Category "From The Field"

Impressions from Portlandia

 

It took me 23 hours to get home from London yesterday.

No lie.

It was a walk to a train to a walk to a plane to a walk to a plane to a walk to a train to a walk to a 4.5 hour car ride.

And it was so, so, worth it.

So very, very worth it. (Trust me, the stories will be crazy!)

But London will have to wait for a bit, as I’ll likely intersperse some of those articles with the pieces we’ll be doing soon about the Best Work I Saw at the Photolucida Festival in Portland.

Not today, though.

Today, rather than drop you into London, May 2019, where about 30% of my brain still seems to reside, I want to think back, just a few weeks, to my odyssey of a trip in Portland.

Seeing the East Coast, West Coast, and then Europe in 6 six weeks is not really something I could have planned.

It just happened.

Each city has its own particular flavor, its special brand of cool, and while London may be my favorite global megapolis at the moment, Portland is a proper little, boutique city in comparison.

I flew in to Portland from Albuquerque, (via Phoenix,) and almost immediately I knew I was “there.”

Walk out the offramp, there was a Columbia outerwear store, a Pendleton blanket stand, an “Only in Oregon” wine shop, and so many cute locally owned restaurants you could blind-fold yourself, spin around, point at any of them, and it would likely be good.

(Vietnamese? Thai? Pizza? Deli? And so on.)

Returning home, I noticed a sign that said that the law required all stores to charge the same prices in the airport as they do in-town. So my amazing Pad See Yew noodles were only 8 bucks, and I saw bottles of water for sale for $1.25.

It’s the kind of thing they might mock on “Portlandia,” but really, what’s not to like?

Mostly, I think that’s my take away from Portland.

What’s not to like?

Separate your preconceived notions about twee, or meet-cutes, or whatever Carrie and Fred might have mocked, and I thought Portland was rad in just about every way.

I admit, though, I was a bit disoriented at first. Coming into the city from the airport.

Like any good city should, you can grab a train right there, (light rail in this case,) that will bring you right into the heart of town for something like $2.50, in 45 or 50 minutes.

All the way along, through, we were in tight corridors. And everything was green and lush!

Tree canopy

Train tracks cut into ravines. Or buildings pressed in on either side.

Always pressing.

I couldn’t get a sense of where I was?

It felt like the route was pinched in.
Claustrophobic.

It was weird, which was a word I heard like 573 times during the week I was in Portland.

Weird, weird, weird. (Fedora stores and steam-punk style and Satan bars.)

By the time the train found the city proper, the buildings had crept even closer, and the entire train corridor and street were seemingly 40 feet wide.

I could barely breathe.

If I were Rodney Dangerfield, and had a collar to loosen, I would have done so in just that moment.

Gulp.

But then, and only then, did the train pass the basketball arena, make a sharp bank to the Southwest, and cross the Willamette River on a multi-purpose bridge.

Steel Bridge

Whoosh!

All of a sudden, your eye is torn in two directions at once.

The cute, shiny downtown in the glowy-evening-light, set against some green hills to the Southwest, and then, off to the North, on the East bank of the river, a huge working tanker ship at an old industrial shipping dock, right there in the heart of the city.

They literally sit opposite each other.

The working, worn, and maybe-less-than-shabby-chic part of Portland, the timber town that still has logs floating in the river, to the trendy, foodie, hipster, cultured, amazing, progressive city it’s become.

But as soon as that big open view was there, it was gone.

Poof.

And we were back in the congested feeling again, on the other side of the river.

I’m not sure this is correct from above, but I felt like downtown Portland was a blanket you’ve thrown on the ground, and it folds in weird ways.

When you’re in the folds, you can’t see the blanket. (If you’re a small spider, for example.)

But my first full day, after my first session reviewing at the festival, I went on a long walk with my good friend Heather, heading back to the river to cross at the Steel Bridge, before making it back on one of the more southern bridges, which was high enough for the first big view.

Mt. Hood.
Covered in snow, conical and majestic, looming to the East.

That helped a little.

It wasn’t until the next day, though, when I climbed the biggest hill I could find to Washington Park, and then jumped on a statue pedestal to get higher, that I felt like I could breathe.

I caught a big vantage, oriented myself in space in a new town, and then things settled in nicely, vibe-wise.

Truth be told, Mary Jane is legal in Portland, as it is in Colorado, and I went to a cool dispensary called Serra, with a buddy, and picked up a little something for the off hours. (The place was both stylish and reasonably priced, and the staff was nice. Thumbs up for sure.)

Walking to Washington Park

As my Park Walk was free time, after I did my Lewis-and-clark-like survey from a peak, I dropped a bit deeper into the park, and was immediately surrounded by 100+ft tall trees.

Entrance to Washington Park

Doing my Lewis and Clark impression, I bump into a statue in their honor

View from the Pedestal

So beautiful.

But once I turned another corner, I saw a swing set, up the way.

Nobody was there, nor was anyone even around.

Noticing swing sets was more a parent-move than stoner-sensation, but soon I was there, partaking in public, (maybe a no-no, but again, no one was even around,) and then I set my stuff down.

And started swinging.

Above me, the sky was purple-blue, and the trees were touching its belly like they were tickling a new dog.

Up, I pumped the legs.

UP.

Soon, I was as high as I could go, and then I leaned back and stared up at those trees as the motion made my belly feel like Free Fall at Great Adventure in Jersey circa 1996.

For a moment, I wasn’t a Dad.
Or a portfolio reviewer.

I wasn’t a writer.
Or an artist.

I wasn’t a Democrat.
Or a martial artist.

I was a kid on a swing set, truly, humbly amazed at the beauty of the sky, and the trees, and the flowers around me.

All the while, hoping that I wouldn’t let go, or lose my grip, or vomit all over myself.

(No vomits in Portland, but I did have a proper incident in London. We’ll get to that another time.)

After playing, I headed back down the hill into downtown, and everywhere, there are clusters of street food stalls.

One after the other. With infrastructure and everything.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a street food culture like that anywhere in the US, and again: what’s not to like?

There is much more to tell, including clueing you guys in on some of the places I ate and drank, (including one bar you will NOT believe I went to,) but those will come in future articles.

I promise.

Rather, as I’ve been all praise so far, I want to keep it real and point out that Portland, too-nice or not, is far from perfect.

No place is.

Public green on the Willamette River

The stereotype of the “Portland Street Dude” that you have in your head is very real, as is the “Portland Street Dude with Pitbull,” a difficult subset of the culture.

So many gaunt, sad-looking white guys with obvious drug problems, and no proper home.

The homelessness crisis is not quite as dramatic as it is in California, but it is pretty damn obvious in Portland too.

Really, it made me think, as I’ve pieced my West Coast travel together in the past few years, that there is a permanent street class now that rivals what we saw in all those photographs of the Great Depression.

It’s a hard fact, and one that California, Oregon, and (probably) Washington will have to grapple with heavily in the coming decade.

Not to leave you on a downer, but I’m pretty jet lagged at the moment, and just dropped 1500 words on you, so I think we’ll call it a day.

PS: I got a shiny new iPhone in Portland, so as of my London trip, we’ll have 4k video and much improved photographic technology on these articles going forward.

The Best Work I Saw at the Denver Portfolio Walk

 

Tick tock, goes the clock.

Tick tock.

It’s counting down the minutes until I need to pull out of my driveway tomorrow.

(Tick tock.)

It’s an early departure to drive 5 hours to Denver, fly to Charlotte, change planes, and then end up in London on Thursday morning.

(If everything goes as it should.)

I’d by lying if I said I was back to normal after the NYC/NJ and Portland double-double.

I’m not normal at all.

But, (and this is a big BUT,) every now and again, being jet-lagged can be a good thing. Like my wife said, right now, for me, it’s the equivalent of hair of the dog.

Since I already feel like that, I should be able to get a lot more accomplished. (If I don’t sleep, so what? I’ll sleep for a week when I get home.)

If I get hungover, so what?

I won’t drink again for months.

London and more await, but first I have to get through SO MANY THINGS on my To-Do list, then pack, and then wake up before dawn too drive over the Rocky Mountains.

The likelihood of the sun being in my eyes as I drive East over La Veta Pass tomorrow? 100%!

All that hustle to get to Denver, because the flights were 1/3 the price of flying out of Albuquerque, which is two hours closer to my house.

$500 vs $1500?

One is doable, the other is not. (Editor’s note: I did pay to upgrade my seats later today, as they were going to put me in the middle, near the toilet, with no overhead bin space.)

So Denver International Airport it was.

The Mile High city.
Home of the Broncos and the Denver Nuggets.

A boom-town for sure, but are they all, these days? The good ones, I mean?

It is one thing I’ve begun to notice, as I’ve traveled around the past year or two. It seems like Denver, San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland and NYC are all booming.

Cranes everywhere.

Perhaps it’s time to extrapolate all those numbers about the rapid urbanization of America? I mean, I can’t speak to Des Moines, or Little Rock, or Baltimore, but I just read that they’re expecting 50% of America living in 8 states in the coming years.

That’s nuts.

People flock to places like Denver because of the confluence of economic opportunity, world class leisure activities, high-end-bougie-lifestyle, like-minded politics, clean air, (for now,) and (at this point) we have to mention legal marijuana too.

Denver just grows and grows. (Higher and Higher.)

Ask anyone who’s been around the Rocky Mountain West the last 25 years, and miles of what were once open prairie or farms, all along the I-25 corridor, have become suburbs to the point that distinct cities have nearly merged.

The Colorado Springs-Denver-Boulder-Ft.Collins metropolitan area is massive, with a serious population, and it’s nearly seamless in 2019.

(Nearly. There are still a few pockets in between, and even in places like Boulder, farms still maintain micro-pockets, like Gunbarrel.)

I was last up in Denver in late March, as you may know, because I wrote about my exploits here. It was a travel piece, sure, but it also set up the premise of today’s article.

In order to visit a few friends, I drove up to Denver to attend the open portfolio night at the Month of Photography 2019, which took place in downtown Denver on a Saturday night.

I parked in a spot that while convenient to the hotel bars, seemed like it would feel sketchy by the end of the night, and sure enough, I was griping my pocket knife like it was a Hattori Hanzu sword.

But that was the end of the night.

I turned up at the space, and after heading up the stairs, I met a very large crowd. The event was definitely well attended, but there was little of the pushing and shoving that you get in other cities. (Maybe none? I’m not sure anyone pushed or shoved at all.)

Almost immediately, after saying hi to a lot of people, I decided to look at the work seriously, and I met Stephanie Burchett, who reminded me we’d hung out at an after party at Medium in San Diego last October.

(For the record, as I learned the other week in Portland, I always remember a person’s name, work, face, or the circumstances under which we met. Sometimes some of the above, but always one.)

Stephanie had recently graduated from an MFA program in Tucson, and was displaying a small fabrication of images on both sides of the border wall.

I asked if it was a mockup, and she seemed surprised, even though she admitted she made large scale installation in grad school.

It was only meant to be what it was, she said. And I kind of like that, as its intent makes it weird and a little sad. Throw in the video-still she showed me from a grad school show, in which she facial recognition tagged white people in lynching photos, and I knew there was material in Denver to publish.

I told Stephanie that if I could find even a few more people to feature, I’d do an article. Then it became a game and a race, because my friends had worked all day, and wanted to leave to party.

Needless to say, there were enough people, or there would be no article.

 

So rather than go in order, which we never do anyway, I’ll tell you about Ellen Friedlander.

Ellen was one of those few people who stick in my mind, because these days, I try to publish as much work as I can. Very rarely, I’ll say no to someone, and then think about it afterwards, because I feel like perhaps I should have given them the benefit of the doubt.

Ellen qualifies, as I met her at Medium in October as well, (small circuit, the portfolio reviews,) and we spent the entire 20 minutes, or most of it, doing critical feedback. I spent so much time telling her how to improve that I didn’t really get to evaluate her work properly.

Well, here Ellen was, and with her daughter and sister to boot! I got to tell all three that I regretted not helping her, and then I offered to publish her work on the spot.

There was a very happy woman before me, it’s true, but she also said that the critique had been very helpful, and that her new work had grown as a result.

A win win for sure. As to the pictures, they’re street photography horizontal composites, as Ellen spent years living in Hong Kong, and traveling the world.

Chris Sessions was a good sport about my smash-and-grab approach. My friend and colleague, Jennifer Murray, the Executive Director of Filter Photo told me I needed to see his stuff, and within ONE photograph, I knew we were good to go.

Chris is doing a long-term personal project on Charros, Mexican horse riders in the greater Denver area. The image of the dude hovering in air may be one of the best individual photographs I’ve ever seen at a review.

A lot of what I saw that night was not to my taste, which is not uncommon in non-juried reviews. The community spirit and vitality are as important as anything. But it does mean that the good work jumps right out.

Especially when the light/color/sky leap off of an indoor table, at night, under artificial lighting conditions.

That’s what happened with Kevin Hoth.

I saw the images, told him who I was, and said I’d like to show them just for how beautiful they were.

Aren’t they?

Speaking of beauty, I thought Angela Faris Belt poetic landscapes were also gorgeous. Exquisite.

But then I learned they depict ancient, endangered Bristlecone Pines, and she photographed with expired Polaroid film.

Normally I’d write more, but sometimes it isn’t necessary.

It’s funny how sometimes you need to travel to see people from back home. (Not far, in this case.) I went up to Philip V. Augustin’s table like a shark, as he’s a Santa Fe guy, and I’ve seen his work many times over the years.

I wanted to look at some of his perfect gelatin silver prints, made of real light shapes in the studio. Coincidentally, I saw a few on the wall, framed, at Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe last Thursday, and they were really sharp.

Last, but not least, (as I often say,) we have Carl Bower, who I met on the portfolio review circuit 9 years ago, and probably hadn’t seen in 6 or 7 years.

I’d known Carl for his work about beauty pageants in Colombia, but this work was very different. The images were presented with text on the white background, as Carl was asking people to discuss their Private Fears, as he used his art to combat the same.

 

NYC in the 21st Century, Part 2

 

Change is hard.

That’s the truth.

As much as change makes us better, though, we rarely seek it out.

People don’t choose it, if left to our own devices. One needs training, which art school often provides, to temper our natural fear of change, and to learn to trust its inherent process.

Most of the time, though, change is thrust upon us.

It drops out of the sky, like an asteroid, ready to lay waste to the dumb dinosaurs below.

That’s far more common, right?

I mentioned this today, (writing on Wednesday,) because by the time you read this, it will likely be public knowledge that the New York Times Lens blog, my erstwhile employer, is shutting down at the end of this month.

Dead.
Done.
Kaput.

You guys know me, and writing as I do here, straight from me to you, is my particular speciality. Yet for 6 years, I learned how to write like a proper journalist.

No fucks, or shits. No first person narrative.

Thanks, NYT, I appreciate it!

But I only wrote a handful of times a year at Lens, by the end, and the money won’t make a difference in my life. (Though, like working with teenagers, I’ll miss the action.)

Rather, I feel for all the photographers who won’t be spot-lit across the globe. That blog had reach, and reach can = impact.

Speaking from experience, having “The Value of a Dollar” go viral from Lens MADE my photo career. That work is on the wall in a museum in Germany now, in 2019, and that never, ever would have happened without Lens.

These days, there are other places to publish such work. Sure. But for the photographers, losing Lens means losing opportunities.

And other places will have to pick up the slack.

Here in my column in APE, I’ll tell you that we intend to do just that.

For the rest of the summer, we’ll have portfolio review articles, exhibition reviews, and adventure pieces from the field. Between Denver, Portland, and wherever the hell I end up in Europe next week, there will be many stories to tell.

And I intend to show you the work of DOZENS of photographers.

There will be much to see, and after years of book reviews, we’re going to chill a bit on that, and bring them back at the end of summer. (Unless I need a brief break from all the action.)

Speaking of action, given the headline on this piece, I should be talking about my take on New York City and New Jersey in the 21st Century.

The Big Apple, and one of its primary suburban arms.
(Two thirds of the Tri-State Area, if you will.)

When last I left you, we’d talked about the development of NYC architecture, specifically Hudson Yards, and how a new NYC was rising in the ashes of the old.

View of Hudson Yards from the South

Global replacing local.

Sure enough, when I spoke with a long-time New Yorker in Portland, and mentioned that I’d written about the Hudson Yards Project, his first comment was to complain about how it impacts locals.

I shit you not.

The first words out of his mouth.

Change is not only scary, but it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Particularly, when people aren’t actively working to embrace change: to learn and grow from it on purpose.

(Or when they perpetually get the crap end of the stick b/c of Capitalism, Racism, etc.)

I’ve had some nasty headaches the last few weeks, and I’m sure it’s because I’ve been pushing myself so hard to have new experiences this past month.

Making new neural pathways makes us smarter and better, but I’ve found that it can nearly cause a migraine. (As did all the Op-Art I saw in Portland, but that’s another story for a different day.)

Whether it’s the New York Times deciding there’s no money in a photojournalism blog, or a proud city regaining it’s mojo in 2019, change is only predictable in its unpredictability.

So while I can laud NYC for its ability to provide the most amazing 14 miles of eating, walking and looking a husband and wife could ask for, and will tell you about it briefly, I get that the “New” New York has more than its share of detractors.

As I’m pretending to be my former mentor Tony Bourdain for the summer, (#RIP Tony,) I’ll first share that Grand Sichuan, on 9th between 24th & 25th, on the edge of the Chelsea galleries, is totally boss.

I love it, have always loved it, and recommend it highly.

As Jessie and I ate our cold spicy noodles and egg rolls, sipping our (complimentary) tea on an extended walking break, she reminded me of the time my cousin Ron took us there for the night with his wife.

Back in the early aughts.

Ron was something of a foodie, had gone to culinary school, and knew to order off the Chinese Only menu. (We had chicken that was killed that afternoon.)

We drank, ate too much, and laughed all night. A few months later, Jessie and I had Christmas dinner at Ron’s house, and decided to move back to New Mexico.

Unfortunately, Ron died a few years later.

He was one of the early victims of the opioid epidemic. A nice Jewish guy from Jersey.

The canary in the coal mine.

(Hard to segue off of this, now that I think about it, so let’s just keep going.)

Jessie and I ate our way across New York, and thank god we were burning the calories.

Concrete architecture at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel

Because as soon as we walked East from the Tribeca waterfront, near the Holland Tunnel this time, we stumbled, quite literally, upon the cronut place.

THE cronut place.

Dominique Ansel Bakery

Dominique Ansel Bakery. We read a sign about the line as we were walking by, but there were only 5 people in it. So we joined up, waited a few minutes, and then had some great coffee and pastries.

The salted caramel eclair was divine, the almond coconut chocolate croissant was really good, and the Nutella milk bread was highly disappointing.

They have a lovely outdoor courtyard that was quiet and spacious, which I highly recommend, and the massive Cafe Au Lait powered me up for the walk back to our hotel in Koreatown.

At the recommendation of Darren Ching, of Brooklyn’s Klompching gallery, we went across the street from our hotel to Madangsui, a Korean BBQ place, and ended up eating everything the next morning as breakfast. (As I told you in Part 1.) The food was brilliant: kimchee pancake, and a stone bowl bulgogi bibimbap that the waitress turned over table-side.

Koreatown

Yes, we ate in New York. The food was so good, and surprisingly affordable. As for the art, Jessie and I visited the Rubin Museum, in Chelsea, and saw some transcendental Tibetan and Buddhist work, including a re-created shrine that gave me goosebumps.

Recreations of Buddhist art depicting Yogic poses.

Five stars for sure.

But anyone can tell you about New York City.

New Jersey, though, requires a deft touch. (Me and David Chase. A short list.)

New Jersey never really changes, I thought. The shore, the nasty refineries along the Turnpike.

Bruce Springsteen, and the Best Pizza in America.
Skee ball and strip malls and Down-to-Earth people.

The world I knew was made of 2nd and 3rd generation Americans, the children and grand-children of immigrants who arrived at and ultimately fled New York City.

Mostly Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Jewish-Americans, with some Central European/Slavic folks thrown in there as well.

In my town, though, we also had a large contingent of Asian-Americans, which was somewhat rare. (Back then, I didn’t distinguish between Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans, as I would now.)

We had all sorts of Asian-Americans growing up in my hometown of Holmdel, NJ, because there was a gargantuan Bell Labs facility in the center of town.

A massive complex, set a half-mile back off the road, with a trippy-ass-space-ship looking tower in the front, which was as strange as it sounds.

For the uninitiated, Bell Labs was an offshoot of Alexander Graham Bell, and for much of the 20th Century was the most important research facility in the world.

In the world?

Sure. Why not.
Along with Livermore and Los Alamos, I guess.

It was right there in the heart of Holmdel, a place where they discovered, invented or refined radio wave technology, lasers, internet stuff, and all sorts of things.

It was a Nobel Prize factory, in the middle of corn fields that had been tended by Dutch colonists since the 17th Century. (Legit 1600’s for sure.)

And then…

Mergers. Breakups. Bankruptcies.

All of a sudden, it was Lucent, and then it was gone.

Out of business.
Permanently.

So an enormous building sat there empty, for years, reeking of the ghosts of America’s past

Until…

Now.
2019.

The present.

An Orthodox Jewish developer came along, called it Bell Works, and turned the entire Saarinen-designed-space into a mixed use development. Hotel, conference center, restaurants, shops, an indoor soccer field.

What?
And indoor soccer field?

Bell Works

Saarinen’s design touch.

The Holmdel Public Library moved in, and they have a museum area dedicated to Bell Labs and its history. Plus, the place backs up on public park land, so it can be accessed on foot as well as by car.

I was flabbergasted.

Jessie and I ate samosas from an Indian-American-run convenience store INSIDE Bell Labs. With tamarind and cilantro chutneys. And it was really good!

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, you could have pizza or Chinese food, burgers in bar joints, or maybe Jewish Deli, and that was about it.

But it’s not the 20th Century anymore.

Not by a long shot.

And New Jersey, like its big brother NYC, also suffered tremendously from Hurricane Sandy as well, which I wrote about here back in 2013 or ’14. (Even I lose track sometimes.)

Sure enough, just like NYC, the Jersey Shore, which had been annihilated by Sandy, is now thriving.

Booming. Exploding!

I read in the Star Ledger that Pier Village, a shore development in Long Branch that DID NOT EXIST when I was in high school, was adding an additional 450 condominium units.

450!

And then I went there, as my buddy Felt moved into an ocean-front apartment last year. (My wife and I helped him decorate the place on a stoner ramble through NYC last April that I didn’t write about…)

Me and Felt, (who’s real name is Matt,) hung out at the Bat Mitzvah in North Jersey that drew me East, where thankfully the Italian-American food was flowing, and I drank Hennessy all day like it was going out of style.

Then I got to visit Felt’s apartment a couple of days later, and walked down a corridor so long that I got scared of “The Shining,” forgot about the reference, and then got scared of “The Shining” again, because the walk was 3 minutes long.

Looking Northeast at Pier Village

Looking Southeast at Pier Village

That’s how big they’re building these things.

And as Sandy destroyed so many buildings, clearing land, new developments were everywhere, trying to peddle chic.

Chic?

“South Beach at Long Branch” is a thing.

It’s not a joke. It’s real.

My theory is that once the Millennials decided Asbury Park was cool, as it gentrified, and they lacked the same biases against Jersey that their parents had, (Hamptons or bust,) it only made sense that these other beach towns, closer and MORE accessible, would start getting hot.

But trendy?
Like Miami?

I don’t buy it.

Rather, I think anyone who hangs out at the Jersey Shore will just end up getting Jersified.

So do ya-self a favuh, eat some great calamari at Rockafellers, ride some waves this summuh, and make sure ta tell ya friends.

You know what I’m sayin’?

My Aunt and kids after dinner at Rockafellers.

 

NYC in the 21st Century, Part 1

 

I’m just back from New York, and am off to Portland tomorrow, where I’ll be when this article drops.

(Yes, I have a headache.)

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and there’s plenty more to come, so today it’s time to tell you what I observed, as a journalist, in New York and New Jersey earlier this month.

It’s important to date it, because in 2019, these places I know so well have finally stood up tall and joined the 21st Century.

Proudly.

They’ve developed, or grown, in ways that feel authentic, and at times exciting. (As someone who grew up and lived there.) It’s a funny word to use, development, because among a certain political class, it’s almost always seen as a bad thing.

Gentrification –> Development = Low-income residents getting pushed out.

That’s normally the equation, and I get it. (My MFA thesis project in 2004 was about corn fields in my suburban hometown getting turned into McMansions.)

Sure, it was a Dutch farming village for 300 years before my parents got there, but I didn’t want those farms to become more suburbs.

No more people like me moving in to spoil it!

I gentrified the Southern end of the Mission District in San Francisco in 1999, and then Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2002, and left both places as they were getting too trendy.

Hell, Jessie and I moved back to Taos in 2005 expecting hordes of Gen Xers to follow us, but instead it’s been the Millennials who’ve gotten in on the action in the last three or four years.

All of which is to say, I’ve been a gentrifier, and one who took pains at each new farm that was plowed under for another house like my own.

In general, over the course of my life, I’d say I tended towards the condemnation of massive real estate developments, and appreciated when things stayed the same, as they did in San Francisco for 10 years after I left.

But now, the San Francisco skyline has been ruined by Salesforce, the local culture is supposedly all about tech bros, and I’d have to think hard about how many people I know who live in the city these days, rather than in the surrounding area.

New York City, though, is something different. (As is New Jersey, which we’ll get to in Part 2.)

Yes, it’s my home turf, and I’m biased. I’ve written before that I grew up able to see the Twin Towers from my hometown, gleaming across the bay.

I took it personally when the towers were destroyed in 2001, but I think something of New York’s soul was taken too. Not that it’s people were cowed, because that will never happen.

(Not in my lifetime, anyway.)

Old New York near Herald Square

Rather, the skyline was ruptured so badly, and then the local politicking, which is always dirty in New York, kept the Freedom tower from getting built FOREVER.

Really, you can look it up.

When did the Freedom Tower open to the public?

(Rare Google break…)

OK. I’m back. 2014.

That’s when the first tenant moved in.

It took New York City 13 years to replace it’s iconic Southern anchor to the skyline.

And even then, the building is just OK.

In the interim, there was a phase where some very average looking, minimalistic residential super-towers were built, which made the city lean wrong, and all that visual weight went towards the super-rich, with their part time crash pads. (I accidentally wrote cash pads, which is a good Freudian slip.)

Looking South from the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel

Nowadays, in 2019, finally, I’m thrilled to report that New York City has grown in exciting and beautiful ways. (Revitalizing growth that sometimes gets a bad rap, I think.)

In my experience, New York City has become a global tourism Mecca. In the sense that, like Paris, it now belongs to everyone.

And sometimes that comes at the expense of the locals.

Certainly, Manhattan, Brooklyn and now probably Queens are not affordable for “regular” people. Not unless you live “all-the-fuck-out-there” by the ocean.

And even where I’m from, in New Jersey, or in other outlying areas like Long Island or Westchester, the cost of living is high across the board. (Food, rent/home prices, transportation…)

Manhattan just adopted congestion pricing for the first time, to charge people for driving in the heart of the city, and the cost of tolls at bridges is nearly $20 as is.

In particular, though, I’d like to discuss Hudson Yards, the new mega-development by Stephen Ross, which recently opened in what used to be called Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s in Midtown’s Far West Side.

Approaching Hudson Yards from the North

It was supposedly built on a $1 Billion platform over a railyard, and I’ve seen that tactic used in public parks in Chicago and Dallas to good effect. (In Dallas it was over highway, but still…)

Hudson Yards has gotten panned, from what I’ve heard, because it really was built for rich people, and tourists. (I guess I’m kind of the latter, these days.)

 

Looking East towards Old New York

Looking West to Hudson Yards

Looking up at the Hudson Yards skyscrapers

There are something like six new blue-glass skyscrapers by Starchitects, and they surround a big public courtyard with the the Shed, a public art space, and the massively expensive “Vessel,” a glowing bronze public art project for which you have to get a free ticket.

The Vessel

Getting the shot for Instagram

View from inside the Vessel

Looking down off the platform


It is literally a stairway that goes nowhere, built to be an Instagram backdrop, and it does that job well. I was little confused by the physical placement within the city skyline, if it’s meant to be iconic, but then I noticed this ad in The New Yorker, which about sums up the demographic.

The Vessel is apparently visible from New Jersey

On the lower levels of one of the buildings is a huge shopping mall and food court featuring very expensive and/or trendy brands. (Muji is not fancy, but it is cool.)

I understand my point may be somewhat controversial, but I’ve been to that part of town, over the years, and it was a bit of a wasteland.

I can also attest, at 45, that New York has always been about money.

It’s the heart of Capitalism, for crying out loud.

So as a former resident, and now regular visitor, I accept that it was always going to become too expensive for people like me to actually live there.

Hell, I don’t want to live there.

The air quality and weather suck, and it’s too busy for every day.

But seeing such beautiful, gleaming buildings in Hudson Yards, it inspired me.

They’re gorgeous.

And everywhere you look, including in odd places like the Lower East Side, there are new-looking skyscrapers that balance the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, and support the Freedom Tower, which was never meant to carry downtown alone.

(Brooklyn has tons of new hi-rise buildings too, so many that when my father-in-law last visited in 2004, there were none, he confirmed.)

Sticking with Manhattan, though, Hudson Yards blends right into the northern end of the High Line through Chelsea, which is itself a phenomenal piece of design and public space.

Whereas in the past, right at the junction between the two, there might have been a locally owned pizza place, now, it’s a restaurant by Jose Andres and the Adria Brothers. That’s a massive change, and I can see how some people might hate it. (I still miss the ubiquity of a great slice.)

Between the architecture that’s grown around the High Line, like the Zaha Hadid masterpiece, to the nature planted within it, the High Line is always popular, and rightly so.

(We went twice, and each time it was wall-to-wall people, speaking countless languages.)

The High Line ends in the new Whitney, which conveniently flows into Hudson River park, which goes south along the waterfront along the city.

Looking North from the beginning of the High Line

Zaha Hadid building along the High Line

It’s fantastic, frankly.

And none of it was there when I moved back to town in 2002.

I haven’t mentioned Hurricane Sandy, yet, which hit in 2012, but that was a real punch in the nose for the Tri-State Area.

Given that New York is a money town, between 9/11, the following market crash, the 2008 crash, and then Sandy, the city was properly down on its knees.

Maybe not like the big bad 70s, but New York looked stale, visually, and I’d argue maybe it was.

As cities like Shanghai and Dubai raced towards the future, New York seemed stuck in the past.

But no longer.

On a Pier looking South towards the Freedom Tower

These days, I think it’s pretty badass that New York has opened itself proudly to the world.

It’s thriving, and looks pretty great too. (Except for the garbage on the streets, because New York is always gonna New York.)

There’s so much more to tell, (including a few anecdotes about AIPAD,) but we’re nearing 1500 words, and I’ve got photos this time!

There’s no need to over-do it, so I’ll run it back with Part 2 next week.

Have a good one.

The Best Work I Saw at the LACP Exposure Portfolio Review

 

Almost everything I write is available for free on the internet.

There are a few exceptions, though.

I’ve written essays for two of Alejandro Cartagena’s recent books, the companions: “Santa Barbara Return Jobs to US,” and “Santa Barbara Shame on US.”

These are limited-edition, fine art books in which the photography was obviously the main draw. The only people who read those pieces bought the book, and then also took the time to read the insert.

(Meaning, not everyone who bought the book. Let’s be honest.)

The ideas in those essays went up behind a paywall, essentially.
So I’m going to pull a few out today, as I think of sunny, hot, alluring California.

Beautiful, majestic, diverse, cool-as-shit California.

You’ll find few bigger fans of the Golden State than I, especially among those that don’t live there. I’m biased towards CA for sure, having lived there for 3 years, and visited more times than I could count, even if I tried. (Maybe 20? 30?)

The Bay Area is amazing, LA totally rocks, and SoCal beach towns are among my favorite anywhere. (They put the Jersey Shore to shame, I’m afraid.)

But writing for Alejandro in 2017, (in parallel with his critical agenda,) I questioned whether California, the laboratory of new American culture, was becoming a 3rd World Country? As I wrote about several years ago here, and for Lens, the homelessness problem is so bad there are essentially permanent public tent encampments now, mini-neighborhoods, and is that really going to un-happen?

Do we believe that any great new public policy will find homes for this increasingly large underclass? Or build fancy new shelters for them, as nice as Trump’s immigrant-kid-jails?

Will a sane drug policy all-of-a-sudden find ways to treat every heroin or oxy-loving junkie?

Of course not.
That’s ludicrous.

This massive disparity between mega-wealth and mega-poverty, mashed right up against each other, is likely to continue. And how long does it take to go from tent city to a full-on favela?

Who hasn’t heard of Brazilian cities where the wealthy only travel by helicopter?

Is that in California’s future as well?

Like I said at the outset, I love California. Hell, I love America, even though we have some serious problems at the moment.

Since I was a young child, it was inculcated in me that this society was ultimately a melting-pot, where people from all over the world came to live next to each other in peace, and try to make a better life for their children, and their children’s children.

I still believe America is Great, I honestly do, but this place has its challenges.

Chief among them right now is sorting out income inequality. If the American Middle-Class Dream of self-autonomy, in a safe home, with enough leisure time to enjoy your children, (or your friends,) truly goes away, then Banana Republic status will follow here in the US for certain.

I know it’s an odd way to start an article about the excellent, fantastic LACP Exposure portfolio review that I attended in July. Ranting about the striation of lifestyle in a State I’m also trying to rave about.

I get it.

But this column, as I recently admitted, is an extension of my art. And a photography festival is attended by artists, who are in general open-minded, critical thinkers.

You, the audience, know that there are no black-and-white situations.

California, in this case the West Side of LA, is among my favorite places on Earth, and I can still notice what’s wrong with the picture. (Have I been a critic too long?)

For example, in my few days staying a the excellent Hotel MdR in Marina Del Ray, tooling around Venice/Santa Monica, (and once traveling to Studio City,) I saw more $$$$ worth of automobiles than the entire annual GDP of Taos County.

I must have been $10,000,000 of cars.
Easy.
(Including one sweet Ford GT.)

That money is massive, but my summer-camp friend Russell, with whom I reunited for some beach time, showed me a homeless encampment in Venice, along the boardwalk, that was always there now.

As far as Exposure weekend goes, and the beautiful Marina Del Ray community in which it was set, I had one of the best experiences yet, and I’ve been on the portfolio review circuit for 5 years straight.

I’ve got to give credit where it’s due, and Exposure is currently produced by Sarah Hadley, who was one of the co-founders of the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. This is her second go-around, and she really knows what she’s doing.

Along with Brandon Gannon and Julia Dean, at LACP, the team was super-responsive to some feedback they got about the 2017 festival, and worked hard to improve upon the experience.

The hotel was 2 blocks from the marina, with the sun glinting off the boats and the water, and surrounded by restaurants, bars, shops, and of course a Ralphs. (The beach was just up the road too.)

The staff there was super-professional and friendly, the outdoor area overlooked a beautiful pool, (So SoCal,) and the reviews were run smoothly as well, with all the participants up-to-speed on how to present themselves, and how to handle the 20 minute meetings.

Not only that, but people left the tables promptly, there was always coffee and snacks around, both for the reviewers and participants, and the weather was bang-on-perfect. (Low 80’s. The heat wave that left town as I arrived ravaged New Mexico while I was styling in LA.)

When I complimented the participant preparedness to my colleagues, in a recent phone call, they gave credit to their super-star instructor, Aline Smithson, who lead the charge on getting people ready. They’d all done their homework on their reviewers, had the right amount of work to show, asked questions and listened to answers.

Really, it was a 10 out of 10 experience, and to have that happen one year after I was open in telling them (behind the scenes,) that there was work to be done on their young event.

This time it was a smash. Great food. Nice parties and events.

And I taught a full-day workshop with the most amazing, intelligent, thoughtful students. (One of whom I was able to profile in an NYT piece last month.)

As usual after an event, I’m going to show you selections of the best work I saw at the LACP Exposure portfolio review. It’s in no particular order, and we’ll feature all the artists today. (Back to book reviews next week.)

We’ll start with Susan Turner, as I became fascinated with one of her projects at the portfolio walk on Friday night. (Side note: they organized a social mixer with reviewers and reviewees poolside afterwards, which was a nice touch.)

I didn’t know I’d be reviewing Susan the following day, but next to a larger project of generic, soft-focus, dreamy-pretty pictures, she showed me this kooky, zany, super-fun series in which she’d made cut-out backdrops, and shot portraits.

The two projects truly looked like they were made by different people, and Susan, who is in her late 70’s or early 80’s, I believe, seemed to like that I appreciated her more subversive side.

I almost met Mahala Mazerov on the plane from Albuquerque, as I overheard her saying she was headed to a portfolio review by the beach. (If you don’t know, Marina del Ray, Venice and Santa Monica make up the West Side beach communities in LA.)

I recognized her immediately when she sat down at the table, and she told me a challenging story of having had an accident in which she suffered a traumatic brain injury. The rehab was long, and as someone who was on the high side of intelligent, the struggle was torturous.

Luckily, she found photography gave her comfort as she worked her way back. These images of flowers, of beauty in its pure form, exude extra juice when you realize they’ve been a part of her re-embrace of her powers and faculties.

And she mentioned in a subsequent email that was so good I want to quote it, re: her symbolic resonance.

“If lotuses growing through mud are symbols of purity and pristine awareness, these hollyhock, growing in drought through cracks in the pavement should be a symbol of persistence.”

Wayne Swanson had digital pinhole images of outmoded technology. It was the second project he showed me, as once he figured out that I didn’t love his first project, he pivoted to something else that I totally appreciated.

Seriously, these pictures are awesome.

But it’s a good lesson on how to approach a portfolio review, and why Wayne was representative of a cohort that had been well-prepared.

Art is subjective. Sure, there are base-level components about technique, for example, about which most people would agree.

In general, though, different experts can have wildly different opinions. If someone hates one thing and loves another, it’s a win. (It doesn’t matter that they don’t like one of your babies, as long as they like another.)

JK Lavin, from Venice, has been around the SoCal photo and art scene for years, as she went to Cal State Fullerton in the 80’s. She sat before me with flaming red hair, and I’d guess she’s in her late 50’s.

Her project showed a younger version of herself, in a stack of scanned and reprinted polaroids. It’s a proto-selfie project, as she shot herself each day for 8 years.

The images are great, of course, but the experience of looking at them while sitting in the presence of the artist added an even deeper dimension. The project will be a solo show at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Massachusetts, I’m happy to share, and deservedly so.

Dennis Keeley heads up the photo department at the Art Center in Pasadena, and was a very cool, chill, California guy, I must say. He told me that he commutes from the South Bay up to Pasadena, North of the City each day, which is a form of self-torture most would not inflict upon themselves for any amount of money.

But time in the car is a huge part of life in a driving, traffic-based culture. So Dennis decided to use the stressful situation to make art, and has photographed the commute for years. The resulting photographs are far more meditative than I expected, which I suppose reinforces that they help him find something positive in an otherwise shitty situation.

Kevin Weinstein, who also works for LACP, (and should have received a shout out sooner in the article,) sat down at the table to show me his colorful, Saul-Leiter-esque street photographs around Los Angeles.

Kevin is also a professional editorial and event photographer, and his skill-set really shows. The technical competence grounds his sense of whimsy, and I must say I like the pictures a lot.

Plus, he’s hilarious. What is it with those Jews and humor? You’d think they invented Hollywood or something.

(Oh, right.)

Matthew Finley had some very-IRL-physical-object-based images, so they don’t translate to the web as well as some other things. He builds layers of images, which deal with sexuality, but I just saw that it’s not what he sent me. (Last minute-photo editing.)

These are circular polaroids, and they’re cool too.

Finally, last but not least, we have Alexandra DeFurio. Hers was easily the most SoCal project I viewed over the weekend, as Alexandra photographs LA-Area bougainvillea in the bright sunlight.

Damn, seriously, look at those skies. That’s the California Dream right there.

I thought her photos were excellent, and suggested that as the work continued, I’d recommend some variance within her light palette, as the mid-day super-bright sun might be nicely complimented by some slight (or drastic) changes in mood and color.

Regardless, its the perfect project to end on today, as it’s cold, wet and gray here on September 20, the first real day of Autumn in New Mexico.

Portfolio Visit To New York – Tom M Johnson

- - From The Field

I asked Tom M Johnson to write about a recent portfolio trip to NYC. I think you’ll enjoy this informative and candid account of his 7th trip to meet with editors and show his portfolio in person.
— aPE

Initially, I thought I’d write a day-to-day summary of my recent New York trip to meet with Photo Editors. Rather, I’ve opted to write a summary of the experience. I believe the trip went well. Of course, exact success will not be known for some time. If 6 months go by and not one commission results from the trip, I’ll probably feel the trip was unsuccessful. Yet, I will not consider it a failure and waste of money because in my career I’ve come to learn success comes in small rather steps. The ultimate of course would be to receive a couple of calls in next couple of months offering assignments. However, I believe I benefited from the trip by nurturing previous relationships and developing a few more. I was fortunate enough to meet with a couple of editors I’ve been trying to see for a few years and believe those meetings went very well. I feel positive about this trip, because (since 1997 this was my 7th trip to New York) I was never more prepared. Of course my work is much better now, and after all these years one would hope, so I entered these meetings with more confidence and greater conviction. Yet, I believe the biggest reason for my success was the preparation I did in advance, which began a month before stepping on the Amtrak train to New York.

I must give some credit to Selina Maitreya because she helped me to create a strategy. Selina is a consultant I’ve worked with off and on since 2002. She knows me well, and I’m not just her client- we are also friends. I’ve had a few consultants over the years and gotten something from all of them, yet some were definitely better than others. Of them all, I believe Selina invests more of herself, and she truly cares for her clients… With her council, a month before my departure I sent an email blast to the 120 New York photo editors in my database. In the email, I announced that in a month I would be coming to New York to see clients and while there I would be making appointments and contacting them soon. Attached to the email was a cool image from a recent assignment for the New York Times along with links to my website. I liken this approach to an invasion like D-Day where I first hit them with artillery to soften up the beachhead before landing. To my pleasant surprise I had 5 replies from editors who had seen the photograph in the Times, and a few of them offered times for appointments… 2 weeks later I sent a second email with another image attached, this time specifying the dates I would be in New York, and that I would be in touch with them soon. A couple of more editors replied offering appointments… Then 10 days before departure I sent a 3rd email again with another image attached, this time telling them I would be calling them shortly.

The week before departing I called all 120 editors. Photo Editors move from magazine to magazine, so this also gave me an opportunity to update my database. Mostly I heard voicemails, yet I left messages announcing that I’d be in New York and looked forward to seeing them. I followed each call with a 4th email, this time directed to the photo editor I had just called with a specific pitch. Of all the editors I reached out to I made actual contact with, either by phone or email, about 25. I ultimately met with 17. It reminded me of what a salesman once told me, “You call 100 people, maybe 10 will speak with you, and out of that 10 hopefully one will do business with you.”

I am convinced that face time is paramount, yet these days it’s difficult to get appointments with Photo Editors. For one, more than ever, magazines are fighting for their survival. I met with Fiona Gardner, former Photo Editor of Popular Photography, at a coffee shop because Popular Photography and American Photo had recently closed their doors. Staffs at many magazines have been reduced and their workloads increased, and let’s face it: if Photo Editors saw every photographer who wanted to meet with them, all they would do is see photographers. Then there are a few big editors whom my chances of having a one on one with the Pope are greater than meeting with one of them. Yet, even knowing all of this, I forced myself to be vigilant and persistently continued making my calls. Some disagree, but I believe cold calling is an important part of the process because talking with someone establishes a connection and lets them know that I am determined. Even if it’s only for a brief 30 seconds, I feel a Photo Editor will remember my name more so than if I had sent him or her 10 emails. It’s difficult and often scary, especially with New Yorkers who can be terse and immune to charm, yet with practice, cold calling gets less difficult. But it’s still never easy, and because 90 percent of the calls result in voice mails when I finally do get a Photo Editor on the phone- it’s difficult to get into the rhythm of my pitch. And, trying to find that right tone of confidence is not unlike back in the day calling that special girl for a date. What’s really frustrating is after having finally succeeded in getting an editor on the phone, most would terminate the call requesting that I send, even though by this time I had already sent them 5, an email with links to my work. This I find a challenge to work around. For most editors, this is their polite way of getting rid of me. They have no intention of making an appointment, and I’m unsure if they will ever look at the 6th email I send them. While I have them on the phone I’m always tempted to push them to make an appointment, and I suppose this is where hutzpah and confidence are most needed. Because, if I push them to make an appointment and they grudgingly acquiesce, what happens if they don’t like my work?

A month before the trip I got the idea to buy a suit for my interviews. Not wanting to look like a banker, I skipped the tie. I’m older and a bit old school, so I believe this was my way of presenting myself as a serious and dedicated photographer, as well as someone whom the editors could trust to send on an assignment to photograph a CEO. Also, I showed 3 bodies of printed work displayed in custom portfolios, 2 of them made by Mullenburg Designs based near Portland, Maine. It was a royal pain in the ass to schlep this load of work via subways and a ton of walking from appointment to appointment, but I felt it was worth it. At the end of the day, the weight took its toll on my knees and back, yet I don’t see the point of showing work on an iPad when the editor can just as easily view the work on the website… After several years of trying I finally connected with this one photo editor on the phone who works for a business magazine at Time Inc. I told him that I was in New York and dying to see him, so he told me to call him back the next day to set up an appointment. I did and got a voice mail and of course, he never replied. Well, that very next day I was on his floor in the Time Inc. building, and I was so tempted to walk around the floor asking anyone I bumped into if they knew where I could find him. But I didn’t, and I’m still kicking myself for chickening out…

My goal was 15 appointments and I ended up seeing 17 Photo Editors in 4 days. Success! I could have had a few more but one editor of a major journal canceled my appointment an hour before we were to meet, much too late to hustle another meeting during that time slot. As well, by not getting the chance to see her I missed the opportunity of perhaps seeing some of her colleagues… Overall, I felt that my interviews went well; the editors seemed interested in my work, and no one told me I sucked. Once back in Pittsburgh I wrote all the editors I met with thank you letters included with another promo piece. In a couple of months, I’ll send them all another promo, with email blasts in between, all part of my marketing strategy.

Though I still believe making trips to New York is important, I wonder if the day will soon come when magazines will be not unlike darkrooms. I learned from one photo editor of a successful fashion/hipster magazine that although their feature photo spreads of young hot celebrities photographed by young hot photographers with Instagram followings in the hundreds of thousands get millions of likes and shares, yet few click on the articles to read the text and see the advertising that pays for the magazine to stay in business. I met with another editor of one of the most famous celebrity/fashion magazines in the business and she told me that they have to come up with the same quality of productions with ½ the budgets. As well, I heard that 2 of the business magazines at Time Inc. are consolidating, which means there will soon be some more unemployed Photo Editors. When the millennials want to view everything on their smartphones without paying a fee, who will pay for the providers of the content?

The best work I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Oh yes.
It’s back.

My annual, final column that never really caught on. That most rebellious of ironic year end lists. (It’s not even a list, per se, because it only mentions one thing.)

Like an ironic mustache, I get to have it both ways. I nod to the end-of-the-year thing, while simultaneously skewering the tradition by giving my version such a ridiculous title.

It’s no 10 best books list, that’s for sure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But 2016 was a witch of a bear of a blizzard of a skin rash of a melting iceberg of a year.

We know this.

The rise of Trump. The fall of Aleppo. Endless streams of millions, fleeing for their lives.

A divided US. A resurgent Russia. China flexing her military muscles. Talk of a new nuclear arms race.

And, of course, grab them by the pussy.
(Yes, that really happened.)

It seems like something you’d make up in your sleep, your subconscious big upping the nasty allure of real life into a seemingly impossible, soap opera narrative.

But it actually happened.

I know we’re all SO ready for 2017.
I had people scream in my face in 2016.
Aggress on my person. Multiple times.

It sucked.

I felt myself growing stronger in the face of adversity. Now, I’ll be the first to admit the problems I had were nothing compared to the real life and death stuff. The aforementioned Syria.

But as we’ve discussed in columns past, the things that make us grow are always the hardest. Staying comfortable is not how you become better.

And I had some truly amazing moments in 2016 as well.

I saw fantastic art exhibitions, and wrote about them, in Ft. Worth, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Chicago.

Even on vacation, in Big Sur this July, I asked my wife’s Uncle Dan what was the coolest thing he’d seen on his recent travels. He’s a booking agent for major rock bands, so he globe-trots on a regular basis.

He walked into his bedroom, and emerged with a museum catalog from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago: “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” published by Rizzoli.

Uncle Dan said this show in Chicago was the best thing he’d seen anywhere, and if I could get to it when I was in Chicago in September, I’d be glad I did.

Duly noted, I thought.

Admittedly, I mentioned the show in one or two sentences in one article this Fall, but I think it still counts as the best thing I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet. (Don’t hate me on a technicality.)

Especially as the exhibition is now on view at the Met Bruer in New York until January 29th, I wanted to share some year-end thoughts, and show off the book.

The exhibition featured an endless series of large scale, unframed canvases, done with acrylic paint. The bolt holes suggest unfinished work, but the dozens of masterpieces were nothing of the sort. The technique becomes a structural metaphor from the outset, bringing low materials to high places.

The coal-black faces speak to a history of centuries of racism, in piece after piece. (While referencing the caste system of shades of brown.) They’re defiantly dark, like Kara Walker’s silhouettes. The compositions are classical, and reference art history at every turn. (De Stijl, Rococo, Giorgione, Gericault.)

The color schemes are contrasty and exciting too, so the image structures hold up against the heavy history many of the pieces evoke.

And the subject matter feels like a hashtag of the African-American experience in contemporary America.

Watts. The barbershop. The death of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys.

There are lynchings.
And liquor stores.

Running slaves
and golden nets.

Glittering jails and subverted expectations. Like “Our House,” from 1995, which features black children inhabiting seemingly-white roles, in the suburbs, but slave shacks sit in the back of the painting as well.

Or “Past Times,” from 1997, in which a black family relaxes by the lake, Puff Daddy style, dressed in all white, waterskiing, and playing croquet.

We see pretty sunsets and plenty of paintings within paintings. He demystifies the art-making process, showing scrims, and painting by numbers, while mystifying us with how good he is at his job.

The show features private parts and private moments. Day-Glo abstractions and keen observations.

The work, taken together, distills decades if not centuries of pain and suffering, yet flips it. (Jujitsu style.) These are not dour, or in most cases, mournful works.

They’re too bright for that. They’re meticulous, too, in a way that screams joy.

Kerry James Marshall clearly loves what he does, even if what he does is critique an American society that likes to occupy the moral high ground, even though its wealth is built upon a history of slavery. (And the genocide of Native Americans.)

As for the rest of us, I’d say the lesson for 2017 is pretty clear.

Mine your experience. Share what you think. Push yourself to your limits, in a world that might not feel comfortable. Ever.

Put it into your art.

And I hope 2017 is a better and easier year for you and yours.

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Medium Festival of Photography – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the 90’s, Michael Jordan was a god. He could fly, like Superman, and his ubiquitous Gatorade commercials implored us to “Be Like Mike.”

Back then, we had a kid on our soccer team named Mike Belasco. We teased him by singing that Gatorade song, and at one point, I bought the cassette-single, (yes, they existed) so we could torture young Mike with regularity.

Sample lyrics: Sometimes I dream, that he is me. The shots I make nobody else would take.

But Michael Jordan refused to take shots at certain corporations, or become politically active, for fear of offending potential consumers. His famous reputed quote: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Unlike Mike, I have used this weekly platform to spout off my opinions for the last 5+ years. If you’ve been coming each week, you’re well aware of my thoughts on President-Elect Trump.

You might expect that I’d rail against injustice today, or lash out in anger, but you’d be wrong.

Not today. (I’m writing the morning after the election.)

Though I admit to being extremely disappointed, within the system we possess, Donald Trump won the election fair and square.

He got more votes in the Electoral College.

Hillary Clinton’s popular victory, while ultimately fruitless, proves we are indeed a divided country. Split in two, it would seem.

I read the think pieces today, and wasted time on Twitter and Facebook. It made me feel bad. And you know what I realized? Nobody knows what’s going to happen.

Whether it’s fears of a wall, a mass deportation police, or some new war in the Middle East, nobody knows what’s coming.

Nobody knows if President-Elect Trump will shed one character and adopt another, since he’s a modern day reality TV actor, just as Ronald Reagan was a B-movie star.

Nobody knows what the future will bring.
Nobody.

I promise you: it’s entirely unwritten. Maybe he’ll do some good things amid the many bad things to come? Or maybe the bad things won’t come?

Your fear of the future, of the unknown, of what he’ll do next, none of will do you any good. It’s just wasted energy. It burns calories, worrying, and better to save them for being creative, and expressing your freedom of speech during these next 4 years.

I admit, truthfully, that I did wonder last night if there was an archive of all the people who wrote nasty things about him? If I weren’t on some list?

But then I realized that was crazy. I’ve championed freedom of speech many times in this column, and intend to exercise the right going forward. There is no list.

Now, though, it’s time to “Be Like Mike.” If my repeated expression of my own political views has bothered you, when you were just looking to see some pictures of a photo-book, I apologize.

I’m going to continue to keep it real, but if you are among the many, many millions of people that voted for President-Elect Trump on Tuesday, I appreciate that you’ve been reading. I hope he’ll able to do some good things as President, and for all we know, his Art-of-the-Deal jujitsu skills might do the country some good.

As far as we artsy-liberal-types go, though, a few minutes ago I saw a tweet by comedian Eugene Mirman, who does a great voice on “Bob’s Burgers.” He said he looked forward to all the great art and music that would emerge from the first Trump term.

I couldn’t agree more. (#MakeStuff)

As artists, we’re blessed and burdened with the responsibility to report on our culture. It’s what we do, and I guarantee some kick-ass shit will come out of whatever it is that’s about to happen.

Speaking of making stuff, though it feels like another lifetime, it’s easy for me to recall the best work I saw at the the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego last month.

I’ve been there before, as you know, and the founder, scott b. davis, is an old friend. Medium works because it’s small and homey, with a positive vibe. It’s not a heavy drinking/partying festival, but it is set at the Hotel Lafayette, which has a cool pool surrounded by palm trees, in case you want to catch some sun.

You need to have a car, or use Uber, if you want to get around the city or head to the beach, but it’s just as easy to stay put. For whatever reason, even though North Park is not super-gentrified yet, there are a handful of excellent restaurants and cafes within 3 blocks of the hotel, so you can easily stay in the neighborhood.

Medium, like Filter, is not juried, so I expect to see a wide range of work. People continue to come asking for feedback, and I try to give it as honestly and kindly as I can. Luckily, this time I saw some interesting things, and am sure you’ll agree.

As usual, the photographers are featured in no particular order. Hope you enjoy their work, and we thank them for letting us share it with you.

We’ll get things going quickly with Adam Frazier’s work. Adam’s based in Las Vegas, and used to be a musician. He felt he wasn’t good enough an improviser to continue, so he gave it up and switched to photography. He worked with a dancer named Darius Hollins to try to capture motion in an authentic way, and I think he definitely succeeded. The photographs are dope.

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I met with Adriene Hughes at Medium a few years ago, and we published her performative pictures back then. What she showed me this time was very different: images she made during a residency in the Arctic. I liked both of two sets, but preferred this group, as the naked digitality grounds it in our scary times.

I’ve seen a lot of work from up there lately, (including one project that verged on plagiarism,) and at some point, people just tune out, rather than in. I love these colors, and think it might be a more interesting take on documenting icebergs and glaciers before they disappear.

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Deb Stoner had some pictures that are not the sort of thing I’m normally into. They are beautiful images of natural objects, and I often expect more than just pretty. (I like edge, as you know.) But there is something that works here, that helps me to appreciate the flowers and branches and bugs. I give her props, and certainly don’t mind seeing soothing things like this in such a crazy week.

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Jim Graves is another photographer I’d met at Medium before. I recall our encounter as being a little strained, as I challenged him to make pictures that had a more specific vision. He came back to the table this year with a set of medium format, black and white photographs that I really enjoyed.

We talked about how he pushed his process a bit, including taking a trip to Ireland, where he made some really killer photos. I like that they play with implied narrative, and occupy the weird-but-not-creepy zone, and think you’ll like them too.

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I’m starting to realize there’s a bit of a theme today, in that much of the work is uplifting or pleasurable to look at. Sally Ann Field carries that line through with her irresistible series, “Punch Bug.” Between the immediate memory of playing the Punch Buggy game, smacking my brother Andrew in the arm, and the other memory-trigger of “Herbie the Love Bug,” this project gives me a perma-smile. I think it’s got coffee-table-book written all over it.

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Finally, we’ve got Tami Bahat. This is the first group so far that plumbs some depths, but still, it doesn’t make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Tami said she’s always felt like she belonged to another time, and here, she’s used her friends and family, in a jimmy-rigged studio, to evoke a sense of the Renaissance.

It’s hard to make work like this, because it’s easy to fall into kitschy tropes, but I love these. The symbol choices, which often required animal wranglers on her own dime, are pretty much perfect. Tami is doing well with the project, and I’m not surprised.

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More next week. Keep your head up, and see you then.

The Big 3

- - Art, From The Field

Make America Great Again.

It implies this country of ours used be great, but it’s not anymore. We’ve gone to seed, like Ron Jeremy, and only a strong man with ridiculous hair can bring us back.

Restore our luster.

Polish the family silver to a gleaming sheen. A massive shiny cock, like the Trump Tower in Chicago. (Bad example. I actually like that building.)

It’s hard not to think about Donald J Trump when you consider America. A man this delusional is still within spitting distance of the power to conduct nuclear war. That scares me more than knowing we had a President who couldn’t even pronounce the word. (Nook-u-lur. #GodblessGeorgeWBush)

Donald Trump speaks for a segment of America that has not fared well in the new Millennium. You could argue our national economy recovered from 9/11 only by absorbing crooked money into a bubble system that crashed so badly, it took down the Entire.Global.Economy.

For all of Barack Obama’s excellence, his skills were spent just getting America about back to where we were before the Twin Towers came down.

Make no mistake. America is a flawed place with a history of causing misery elsewhere. Places like Guatemala or Nicaragua. Iraq and Libya.

But despite our black marks, I still think this country is the best in the world. I really do.

Our freedoms, of speech, thought and movement, are profoundly important. Our system of regulated Capitalism, while imperfect, creates wealth and allows for entrepreneurial opportunity.

Our people, in certain cities, represent a true mix of the all cultures and races on Earth. Everyone mashed together, living parallel lives. Striving toward parallel dreams.

A nice place to live. A safe place for your family. A new 2017 Ford mustang GT, all black, tinted down.

The American Dream.

I visited Chicago, New York and LA in the last month, the three biggest cities we have, and came away thinking the US of A was in pretty good shape.

I’ll admit from the outset I did not see the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago where so many people are being killed. Nor did I check in on homeless encampments near the train tracks in LA.

I visited each place for five days or less, and mostly stuck to the city centers and art destinations. So make of that what you will, whether I had a representative enough sample to make informed judgements.

But you know I’m never short on opinions, so here we go.

Chicago has the nicest skyline of the 3 cities. Which means it has the nicest skyline in America. Hands down, the best architecture.

It’s also much cleaner than New York. That perpetual layer of grime that covers the ex-New Amsterdam is a part of its character. A gritty charm, I suppose.

But at 42, I was attracted to a beautiful American urbanscape, filled with phallic buildings, that looked so very good without the dirt.

Nice people there, too. Good Midwestern values. And you know what I think of the Lake.

I walked along the Brooklyn waterfront with my friends and our children at night. It was safe and developed, in 2016. There is a magic in the air, in New York, that you just don’t get elsewhere. I’ve felt it before, and so have you.

That feeling like your life could be in a movie at any minute. New York is soooooooo cinematic.

We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, on foot, for the first time. My daughter was on my shoulders. It was late. We dodged bikers in the narrow walker’s lane.

And I think of all three cities, that experience was the one that sticks with me now. New York is iconic on a level that’s hard to match.

But LA can do iconic too. There, the mega-architecture is less about how tall, and more about how cool. I’ve seen Frank Gehry’s Disney Center before, and didn’t get to check out the new Broad Museum. But I spent hours at the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center, and that is something that you just can’t get in New York or Chicago.

Standing in the baking sunshine, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, the city at your feet. Light glinting off travertine tile. Curved building overhangs cutting up the blue sky. World class art, for free, at your disposal for as long as you’d like to be there. (I hung out for 4.5 hours. Parking costs $15, but the museum does not charge admission.)

Speaking of museums, the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at MCA Chicago was among the best I’ve ever seen. I thought I’d have to taunt you with tales of its awesomeness, but I just read on Twitter that it’s opening this week at The Met Breuer, so you need to go see it, if you can.

I didn’t get to The Met Bruer, unfortunately. Nor have I seen the new Whitney. Instead, I went to the Morgan Library, which is underrated, and the Brooklyn Museum to see the Sports photography show. I’d heard through the grapevine, (via Bill Hunt,) that it was excellent. It seemed an odd topic for an art show, but as I love sports, I had an open mind.

It’s a killer, killer exhibition, and I fell in love with a profound portrait of Lou Gehrig in the opening room. (They don’t have the jpeg available, I’m afraid.) I saw the show with my friends Richard Bram, who used to live in London and just moved back there from NYC, and Matjaz Tancic, a Slovenian who used to live in London but is based in Beijing. (Confused?)

Anyway, the two of them were arguing, playfully, in front of a London Olympics photograph with perfect light. They were discussing the intricacies of where the photographer might have stood to get the shot. They gesticulated like a couple of Brooklyn locals bickering about where to get the best pizza.

Nearby, we saw a photograph of Olympians at the first Olympic Games in Greece in 1896. Of course I know that photography existed back then, but somehow, things like that seem more like memories or myths than simple organized activities. I was surprised at myself that something like that would seem so surprising, if that makes sense.

New Jersey had the best pizza, if I’m being honest. (And I’ll ask you to trust me.) I don’t feel much like a Jersey boy lately, but Luigi’s in Lincroft was totally brilliant. Big ups, guys.

I covered thousands of miles in the last month, and came away totally inspired. Chicago, New York and LA were fun as hell. Great art, great weather, great food. So many super-cool, interesting people.

Now that I’m home, and the road is behind me, I’d like to thank everyone I met who showed me a good time, and reminded me that we need no Orange King to make us great again.

We’re pretty fucking great already.

Thomas Pelham Curtis (American, 1873–1944). American Olympic Team at the 1896 Athens Olympics, 1896. Vintage photograph, 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (12.1 x 11.4 cm). Collection of Thomas Pelham Curtis II

Thomas Pelham Curtis (American, 1873–1944). American Olympic Team at the 1896 Athens Olympics, 1896. Vintage photograph, 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (12.1 x 11.4 cm). Collection of Thomas Pelham Curtis II

 

Donald Miralle (American, born 1974). Men's Beach Volleyball match between Brazil and Canada, London Olympics, The Horse Guards Parade ground, London, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm). Leucadia Photoworks Gallery, courtesy of the artist

Donald Miralle (American, born 1974). Men’s Beach Volleyball match between Brazil and Canada, London Olympics, The Horse Guards Parade ground, London, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm). Leucadia Photoworks Gallery, courtesy of the artist

Filter Photo Festival 2016 – Part 3

by Jonathan Blaustein

Allow me to gather my thoughts.

In the last month, as your emissary, I’ve been in Albuquerque, Chicago, Denver, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Albuquerque again, Los Angeles, and now San Diego.

In my 6.5 years writing for this blog, I’ve never had a travel schedule like that. My brain is like a gelatinous bowl of rice pudding, and I’ve still got a portfolio review to attend
in a few hours.

As such, I’m sitting at a hotel desk, listening to the white noise of the window-box air conditioner. Even though it’s mid-October, it was 90+ degrees in LA yesterday, and it’s meant to be a scorcher here in SD today as well. (Hola, Climate Change. Como estas?)

I wrote a column earlier this week, but it didn’t feel authentic to reality. I was trying to synopsize part of my journey, but it’s all too fresh. How can you look back on something when you’re still in it?

Take my morning run, for example. I just returned, and the sweat is still dense on my dirty black T-shirt. I was jogging down the sidewalk, minding my own business, when I saw a massive black cat sitting stock still on a postage-stamp lawn. That the home’s front porch was decorated for Halloween made his sentinel-pose all the stranger.

Next door, two puppies railed at their fence, presumably so they could harass the neighboring feline. On the same block, in front of an apartment building, strips of grass were cut into the parking spaces so that cars could sit atop a swath of green each night.

Who does that?

It’s a question that kept popping up last night, as I watched the final Presidential debate in a public auditorium at the Hammer Museum in LA. Surrounded by strangers, who treated political theater like the Jerry Springer show, I catcalled a few times myself.

Who does that?

The truth is, this has been a crazy month for the entire country. We all just want it to be over, but now the conclusion teases us with visions of skinheads pulling out their assault rifles to fuck shit up when their orange King loses the election.

Like I said, my mind is in that stream-of-consciousness state you get when you’re perpetually on the road. So perhaps I ought to pivot, like Hillary did, when she called Trump a Putin Puppet.

I laughed, like the rest of the room. I screamed out in disbelief, all the while realizing it really isn’t funny.

But pivot I will, to the last group of portfolios I saw at the Filter Festival in Chicago last month. I’ll try to gather myself to write a piece next week about the Chicago/NYC/LA triumvirate, and then we’ll be on to articles from the Medium Festival in San Diego soon enough.

As always, these portfolios are in no particular order. It is dude heavy today, but only because the first story was mostly ladies. (You know I’m big on keeping the balance.)

Jeff Philips has the distinction of doing the funniest karaoke bit I’ve ever heard. In fairness, I’ve only sang twice, but his riff on the Rapture last year was a bit of genius. This year, Jeff had a review with me, and I liked his new series photographing from within death metal mosh pits. (Better him than me.)

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I didn’t actually meet Rachel Cox at Filter, though apparently we just missed each other several times. She followed up right after the festival to see if I’d take a look, and of course I loved her pictures about the end of her grandmother’s life. Sometimes, work needs a bit of context, (or actual text,) to make sense. Not so here. These photos are dynamite.

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Alan Thomas had some large-format work shot in Calcutta. As he publishes books at the University of Chicago, I assumed he’d be a craftsman, and so he is. I thought these pictures shared an aesthetic with much I’ve seen in Hong Kong, or elsewhere in Asia, but capturing India this way was new to me. (They’re so well-made.)

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Ben Altman showed me a project that I’d first seen on Critical Mass last year. I wrote to him afterwards, as I was so impressed with the insanely-ambitious/batshit-crazy idea he had to dig a ceremonial mass grave in his own backyard.

No lie!

To make it even more ridiculous, he also built a faux guard tower. In his own backyard? With his own hands? It takes some massive balls to do a thing like that. I think the stark, black and white photographs of his installation are super-powerful as well. (I know there are a lot, but I think there’s a poetry to the long edit.)

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Cruising through the portfolio walk at Filter, I came across Max Cozzi’s prints. In a room filled with work, they jumped off the table. Max photographs in the Upper Midwest, and I thought his combination of color and clarity was extremely engaging.

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Tom Wagner is a long-time photojournalist, and has photographed in North Korea many times before. I know it was a hot topic last year, photographically, but I like that these pictures have a bit of sparkle from a place I imagine to be rather grim.

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

Finally, I met up with Andre Avenessian, as we’d done a review together at Filter 2015. Back then, I told him his work was not nearly as visceral and engaging as the stories he was telling me. I challenged him to up his game.

On the last day of Filter, he busted out this group of new pictures, which he makes to approximate his vision of Hell. As in, the actual place. He is Armenian, and grew up in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity, so it as always felt real to him.

As Halloween is coming up, I think these freaky-ass pictures will be just right to end this series. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I did hook him up with Rebecca Memoli. Scary-fetishes are best shared, I think.)

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Hasta la vista, and wish me luck, as I’ve got miles to go before I sleep.

Filter Photo Festival 2016 – Part 2

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

This semester, I’ve got a few students who are into horror. (The genre.) They don’t like actual horror, of course, but prefer to simulate the emotions through entertainment.

Personally, I don’t get it. Back in my early 20’s, I watched a few of the “Scream” films, but after “The Blair Witch Project,” I swore that shit off forever.

Lots of people love the experience of being scared to death, but I don’t understand the impulse.

Weird stuff, I appreciate. By now you know this, as I’ve shown any number of edgy portfolios over the last 5 years. Kooky, odd, discomfiting, strange, I can handle.

But the outright grotesque? Joel-Peter Witkin? There, I draw the line. In fact, I skipped his lecture at the Filter Photo Festival, when I was in Chicago, because I have enough of his images stuck in my head, thank you very much.

So with that as background, as I stood in front of photographer Rebecca Memoli at the tail end of the portfolio walk at Filter, at 10pm on a Saturday, I had little patience for being scared.

Next to none.

I reviewed Rebecca’s work at Filter last year, and then exhibited a few of her prints at the college gallery I was running at UNM-Taos. She had delicate flowers in hand-made vases of meat. The juxtaposition was engaging, and the students loved it.

But after Rebecca showed me a scary-monster picture the other week, when I was moments away from retiring to bed, I was a little put-off. It wasn’t that nasty, the picture, but my over-tired brain needed to shut down, not absorb DARK FORCES OF EVIL.

I politely told Rebecca I was done for the night, but she demurred, holding a red shoe box. (The following quotes are a paraphrase. It’s pretty damn close to what she said, but I’m writing it this way for narrative effect.)

“Don’t you want to see what’s in this box,” she asked?

“No. No, I don’t.”

“Sure you do,” she replied, and then she shook the box. Shake, shake, shake.

“No, I really don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” Shake, shake, shake.

“Listen, I really need to go to bed. I’m exhausted. I’ve seen 30 portfolios today. I’m done. And after that last monster picture, I really don’t need anything else like that in my head. No thank you.”

“I think you do.” Shake, shake, shake.

“I’m going to get rude here in a minute. I’m trying to be polite, but you’re making me a bit angry.”

Shake, shake, shake.

“I don’t want to see anything scary. Disturbing I can probably handle.”

Shake, shake, shake.

“Fine, give it over then. I’ll look, and then I’m leaving,” I said.

She handed over the box. Apparently, the “art” story is that they’re found materials, but since I know her, she admitted that it was all staged, and that the rabbit-woman was done up in professional makeup.

The rabbit-woman?

Now, my kids’ favorite movie is Wallace and Gromit’s “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” so I’m not offended by the idea of a human-bunny hybrid. But the set of 5 Polaroids I saw were like nothing I’ve seen before. (That will always get you written about.)

The rabbit-woman was on all fours, on a bed, with her ass popped up like she had just had rabbit coitus. In at least one version, the makeup smeared in her butt-crack to simulate blood was Just. Too. Much.

Those pictures burned into my retinas, as I was afraid they would. But Rebecca was right. It’s not a scary picture. Just depraved and wrong. (The so-wrong-it’s-right kind of wrong.)

Rob and I agreed that it was too NSFW to publish, but we’re OK with linking to it on her website. Right here. But be warned. If you are disgusted by the idea of a sexed-up rabbit-woman, then just keep on reading the article.

There were plenty of other artists to write about at Filter, and it was exciting to see so many different styles of photography.

John Steck, Jr was a Chicago photographer friendly with the Filter crew, and like Victor Yañez-Lascano last year, multiple people told me I had to see John’s work. He exposes photo paper in the sun, never drops it in chemistry, and then lets the resulting images fade away into nothing.

Unlike the Phil Chang project I wrote about earlier this summer, you’re not looking at straight black paper. Rather, we see colors and haunting imagery shimmer as they fade. Gorgeous stuff, without a doubt.

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Lois Bielefeld showed me 3 projects that all had a conceptual hook. The first was actually portraits of families eating weeknight dinner in their homes. (M-Thurs only.) I thought the work was good, but not perfectly resolved in execution or concept. The last project I saw, in which she accompanies people on evening walks, was the best. They’re very cool images.

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Stephanie Brunia had a couple of projects that had a nice blend of absurdity and pathos. In one, she mashes her body up against an ex-beau. The other, which focuses on her aging father, seemed to push in two directions at once. (Funny and earnest) I’m curious to see where she’ll take it.

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Eva Kelety had the distinction of showing me pictures that I was not kind about in person, but like rabbit-woman, they stuck in my head after the fact. Eva, who is from Vienna, was shooting urban-scapes. I felt the style was a bit derivative, though I did complement her exceptional grayscale—rendered-in-color palette.

Right before I saw the rabbit-woman, Eva showed me a little booklet that had a different edit than the portfolio she showed me at the review table. It made more sense, and then the images stayed with me, so hopefully you’ll like them as well.

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Finally, Daniel McInnis brought a set of tack-sharp portraits made of creative-types. I thought the work was good, and certainly the technique was strong. (Though I recommended he push the drama with some of his lighting.) He’s currently beginning a project looking at Syrian refugees re-settled in Ohio, and I think he might have something great on his hands.

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That’s it for today. We’ll have one more set of Filter portfolios, and then I’ll have some thoughts from my trip to NYC. LA and San Diego are up next week, so lots of juicy content ahead throughout the Fall.

Filter Photo Festival 2016- Part 1

I’m still recovering from my trip to Chicago, yet I’m off to New York in a few days. (Then LA later this month.) While I hadn’t planned it, I guess it’s become AMERICA’S BIG 3 SMACKDOWN, and let’s see which city comes out ahead.

Chicago has a sizable lead, of course, as I’ve sung its praises in this column last year and last week. It has a lot to offer as a clean mega-city with gorgeous architecture, a killer food scene, beautiful beaches, world class art institutions, and a blue collar, unpretentious attitude.

New York maybe bigger, and LA more glamorous, but each has a reputation for being a tough nut to crack. New Yorkers are too blunt, Angelenos too slick, and perhaps Chicago’s porridge is just right?

We’ll see.

I do want to compliment the crew at the Filter Photo Festival for running a great event. People are so friendly. They genuinely care how you’re doing. (And they also know how to have a good time when the workday is done.) There are plenty of lectures and events at Filter, but not so many as to give you a migraine.

As with all the events I attend, I like to do a series of write-ups featuring the best work I saw at the festival. My criteria haven’t changed much in the last 3 years. If someone can show me at least 5 cohesive photographs that are well-made, and don’t look EXACTLY like everyone else’s pictures, I’ll show them here.

I’m not saying everything is brilliant, or the best I’ve ever seen. Rather that the photographers I include have found a coherent and confident vision, and their technical skills are up-to-snuff.

And always, the following artists are in no particular order. Hope you enjoy the work, and thanks to all the photographers we’ll feature for allowing us to share your imagery with the world.

Let’s start with Carly Ries, if for no other reason than she shoots at the lake. (Mmm, cool blue water.) Carly was trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and still gets to use their excellent equipment. I think these pictures are lovely, and encouraged her to get even more specific with her work.

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Eddee Daniel showed me several projects, and as is sometimes the case at portfolio reviews, I didn’t like some of them at all. In such situations, I always hope that I see at least something to redeem my impression. At the end, Eddee pulled out a project done during a year-long residency at a sculpture museum in Milwaukee.

I felt the repeated engagement with the subject helped strengthen his vision, and that these pictures were pretty excellent. It’s rare that photographs about art transcend the original work, but you could argue that happens here.

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Dana Mueller presented me with a similar dilemma. She is trying to get a book published about an extensive project she’d shot in Cuba, as she’d taught there a couple of times. The subject choice seemed arbitrary, and the images lacked the requisite punch.

Just before we finished, Dana showed me a group of photos made in her home region in Germany, in the nether regions between the former East and West. The drained color palette was powerful, and the pictures had genuine emotion. I thought they were great, and am happy to show them here.

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Andrea Birnbaum presented me with work that was so subtle, it almost wasn’t right for the speed-dating environment. I confess at first I couldn’t see exactly what she was getting at, but as we moved the prints back and forth in the stack, her message came across.

Andrea is looking at the discomfiting phase in adolescent development, as teen-aged girls become disillusioned or self-conscious about their bodies. It wasn’t until I liked a more obvious picture, (the girl in the bikini reading a magazine,) that my eye caught the subtlety of gesture and body language that the pictures contained.

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We’ll finish today with Traer Scott, a photographer who missed most of our meeting due to a mixup. She came in flustered, obviously, but I told her that these things happen, because they do. We’ve all been there, and I felt the best thing I could do for her was be cool, and assure her I wouldn’t hold it against her.

For her project, “Natural History,” Traer photographs reflections in diorama windows at Natural History museums. Her artist statement alludes to endangered species and Climate Change, but in person, she told me that she practically grew up in a Natural History museum in Raleigh, NC, as her mother was a curator there. She spent a lot of time unsupervised as a kid, so these pictures actually stem directly from her childhood and personal experiences, which often makes for compelling work.

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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 its 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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© Anthony Hernandez

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© Anthony Hernandez

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