Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

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

This Week in Photography Books: Misty Keasler

 

Think back to your earliest memories.

They’re always the same, no?

We have so few memories of our youth, and it’s not like we can make more. There is what there is, and we re-scan them from time to time, like popping your favorite DVD into the machine.

(For those of you under the age of 20, DVDs are round, plastic discs that play movies and music. I know you’ve never heard of them before, but until recently, they were good tech, and Netflix used to send them in the mail.)

The few memories we do retain have an outsized role in representing our childhoods. All my memories, until I went to college, probably tab up to a few seconds of brain time; less than .000000000001% of what actually transpired.

So our memories become the Mt. Rushmore of our childhood.

One of my favorites is about the time my Uncle Keith, (who’s due to visit this weekend from New Jersey) came to pick me up at Oakhurst Day Camp, down the shore.

I must have been 5 or 6.

Our big plan was go to the Haunted House nearby at the Long Branch boardwalk. It was open part of the year, jutting well over the Atlantic Ocean.

We were so fired up.

“Those guys, Uncle Keith, they don’t know what’s coming. I’m not scared of them. No way.”

“That’s right, Buddy,” he replied. “You’re not scared of them.”

We’d talked about doing this for a while, and the day had finally arrived. It was a big thing for him to pick me up, so I was super-psyched.

We got the boardwalk, and my anticipation only grew. He was carrying me on his shoulders, so I could see above the crowd, and it felt safe and secure.

Until we got within 100 feet of our destination, when I saw some scary, made-up Frankenstein’s bride standing in front of the door. Really, we were not that close. There’s no way I could remember what she actually looked like, now, at 43.

But it scared me shitless.

“Stop,” I yelled.
“Uncle Keith, stop!”

He stopped.

“No way,” I said. “I can’t go in there.”
“But you were so confident,” he replied. “So sure of yourself. You said you weren’t scared.”

“I am. I am scared. We can’t get any closer to that place. We have to leave now.”

“Are you sure,” he asked?

“Yes, please. Maybe when I’m older I can take it. But not now. We have to get out of here.”

So he took me for a Stromboli instead, which was delicious, and I never went back. The entire boardwalk burned down, within a year or two, so I never had the chance to confront the fear.

Instead, I grew up to be someone who doesn’t like horror movies, or being scared. (Sci-fi stuff like “Stranger Things” is the limit of what I can handle.)

So maybe that’s why I don’t love Halloween?

Lots of grownups can’t wait to design their costumes. They go all out, dressing up at work, at parties, or when they take their kids trick or treating.

You know the type.
And there are a lot of people like that.

Probably more than there are Halloween grinches like me.

But this time of year, the cultural aesthetic is so specific.

Ghouls and skeletons.
Monsters and witches.
Guts and blood.

Some people eat that shit up. They love to be scared, and watch faux-killers and dastardly demons tear through high school kids like a Ginsu knife through aluminum. They’ll watch every “SAW” movie, in a marathon, and then go hang out in a graveyard at 3am.

Those people might, realistically, open a Haunted House somewhere, because they still exist.

And someone has to be in charge of organizing the rush of the macabre. The feeling of being awake, in a nightmare. What does it look like, when rendered in plastic, makeup and ketchup?

I’m glad you asked.

Because if this isn’t the perfect week to take a look at Misty Keasler’s new book “Haunt,” published by Archon Projects, then I’m a one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-people-eater. (The book accompanies a solo show at the Ft. Worth Modern through November 26)

The first thing this book makes me wonder: what kind of person is Misty?

Does she like to be scared? Was tracking down these places a way to use her art practice to connect with an existing passion?

Did she name her kid after Wes Craven? (To be honest, I met Misty at a brunch in Dallas last year, and don’t think her baby was called Freddy or Jason.)

Or is she really repelled by these places, but wanted to conquer a deep fear, like driving into a hurricane?

(To use a “Stranger Things 2” reference, spoiler alert, I’d ask if she was like Will, taking Sean Astin’s advice to stand tall and confront the Shadow Monster in the upside-down.)

Because the pictures are unsparing. They stare right into this stuff.

Scary clowns. Dead chickens. Oozing viscera.

These are the things we want OUT of our heads, not in them. Looking at the pictures, I fear, is embedding these photographs
in my subconscious, where they might turn up later, in the night.

(Damn, you, Misty!)

But what is it like, for the aficionados? They must relish the fear, the adrenaline drops, the sense of being alive.

Because people pay money for the feeling. And now that I think about it, anyone who buys one of Misty’s prints will be choosing to have it on the wall at all times.

No thank you.

But as art, I have to give her serious credit. The pictures are well made, and let the subject matter do most of the talking.

(Cue scary music.)

(End scene.)

Bottom Line: Methodical, chilling look at the Haunted House industry

To purchase “Haunt,” click here

This Week in Photography Books: Kevin O’Connell

 

I’m going to keep it brief today.

No, really.
It’s true.

After a month of long, intense articles about my experience in Chicago, I kind of need a breather.

Frankly, we all do.

There is an ocean of underlying anxiety that we’re all passing around these days. It’s like a twisted, evil game of hot potato, in which we’re all bouncing our fears off each other. (“I don’t want to feel like shit. Here. You take it.”)

And social media is the perfect vehicle for our existential angst. Just now, I tweeted a Guardian article I’d just read that confirmed what I know in my daily life: there is less and less money flowing through our normal economies, as so much of it has been hoovered up by the Billionaire class.

So not only do we have to worry about working harder for less money, or watching our jobs in the creative industries disappear, but it’s all happening while a heartless, idiot man-child runs around with his finger on the “kill everyone” button at all times.

Everything just feels so… tumultuous.
Chaotic.

Every day, we tap into the swirling current of our collective discontent. (And if you happen to waste your time on Twitter or Facebook, the effect is amplified exponentially.)

But we have so little recourse, beyond just getting on with it all. Stiff upper lip. That sort of thing.

As artists, of course, we can make our work, and allow our emotional reality to become sublimated into the images and objects we create. I’ve always argued, here, that it’s the best possible response.

And I’m not sure if it’s the motivation behind “Inundation,” a new self-published artist book by Kevin O’Connell that turned up in the mail recently, but it’s certainly how I responded to the work.

The entire object, near as I can tell, is made from images of the roiling sea. (As Kevin is based in Denver, I can appreciate the attraction. Being 1000 miles from the ocean can mess with your head.)

But then again, about half-way through my viewing experience, I began to wonder if I weren’t seeing a few aerial shots of snow-covered peaks mixed in?

Is that crashing-wave-froth, or fresh powder deposited on a monumental, jutting rock?

Hard to tell.

The only text is on the back cover; an excerpt from a smart poem, written by the artist, or more likely someone else. But it speaks of the ocean, and makes no mention of mountains, so I still don’t know. (Googling would take all the fun out of the guessing-game.)

Regardless, as so many of the images are visually similar, I came away impressed by that sense of motion. By the churning juice in my stomach, and the way it reminded me of how I feel each day, in this, the first year of the Trump era.

Ironically, I was originally planning to review a little ‘zine given to me by Lindsay Lochman and Barbara Ciurej in Chicago. A small, constructed poke at Trump directly. But as I reached for the keyboard, I felt a wave of exhaustion coming over me.

Do I really have to talk about Trump again?

So instead, I grabbed Kevin’s book off the bottom of the book stack. And still, I thought of Trump. But this time, it was through metaphor, and it came from my own reaction. I’d bet that in Kevin’s mind, this series has nothing to do with politics.

But it’s called “Inundation,” and that’s what we’re all dealing with: the wall of shared anxiety we have to climb each day just to get out of bed, and make breakfast for the kids.

Life is messy, and we’re reminded of that too often. So I’ll end with a positive message: we’re all creators, so create. Make things that help you feel better, and share them with others.

And for God’s sake, lay off the Facebook now and again.

You’ll thank me.

Bottom Line: Cool, experiential book about raging seas

To purchase “Inundation,” 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 the Filter Photo Festival: Part 3

 

It’s a tough week to be a man.

My gender has not come off well recently, what with the “me too” movement proving that almost every woman in America has been groped, molested, raped, or abused in some way during her lifetime.

Totally disgraceful.

As my own wife typed those words into Facebook, in conjunction with so many friends and colleagues, there’s not much I can do but shake my head and wonder how we got here.

Because where we are is pretty fucked up. (I should also mention the recent, horrifying news about the murder and dismemberment of Swedish photojournalist Kim Wall, which is the worst story I’ve heard this year.)

Then today, in the very same week, Women Photograph came out with a set of statistics that show just how few gigs at the major news organizations are going to women.

The numbers are awful.

I’ve said many times I’m a strong feminist, as my wife went to Vassar and Smith, and educated me since I was 23 on the ways of the patriarchy. As I’m now 43, you can imagine how many times I’ve been schooled on the depth of misogyny here in America.

I may have morphed into a super-liberal, highly conscious male in 2017, but I grew up a suburban-Jersey-boy, obsessed with sports and girls, so it was no given that I’d get where I am.

It took a lot of intervention from the Smith posse, and I’m forever grateful.

In fact, I can still remember what it was like, visiting Northampton back in 1998, partying with all those lesbians. I knew nothing of “butch” and “femme,” or “top” and “bottom,” and was seriously insecure to be in a crowd I didn’t understand.

In the beginning, I struggled with how to handle it. Frankly, I was uncomfortable, and out of my depth. But there was also something thrilling about encountering worlds so different from my own.

Then we moved to San Francisco, and were hanging out with the Bernal Heights lesbian crew all the time, and soon what had seemed strange became a part of my normal life. (In particular because these women, soon-to-become social workers, were such kind, impressive, intelligent people.)

Over time, my repeated exposure allowed me to relax, and begin to appreciate that these ladies were remarkable. Sure, they were different than I was, but at some point, we’re all people.

Now it’s 20 years later, and I am a much healthier, more grounded and accepting person, in particular because I had exposure to people of different races, classes, and sexual orientations in the ensuing years.

That opportunity to mesh with people, outside my Taos bubble, was one of my favorite things about my visit to Chicago, at the Filter Photo Festival last month. (This will be our final post on the subject.)

Because this last bit of synchronicity may be the best of all, and it was directly connected to who sat down at my portfolio reviewing table, ready to show me some work.

It began with the last review of Saturday afternoon, when I was pretty fried from all the looking and talking. A young man took a seat, introduced himself as Matt Storm, and began telling me a bit about his background.

From the first moment, I thought, “It appears he’s transgender. Like he used to be a woman. I hope it will come up in a natural way, so I don’t end up looking like an asshole.”

I gently made some further observations, and asked a few appropriate, polite questions, and it turned out I was correct, that Matt was cool with discussing it, and that I managed not to make a fool of myself.

The work is pretty genius, and I don’t use that word flippantly. Turns out, Matt’s grandfather passed away earlier this year, and they were close. So Matt came up with a project in which he impersonates his grandfather, while wearing the dead man’s clothes.

Even better, the pictures are hilarious, absurd, subversive, and perfect. In fact, in some of the photographs, Matt has posed in front of family pictures in the background that include him, as a young girl, if you know where to look.

I can’t imagine a smarter investigation of gender in America, and the fact that it is funny, rather than strident, is not coincidental.

The next day, in the morning, Kris Sanford sat down across the table, and also had a project looking at issues in Gay America. Kris had made black and white portraits of gay Americans in their homes, back in 2000, (before Will and Grace,) before there was even a widespread discussion of gay issues in our broader culture.

Then, she went back, found the same people, and re-photographed them 16 years later, in color, as symbolic representations of change over time. (Those are my words. She’d probably say they’re just portraits.)

But as Matt is in his 20’s, and his pictures represent a certain of-the-moment-ness, Kris is in her 30’s, and the project seems to have a different vibe reflective, perhaps, of a different generation.

Finally, right after Kris, Zoe Perry-Wood met with me, and she’s also a lesbian artist making work about gay rights issues, but  of an older generation than Matt and Kris. In Zoe’s case, she’s been photographing Boston’s gay youth prom for 10 years, making studio portraits of young people celebrating in an inclusive environment where they can joyously be themselves in public.

Zoe mentioned that over time, she’s seen changes in the demographic. In particular, the students have started coming out younger, and there are now more transgender students than their used to be.

Through the pictures, we can see the way changes in the culture at large are reflected in the bodies and spirits of these young people. And the photographs are technically strong as well.

So as strange is it may sound to some of you, I’m now in the process of curating a 3-person show by these excellent artists. I think it’s important for people to look at, and experience, different perspectives, and even though I’m just a straight white guy, I’m hoping to use my energy and effort to help get the message out there.

Moving on, I saw Jim VanBibber’s work out of the corner of my eye at the portfolio walk. Someone had mentioned it to me, so I headed his way to see for myself. Pictures like this need little introduction, as Jim is making wet plate collodion portraits of Lucha libra wrestler toys.

So. damn. cool.

Alice Hargrave had a review with me, and I needed to focus, as there were some pretty heavy conceptual strains pulsing through the pictures. One set was actually a visual, abstracted representation of birds, made by color-coding the sound waves of their calls. (Trippy, yo!)

She also had pictures she made at night, of verdant spots in cities, primarily, and I thought they were lovely. Really great use of color, texture and mood, so that’s what we’re showing here.

Next, we have the work of Julie Pawlowski, who spent several years living in Shanghai. (Her husband worked for Smuckers, of all places.) Though she was only a temporary resident, Julie was impacted by the rampant development in her adopted city.

In particular, she noticed that as traditional neighborhoods were razed, brick walls were put up to block out peeping eyes, or curious feet. So Julie has made a photo series that examines the changes in the urban landscapes, and uses those bricks as a repeating motif.

Finally, yes finally, we end with a small artist book by Kevin Miyazaki. I met him at Review Santa Fe back in 2009, and have been an admirer since. (Kevin was one of the first people to organize a print-for-charity process, with his collect.give program.)

In this case, Kevin gave me his book, about taking a trip to Japan as a Japanese-American who doesn’t speak Japanese. It’s a hard situation to imagine, though it affects many Asian-Americans. Looking like you belong, yet being marked as outsider because of your dress, language, or inability to understand certain rituals or traditions.

The book is beautiful, and seems an appropriate place to end this month-long look into what I saw, and who I met, in the coolest city in America. (Chicago, in case you’ve forgotten.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Work I saw at the Filter Festival: Part 2

 

This might seem like a long story, but bear with me.

Back in the Spring, as I walked across Central Park with Patrice, a gray-robed Chinese monk stepped into my path, reached out, grabbed my hand, and put a wooden-beaded bracelet on it.

He was quick, like a Shaolin monk, before I could think to refuse.

So I said thanks, reached into my pocket and gave him a dollar. I turned to walk away, but in highly broken English, he pointed to his list, and showed me the previous person had given him $20.

I looked at him, he pointed at the list.

I said, “You want more money?”

He nodded yes.

I reached into my pocket, took out 2 more dollars, gave them to him, and then he blessed me. I bowed back, and moved on, not sure exactly how that had come about.

It felt really deep.

Later, downtown, my friend Felt mocked me, saying the whole thing was a scam, but it felt real to me.

Turns out, I wear that bracelet all the time. I’ve really come to like it. And I began to feel bad that I’d only paid $3, as it’s worth more than that to me.

Had I shortchanged a monk?
Isn’t that bad karma?

I swore the next time I saw a monk like that, I’d give him some more money instead, to make sure I was all good with the powers that be.

And sure enough, as I walked towards the lake in Chicago late last month, just up the street from the Art Institute, (with my friend Kyohei in tow,) who do I see but another gray-robed monk with a handful of bracelets.

I show him mine, thank him, and give him a few dollars. Again, like the last time, he asks for more, so I give it to him. But as I don’t need a bracelet, as I’m simply paying into the cause, he gives me a Bodhisattva blessing card that says “Work Smoothly Lifetime Peace.”

Then he bows in blessing, and we’re back about our business.

But since my spiritual moment slowed us down 2 minutes, by the time I got back to that very same spot, (after getting my press ticket,) I bumped into a photographer I knew in Santa Fe, 7 years ago.

I’d recommended she go to Chicago for her MFA, as I’d heard such good things about Columbia College, and she did. We said hello, and once she told me she was now the collection manager in the photo department, I jumped into journalist mode, and asked what the special places were to see?

It was she who gave up the intel on the secret Japanese galleries, and who later arranged to have the photography curator, Elizabeth Siegel, come meet us in the gallery to give us a little talk about Hugh Edwards.

How random, or coincidental, or meant-to-be is that?

Because I stop to give money to a Buddhist monk, because of my Jewish guilt, I get the inside scoop on some amazing Buddhist art inside the museum?

These are the things that keep happening to me when I’m in Chicago, and why I really can’t wait to go back. I’m sure different cities do this for different people. but I’m so comfortable there that I end up talking to everyone.

Inside the gallery in the Hugh Edwards show, (a terrific exhibition inspired by the Art Institute’s legendary former curator,) I started chatting up an African-American security guard.

She admitted she found the show boring, and I asked if it was because there were so many rectangular, black and white pictures in black frames with white matte boards, and she said, “Yeah, that’s it.”

I said I understood, and as my friend and I were both artists and professors, we were able to get excited for all sorts of geeky reasons.

I told her I’d give her one tip, and she could see for herself if it opened anything up about photography.

There is, in the exhibition, an amazing suite of about 10 Robert Frank prints from “The Americans.” (Hugh Edwards was the first curator in America to show the work.)

I told her about my favorite diptych, maybe in the History of Photography: on the left, a fancy car in Los Angeles, covered, shimmering in the fancy light, with the swaying palm trees. On the right, a dead body, covered by a dirty blanket, lying by the wintry side of Route 66 in Arizona.

Two strong pictures, yes, but the context supercharges them.

I said my goodbye, and walked deeper into the show to see work by Eugène Atget, and Duane Michals. There were daguerreotypes in the exhibit, and more.

Kyohei and I ended up talking about the show with an African-American couple around our own age, and some Asian-American schoolgirls.

Random, in-public discussion.
Yet again.

By the time we were ready to leave, the security guard walked up to me and said, “I went and looked at those pictures, and you’re right. That’s powerful right there.”

We all get off on photography, or you wouldn’t be reading this. (Except for you, Mom and Dad.) And when it leads to discussion, to dialogue, to a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit, then I’d argue the art form has done its job well.

So today, I’m glad to share the second batch of work from the the 2017 Filter Photo Festival.

Donna Pinckley, based in Arkansas, had work that I was sure I had seen somewhere, but I couldn’t say where for sure. The project had gone viral, she said, so it could have been any number of places.

Donna has strong, large format black and white images made of inter-racial couples, and includes text written on the bottom of each print. (Racist, nasty comments that people have made before.) It’s really strong work.

It reminded me of Jim Goldberg’s “Rich and Poor,” but Donna and I agreed that just because someone else had written on pictures, (as Duane Michals did also,) then it’s no reason not to do it, if the situation is right.

Mayumi Lake works at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she went to school, and showed me a couple of projects that weren’t quite right, for me. But art is subjective, and she clearly knows what she’s doing.

As is often the case, we might resonate with something else, in a different box, and that’s what happened here. Mayumi is Japanese, and these flowers she makes out of scanned bits of vintage kimonos are so cool.

Sleek and colorful, vibrant and personal. I liked them very much, and think you will too.

Kalin Haydon, a graduate student at Columbia College, showed me a project about bingo hall culture in Southern Illinois, as she grew up around such places. (We discussed the bingo hall sub-plot in “Better Call Saul,” and both agreed it’s stellar.)

I thought her strongest images were really tight, as they walked the line between being respectful, and showing a vision that might in some ways be perceived as pejorative.

It’s the hard part of doing a story from the inside, knowing you want people to appreciate what you do, and share your respect for the subject, while also being aware of the visual elements people are sure to find compelling or salacious.

Adam Davies was in from Baltimore, where he is an Artist in Residence at Creative Alliance. He presented a project of large format, urban, structural, architectural photographs that featured subtle use of graffiti. (Found, not made.)

There were certain perspectives that felt dangerous, like, “how the hell did he get up there?,” and overall I found them to be striking. I mentioned the few that I thought looked too much like other people’s images, but in general, think the work is excellent.

I met Susan Keiser, and showed her work here, after Filter in 2015. (She’s the first Filter alum to make it back into the post-festival round up.)

Her exploration of dolls fascinates me, as that would be a subject on my “cliché/don’t do this” list of things I’d give to students, if I had such a list. (I don’t.)

But I always challenge students to see if they can bring a fresh take to well-trod terrain, because who doesn’t like a good challenge?

This time out, Susan is shooting through ice, using vintage dolls from the 40’s and 50’s that she collects on Ebay. Even better, they’re small, so she has to use a macro lens to capture the scenes that she renders with the dolls.

Susan is also a painter, so the use of color and composition is right, leading to an overall creepy-but-not-too creepy vibe I really like. Crazy pictures.

Finally we have Allen Wheatcroft. Here, we return to that question of when are pictures appropriate or when are they exploitative? Or is it OK to be exploitative anyway?

Allen had street photographs from around the world that often (but not always) featured a lone figure in a crowd. Someone Allen described as off, or not-quite-right, but not hardcore junkies or homeless folks.

We discussed whether these people weren’t proxies for him? Whether he didn’t see himself as awkward or uncomfortable, unable to easily connect? Allen agreed that he did, and it was a really interesting way for me to understand the pictures.

He asked me if I thought they were too Bruce Gilden, or inappropriate towards the people in the images?

I don’t think so myself. I find them a bit intimate, and strange, and more endearing than critical. A bus driver in Stockholm? A guy on the beach in Chicago? More odd than off-putting.

We’ll end here today, with a group of pictures that represents some of the best the street has to offer…

Synchronicity.

The Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival: Part 1

 

I get lonely, sitting out here by myself in the middle of a pasture.

It’s very quiet.

Right now, as I look outside, heavy clouds are blocking half the mountain, as we’ve had atypical weather since I got back from Chicago.

Cold. Wet. Damp. Gray.

No thank you.

If I wanted to live in Portland, I’d move to Portland.
Even worse, when I left Chicago last week, it was in the mid 80’s each day.

Pure summer weather.

Now, I’m wearing my heavy hoodie everywhere, and sulking because I miss the sun.

Such problems.

Thankfully, they’re not the kind of troubles that require the President of the United States to pretend-foul-shoot paper towel rolls at my head.

Remember, no matter how glum you feel, things can likely get worse. And the man who’s supposed to save us, to inspire us, to console us, is seemingly as deranged as peak-nutter-Muammar Gaddafi.

Hell, when I was in Chicago, I couldn’t even look at his fancy building; the one I admired two years ago. Now, (other than giving it the middle finger on Instagram, like a gringo Ai Weiwei,) I found my Trump denial was pretty consistent.

Nobody wanted to talk about him. Except for a moment, on the subway back to the airport, as I was finishing up a half hour chat with a middle-aged African-American guy on his way to his first day on the job in a mail room somewhere.

We met on the platform, when he asked me if the train I was awaiting was right for him. I always like it, (secretly) when people take me for a local somewhere, so I told him what I knew, and that seemed enough.

We chatted easily, my new friend an I, and I told him about New Mexico, and he caught me up on Chicago. As we approached the end of the line, I told him about the time I filmed a movie in Donald Trump’s apartment on top of Trump Tower, back in 1996, and the walls were plated in gold.

Randomly, another guy, halfway down the subway car, chimed in, “‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ I loved that movie.” And before you know it, several of us, all strangers, were conversing, only minutes before we broke up forever.

(We didn’t bother trading names, much less business cards.)

Last week, I told you about Chicago in the abstract, but this stuff just keeps happening to me, whenever I visit. I attribute it to the local culture, which is of course true, but it might also have something to do with the fact that I’m lonely out here.

Working by myself.
Tapping away at the keyboard, like a white-collar jackhammer operator.

Tap tap tap.
Tap tap.

Spacebar.

Festivals like Filter are special because they allow us to confer with our own kind.

Our tribe.

It’s so powerful, in fact, that when I suggested one of my Antidote students attend Filter, (which she did,) she had a look on her face like she’d found her long-lost birth parents.

That feeling of belonging, of being understood, is powerful. It helps us all, as working in a creative field can be isolating, each of us in his or her own box.

Conversely, it also explains why this country has striated to the degree it has. In a world that is increasingly uncertain, and fraught, people take comfort sticking with their own. (Speaking which, do yourself a favor and read this brilliant Andrew Sullivan long-read on tribalism in American politics. It’s grim, but genius.)

When I’m reviewing at an event like Filter, I love feeling the rush of energy as the photographers all come in the room. The quiet gives way to a loud buzz in the span of one second.

Quiet.
Then roar.

And I get to sit there and look at people’s art, their personal secrets, and learn things about the world I wouldn’t otherwise know.

How great is that?

Over time, I’ve learned how to be critical without being harsh, so these days, all the conversations are positive, and I no longer make people cry. (Yes, it’s happened before, but not anymore.)

The next few weeks, I’m going to share the best work I saw at the 2017 Filter Photo Festival, so you can get as sense of what’s going on out there. As usual, the artists are in no particular order, and I’ll share details of our conversations as well.

I met Sara Silks towards the end of the event, which was fortuitous, as I’d already been to the Art Institute of Chicago, and could tell her about what I’d seen. As it happens, Sara and I are both inspired by Japanese art, and I gave her a suggestion about some Japanese galleries, deep in the bowels of the museum.

I’d only learned about them by happenstance, as I bumped into someone on the street in front of the museum, (a colleague I used to know in Santa Fe,) and as she works at the AIC, she gave me a tip on what the tourists never get to see.

In this case, I viewed some ridiculously gorgeous woodblock prints by Kawase Hasui, from the early 20th Century, that I was then able to recommend to Sara. Turns out, she makes Japanese-inspired, Zen-beautiful inkjet prints on special, Japanese paper.

They’re lovely, and the paper texture conflicts with the images, occasionally, in a way that evokes Wabi Sabi, the concept that roughly symbolizes the balance between perfection and imperfection. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the selection here.

Sarah Pollman made work that I noticed during the portfolio walk, but didn’t have time to check out. She’s based in New England, and suffered a tragedy she wasn’t comfortable talking about. Not surprisingly, she ended up making work that is based in cemeteries, as a way of processing grief.

Her first set, in color, focused on a garden cemetery designed in the suburbs of Boston by Frederick Law Olmstead. Each picture features an anonymous Mother and Father gravestone, like a weird Cotton-Mather-Ghost-story come to life.

Speaking of ghost stories, they’re the literal inspiration behind Bill Vaccaro’s excellent series “The Magic Hedge.” Bill’s a long time Chicago guy who makes Ziatypes, a style of alternative process printing that was invented by New Mexico’s Bostwick and Sullivan.

Though we can’t see it on the jpegs, each print had a patterned brush stroke on the outside of the image, where he painted on the emulsion with a Japanese brush, that was absolutely dynamite.

The pictures are of a spot near Lake Michigan that used to be a US military missile site. There’s an old story about the hedges being haunted, so Bill conjured just the right amount of creepy energy. Great stuff.

Ari Neiditz is trying to walk the line between travel and documentary photography. We discussed the way he could develop thematic series, as he’s interested in Asia, where these pictures originate. I suggested he try to tackle the entire continent, because how insanely ambitious would that be?

But in general, his best images had a cohesive color palette, and a sharp sense of observation.

Vera Miljkovic is Serbian, but moved to the US years ago. Her work stems from a more metaphorical vision, as she discussed her feelings of in-between, as she waited for a visa many years ago, and how she wanted to convey that uncertainty in her work.

One or two images were too derivative of Cindy Sherman, I thought, but most of the rest had a weird, kooky sensibility that I really appreciated. The worst images were kitschy in a way that referenced Eastern-European awkwardness without irony, so we discussed how she could push that further, intentionally, in the future.

Finally, for today, we have the duo of Paal Williams and Marissa Dembkowski. (Known as PWMD) I saw their work at the portfolio walk, and immediately fell in love. All the more so when they assured me the images were straight, unmanipulated photographs.

Turns out, the prints are real pictures of elements of photoshop, and digital reality, that they summon from the computer world into 3 dimensions. Rather than give away their technical secrets, I’ll ask that you view them as what they are: images of artifacts from the ghostly machine, rather than digital creations themselves.

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This Week in Photography Books: Sara J. Winston

 

I just flew in from Chicago, and boy, are my arms…

Tired.

Sorry.
Couldn’t resist.

It might be the worst joke in the 6 year history of this column, but you’ll have to forgive me. I pulled 18 hour days at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago, talking the entire time.

Then, I came home to a full week of cooking, cleaning, driving, parenting, kung fu, and lots and lots of work.

My brain is so mushy, in fact, that I actually tried to get away with a joke so old, it makes the mottled flesh on Donald Trump’s belly look like baby skin.

Moving on, I must say, yet again, how much I like Chicago. I go to a lot of these photo festivals, (as you know,) and it allows me to show you a big slice of what’s going on out there in the American photo community.

But for all the cities I visit, Chicago is just a bit different. It fits me, like my favorite T-shirt, and allows me to feel relaxed, and understood, in a way no other city does.

It’s the little things, really, in particular the general Operating System of the local culture; the way people interact with each other. There is a friendly, grounded, openness that so many embody, and I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

(Insert random cliché about the Midwest here.)

Yeah, I hear you. Everyone says that about the Midwest. The people are just so darn nice.

My goodness!
Gosh!

But that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, it means that random conversations come about, on the subway, on the street, in a museum, that don’t happen other places.

It happens again and again, and I find myself chatting up strangers in ways that are thrilling and comfortable at the same time. I know Chicago has all the problems of other megalopoli, what with the violence and segregation, which is what makes that openness all the more surprising.

It allows for the type of cross-cultural, cross-gender communication that this country, (and the world, I’d argue,) needs more of.

Not less.

For instance, this column is now based almost exclusively on submissions, as you know. (I can request the odd publication from PR folks, but it doesn’t happen often.)

Just the other day, on Twitter, I was discussing with my friend and colleague Patrice Helmar the sad truth that almost all of my submissions come from men. (White dudes in particular.)

We traded 140 character sentiments on why that might be, as the preponderance of people I review at these events are women. Lots of women are making art these days, but the books don’t turn up in the mail in anywhere near a representative sample.

Patrice wondered if it was confidence and/or aggression? I speculated that perhaps female artists still aren’t getting as many publishing opportunities?

What to do?

Well, in this case, I’m mentioning it specifically, in the hope that some of our female readers might send in books, or nudge their friends to submit. It’s really important for all of us to see a broader viewpoint, and I hope this helps get the ball rolling.

Because, like a random conversation with a stranger, while watching the world’s best street blues, (true story,) hearing and seeing things outside our own bubble makes us smarter, healthier, more empathetic, and better at what we do.

Luckily, when I was at Filter, Sara J. Winston gave me a book to take home, called “Homesick,” published by Zatara Press. We had a review together, and she was honest about the fact she’d been diagnosed with MS, and was using her current project to process those emotions.

She admitted to coming from a family with health issues, and how she hoped to escape the curse.

Alas…

The review was only tricky in that she showed me two discrete projects, but they were a bit jumbled in her presentation. Both had become books, so I struggled to differentiate between the two styles, and subject matters, so I could wrap my mind around her art practice.

“Homesick,” which is not directly “about” her illness, is a poetic, very-well-observed take on Sara’s home and family, I believe.

I say “I believe” because this excellent book hints, but does not state. It has a languid, referential style of making connections, in a way that seems… dare I say it… more female than male.

Patrice and I each made guesses about why I get more books from women than men, and neither of us suggested it was because our audience demo skews towards the penis.

Does it?

I don’t know.

But this beautiful, lyrical, slightly abstracted book feels like exactly the sort of thing a man might not make.

The first photograph, with a tub of margarine and a plate of bologna, is just so metaphorical. We get that food will be prominent, and the items she has chosen to represent her story have cultural baggage. (Not exactly bougie.)

Food is a recurring theme, but so is a wilted sort of sadness. A cat with a torn-up ear. Dirty dishes. A large man with electrodes attached to his chest.

Bananas in a bag.
The imprint of sheet on skin.

It ends with a wonderfully written story.
At first, as it uses the first person, I thought, “Damn, she can write too?”

But then it shifts to another perspective.
A lesbian lover from college?
Visiting the family homestead?

It seems so.
But each is written in the first person, so eventually, I had to ask myself, is this even true?

Is it?
True?

There is no direct answer until the final credits, which suggest a writer, Ani Katz, created both characters in the story.

It is made-up?
Or based upon interviews?
Does it matter?

I may well be accused of sexism for calling a book like this feminine. But then, I don’t see that word as pejorative. I’ve previously established my feminist street cred, and therefore I like this book so much BECAUSE it comes from another vantage entirely.

It treats book-viewing, or book-reading, as an experiential process, which is my favorite kind of photo-book. It tells a story, in pictures and words, and for a few brief moments, I couldn’t put it down.

Bottom Line: A lyrical, gorgeous book about going home

To purchase “Homesick” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Ed Eckstein

- - Photography Books

 

My son just saw “Airplane” for the first time. (Thanks, Dad.)

He’s turning 10, so I guess he was ready. I certainly remember watching it as a kid, laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. But that was back when the movie was fresh, and the references made sense.

Not surprisingly, as it’s 2017, Theo felt uncomfortable with the “jive turkey” scenes, as what was acceptable in 1980 is considered highly racist today.

He also didn’t know what to make of the Hare Krishna’s. I mean, how do you explain that to the Internet generation? It’s not like we’ve got bald, dancing hippies at airports anymore.

(Instead, we have bomb-sniffing dogs, and lots of smelly bare feet.)

In a weird way, I miss some elements of the monoculture: the pop references, and films, that everyone got.

Where’s the Beef.
Joe Isuzu.
Eddie Murphy doing Gumby.

The comedic movies from the 70’s and 80’s, in particular, stand out as cultural icons that have not really been replaced. (Well, I guess Alec Baldwin doing Trump comes close.)

If you ask anyone between 30-50 about the funniest movie of all time, the odds are they’re going to say something with Bill Murray in it.

“Caddyshack,” most likely.

The fact it had peak-funny Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield makes it hard to pick anything else. But I could just as easily say that about “Stripes.”

It featured peak-funny Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Candy, with a scary/funny performance by Warren Oates to boot. (How sad is it that three of those guys are dead now?)

“Stripes” gets pushed down the list a bit, for many, because it was really two movies in one. The first part, with all the classic lines, (“You call me Francis, I’ll kill ya,”) was set in basic training.

Show me something funnier than John Candy mud-wrestling.
I dare you.

But the second part, which morphed into an Anti-Soviet action movie, is a bit harder to defend. Completely different tone, and seeing Warren Oates become a good guy was hard for my young brain to process. (Ah, such a simpler time, the 20th Century. Our good guys were good, our bad guys were bad, and it was OK to chant “USA” without irony.)

Seriously, I think my entire understanding of basic training comes from “Stripes,” and I guess that says a lot about me. I don’t have any family members in the military, I never considered joining up, and I was born just after the end of the draft.

For me, “The Draft” means 20 hours of ESPN each Spring, watching heavily-made-up former football players dissecting clips of college footballers whose names they can barely pronounce. (Yet still I watch…)

It’s hard for most people to relate to a world in which the government could force you to fight, and often die, no matter what you thought about the situation. We are so far removed from that time, it’s hard to imagine a world in which that many Americans had skin in the game.

These days, a small minority of American families do the heavy lifting for all of us. And, most of the time, it’s lower income kids, from rural areas lacking job opportunities, that end up dying for our “freedom.” (Yes, I’m putting quotes around the word, b/c with Trump around, it seems like a much shakier proposition.)

Thankfully, (and not unexpectedly, if you know this column,) a photo book turned up in the mail the other day that puts this issue before our eyes, straight outta the early 70’s.

“Grunts: The Last US Draft, 1972” is a new book by Ed Eckstein, published by Schiffer Publishing in Pennsylvania, and it provides a glimpse into the last draft class in American History. (This time I don’t mean the NFL.)

This photo book shows us a set of pictures that Ed Eckstein made in 1972, when he embedded with a group of draftees, and followed them from Philly down to basic training in South Carolina. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get “Stripes” out of my head, when I was looking at this book. (Yes, I’m a weirdo.)

But the thing about a documentary photo project is that it shows us the unvarnished situation, in clean black and white, and eventually, I was able to see these young men as people, rather than stand in’s for John Winger and crew.

While this book gives us something we otherwise wouldn’t get to see, (a surefire way to get reviewed,) I wouldn’t say the pictures are dynamite. They’re good, and in some cases very good, but in general, I don’t think they’re terribly visceral or emotion-grabbing.

Rather, they feel historical to me.
And important, as such.

There are little bits of humor, like the little tags on the uniforms, made “For Soldiers of Distinction.”

How great is that?

Even better is the promotional poster, featuring Richard Nixon, that promises “Equal Employment Opportunity” from the Federal Government.

Let that sink in for a moment.

In one little advertisement, Richard Nixon is presented as less of a racist/sexist than our current President. Nixon, the past poster-child for how to be a terrible President, in retrospect looks like a balanced statesman compared to our current Asshole-in-Chief.

Then we get a signs that says, “When you fire think “BRAS”: Breathe/Relax/Aim/Squeeze.” No f-ing way something like that passes muster in 2017. Misogyny may still be alive and well, but with a now-partially-female military, tacky puns like that would never cut it.

And how about the guy in full karate-chop mode? How much you want to bet he’s making a Bruce Lee-esque karate-chop cry? Hiiiii-yah!

It’s true I’m making light of a situation that demands a bit more respect. It’s likely that some of the guys in this book went on to die in Vietnam.

Nothing funny about that.

But that’s kind of my point. As the military burden shifted from almost-all-of-us to a select demographic in this country, the reality of War, and its costs, has become buffeted, to a dangerous degree.

Which is why I’m glad Ed Eckstein sent this book along to remind us, in this time of “Rocket Man,” that none of this is a laughing matter.

Bottom Line: Vintage, black and white documents of the last draft class

To Purchase “Grunts,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Michael Crouser

- - Working

 

I’ll be honest with you.

I’m pretty fried at the moment.

It’s been a long year, and a long summer, and right this second, my brain’s a little spent. Just when I thought I was getting caught up with things, my Dad told me I had to get on this Equifax shit-show, and nothing brings up stress chemicals like the fear of identity theft.

That said, a weekly column is just that, as it requires me to feed the beast.

And so I shall.

Last week, I reviewed a book that was squarely in my old comfort zone, back when we worked with photo-eye: a small-batch, edgy, art-school type project that was more off-putting than embraceable.

My main criterion for reviewing a book has always been, does it compel me to sit down and write? If the ideas flow, then the book is interesting.

I don’t have to love it, and you don’t have to love it. I’d hope that, over time, we all enjoy far more books than we dislike. Given the feedback I get from you, I think that’s probably true.

So this week, (as is my wont,) we’re going completely in the opposite direction. This book couldn’t be more different than “Married to America.”

Seriously, if you tried to come up with a more antithetical project, I doubt you could. (But if you want to try, we do still have a comment section.)

I interviewed Michael Crouser here a few years ago, as he’s a talented photographer who makes pictures that yearn for yesteryear, and often lack visual markers of present day. We discussed how his black and white photographs, when shot in Europe, actually look as if they come from a previous era.

It’s like a photographic equivalent of “Midnight in Paris.” (The only good Woody Allen movie I’ve seen in the last 15 years.)

So I wasn’t surprised when “Mountain Ranch,” his new book, recently published by the University of Texas Press, turned up in the mail. Apparently, the project was just shown at ClampArt in NYC as well.

This time out, Michael spent 10 years, (2006-16) photographing the declining ranching culture of North West Colorado. If last week’s pics were the epitome of edgy/uncomfortable, these are as earnest and heart-warming as it gets.

Frankly, they’re not my favorite style of photographs. I like a bit more bite. But most of you will probably dig these pictures, as they’re so well-made, and really hard to dislike.

If last week’s review was Ted Cruz, this week we’ve got Oprah. Everyone loves Oprah, right? (Yes, I’m going to Chicago next week, so I wanted to kiss a little ass, as I think Oprah still runs that town.)

As you know by now, I grew up in suburban New Jersey. Nothing could be further from that experience, all cars and green lawns and manicured highways. But now I live in the Rocky Mountains, and can personally attest that ranching culture, with all the cowboy accoutrements, is alive and well.

This America, the one in these photographs, is alien to almost all the urbanites out there. It looks like a Red-State fantasy camp, but really, it’s a way of life that has existed as long as Westward expansion was a dream.

The book features some powerful, first person accounts, by the ranchers, of why the lifestyle is dying. Property taxes, inheritance taxes, a younger generation that wants an easier life.

Michael Crouser wants to document this world, to show us his passion, before it disappears. And today, I thought it was appropriate to share it with you. Because if I’m too cynical to enjoy some lovely pictures, then I should probably get a new job.

Bottom Line: Lyrical, old-fashioned pictures of Ranch Life in Colorado

To purchase “Mountain Ranch” click here

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

 

This Week in Photography Books: Justin Clifford Rhody

 

The Earth spins once a day.
It circles the Sun once a year.

We are born, we live, and we die.

Everywhere we look, cycles represent the natural world around us. Karma, or God, or whomever, seems to have a preference for circles.

Everything seems to come back around again, or “full circle,” if you will, if there’s only time to allow it.

Yesterday, I got into it with my soon-to-be-10-year-old, because he kept complaining about doing his homework. He rolled his eyes like a professional actor, and sighed demonstrably. Anyone within twenty miles would have known he was unhappy.

I stood there, watching a younger, newer version of myself. Man, the shit I used to get from my folks for giving them dirty looks. For throwing them shade.

Cut to 1984:

Mom: You better cut that out, or you’re going to be in big trouble.

Me: What!

Mom: You know what. Cut it out.

Me: I didn’t say anything!

Mom: You didn’t have to say anything. It’s written all over your face.

Me: How can I get in trouble if I didn’t say anything?

Mom: Dirty looks are just as bad. Cut it out, or you’re going to your room. And your father will not be happy when he gets home from work.

Me: (Dirty Look) Fine!

Cut back to 2017

I stood there, watching him give me the stink-eye, like Avon Barksdale mad-dogging a snitch, and at the same time, I was deeply in my memory, wondering how these life cycles can be so obvious sometimes.

My son kept rushing through his homework, because he wanted to watch TV. He hates homework, and thinks that makes him original. Such pain, having to do 10 minutes of homework, what with Irma heading towards Florida.

Much as I was angry, as a Dad, I was also empathetic, because every kid hates homework. And I was also the omniscient narrator, a small voice in my head appreciating the irony of it all, understanding it was my time to reap what I’d sowed 30+ years ago.

Like I said, everything old is new again, including Fascism in America, apparently.

Seriously, can you believe that some people grew up so badly, and ate so much garbage, that they think Fascism is the way forward? That’s like saying, no thanks, Doc, I’ll pass on the surgery. Gonna get me some leeches instead, ‘cuz I’m sure they’ll cure me right up.

Last week, I wrote about the inside/outside debate, and how the spirit of the “flaneur” is alive and well in 2017. Roaming and wandering. As someone pointed out on FB, without the outsider, there is no “The Americans,” the Bible that made many of us into photographers.

The tradition of the road trip is as old as cars. I’m sure some dude in Detroit grabbed his best bud Cecil, cranked up the Model T, and hit the dirt roads looking at all the places they’d never seen before.

Likewise, certain sub-themes seem to continually re-emerge in photography, each time suffused with the same energy. In this case, I’m thinking of a certain style of anarchy. A vibe, always put out by young-men-in-bands, that they’ve re-invented living dirty. (Or nasty, if you prefer.)

This week, “Married to America” turned up in the mail, a new book by Justin Clifford Rhody, recently published by Hidden Eye. Justin had written to see if I’d be interested in his book, and after a quick peek online, I said sure, send it along.

When I reviewed Jim Jocoy’s “Order of Appearance” a few months ago, we discussed this punk rock spirit. But that book showed some OG punks from the early 80’s. Guys who were puking on their buddies before Justin and his crew were born.

This book reads differently to me.
It makes me feel old.

First of all, I couldn’t help catching some typos in a statement by road trip buddy Carlos Gonzalez. One of our regular readers, the publisher and former Center board member Joanna Hurley, used to ride me about its vs it’s, so now I can’t not see it.

Like a grumpy Dad chastising his son for mistakes he’s made himself, I was angry at my brain for focusing on the silly typos. Let it go, you square, another part of my brain said. Punks don’t care about typos.

The pictures in the book are cool, but not distinctive. They remind me of simulacra of previous road trips, of previous photos, of previous “On The Road” seekers. It was just so hard to find anything fresh here.

But not impossible.

There are two diptychs, (layout wise,) that I thought were really smart. One pits a Wolverine-style-glove against a bronze wall-plated bust of George Washington; a great little visual poem about 21st Century America.

Even better, the still life of the Egyptian hieroglyphic stela comes right before the obligatory shot of a filthy, disgusting, shit-stained toilet. (You can’t have one of these books without that shot. Or the velvet boobs painting.)

But that’s where the meta-level kicked in. When we see Egyptian art, we think about the past. Our collective history. And what we, as artists, leave behind for “future generations.”

So the subsequent toilet shot becomes the answer to the question. Justin Clifford Rhody is gifting that foul-poop-recepticle to the next generation, and the ones that follow, and he’s doing it with his eyes open.

The final statement tells us more about the book. It is indeed a poetic record of a road trip three guys took, playing music in little “underground” venues, and projecting slides of found imagery to boot.

I don’t deny, in any way, that these Millennial fellas are authentically themselves. I get that they lived this experience, had fun, made art, didn’t hurt anybody, and are growing up in their own time. (A much-less-naive era than we Gen-Xers were given.)

I get that certain people will read this like I’m a hater. Like I’m too old to understand the joy, the freedom, of life on the road. No kids to make breakfast for. No trash container to pull up the hill. No responsibility to crush your spirit.

Maybe I am getting old? (Or as Danny Glover famously said, “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.”)

Maybe.

Or maybe there’s something to this cycle of life? Maybe the Universe prefers circles for a reason? And we’re all doing the best we can, right where we need to be.

Bottom Line: Cool, but familiar, tale of rockers on the road

To purchase “Married to America,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Gary Isaacs

 

All summer, here in the column, I contrasted projects made by insiders and outsiders.

It wasn’t intentional. We didn’t have a big staff meeting, with a conference table covered with donuts, and brainstorm all the different themes I might develop.

There are no staff meetings.
There is no table.
And donuts are for cops and stoners.

Rather, things seem to evolve in certain directions, when you have a weekly column for 6 years.

Today, though, I want to take the issue head on. No oblique references, or silly puns. This question is core to the history and future of photography, so let’s go there.

The French have a word, “flaneur,” that all of us are taught in art school. It means a wanderer, but not in the sense of some Dude named Cooter who rides the rails, and needs a shower more than America needs a new President.

Rather, in photography terms, a flaneur is one who visits new places, roams the streets with a camera, and is constantly on the lookout for the daily drama of real life.

Many, if not most photographers have been there at some point, and I can personally attest I devoted my life to photography after a certain 5-day-cross-country-road-trip, camera in hand.

It’s a fact that the camera, as a machine, has the power to change human experience. Once you’ve gotten a hold of one, and realize how drastically it alters how you see and feel the world around you, it’s hard to go back to a less-well-lived life.

But if you study photography, go to art school, and try to make a career of it, most of the time, you gravitate towards more structured projects. You’re encouraged, for good reason, to make work about what you already know: to mine your expertise for knowledge-wisdom-nuggets, and render said information in visual form.

It’s advice I’ve received, and have dispensed myself.

These days, most people want to dig deep into their own cultural, gender or class-based experiences. (Not surprising, given the prominence of identity politics in many institutions of higher learning.) You’re encouraged to stay in your lane, essentially, rather than aimlessly explore other viewpoints.

They’re two accepted ways of doing things, (wandering and tunneling,) and I’d argue it’s the middle ground that gets tricky.

We saw evidence of that at Antidote, which I opened up to a few of my former UNM-Taos students, free of charge, so they could get the benefit of the world class teachers I brought to town.

One Antidote student was making work in and about a small, Hispanic community in Northern New Mexico, where he had few ties, and he got feedback pushing him to defend the decision. We probed for actual connection, but he rebuffed us, believing his intellectual interest allowed him to investigate another culture, even though he didn’t officially belong.

More power to him, but it’s a rough road.

Conversely, one of my local students had done work, in my class, about “descansos”: roadside memorials to people who’ve been killed.

It’s a popular subject, as they are visually compelling, and I even reviewed such a project at Photo NOLA a few years ago. That time, the pictures had been made by a white, Jewish lady who came in from out-of-state.

Work like that, done by outsiders who are doing more than just wandering, has come under fire lately, as it’s called “cultural appropriation.” I’ve defended the practice here, and would again, under other circumstances.

But what we saw at Antidote gives me pause.

The Antidote crew was rapt during the descanso critique, because my former student had photographed memorials to her dead friends and family. With each memorial, she told us who had died, and how the tragedy unfolded. There is a lot of death and violence in Taos, so the project becomes a metaphor for a culture few outsiders can possibly understand.

The pictures are well-made, don’t get me wrong, but the fact that they were constructed out of pain, out of heartache, sent a strong energy through the critique. Such information can be conveyed through text or video as well, but I witnessed the vibe coming right from the pictures on screen.

It was hard not to compare the two projects. One came from personal experience, the other because sometimes people need to find a project for school, or assignment, or to keep pushing the rock up the hill.

I’m not saying one way is better than the other, and I’m even contemplating my first major curatorial effort, exploring a “foreign” culture, because that’s where my curiosity is taking me.

Where is this rant coming from?
(You always ask the right questions at the right time.)

I just put down “Chinatown,” a new self-published book that came in the mail the other day, from Gary Isaacs. (Not sure on this, but I’m guessing he’s a member of the tribe too.)

This book, all grainy, moody black and white, stems from an assignment in San Francisco’s North Beach, the introduction tells us. Gary did his work there, but found himself powerfully drawn to that exotic neighborhood right next door. (Having photographed SF Chinatown myself in the past, and cruised its streets earlier this summer, I can attest it’s insanely photogenic.)

Not content with his first efforts, Gary went back a few times, to flesh out his vision, and said he spent 15 full days photographing 30 square blocks. Structurally, it fits somewhere between a straight flaneur story, and something a little deeper.

The neighborhood is vibrant, and obviously different. It looks great, because it represents a historical immigrant culture, with its fascinating visual signifiers, yet is surrounded by a more traditional America. (OK, maybe it’s not wise to brand San Francisco as normal America, but you get my point.)

When you look at this book, there is no sense you’re getting an intellectually supported, politically motivated, culturally nuanced vision of the world. There will be no graduate thesis written about these pictures, nor will anyone start a Twitter Hashtag war, like they did for #IronFistSoWhite.

The sprit of the wanderer, of one who’s addicted to the joy of seeing, permeates the pages. I’d argue this book can be a catalyst for all of us to turn our attention back onto the world around us, and try to see it with fresh eyes.

(And if you insist the pictures represent a white person’s cliché vision of Asian culture, you’re welcome to that opinion.)

I just read a piece in GQ, by a guy I went to summer camp with many years ago, about breaking his Weed-Cherry at 35. He’d been too uptight to smoke marijuana earlier in life, but finally got around to it, just in time for the legalization efforts, when the stigma had gone away.

His final sentences were about the way New York City glowed, with lights reflecting off wet streets, when he walked the city while high. His perceptions became heightened, and his experience of visual pleasure was enhanced.

He felt glad to be alive.

I like Mary Jane as much as the next guy, but when photography does its job, and we get to be our best selves, the camera is all the help we need to be overjoyed by the magic of the world.

Food for thought.

Bottom Line: Cool book, featuring noir photos from San Francisco’s Chinatown

This Week in Photography Books: Larry Sultan

 

America is dominated by Baby Boomers and Millennials.

You know this.

My cohort, Generation X, is small by comparison, and as we’re all slackers, we get lost in those giant shadows. But we’re famous for our sense of irony, and these days, it’s a life-saver.

For instance, the one thing most people want, more than anything, is to have a long life. Nobody wants to die young, except for rock stars, but as Rock-n-Roll is dead, the rock stars are gone anyway.

People want to live as long as possible, even though that best case scenario almost always leads to illness, broken bodies, doctor bills, and some form of misery and pain.

Like I said, without irony, where would we be?

My own parents are aging, as I’m 43, and the last ten years have been a litany of ill health. My Dad had two major back surgeries, including a spinal fusion, interspersed with years of aggressive, debilitating nerve pain.

My Mom had a spinal fusion of her own, and before she’d fully recovered, she tore her achilles tendon in Mexico, and had that godawful injury as a follow up. (Though she reported her experience in the Mexican health care system was excellent, in case you’re thinking of moving to the other side of the Wall…)

It’s a challenge, watching the people you love suffer; a reminder it will be your turn soon enough. If you’re one of the lucky ones, that is, and you don’t get pre-mature cancer, or hit by a car driven into a political protest.

On the plus side, aging is meant to bestow wisdom. While our bodies degrade, no matter how many crossword puzzles we do, or superfood smoothies we imbibe, our understanding of reality often develops nuance and expertise.

Who hasn’t looked back on a younger self, thrown up one’s hands, and exclaimed to the sky, “What the fuck was I thinking?”

I know I have.

Right now, I’m focusing on a particular moment, back when I lived in San Francisco in 2001. I’d recently applied to graduate school at CCAC, (now called CCA,) and the Dean of Admissions had arranged for me to sit in on a class with superstar-photographer-professor Larry Sultan.

I brought my portfolio along, as I’d been assured he’d likely review the work, and discuss how I might fit in at the school, were I to be accepted. (I wasn’t.)

But on the day I arrived, Mr. Sultan said it was a special class, with some guest lecturers, and he wouldn’t have time to meet with me. He warmly welcomed me to stay, assuming I could learn a thing or two.

As I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, I slipped out at the first smoke break without even saying goodbye. If he couldn’t see me, my younger self thought, what was the point of sticking around?

Such a rookie mistake.

The incident played in my mind, over and over, as I walked through the singularly brilliant Larry Sultan solo show at SFMOMA back in May.

It was easily one of the best photo shows I’d seen in years, and at the end, they had a video monitor set up, with a lengthy interview with the artist.

Sadly, he passed away too-young in 2009, so it was much like hearing from a ghost. A ghost, I might add, from whom I had been too proud to learn, in the limited way I’d been offered.

I sat there for 20 minutes, easily, and this from a guy who never, ever has patience for such things. (Never. Ever.)

Thankfully, the folks at SFMOMA are pretty cool, and they’d arranged for me to preview the Mike Mandel exhibition next door, and meet the long-time curator Sandra Phillips. Even better, as I was leaving, they gave me a hot-off-the-presses copy of “Pictures from Home,” the Larry Sultan classic that was recently re-released, (or re-imagined?) by MACK in London.

Needless to say, when I showed the book to people at Pier 24 that afternoon, (after admitting I used it as a sun-shade on the blazing walk along the Embarcadero,) they looked at me like I was the messiah.

“How did you get that,” exclaimed the Assistant Director? “I’m actually thanked in the liner notes,” she said, “and I don’t have a copy yet!”

I blushed, said something about getting lucky, and realized this was a book I needed to sit with properly.

No skimming allowed.

I hope you’ll trust it’s taken 3 months to find such time, and that I busted open the green, hard-cover book as soon as I was able.

Meaning yesterday.

But there is so much text that I lay it down, and came at it today with a couple of hours set aside. Let me be clear, this is a book you need to read, not just look at the sharp photography.

“Pictures from Home” is such a great meditation on aging: of people, of dreams, and of America itself, that I’ll state outright it deserves its masterpiece status.

A more poignant, intelligent book, you are unlikely to find.

It features many of the seminal images shot during that series, made from approximately 1982-92, in addition to stills from Sultan family home movies, text by Larry Sultan, interviews with his Mom and Dad, and ephemera from their lives.

The short version of the story is that Mr. and Mrs. Sultan, Irving and Jean, moved out to Southern California in 1949, right after the War boom, in the midst of a recession. They were East Coast Jews, he from NYC, she from Jersey, and they joined the wagon train of Americans headed West towards a better life.

Eventually, Irving landed a job as a salesman for the Schick Razor company, and made his way up the corporate ladder for 20 years. It is as pure a vision of the American dream as you’re likely to find, as a Jew who briefly went by the pseudonym of John Dutton, to work in an English clothing store, was eventually embraced by the whitest of American corporate culture.

Until he wasn’t.

Turns out, Irving was spit out by Schick at 56, when he refused to move his family back East for a promotion. No matter what, he was only giving up the California sunshine if they pried it from his cold, dead hands. (RIP Irving and Jean, in addition to Larry.)

Irving never held another job, easing restlessly into a golf-strewn retirement, but Jean built a successful real estate career in his stead, allowing a feminist subtext to creep into the book as well.

In last week’s review, I admitted I found Ashley Gilbertson’s writing more compelling than his photographs. (Most of you probably preferred the pictures, but you’re not writing the review.) It certainly made me question when words communicate more effectively than images.

But this book proves how perfectly the two can complement each other, in the right hands. First person histories about scamming girls at the boardwalk, being abandoned to orphanages, taking massive risks, and developing sangfroid in our relationships take center stage, and inform the way we view each subsequent photograph.

Later on, the text begins to allude, and then outright mentions, the fact that Larry Sultan staged these photographs, believing a fictionalized version of reality can often tell more “truth” than a document.

In the fraught photo of Irving, standing in front of a white-board featuring knowledge gleaned from a Dale Carnegie course, we learn that Larry asked Irving to misuse a word, on purpose, to suggest a certain fallibility. (Empathize became empathy)

I could go on and on.
But I won’t.

This is a book best enjoyed by yourself, on your sofa, with a cup of coffee or two. (Or three, as it was with me. No blue sky today, so I needed extra energy-juice.)

The times of the great, white male are either over, or still far-too-prevalent, depending on which media outlet you read. But in this case, the idea of shrinking, until there is nothing left but time for leisure, as your aggregate life slips away, is sad but real.

I hope my parents regain their footing, and enjoy a spate of health and good fortune. But I don’t know it will happen, as aging gets us all in the end. (If we’re lucky enough to land on its doorstep.)

C’est la vie.

Bottom Line: Brilliant, re-issued classic that examines the fading American dream, and the realities of old age

To purchase “Pictures from Home,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Ashley Gilbertson

 

Antidote is over, and I’m happy to report it was a big success.

Oddly, it was a lot like an art project, as I visualized something new, and then went about executing what I saw in my head, so it could come out into the world.

Unfortunately, the two days since the event ended have been filled with sorrow, as a good friend had to deal with tragedy here on our doorstep.

I don’t feel comfortable sharing the details, (since when?) but let’s just say that someone’s life fell to pieces, and my friend was left to deal with the aftermath. (And we became the support system for our friend.)

We spoke about how insidious PTSD is, as it basically perpetuates terror energy in an unbroken chain. Addiction, illness and War are representatives of the worst in life, and their fingers reach into many pies.

Take, for example, the soldier who signs up to serve his country, but ends up killing strangers on the far side of the world, for reasons he’ll never completely understand. With his guns, he perpetuates misery on others, even when his cause is noble and patriotic.

And then he, or she is killed in action.

Another life snuffed.
Potential lost.
Joy extinguished.

The soldier’s death then devastates his or her family. (Or when they come home broken, the effect is the same.)

I’ve gone morbid today, I know, but I just dealt with some heavy shit, on the heels of a weekend of intensely positive energy. I’m in a strange place, I admit.

But Antidote, a weekend of hide-out bliss, was counterpointed by what happened in Charlottesville. Open-faced Nazis, carrying torches, and screaming hate at the top of their lungs.

Violence is among us, and tensions are high.
As a columnist who often discusses what’s actually going on in the world, I must say, I don’t know where this is headed, but it doesn’t look good.

When countries go to War, which is what happened under the last Republican administration, young people die. That happens every time. But the normal ways of showing such things have lost the power to move people, I’d say.

So today, in light of all the aforementioned circumstances, I pulled an older book from the shelf, “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” by Ashley Gilbertson, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2014.

It was submitted last Fall, long after it had been introduced, but I’ve never had a hard rule about only reviewing new releases. It’s mostly worked out that way, but today, we’re mixing it up.

Ashley Gilbertson, an Austrialian-born-America-based photographer, has been a war correspondent for a long time. And at one point, while working in Iraq, a soldier was killed while protecting Mr. Gilbertson’s life.

That would leave an imprint on any psyche.
A PTSD of its own, if you will.

Eventually, Mr. Gilbertson’s wife suggested a project, as he grappled to deal with his feelings, in which he’d photograph soldiers’ bedrooms.

The ones that were intact, because parents couldn’t bear to part with the memories, which were enshrined within their homes.

Our childhood bedrooms, it’s well established, are where our identities first form. Are we neat or tidy? (Oscar or Felix?)

Do we have posters of sports stars, or bikini-clad women, or none of the above?

I noticed that the UK soldiers’ rooms had a lot of DVD’s. What’s that all about?

The pictures here, shot in black and white with a panoramic, wide angle perspective, are somber. How could then not be? And it’s not that I cried. I’m too numb for that.

The pictures are straight forward, and I’ll show a fair sample below. (As I always do.) Maybe a few extra, even.

Mr. Gilbertson’s well written, extensive afterword grabbed me more than the pictures. We all receive information differently, and in this case, the story about the story was more compelling for me than the images of the story.

I doubt many of you would agree, as the photographs are excellent, and it is a photo book.

We don’t need to have favorite children, though, and I commend the publishers, and the artist, for making a book that dripped with empathy in many ways.

I honestly hope, for all of our sakes, that the world calms down a bit, and that the USA is able to find a graceful, non-violent way out of the Trumpian mess we find ourselves in.

Fingers crossed.

Bottom Line: Poignant, important book about the true cost of war: our children

To purchase “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” click here

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