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.
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.
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…
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.
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.