Category "From The Field"

Robert Mapplethorpe at the Getty & LACMA

Over Christmas, my wife insisted I read “Big Magic,” a book about creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Of “Eat Pray Love” fame.)

I’m normally skeptical about self-help books, so I dragged my feet for a while. Eventually, I gave up, because there’s no point in fighting when you’re certain to lose.

Turns out, the book was really insightful, once I parsed prose meant so specifically to inspire. But inspire me it did, in particular by helping me appreciate the fleeting nature of creativity.

These days, I imagine my creativity as a little baby bird, ever-so-fallible in my cupped hands. Her examples were a bit more out-there, but suffice to say Ms. Gilbert makes a strong case that the creative instinct is sacred, fragile, and needs to be treated as such.

Again and again, she returns to the point that when we try to milk our creativity for a consistent income stream, it can leave us faster than logic at a Trump rally. (Exit, stage left!)

According to “Big Magic,” when we put too much economic pressure on our creativity, or place it firmly in the service of others, we must be prepared to face the consequences: our best ideas will dry up like an Arizona creek bed in summer.

Why am I on about a self-help book? Can I get to the point?

Sure. Glad you asked.

I’m sitting in a comfortable chair right now, contemplating the excellent joint Robert Mapplethorpe exhibitions I saw last week in Los Angeles. Both the Getty Center and LACMA teamed up to display an exhaustive, categorical retrospective of the famous, (or infamous,) artist’s life’s work.

Ironically, or inevitably, the shows were really about two artists, and the other was not Patti Smith.

No, Andy Warhol was the other mega-star looming over everything, and having read “Just Kids” a while back, I have to say I’m not surprised.

Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe shared a common narrative, so it’s understandable they were rivals. Each came to New York City as a young, unknown, freakishly talented artist with boundless ambition, and sexual preferences that were not-yet-mainstream, as they are today. (Andy was nominally asexual, but was clearly pulsing with desire.)

Andy and Robert both wanted fame and fortune. They lived with a hunger for the approval of the wealthy, and craved the actual wealth as well. They were desperate to be a part of the in-crowd, or perhaps just to BE the in-crowd.

The joint exhibitions give us a sense of both men, though obviously Mapplethorpe takes center stage. At LACMA, we see evidence of his broad abilities as an artist. Jewelry is on display, and it’s so easy to imagine the skinny, beautiful waif-boy selling his wares to men who really wanted more than a jangly necklace, if you catch my drift.

We also see drawings, paintings, and an altar installation. The dude was capable, for sure, and I know from reading Smith’s book that she and Robert hit the scene as hard as anyone could. They felt destined for success, which they manifested by working it.

Haaaaaard.

Mapplethorpe’s transgressive images need little introduction. Radical gay sex. Massive penises. Bondage fetishes. A whip sticking out of his own asshole.

Much has been made of, and NEA grants altered by, his best known work. It carries the spirit of innovation and rebellion, and the gelatin silver prints nearly jump off the wall.

“Look at me,” they taunt! “I dare you!”

I was admittedly shocked, but only because a man walked through the most explicit LACMA gallery with his 7 year old daughter, which I couldn’t quite believe. (A female gallery guard and I exchanged eye-rolls and sardonic laughter at that one.)

Like Andy Warhol, when Mapplethorpe was good, he was transcendent. I’d argue that Andy had a longer run, and that his genius work was more varied and broadly important than Mapplethorpe’s.

Others might disagree.

But in each show, I couldn’t ditch the image of both of these fantastically nimble social climbers, warily circling each other, driven by the Alpha instinct.

The late phases for each artist were not pretty; your body betraying you, your talent now-questionable, then dying before your time.

In each museum, there were images of Mapplethorpe’s glamour shots of important uptown types and aristocrats. The Debbie Harry/Iggy Pop/Patty Smith gritty pics, in earlier rooms, were replaced by gauzy lighting and soft-focus, edgeless perfection.

With both artists, acceptance by the Upper Class seemed concomitant with work that almost parodied their initial breakthroughs. Andy making 4 panels for each new rich person, Mapplethorpe setting up a studio curtain like some high-end Sears shooter.

The crowning moment in this little story I told myself was the contact sheet display at LACMA. You could see for yourself how well Mapplethorpe zoomed in on the best pic: here Debbie Harry, looking gorgeous, is pouty. There she’s fierce.

Expressions changed, as did body positioning. You close your eyes, and see the feline photographer slinking around, directing, trying to summon what he sees in his head.

And then there’s Andy.

He’s older, and wearing an obvious wig. But 12 times he stands there, denying Mapplethorpe any expression at all. To say he is stoic is to insult Scandinavians.

Andy Warhol was clearly dropping an iron curtain across his eyes, so that each photo is a copy of the others.

“Fuck you, bitch,” says his expression. “You won’t draw me out. You’ll get what I give you, and nothing more.”

Every frame was the same. It was a battle, to my eyes, and it seems that Warhol won. (Nearby, there’s also an excellent Warhol portrait of Mapplethorpe.)

The Getty show was the less edgy of the two, but it gave me a brief glimpse into things I didn’t expect. There were two pictures, platinum prints to be precise, that depicted a lonely battleship cruising through the sea.

They looked more like something from Anne Tucker’s “War/Photography” show than anything Mapplethorpe would make. Powerful, talismanic, there were two of them, sitting side by side.

Each ship lonely, powerful, iconic, yet placed next to the other, rather than inhabiting the same frame. (Metaphor anyone?)

In another room, most all of the pictures were pretty. (The harder-core photos were definitely at LACMA.) Yet there was one photo of a man’s midsection in a leisure-suit. The fabric was so sharp, the lines minimal, the tones subdued.

But sticking out of the unzipped pants was a huge, uncircumcised, African-American penis.

Everything about the picture went one direction, yet the massive cock blocked out the sun, so to speak. It managed both to sneak up on you, and completely change your reality, all at once.

Warhol showed up again, in a photo-booth strip of 4, in the adjacent exhibition of work from the Wagstaff collection, which belonged to Mapplethorpe’s lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff.

Young Warhol mugged for the camera, barely containing his wattage. He was ready to take on the world and WIN, looking nothing like the man locked in battle with Mapplethorpe decades later.

Rarely do I circle back to my intros, but allow me to mix it up today. If you’re reading this, you’re mostly likely a photographer or artist of some sort. A creative person, if you will.

I’m ambitious, and you likely are as well. We always want more than we have. We ride ourselves to produce more, sell more, make better shit than our friends and competitors.

For me, there was a valuable lesson on display in LA. (A city filled with youngsters who’d kill for fame and fortune.) Be careful what you wish for, because like Genies offering 3, the deals necessary to get what you crave might just cost you everything.

For the record, the exhibitions close on July 31. So if you happen to be in SoCal, and haven’t hit up the shows yet, now’s your last chance. Get moving!

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More (including the explicit images) can be seen here.

“Collected” at Pier 24

by Jonathan Blaustein

You know me by now.

Opinions typically flow from my mind to my keyboard faster than OJ Simpson running through an airport to catch a plane.

It’s rarely hard for me to write, and by the time I’ve finished an article, I don’t even know how long it’s taken me. I live and die by the flow, and normally it’s all about the living.

But not today.

Today, I’m struggling to gather my thoughts, like a chef who just can’t figure out the final ingredient to give his soup the proper complexity. (Thyme? Red Chile? Oregano? Paprika? Help!)

I guess it was bound to happen, as the end of my crazy academic year dove-tailed perfectly with my recent trip to San Francisco, and an over-abundance of writing projects.

Basically, I’m burned out, yet finally staring at a summer schedule that will give me a chance to recharge, and summon new ideas with which to bombard you every Friday. I’m only human, and muscling through a column every now and again is not the worst thing in the world.

The problem is that, like last week, I’m trying to figure out a way to write about a small, brilliant part of a larger, still- interesting exhibition. I get the feeling that SFMOMA did not exactly appreciate my efforts last week, as the PR folks there have suspiciously ignored my emails since.

Those guys gave me swag, which was a first, but likely didn’t realize that I speak my mind, and am not afraid to offend. Similarly, Pier 24, the free photo exhibition space on the Bay in San Francisco, also welcomed me graciously.

They arranged for me to visit in-between slots, (there are 3 per day,) and then Associate Director Allie Haeusslein met me for an impromptu interview as well. I felt special, which is one way that organizations encourage journalists to dull the blades of their metaphorical rapiers.

So let me state the obvious here: Pier 24 is pretty amazing. It is a 20,000 square foot exhibition space that is free, open to the public by reservation, and devoted to crafting an unparalleled viewer experience. They only let in 30 people at a time, (excluding the rare journalistic privilege,) so you never have to worry about tripping over your neighbors.

Their current show, “Collected,” is devoted to the collectors who support the Bay Area scene, as is the new “California and the West” show at SFMOMA. It is hard for me to write that, and still tame my sarcasm, but it is simply the reality in America 2016.

We all know about the 1%, and the 1% of the 1%. We know that America is literally, TRILLIONS of dollars in debt, and that China has overtaken us as the most dynamic, if not largest, economy in the world.

Oil-rich kingdoms may drip black gold, but everyone in the US is busy trying to cleave off a slice of some billionaire’s cake. And as art has not been deemed particularly necessary in a STEM-obsessed world, museums and artists alike are now extremely beholden to the contemporary patrons. (Everything old is new again, right?)

The stark truth is that the degree of wealth concentration has only increased the power of those with mega-resources. And the Bay Area art scene was proof positive: pride of place goes to the capitalists, right now, not the content creators.

There was no gallery guide at Pier 24, when I visited, as it had yet to be printed. But there was a little catalogue devoted to the collectors, each of whom had a room displaying their treasures. And we’re talking about “World Class” work here, including luminaries like Robert Frank, (who gets his own gallery,) Gerhard Richter, and Cindy Sherman.

There was an excellent room filled with the F.64 female artists: Alma Lavenson, Connie Kanaga, and Dorothea Lange. Irving Penn popped up, unannounced, with a wicked portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, and contemporary work sat beside mug shots of anonymous 1950’s women, whose sorrow will never be properly revealed.

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Pier 24 rocks, and we should all be thankful that the Pilara Foundation chose to turn its necessary storage space into a cutting-edge exhibition facility. (Gleaned that little tidbit from my interview with Allie.)

Basically, the first 1.5 hours of my visit there were spent looking, thinking, and occasionally trying to guess who made the work. (Unless it was blindingly obvious, like the Frank room.) Allie also said they were intentionally challenging viewers by denying them wall text, so that the pictures could drive conversation, rather than the artist’s name.

Point taken.

But at the end of my visit, I bumped right up against the kind of “Spectacular Artistic Vision” that reminds you why you got into this business to begin with. (Courtesy of William Eggleston, the god of color photography.)

This show, “Collected,” features two rooms filled with nothing but images from the artist’s seminal “Los Alamos” series. If color photography had an ur-text, this would likely be it.

All around me, I saw snazzy old cars, burger stands, Coca Colas, and saturated skies. I saw a naive America, one packed with racial tension, as we are today, but with a chest puffed up with its sense of destiny.

I saw an America that was united in its favorite color: Coca Cola red. Again and again, Eggleston utilizes it, often distinct from Coke itself. Matthew Weiner, another great artist, chose to close his seminal “Mad Men” with a Coke and a smile, and we all know that Coke is a powerful, wealthy, publicly traded corporation, selling toxic sugar-water.

But back in the 60s, I think it represented more than that. It was American entrepreneurship, sugar and caffeine married together, bubbles of effervescence, and a depth of color that we now associate with Target.

Coke was America, as it saw itself. Energetic, world-beating, sweet, earthy, and endlessly satisfying. It was America’s mega-export, before McDonalds.

I always tell my students that light creates color, and color creates mood. These pictures, stacked with deep Red, White and Blue, are as romantic as it gets, in particular because they make sure to balance with loneliness and ennui, rather than veering towards boosterism and propaganda.

(I asked last week when exactly Donald Trump thinks America was great, and I suspect this is what he has in mind.)

I’d bet anything that Mr. Eggleston never thought of this work as a paean to America at the height of its power, with undercurrents of controversy and violence. But a country built on violence and controversy can not begrudge, if it remains deeply embedded in its national character.

He’d probably just say he was out taking pictures, because that’s what you do when you’re a photographer.

Part of why I do get burned out sometimes, in the dual role of artist and critic, is that I yearn to see work this good more often. When Eggleston was out there shooting all the time, (because he apparently didn’t need a day job,) there were dozens of photographers chasing the same desire.

Now, there are tens of thousands of us. And greatness does not go around in that type of supply.

If you want to get better, I’m always telling you, go look at the best stuff. If you’re lucky, you don’t even have to get on an airplane to do it. (I do.)

But if you live anywhere near the Bay Area, hit up the Pier 24 website and book a place to see this show. You might well be seduced by the beautiful-if-veneerish Richard Learoyd room, or the dazzling music-industry gallery featuring the collection of Nion McEvoy.

There are millions of dollars worth of work on the wall, and even rooms that challenge what you think you know about photo history. (In particular two galleries teeming with lesser-known, feminist photographs from the 70s. Yes, there were a lot of boobs.)

For me, spending twenty uninterrupted minutes with Eggleston’s genius was a blessing. It reminded me that finding your own voice is necessary for true cultural impact, and that we’re living in a time when our culture is so striated that almost no one can touch all of America at once. (Good luck, Beyoncé. Have fun, Disney.)

But when we get the chance to steep ourselves in the vestiges of innovation, and the color palette of a once-dominant Empire, it normally costs more than what Pier 24 is charging.

Nothing.
Nothing at all.

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“About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change” at SFMOMA

by Jonathan Blaustein

Trump. Trump. Trump.

I promised I wouldn’t talk about him anymore, yet here I am. The man is simply inescapable.

With all the fear about Trump being the Republican Presidential nominee, I’m sure you’ve looked at an electoral map in the last day/week/month, right?

Of course you have.

The map, with it’s massive blocks of red and blue, tells a story that we all-too-conveniently forget. This nation of ours, the United States of America, has not always been United.

No sir.

Back in the 1860’s, all hell broke loose. America was cleaved in two, and bodies piled up higher than Dr. Dre during an all-night recording session. (Yes, that’s pretty high.)

But you know that as well, because you learned about it in history class. We all did. Civil War. Slavery. Abe Lincoln good, Jefferson Davis bad.

That’s the narrative we’ve all been told, again and again. But I suppose I ought to clarify who the “we” is here. I grew up in New Jersey, in the heart of Yankee country. (Though parts of NJ did have slavery, unfortunately.)

There was never any question as to who the “us” was, as opposed to the “them.” Southerners. Rednecks. Racists. KKK lovers.

They deserved what they got. Right?

While you’ll never catch me questioning the validity of the Civil War, it’s easy to side with blue, 150 years later. And wouldn’t you know it, but that “blue” team’s map lines up pretty neatly with the current “blue” crew as well.

The South is united in its support for Donald J Trump, and most artsy/liberal/creative types, (meaning you and me,) have a very hard time understanding the mass appeal. The man is an orange, braggadocious prevaricator, and I’m being kind.

So why would so many people, across so much terrain, see this lunatic as a potential savior? Why would they trust him to “make America great again,” and when exactly was America great?

I’m glad you asked.

I had the chance to visit the new SFMOMA when I was in San Francisco, as I mentioned in last week’s column. The museum has more than doubled in size, after a 3 year, $305 million renovation. As San Francisco has arrived, so has its most prominent art institution. (Though the deYoung Museum might quibble with me on that.)

I had the good fortune to spend almost 3 hours in the museum, looking looking looking. Paintings, sculptures, photos: the new museum has it all. You might have even heard they now have 15,000 square feet of exhibition space in the Pritzker Center of Photography. (It made the rounds on social media a few weeks ago.)

To say that I saw a lot of art in my time there is a simple understatement. I saw hundreds of images and objects, as I flitted from one wall to another.

Look, think, step to the side.
Repeat.

I wanted to see the “California and the West” show, as I’m writing about it. But there are two major photo shows occupying all that choice real estate, and the other was just as good: “About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change,” curated by Corey Keller. (through September 25th)

No matter how good the art is, there’s only so much our brains can absorb, in a marathon session. So I like to give myself a little test, and just focus on the things that really grab me. It’s fun to have excellence radar, or in my case, a “things I’ve never seen before” gauge.

The more you see, the harder it is to send that meter into the red, but it does happen.

The first time was essentially by accident, as I was standing in front of some images by the LA artist Phil Chang, and the lady behind me made a loud, unhappy snort, like a horse that hates its supper.

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“Excuse me,” I said, “but did I step into your viewing path? If so, I apologize.”

“No, she replied. Her voice became inaudible, as she was clearly distressed, and she finished with “Emperor’s new clothes.”

“If it wasn’t me, is it the art?”

“Yes. I don’t get it. It’s making me angry.”

Before you knew it, I was right back in art professor territory, and tried to explain to the woman what there was to “get.” Apparently, Mr. Chang makes gelatin silver prints, like many photographers, but he chooses not to fix the images.

He invites people, like the curator, Ms. Keller, to watch the images as they slowly fade to black. It’s meant to be performative, I suppose, and it’s possible no one has ever thought to do that on purpose, or to turn it into a concept.

That’s what I told this grumpy stranger, who nodded, accepting that there was more to the work than met the eye. (Simple, all black images, the photo equivalent of Ad Reinhardt.) She walked away, determined to find something of which she approved. (And I Googled Phil Chang when I got home. He’s a part of the super-trendy “Photography is Magic” clique, so I understood things in that context.)

Will I remember his work now? Absolutely. Am I surprised that a concept as simple as not fixing your work has gotten this dude famous? Not really.

I understand the way the world works. I might be obnoxious, but they don’t call me stupid.

That work stuck out because of its concept, as it was meant to. Paul Graham had a diptych in the show that was hung just above the floor. Again, you could call it a gimmick, or you could say it’s challenging orthodoxy, and both would be right.

(But I don’t remember the images as clearly as where they were hung.)

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So many pictures, so little brain space. It’s an excellent show, that much is clear, and you should go see it if you can. But nothing really shook me inside and out until I got to the very last room in the exhibition.

There I stood face to face with a suite of images by George N. Barnard, a photographer of whom I hadn’t heard before. Not surprising, given he’s been dead for more than a century. (There was no Facebook to promote yourself in the 19th Century, unfortunately.)

His images were a part of a series, “Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign,” that looked at the South, during and after the Civil War. It focused on locations that had been wrecked, destroyed, annihilated, by the famed march of William Tecumseh Sherman. And I had never, ever seen pictures quite like this before.

Sure, we’ve all seen a Matthew Brady or two, and if you read regularly, you know I have a soft spot for Roger Fenton. But this was something different, for me at least.

The prints just felt so real. So lived. So ancient. And there were so many of them.

The photographs were obviously well-made, with terrific compositions and excellent tonal range. You can almost see this man, living in an unrecognizable world, standing among smoldering ruins with a big camera.

Looking.

You don’t have to imagine what defensive Earthworks look like, if you don’t want to. These pictures show you quite well. Bulwarks, bastions, who the hell knows what these are called, but the spiked wooden fences were pretty hardcore, if you ask me.

There’s an image of a soldier in a stove-pipe hat, sitting on top of some ramparts outside Atlanta. (Are they ramparts?) I stared at that picture for a few minutes, my brain trying desperately to comprehend it was real.

That’s one of the true curses of our digital age: we are all so ready to accept the digital world is “real” that it can make us question reality as it actually transpired. If everything can be faked, how are our eyes to recognize lived history?

Sure, I know who won the Civil War. And yes, we’ll always condemn slavery wholeheartedly, even when the Donald equivocates. (I need more info before I disavow the KKK, OK? I want to have an informed opinion, you losers.)

But these pictures, more than any I’ve ever seen, helped me understand that aforementioned electoral map. Half of our country was conquered by the other half. Its landscape was altered, its soul diminished, but its pride remains in tact.

Perhaps we ought not blame the Southerners who feel ruled by outsiders, and wittingly join leaders who promise a return to prominence. But empathy is hard, especially with a bloc of people known for a dark, exploitative history.

I get it.

But I went into an art show, and came out with a different perspective. That’s about as much as I ask of any museum, or any photographer for that matter.

SFMOMA was kind enough to provide an entire set of Mr. Barnard’s images, as jpegs, of course, so you can view them on your screen of choice. (Phone, tablet, computer, TV…)

That’s right. Some albumen prints, made before any human being alive today, have been digitized, for our pleasure. (Bringing the Civil War into the 21st C.)

So next time you make a crack about the hicks in South Carolina who just don’t know any better, just remember that they’re likely carrying grievances we really can’t understand. And the best photographs help us see the world from someone else’s perspective, even if that person has returned to dust.

George N. Barnard, Whiteside Valley below the Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 13 15/16 in. (25.4 x 35.4 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Whiteside Valley below the Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 13 15/16 in. (25.4 x 35.4 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Railroad Depot, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (25.72 x 36.2 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Railroad Depot, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/4 in. (25.72 x 36.2 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Pinckney Mansion, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.56 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins of the Pinckney Mansion, Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1865; albumen print; 10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.56 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1865 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fractional gift of Paul Sack, and collection of the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

George N. Barnard, Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1865 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fractional gift of Paul Sack, and collection of the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 4, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 4, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Nashville from the Capitol, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Nashville from the Capitol, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.72 x 35.88 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Destruction of Hood's Ordnance Train, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Defenses of the Etawah Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Defenses of the Etawah Bridge, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 1/16 in. (25.56 x 35.72 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, City of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/16 in. (25.56 x 36.04 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, City of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/16 in. (25.56 x 36.04 cm); Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust

 George N. Barnard, Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1864 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/8 in. (25.56 x 36.51 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust


George N. Barnard, Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864 or 1866; albumen print; 10 1/16 x 14 3/8 in. (25.56 x 36.51 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Buzzard Roost, Georgia, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Buzzard Roost, Georgia, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Battle Ground of Resaca, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

George N. Barnard, Battle Ground of Resaca, Georgia, No. 2, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

 George N. Barnard, Battle Field of New Hope Church, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust


George N. Barnard, Battle Field of New Hope Church, Georgia, No. 1, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1866; albumen print; 10 x 14 1/8 in. (25.4 x 35.88 cm); Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust

Impressions From The Bay Area

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by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m sitting in a black vinyl seat in the Oakland Airport, staring out at the San Francisco Bay. Puffy white cumulus clouds hang in the air, like loiterers in the pale blue sky. All around me, people stare at screens, or shove their faces with over-priced food.

(Stay classy, Oaktown.)

The last time I was here, they sold hand-made sweet potato pies at a stand run by Black Muslim gangsters, and you had to take a grungy shuttle bus to get to the BART station at Oakland Colosseum.

Now, there are expensive wine bars, trendy sunglass stores, endless Warriors T-shirt shops, and a gleaming new, space-age, elevated monorail to get you to the train.

If you hadn’t heard, the Bay Area is booming these days. It’s the Gold Rush all over again, only this time they’re mining data, and selling your personal information instead of picks and shovels.

Times have changed indeed.

It’s Thursday afternoon, and this column is due tonight. (Hence my last-minute airport musings.) But while I normally wait a while to download my details for your amusement, this time, I thought I’d try something different, and share stories while they’re fresh.

It’s hard to concentrate, I admit, as directly to my right, a grouchy-looking, middle-aged woman stabs some grilled-chicken salad out of a tupperware, while playing “Words with Friends” on her Ipad. (But I’ll do my best, because that’s how I roll.)

We last gave you a scoop on the San Francisco scene back in 2012, when the city was just emerging from the Great Recession. Now it’s 2016, and this place is in the news constantly, as there is more money flowing into the metropolitan area than I can rationally comprehend. News stories are rampant about “regular” people getting displaced, smash and grab burglaries being de rigeur, and shiny new buildings popping up like my back-yard gophers checking whether the coast is clear.

(Damn gophers. I’ll get you yet!)

I was invited out to SF by the Academy of Art University to review portfolios on Monday, so I did my duty for a day, and was then free to pack my brain with art, and my stomach with food.

Shanghai soup dumplings, Thai green curry, Salvadoran pupusas, Ahi Guacamole tacos, Palestinian Chicken, Vietnamese Bahn Mi.

Yummy.

As for the art, I have to say, all the resources here seem to have elevated this place to the “World Class Level.” SFMOMA just underwent a huge and expensive renovation, in which they grafted an entire new structure onto the host, and the sleek white halls shine like my daughter’s rosy cheeks.

The museum is pretty fantastic, but suffers a bit from the obvious temptation to put lots of big pictures on the big walls. Because big pictures represent big ambition. Right? (Think ginormous early-century Gursky and Struth, which were exhibited alongside a magnificent room of Becher grids.)

I visited Pier 24 again, the amazing, free museum/gallery/exhibition space that juts into the Bay, and saw some genuinely brilliant photography there. (I promise a specific article on that show, because it really was worth it.)

Bruce Davidson at the deYoung Museum, Ken Josephson at Robert Koch, Christian Marclay at Fraenkel, Ai Weiwei at Haines. Heavy hitters all. (And men, if you haven’t noticed. Though Pier 24 did have 2 galleries dedicated to feminist art from the 70’s.)

Just this morning, I saw 6 Google buses and a $150,000 Mercedes driving through the Mission District, which was incongruous with the city I once knew. The homelessness issue is heartbreaking and tragic, as vulnerable, mentally ill people are sleeping on the streets EVERYWHERE.

Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.

I had drinks at a photo-world Ladies night on Tuesday, while the Warriors were getting dismantled by the Thunder, and someone compared modern-day-SF to Calcutta. Last night, I saw a similar comment on Twitter as well.

Though I haven’t been to India, I get the point, as the wealth disparity here has reached 3rd World Proportions. Just yesterday, when I got off BART at Civic Center, the entire station smelled so pungently of piss that I had to cover my nostrils with my hand.

Welcome to San Francisco in the 21st Century.

If you can’t tell, I’m genuinely conflicted about my time here. I enjoyed myself immensely, living like a glutton, and then walking it all off. (20 miles in 4 days. Not bad.)

There is still diversity everywhere, thankfully, but it seems as if San Francisco’s famous liberalism won’t be able to hold out for another decade of rampant growth. This amazing city is on the Manhattan trajectory, and I only hope something short of another economic crash is able to arrest the situation.

The photography community, and the institutions supporting it, are clearly thriving. (Though a handful of galleries were forced out of the famed 49 Geary St building, due to rising rents.) Guggenheim fellowships are being handed out like candy corn on Halloween, and there are tens of thousands of square feet of exhibition space where the best pictures can hang.

From what I gather, the local collector scene has also never been broader or deeper, with pockets as big as my current headache. (The lady next to me finished her salad, but just took out a bag of apple chunks. Each time she crunches, a small part of my soul descends to Hell.)

Anyway, I’ve got to board my plane in a few minutes, so I best wrap this up.

I don’t think I’ve witnessed a more fascinating photo scene in years. (Maybe ever.) My mega-Texas road trip this Spring was rad, sure, but I didn’t encounter much that really made me think.

This time, almost every conversation I had centered around photography, politics, social issues, and the seeming impossibility of curing some of the Great Ills of our Time. The photo people here are special: creative, liberal, nice, thoughtful, smart, and in many cases, funny.

I was constantly reminded how much I loved San Francisco when I lived here, back in my 20’s, which made its confusing present that much harder to process.

Case in point: back when I was a local, just off 24th St. in the Mission, my beautiful Edwardian building was populated with artists. Now my friends, (and former landlords,) told me everyone living there commutes to Palo Alto.

Enough said.

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Impressions From Texas

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by Jonathan Blaustein

When I came home and announced I like Texas, my father looked as if I’d declared myself Nazi. The shock was real, even if the anger was feigned.

Negative impressions of Texas run deep here in New Mexico, as we encounter the flashier, private-tour-bus-driving Texan tourists each summer. Like any bias, my own personal prejudices were hard to maintain, once I started visiting the state a few years ago.

This time I wanted to check out Dallas, since even Texans like to mock the place. I figured if Houston, Marfa and Austin were cool, maybe Dallas was too, in an under-the-radar kind of way.

Can’t exactly report I found the city charming; all concrete and highway onramps. But I was shown some pretty fantastic hospitality, by photographer Debora Hunter, and met friendly and smart members of the local art community as well. (Which made the detour worth it.)

And big shout out to the Austin Photo Crew, ably led by Sol Neelman. A heap of photographers came out on a Sunday night to drink beer, eat pizza, and catch up. They assured me it was nothing special, as their group, rolling 50 deep, meets up each month to drink, talk shop, and play skeeball in town.

I’ve already extolled the virtues of Ft. Worth, with the Kimbell and Amon Carter Museums being free all the time. (And the Modern on Sundays.) But why were they so great?

As you know, I love to be surprised. To be blown away by things I’ve never seen before. The Kimbell, with its top-shelf collection of global masterpieces, let me revisit many artists I love dearly. (Cezanne, Mondrian, Picasso.)

But there’s one art piece I’m still thinking about today. Can’t stop talking about it, really, because I’ve never seen anything like it, and doubt I will again.

“Christ the Redeemer,” by Tullio Lombardo, a Venetian, was dated between 1500-20. It’s a stunning, white-marble, profile sculpture of Jesus, in half-relief. A genuine Renaissance masterpiece, one of only two of his sculptures in the United States.

The object’s orbit drew me in with haste, like the smell of fresh baked pizza. The detail work! Incising stone like that! Into hair! Creating those types of repetitive patterns?

Unfathomable!

The technique, the mastery of the process, allows the piece to take on energy. The vibrations from the patterning, the solidity of the stone, and beauty of the color, it all comes together to create a calm, visceral energy in the immediate vicinity.

I must have stayed there 5 minutes, but it could have been an hour. I simply lost myself in wonder.

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That’s why tens of millions of people continue to go back to art museums every year. It’s easy to lose yourself in a movie. The sound, the scale, the visuals, they combine to build an immersive experience. Video games too.

But a sculpture sits still in space.
People bump into you.

The security guard asks you to please step back. Reality is all around, in 3 dimensions.

The best paintings, sculptures, photographs, they work so well that they allow us to jump the mundane turnstiles of regular life. It’s a big ask, I know, but that’s why I think we should always take the opportunity to visit with genius, when we can.

There was a Martin Puryear sculpture at the Modern that was equally brilliant, in its own way. I first found it from above, as it occupies multiple stories, and couldn’t believe the way it fit the gallery. Slowly receding up into space, diverging with its multiple shadows.

No wall card meant I had to ask around, and was told the artist info was down below, on the first floor. So I sprinted through the museum, (or at least power-walked, elbows pumping,) until I found its point of origin.

Breathtaking.
Beautiful.
Totemic.

Someone told me, later in my trip, that the piece had been designed for the space.

I believe it.

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Days later, I’d find the same phenomenon at the Menil Collection in Houston. (My second favorite art space in the US.) It was an insanely excellent, 60 foot long painting by Cy Twombly, in the mini-museum they have of his work. When I asked the security guard how it could fit so snugly, she said the building had been designed around the painting.

Why is that relevant?

Maybe it’s not, but it seems like a part of the Texas Zeitgeist. Exorbitant amounts of money, an important if fairly recent history, and a culture that’s trying to catch up with global mega-cities that have hundreds of years of head starts. (There were cranes everywhere in Dallas. Always a sign of growth and ambition.)

By the time I got to FotoFest, half-way into my trip, I was pretty worn out. This was not going to be one of those events where I got to drink, party, and chat all night long.

No sir.

I stayed off-site from the event, in a little Airbnb studio that smelled like wet dog. (But thankfully came with an electric air freshener.) I made sure to get a good night’s sleep each evening, which I recommend, and took walks each day, to counteract the effects of all that recycled, conference-room air.

Normally, I’d have a slate of articles about the best work I saw. But as I was showing my own work, I didn’t have the same time to look at other people’s portfolios. Nor did a lot of projects jump out at me during my brief tour of the portfolio walk.

There are always a few people that have the “it” vibe at an event like this. Always happens. This time, Mahtab Hussain, from England, had the work people raved about, with his series “You Get Me?” I saw his pictures on the wall of one of the attendant FotoFest exhibitions, and was sucked in immediately.

He photographs young members of the disaffected Muslim community in England, where he grew up. These are the type of razor-sharp, incisive, taut, personal portraits that give photography a good name. Beyond that, of course, they’re as topical as Molenbeek, so Mahtab has that going for him as well.

Meghann Riepenhoff, another exhibiting artist, also had the buzz. She works with cyanotypes, which are having a moment, and makes pictures in the hand-made, of-the-Earth style embraced by her fellow West Coast photographers Matthew Brandt, John Chiara, and Chris McCaw.

Her installation, which I also saw on the wall, was pretty excellent. Furthermore, it didn’t look like other peoples’ pictures.

What’s the lesson here?

If you can get your photographs to a place where they are technically excellent, aesthetically pleasing, speaking to ideas that are important to you, relatively original, and relevant to contemporary issues: you might blow up at FotoFest.

I was also pretty impressed by Peter DiCampo’s new work, which he showed me one day. Peter runs an Instagram feed called Everyday Africa, of which you might have heard. The way he spoke about his project, built on the back of his own experience in the Peace Corps in Africa, reflected a fatalistic but humorous cynicism. He’s genuinely conflicted about the role of Western Aid in Africa, and it gave the pictures, as well as the narrative, a more nuanced take on do-gooding than I’m used to hearing.

Priya Kambli, of whom I’ve written before, also showed me some pictures that stuck in my brain. She’s always worked with historical, family imagery in her practice, but this time, she had images in which she had clearly “destroyed” or altered the source material, which then became her work. (Mostly by stippling little pin holes through old photos)

She admitted to me, and a couple of people who were looking, that she hadn’t scanned the originals before she attacked them. The others were mortified.

How could she not scan them first?
You can’t do that!
It’s sacrilegious!

I disagreed. There was a real tension to the pictures, and I thought part of that was due to the way Priya was out there without training wheels. She committed to the work, risked destroying important parts of her history, in order to make something better.

Something new.

Which is why I left for this big Texas road-trip in the first place. To see new things. To meet new people. To bring some fresh energy into my little Taos bubble.

Mission accomplished.

Discarded: Anthony Hernandez at the Amon Carter Museum

by Jonathan Blaustein

On my last night in Texas, I stayed with an old friend, outside Austin. Jeff, who’s my age, is one of the few people I’ve known my whole life. (Beyond family, of course.)

We hadn’t seen each other in 12 years, and things have been difficult for him since then. But he handed me a jalapeño margarita soon after I walked in the door, and then we drank some beer, ate wicked Mexican food, watched the NCAA tournament, played video games, and laughed for 6 hours straight.

Jeff had a major heart attack the next day. (Hours after I drove off towards the endless horizon.)

Sometimes, change moves quickly, like a tornado, even though its causes have been building for years.

Think about the way we treat our planet. Some recent sci-fi films, like “Wall-E” and “Interstellar,” suggest we can all pack up and leave one day. Just shoot humanity up into space, and the rest will take care of itself.

Maybe.
I guess.
It’s possible.

But it seems like a bad bet, from where I’m sitting. (Yes, at my white kitchen table.)

That sense of fait accompli, that it’s all just a matter of time- I felt it strongly, the longer I stood in Anthony Hernandez’s photography exhibition “Discarded,” at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas.

We’re done here, I kept thinking.
We tried.
We failed.

C’est la vie.

In fairness, he might not have been speaking about all of us.
Just the Californians.

Mr. Hernandez is known in art circles, I’ve gathered, though I hadn’t heard of him until I saw his show. I’d been drawn to the Amon Carter Museum, as I was meant to meet one of their curators at FotoFest, and I wanted to be prepared. (As I’ve written countless times, from the perspective of the reviewer, do your homework. In this case, I visited a city just to check out this person’s curatorial practice.)

The show, however, was more than worth the trip. And it wasn’t even the best art I saw that day. The Kimbell Museum, recommended by my friend Ed, was unbelievably dynamite, and I can’t stress that enough. Both the Kimbell and the Amon Carter Museums are free, as is the adjacent Ft. Worth Modern on Sundays.

As I happened to visit on a Sunday, I got to see terrific art in 3 museums, over 3 hours, without paying a dollar. If you live in DFW, or are visiting that part of Texas, get your ass to Ft. Worth and see what they have going on.

You’ll thank me.

That said, this is meant to be an exhibition review, so let me pivot back to our putative point.

The prints in Anthony Hernandez’s exhibition, made between 2012-15, are all very large, and share a clean, clear California light that I described in my notes as “pitiless.” Cruel might be appropriate as well.

Apparently, Mr. Hernandez is known for his pictures of socialites and street people in LA. He’s an LA guy, it would seem. But for this show, he took his talents to the less glamorous parts of CA. The Inland Empire, the Central Valley, Mojave and the Salton Sea.

I’ve driven through many of those places, and can attest that they lend themselves to an end-of-the-world-type vibe. And I did wonder if there wasn’t a bit of city-snobbery in the way these places are depicted.

But really, it’s hard to lay it on too thick in spots this bleak. (Before you ask, the work does evoke John Divola and Richard Misrach, but I didn’t find it derivative.)

Just last year, everyone was talking about California running out of water. It was in the news cycle for months, this idea that its time was up. One El Niño later, and it’s no longer an issue, if the media is to be trusted.

But things don’t work like that.

The heart attack might strike like a ninja, but its antecedents move slowly, like tectonic plates. (We made our bed, and now we have to lie in it, even though it’s a rank, urine-soaked mattress on the floor of a vacant starter-home.)

There were almost no people in the pictures, but their imprint was everywhere. Abandoned homes with broken doors shoved over gaping window orifices. Purple-ish concrete-block fences that looked like minimalist bracelets. Scattered oranges on a dirt road, reminiscent of Roger Fenton’s cannonballs.

And always, that blazing, unforgiving light.

I made notes like, “When you’re done here, make sure to turn out the lights.” Or, “Has California just given up?”

Defunct, half-built housing projects defeated by the Great Recession connect economics gracefully to environmentalism. A pristine new curb, separating gravel from dirt, in a place where no homes will ever be built. A valley, called Lucerne, which probably gets as much water in a Millennium as its Swiss counterpart gets in a week in Winter.

The end of the world. That’s what this show makes you think about.

Uplifting stuff.

It puts me in mind of a conversation that Jeff and I had, in his suburban apartment off a Texas highway. Though I’ve admitted there’s nothing funny about Donald Trump, we did laugh about the fact Ted Cruz has to be PRETTY FUCKING CRAZY to be the biggest lunatic in the Republican race.

We may fear Trump more, but Ted Cruz, as a true Evangelical believer, is anxiously awaiting Armageddon. He’s so excited for Jesus to come back and kill everyone who’s not on his team. ISIS wants the end times, sure, but so do many of our fellow Americans.

So while The Donald is odious, I don’t think he shares Ted Cruz’s desire for the End Days to come sooner, rather than later.

After seeing Anthony Hernandez’s exhibition, I can’t help but wonder if we’re running out of time.

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Chicago’s Filter Photo Festival – Part 3

by Jonathan Blaustein

I get confused sometimes.

I lose sight of what’s important, facing the never-ending onslaught of the 21st Century Hustle.

It happens.

Lately, I find myself in a Twilight-zone-ish reality, where I’m respected and lauded online, or when I leave town, but am treated like a sham here at home. (Where I’m attempting to reform the Art Department at UNM-Taos.)

As this week’s big interview with Trevor Paglen attests, Art leaves the door wide open. It’s all things to all people. If we call it Art, it’s Art. For him, that means surveilling the surveillance machine. For me, it might mean shopping for things to photograph, and then photographing them.

But here in Taos, for the last 50 years, (with a few exceptions, like Dennis Hopper, Agnes Martin, Larry Bell and Ken Price,) Art means looking at something pretty, and making a pretty painting of a pretty thing. Or, just as often, making an attractive abstraction that means nothing whatsoever. Beauty, or one might even say decoration, is its only reason for being.

Why? is a question never asked, because the answer is always, because I wanted to. Because I enjoy plein-air painting. You’re outside. The mountain is pretty. That’s that.

So the idea that Art should mean something, that it can critique society and provoke thought, that it might have a purpose beyond distraction, is a challenging one. It questions the validity of the accepted practice. (Nobody ever made friends by speaking truth to power. You might win a MacArthur Genius grant, a la David Simon, but you won’t become Homecoming Queen.)

Why am I on about this? Well, this column is something of a weekly diary. And my regular readers know there is always a “point” just round the bend, so let’s get there.

When I was in Chicago in late September, I had the opportunity to recharge my creative batteries in the one way that can’t be replicated via the Internet: I got to stand in the presence of some of the best Art being made today.

If you don’t get that feeling from time to time, you forget it exists. Without a regular dose, you become self-conscious about why you’ve devoted your adult life to a practice that many deem superfluous. (STEM, STEM, STEM these days.)

At the Art Institute of Chicago, on a balmy Sunday afternoon, just before the Museum was about to close, I was reminded why Art matters. As this is traditionally a photography blog, I’ll give a shout out here to the Deana Lawson photo show they’ve got up, which was genuinely excellent.

But my psyche was body slammed- Lucha Libre style- by the “Charles Ray: Sculpture 1997-2014” exhibition. In my first draft, I strongly recommended you fly, drive, or train your way to Chicago, ASAMFP, but I now know it sadly closed on October 4th.

Mr. Ray makes sculptures that are in obvious conversation with the past, present, and future all at the same time. His figurative sculptures, in particular, are modeled off the Classical Greek and Roman riffs on humanity that take up many a square foot in the “Best Museums in the World.”

What we know of the past, we often know from Art. Stone lasts longer than paper, or papyrus, or whatever lambskin people were scratching on 3000 years ago. We read into those faces, and postures, what society valued then. We imagine a chisel hacking endlessly to give us an object that wind, rain, and time have worn down to what we see before us.

Charles Ray, working with a team in the 21st Century, makes figures out of machine-milled stainless steel. They are shiny and sleek, like a sexy robots circa 2432. They’re alluring, with their gleaming texture, and impossible manipulation of form, because metal shouldn’t look like this. (And will likely last forever.)

Some are painted white, and those are great too, but the silvery humans, rendered permanent like gods, took my breath away. That the AIC gives you 3 sculptures in a gallery as long as an American Football field, with ceilings as high as Seth Rogen on an average day, makes the experience that much more luxurious.

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I missed that feeling of exaltation at being human. The pride at knowing such things exist in the world, and that future societies will judge us on them.

I had 1.5 hours of downtime in my entire near-week in Chicago, and with a walk to the museum and back, that left me 45 minutes to look. To think. To walk in circles, and realize how far I’d have to go to ever be NEAR the best in the world at what I do.

Will I ever get there? It’s unlikely, but impossible to know.

What about you? Do you want to grow? To challenge yourself? To emulate the immortals living on a Mountain somewhere, communicating with ghosts in togas, and yet-to-be-born phantasms in space-ships, who dream of sculptures in hyper-sleep?

It’s not my job to tell you how to aspire. And frankly, I’m learning that some people don’t want to imbue their Art with deep meaning. To contemplate, to fret, and to struggle. I suppose that’s OK. (Though I’d be a lot happier if at least they were nice to me.)

Now is probably the right moment to pivot back to photography. In particular, the rest of the best work I saw at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. As usual, these artists are in no particular order. That they are featured in the 3rd, and final piece, does not mean I like them least.

I hope you enjoy. We’ll be back to the book reviews soon enough.

Barbara Karant wrote to me this Summer, as she was sad we hadn’t met at Review Santa Fe. She suspected I’d like her work, and she’s absolutely right. (We’re actually installing a Pop Up exhibition of prints in the Art Building at UNM-Taos next week.)

Barbara teaches at Columbia College, in Chicago, and the institution recently purchased the former home of the African-American-owned Johnson Media Inc, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. (They downsized.) Columbia bought the building, but they don’t have the funds to re-furbish it yet, so it sits alone in its funkadelic wonderfulness.

As you can see, the interiors evoke the mix of 70’s modernism, and the can-you-dig-it style we all remember. (Yes, my folks had shag carpet when I was born in ’74. I think it was orange.) I love these pictures so much, and they resonate more deeply, given the Nat Geo layoffs that were announced this very week.

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Ileana Doble Hernandez is a Mexican photographer living in Massachusetts. I forgot to ask her how she handled the Winter from Hell last year. I’m guessing she was no fan, and nor were her pets. Ileana told me that in Mexico, pets always live outside.

When she got to the US, she learned that house pets lived indoors, so she adopted the local custom. These photos examine what that new life is like, and they do it with the humor and baroque absurdity that is familiar to people who know Mexico. Ridiculous stuff.

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Richard Alan Cohen was among the first people I reviewed at Filter. He’s looking at commercialism, and the fetishization of the female form, by photographing window displays in shopping districts around the world. The use of reflections and the Magritte-Hat-photo make the Surrealist references a little-heavy handed. But the pictures are cool, and I liked that some were constructions, but I couldn’t figure out where the seams lived.

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Paul Matzner had a project that I found cheeky and subversive, though he hadn’t thought about it like that. He photographs random strangers on the street, in various cities. Paul gets right up in their grill, and then clicks the shutter. Nothing new there. (Though the photos are very well made.)

What’s interesting is that he hands them a card, and tells them to contact him if they want a print. Almost no one does. So he never knows their name, or anything about them. He hangs out with people for a minute or two, and they’re gone forever.

So much photography aims to tells us more about a person than a picture really can. (Hence the captions.) Photography tries to seduce us into wanting to know more; to care about someone’s backstory.

Paul is doing the opposite of that. You may be curious, but answering questions is impossible here. These really are strangers, giving us 1/500 of a second of their lives. And it has to be enough.

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Marina Font is based in Miami, and showed me the typology project below. She based the work on a broken scale that she came across, and then “weighed” objects from her life that matter to her. Of course, the value provided by the scale is false, and that’s a fun idea.

But it also hints at obsolescence. TVs. Books. Records. All piled up, and waiting to be judged by a scale that can no longer do the one job for which it was invented.

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I’d seen Adam Reynolds work briefly in an exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. I remembered it being antiseptic, these photographs made in bomb shelters in Israel. Seemed a random subject for an American.

But Adam, who recently got an MFA at Indiana University, lived in Israel for years as a journalist. He even speaks Hebrew. (Which is more than this American Jew can do.)

We discussed the way in which some photos had a visceral quality that hinted at menace, death, and destruction, while others seemed more straight. He thought they were caught in the middle of a battle between the journalistic aesthetic, and the fine art style. (I agreed.) So we talked about how he might resolve that going forward, or if he even had to? Regardless, it’s a fascinating project, as certain societies are forced to live in a state of perpetual war.

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Finally, yes finally, we have Axelle Horstmann. She’s a French photographer based in Chicago, and she asked me to look at her work during the portfolio walk. I thought some of it was promising, and then we re-connected after she came to my lecture that Sunday. As such, I looked at her website, and found these photos made in Marktown, Indiana, a polluted enclave not far from Chicago.

Apparently, the oil company BP has been trying to buy up the town, as it’s already so toxified from all the refineries in the area. Just a grim place to live, and even then, people are fighting to stay, because it’s home. I thought the pictures were intriguing, so I offered to show them. I’ve since learned that Marktown is a mainstay on the Chicago photojournalistic tour, so you may have seen this place before.

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If you’ve made it to the end of this, the last piece about the best work I saw in Chicago, you have my gratitude. Hope you enjoyed the series, and we’ll move on to our regular programming next week.

Adios.

Chicago’s Filter Photo Festival – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

Portfolio reviews are great events for a number of reasons. Primarily, they’re a place where photographers can go to build community, and get feedback on their work.

Do not underestimate the value of both endeavors. As I tell people in my 21st Century Hustle lecture, (which evolved from this very column,) your peers are the people most likely to help boost your career. If you have their back, in most cases, they’ll have yours.

But what if you’re working in a vacuum? What if, like me, you don’t live in a major city with a teeming and supportive photo community? Visiting a festival with a portfolio review component, and there are now countless across the world, can be a great way to meet new people, have fun, allow ideas to cross-pollinate, and likely have a laugh or two along the way.

As our long-time readers know, my photo career received a massive boost from two consecutive visits to Review Santa Fe in 2009-10, and a trip to FotoFest in 2012. Hell, I’m going back to FotoFest this March as a photographer, as I have some new work I’d like to introduce to the world.

Having now been a reviewer 6 or 7 times, I’d say I have enough experience to know of what I speak. And as I said last week, Filter is a terrific festival, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. But no experience is perfect, and you know I can’t pass up a teachable moment, so…

Filter, like most reviews, is not juried. That means, from a reviewing perspective, you have no idea who is going to turn up at your table at any given moment. It might be a highly trained artist, with an MFA and a long exhibition record. Or it may be a hobbyist who’s been shooting pictures for decades, for fun, and believes his or her work is ready for the big time.

My strategy is to ask a few questions at the beginning, to suss out someone’s background, what they’re looking for, and how I can best help them achieve those goals. I take the job very seriously, and work hard to be of service to whoever’s sitting across from me. Portfolio reviews cost money, and I don’t want to be the schmuck who makes a photographer doubt the investment of time and resources.

As soon as I got back from Filter, Rob co-incidentally did a post where a photographer asked him whether it was worth attending a portfolio review event without a portfolio? Could an Ipad alone make it worthwhile? I couldn’t help making a snarky tweet about it, because that’s what Twitter’s for. (The gist of it was, if you aren’t prepared, why go?)

Therefore, allow me to share some advice that you might or might not have heard/read before:

If you’re going to invest the money, invest the time. Do research on who will be at an event. Choose your reviewers carefully. Figure out what type of work they publish, exhibit, or support in their organizations. (Don’t leave it to chance.)

Print up the best, most cohesive work you can, in a consistent size. Put the prints in a nice box. Decide ahead of time what type of questions you want to ask, and what type of advice you’re looking for. Know as much as possible about each person you’re sitting with, to ensure that you’ll suck the marrow from each 20 minute session.

This type of preparation is VITAL.

I had three reviews in a row, one afternoon, where the photographers came to my table knowing nothing about me whatsoever. Not my name, my biases towards edgy/artsy work, nor the type of photos that are published in the NYT Lens blog. Each sat down, as ignorant of what I could do for them as a rabbit staring at a coyote, hoping he’ll offer up a carrot for lunch. (Excuse me, Mr. Coyote, but why are you putting my head in your mouth? Are there carrots in there?)

Of course, it’s a difficult conversation from that point on. One person understood me to say, “You don’t know who I am? How do you not know who I am? You’ve never heard of the famous Jonathan Blaustein?” as if I had an ego the size of Trump Tower Chicago. Would I really say something like that? Of course not. (But conversations are two ways streets, and sometimes, they go wrong.)

What I said was, do your homework. Show up prepared. Treat your aspiring photo career with the same focus and rigor one uses in one’s day job. Get the best bang for your buck, or don’t bother.

That advice seems obvious, and I apologize if you feel I’ve wasted the 5 minutes it’s taken you to read this article. But I happen to think it’s worth saying, and it does apply beyond the portfolio review environment.

It’s a rough world out there. Tens of thousands of trained photographers are battling for very few slots in galleries, museum exhibitions, shooting for newspapers or magazines.

Everybody wants acclaim, but there’s only so much to go around, even in a world of viral attention spans.

So if you’re not prepared to do what it takes, I’d suggest you don’t bother. There’s nothing wrong with doing art only for yourself. Most people operate that way.

But if you’re going to seek out an audience of perfect strangers, you ought to respect them, and yourself, by working as hard as you can to make sure your pictures, and your business practices, are worthy of their respect.

Rant over, I can honestly say that my time in Chicago offered many of the same benefits that photographers get: great conversation, deep inspiration, new ideas, fresh energy. Once again, I thank the Filter folks for inviting me, as I’m grateful for the experience.

Now it’s time to show you some more of the best work I saw at Chicago’s Filter Photo Festival last month. (In no particular order.)

We’ll lead off with Bruce Morton, whose work I showed here last year, after meeting him at Photo NOLA in New Orleans. (Another festival I highly recommend.) Bruce blew me away, as he’s the kind of guy who radiates positive energy. The good vibes beam out of his perma-smile like electricity off a taser. (Don’t tase me, bro.)

Bruce was showing pictures from his edgy series, “The Audience,” in which he photographed spectators at all types of events near his home turf in rural Illinois. They’re not exactly flattering, nor are they mean-spirited. But they are fascinating to look at, IMHO.

I’d also like to add that lately, since English-photo-world-good-guy Stuart Pilkington had an unexpected stroke, I’ve been thinking a lot about how quickly life can change. How easily we take our relative good fortune for granted. When I asked Bruce how he was doing, in passing during our email communication, he told me that he had suddenly lost almost all the vision in his left eye, due to wet macular degeneration. It won’t get better, and he’s now mostly blind in one eye. Just like that.

So let’s all send some good thoughts Bruce’s way. (When you have a moment, of course.)

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Susan Rosenberg Jones showed me one of my favorite portfolios at Filter, shortly after we looked at a joyless project about her fellow tenants in a rent-stabilized building in Tribeca. It was stilted, which made the next pictures that much more shocking.

Susan lost her husband a few years ago, which is of course very sad. But then she met and married the one and only Joel Roskind, and they’re very happy. It just so happens that Joel Roskind is a Jewish guy who likes to walk around their apartment naked all the time. What? These pictures are therefore warm, hilarious, and witty. It’s not often we get to ogle an ass like Joel Roskind’s.

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David Freese brought a portfolio of images from his series “East Coast: Arctic to Tropic,” which will come out in book form next year. It is an examination of the East Coast, from North to South, that attempts to convey the hazards of melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. It’s hard to engender actual fear in the populace, when the change creeps along more slowly than a drunk turtle.

But by the end of the series, all that water began to take on a bit of menace. The sea itself felt like Jaws, looming out there, ready to strike. All that water, and all those cities, so very vulnerable to its power.

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Jack Long sat down at my table, and almost immediately I noticed that he was missing some digits. As I once almost cut off my thumb, I felt an immediate kinship with the dude. And he gives off the vibe of a carpenter on payday too, which was cool.

Jack showed me some pictures that he called liquid sculptures. He has his own process where he whips liquid to the point that it rises in the air, and he photographs it at 1/8000 of a second. (I guessed the shutter speed correctly.) Some of them were kind of decorative, but as we went along, others began to refer to sea creatures, or psychedelic aliens from a parallel dimension. Cool shit.

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I met Krista Wortendyke during the portfolio walk Saturday night. She had a photograph that showed three images of war; one real, one from cinema, and a third from a video game. They were all hyper-real, and the mashup made a strong point about the degree to which the fetishization of violence is ubiquitous. The series is called,(re): media, and I think you’ll dig it.

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Last, (but of course not least,) we’ve got Victor Yañez-Lazcano, a Mexican-American photographer based in Chicago. (He also works at Latitude, the print studio that is run under the Filter umbrella.) This is one time where the order does matter, as I looked at Victor’s work at the end of the last party, on the final night.

His was likely the 60th portfolio I saw, but I’d been told his work was great, and I certainly thought so afterwards. Victor’s family came from Mexico, so he’s examining identity, and what it means to be Mexican-American in a family of Mexicans. Apparently, he spent some time shooting here in New Mexico, (down South,) so how could I not share the pictures with you.

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OK. That’s it for today. We’ll have one more Filter article for you next week, and as a special treat, a 2 part interview with a massively important artist as well. Stay tuned. (Same Bat time. Same Bat channel.)

Chicago’s Filter Photo Festival – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes I write funny columns, and sometimes I don’t. It all depends on my mood, and the subject matter. (Not to mention
what’s going in in the world at the moment.)

In the last big election cycle, for instance, the Presidential contest offered a bounty of humor-related-circumstances, thanks to Mitt Romney. That guy was a walking punchline, with a jaw bigger than El Capitan, and a man-of-the-people vibe right up there with John Kerry windsurfing in over-sized Oakleys.

(Oh, Mitt, we miss you so.) His opponent, one President Barack Obama, is harder to mock, mostly because I love the guy. He may have been raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, but the dude seems Chicago through and through.

This time around, we’ve got Donald J. Trump; he of the orange skin and genetically modified pompadour. Much smarter, funnier writers have harpooned him constantly, so I won’t really bother.

But man, does that guy come off like a clueless asshole. I couldn’t think less of him if he rode into a press conference on the back of a Mexican farmworker.

Until I went to Chicago last month, that is. Then, my opinion of him was forced up off the mat, if only slightly.

Why?

Because I had a moment, walking down a crooked street, late in the day, when the moist afternoon light was glimmering off his recently built skyscraper, the Trump Tower Chicago, that sits astride a wing of the Chicago river.

It simply took my breath away. Wow. What a beautiful building. Magnificent, even if most of the Chicagoans with whom I spoke told me he broke an unwritten local rule by plastering his name on the facade.

They seem to love it begrudgingly, the locals, as the structure blocks the view of a Mies Van Der Rohe classic, and was built by, well, The Donald.

Everyone also told me it was designed by Adrian Smith of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, and I now know the city is filled with architecture geeks. And why wouldn’t it be, given how remarkable the buildings are, up and down the city center?

Skyscraper after skyscraper mocks the idea of gravity, blending art and commerce more perfectly than a Chicago deep dish pizza sauce. (That was my one culinary goal for the trip: to eat some badass deep dish pizza. Never happened. The schedule was simply too packed. C’est la vie.)

Now, I’m not here to praise The Donald, but rather to use him as an introduction to my first article in a series about the Filter Photo Festival in the last week of September.

And? How was it?

Pretty fabulous, I must say. I went to Chicago knowing next-to-no one. Posse-less, you might say.

Which left me free to meet people, and hang out with the coolest folks I could find. It just so happened that I connected with the staff that runs the festival, so I got something of a locals-eye-view of the proceedings, and am better for it. (Big shout out to Erin, Sarah, Lauren, Pepper, Chris, Doug and Jeff.)

New Yorkers are famous for being neurotic and busy. Los Angelinos for being full of shit. (No offense.) Taoseños are crazy, and San Franciscans are more progressive than Edward Snowden.

But Chicagoans? Mostly, they’re known for being nice, friendly, down-to-Earth, humble Midwesterners. That’s what I’d heard, anyway.

And I can now properly report that it’s true. At least, that’s what I found in 5+ days, running around for nearly 20 hours a day. It’s enough time, and I chatted with enough people, that I’m prepared to state it here, with the kind of brash over-confidence that the New York-reared Donald would approve of.

(When I’m elected President, I promise that all Americans will suddenly become fabulously wealthy, and Vladimir Putin will step down in fear of me. ISIS will admit they’re just frustrated they can’t get laid without resorting to sexual slavery, so after we give them all a big trip to Vegas, on me, that Syrian War will be over in 2 seconds. You have my word on it!)

Where were we?

Right. Chicago rocks. It’s a clean mega-city with incredible architecture, a beautiful beach-fronted lake, terrific food, lovely people, and all the culture one could consume.

I didn’t get out as much as I would have liked, as I reviewed between 50-60 portfolios over four days, and delivered the 21st Century Hustle lecture on the final day of the festival.

Throw in a brilliant, late-night karaoke session in a Downtown Japanese sake bar, and by the time I left on Monday morning, my voice had disappeared entirely. No exaggeration. I went to thank the check out clerk at 6am, and nothing came out but the kind of squeaks you hear when you accidentally call a fax machine. (Do they still have fax machines these days?)

As usual, I’ll be showing you a bunch of portfolios in the coming weeks. I saw a lot of accomplished work, and plenty that was not, as the review was not juried.

These days, if I think work is resolved and interesting, I’ll show it to you, even if it’s not exactly to my preferred taste. (Which I’ve discussed in several recent book reviews.)

The verdict on the festival is that it’s pretty amazing, and I’d heartily recommend you give it a try next September, if you’re looking to attend a review. The Filter staff work hard, keep it real, and make sure everyone has a great time.

For that, they have my gratitude. As for the portfolios, we’ll commence now. As is the norm, they are not in any particular order, and I won’t inundate you with too much work in any one article. A series it shall be.

We’ll start with Anja Bruehling, a German artist based in Chicago. Anja showed me work she made on a visit to a rural brick factory in India. We discussed the difficulty of doing what amounts to parachute documentary photography, and I recommended that she dig a little deeper, if she wanted her work to stand out. I thought these particular images were worth showing.

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I recognized Stan Raucher’s name, though we’d never met. (Facebook friend, apparently.) Stan showed me pictures from his forthcoming Daylight book, in which he photographed in Metros across the world. We talked about whether one ought to wait for a book, as Dewi Lewis suggested in our interview, or grab the first opportunity that comes along. Tough call. But Stan is very excited about his book, which is due out in Spring 2016.

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Garrett Hansen was one of the few photographers I’d met who was classically trained, as he got an MFA in the excellent program at Indiana University. He showed me two conceptual projects that investigate gun violence in a genuinely innovative way, and I expect his work will do very well. These images are bullet holes from a gun range that have light exposed through them, and are then enlarged and printed. They’re visceral and smart, without being obvious.

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Suzanne Garr was another artist, like Anja, who was visiting the far side of the world to make work. She photographs in an orphanage in Uganda, where she volunteers, and has been there multiple times. We spoke at length about the difference between sweet, mushy images, and pictures that demonstrate a visual tension. We sifted through her photos together, and agreed these were the pictures with the most bite.

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Now, we’re going to have dueling creepy doll projects. The first series is by Chicago photographer Jessica Tampas, who originally showed me a project in which she’d taught herself the wet plate collodion process. Very impressive to have done so, but the pictures were not yet resolved.

These creepy doll pictures, however, were right on the money. Jessica collected vintage dolls, mostly from Europe, and I think the typology-style works very well here. Dolls are a well-worn subject matter, of course, but I’m always interested to see artists bring a fresh energy into the mix.

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Susan Keiser comes to photography from a painting background, and I think her use of color reflects that. She also showed me a doll-based series, but her issue was that some of the pictures were not disturbing enough. I warned her that such images can veer towards “sentimental abstraction,” but this particular group has a tension that balances well with her remarkable color palette.

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Believe it or not, Nelson Armour was one of two artists working with their own excrement. (The other will pop up in the next issue of Photographers Quarterly.) Nelson is working on a project that examines the pollution in Lake Michigan, and he’s experimenting with collaged images. Some were really cheesy, I felt, and others were nuanced and smart. The range was striking, but I think these four images are dynamite.

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OK, that’s all for today. Sorry about the Cubs, Chicago folks, but as I grew up a Mets fan before I got bored of baseball, I was actually happy with the result. (Don’t hate me.)

Work from Photo NOLA, Part 3

- - From The Field

A couple of months ago, in this very space, I joked about being terrified to mock ISIS. I, who likes to make fun of almost anything, was afraid to offend those homicidal maniacs. And I said as much in a book review.

Around the same time, I also wrote a column proudly proclaiming my Jewish heritage. (Though with a last name like Blaustein, there’s only so much you can do to deny it.) I said, at the time, that my people have targets on our backs, often from those aforementioned lunatics, (and their ilk,) and that it felt a tad uncomfortable to out out myself as a Jew so publicly.

It’s 6am now, far earlier than I normally write, but I woke up before the sun, and started thinking about the Charlie Hebdo massacre last week, and the subsequent attack on a Kosher grocery store in Paris. Psychopaths lashed out at journalists who communicated through humor, and at Jews.

I’m far from the action, thankfully. Thousands of miles away. But it stuck in my mind this morning, and it won’t let go.

The sheer depth of the tragedy is mind-boggling. The anger, the hate, the efficiency with which those lives were taken. Since Cain killed Abel, and someone else wrote it down, most of the world has agreed that taking someone’s life is the worst thing you can do.

We human animals have a limited lifespan. We know this. For the most part, we choose not to think about it. When a person kills another, they rob them of their future. They steal their soul. Out of spite.

When it is done simply to shut someone up, or because they choose to call their God by another name, it seems even more heinous.

Now, I haven’t Tweeted “Je Suis Charlie,” nor have I changed my Facebook profile photo in solidarity. Not to disparage anyone who has, but to me, it somehow felt hollow. What difference will it make, I thought? Who wouldn’t be in support of these victims, who died for freedom of speech, a concept I’ve defended, so many times, in this very space?

Yesterday, I wrote a good opening to this article. It was about a coyote who walked right up to my house, just outside the sliding glass door. His coat was thick, resplendent, even in winter. (It practically glowed.) I relate to those coyotes, so I always pay attention when they present themselves.

He trotted away when he heard my iPhone beep, as a text had come in at that moment. So I wrote a piece about how he was turned off by technology. And how I turned off my technology this Christmas break, and suggested you consider doing the same, when you can.

But this morning, as I couldn’t sleep, I began to compose this new version of the article. In my mind’s eye, I imagined those poor people being killed. (The result of watching all that violence on a marathon of Soderbergh’s excellent “The Knick” this weekend, perhaps?)

I remembered that this column, in which I spout off each week, is a sincere privilege. Rob gives me the freedom to speak my mind, to a very large audience of people who live around this huge planet of ours. It is unique, this 21st Century experience, in which one can talk to so many, who ingest the information, instantaneously, for free, on their screens.

I was ready to slag it off, in a column, this Internet of ours, and remind you how vital it is to unplug, from time to time.

But today, I chose to pivot, even though this introduction has so little to do with the amazing time I had in New Orleans, at Photo NOLA, nor the terrific photography I saw, which I will soon discuss. The photos will be there too, below these words, for your perusal.

I decided, however, to make use of this platform, yet again, to pontificate. The forces that utilize terror and violence to silence people rarely win. Even in the totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, there were some who chose to make art, and write. Underground networks disseminated information.

Though of course fear drove the masses silent. Would I have the courage to speak my mind in such circumstances? It’s doubtful.

I chose not to provoke these monsters, who pull triggers as a way of lashing out, and the brave men and women at Charlie Hebdo shared no such reservations. They knew they had targets on their backs, and continued to do their work, and bring humor into the equation.

They died for their beliefs.

Today, let’s all salute their efforts.

Rather than suggest there is no link whatsoever to those sentiments, and the photographers I will highlight now, I’ll just write what ought to be obvious: when you make art, and share it with the world, you’re really communicating your ideas in image form.

Visual communication is a massively powerful methodology, as it needs no translation, as does French, when it wants to be understood in English. When these artists came to New Orleans, and shared their work with me, they hoped that I’d put their pictures up on a website for countless people to see. In fact, I was able to do that for the vast majority of people I met, because the quality of work was so high.

I take this responsibility seriously, and it gives me great joy to promote their work on this space, where I so often goof around while trying to discuss serious issues. I do hope you enjoy the work, and as I said last week, the book reviews will return next Friday.

On to the photographers.

Bruce Morton had a big smile on his face, the entire time we sat together. And every time I saw him thereafter. It’s easy to understand why. Bruce got an MFA in the legendary Arizona State Program back in the day, studying with legends Bill Jay and Bill Jenkins.

But he gave it up shortly thereafter, to get a more practical job. He built a landscaping business in Phoenix, which was his focus for many years. (Imagine how hard it must be to work outside in that heat, all the time.) But about 8 years ago, he decided to rededicate himself to his photography.

He packed up and moved back to his original family home in a small town, Bowen, in rural Illinois. He’s currently working on several projects at once, all focusing on the local population and cultural landscape. I liked all of his work, as well as his attitude, which screams passion and joy.

These pictures are from his mini-series “Bowen,” though I could easily have shown you some photos from his other projects a well.

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Sandra Klein is a member of the Aline-Smithson-LA-photo-mafia, which I chronicled at length in my two-part series on the Medium Festival last year. Those folks are doing some impressive work, and have built themselves a supportive community that speaks to the power of Aline’s teaching ability and force of will.

Sandra showed me two projects, the first of which I’m sharing here. She has a background as a print-maker, and these images reference that medium heavily. She photographs plants and cacti, and then weaves them into a constructed aesthetic that also includes actual sewn thread. The addition of the 3-D manipulation, alongside her genuinely excellent color palette, left me impressed.

There was also a group of pictures made in Japan, which I found much-less-resolved. But there was one picture, of a park setting in falling snow, that was so beautiful and Zen that I questioned whether she needed anything else. Sometimes, one perfect picture is enough.

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Gloria Baker Feinstein is a photographer based in the Mid-West as well, yet showed me a project made in Uganda. She visited a village there 8 years ago, on a tour with an NGO, and fell in love with the place. As a result, she formed her own non-profit to support the community, and goes back for 3-4 weeks each year.

I thought the pictures were extremely well-made, and communicate a warmth that stems from her knowledge of the people and the place. They are the antithesis of photographs made on a one-off visit to a Third World locale, where people step off the bus, snap a few frames, and then head on to the next destination.

Gloria also showed me some newer, black and white work made in a community in Eastern Kentucky in which she’d spent very little time. As such, I thought they compared poorly to the work that was richly developed over many years. We agreed to disagree…

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Children's Shoes

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Girls Bathing

Girls in Sunday Dresses

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Newspapered Walls

Raindrops on Window

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Finally, yes finally, I come to the two artists whose work I looked at after my official 24 reviews had come to an end. First, I peeked in at Monika Merva’s new project. She and I have a few friends in common, and I had heard of her project “The City of Children,” which was published as a book, and has been exhibited widely.

Monika said that after the all-consuming nature of a specific, successful project, she was showing a group of pictures that she took simply because she wanted to click the shutter. There was no over-arching narrative beyond, “I am a photographer. I made these photographs. Have a look.”

At the end of a long slog, I found the pictures refreshing, along with her willingness to free up her process, simply because she could.

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After that, with my brain cells mushier than a freshly baked burger bun, I met with Margo Cooper. She’d approached me earlier in the day, swearing that she’d wanted to get a review with me, but the lottery had not been kind. Margo told me she’d heard through the photo-grape-vine that I was a “very nice person,” and might I be willing to look at her work after everything was done?

I’m a sucker for a compliment as much as the next guy, and in this case, I do try to be as nice as I can to everyone. So how could I say no?

Unfortunately, as I was so crispy, and Margo is high-energy, our meeting was a bit tense. These things happen. But when I got a look at her gelatin silver prints, of photos made in poor rural communities in New England, I said yes right away. (And that’s what we’re publishing.)

Apparently, Margo is an attorney, a public defender in particular, and makes photographs of these folks, and of blues communities in the Deep South, as her outlet. She’s committed to long-term projects, which you can see as some of her subjects age in the pictures. I didn’t have too much to say to her at the time, but I think the photographs below speak for themselves.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 2

My daughter got a staph infection late last year. Right on her butt cheek. It was awful.

At first we thought it was a spider bite, but with two doctors in the family, we were quickly corrected. It rose majestically from her tush, like the Sangre de Cristo mountains jut out of the New Mexico high desert.

Not good.

I knew nothing of the malady, before it settled comfortably into our home. The treatment is gruesome, and entails painfully squeezing out the toxic, contagious puss, day after day. She was a good sport about it, my little girl. Before and after the treatment, twice a day, she acted as if nothing was wrong.

But during? O.M.F.G. She screamed louder than a coked-up bond trader trying to get out of a bad deal. “Help. Help. Please stop, Daddy. Stop. No, Daddy, no. Ayuda me. Ayuda me.” (That last bit was fueled by lots of Dora the Explorer, to keep her semi-occupied.)

It took weeks to make the whole thing better. Unfortunately, during the infection’s run, my wife Jessie and I were meant to get away for a couple of days in Albuquerque. It was the best we could manage, to celebrate our 10th Anniversary, which had come and gone at the end of May. (It was to be our first parenting break since before Jessie got pregnant.)

Little girl was just old enough to leave with my folks for a couple of days. We’d been looking forward to the trip, meager as it was, for month and months. And then, with the staph infection in full swing, we had to cancel.

No fair.

We dropped the kids off at my folks for just a few hours instead, and must have looked as down-hearted and miserable as Barack Obama on Election Day 2014. We were crestfallen. Disappointed. Borderline suicidal.

So my Mom suggested that we book Jessie a ticket to go along with me to New Orleans. At first it seemed impossible. Surely, the tickets would be too expensive. And they wouldn’t really let us get away for 5 days, when even 2 had seemed so impossible?

It couldn’t work, could it?

I’ll cut to the chase, and bring some brevity into an otherwise rambling narrative. It did work. The tickets were reasonable, and the plan came together tighter than a spendthrift’s wallet.

I swear, I never, ever would have imagined we could pull it off. But we did. Out of the depths of our sadness, deep in the pit of despair, came a genuinely amazing few days together in a magical city.

Leave it to preachy-yours-truly to make a lesson out of an article about the portfolios I viewed at the Photo NOLA festival last year. Isn’t that just like me?

But it’s a valuable lesson, from where I’m sitting. We really don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and sometimes, the nastiest problems lead to the best solutions. Even when things look bleak, they can turn around quickly.

It happened while I was at Photo NOLA too. A micro-version of the same type of scenario.

Jessie and I were waiting outside the International House hotel, along with a throng of other festival goers. There was a school bus due to take us to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where Emmet Gowin was about to lecture at the big NOLA Gala. The crowd grew and grew, as the bus was clearly late.

I was in the midst of a good conversation with Dewi Lewis, the English photo book publisher, so I didn’t mind the delay. Eventually, I was roused by the shuffling of feet, the groans of unhappiness, and the piercing yell of Jennifer Shaw, Photo NOLA’s Executive Director. (Whom we interviewed here in early 2013.)

Apparently, the bus was stuck in unprecedented traffic on I-10. It was so late that it was not coming back to get us. People were left to fend for themselves, as the traffic had snarled up the entire city center, in addition to the Interstate.

The lecture started imminently. There was no clear plan of attack. Take a cab? Why? The roads were impassible, we were told.

Miss the lecture? Unwise, as Mr. Gowin is famous for his inspirational talks, as I said in the last article. But Jessie and I were dressed up, and there were so many nice restaurants within a few blocks. I contemplated blowing the whole thing off, but it left a sour taste in my mouth, like a turned tangerine.

Eventually, we decided to make no grand decision, but simply walk with the herd. Follow the crowd, which was headed towards Canal Street, with Jennifer in the lead.

I’m not much of a follower, but in this case, it seemed the wisest course of action. We tromped and tromped. All the while, watching the cars not move at all.

The bus and the streetcar were both shot down as options by people who knew more than I did. So we just kept walking, each moment taking us closer to missing the main event. Jennifer was keeping a cool face, but I knew she was seething inside. How could she miss her own Gala?

After 15 minutes, we came to a break in the traffic, and the street crowd thinned. “This is as good a place as any,” Jennifer said. So I launched into hero mode, and stepped confidently into the street with my right arm raised.

Sure enough, three minutes later, I spied a mini-van cab, and hailed away. He was free, and headed our way. By then, our group numbered 12 people.

The cabbie said he could take 5, and no more. Miraculously, another min-van pulled up in front of the first, and 5 people piled in. Immediately.

That left us with 7. The cabbie agreed to stretch it to 6, but no more. So we filled up, and left Jennifer Shaw standing on the street, looking so sad it almost broke my heart. How she kept from crying, I really don’t know.

“We can’t leave her here,” my wife said. “It’s not possible. Of all the people, she needs to be there the most.”

“It’s true,” I said. “We can’t leave her. Can you please fit one more,” I asked the driver? “Otherwise, we’ll get out.”

“Sure,” he said. “But only this once.”

I offered to sit on the floor, sans seat belt, and the day was saved. We stayed off the highway, and were there in 10 minutes. (With just enough time to chug two glasses of cava, so we’d have a nice little buzz for Emmet’s lecture.)

I’ll spare you too much gushing about how that man fired up the crowd. He spoke to the deepest motivations of why we make art. And he insisted, time and again, that if you’re not willing to trust your instincts, and accept that there are always forces at work, far greater than you… you’re in the wrong line of work.

I listened intently, absorbing the wisdom, and finally had to type some quotes into my phone, as they were just too good not to share with you.

“Hold constant to the stars that seem to be organizing your life.”

“Do you have room inside yourself for what religious people call the Holy Spirit?”

“Speak out of your feelings.”

“Don’t put anything off.”

“The sun doesn’t care what we’ve done to the Earth.”

“You have to make all the mistakes yourself.”

I’ll end there, as Emmet did. I’ve already gone on long enough that some of you will have skipped down to the photographs. C’est la vie. And as they say in NOLA, L’aissez les bon temps rouler.

On to the photographers.

Susan Berger showed me some of my favorite work I saw. It’s a strange project, in that it seems like someone would have thought of it already. She photographed Martin Luther King Boulevard. In 40 cities around the United States.

Look closely, and you notice that in almost every case, the street was dedicated in an African-American neighborhood. But not always. She uses the street sign often, but not always. Sometimes, there’s a statue, or a hair salon named after him, or a low-income housing project.

Evocative stuff. I loved that she shot it medium format, black and white, and presented gelatin silver prints. All that work, it makes a difference.

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Francis Crisafio had another project that I loved. He teaches photography in an after school program in Pittsburgh, and has been doing it for years. His efforts are genuinely creative and collaborative.

He showed me several interlocking projects he does with the children. In one case, he shoots portraits of them, and makes prints. From there, the students make self-portrait drawings. Then, they hold them up to their face, and he shoots new portraits, with the drawings standing in for their faces.

I really loved those photographs, many shot in front of the classroom blackboard. There were other incarnations too, including some self-portrait collages the students make. All in all, a very impressive showing.

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Jen Ervin also showed me a collaborative project, though it was evident only in her words. The pictures didn’t really indicate the process. She shoots her children, at a family cabin in the woods, but she claims the entire family is responsible for the work.

Jen uses an old school Polaroid Land camera, and the small, unique black and white prints had some of that famed Southern Lyricism. They were very lovely. (And reminiscent of Sally Mann, who’s casts a long shadow down South.)

We discussed the fact that she’d been encouraged to make larger edition prints, by scanning and re-printing the originals. The copies were just that, far less effective than the one-of-a-kinds. Not sure you’ll agree, but I encouraged her to slap a big price tag on the Polaroids, and show and sell them exclusively. I saw no reason to water down the project by showing an inferior version. Do you agree?

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Ben Marcin is a photographer from Baltimore, and he first showed me some pictures that were straight out of “The Wire.” He did a typological project in which he shot individual B-more row houses, detached from anything but the context. I’d seen them before, as they were published on so many blogs around the Web.

His follow-up project, which I’m showing here, was also made amidst the poverty of his home city, and would likely make good old David Simon proud. Ben, who’s a confident sort, and loves to hike, trekked around the homeless camps that he said pop up almost anywhere there are some trees and grass.

He photographed these humble shacks and dwellings, which resonate with tragedy and resilience. He told me that he went back to each of these locations, and in every single case, the structure had been destroyed, razed, or burned to the ground.

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Rebecca Drolen showed me work in fortuitous circumstances. Apparently, one of the people I was meant to see was a no-show, so Rebecca won a quick lottery for the slot. I knew nothing of how it came to pass, but was thrilled, as I thought her work was some of the strongest I saw.

She studied at Indiana University, with Osamu James Nakagawa, whose excellent book we featured earlier in 2014. So I knew her training was solid.

Rebecca pulled out some black and white self-portraits that she told me were all about the relationship women have with hair. Ever the blunt reviewer, I told her that didn’t seem so significant to me, as her pictures were charmingly surreal. Yes, I thought of Magritte, but that’s a great reference for any artist.

They were just so weird, but also well-done. I loved them, and think you will to. We’ll feature the rest of the photographers next week, and then bring back the book reviews.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 1

- - From The Field

It’s Wednesday morning. I’m sitting at my kitchen table, where I like to write. Outside the window, the snow has just begun to fall. White flakes drop from the sky like so many perfect coins, tossed into Trevi Fountain.

In the black wood stove, piñon logs gurgle as their latent energy is converted into heat. The flames crackle too; the only sounds I hear in this otherwise silent, winter world.

It’s the Holiday Season, and we’re all getting ready to shut things down for a little while. To spend time with our families, perhaps take a vacation. Do our best to regenerate for 2015.

Just this morning, I was thinking about that word. Holiday. Clearly, it stems from the two words Holy and Day. Holy? That’s a word that’s been mostly bled of meaning, outside of true believers.

How might we re-interpret it, bring it down to Earth, give it a connotation that seems more relevant in our confusing, futuristic, and yet anachronistic times? (2014 being the year in which territorial land grabs became popular again. Just like the old days.)

As I said last week, I live in a magical place. This is known. The big mountain to the East is revered as sacred by the local Native American Tribe. They see the land as Holy.

Others, hippies mostly, call that same mountain a vortex, one of the few places in the world where energy carries mystical properties. Or maybe you’ve heard of the Taos Hum, which is not an actual topic of discussion here in town.

Regardless, there is enough evidence, personal and historical, for me to call this place special. When you live here, you realize that not all things can be explained. Science is great, but some knowledge comes from elsewhere. Just like the Big Bang is much like any other creation myth.

Once you’re comfortable assigning magical properties to one place, it’s not so hard to do it to another.

But where?

I’m willing to put the great city of New Orleans on that list too.

During my recent visit, I found there were some odd similarities between this little mountain town in the High Desert, and that classy city in the Louisiana swamp. (Odd, but true.)

I’d guess it’s because each locale was not founded by Puritan America. New Mexico was a Spanish Colony before anyone had ever seen Plymouth Rock. The French built New Orleans, and the resulting gorgeous architecture speaks to their legacy.

Here, the Catholic tradition believed in Saints. Mysticism was real. Penitentes whipped themselves in small mud huts. Those aforementioned Native Americans, even today, perform ceremonies that amalgamate animism with Catholicism. Spooky, beautiful stuff.

I know nothing of Voodoo, myself, but New Orleans clearly has a history of religious mashup too. Slaves from Africa mixed with Acadians. Local Native American tribes were thrown into the mix, resulting in parades filled with African-American “Indians.”

Americans came late to this particular party.

That’s a long introduction, I’m well aware. But this is to be my last piece for 2014, so I thought I’d go down swinging. Plus, the luxurious snowflakes have put me in a thoughtful mood.

My trip to New Orleans a couple of weeks ago re-enforced these ideas. There is something special in the air there, and it’s clear I’m not the only one that thinks so. It’s a tourist mecca for good reason. You don’t just go for the food and the drink and the chance to see flashed boobs. (I saw none.)

You go because in such places, we can be reminded that it’s a good thing, that the inexplicable exists. Who wants to live in a world where all the answers are at our fingertips?

Not me.

Google is great for offering up the illusion of omniscience. But it just that, I assure you. Illusory.

I’m betting you’d like some evidence.
How’s this?

When the time came to leave, my wife and I hopped into a taxi cab. Immediately, it was clear that our loquacious driver was that type of local. Witty, charismatic, and dripping with down-home wisdom.

When discussing the propensity of professional football players to find themselves in trouble, he pointed out that we all have the capacity for violence. And murder. Those guys are just people, like the rest of us. We all have our stresses, which lead to bad decisions.

“Pressure bursts pipes,” he said. How true.

As he continued, one story hilariously leading to the next, I happened to look down at his name. Lucien.

Lucien? I rubbed my temples. That was the name of the cab driver I had when I last left town, back in 2012. He even made it into the story I wrote, published on this very blog.

Could it be? What were the odds?

I mentioned my theory about why people loved New Orleans so much. Because the locals, as much as they cherish their culture, are happy to share it with everyone. They clearly relish the fact that people revel in the spirit of the place, and take a smidge of it home with them. (As opposed to places like Taos, where each new visitor wants to shut the door behind them. And the descendants of Conquistadors give tourists a good mad-dog look whenever they can.)

Responding to that theory, Lucien said, “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice.” Which was the exact same thing he said two years ago, on which I quoted him.

That sealed the deal. The heavens had intervened. Chance reared its head, and then went back to sleep, allowing some Holy Spirit to give my wife and me the perfect escort to our plane.

Call me crazy. Call me a hippie. I don’t care. Just don’t call it a coincidence.

As artists, it’s important that we be willing to suspend our disbelief, from time to time. After all, our calling is alchemy, not science. Creation is messy, and can not be written up into an algorithm.

The keynote lecturer at photoNOLA was the great Emmet Gowin. This was more or less the crux of his lecture, which had everyone transfixed. I took notes on my Iphone, but think, this many words into the article, that I’ll save that conversation for the next piece.

I saw so many good projects at the portfolio review that I will be writing three stories, so there’s plenty of time to meander into the bigger ideas that motivate us. (The good stuff, as far as inspiration goes.)

Rest assured, the New Orleans Photo Alliance, the non-profit that runs Photo NOLA, does a bang up job. They run a terrific festival, and showed me a hell of a good time. I’m thrilled to have seen so much to share with you, and will commence with that now.

Before I stop musing, though, I’d like to wish you a magical Holiday season. May you get all the gifts you desire, and let’s hope some of them don’t cost anything at all.

On to the photographers.

As with the articles about the Medium Festival, I’m not putting these fine artists in any order. We’ll look at some this week, and the re-start the process in 2015.

Larry Colby is a photographer from Boynton Beach, Florida. This is his second career, as he was originally a financial planner. But he’s all in on photography, these days, and his work was the first I saw.

Larry photographs in a local soup kitchen, which feeds a collection of Central and South American immigrant communities. He’s been focusing primarily on the children. Their portraits, in particular. I encouraged him to step back a bit, give us the cinematic equivalent of establishment shots. But also to dig deeper into the issues of poverty and immigration on a grander scale.

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Jan Arrigo is a Southern photographer who did stints in the publishing world, including a stretch at Oxford University Press. Jan has spent 20 years photographing animals in zoos, at night, with the intention of publishing a book. It all began with the kangaroo picture, which she took after getting boxed by one of the creatures in Australia.

We discussed whether she ought to try to market the project as a children’s book, which was her original intent, or try to make something for the mass market. Alternatively, she’s also considering doing a small-run photo book for the photo community.

Clearly, she’ll have to decide where the project will fit best, and what’s most important to her. Then it will be easier to accomplish her goal. But all good books need good photos, and I thought these were pretty cool. Even better, her leave-behind was a box of animal crackers covered in small versions of her photos. Very clever.

A black bird perched on a tree outside a window appears as if from a dream in this black and white photo portrait taken in Orlando, Florida.

A Florida raptor stares intensely ahead in this black and white photo portrait by Jan Arrigo.

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Black and white photo portrait of a flying monkey by Jan Arrigo.

A snake stares into the camera's lens in this Jan Arrigo black and white photo.

Two bear cubs show their claws in this fight captured by Jan Arrigo in a black and white photograph.

A Louisiana brown bear stares into the camera in this black and white photo portrait taken at the Audubon zoo in New Orleans.

A male lion pants under a moonlit night in this landscape photo portrait.

As if posing this Western Lowland gorilla gazes into the camera in this black and white photo by Jan Arrigo.

Two black birds react to a photographer in the Florida Everglades in this black and white photo.

This black and white photo portrait of a large white rhino shows him eating an herbivorous diet.

Black and white photo portrait of a boxing kangaroo by Jan Arrigo.

Brad Hamilton was visiting from New York. He’s been working on a project that attempts to add a digital, 21st Century twist to classic street photography. Not unlike Barry Frydlender, he mashes up multiple images, taken over time, into one frame.

I was intrigued by the fact that Brad often chooses neutral backgrounds, out in the real world. He sets himself in front of construction sites, places where a large swath has been painted white. Then he shoots tens of thousands of pictures, so he said.

The photographs enable him to create narrative or symbolic connections. He often titles them by the street corner that he adopts as his temporary home.

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Ashley McDowell is a young photographer from the Boston area. She studied photography at Syracuse, where she worked with Doug DuBois.

Ashley’s work is as personal as it gets. She’s been working on a long-term project that focuses on her sister’s heroin addiction, and the havoc it’s wreaked on her family’s collective life. Some images were fraught, and others were too subtle for the subject matter, I felt. The lists, held up in several photos, represent the items her sister stole from her family.

The best work is so personal that it allows an artist to tap right into the collective unconscious. The more honest we are, the more likely we are to tell a story with which many others can relate. I thought Ashley’s strongest images were well on their way to creating the type of empathy with tragedy, and addiction, that will captivate an audience.

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Bob Bright is a long-time commercial photographer based in Los Angeles. And he’s a life-long resident as well. One of those people who remembers when the megalopolis felt like a small town. When the dreams of the world were focused on Hollywood. Fame. Glamour. A better life.

Bob’s photographs parallel that by looking at the aging architecture and infrastructure of LA. He’s got a great medium format digital camera, and the high-resolution, modernist renderings match well with the faded, modernist glory. As we sifted through the project, finding the strongest through-line, I felt the metaphorical qualities begin to shine through.

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Finally, we’ll end with Leigh Webber. As I wrote last week, I mostly treat these meetings as critiques, these days. I’ll tell people immediately if I can publish their work here, or pitch it to the Lens Blog. No secrets about that, so I don’t leave tension hanging in the air.

It allows me to ask questions about why someone has come to the table. Where they are in their career. What type of feedback I can offer to be as helpful as possible.

For Leigh, it was difficult. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and has been shooting commercially, and doing weddings, for years. That’s her comfort zone.

She came to Photo NOLA, though, to introduce her work to a fine art audience. She knew nothing about it, and was taking a chance. Putting herself out there.

What she showed me was understandably jumbled. There were five different groupings of two or three pictures. Nothing coherent, but all well made. And everything focused on her son, as he grew up.

I told Leigh if she wanted to go through her archive, when she got home, and find a consistent voice, I’d be happy to take another look and see if I could publish it. Many photographers would have seen that as a rejection, not a challenge.

Leigh, true to her desire to grow, and learn new things, took me up on the offer. She sent the edit I’m showing now, which has something of the wild spirit of youth, mixed up with a mother’s love. I dig the photos, and hope you do too.

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As always, the lesson is not to settle with what you know. Not to get lazy with your skills. I hold myself to the same standards, and am working on some new ideas for next year. Things I currently have no idea how to accomplish.

That’s where we find the good stuff. All the best, and see you next year.

A Visit To The Getty

- - From The Field

The phone beeped in the middle of the night. A text. Must have been Dad, I thought, shaking off my dreams. He wakes up at 3:30 in the morning. He must have sent me good wishes on the trip.

Jesus Christ, Dad. It’s the middle of the night. Give me a f-cking break.

I swatted at the phone to shut it up, and went back to bed. I was due up super-early to head to California, so I was none-too-pleased to have my anxiety-ridden sleep interrupted any further.

Parents.

When the phone beeped again, this time as an alarm clock, I rolled out of bed at 5. My eyes refused to open, like a recalcitrant clamshell. I looked at my messages, mentally composing a text to Dad that would have included some impolite language.

Except it wasn’t Dad. It was Southwest airlines. They’d texted me at 3:55 am to say my flight had been cancelled.

Ouch.

I had a serious cortisol drop, and tried to reschedule through the website, but that was useless. So before you know it, I was talking to a grumpy customer service rep, who’d been working straight through the night, trying to figure out how to salvage my trip.

At 5am.
Not fun.

(You try being civil and polite under such circumstances.)

When all was said and done, I made it to LA. But I routed through Vegas, and lost a bunch of time. Time I meant to spend at the J. Paul Getty Museum, looking at art, so I could report back to you.

They’d graciously set up a few meetings on my behalf, to have some of the curators show me work, as their photo exhibitions were changing over. They had to move things around to accommodate, and I had to apologize for the airline shenanigans. No harm, no foul, I suppose.

I only mention the drama because I’d been bragging to my wife the night before about how good I’d gotten at avoiding and managing stress. I’m a road warrior, I said, or something like that.

Which only guaranteed that things would go to Hell as quickly as possible. Cancelled flight? Yes. 25 minute wait for the rental car shuttle? Sure. 1 hour wait for the rental car? Of course. Construction on the 405 that rendered my careful directions useless? Naturally.

By the time I turned up at the museum, improperly dressed for the 85 degree day, I was salty and grouchy and spent. Not much good to the world, unfortunately. Much less as a journalist who was meant to at least APPEAR intelligent.

Luckily, for those of you who don’t know, the Getty Center is set on a hilltop overlooking all of Los Angeles to the East, and the Pacific Ocean to the West. It is as beautiful a setting as you are likely to find, for a museum, anywhere.

So I sat down for a few minutes, when I finally arrived. Caught my breath. Took in some sun. Breathed deeply. And I felt better.
Who wouldn’t?

My first move was to go to see Peter Paul Rubens’ gigantic tapestries in an exhibition that had just opened. Apparently, in the Baroque period, some Spanish royalty commissioned him to design 20 foot wide tapestries that depicted the victory of the Eucharist. The dominance of Catholicism.

Spain controlled the Southern Netherlands, which is now Belgium, and wanted to take over Holland, which was Protestant. The artist first made a series of phenomenal oil paintings, which were also displayed, and then had those pieces transcribed into cloth, on an enormous scale, by other artisans.

As near as I could tell, it was straight-up propaganda. (Nothing new, if you’ve seen European art before.) The Catholic Church was the prevailing power structure, and had plenty of funds, so it was a solid patron, albeit one with a clear agenda.

I looked at the work for a while, in the dark room, and then stepped outside and looked at the Pacific Ocean. I repeated the pattern two more times. In all my years of looking at art, visiting museums, and traveling around, I’ve never done anything like that before.

The fresh air helped me suss out my thoughts. The paintings were taut and packed with energy. Once translated into another medium as tapestries though, they lost the viscerality of the originals. What was forfeited in emotive power was more than likely gained with the impressive scale, as far as delivering the message. Fear us. We are coming to convert your souls. The Eucharist bows before no man. (Or something like that.)

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Soon enough, I found myself in the innards of the museum, still wearing my puffy vest in the 85 degree weather. At least it will be freezing in there, I thought, so I’ll be glad to have it. This place, unlike every other museum I’ve visited, was not chilled to perfection, though.

So I ended up sweating as the meeting got started.

Not. Very. Classy.

I took the vest off, allowed the air-con to do its job, and began to parse what was going on before me. Which I will report to you, finally, now…

The Getty had arranged for me to meet Nancy Perloff, a curator at the Getty Research Institute, who was putting on a large exhibition about World War I, and the propaganda imagery that flooded the Continent. (In honor of the Centennial.) She was interested in the visual language that was used to depict the War, but also the manner in which imagery was manipulated to present one’s enemies in unflattering ways.

The exhibit, “World War I: War of Images, Images of War,” has since opened, so you ought to go see it. I did not have the opportunity, I’m afraid. We were joined in our conversation by Mazie Harris, a curator from the photography department.

Ms. Perloff presented us with a 6-photo panel piece made in London in WWI. She said it was the only photography that was included in the exhibit, so they carted it over to show me. Very decent of them.

The images were made of a German dirigible that hung over London, in 1916, lobbing bombs down below. It seemed like an early version of a drone, where superior technology enabled one side to pummel another from a safe distance.

But those Brits were crafty, so the series showed the floating beast lit up from below by spotlights. And then it was shot down, probably by airplanes, though that was not entirely clear in the pictures.

The first two were straight black and white, then a third was more of a sepia color. The last three pictures, while the wreck descended in flames, were rendered in red. Totally expressionistic.

We discussed the photographer, H. Scott Orr, of whom I’d never heard. Had he made money off the images by releasing post cards? Ms. Harris showed us some provenance work she’d done, when other such images came on the market. We discussed the degree of research that goes into the job.

Curators are often seen as glamorous these days. Practically art stars, in the public’s opinion. But I must say, whenever I spend quality time, I see them as scholars and historians. Right there in LA, talking about history, war, culture, and research, it was clear that I was dealing with people who’d devoted their lives to discovery.

Were the flaming blimp pictures propaganda, I was asked? I thought not, because H. Scott Orr was just making his work; doing his thing. If he’d been commissioned, like Rubens, and supplied with a message beforehand, I would have said yes.

We wondered how the colors were achieved? As the resident photographer in the room, I suggested toning. I’d seen a heap of hand-colored Russian images at FOAM in 2013, and they look very different.

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

After a while, our discussion broke up, and Ms. Perloff and Ms. Harris moved along. Amanda Maddox, who’d been quietly doing her work, right there in the room the whole time, looked up from her notes and introduced herself. She’s also a photography curator, and was working on the new Josef Koudelka exhibition that has since opened.

She’d spent the better part of six years on the project, which was meant to be the first major, complete retrospective of the artist’s career. They’d given over their entire photography exhibition space for the show, which was also a first.

Ms. Maddox showed me “The Wall,” an accordion-fold book that Mr. Koudelka had made for “This Place,” the Israeli photo project we’ve discussed thrice in my book review column. Apparently, Mr. Koudelka’s solution to being invited was to focus on the wall dividing Israel from the presumptive Palestine, and then make only two copies of the book.

As they stretched the book wide, which would ultimately reach nearly 40′, I was reminded of that classic SoCal accordion-fold book, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” by the ultimate LA guy, Ed Ruscha.

At that moment, in walked Virginia Heckert, the chief photo curator at the Getty. I pointed out the comparison, and she mentioned the book review I wrote where I called “bullshit” on Mr. Ruscha for claiming he’d never heard of Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, or Nicholas Nixon. (FYI, Mr. Baltz has since passed away. RIP.)

I asked Ms. Maddox why Koudelka? If she was going to devote 6 year of her life to something like this, marrying her passion, work ethic, research skills, and all the other component parts, why him?

There must be a reason.

She replied that Mr. Koudelka had demonstrated a level of commitment she found fascinating. After he had to leave Prague for publishing anonymous photographs following the Soviet invasion, he based himself in London. But he soon began photographing the Gypsy, or Roma communities, for which he became famous.

For years, she told me, he was essentially homeless. Following the human migration, sleeping outside, where he could. He’d head back to London for the winters only, as it was too extreme to live outdoors. He’d given his life for his art, Ms. Maddox said, and so she was devoting a chunk of her own to honor that.

She also showed me some mini-accordion-fold books that he makes, by hand, and keeps in his back pocket. They’re his maquettes for book ideas, though they look as much like a Hello Kitty version of a photo book: adorable, and the kind of thing you want to touch. (They didn’t let me, though. Touch them.)

After a couple of hours, I let everyone get back to their jobs, and set out to do more of mine, which meant wandering around the museum until it closed, looking at art. Chatting up the people who worked there. Having a good time.

Honestly, the staff I encountered at the Getty were just so nice. And helpful. The folks at the info desk, the security guards, the coat check lady, the curators, media contacts. Everyone. I’m sure it takes a ridiculous sum of money to keep that place running, though with the name Getty attached, I doubt we have to worry about their endowment.

Aside from a fee to park, the museum is free. There is a vast amount of amazing things to see. Gardens to walk through. Views to take in.

If you live in Southern California, or are heading there any time soon, I’m telling you to go there. As soon as you can. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never been to visit before. Now, I can’t wait to go back.

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Work From The Medium Festival of Photography 2014 – Part 2

- - From The Field

I love portfolio reviews. It’s true. Believe it or not, I used to be a harsh critic of the process. Before I got involved, I raged against the system, in which photographers pay for meetings with industry professionals.

Then, I decided to listen to some advice from a few colleagues, and give it a try. It worked out very well for me, as my reviews at Review Santa Fe in 2009 and 2010 helped my work break out on the Internet, which led a host of sales and exhibitions.

Now, in my capacity as a writer here and at the New York Times Lens blog, I go to the reviews to look at work and write about it. You know this, as we’re in part 2 of my series about the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego.

I’m pretty sure you guys enjoy looking at the work I see, because I always get great feedback on these articles. And of course, I do like to keep it entertaining, to ensure that you make it to the bottom of the piece to see the pictures. (Oh. Right. You could always skip to the photos? I suppose that’s true.)

Where am I headed? Is there a point? Yes, it’s that I’ve noticed in my last few reviews that these events are not just about people pitching. It’s more than the “what can you do for me” that you think it is. (That is, if you’ve never attended one before.)

In my experience, and perhaps it’s because I’ve been teaching for nearly 10 years, many of the artists come to the table seeking feedback. They want advice on how to get better. They ask all the right questions about where they are weak, and where they are strong.

For the artist, it’s like spending a few hundred dollars to go to grad school for the weekend. If you’re not frantically pitching someone, 20 minutes is a good amount of time for a conversation. You can learn a lot, if you’re willing to listen.

There are the big national reviews, sure, but there is now a system firmly in place with regional reviews, at festivals, all over the country. You can get some great advice, and benefit from participating in a mini-idea-cluster, without having to buy a plane ticket and rent a hotel room.

I’m off this week to photo NOLA, so we’ll have another slate of articles coming up for you in the New Year. But these festivals are everywhere. Just off the top of my head, I can throw out New York, Chicago, San Diego, Portland, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Denver and San Francisco.

I’m sure there are many more too. Which means that you might consider looking into what’s available in your neck of the woods. It’s hard to get genuine critical feedback from your friends and family. Certainly, it’s tough once you’re out of school.

Medium is a great example of a festival that was designed to serve its community. It brings people together to celebrate shared passion, and I think that’s something we could all use more of. Certainly, living as I do in the middle of nowhere, I sometimes get jealous of the opportunities available to my urban colleagues.

Back to the photographers, though, and let’s finish this off. As with last week, it’s in no particular order.

John DuBois was one of two artists on whom I was pretty tough. He’s a full-time software engineer, and showed me a project that I thought wasn’t quite up to snuff. Our signals got a bit crossed, as I could tell he didn’t think my criticism was quite appropriate. (I wanted more from him, and wasn’t afraid to say so.)

Then, he showed me a second project that I liked very much. It had all the elements I was craving: a personal connection, a sharp eye, and a more consistent image quality. John spends a lot of time out on the road, in his day job, and sees a series of hotels and motels where he beds down for the night. So he takes pictures to keep himself busy. These are great.

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Lisa Layne Griffiths was the other photographer I tore into a bit. She showed me a series of set-up studio portraits that were a long way from ready. We broke down all the ways she could improve the project, and she knew how much work she had to do. But she was very enthusiastic about improving.

At the portfolio walk, I stopped to chat with her again. She showed me a small series that she’d made of soldiers returning home from the Iraq War. I was impressed. I like that the pictures are not exactly neutral, but neither are they sappy or overly emotional. They’re just right, and a great reminder to those of us not directly connected, that these continual wars have a real cost to far too many people in this country.

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Jonas Yip is an Asian-American photographer based in Los Angeles. He spent some of his youth in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and worked on a series in Mainland China. It was difficult for him, he told me, to look like everyone else, while obviously being an outsider inside his skin.

I like the way his pictures made the smoggy sky into a positive element, by celebrating the drab color palette. And the repeating use of the people, always with their back to him, was smart as well.

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Martina Shenal is a professor at the University of Arizona, and she recently spent a sabbatical in Japan. (China’s rival for power in the Pacific.) Martina and I spent a good deal of time talking about paper choices.

Many of the artists I met were using matte paper, which naturally decreases an image’s contrast, and, by extension, the illusion of three dimensionality. Pictures look flatter, and less vibrant, than they do on a lustrous, pearl, or glossy surface.

Despite the fact that Martina is a working professional, I shared with her the idea that her photographs would simply look better if she made some other choices. On screen, of course, we don’t have those problems. Several of her photos really captured that Japanese-Zen-vibe, and I’m sure you’ll like them below.

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Amanda Hankerson and I met briefly at Review Santa Fe in June, and then again during Medium. We had a drink at the bar with a few friends, and despite the horrific lighting, she pulled out a Magcloud-type-publication to show me. Her project is called “The Hankersons,” and I love the premise.

Apparently, there are only Hankersons in the United States, and nowhere else. There aren’t many of them either, and as an early ancestor was a slave owner, there are African-American Hankersons, and Caucasian Hankersons. Random, no?

Amanda uses Facebook to track down her fellow Hankersons, and then photographs them. Because that’s what photographers do. I think there was a Hankerson who played for the 49ers in the 90’s, so maybe she can look into that.

The Hankersons

The Hankersons

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The Hankersons

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The Hankersons

Finally, we’ve got Dalton Rooney. He’s a photographer who recently moved back to Southern California, after living most of his life elsewhere. He’s been trekking around the landscape, re-familiarizing himself with the desert vernacular.

He showed me a few images that were printed rather dark, and that made for a moody viewing experience that I really enjoyed. There was almost a sense of foreboding in a landscape I normally associate with sunny-happy-joy-land. Nicely done.

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Work From The Medium Festival of Photography 2014 – Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last year, when I went to visit the Medium Festival of Photography, I practically leaked energy.

I stayed out drinking, chatted with every possible person, dispensed advice incessantly, and worked through my portfolio review breaks. Only then, when it was almost done, did I give a public lecture in which I bared my soul to a crowded room. (Yes, even more nakedly than I do here each week, if you can believe it.)

In the end, I had a bad series of interactions with a fellow artist, and labeled him a “dick” in this forum. Which almost cost me one of my best friends. Honestly, he stopped talking to me over it, though we’ve since patched things up.

I’m nothing if not adaptable, so I vowed to do it differently this year. Driving down the 405 from LA, where I had a day at the Getty that I’ll chronicle in an upcoming piece, I near-chanted to myself that I’d take it easy.

Chill, if you will.

There was plenty of time to think, as the traffic was thick as Thanksgiving gravy, despite the late hour. I didn’t arrive at the Lafayette Hotel until 9:30pm, which I assumed made me the last reviewer there. (I was wrong. The reviewer across the hall showed up at 3:30 am, and woke me with a closing door. Ironically, it turned out to be a friend, so I couldn’t be too mad. Thanks, Maren.)

Anyway, the plan worked out swimmingly, as I even managed some time in the blue pool one sunny afternoon. (When in SoCal, after all.) I hit the gym, took my quiet time, walked through the corridors with my head down, avoiding eye contact. Anything to make sure I had good, positive energy for the reviews, and that I came home able to work. (Rather than losing 2 weeks in a fog, as I’ve done before.)

Fortunately, I did get to see a nice variety of photography to share with you here. And I even get to use the word “dick” again, as it was tossed about with shocking abandon by the keynote lecturer, Duane Michals. I kid you not, that dude said “dick” at least 15 times within the first three minutes of his lecture.

He was playing a character called Dr. Duanus, and opened with a story about needing a penis reduction. I watched the crowd, and people were in various states of disbelief. He was like a cross between Larry David and Robin Williams. Not what you expect in a photography lecture.

I ought to give him a more fitting shout-out than that, though. Mr. Michals lecture was by far the most entertaining and enlightening I’ve yet heard. He was profane in a way that was endearing, rather than discomfiting, and also managed to show a large selection of his work. Pictures and words that gave the crowd energy, and permission to experiment.

Afterwards, at his book signing, people stood in line for at least an hour, or I should say lines. There were two, in opposite directions, that snaked throughout the entire hotel lobby. No lie. People couldn’t wait to take pictures with him, catch a moment, get a book signed. It was electric.

But back to the reviews, which were my main priority. (That, and eating at the many insanely-good-cheap-ethnic-restaurants within 5 blocks of the hotel. Thai? Check. Pizza? Check. Falafel? Check.)

I’m going to break this down into two articles, as I’ve done in the past. So that you can actually look at the photos without it all blending into infinity, like the great Pacific Ocean. I want to keep your attention crunchy, like a perfect fish taco. (OK. No more cheesy SoCal similes. I promise.)

In no particular order, let’s lead off with Samantha Geballe. She’s an artist working in the Los Angeles area, who’s studied with Aline Smithson. (Who just won Center’s Teaching Award. Well deserved, I’d say, as I’ve gotten to see her students’ work 2 years running.)

Samantha is a very large person, and gay. As such, she has to live squarely in the crosshairs of people’s prejudice. Twice. She presents as a very calm presence, but told me that things are chaotic on the inside. Her visceral, black and white self-portraits aim to channel her actual emotions. Powerful stuff.

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Brian Van der Wetering is another of Aline’s charges. He works full-time for Epson, which means I now have a super-hookup for lots of swag. He already sent me a new 44″ photo printer, so you should be very jealous. (Just kidding. I’ve received nothing of the kind.)

Brian’s set-up photos were hilarious, and also a shade poignant. They share the sense of play and misbehavior of a ten year old who loves lighting his sister’s dolls’ heads aflame. They are well-made, but also well-thought-out. I thought they were pretty excellent.

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Jane Szabo is also an LA-based artist. Her training is in other media, and she came to photography rather recently. She showed me three portfolios, and I could actually see her working it out, sequentially. The third project caught my eye, as she’d created non-functioning dresses for the camera, and I thought I’d share it here.

Notice the way it mashes up fashion, sculpture, installation and photography. She’s able to bring her various interests together into one artistic package. I particularly liked the way the pictures could almost be installation photos from an actual art exhibition, but are not. She utilizes the white space well.

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Mike Sakasegawa has a full-time day job as well, as an engineer, I believe. He photographs his family, as we all do, but attempts to take the pictures beyond the average snapshot. He wants to communicate the sadness he feels at his children growing up, and the joy he relishes with each day.

The pictures resonated with me, despite the well-worn subject matter. We can all relate, which also helps an audience appreciate a project.

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Adriene Hughes teaches at UCSD, so she didn’t even have to travel down the coast. Surprisingly, though, she showed me some pictures that were taken in my town of Taos. I did a double-take at first, exclaiming, “What the hell?” or some such.

Adriene made a performative project in which she always dressed up in her favorite deer head. Many of the pictures felt like documents of performance, rather than photographs made as original art objects. But there were more than a handful I really enjoyed, and the picture with the little dog sitting on the naked dude’s lap was simply priceless.

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Finally, we come to Tetsuya Kusu. He was hanging around the lobby when I came in that first night, and planned to volunteer for the festival. I craned my neck in all directions, looking to spy anyone I knew. Tetsuya approached, and seemed to know who I was. He gave me regards from Miki Hasegawa, a photographer I profiled here after meeting her at Review Santa Fe.

It seems as if the Japanese photo crew is rather tight, and I guess my own “image” is out there on the Interweb enough that I will occasionally get noticed. (Down, ego, down.) Anyway, Tetsuya and I spoke a few times over the weekend, and he showed me his pictures on his iPhone.

He’s currently traveling around the West Coast, sleeping on a surfboard in his car. He posts images each day on a password protected Tumblr, so the project is updated in realtime. There’s an edgy vibe to his portraits, so the whole thing made me think of a Japanese-surfer-on-the-road-Mike-Brodie-type-of-deal. Very cool.

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Sayonara until next week.
Jonathan-san out.

Stephen Mallon On Perseverance And Transition To Video

- - From The Field

Over 5 years ago aPhotoEditor wrote a small story on Stephen Mallon’s images of the salvage of Flight 1549.

The backstory.
Prior to the incident on the Hudson River, Stephen Mallon was “surviving” on royalties from multiple stock agencies. He had been photographing landscapes for licensing and exhibition, and personal work. A book editor at a portfolio review had expressed interest in making a book but Stephen felt he didnʼt have the right content that he envisioned for his first monograph. So he set about focusing on his interests in the recycling industry. He engaged a writer to help with a proposal, and, explaining that he intended to make images for non-commercial use, he gained access for two days to a recycling plant in New Jersey, which led to access to others in other states and to a body of work that would come to be titled “American Reclamation.” This was all self-funded by the bits and pieces he was drawing in from editorial and resale.

The break.
In New Jersey, in 2008, Stephen spotted a barge loaded full of stripped down subway cars and thus discovered the artificial reef project, wherein these erstwhile MTA cars are shipped to various locations off the US coast and dumped in the ocean to create artificial reefs both for sea-life and for tourism, images of which would become “Next Stop Atlantic.” The company concerned was Weeks Marine, and here began a wonderful relationship. Forward to 2009 and Stephen and his wife are out celebrating her birthday when Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III, makes his amazing landing on the freezing Hudson River. Mallon called Weeks Marine and sure enough they were tasked with retrieving the plane; they commissioned Stephen to photograph the project, bringing him in by tug boat to make an incredible photo essay that made national news. As well as all the licensing, the prints are still selling well in the fine art market.

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How life changed.
Stephen says although he had his body of work of industrial landscapes he didnʼt have a solid assignment piece that he felt was both beautiful and relevant to fine art and for editorial. He says it took real effort to keep the momentum going so he wasnʼt “just a flash in the pan.” It was at another portfolio review that Stephen met Front Room Gallery, based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They offered him a solo show of Flight 1549, and also sold a few prints from “American Reclamation” which led to the suggestion of a solo show of that series, too, in 2010. Now some assignment work began to trickle in, including a trip to Brazil to shoot Petrobas for Fortune Magazine.

“All this time, the 5D Mark II is on the market, and people are talking about video. I equated it a lot to when clients began to ask for digital,” he says. For a while, people would still hire Stephen even when he said “no” to the question of whether he was capturing video, but he knew the time was coming when heʼd need to be able to say “yes.” Heʼd made a “bad” time-lapse around 2008, and only tinkered with the style since. In 2011 Weeks Marine called to say they were delivering a bridge by barge in New York, and was he interested in covering it? Stephen saw the perfect time-lapse project. He scouted the whole route, setting up cameras along the way, in the yard, and on the barge. The film was submitted to festivals, picked up by the Wall Street Journal, and got a lot of attention online. Stephen feels this was the catalyst for his time-lapse future.

The next big step was winning a contract to work for the City of New Yorkʼs Department of Transport – he produced a wonderful time-lapse for the Citibike program.

“I had been dropping my portfolio off at the New York Times pretty much my entire career – 10, maybe 15 years!” says Stephen, when eventually they saw some of his time-lapse work online, and wanted to meet. They loved what he was doing: “Kathy Ryan tried to hire me a couple of times but security at the locations we wanted to shoot in kept on stopping the projects from moving forward.” It wasnʼt until 2013 that she found the right assignment for him: to make a time-lapse over two days and two nights of set changes at the Metropolitan Opera. This video went on to win the Communication Arts photo annual award, and was accepted for the PDN photo annual.

The cost of video production.
“Day rates are pretty much the same for video as for stills – the photographerʼs fee hasnʼt gone up, but Iʼm shooting with seven cameras at a time, I need assistants to set up and monitor them, then thereʼs the cost of post, the editor, and audio licensing. I am busier than I ever have been, itʼs phenomenal, but no, Iʼm not making tons of money. When the budget is there, we put in enough post which covers color correction and rendering. The editorʼs fee is a separate line item, accounting for all the video editing and a couple of revisions. Weʼre always buying hard drives – a terabyte a month! Someone has to pay because we are archiving all these jobs.”

Mallon has been buying camera bodies, one job at a time: he has five digital SLRs and two GoPros so he doesnʼt always need to rent although he does say he could always use one more camera. He is more comfortable shooting live video capture now, and enjoying mixing time-lapse and video in the same piece (he has just finished another job for the DOT, made over 18 months, that mixes time-lapse and regular footage.)

Skills for the future.
“Editing video, the whole aspect of sequence, timing, speed, music, it was a whole new experience for me.” Now heʼs so much more familiar with it all, heʼd like to get a bit more long-form documentary work and is meeting with TV production companies. Heʼs enjoying video but also continues to love shooting stills: “It reminds me how much easier it is to make a photograph than it is to shoot video” he says, laughing.

So far this year Stephen is most proud of a piece made for New Yorkʼs Armory exhibition hall, the result of two years keeping in touch with an ad agency which eventually recommended Mallon to time-lapse the setting up of The Armory Show.

Looking to the future, he believes interactivity is going to be key. In a job heʼs working on now, a public awareness campaign about crossing the road, the conversation turned to how to make a video motion-sensitive, to turn it into an interactive smart-board. He believes he will need to be able to deliver multimedia components, potentially build apps for his clients, teaming up with tech and design professionals.

Stephen Mallon has a solo show this fall 2014 at the Waterfront Museum and a solo show at NYU in early 2015. You can view his work here: stephenmallon.com

Francis Alÿs

The rainfall was relentless, like a Kenyan endurance runner. The windshield wipers were working hard, and I hoped my friend’s brakes were new. (I also hoped he wasn’t impaired by the two huge whiskeys I watched him down at the Irish bar we just left.)

Only in New York City can it take so much bloody time to go from one village to the next. (In this case, West to East.) I was late, so I was a bit anxious. The whole plan was my idea, and now I was the one mucking it up.

We were en route to Cooper Union, where I was to meet up with my photo buddies Richard and Jaime. Two more intelligent, menschy guys, you’d never expect to meet. As soon as we arrived, I skidded out of the Honda Pilot and dashed across the street. (Only to realize I was in the right spot a moment earlier. Look before you leap into traffic, I always say.)

Our destination was a lecture by the super-duper Art Star Francis Alÿs, who’s from Belgium but based in Mexico City. (Just because someone is super-famous in the Art World doesn’t mean you’ve heard of him.) As I’ve said before, your lowest-IQ Reality TV Star would likely have a larger Twitter following.

But I had heard of him, and had seen a few of his videos online. The Lord only knows how much he charges for his limited edition pieces, repped by David Zwirner and shown at MoMA, but it’s all online for free.

Think about that. In an Art World replete with private vaults, this dude puts it out there for all of us. I’d seen a video where he’s accosted by neighborhood dogs in rural Mexico, one where he set a fox loose in a Museum at night, and the renown piece where he dragged a block of ice behind him until it melted to nothing. He also dashed into a dust-storm/mini-tornado in the name of art.

Great stuff.

As I mentioned previously, though, I mucked up the plan. I told Richard it started 30 minutes after it did, so he waited in the lobby for me while it all got started. Jaime, not privy to that round of texting, got a good seat right in center.

Richard and I? We had to sit on the cold concrete floor, with obstructed views, dripping our rain-soak all over ourselves. It was murder on our posteriors, so time was never going to be unlimited. 20 minutes max. Fortunately, we got lucky.

The talk was so casual, the searching for digital video files on his laptop so comical, I couldn’t believe this guy was as important as he is. Very distracted-professor sort of vibe. But he did exude a niceness, it should be said.

He mostly just played videos one at at time on his computer. Two of them were so good, I had to deviate from writing about photobooks to show them to you. (And to re-iterate, the rest of his work is free to view on his website.)

Both pieces were made in Afghanistan. Much is being made these days of European artists making “art” about war zones. (i.e. Richard Mosse in the Congo.) Personally, I think it’s great when artists try to make content out of genuinely important subjects. Or in dangerous places.

But Art, at it’s core, is about transformation. And news is about documentation. No one has written more about the 21st Century blurred lines than I have, but I’ve begun to contemplate the differences between the now-morphed traditions.

This video, from his Children’s games series, shows a phenomenon Mr. Alÿs observed when he was doing his research. Kids rolling tires with a stick. A practically ancient way to amuse oneself. (Richard mentioned seeing it in this painting by Bruegel.)

The video is cheeky and fun. Thoughtful for sure. But it’s a document of something that was already happening. It’s first level reproduction. I see something. I capture it. It is depicted.

From that, Mr. Alÿs said, he imagined “Reel-Unreel.” It is longer, and I saw only an excerpt. But I practically stopped breathing. You’re in Kabul. It feels like you’re there with the camerawork. Some screen text says that when the Taliban took over, they tried to eradicate the films in the National Archive. Burn them.

Some people fooled them into thinking they got the master sets, but those had been moved. (That text is at the end of the video we’re showing.) So the boys in the “created” video roll a cinema reel through the dirt streets. You can almost smell the truck exhaust. Eventually, one of the reels falls over a cliff.

I forgot about my soggy pants, and uncomfortable ass. I was transported somewhere else. It was a captivating couple of minutes. And that’s why I’m writing about it a month later.

Great art distills. It catalyzes one idea into another through symbolism and craftsmanship. It’s not direct, like documentation. That’s a strength, I think, when it’s done right. Our subconscious speaks in symbols through our dreams. Art, therefore, can circumvent the intellect.

It’s why I love it so much, especially the best of it.
To be clear, it’s not impossible for documentary work to do that. Just much harder. Literality is for lawyers, after all.

Roger Fenton Crimean War

In the sixth grade, we did a project on the cultural traditions of a foreign country. We had to write reports in our chicken-scratch-children’s penmanship, and some kids cooked food as well. One Korean student brought in some Bul Go Gi, and it was delicious.

I ended up with Yugoslavia, about which I knew next to nothing. Fortunately, a family friend had started importing Yugos to the US, so at least I could talk about that.

A less-than-educated young person might reasonably ask, “What is Yugoslavia?” Or, rather, “Where is Yugoslavia?” Because it doesn’t exist on the map, I can assure you.

Most of us know, of course, that Yugoslavia was a created 20th Century entity, a post-war land mush that brought together some version of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and probably a few territories I’m neglecting. They’re still around, of course, as are the people who live there. But the country, the geo-political entity, is dead.

Similarly, I just read a piece in the New Yorker that was nominally about the television industry in Turkey. (Yes, I’ve officially become the kind of guy who references the New Yorker all the time.) I say nominally, because the real subject was the manner in which the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is highlighting historical connections to the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire, rather than the small and relatively weak Turkish republic that was built, again post-war, by Ataturk.

Closer to home, I can tell you that here in New Mexico, there are certain people, whose ancestors have been here for generations, who resent the mass culture of the United States. You can occasionally feel tension in the air. Why? I might point to the fact that the US essentially annexed New Mexico. Or stole it, if you will. And that was only shortly after the land was called Mexico, having recently freed itself from the country called Spain.

What I’m trying to say here, if you haven’t caught the gist, is that history is all about the long view. Names change, but dirt doesn’t. (Unless it’s being violated to reach its mineral goodies, but that’s another rant for a different day.)

The big news, in our age, is that we are all hyper-aware of what is going on everywhere, all the time. That is a radical change to the way we live our lives. So big, in fact, that no one has had the chance to really process the results of the shift.

But we see the effects every day. Take Crimea, for instance. A week ago, that word might have been meaningless to you. (I say might, as I’m aware that this audience is highly educated and up-to-date.) Now everyone knows it as a territory in the country called Ukraine that was just invaded by a country called Russia.

Russia? We’ve all heard of that place. Except when I was young, it was called the Soviet Union, and included the country now (and formerly) known as Ukraine. Names change, but greed and aggressive behavior do not. They are, and I’d venture to say will always be, a part of human nature.

When we look at a globe, or a map, it seems so permanent. Built or plotted, the objects refer to information with a sense of certainty. This is here, that is there. If you go too far in one direction, you might fall off the face of the Earth. (Sorry, forgot that one has been debunked already.)

Of course, we know that the information encoded in maps changes all the time. They’re no more accurate than a restaurant menu from 10 years ago. That’s just the way it is.

We live these dramas in real time, and the pain, misery, and tragedy they engender are not to be made light of. I feel for the people who die in wars, or who die from lack of clean water, or who have to watch their family members killed by horrible forces of darkness that will never face retribution. (Until they do, one, two or three generations down the line.)

The point is, (should I actually have one,) that we’re now judging the news on a minute to minute basis, but the root causes of said “news” go back decades, centuries, or millennia. And that is the kind of information least served by Social Media. You couldn’t possibly know about the Taos revolt that killed Governor Charles Bent in 1847, just like I don’t know who ruled Crimea before the Soviets.

Sure, we have access to so much information via Google, but that’s not the same thing as genuine, lived, history. It’s just not.

So while I could easily mock the monster Putin, and put this all on him, it seems too simplistic. He is the unchallenged leader of a country that has long lived with strongmen, and has a history of territorial aggression. Anyone who was surprised by his behavior wasn’t paying attention.

How many non-Americans might point to the US invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein? How many people might suggest the situations parallel? I couldn’t say, but I’m sure they’re out there. (And some of them probably work for the Russian propaganda agency.)

I can’t tell you who ruled Crimea in the 19th Century, and I can’t tell you how this latest crisis will play itself out. If I could, I’d be working for Obama by now.

But I can tell you that sometime in 2013, I had a unique experience in which I got to see, first-hand, what a shitstorm looked like in Crimea in the aforementioned 19th Century. How was that possible? (I bet you’ll guess it’s through the wonder of photography…)

In September, I paid a brief visit to the Prints and Photographs division at the Library of Congress. The Library actually functions like one, which is a bit of a shock. It’s free, and anyone can come in and personally request to “check out” work from the collection.

So I did.

I was handed a stack of plastic-protected prints by the famed, and perhaps brilliant photographer Roger Fenton. I’ve written of him previously, as he stole the show at the “War/Photography” exhibition I saw last year in Houston.

It was a rare pleasure to get to look at the pictures, to hold them in my hands, and connect visually and viscerally to a strange place in a time that had passed away into non-existence. Rare only because I live far from Washington, DC. If you live on the East Coast of the US, you could go often, and look at work not on the wall, but in your immediate physical space.

What did I learn about Crimea, or at least about a slice of the Crimean War?

Look at the collection of rebels, rapscallions, roughnecks, and killers. They obviously come from all over the world, as the costumes will attest. There are a lot of dirty faces, scruffy beards, and hardened tough guys. My goodness.

We can see it’s a desolate place, or was. And we can guess that any conflict with that many warring parties must be messy, confusing, and dangerous. Why would they all be there, fighting? My first guess would be that there’s something of value? Natural resources, maybe? Oil?

Or just as likely, it probably has a geographical significance. Control of a major body of water? Access to a port, or a military high ground? Maybe some or all of these things, as you wouldn’t get a global crusade of treasure-loving-war mongers fighting against each other in a god-forsaken land for nothing.

That’s the lesson we can learn, when we engage with history. Our troubles and triumphs are not as unique as we’d like to believe. Occasionally, I admit I’ll get caught up in the moment. The Arab Spring was such a time.

The optimism blinded me to the reality: Men with guns rule the day. They always have, and they always will. The best we can achieve is a society where the rule of law dictates who gets to use the guns, and when. We have that here in America, and I get to live in peace. (For which I am extremely grateful.)

But we too have been an imperial power, and unspeakable evil has been committed in our name. In the name of Freedom.

So let’s all hope that this latest international crisis ends swiftly, and well. Let’s hope the people of Crimea can go back to a more peaceful existence, and that the Russian tanks roll back to Moscow.

But I won’t be holding my breath. That’s for sure.

Calvary camp, looking towards Kadikoi

Calvary camp, looking towards Kadikoi

Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B.

Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B.

General Cissé, chief of the staff to General Bosquet, & aide-de-camp

General Cissé, chief of the staff to General Bosquet, & aide-de-camp

Colonel Doherty, officers & men of the 13th Light Dragoons

Colonel Doherty, officers & men of the 13th Light Dragoons

Ismail Pacha on horseback, with Turkish officers

Ismail Pacha on horseback, with Turkish officers

Zoave and officer of the Saphis

Zoave and officer of the Saphis

Cornet Wilkin, 11th Hussars

Cornet Wilkin, 11th Hussars

Balaklava, from Guard's Hill

Balaklava, from Guard’s Hill

Lieutenant Yates, 11th Hussars

Lieutenant Yates, 11th Hussars

The valley of the shadow of death

The valley of the shadow of death