you might have bought in college.

The title is also built out of smaller versions of itself, which I had to squint to understand, upon first viewing, thereby grabbing my attention further.

Inside, we’re met with a well-written explanatory essay, by the artist, laying out the parameters of the project. Ms. Harris visited tourist-type-places in the US that honor the heritage of the local founding culture, but also spots in Europe that display a fascination with American culture.

Mostly the Wild West.

You know, like, where I live.

The short version of my opinion is that it’s a cool, smart, funny project, and the images are really well made. (There are also more than a few images of scantily clad ladies, so there’s a slightly sexed-up energy as well.) As Gen X is famous for its embrace of irony, I can only imagine that Ms. Harris is no Millennial, but I’m too classy to Google her birthday and out her age.

The long version is that I think the book is flawed, which is OK, because it’s clearly reaching out towards some edge, without knowing exactly where it is.

The idea that global culture, in particular urban culture, is becoming homogenized is nothing new. We’ve heard plenty about it, and the rebellion against globalized culture struck fiercely in 2016-17, giving us Brexit, Trump, and the incessant use of the word “cuck.”

(Seriously though, I’m willing to bet that EVERY guy who uses the word “cuck” on Twitter hasn’t gotten laid in at least 5 years.)

So by giving us a visual mashup, and intentionally creating images that force you to look hard, trying to surmise which Continent you’re seeing, the book takes its place on the frontline of cultural exploration, here in 2018.

My problems come more from the book’s structure. Frankly, I think there are too many images, and it’s been slightly over-designed. It’s not that some images are of a lesser quality, rather I question whether this many are necessary to make the point, or present a cohesive vision?

Sometimes, less is more.

Secondly, the book is regularly interrupted by an email exchange, printed sideways on vellum paper, between two art world insiders: Erik Kessels of Holland, and Carolina Miranda of LA.

Yes, I knew who they were without having to look it up, but at this point, I’m something of an insider myself, I suppose. (Though I’ll carry my rebellious streak until I die.)

But most readers, outside our small circle, would not know such things. The interviews are witty and interesting enough, but lacking context, and showing up randomly, they take me out of the narrative a bit, and I question whether it’s an effective technique.

(Again, edgy projects take risks, so I’m not trashing her for doing so, just wondering if it’s as successful as hoped.)

At the end of the book, there is a bit of explanation as to who the two writers are, emailing each other across the ocean. (He’s an artist and ad man in Amsterdam, she’s a cultural critic for the LA Times.) So the editorial team understood context was necessary.

I just think they put it in the wrong place. (I suppose I’m quibbling, but that is a part of the job.)

Overall, I think it’s a smart, cool project, with many compelling images within. The irony works well, the saturated colors refer to digital reality, and the sum total presents a world in which we can be fascinated by the Other, rather than simply afraid.

That’s a message that bears repeating in these tumultuous times.

Bottom Line: Very cool book about the intersection between the Old and New worlds.

To purchase “EUSA” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Corinne Vionnet

 

Well, 2017, it’s time for you to go.

Sure, we had some memories.
You were nothing if not dramatic.

You’ve given us natural disasters aplenty, (Harvey/Irma/Maria) political intrigue so unwieldy it could choke a coked-up giraffe, and now, apparently, you’ve frozen the entire Eastern half of the United States.

But as I made my 2017 jokes a few weeks ago, I’ll spare you here. Rather, I’ll settle into that other tried and tested trope: the New Year’s resolution.

Next year, I plan to spend less time looking at screens than I did in 2017.

And I hope you do too.

It’s shocking, how much of my day is spent staring at a screen. Unlike many of you, I’m no phone junkie. But between my laptop and my television, I clock hours and hours each day in a mediated existence.

I’ve been fighting back lately, having replaced some social media time with a hike up the hill each day, as I previously told you. (Such genius! The daily walk. Perhaps I’ve invented something new?)

In general, though, I’m as much a screen-freak as anyone.

Sometimes, if I’m lying in bed watching Netflix on the computer, I’ll look above the screen, to the mountains outside my window, and then pause the show for a moment, and close the laptop.

Something innate in me recognizes the need to see what’s before me, what’s real, rather than the entertainment I’ve jacked into through the Matrix.

And then I’ll raise the screen again and press play, leaving contemplation of nature for another day. (Or art, food, cars, music, books: there are so many treats in the analog world.)

So I’m planning to give myself a screen-free-day over the next few weeks. There will be piles of books and magazines. Lots of food to cook, and kung fu to practice. (I started studying again this year, as 2017 has not been all bad, just insane.)

Will I follow through?
Would you try it yourself?
No screens for a day?

I’m in mind of the question, having just put down “ME. Here Now,” a new book by Corinne Vionnet, recently published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta.

The book was hand-delivered at a cafe here in Taos, as one of the Fall Line crew was vacationing in town, so we met for coffee. My desire to review books by female artists is hopefully well-known by now, so I told Virginie I could review this one after looking at 3 pages.

That’s all it took.

Because it brought me back to the 2011-16 photo-eye years, when I used to regularly get my hands on weird, smart, well-produced, small-batch art books.

For years, I saw that shit all the time, so you did too.

These days, though, my submissions tend towards serious, social documentary books, for the most part. (Not that this one isn’t serious.) But it’s edgy, and strange, which I love.

I think it took me until the third photo to realize I was looking at pictures of people taking pictures with their cell phones, and that the images in the book were likely shot on/from/of computer screens.

But with each passing page, in the midst of the consistency, the weird hand positions made me question whether it was real. What is real, these days, anyway?

Were there digital manipulations?
Why did everyone hold their phones up to their eyes?
Who does that?

Then there’s a block of images, breaking up the narrative, which shows a ghostly black and gray mirage, sandwiching a beautiful European building.

After that, back to the creepy phone photographers.

What to make of it all?

Well, it’s disturbing and dystopic, while also suggesting that elements are “documentary,” or un-manipulated, if you will.

But a good book asks good questions, and then doesn’t leave you hanging. So just as I was scratching my head, I turned the page, and there was an explanatory essay by noted photography critic and theorist Marvin Heiferman.

That’s the publishing equivalent of saying, “What, you have questions about comedy? Why, here’s Jerry Seinfeld to satisfy all your curiosity. You’re welcome!”

It’s established directly that Ms. Vionnet is photographing tourists at Sacré-Coeur, the beautiful cathedral at the highest point in Paris. (Photographing up explains the subjects’ repeated camera positions.)

Though it’s a great essay, pictures like this don’t need words to explain why they’re unsettling. We all know our lives are moderated by machines, more and more, with each passing year.

This is indisputable.

It’s gotten to the point that people mainly communicate via the machines, and not IRL. (You know, in the same room, through sound waves emanating from one’s vocal cords.)

So perhaps we should all adopt the resolution in 2018 to moderate the impulse?

And go for a walk each day, when possible.

Bottom Line: Seductive, creepy, excellent art book about our virtual reality

To purchase “ME. Here Now.” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Orestes Gonzalez

 

I don’t know from Miami.

I may have had lunch there with my grandmother and her husband, driven in an 80’s Cadillac, but if so, I was just a kid at the time.

I’ve heard all the Florida jokes, and told a few myself. My cousin, the comedian Ken Krantz, has made me LOL on Twitter several times, with Florida as the butt of his humor.

But Miami has a different reputation.

It’s less about the con men, and the illiterate meth-dealing hookers, and more about glitz, glamour, and a stylish, Pan-Latino global elite.

Even so, I’m not sure most people would say they have a positive impression of Miami’s culture, and likely know little of the Cuban community at its heart.

(True story, when I pitched Miami as a potential vacation destination, my wife said, “No, I don’t think I’d like the people there.” I said, “But you’ve never been there.” She replied, “Yeah, just from everything I’ve ever read or seen on TV.”)

I told her that it was probably just a stereotype, but then again, I don’t know for sure. Because as I said at the beginning, I know jack squat about Miami.

I can tell you one thing, though.

If I had gotten to party at Uncle Julio’s house, back in the day, I can state with high confidence that I’d be a Miami lover for life.

But who is Uncle Julio?

It’s a fair question.

I’ve just put down the stellar “Julio’s House,” a new book by Orestes Gonzalez, recently published by Kris Graves Projects. I don’t do the best-of, end-of-year lists myself, and don’t read other people’s either, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ended up on some of them.

I know that no one, except for Rob and me, has read all of my columns. (I know I have. How about you, Rob?) But seriously, over a now 6+ year weekly column, themes emerge about what I think a good photobook should do.

I appreciate it when a book chooses to inform the viewer at the proper pace for the story. Meaning, don’t hide things I should know, and don’t tell me things I can easily discover for myself.

“Julio’s House” entices from the outset, with a great blue cover. Then we see a funky graphic page, which turns up later as wallpaper. (But we’ll get to that.)

The book opens with one sentence of text on a white page, and a photo opposite. Flip the page, and then you get two more sentences.

In short order, as a viewer, we know what we need to know, and yet we’re curious, and empathetic, wanting to know more. The book builds upon that, teasing out details with short, compelling bursts of text, mixed with historical photos and Polaroids. (I like Roula Seikaly’s summation essay at the end as well.)

We learn Julio left Cuba after the revolution, (he’d been working on a cruise ship,) and got a job in a hotel in Miami. And then all of a sudden, as the story is heading in one direction, they drop a little narrative bomb in the middle.

We turn the page, and see the first interior from what we can reasonably guess to be Julio’s house.

OMG.

The wallpaper from earlier shows up, along with some green carpet, and a style I can best describe as garish.

Like Liberace-level-gay interior design.

There are a few more pictures in this style, and they’re very well done. Really sharp, good light.

They’re ironic, and kitschy, but they also don’t feel mean. That’s a tight rope to walk.

The text starts to tell stories about parties, back in the day, and you’re just wondering, was Uncle Julio in the closet? Or was he out, even then? What must that have been like, in a culture famous for machismo.

Then, we get a series of Polaroids of gay men, with mustaches. Are they former lovers of Julio? Seriously, I’m into this, like a telenovela or something.

It’s reeling me in.

Sure enough, a few pages later, there it is.
“Julio was gay, and his flamboyant lifestyle clashed with the macho Cuban environment of the times.”

It’s like the book stimulates questions, gets you engaged, and then answers those questions at just the right time.

A lot of thought goes into something like this.

That I like the pictures, and think they’re very well done, only makes it better. There’s a perfect blend of the past and the present. The first person narration throughout works so well, and there’s never more text than there needs to be.

By the time we get to what I assume is a portrait of an elderly Julio, near the bouquet in his house, I’m feeling genuinely sorry to know he passed away.

And remember, we learned that in a one-sentence intro on page 1.

This is an excellent book, and like last week’s offering, I’m glad I picked it up off the stack when I did. Because it’s one more reminder of how great it is to live in a society where people of all faiths, nationalities, genders and sexual orientations are allowed to be themselves. (Insert appropriate Alabama joke here.)

Sure, it’s easy to think things are terrible, with you-know-who in charge, but this book affirms that as a younger gay man, Orestes doesn’t face the same challenges his Uncle did.

And we’re living in a world where books like this get made, and rightly celebrated, by a free press.

So maybe things aren’t all bad in 2017?

Bottom Line: Poignant, well-considered, excellent story about a gay Cuban icon

To purchase “Julio’s House,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Jason Reblando

 

My son is studying American history in 4th grade.

Benjamin Franklin.
The Revolution.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”

His little sister, all of five, misheard Patrick Henry’s quote, and apparently she and her best friend were chanting “Give me America, or give me death,” on the school playground.

(You can’t make this shit up.)

I pointed out to my son, however, that while that was the history I learned in school…

The Stamp Tax.
The Boston Tea Party.
The shot heard round the world.
Washington crossing the Delaware.

…That it was really only one part of American history. There were the Native Americans, of course, but our very own New Mexico had a Spanish Colonial history I was never taught.

New Orleans, where I went last week, came from a French colony that also gave roots to the America we know today. (And a hedonistic set of roots, at that. If you can’t have fun in NOLA, you’re not trying hard enough.)

I’ll have a set of review articles from Photo NOLA for you guys in the coming weeks, but for now, I want to share some advice I often give to people at the review table. (In particular, photojournalists and documentary shooters.)

There are two elements of the “fine art aesthetic” I identify for people who are shooting in a looser, camera-tilted, or just-grabbed sort of style.

First, I talk about formalism, geometric compositions, and balanced image structures that come from a Germanic tradition, like the Bechers. (#RIP) I think a solid structure, (mixed with great light,) allows a viewer to really sink into what you’re visually communicating.

Secondly, sharpness and clarity are the ultimate cheats, in great fine art photography. People use big cameras, and super-sharp lenses, because our eyes inherently read sharpness as pleasing.

And it’s sister, clarity, means that an increase in three dimensionality happens, and images separate well into foreground, mid-ground and background.

Sharpness is our friend, for sure.

So I was happy to open up “New Deal Utopias” today, a new book by Jason Reblando, released this fall by Kehrer Verlag. (Who continue to do a stellar job.)

It stuck in the back of my mind that this book had come in a while ago, and when I saw it was postmarked September, I knew I had to give it a look.

Truly, you could not find a better example of both of the above tenets. Not in one book. These images are razor sharp, and the compositions speak for themselves.

Not only that, “New Deal Utopias” also shows us something we haven’t seen before. (That happens to look like a lot of what we HAVE seen before, tonally, in contemporary America.)

The story is that Jason photographed in three towns which were built along utopian, idealistic, essentially socialistic lines during the Great Depression.

Public money went into building them, people were specifically chosen to live there, and there was green space built-in to offer a higher quality of life.

Fast forward 75 years, and the three towns with Green in their names, in Ohio, Maryland and Wisconsin, look a little worse for wear. (Like the grass coming up through the basketball court.)

I love the pennants, as a repeating motif, as well the excellent blend of interiors, exteriors, and landscapes. (This dude really knows what he’s doing.)

Though each image is titled, and the town is named, I’m more impressed by the overall contemporary-America vibe. It all feels like middle-America, down-on-its-heels-USA.

(It makes me think of an Empire in decline, while the obvious heir, China, flexes her muscles more obviously every day.)

Then again, there is one image of a dental care sign: Drs. McCarl McCarl McCarl & McCarl that made me giggle. A total changeup in tone that I often recommend, and this book contains short text quotes to break up the narrative as well.

Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t see this book a few months ago.

Today was just the right time.

Because it reminds me that America has always been an experiment, and that progress comes whether we want it to, or not. (These days, 10 year olds ask why the founding fathers owned slaves…)

This has always been a messy society, America, cobbled together out of all others, and I guess we’ll just have to see what 2018 brings.

Now won’t we.

Bottom Line: Excellent, precise look at a Middle-American Utopia

To Purchase “New Deal Utopias,” click here 

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

The Best Work I Saw at Review Santa Fe, Part 2

- - Working

 

Everyone I know hates this time of year.

People get sick.
It’s cold and gray.
The dried grass is brown, outside my window, taunting me for lack of snow.

Trying to turn my SAD upside down, I recently started limiting my time on social media, and replacing it with a strenuous 45 minute hike up the hill that rises above our family farm.

It sounds like a headline from the Onion, I know: “Bougie artist discovers exercise is better then sitting on your ass!”

But seriously, I’ve decided to trade the incessant internet chatter for bird calls, and the occasional barking dog. (Until it’s frozen and icy, I’ve made myself a good trade.)

Not sure it would work for you, but since when have I been shy about giving advice?

Today, on the hill, there was a moment that took my breath away. A raven, (we have many) was soaring in the sky when all of a sudden, in an instant, he tucked his wings in and dove down.

It was straight free-fall, but he/she was totally relaxed. It was only for a couple of seconds, and then the wings were out again, but it was so graceful, the nosedive.

Falling, effortlessly, because it’s much more energy-efficient than doing anything else.

I thought immediately about falling into this, the hardest part of the year. Then end, when my family is always crisper than a bagel that’s been left in the toaster for too long. (Translation: very crispy.)

There are so many jokes we could make about 2017, this endless year, but Twitter, (which I’m cutting down on, wink wink,) has been ablaze with them.

Here are a few of mine.

2017 has been longer than Donald Trump Jr’s collective community college transcript.

If 2017 were a greeting card, it would say, “Hey, Fuck-face, why do you think you deserve a card? Nobody deserves anything in this world, unless I say so. Life is difficult, and merciless, and only the strong survive. Get used to it!”

If I got to write one tweet, pretending to be President Donald Trump, wrapping up 2017, I would write: “Who needs #280? Hillarys a witch. And a LoseR! Burn her. Obamas muslim. Access tape faked, just like the news. See you in 2018. Trump out!”

Ok. Ok.
I’m done.

I think it’s a bit cathartic, for me, making fun of a sad situation. But let’s turn that frown upside down.

If you saw the headline today, you’ll know this article is the second, (and final) installment of a brief series about the best work I saw at Review Santa Fe 2017.

We’ll begin with Amy Lowey, who was my last meeting at RSF. We were both fried, as it was the end of the festival, and there was a moment where I thought it was going to go wrong.

But before you know it, we course-corrected, and had a deep conversation, in which she showed me work I found captivating. In particular, her black and white digital prints, on what seemed like a coated rag paper, were exquisite.

Her story was a sad one, as Amy has to be a care-taker for her husband, who has a degenerative, and likely fatal disease. It takes a toll, as one would imagine, and she goes for nature walks to calm herself down.

Amazingly, and symbolically, Amy has zeroed in on trees in the forest, particularly ones with symbiotic connections to other trees. Wow. I’m choking up just thinking about it.

Like Amy, Ward Long is a recent graduate of the excellent Hartford low-residency MFA program.

I spied his prints, with the side-eye, as I walked along at the portfolio walk on Friday night. The quality of his image-making, likely with a big camera, caught my fancy. I’d say it’s a part of that Southern-poetic-aesthetic, and having looked at his website, I feel comfortable making that call.

I had a similar experience with Mitsuharu Maeda’s work, in that it grabbed me as I walked down the busy aisles at the Santa Fe Farmer’s market, battling the throngs. (It really is an excellent venue for this sort of thing. Kudos!)

As Haruki Murakami is likely my favorite author, I’ve always been a sucker for elements of Japanese culture. In particular, imagining the cold northern mountains of Hokkaido.

So I was always going to like these snowy pictures.

Melanie Metz had recently moved to Santa Fe, so it was nice to meet a new member of our Northern New Mexico photo community. (Welcome, Melanie. Lucky for you, there’s no official hazing ritual anymore, after the Bad-Burrito-Incident of 2010.)

Melanie had some cool photographs of her hometown in Florida, which was not-too-far inland, but had all the horse-farm vibe of a Deep South or Western ranch. We discussed that I preferred her color to her black and white work, and I suggested it was normal for one “eye” to be more advanced than the other.

But she’s still pretty young, so I’m curious to see how Melanie’s work evolves over time.

Oren Lukatz, an Israeli, had some really interesting pictures of Israeli military soldiers, often with dogs. I questioned the addition, as it seemed random, but Oren told me the dogs are drafted too, just like the humans. Even better, their “master,” the solder who’s in charge of them when they retire, gets to keep them as a pet.

Pretty cool.

Finally, last-but-not-least, we have Kiliii Yuyan, whom I did not meet at all at Review Santa Fe. He was there, and he reached out a bit afterwards to say he had wanted to meet, or get a review, and it didn’t happen.

Several times, in the past, I’ve included such people in the round-up, if I liked their work once I checked out the website. In this case, it was hard not to like.

Kiliii is an indigenous artist from the Arctic, making work from inside his community, rather than from an outsider’s perspective. That’s another conversation I won’t make us rehash, after the big series in Summer 2017, but clearly these pictures have something extra.

Do yourself a favor and watch some of the videos on his site as well. Talk about getting into a meditative state? Like a diving raven?

I think you get the point.

Generations of Iñupiaq ancestors lie in this snowy cemetery in Utqiagviq. Says Jana Harcharek, “We are proud to be Iñupiaq. When our ancestors look down on us and see us living with our culture, we feel we know who we are.”

As Iñupiaq have become deeply enmeshed in a market economy, traditional crafts have become important for families to survive on. This polar bear is being carved from a walrus tusk, and is donated by hunters to artisans in the community.

Elder Fannie Akpik stands in front the Barrow cemetery, where many of her family members rest. When Christianity was adopted by the Iñupiaq, it marked a major change for the culture. Today, the social forces of global media and communication mark another cultural pivot. Fannie Akpik is a strong advocate for regaining cultural identity and language through education in Iñupiaq schools.

Polar bear skulls and seal harpoons rest against the wall in an Iñupiaq home. Native life in the Arctic is lived with little separation between indoors and out. Time spent indoors is often just preparation for days away on the sea ice.

Six-year old Steven Reich examines his father’s umiaq, or skinboat used for whaling. His father Tad, captain of Yugu crew, expresses nervous excitement to bring Steven out whaling on the ice for the first time: “I am proud of my son; he’s here to learn to be a hunter.”

High above the Arctic Circle on sea ice a mile from shore, an Iñupiaq whaling crew watches from a blind for a passing bowhead whale by the light of the moon. The Iñupiat have hunted whales here for at least 2,000 years, but the forces of climate change and globalization are rapidly altering the culture of this remote region.

Floating on the Arctic Ocean, a towering piece of multiyear sea ice rests. Not long ago, the majority of sea ice looked like this– meters thick and capable of supporting great weight. For Iñupiaq hunters, the thin ice that covers the sea now is significantly more dangerous than just a decade ago.

Iñupiaq elder Foster Simmonds has been a whaler since he was a child. Since then, whaling has seen subtle changes.

A rare calm day out on the Beaufort Sea belies the instability of the sea ice– day by day vast sections break away and float along with the current, often stranding subsistence hunters.

An umiaq, or whaling skinboat, waits on the edge of the ice for gathering arctic ice fog to pass. Iñupiaq whaling crews wait patiently on the sea ice for months, enduring subzero temperatures, howling winds, and incessant freezing fog.

Polar bears present an ever-present danger to the whalers when out on the ice. Attracted to the scent of fresh blubber, they prowl the edges of camp, but are usually scared off by rifle shots and noisemakers. During whale butchering many people stand guard against the bears circling nearby and keep children close to camp. This bear at Akootchook’s whale was one of thirteen seen in a single day.

As a baby whale is discovered in the process of butchering, the hunters have a moment of silence. For scientists studying bowhead whales, the baby is a unexpected gift, as hunted whales afford the only opportunity for researchers to take direct samples and measurements. Much of what is known about the bowhead has come from the traditional ecological knowledge of Iñupiaq whalers.

The Best Work I Saw at Review Santa Fe: Part 1

 

When I go to a portfolio review these days, I’ve got to get on an airplane.

It’s a big deal.

The packing.
The planning.
The 3 hour drive to the airport.

I’m not complaining, per se, as getting to travel to great cities is a pleasure, not a problem.

But heading to Review Santa Fe last month, it was quite a different experience.

I woke up at a normal hour.
Made breakfast for the kids.

Then I went to two parent-teacher conferences at their school. And I ate in a gas station burrito joint.

Then I went to visit a furniture store, all before I joined the photo festival on a Friday afternoon in late October.

(Quick sidebar, before you scoff, for whatever reason, there are a ton of great little taquerias in gas stations throughout Northern New Mexico. My favorite is run by a couple of ladies from Chihuahua in an Alon station on the North side of Española.)

But back to Review Santa Fe.

It was no great drama to get there, just an average day. And as it was my 5th of 6 portfolio reviews this year, (I’m going to Photo NOLA next week,) it’s all began to feel a bit normal.

Shortly after I checked into the Drury Suites hotel, where the event is held, I walked across the street to try to find a cocktail party at Radius Books.

It seems straightforward, but you’re wrong.

I bumped into Brian Clamp, a friend of the column, and two other women who were scratching their heads trying to find the place. I took the lead, as a local, but really had no idea where I was going.

We ended up in a musty, 2nd-story-carpeted-hallway, chatting about what to do next, when a heavily-plastic-surgeried older woman popped her head out of an office.

She barked at me to shut up, and I saw, through her open door, that she was a psychic.

I was stunned, as she was so rude, but the jokes write themselves.

(If she’s really psychic, why didn’t she know we’d be there? If she’s really psychic, how come she couldn’t tell us how to find Radius Books? If she’s really psychic, how come she didn’t tell me to shut up before I said anything?)

I could go on, but I won’t.

Eventually, we found the party, and it was nice to catch up with colleagues over a stiff bourbon, in a sleek modernist space. They have it going on over there at Radius. (I’ll give them that.)

Beyond the socializing, through, my favorite thing about portfolio review events like Review Santa Fe is the chance to see such a cross-section of photography, and meet people from around the world, all in a compressed space in time.

In this respect, Review Santa Fe absolutely delivered.

I did 17 consecutive reviews on Saturday, and it almost burned out my brain. But the quality of work was high, overall, and as I also popped through the portfolio walk on Friday night, I’ve got a nice selection of work to show you today and next week.

As always, the artists are in no particular order.

We’ll start with Teri Darnell. She had two projects about gay performers, and was also trying to make work about the gentrification of a historically gay neighborhood in Atlanta. I liked the first project, but was really attracted to her photographs of a cabaret in Berlin.

According to Teri, there’s a particular cabaret show on in Berlin that was made in honor of the gay performers who were imprisoned in Hitler’s Germany. She said that in one case, the performers continued to stage work until they were murdered in a concentration camp. (Heavy stuff.)

It’s rare that photographers really play with the element of time, I find, but Teri’s moody, saturated images dovetail so well with the historical-recreation-vibe of the Berlin cabaret.
It’s trippy work for sure.

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Cabaret of the Nameless

Speaking of trippy, Jill Brody is a self-professed Jewish grandmother who spends her photographic time hanging out with subcultures and religious minorities like the Hutterites in Montana.

I’m always impressed when people embed themselves in random places, because the artistic bug just won’t leave them alone. Jill and I discussed the relative saturation of colors in her palette, as I thought one or two of her blues pushed into hyperreal territory, which didn’t fit with her documentary style.


Kevin Horan was another artist who showed me things I liked and didn’t like. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but from an advice standpoint, it’s good to mention here.

If you can bring more than one project with you, please do. Art is so subjective, and our own interests so broad, that one person may well hate one thing you’ve done and love another.

But if they love anything, you’re way ahead of the game.

Back to Kevin, though, as we saw images taken from airplanes that he’d inverted upside down in Photoshop. I wasn’t interested.

Then he showed me a beautiful, documentary series about finding dead things on nature walks. It really needs no more explanation, as his images are impressive and cohesive.





Santiago Serrano and I discussed the idea of cohesion, both visually and conceptually. He led with two or three pictures I found sub-par, and then had 15 in a row that were stellar. So we discussed how the context of those first few images determines how receptive we are to what comes next.

Santiago is from Quito, Ecuador, where bullfighting has been banned, but lived for a time in Mexico, where it’s not. He has this cool series about bullfighters in Mexico, but then there were two or three pictures of fighters in Ecuador.

I suggested that if 95% of the story was about one place, I’d cut the other pictures, for the sake of story cohesion. In particular, I appreciate his color palette, which captures that sense of the Mexican Baroque.

 

Festival de aficionados practicantes en Campo bravo, ubicado en San Juan del Rio. Mexico. 25/06/2010

Novillero Jose Miguel Parra durante un descanso de los entrenamientos diarios en los viveros de Coyoacan como parte de sus practicas de toreo de salon. Mexico DF, Mexico. 28/07/2010

Segunda Novillada en la Plaza Arroyo en la ciudad de Mexico. Mexico DF, Mexico. 31/07/2010

Segunda Novillada en la Plaza Arroyo en la ciudad de Mexico. Mexico DF, Mexico. 31/07/2010

Segunda Novillada en la Plaza Arroyo en la ciudad de Mexico. Mexico DF, Mexico. 31/07/2010

Novillero venezolano Jose Miguel Parra, antes y durante su actuacin en la ciudad de Huamantla como parte de la segunda novillada de la feria anual. Huamantla, Estado de Tlaxcala, Mexico. 20/08/2010

Novillero venezolano Jose Miguel Parra, antes y durante su actuacin en la ciudad de Huamantla como parte de la segunda novillada de la feria anual. Huamantla, Estado de Tlaxcala, Mexico. 20/08/2010

Novillero venezolano Jose Miguel Parra, antes y durante su actuacin en la ciudad de Huamantla como parte de la segunda novillada de la feria anual. Huamantla, Estado de Tlaxcala, Mexico. 20/08/2010

Novillero mexicano Salvador Lopez, durante su tercera presentacion en la plaza Mexico como parte de la temporada novilleril 2010. Mexico DF. Mexico. 05/09/2010

El matador Cristian Aparicio durante sus entrenamientos diarios de toreo de salon en los viveros de Coyoacan. Mexico DF. Mexico. 09/09/2010

Adair Rutledge is the gutsy sort, and she needs to be. Adair, a blond, Southern, white woman, decided to do a story about a youth football team in Nashville, made up exclusively of African-American children.

We had the “stay in your lane” chat last week, so I won’t bore you, but Adair embedded herself for years, and really got to know these people. I’d argue it’s why they engage with the camera so freely and openly.

Leslie Sheryll is a former photo lab owner from New York who crossed the river into New Jersey. Most people go in the other direction, so more power to her. (I left the Tri-State area entirely, so who am I to point fingers?)

Leslie had some intricate Photoshop layered work, based on historical images she’d acquired and then digitized. She wanted to make work that really captured the spirit of the 19th Century women depicted, and her series featuring poisoned plants, which I’m showing here, was very cool.

Abrus precatorius rosary pea poison

Poppy   Papaveraceae

Veratrum Album Poison false hellebores

Oenanthe crocata L. Hemlock Water-dropwort

poinsettia

Aconitum napellu,  monkshood

Lily of the Valley ,Conuallaria majalis

Vomica Poisonous
Strychnine Tree

Lily, Lilium

Finally, we’ve got Lee Johnson. He’s an Englishman living in Switzerland for work, and has been photographing the ski lifts in summer, hinting at a time when the snow won’t come. (Speaking of which, we’re very far behind normal here in Taos at the moment.)

He shoots with a boutique European film that approximates the color of expired film, then digitizes the film, and has it output as a digital polaroid-style print. Furthermore, for the images below, he’s then made digital snaps of the actual prints.

Are you confused yet?

Well then, come back next week for all the answers.

This Week in Photography Books: Patrick Nagatani

 

It’s Thanksgiving day, and unfortunately I’m working.

Weekly-column-deadlines being what they are, it was time to sit down and write. But don’t feel too bad for me.

It’s work, yes, but writing for you guys is not exactly like digging ditches. And I should know, as one day a year, I have to hook up with my neighbors to clean our acequia system. (Ditches, that is.)

But once I’m done here, I get to turn my attention to the festivities. There’s gravy to make, Brussels sprouts to wash, nephews to enjoy, football to watch, and plenty of turkey to eat.

Here in America, Thanksgiving is the one day a year that we all agree to eat a giant, dead bird.

(And typically a flavorless one, though my Mom’s brining technique at least keeps it moist.)

It used to be my favorite holiday, growing up in New Jersey. We’d get together at my Aunt Lynda’s house each year, in East Brunswick, and playing football in the yard with my cousins was Just. The. Best.

As a grownup though, (particularly one who has to host the feast, having been anointed by the grandmas a few years back,) I tend to focus more on the obligation of it all.

Each year, I like it less.

And to top it off, I had to be honest with my 10-year-old about the fact that while the Pilgrims and Native Americans might have gotten along at one point, (however briefly,) after that, our ancestors killed them all and took their land.

Yay!
Let’s eat.

But seriously, the holiday is called Thanksgiving. The idea of giving thanks, of sharing appreciation, of taking stock and being grateful for what you have, it’s baked into the title.

If we divest ourselves of any necessary connection to 17th Century Massachusetts, and think about a Holiday just for being thankful, then I can get behind that.

And as it’s just past 8am, and I’m mostly done here, maybe I’ll just find a way to have fun today?

Maybe I’ll thank my parents for helping out with my kids all the time? And thank my wife for working so hard?

I can thank you guys, for being a loyal audience. And thank my teachers, who helped me become the person I am.

Just last week, in fact, I went back to UNM, in Albuquerque, and gave a talk to Jim Stone’s Intermediate Photo class. We sat in a high tech digital lab, painted in sleek dark gray, yet I remembered learning in that same room, 20 years ago, when it had a few tables and chairs, and maybe a blackboard.

I took Photo 1 in that very room, in 1997, and now it’s 2017. You can’t top that: the 20 year anniversary.

Even better, not only did I tell the students about my work, but I also offered them the chance to critique something new I’m working on. Though they were only in their second semester, the students were amazing, and gave me some great ideas that I’ve already put into practice less than a week later.

So thank you, Jim Stone’s UNM students. I really appreciate the help.

I was lucky, back in 1998, to have a class with Patrick Nagatani at UNM. He’d already been there for a while, having studied at UCLA with the great Robert Heinecken. Patrick had been successful as an artist, including a fruitful partnership with Andrée Tracey.

By the time I met him, he was in the prime of life, and was extremely influential in helping me understand how to make art. Not to just click a shutter, but to have an idea in mind. To have a point. And to be willing to push yourself to make things you hadn’t seen before.

Now that I think about it, Patrick also told me to call Bill Hunt, when I was headed to NYC that year, and not only did Bill agree to see me, but he bought a picture out of the box, and helped me get my art career off the ground.

I’ve thanked Bill before, but I don’t know if I ever thanked Patrick.

He died a few weeks ago, after a 10 year bout with cancer.

Patrick Nagatani, a Japanese-American, got himself an obituary in the New York Times, because he mattered as an artist, yet it’s the one “honor” that no one ever knows they’ve received.

I last saw him, 3 or 4 years ago, outside a gallery in Santa Fe. He was being trailed by a Japanese documentary film crew, and kept stepping outside for smoke breaks.

I chatted him up, in the cool breeze, and his positive energy was infectious. The guy was the real deal as an artist too. We’d met in his studio, back in 2009, and he showed me work in which he’d appropriated low-res images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, enlarged and printed them, and then coated them with perfectly constructed strips of colored tape.

It’s hard to describe how lovely they were, and how exacting and tricky they were to make. Zen as shit too. (I doubt that sentence has ever been written before.)

Patrick did one project in which he created an altar ego, Ryoichi, and made models implying there had been previous versions of humanity that had existed, and then become extinct.

Weird stuff.

He was creative, and original, and my favorite work, by far, was “Nuclear Enchantment,” published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 1991.

I’ve never reviewed a book before that wasn’t current, but then again, Thanksgiving is no ordinary day. It’s also the 6th anniversary of the birth of this column: the night my mother-in-law woke us up by rapping a gun outside our bedroom door, and then I wrote about it in a Taryn Simon book review.

I was sad to see that I never had Patrick sign my copy, as I remember that I’d brought it into school once for that purpose. (Had I lost the nerve to ask, at the time?) But after skimming the informative, long essay by Eugenia Parry Janis, I dove right into the plates, and they hold up so well.

These pictures were made before digital reality. They are all old school: painted backdrops, real places, drawings, models, and real people, all overlaid, and shot multiple times on film, when necessary.

I believe he’d established the aesthetic in his work with Andrée Tracey, but damn if these images don’t perfectly anticipate the rise of our all-digital culture. Saturated colors, the real and the unreal intermingled, drawings mashed with photographs, all of it feels so current.

Photoshop was made for this stuff.
It’s so easy now.

But think about how hard it was back then, and how seamless the pictures are. (There are a few clunkers, but almost all are just amazing.)

These days, (as my Dad pointed out at dinner last night,) we’re always told to “stay in your lane.” Write or make art about what you know. Don’t try to interpret a culture that’s not your own.

We’ve been over this many times before, so I’ll spare you.

But Patrick Nagatani, who was born in 1945, and whose family back in Japan lived outside Hiroshima, was coming directly from his own cultural perspective by taking an interest in New Mexico’s nuclear history.

And the history of nuclear power.

So he researched it obsessively, with reams of help, and then titled his pictures in ways that would allow viewers access to crucial information.

Yet he also sampled directly from New Mexico’s Native American Pueblo culture, dropping layers of koshares and kachinas. These days, most people would shy away from that, but in “Nuclear Enchantment,” it’s just right.

Then, we’ve got to throw in the shoutouts to Hiroshige and Hokusai, the master Japanese 19th Century woodblock printmakers, as the dangling fish, and the soaring eagle/hawk, are direct references to their work.

Have you gotten all that yet?
I’ll summarize.

It’s historically accurate, well researched, analog tableaux work, that required teams of people to assist him, including his family, and blended Japanese-American, Japanese, and Native American art historical traditions, all while anticipating the predominant visual aesthetic of the next Century and Millennium.

Wow.

I’d also like to thank Martha Schneider, of the Schneider Gallery in Chicago.

We were chatting at Filter in September, and she told me that Patrick was very close to death. As he’d fought the vicious disease for so long, I was surprised to hear it had finally caught up with him.

She suggested I say my goodbyes while I could.

I wrote him, and we traded a few emails. I sent him blessings for his next journey, and I assure you, that’s not an email I’ve written before.

Patrick also insisted on having UNM send me a copy of his new novel, which I’m planning to read over Xmas break.

Jim Stone called Patrick the strongest man he’s ever known, and said he made it to his own book signing, just five days before he died.

Rest in Peace, Patrick.

And I hope the rest of you have a great holiday weekend. In these trying, Trumpian times, if you have people to be thank, I’d suggest you get on with it.

Bottom Line: An out-of-print masterpiece

To purchase “Nuclear Enchantment” click here

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

 

 

This Week in Photography Books: Kathy Shorr

 

It’s hard to know the future.

To be aware of what’s coming, but unable to stop it from happening.

It’s not a hypothetical situation, though. It is hard, and I speak from experience.

In the United States of America, tomorrow, or maybe next week, there is going to be a shooting rampage that kills a bunch of innocent people.

I know it will happen.
And so do you.

That these tragedies cannot be prevented, even though we’re certain they’re just up ahead, is a special kind of torture. It’s our own national nightmare, and by now, many of us have given up on finding a solution.

Just like subjects from the Aztec empire, slowly ascending the temple steps, waiting to have our hearts ripped out “for the greater good,” we’re all sitting here, paralyzed, unable to believe the problem can ever be solved.

Some weeks I’m funny, and some weeks I’m optimistic, but on this subject, I’m neither.

The scope of the horror is too great, and the reality of each tragedy is too sad to contemplate. Better to embrace denial, like a long-lost friend, and hope the grim reaper raps on another door when it’s time to collect the souls.

These days, you can get shot in the head while you’re praying to God in Church, dancing at a country-music concert, or cowering under your desk at school. A bullet might rip through your car window while you’re waiting at the drive-thru, or maybe your assailant will point a gun in your face, stare coldly into your eyes, and then pull the trigger.

We all want to make it stop, but we simply can’t.

Isn’t there anything anyone can do?

I’m not hopeful, but then again, the world is populated with do-gooders, as well as killers, so there’s always someone out there willing to try.

In this case, I’m thinking of Kathy Shorr, as I recently put down “SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America,” recently published by powerHouse books.

Frankly, I had to put this one down before I finished it, and then pick it up again a minute later, because the sadness, the tension, was just too much for me.

The book’s premise is an interesting one, because while such stories often focus on the dead, this project interviews people who faced death, and survived. The people who can tell us exactly what it feels like to have their lives destroyed by gun violence.

The pain.
The fear.
The scars.
The aftermath.

The pictures in this book need little explication, as the title is enough to clue us in on what’s going on here. But still, there is an excellent foreward, there are quotes interspersed, and then a photo-based-bio index in the back. (Like last week’s book, I must say I’m a fan of the technique. It makes learning more about the subject easy and engaging.)

I’m not going to drop 1200 words on you today.

I just don’t have it in me.

My cynicism on this subject, and my anger at our inability to stop this wave of violence, has sapped me of my normally-positive-outlook.

Rather, I see our national gun obsession, and the powerful interests that block meaningful change, as twin towers of ignorance.

I want to believe things will get better, but I don’t.

Instead of depressing you further, though, I’m going to show a larger group of photographs from “SHOT.” Because sometimes, we all need to know that even if we’ve given up, others haven’t.

If Kathy Shorr were as hopeless as I am, she never would have made this book. It takes too much time, and too much effort, if you don’t believe it will make a difference.

Creating things, fighting back, pushing for change, making beauty out of heartbreak, these impulses suffuse this project. So I’ll let it speak for itself.

Bottom Line: A brilliant examination of our national disgrace

To purchase “SHOT,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Jim Herrington

 

As I sit here, on my Ikea leather couch, there’s a grizzled-old-white-dude staring at me from the cover of a photo book.

I can’t tell you which book yet, as that would break the implicit rule of this column.

You know, I talk about other stuff first, and then review a photobook later on.

It’s a system that works.
Simple.
Clean.

So obviously, I’m trying to stay away from naming the book just yet, but this guy’s creeping me out, drawing my attention away from the computer screen.

(Pause)

OK, I’m back.

Since I wrote my column addressing the various wrongs that men have committed towards women, the monster-slug Harvey Weinstein among them, things have only gotten more out-of-control.

Kevin Spacey, who so believably played a sociopath on the excellent, if soapy, “House of Cards,” has been outed as a serial molester, and peodophile. He’s so toxic, that today it was announced that Ridley Scott would re-shoot EVERY scene featuring Spacey, in a movie that was already complete, and still try to release the thing in 6 weeks.

Countless executives have gone down, at magazines, radio and TV stations, and film studios. And the most bizarre story of them all, which I read today in a reputable publication, is that Charlie Sheen reputedly statutory raped Corey Haim, on the set of “Lucas,” for god’s sake, when they were 19 and 13 respectively.

What the fuck is going on here, people?

Nasty men crave power because it lets them do what they want. If you want to hurt people, if you’re a “bad guy,” the only way to get away with doing what you want, if you’re smart about it, is to make sure your victims don’t talk.

Some monsters kill their prey, to make sure they stay quiet. Others use intimidation, in the form of leverage: over a person’s family, career, or bodily safety.

People like Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, (and now Louis CK,) made themselves successful, I’d venture, so that they could utilize their stations to enact their sick fantasies, but not have to go to jail for it. (A benefit of their talent and intelligence.)

Only now, with every story having at least the POTENTIAL to go viral, it’s not so easy to hide as it was before the ubiquity of social media.

Oh, and one more reason: these guys are also proxies for President Trump. (It pains me to write those two words in succession.)

People are lashing out, and bringing down all these sexual abusers, because so far, our Commander-in-chief has not only gotten away scott-free with his crimes, but seems to have prospered.

And since nobody can touch him, this cascade of takedowns has to suffice.

But lately, we’ve only been talking about the horrible men.
We’re not all like that.

Surely you know this.

Among men, there are millions and millions of kind, open-hearted, helpful people. Brave souls and hard workers. Adventurers and heroes.

It’s true.

And some of use, (myself not included,) are of a hardcore variety that requires death and gravity be defied. That notions of what’s possible get strained, then broken.

Here I’m thinking about the men, and thankfully women, (though only a couple) that I just looked at when I perused “The Climbers,” a new book by Jim Herrington, published by Mountaineers Books.

Now that we’ve made it, (congratulations, it was a wild ride today,) I can tell you that the grimacing guy on the cover is none other than Bradford Washburn, a climbing legend who apparently has a titular museum in Colorado.

He passed away in 2007, I learned, when I flipped through the handy alphabetical-bio-guide that gives us a little info on each subject.

Jim Herringon, it turns out, is a climber as well as a photographer, and what became the book was at first a long-term project to meet and shoot the legends of the golden age of climbing, from the 1920’s through the 70’s.

The time when the biggest mountains on Earth, including the world’s fourteen 8000 meter peaks, were in play for the first time. Who would get to claim the initial ascent?

How did these people get by on such primitive equipment? (Relative to now, of course.) And what kind of person would be strong and crazy enough to physically lift themselves, by the strength of their own muscles, bit by bit up sheer rock, or ice, until they reach the top?

Now, to address my intro, there’s no way to know if all these subjects were “good guys,” so to speak. Some of them might well have been dicks. (And judging from Mr. Herrington’s well-written preface, Warren Harding probably would have been on that list.)

But what they all share, or shared, as people was a compendium of admirable characteristics: Strength. Determination. Bravery. Endurance. Perseverance.

You get my point.

The book gives enough info at the beginning to set you up to understand the people in the plates thereafter. I liked the foreward and Herrington’s preface, and was all set to read the essay, but at 40 large pages, it proved too daunting for me today.

I liked the pictures too, beyond the fact that they were showing us a subculture I barely knew existed. But I found them uneven, as some of the more environmental portraits felt a little loose, and regular, while many of the sharper, tighter portraits conveyed real emotion in the subjects’ eyes, and showed more craft.

I mentioned the cover photo of Mr. Washburn, but there were many more, like Sonia Livanos, who apparently explored the Dolomites in the 50’s and 60’s, or Mark Powell, who made the first ascent of totem pole in Monument Valley.

(Again, I really like that it’s so easy to toggle between the photo and the alphabetical-photo-bio in the back, as I just did it to find more info about the portraits I liked.)

Jeff Lowe, who was photographed in Johnston, Colorado, was depicted in 2016 with an oxygen tube. It’s a sad, textured image, with terrific light, and definitely shows off that elevated aesthetic.

(Turns to Bio section.) Apparently, he’s a climbing legend and festival builder who got the sport into the Winter X games.

I wonder why he’s so sad?
Is he too sick to climb?

Maybe I should skim that super-long essay to find out if there are more details about him, and the picture?

Regardless, this is a smart, well-made book filled with interesting photographs about fascinating people. That is a good recipe to get your book reviewed.

But as it’s a book by a man, made predominately about men, I did have one last thing to say. Our recent outreach effort to get more submissions from female photographers seems to have paid off, as I got a bunch of great books in the mail of late.

Going forward, we’ll be able to have a better balance, so thanks to all of you who helped spread the word.

Bottom Line: A fascinating look at famous mountaineers

To purchase “The Climbers” click here

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