Category "From The Field"

Reviewing Work At The New York Portfolio Review

by Jonathan Blaustein

I sat in the back row for orientation, flanked by two friends. The large conference room at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism was buzzing. To my left sat David Emitt Adams, an Arizona photographer who prints on oil drum lids. To my right was Jaime Permuth, a Guatemalan based in New York, who photographs in Queens. We were excited, and probably a little nervous, to take part in the first ever New York Portfolio Review, sponsored by the NY Times Lens Blog.

I was listening to the tail end of Michelle McNally’s introductory speech, when David’s elbow gently poked my rib cage. He pointed across the room, and whispered in my ear, “Get a load of that guy.”

I looked up, and noticed that one of our fellow photographers was wearing a Mexican-style lucha libre wrestling mask. Awesome, but maybe a little inappropriate. Like everyone, I was curious as to the identity of our masked man.

There were over a hundred photographers in the room, many of whom had flown in from around the planet. The Times was hosting its first portfolio review, which was announced on the Lens Blog this past winter. Those sitting there, patiently waiting to have their work reviewed by some of the biggest names in the industry, had been chosen from among the several thousand applicants who submitted work. The event was totally free, which is a rarity. Even the food was complimentary.

It was an august group of seasoned professionals, and, of course, the guy wearing the lucha libre mask. My friends and I giggled, reflecting the personality of adolescent troublemakers in the back row. “Dude,” I said to David, “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you climb on the table and tackle him, like Macho Man dropping down off the top turnbuckle. Twenty bucks, dude. Twenty bucks.”

©David Emitt Adams

He laughed, but was wise enough to pass. Then, the lucha libre guy got up from his chair, and started heading our way. “Quick,” I told the guys, “when he walks by, let’s all yell ‘Que Viva,’.” It’ll be awesome. Like. Totally.

The anonymous photographer was tall, and bore down on us like a lumberjack eyeing a tasty bit of tree. Just as he was about to walk by, our taunts at the ready, something surprising happened. He stopped.

Suddenly, I was looking up at a pair of sparkly eyes, peering out from behind the wrestler’s mask. “Heeeeeey, Jonathan,” he said. I let out a long breath, ashamed at my recent behavior. Everyone within a few rows was watching, or so it seemed.

Immediately, it came to me: Sol Neelman, who put out the cool book “Weird Sports” a couple of years ago. I reviewed it, and then we met once in Albuquerque. Had to be him.

“Sol?” I said, tepidly. It was indeed.

“I have a present for you,” he said. The next thing I knew, he handed me a lucha libre mask of my own. “Put it on.”

“Come on, dude, put it on,” chimed the gallery.

By then, it was clear I had an audience. What the hell, I thought, might as well be a good sport about it. As I posed for the inevitable photos, however, I realized that I couldn’t actually see. The mask didn’t fit, so my eyes were covered. Fortunately, David captured the moment in a Polaroid, which he graciously scanned, so you can now snigger accordingly.

What’s the lesson here? Maybe it’s best to keep your mouth shut sometimes, rather than mocking the one guy who looks different? Or, maybe we should all lighten up a bit? Que viva.

From there, I had a fantastic day, as all my reviews were stellar. I met with some excellent people, but, really, we’ve been through this before. I’ve written several articles about attending portfolio reviews, so let’s not go down that road today.

The next day, though, I was asked to review the work of a great group of younger photographers. (It was the first time I’ve been a reviewer at a portfolio review event.) As I was the only attendee to be on both sides of the table, it occurred to me that I could use this article to highlight the best work I saw. (You know, like an actual professional.)

I sat behind a table that Sunday, anxiously waiting to dispense advice. I was open with the photographers, admitting I was much less influential than the other people in the room, and that it was likely I could offer nothing more than my honest opinion about where to take their work. I hadn’t thought of writing about them in an article like this, so the possibility wasn’t discussed.

Given the international flavor of the event, three of the six photographers I met were European. Two young women, from Italy and France, had not-yet-developed work, so we focused on picking out the best few images as a foundation on which to build. The third artist visiting from the continent, Daniel Alvarez, was from Barcelona. (Who doesn’t love that city?)

He showed me a recently published book, which I’ve photographed for you. Black and white, high-contrast, grainy images of his Japanese wife were mixed within a non-linear narrative. They were more intense than erotic, and personal in a way you don’t often see with photography like this. (Probably because he actually knows, loves and lives with his model, rather than just being a male photographer fetishizing some random hottie.) The sequencing of the book was also strong, and I’ve included a particularly impressive run. (Negatives/modernist building/contact sheet.)

Of the Americans I met, the two young women also showed images that indicated promise, but were not quite there yet. I encouraged them, highlighted the best images, and pointed out that their evident talent and work ethic, extended over time, would likely yield the results for which they were hoping. The other American, Andrew Burton, was rather confident, and gave the sense that I was probably not high on his list. (Not that I blame him. I wouldn’t have ranked me highly either.)

Andrew is a photojournalist of the old school, and had pictures to show me on his laptop. The project we discussed had recently been shot in Afghanistan, where he was investigating the American military handoff. The pictures were unquestionably excellent.

I pointed out a compelling succession of images, and mentioned that the formal compositional structure would read well in an art context. (On the topic of how to show his work outside the journalistic milieu.) Many of the other images were more angular, with less rigid use of cropping. The advice was: the fine art photo world is, and will likely always be in love with formalism.

An Afghan National Army soldier practices drills at Command Outpost AJK (Azim-Jan-Kariz) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 29, 2013.

Soldiers in the Afghan National Army's 6th Kandak (battalion), 3rd company walk through a poppy field during a joint patrol with the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay on April 5, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan. The United States military and its allies are in the midst of training and transitioning power to the Afghan National Security Forces in order to withdraw from the country by 2014.

An improvised explosive device (IED) detonates underneath a vehicle during a patrol outside Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 28, 2013. No one was killed in the attack.

A 10-year-old girl injured by an improvised explosive device waits for a helicopter to evacuate her for further medical attention from strong point DeMaiwand, Maywand District, Kandahar Province, on January 18, 2013. The IED also injured a 25-year-old man, who had both legs blown off.

A member of the Afghan Uniform Police, on patrol with the U.S. Army, wipes his brow after an improvised explosive device (IED) attack during a patrol outside Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 28, 2013. No one killed in the attack.


We also talked a bit about how the photography industry is changing, no matter which wing one inhabits. I shared with him my belief that today’s photographers have to be multi-talented, and be able to create various incomes streams. The old ways are dead, I theorized, and they’re not coming back. (Then, I might have pounded the table for emphasis.) Shortly after that meeting, Andrew was hired as a NYC-based staff photographer for Getty Images. Just like the old days. Shows what I know.

After the reviews were done, everyone got together for a pizza feast, again catered by the Times. The afternoon featured a slate of lectures, which I had to miss, as I was due for a second pizza party with my family, across the Hudson River in Jersey. Before I headed back into reality, though, I made sure to stop in to thank James Estrin, Lens blog co-editor, and the visionary behind the event. (Along with David Gonzalez, the Lens Blog co-editor, who took the time to give me some tremendous journalistic advice.) Mr. Estrin is a generous guy, and I’ll reiterate my appreciation here. It was an amazing event, and I’m honored to have been included.

Mike Kelley at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam

by Jonathan Blaustein

There’s always someone better than you. Unless you’re Lebron James or Warren Buffett, you wake up each morning knowing you’re not the best at what you do. For most of us, that’s not a tragedy. It’s just the way things are.

I’ve always believed I had what it takes to get to the top of my profession. Deep down, I felt I could be among the very best artists in the world. While I was still in my 20’s, an influential curator at the Brooklyn Museum told me she thought I had the talent and intelligence to be as good as Andy Warhol, if I played my cards right. In hindsight, that was really bad advice.

With my innate drive, I took her advice to heart. Work hard enough, or push the right buttons in my head, and I could be an Art Star. For years, though, one mistake or another would hold me back. I’ve made some good work over the last fifteen years, and thankfully received some nice accolades, but no one would confuse me with Jeff Wall, or Robert Adams, or (insert your favorite photographer here.)

My failure to make it to the top of the mountain by the time I was (almost) 40 burned deep in my psyche, creating a sense of insecurity that I strove to overcome. I’ll get there, I’ll get there, the voice said. (Sometimes.) Other times, it said I was a pile of sh-t for not getting there already. Never, though, did the voice question whether the goal itself was the problem.

Back in March, I confronted the limits of my abilities. I came face to face with genius, and found myself wanting. At first, the psychic pain was immense. Slowly, though, it got better, and then the liberation was grand. Where, you ask? Who reduced me to mental rubble? Good question.

The Mike Kelley retrospective at the newly re-opened Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was an ode to genius and misery. It was among the most impressive art exhibitions I’ve ever seen; certainly the one that most impacted me, in the moment. I saw it twice, on consecutive afternoons. The first time, I came straight from hanging out with the Rembrandts, Frans Hals, and Vermeers in the not-yet-then-totally-re-opened Rijksmuseum. (No wonder my self-esteem took a hit.)

It’s hard to explain what the Kelley exhibition was like, simply because the scope, scale and breadth of his work created such an overwhelming experience. The artist made objects in every medium imaginable: paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, tapestries, posters, photographs, videos, animation, appropriations, sound pieces and music. There was, seemingly, nothing he couldn’t do.

That I had heard almost nothing about him before entering the show probably had something to do with the power of its impact. (And is also something I’m embarrassed to admit.) One minute, I didn’t know who this guy was, and the next, I was put firmly in my place. I’ve written here that I like to see photography contextualized alongside other media, but never did I imagine one artist could do it so well, by himself. (Of course, by the end of his career, he had an army of assistants, so I’m not sure if one person really could.)

On my first visit, my friend Hugo and I arrived at the museum shortly before it closed. By the time we sprinted through the permanent collection, we arrived at the special exhibition space minutes before it shut. The guards tried to shoo us away before we even made it down the escalator, but Hugo has the type of confidence that knows how to breeze past objections.

My head spun in every direction, trying to take it in, as I didn’t know at the time I’d be able to return the next day. Manic, I thought. This guy was manic. And crazy. The amount of output was intimidating, like a bad haircut from a barber with sharp razors, but so was the content. Think R. Crumb tossed with Baldessari, mashed up with Quentin Tarantino, with a touch of Francis Bacon thrown in. Then add some steroids, and a lot of fecal matter. Got it?

We sprinted around the space, just trying to put our eyes over everything. There was no possibility to absorb information, other than the overall subtext. This was a tortured guy, with voices in his head I’d wish on no one. When we left, fifteen minutes later, Hugo pulled out his Blackberry for a little research. Mr. Kelley had committed suicide last year; slashed his wrists in the bathtub as his major career retrospective approached.

I was not surprised.

The museum was kind enough to let me back in to see the show the next day, as I was now dying to revisit the work, knowing how the story ended. Initially, I could only think, “I’ll never be this good. It would have happened by now. Face it. I suck.” As a photographer, my basic attempts to play with sculpture and drawing over the last couple of years felt revolutionary to me. But seeing this exhibition, I went to a dark place, lashing myself for foolishly thinking I matched up.

Day two, though, allowed me to read deeper into the work. Among the photographic projects was a series of portraits of stuffed animal sculptures that were cute and fluffy. Mixed in was a self-portrait of the artist, with slicked back hair and some very bad acne. He looked as though he wanted to look tough, but was really just a sensitive, Mid-Western guy that didn’t stand a chance in cutthroat LA. He was raised in Motown, among the makers of proud, massive cars and funky, earnest music. Hollywood didn’t seem like the best of landing spots.

Another photo project that jumped out was a diptych of black and white gelatin silver prints. A man, naked, had poop running out of his butt, and a stuffed animal was below him, eating it. Next to him, a naked woman straddled another stuffed animal, who was busy pleasuring her nether regions. Gross, trippy, absurd, offensive, you name it. Other telling works: a tapestry that claimed the artist to be a proud pants sh-tter, or the self-portrait drawings with his face melting off.

Strangely, a third photo project was just really damn good, and surprisingly straight. It was called “Photo Show Portrays the Familiar,” from 2001. Twenty-six gelatin silver prints were matted and framed, conservatively. The pictures, well-executed, could have been on the wall of any traditional gallery, and none would question it. An abandoned house, a ship wake in a river, a cul-de-sac with winter trees, a brick tower smokestack, Detroit sky scrapers, and lots of sculptures in museums. Here, amongst the chaos, it was downright shocking, in its quiet simplicity.

Up a separate escalator, there was a large gallery filled with video installations. (One had to pass the swastika art and shrieking digital-cartoon-pieces just to gain entry.) The noise was head-ache-inducing; the visual stimuli overwhelming. Devils and angels were everywhere, screens flickered, and anyone with any sense would want out of that room as soon as possible. The work was recent, and seemed like a massive cry for help. (Though the symbology was a bit simplistic.)

Walking through to the next room, it was clear the end was near. The artist’s last bit of work was massively slick and commercial. It was more in the “I have 50 assistants and someone else is making the work for me now” style. All the objects were extremely compelling, but the DIY, dark desperation was missing. An “Odalisque,” from 2010, showed a giant, black, styrofoam chess piece, lying in state, like a corpse with a wig on an autopsy table. One could feel his psyche about to break.

As you’ll know by now, if you read my articles on a regular basis, I love to read directly into objects and images, and see what they have to say. The end of the Mike Kelley exhibition was not ambiguous, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to get the message.

The artist was both blue-collar in his work ethic, and troubled by the visions inside his head. Coming from a working-class background, and city known for fashioning steel, one could see how the valiant effort to draw, sculpt, paint and photograph the ideas out of his head worked well, for a while. Once global capitalism got a hold of him, though, the prices went up, the ass-kissing got more time-consuming, the process of making things was removed from his hands, and the pressure to produce more and more was greater than ever, it was all too much for Mr. Kelley.

That’s what the show said to me, anyway.

Which is why its impact was so tremendous. Before I got to Amsterdam, I would have given anything to be that good. To be that famous, and wealthy. To be the best. I thought myself the tortured genius too. Wrongly, it turns out.

I’m a guy with an amazing family, who gets to live in one of the coolest places on Earth. I have a lot of good friends, and take pleasure out of, and am (mostly) respected for my work. There are many, many artists out there better than I am. For once, I’m OK with that. If the alternative is lonely suicide, or the relentless and humiliating hustle of the urban, moneyed world, I’ll pass.

Maybe in thirty years, if I keep growing, I’ll have a body of work worth talking about. Maybe not. But I try to no longer judge myself by other people’s success, nor do I measure my own by how many people tell me I’m special. As long as my wife and kids think I’m great, I’m doing all right.

I wish Mr. Kelley could have found some middle ground, some peace, to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But then he wouldn’t have been him. That wasn’t his path, obviously. He was a titan of the art world, a chronicler of the murky-yet-almost-beautiful misery of the human condition, and the Stedelijk retrospective was proof of that.

The exhibition has closed by now, so I can’t send you storming the doors to see for yourself. Fortunately, it’s meant to travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA PS1 in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I could not recommend more highly that you go, if you have the chance. It might not change your life, as it has mine, but it will inevitably give you something to think about. I promise.

Kevin Kunishi Interview: How to make a photo-book

I met Kevin Kunishi a couple of years ago, and was impressed with his book, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” published in 2012 by Daylight. The book was included on several year-end best book lists, and the project was also exhibited at Rayko in San Francisco last Fall. Kevin was kind enough to chat with me this past Winter about the entire publishing process, start to finish.

Jonathan Blaustein: When we first met in 2011, you were working on a project in Nicaragua. You were also sporting this badass, bushy mustache that made you look like a campesino. Why did you choose to work in Nicaragua?

Kevin Kunishi: I got my undergraduate degree in UCSB, down in Santa Barbara. I was a history major and rented a room from an International Studies professor. We ended up having some great discussions, and it pushed me in a certain direction. I became really interested in US foreign policy in Central and South America.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in grad school, I made a commitment that I was going to use my MFA experience to delve deeper, to get past the broader rhetoric that I learned in my undergraduate studies. I wanted to meet people who were affected by those policies, and lived through those times.

JB: But it could have been anywhere that was affected by the US manipulations, no?

KK: I suppose, but I chose to focus specifically on Nicaragua. I was drawn to it. There is a lot to dig into there. U.S. involvement goes back a very, very long time.

I also had a strong visual reference. At that time, in college, there was a lot of imagery that specifically deepened my interest in Nicaragua. The photographers who covering the region in the 1970’s and 80’s, Susan Meiselas, Lou Dematteis, and others, who were down there. They did incredible work. It got under my skin.

JB: I think we can assume that most people will know what you’re referring to, but just in case, let’s do a quick recap. For many years, and during the 80’s in particular, the US government played an active role in either overthrowing or undermining governments in Central America, like Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and others. They used the CIA, but also supplied weapons, and training at places like the School of the Americas.

So you decided you wanted to see for yourself what the impact of these policies was in Nicaragua, years later, and talk to people on the ground.

KK: Absolutely.

JB: You saw yourself doing this as an artist, not as a journalist? Or was the nomenclature irrelevant to you?

KK: That was irrelevant to me.

JB: And you self-funded your travels?

KK: Yes, I did.

JB: So which came first, the mustache or the project? Did you actually grow it at home, knowing that you wanted to fit in, looking like a badass? Or did you get down there with a shiny face, and somebody pulled you aside and said, “Listen, hombre, you need to work it?”

KK: (laughing.) I wish my wife could hear you talking about how much you liked the mustache, because she dreaded that thing. But seriously, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was taking the bus or hitchhiking the entire time. In Nicaragua, the bus system is made up of those old Blue Bird school buses we used to ride as kids.

They’re packed really thick. And some of the places I was going up near the Honduran border were pretty remote, like 8 hours from Managua. When I first went down there, I was all geared up with camping sh-t. Stuff with North Face labels on it, and you stick out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t until I got rid of all that stuff…I picked up some old blue jeans and t-shirts, grew a mustache, and blended in.

JB: I’m sure a lot of photographers have picked up that concept, and then adapted wherever they’re roaming. How long were you working down there before you started visualizing the end product of the project? What were your goals, beyond exploring your own creativity?

KK: You mean, how did I approach the project, going down there?

JB: Well, I want to tie it into the book as soon as we can, but I wanted to give you time to discuss what you were learning down there. Did you always know, before you started shooting, that you wanted to make a book?

KK: Yeah. I always looked at a book as a vehicle to get the work out there, and have people engage with it outside of the gallery context. Images go up on a wall in a gallery for a month, and then they’re gone. A book is something you can have with you for a while, and you can keep going through it, growing and becoming something else. I love that idea.

JB: It was in your head from the beginning?

KK: No, it wasn’t in my head from the beginning. I did not want to go into it thinking, “How is this going to be a book?” I was just focusing on getting the images, first, and seeing where they led me.

JB: Well, once you decided you wanted this to be a book, how did the process evolve? What was the starting point on getting it together?

KK: Production wise? Editing?

JB: Did you start by making a maquette, so you’d have an object to show off, and then pitch it to people? Did you meet with publishers and show them some edited prints? I want to give our readers a sense of how somebody can go through the process and end up with a really well-constructed book like “Los Restos de la Revolucion.”

KK: Got it. Sorry. I’m so congested.

JB: It’s OK. Let’s just go ahead and say it. Ladies and Gentlemen, right now, Kevin has the flu. The nasty flu that everyone’s got, but he has it for the second time in two months.
But rather than cancel the interview, like a pro, he’s gutting it out. So if he’s not perfectly lucid, we have to give him that.

KK: Thanks for explaining. Getting back to the question, I amassed a lot of images. Like an obscene amount. Boxes and boxes of stuff.

JB: Work prints?

KK: Negatives, work prints. I started sequencing. Sequencing and sequencing. Then, I started doing portfolio reviews. I did one here in San Francisco put on by Photo Alliance, a non-profit here in the city. They hold it over at SFAI.

I was lucky enough to meet Taj Forer from Daylight, and we hit it off from the beginning. He really loved the work.

After Photo Alliance, we started spec-ing it out a little. What did we want to do? How many pages did we want?

JB: How did you pitch the project? Were you thinking of narrative? Were you trying to tell a story? How did you want to connect everything together? Or did that not come until after you started working with your publisher?

KK: It was there before the publisher, but what was fantastic about working with Taj and Mike (Michael Itkoff) was they pull from so much in their own backgrounds. It was very collaborative. We met several times. We would basically work through ideas constantly and they would be vetted. We could either discard it, or build upon it.

Especially with the edit. Things started getting crafted down, better and better. Honestly, the image editing process was extremely stressful, because I had emotional ties to a lot of images and individuals within the photos.

JB: Just to step back for a moment, once you met with Taj in the review, what happened next? Was it as simple as you got an email that said, “Hey, we want to run with this?”

KK: Yes. They told me right off that they wanted to do it. So from there, you spec it out, and then the funding issues come into play. You’ve got to start working on that. It was about a year-long process.

JB: Everyone wants to know about funding, and of course, I want to go there. You can be as honest and open about it as you choose to be. How did it work? Did you have to put up or raise significant funds to get the book to market?

KK: Yes. Whether it’s Kickstarter, Indiegogo, working with collectors. In my case I was able to make it happen. It was good that I had the benefit of time, because it took time to find the funds.

JB: How much money did you have to come up with?

KK: I’d rather not talk about that.

JB: OK. That’s understandable.

KK: I will say this, it can be a significant amount and can vary depending on the publisher.

JB: I’m trying to give people a reality check about what it costs to get a book made, but I understand that you don’t feel comfortable discussing the numbers. Money, in general, evokes stress in people across all spectrums.

KK: (laughing.)

JB: It just does. I knew once I asked you that, there was a chance you weren’t going to want to answer. But I asked not for my own edification, but to try to educate people.

Once you were confident you could raise whatever was required of you, how do you move from editing into design?

KK: A lot of printing houses will have an in-house design staff. We were lucky enough to work with Ursula Damm, who’s out in Red Hook. She’s a part of a great design firm called Damm Savage. You go to her with a bullet point list of what you want, the ideas that you’re working with, and she would come back with numerous design choices.

JB: What was the vision you presented to her?

KK: It stemmed from a very profound experience I had when I first got to Nicaragua. In the area I was visiting, there is this beautiful, ethereal mist that hangs in the mountains, and drifts down into the cobblestone streets at night. I met this older man on a bus. He pointed out the window and told me that those mists hide many horrible things, but also many wonderful things. “The more time you spend there,” he said, “the more they will be revealed to you.”

That really stuck with me. I shot everything down there in that soft light. I was interested in that idea of things lurking in the haze of the past, that fog of war. Embracing it and applying it. In the vision for the book, and the sequencing, I wanted the book to be almost dream-like, going from image to image.

JB: I hate to be obvious here, but you were conversing with people in Spanish?

KK: Yes. I took Spanish in high school, and lived in San Diego working on the piers for a while. But in those situations down there, it’s sink or swim. Especially out in the campo, I had to pick it up again fast. I got some books, and practiced every morning and night by candle light. I was able to get it going again.

With most of the interviews, I was lucky to piggy back on some of the NGO’s and non-profits down there. They were present with me when I would conduct a lot of the interviews. I would record everything, and if I had an issue with the translation, they would step in and help.

JB: You made use of an existing community?

KK: Absolutely. There are a lot of non-profits and Peace Corps volunteers doing great things in these communities. They were really helpful. I was able to tap into their various community networks to spread the word that I was interested in talking about their experiences during the war.

JB: Let’s jump back to the book. Your vision of the book was related to your vision of the project, which was related to your vision of the place. Mist and fog and dreaminess.

KK: Yes. So the question was, “How do I encompass that in an experience?” The cover of the book has a man with his eyes closed, and I wanted to suggest everything was within his head. Like a dream, a memory, a reflection of that experience, to use the book as a vehicle to create that. That’s where it was coming from. Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. But it also answers another big question I had. How do you choose what goes on the cover?

The book opens with a short poem. Did you write that?

KK: Yes.

JB: The book opens like that, and then we see all the photographic plates. There’s no mention of Nicaragua explicitly, but the back cover, in black on black, has a picture of the map of the country. That was your way of suggesting place?

KK: Absolutely. I have photobooks that front-load text in some way or another tell you “This is what you’re about to look at,” those are the books that I rarely open again. You know what I mean?

JB: That’s what I’m trying to find out. I want to know what your thought process was. I just reviewed a book from Sweden, and I loved that you got a sense of Scandinavia, and of a bleak sort of factory life, but you don’t know exactly where it is. I think anybody who picks up your book, even if they don’t know it’s Nicaragua, they would get that it’s Central America.

And I’ve been enamored, lately, of books that open with poetry, instead of didactic essays. So many essays are encoded in “intellectual speak.” Which is fine, but in my job, which involves looking at books all the time, I find that often the essays don’t engage.

In the end of the book, you give a lot of additional information. You provide the titles, under a thumbnail image, and then you give background information on the people and places. Things that no viewer would ever know: a tight crawl space is a prison cell, a tulip coming out of the ground is really a grave. A tree that looks like a pretty nature shot was used for torture and hanging people.

You’re giving the viewer all the necessary political information at the end. You wrote all that?

KK: Yes, there are some interview excerpts as well. I don’t really like books that have image, text, image, text. By having all that information at the back, I like the idea that if a viewer went through the first time, they could maybe sniff out what some of these images are about. With the text at the end, it could either validate or eliminate what their assumptions were.

JB: When I look at a book, I believe that if an artist needs me to know something, if there is information that is necessary to unlock the secrets of the book, I expect the artist to give that to me. Books that rely on hearsay, or they expect you to Google something…

KK: (laughing)

JB: Seriously, some of them do. I remember, one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed was Donald Weber’s “Interrogations.” I looked at it thoroughly, and read every word, and there was no mention that it was a real scenario. I went ahead and assumed that it was staged, as art. Then people in the comment section let me know I was wrong.

Anyway, I liked that you allowed the narrative to be suggestive and mysterious, but then provided a lot of serious context.

I wanted to talk about the writing a bit more as well, because you did a great job with it. Almost all the books I look at involve the use of external writers. Often it’s essays written by intellectuals, curators, or famous people. You hear through the grapevine that there can be pressure on photographers to bring in a writer who can provide additional credibility.

How did it develop in the publishing process that you decided to handle the writing yourself?

KK: I have books and books of journals, from when I was in Nicaragua. I write constantly, when I’m on the road. To be honest, we brainstormed some ideas of having other people contribute, but I wanted the work to stand on it’s own. I wanted my own voice in it.

It was something we went back and forth on, in the beginning. And then, Susan Meiselas told us, “This needs to stand alone.”

JB: How did you get her involved?

KK: I believe Michael started a conversation with her. We sent her some of the work, a maquette with a small sequence of images, and she wrote back a really nice email about it. I agreed with her. It was a gut feeling I had from the beginning, and that’s how it played out.

JB: So you work on a collaborative design process, you raise funds, then you send it off to the printer. I noticed it was printed in China. Did you make a trip over there?

KK: No, I didn’t go to China. They would Fedex proofs back to me. I went down to Rayko, and put them up under the color-balanced lights, and would mark up things to be changed.

JB: How long did that part of the process take?

KK: Maybe two months, from the time I got the proof prints together, and sent them over to China as a reference.

JB: Start to finish. Production wise?

KK: Yes.

JB: Then the books come back. What happens next? Given that you provided the investment, did you have a contract that stipulated that you’d receive a certain amount of copies?

KK: Yeah, I got a certain amount. One day a palette was delivered. There are like fifty steps from the street down to my apartment, so it was a bit much.

JB: What about marketing and book signings? Was it your intention to try to recoup your investment? I’ve heard that most people don’t ever expect to make a profit. It’s more a promotional vehicle for their careers. What was your strategy with Daylight to get the books into people’s hands?

KK: Well it might be important to look at it for the long haul, if you sell all your books over the next decade you will be well on your way to making your money back. Couple that with press attention/commissions/print sales etc and you have the formula to move your career forward. What’s so great about Daylight is that they have a fantastic distribution network, with D.A.P., so that really helped get it out there. With regards to making money? No way. Making money on photobooks? (laughing.)

JB: That’s the word on the street.

KK: (laughing.)

JB: Hopefully, you can understand, that’s why I’m asking these questions. We’re trying to use your experience to give people an inside look into the process.

Your book was successful. It was listed on several year-end-best book lists. People like the book, so it’s a great opportunity for our readers to get a sense of how it really works. They’ll understand what is required, if they’re going to embark on the publishing process.

KK: I think it’s also important to define what “success” means.

JB: Sure. What was your vision of success?

KK: For this body of work, I’d have to answer that on two fronts. First, it involves creating a discussion around the work. And I’ve been really happy with how that’s played out. Second, it’s generated print sales, so that I can get money back to people who are in the book.

JB: You’d mentioned to me previously that it was your intention to give your share of print sales to the subjects of the photos? Is that right?

KK: Yes, I’m sending a significant cut of my proceeds down to Nicaragua. To put this in perspective, in some areas in the campo, $200 is an annual salary. The sale of a print can really make a difference in some bad situations that are going on down there. You know what I mean?

JB: Sure. It’s impressive.

KK: It goes into micro-finance projects, alleviates some of the debt load of these fertilizer loans that people are inundated with, I can go on and on.

JB: You’re happy with the way everything turned out?

KK: For the most part.

JB: What would you do differently if you could do it over again?

KK: I don’t know if there’s anything I’d do differently, specifically. I always think I can do better. I don’t know about you, but I’m never satisfied.

“Light from the Middle East: New Photography” at the V&A

by Jonathan Blaustein

Syria is a wreckage, its people bombarded by a psychotic former ophthalmologist. Egypt’s economy is in free-fall. The Arab Spring’s optimism has faded faster than a photograph bathed in the sunshine of a portrait studio’s front window.

Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East live with the constant threat of violence and terror. When stories flood media outlets, dead bodies boost ratings. (I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.) Given that language barriers exist, even in an age of Google Translate, it’s not so easy to just throw out a couple of friend requests to get the real story from Tehran. Or Tel Aviv.

Fortunately, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has come to our collective rescue. “Light from the Middle East: New Photography” displayed photographs from North Africa through Central Asia, until it closed on April 7. It was the most dynamic photo exhibition I saw on my recent visit to Europe.

The show was broken down into three component parts: Recording, Reframing, and Resisting. The first referred to documentary work, the second to images that attempted to subvert existing photo traditions, and the latter section dealt with more original or innovative art practice. Surprisingly, given my predilections, I mostly preferred the initial grouping. But there were strong projects throughout; a fantastic exhibition, really.

Walking through the entryway, I was confronted with a group of photos by Abbas, from the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. He managed to capture anger and passion pulsing through the frame, as in the grouping of women in abayas, toting machine guns. Another image featured a heap of dead old men on morgue beds, slid out of the cooler. (While some revolutionaries looked on, gloating.) The message from the curators was clear: We mean business.

Just down the way, Tal Shochat, an Israeli, exhibited a triptych of contemporary images that seemed to emanate from a different planet, as well as century, than those of Abbas. Three trees: persimmon, pomegranate, and grapefruit. Each had been meticulously cleaned and buffed, then shot in the landscape with strobes, against a black backdrop. They looked artificial, like corporatized nature. Smart and odd-looking, they referenced the intersection of agriculture and genetic engineering in the 21st C.

Cruising the room, I saw pictures from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kurdistan.

“Bodiless 1,” by Mehraneh Atashi, another Iranian, was an absolute favorite. A burly wrestler, in a mens’ only gym, throws around a chain of weights. (Old school equipment, for sure.) He had a serious head of hair, resembled Erik Estrada, and rocked a sexy-time mustache as well. The text tells us women are always excluded from such establishments, but the artist was, in fact, female. She received special permission, and included her own image as a little subversive shout to rule-breaking, reflected within a mirror.

A Mitra Tabrizian photo, again from Iran, was also amazing. (I’m just now realizing I like Iranian photography.) A long, horizontal panel depicted an obviously-staged scene filled with a host of “regular” people. Old and young, men and women, all stood, moved, talked, gesticulated, in a field outside of a generic apartment building. Up above, a pair of grumpy-looking clerics stared down, disapprovingly, from a billboard. (I wonder what they would approve of? Disemboweling Barack Obama?) Though I assumed it to be a digital composite, given how much was going on, the wall text assured that it was actually one exposure. Righteous people-wrangling.

In general, the Reframing section, which featured artists who appropriate or imitate images from the past, was the least successful. Most of the artists’ symbol choices were heavy-handed, so things were just off. (Close, but not quite right.)

Shadi Ghadirian’s project, yet again from Iran, typified this. Her series, “Qujar,” from 1998, featured women in portraits, shot in the historical style from the Qajar period, 1786-1925. The verisimilitude was spot on, but then the women held modern symbols, like a Pepsi can, a boom box, or a mountain bike. I wanted to love them, but kept getting stuck in the clunky juxtaposition. The one exception was the image of shrouded women holding a mirror that reflected blankly back to the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian, exhibited work from his project “The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields,” a series of hand-colored black and white portraits. The style aped mid-20th Century Egyptian studio portraits, and focused on the large ex-pat population in North England. I loved the hand-colored effect, and the guys were funny, but also poignant, like Gene Hackman’s sidekick in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” (Yes, I’m aware Pagoda was Indian.)

One last project here deserves a mention, but not in a good way. Taysir Batniji, a Palestinian, had pictures included from his “Watch Towers: West Bank/Palestine” project. The structures were blatantly shot in the insanely-famous Becher style. Basically, they were knock-offs, meant to create controversy. When the first sentence in the wall text admits that the work is derivative, I wonder if it actually belongs in the show?

Moving on, my brain slowly wearing down, I entered the last room: Resisting. The collected photos were meant to examine the manipulation of truth in photography. The quality ranged, here, but there were some memorable projects.

Atiq Rahimi’s work, from Afghanistan, featured plastic box camera pictures, called “The Imaginary Return,” from 2001. The artist played with scale and temporal dislocation, so my eye wondered if the pictures were from the 19th Century. A tree branch looked like it was about to topple a building, little men at the base of a wall look like toy soldiers, and a lonely clothesline suspended above the chaos seems like it might be holding up the world.

Amirali Ghasemi’s series “Tehran Remixed: Party Series” was also terrific. We’ve all heard stories of what goes on behind the closed, locked doors of Tehran’s youth. (I’m guessing they love Ecstasy, but what do I know?) Here, we see the good times rolling, but big white sections have been cut out of the subjects, censoring their identities. It was a perfect use of digital technique, and reminded me why I was less enthralled with the exhibition’s mid-section, which placed less emphasis on stylistic innovation.

There was a bit more hand-coloring in the last room, but nothing that really impressed. Nermine Hammam, an Egyptian, had a project where she photographed soldiers who were ubiquitous during the aforementioned Arab Spring. Rather than keep them in their natural surroundings, however, she digitally removed them, and dropped them against the technicolor backdrops of the Swiss Alps. (I’m guessing the soldiers would have preferred to frolic in the mountains, rather than tote guns around Tahrir Square.)

As I said at the outset, this was a really stellar exhibition. We often struggle, here in the West, to remind ourselves why art matters. A few rooms such as these, packed with photographs that attempt to codify uncertainty, document upheaval, and share stories with the World outside, are an excellent reminder.

Laura Letinsky at The Photographers’ Gallery

by Jonathan Blaustein

Am I ever brief? Seriously. Whether these articles ramble on for a thousand or two thousand words, they always go long. I know some people enjoy that, and others look at blocks of text and just tune the damn thing out.

Occasionally, I try to break the cycle, but rarely succeed. It’s almost as if verbose were my middle name. (Instead of Benjamin. My name has eight syllables. How’s that for symbolically appropriate?) Ironically, my wife just suggested that the metaphorical meaning of my horrendous, insanely painful, glass-shards-through-my-goiter sore throat might be that I should talk less. (Ought that translate to write less?)

Let’s try it, though. Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting the recently redesigned Photographers’ Gallery in London. It’s a beautiful building, with glass windows cut out in sexy places, like bits of fabric shorn from a flowing jersey dress. And all those floors dedicated to photography? (Or tea, in the café.) All good in my book.

There were several exhibitions on display when I visited, but the highlight was a show of new work by Laura Letinsky. Occupying an entire gallery, the large, minimalist prints were quiet, as was the room. (Silent, really.) Ms. Letinsky has moved away from her straightforward, food-based still lives, bathed in gorgeous light. Here, we see mashed-up, studio experimental still lives, on white tables against white walls.

The images contain some actual items, but also two-dimensional cut-outs of photos taken from magazines. I loved the picture of the crushed white paper cup, against the white on white, and the desiccated grapes were great as well. The experience was like looking at the classiest collages you’ve ever seen.

The light is of course beautiful in the extreme, and the photos appear to be digitally created, thereby compressing the sense of space. By now, we all know that digital images flatten out the picture plane, as opposed to the celluloid aesthetic, which renders three-dimensionality so well. Here, it did engender a double-take or two, as my eyes tried to read exactly what was going on.

I wasn’t blown away by the work, or seduced into a Zen, drooling-on-myself-kind-of-bliss, but I liked it. It’s certainly well-executed, and beautiful. Mostly, the show seemed like a record of a talented artist who was experimenting; pushing her own process in ways that kept her engaged, while staying within a general stylistic preference.

Format ’13, Derby, UK

by Jonathan Blaustein

We used to have a film festival here in Taos. It took place in early April each year. Everybody in town would get excited, as there were opportunities to see films to which residents would otherwise not have access. (Pre-Netflix, obviously.) The locals loved it, and the film-makers did too. I got to meet James Coburn, so that was cool.

I worked for the festival in 1997, as an overly confident twenty-two year old. All bluster and little experience, I was hired as the Volunteer Co-ordinator, meant to boss around dozens of older folks who were working for free. I was hired last minute, as the original VC was poorly-equipped for the position, and subsequently fired.

I was told to do whatever I saw fit with the volunteers, so my first act was to handpick an assistant. Why not make my job easier, I thought. I went through the list, and chose a middle-aged female attorney who’d recently moved to Taos. She seemed sharp, and ended up helping immeasurably.

Within a year, she’d been elevated to Executive Director of the organization. A few years later, the festival was defunct. (Not that I’m blaming her, mind you.) There was some debt accrued at the beginning that could never be dealt with properly, and the best of intentions are not always enough. Competence, across a broad swath of areas, is required to run a successful event over time.

So I was displeased, if not completely surprised, at my experience with the Format Festival in England over the last six months. It gives me no pleasure to write this article, and I’ve certainly given some consideration to why there used to be boundaries between artists and journalists. Ethically, the tale that follows seem important to share, as I know our readers look to us for helpful information about what goes on inside the industry. But I’ve spent many a moment wondering whether this will damage the “artist” portion of my career.

Here’s the breakdown.

I met the Artistic Director of the festival at FotoFest last year. She seemed nice, and I was glad when she wrote a few months later to say the submission process to Format ’13 was about to open. Cool, I thought. If she took the time to reach out, I assumed they must be interested in my work.

Like the many competitions that exist around the world, there was a fee involved in submitting work for consideration. Nothing huge, but still, it cost something. When I didn’t hear back a month beyond the original deadline for replies, I knew things were not efficient as one might hope. Still, I wanted it to work out, and was thrilled when my work was accepted. Having an international exhibition on my resumé seemed like a great career move, and I’m enamoured of the British photo community.

Foolishly, I chose to overlook the fact that the exhibition to which I was applying, “EXPOSURE,” required me to pay all the production costs for my work, as well as shipping fees in each direction. (I don’t believe that’s the case with every exhibition they put on.) The forms also claimed there would be a stipend offered, but that was the last I heard of it until I arrived in England. My inquiries into how much funding I might receive were not answered. (Nor were most of the emails I sent looking for information.)

As the festival approached, I was asked to submit a proposal for my exhibition design. I worked on it for weeks, scratching sketches and fiddling in Photoshop. Surely, I thought, someone will be impressed. They will wonder at the power of my creativity and the brilliance of my art. (They didn’t. I shipped the box off and hoped for the best.)

So by the time I headed to Derby last month, I was pretty put out by the whole thing. I’d spent almost $600, and was beginning to regret it. (Not including travel costs, or return shipping, which I also need to arrange on my own. They won’t schedule the DHL pickup, apparently.) I’m sure they’re all nice people, with so much to organize. I get that there is a lot of responsibility. I do.

At last, though, on a Saturday in early March, I caught the train North from London with my friend Hin Chua. He told me he’d participated in the 2011 version of Format, and had encountered some problems too. He chalked it up to biting off more work than they could chew, rather than malicious intent, and said that most of the people he’d spoken to had some issues as well.

Before I got to Derby, I’d been warned several times that it was a less-than-enthralling place. Basically, people laughed when I said I was showing work there, and confidently described the place grim. I assumed it was just the famous British wit, pushing my buttons and dampening my expectations. Surely, they’re exaggerating, I thought. (Alas…)

The city was bleak and gray; the air freezing cold and moist, sucking the joy from my soul. (What little was left, that is.) I’m not trying to denigrate this Post-Industrial city, which has obviously fallen on hard times, but it is what it is. Folks were surly and suspicious, and the ramifications of decline were rampant. (I saw two businesses closing down on High Street.) As we got off the train, the first two people we saw outside the station were muscle-head teenagers in rolled up T-shirts. Genius.

After that, we stopped in at the Quad theater to see the Erik Kessels exhibition. I know he’s trendy at the moment, and I loved and reviewed one of his books recently, but this exhibit was surprisingly limp. Appropriated family album photographs were everywhere, though most were not-very-interesting. They were blown up into graphics that covered the walls, and were also presented on foam core, in racks, meant to be flipped through like items at a poster shop. (Points for trying to break out of the box, I guess.) I queried some fellow visitors who were equally disappointed, and one described the show as “graphic design” and “cotton candy.”

Next was a brief visit to the “Photo Market,” a few photo related stalls mingled amongst the cheesemongers of the local indoor market. The air was stale, the mood depressing. I got to see a few cool photo books, as there were several major publishers in attendance. It was pretty quiet, though, and one participating photographer told me there was a public opening the night before, and ten people came.

From there, we headed into an industrial neighborhood to the “Chocolate Factory,” to see the exhibition in which my work was included. It was the hub of the festival, in that portfolio reviews were being held there that day. I knew of several friends who’d be in attendance, and was excited to finally have some fun. We walked in, and noticed the entryway was open to the elements. No doors at all.

Immediately, I bumped into a colleague, who asked if I’d seen my work yet. His voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, so I knew something was awry. “No,” I said, “I’ve just arrived. Is there a problem?” He paused. “Well, the pictures are in the back. Better you see for yourself.”

We headed in that direction, and I quickly stuffed my hands in my pockets. It was even colder in the Chocolate Factory that it was outside: barely above freezing. The place had been abandoned, and reclaimed by Format as an exhibition space. It was filthy, and reminded me of something out of a former Soviet republic. Given that the festival theme was “Factory,” I should add that the choice wasn’t pointless. It makes sense in theory, but was poorly executed. (If the festival took place in Summer, it would have been an entirely different story.)

My pictures were at the very far end of the venue, by the toilets. While the location would normally be considered unappealing, on that day, at least, I knew my work would be seen. People kept heading to the loo to use the electric hand dryer to warm up, because the entire venue had no heat whatsoever.

Photographers were shivering, jumping up and down to stay warm. (Except for one of the festival sponsors, who was dressed in a burly Swedish mackinaw and fur hat. He was toasty, and suggested I not take my treatment personally. They didn’t reply to his emails either, he said, because they’re always so busy.)

I was told that the reviewers were provided with hot water bottles, those rubber things that evoke the 19th Century, and hot coffee as well. The photographers, on the other side of the table, were not. One American photographer told me she hadn’t even bothered to go see her exhibition, elsewhere in town, because she was too worn down by the travel, the elements, and the expensive cab fares.

Another photographer, a friend who was also attending the reviews, ranted about it perfectly: “I’m a f-cking chump. I just spent £200 to sit in a f-cking warehouse freezing my ass off all day. Even people who work in warehouses get minimum wage.” He wrote to me thereafter to stress that he did have some very good experiences in the review meetings, so it balanced out.

Just as I was about to lose my mind and head back to the station to grab the next train South, I saw a friend from Italy, Michele Palazzi. Michele and I, along with his wingman Raphaele, started to crack each other up almost immediately. (Telling jokes about Berlusconi, arguing about who made a better spaghetti carbonara.)Then, Barry Hughes, the publisher of the excellent online magazine Super Massive Black Hole, turned the corner. We’d corresponded on social media, but had not yet met in person. Format brought us all together.

We stood there, the four of us, laughing, beginning to see the humor in the situation. The seratonin flooded back into my brain. This, I thought, is why I really came here. Nothing beats the camaraderie of hanging out with cool people from around the world. Sometimes, a little temporary suffering brings everyone closer together.

From there, too cold to go searching for more exhibitions to see, we headed up the street to the pub. My mood improved, and the strong dark beer helped me get back to myself. For hours, we laughed, talked about photography, and shared stories about our respective communities. If not for the festival, our motley crew would have been spread back around the planet.

To be clear, I’m sure the Format does good things for Derby, providing opportunities for locals to see art and and expand their understanding of the world. Its residents must benefit greatly. In a parallel universe, I had a great day in Derby, visiting the many exhibitions spread all over the city, and came away impressed by what I saw. Just the other day, a colleague wrote on Facebook that he saw lots of great work at Format, and called the city “cool.”

There are many festivals around the world, and countless opportunities to show one’s work. Frankly, I submitted to Format without having done any research, and relied upon some specious assumptions. That’s on me. If you’re reading this in the US, though, I’d probably recommend you start somewhere else on your quest for world domination.

London Trip: Part 1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Disposable income. Has there ever been a more ridiculous term? It’s been five years now since the Global Economic Meltdown, and I laugh with derision every time I think of those two words mashed together. Most folks these days are happy just to pay all the bills on time. The idea that there would ever be money to burn? Blasphemous.

I bring this up, as I’m just beginning to get my head together after returning from Europe the week before last. Like many an American, I’m a verified Eurpohile. The ancient architecture, narrow streets, museums on every corner, functioning public transportation, smell of history in the air…it’s intoxicating. Stop me now, or I’ll go off on a rant like Rick Steves, and someone will put me on a PBS pledge drive. (Operators are standing by now.)

I’m lucky-and-old enough to have been able to afford the now-anachronistic American post-college-Eurail-backpacking adventure. While I certainly had fun, I imagine I’d have appreciated it more if I realized the subsequent alphabetical generation (Y to my X) would be more likely to live in their parents’ basement than to galavant around the Continent.

Nowadays, when we get a chance to travel somewhere special, I’m sure we all suck the last bit of juice from the experience. I certainly do. I’d love to punch my younger self in the face, and insist I show more respect for my privileges, but that’s not possible, as far as I know. Instead, I just try to live by the words I spout off in this forum each week.

My most recent bit of proselytizing involved trying new things, exploring new territory, and breaking away from established patterns. Right? Right.

So when I found myself in front of the Man Ray exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London recently, (brain fried and exhausted, having slept on the plane,) I decided it was time to shake things up. There is an entrance fee of $22 for the show, in an otherwise free museum. I was fairly certain my friend had a pass to let me in gratis the next day, and I’d already visited one photography exhibition to review earlier that afternoon. (About which I’ll write in the coming weeks.)

In other words, I just wasn’t feeling it. Sure, I knew the show would be interesting. (And it was, but that will have to wait as well.) But in the moment, the desire to experience new things, and not do the expected, was foremost in my mind. So I pivoted on the spot, spinning like a plastic foosball man, and headed in the other direction.

We photographers love to wander, and have honed our instincts for what might be ’round the next bend. But it’s so often in service of the next cool photograph. We search to click the shutter. I’ll advocate here that you keep the process, but flip the desired outcome. Put the camera down, and see what else is there.

In this case, I headed upstairs to the Tudor gallery, to see the centuries old portraits of English royals. The gallery opens with a painting of the recently re-discovered King Richard III, who sits next to Henry VII, who deposed him. They’re followed by Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. (Reunited at last.) The 16th Century portraits were flat and stylized, not far from their Renaissance forebears. And while the Europeans out there might say, “so what,” to those of us in the New World, seeing history in its proper environment is mesmerizing.

The following room had a few killer paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, and many of the royal courtiers, hustlers, and power players that were all the rage in her day. Intrigue, insurrection, spying, and all manner of bad behavior in service of Queen and country were discussed in the wall text. The men, rendered on canvas, looked dignified and serious, like they wouldn’t know how to laugh if they were tickled by Chris Farley himself. Fascinating, and totally worth the time.

I left the NPG shortly thereafter, and took ten steps towards the tube to return to my friend Hugo’s flat. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a beautiful Church across the street, in the opposite direction. Normally, I would have kept going towards a warm bed and a glass of wine. I’d been on the move for more than a day. The easy route was in front of me.

But I learned a valuable lesson in my more lazy, hedonistic days, and that is one never knows what is behind the door in an old European Church. So I mustered the energy to turn around, dodged a few black cabs as they whizzed by, and crossed to the street to see what was up. Thankfully.

I pushed open the heavy door, and found myself in a typical alcove. Having come that far, I pushed through the next door as well, hoping I wouldn’t interfere with anything important. If the Pope’s security force lay ahead, ready to intercept wandering Jews, that would have been no more surprising than what I found.

As soon as the door cracked a few inches, glorious music washed over my senses. The ceiling rose before me, supported by solid columns. Ahead, a string orchestra played for a piddling audience, wedged in the back, like me. They were rehearsing, so the music would stop every few minutes. I wanted to scream out, “More, more,” but it seemed uncouth.

It’s hard to describe how liberated and exhilarated I felt. As you know, I live in a horse pasture, and my local music is restricted to raven squawks and barking dogs. This, however, was a bit of magic. My emotions started to ping around my body like a five year old hopped up on too much birthday cake. I sat down on the stone floor to contemplate, in bliss.

Where was I? It’s called St Martin in the Fields, and it’s just off of Trafalgar Square. The catacombs below house a cafe and a gallery, tucked beneath a brick vaulted ceiling. There are a number of musical programs, from what I could gather, and the next night there was a candle-light concert scheduled. This place is a must visit for all of you Brits, and anyone planning a trip to London as well.

I left after a while, feeling like I could hop over a red double-decker bus without too much trouble. (Fortunately, I wasn’t so delirious as to try.) From there, I’d surely earned the right to descend into the underground. One can only handle so much exhilaration. As I walked towards the Covent Garden station, I couldn’t believe all the boutiques that lined the way.

Seriously, wherever I went in Central London, someone was trying to sell designer goods to Russian tourists. Everyone’s on the hustle these days, and when you know who’s got the cash, it’s your job to try to get it. Or something like that.

I tried to tune it all out and drift into a daydream, when up ahead, I noticed a grand, imposing and beautiful building, towering above the surrounding architecture. It was just so intense and powerful. What could it be? It was less than half a mile beyond the tube stop, and my curiosity would not leave me alone. To whom did it belong? What went on behind those thick stone walls? I had to find out.

As I approached, I felt as if I were a marlin being reeled in by a hungry fisherman. I couldn’t stop the process, and struggle seemed futile. When finally it stood before me, I noticed a small sign advertising a public museum inside the Freemasons’ Hall. Ah, the Freemasons. The famed secret society.

I opened some stained glass doors, marked with a Star of David, and was quickly met by a surprised looking security guard. Clearly, those doors were not often utilized. He directed me to another, more suitable entrance, and told me I’d need to ask for a pass to enter. So I did.

I’m not sure about you, but when I hear the term Freemasons, I think of Homer Simpson and Fred Flintstone, bumbling along in meetings with funny hats. Or maybe the Skull and Bones type stuff they have at Yale. (Any secret society that allows George W. Bush to enter is probably not as exclusive as it seems.) But this building reeked of money and power, and I was curious to see what lay inside.

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry sits at the back of the building, up some stairs and down a long set of halls. I felt not the slightest urge to deviate from the path, as I was sure there were secret security cameras everywhere. At least that’s what my imagination told me. So I did as I was told.

The place is free and open to the public, and you have to go check it out for yourself. There was an exhibit called “Encounters- Artists and Freemasonry over 300 years,” which is up until Sept 20th, 2013. I endeavored to figure out what the organization was all about, but unfortunately, I can’t say I was able to get very far.

It might be because I was tired, but really, all the text seemed to be written in a foreign language. The best I could surmise, it’s a guild or club-type-organization that supports networking among wealthy and powerful people. But as there are branches all over the world, I would imagine there is a range of membership, so really, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

There were sculptures on display, and silver chalices, porcelain plates, odd costumes, paintings, murals and textiles. Strange symbols popped up here and there, but not in patterns I could recognize. I tried to make sense of it, and failed. Fortunately, there was a fantastic photograph on display, thereby making this a photography review after all.

Sitting in an innocuous display case near the entrance, I looked down into the confident eyes of Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of these United States. He had a confidence born of wealth and breeding, and a mustache that screamed math professor. (Or as they say in England, maths.) I looked into his eyes, and heard him speak into my head: “Yeah, bitches, I’m a tough motherf-cker. I eat bears for breakfast. With my spectacles, I can see through your wimpy, plebeian soul.” (The portrait was shot by a fellow Freemason, Alvin Langon Coburn.)

I’m guessing these Freemasons roll at a level I can’t really fathom. But they were very nice to me, and how cool is it that you can visit another world like that, for free? Just make sure not to mess with anything, or you’ll probably end up in the dungeons below, never to be heard from again.

I said my thanks and retrieved my man bag at the front desk, and headed back out into the misty London streets. What a day. Henceforth, the subsequent articles will deal with photography to a greater extent than what you’ve just read. As it should be. But let the lesson here be explicit: when you put the camera down, occasionally, and explore just for the sake of it, wondrous things might be waiting just out of view.

Will Michels Interview – Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Co-Curator of War/Photography

Joe Rosenthal, American (1911–2006), Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Kevin and Lesley Lilly Family, The Manfred Heiting Collection. © Associated Press

Luc Delahaye, French, born 1962, Taliban, 2001, Chromogenic print, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with funds from the H. B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust. © Luc Delahaye, courtesy of Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

Jonathan C. Torgovnik, American (born 1969), Valentine with her daughters Amelie and Inez, Rwanda, from the series Intended Consequences, 2006, chromogenic print, ed. #11/25, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the artist. © Jonathan Torgovnik

Peter van Agtmael, American (born 1981), Darien, Wisconsin, October 22, 2007, chromogenic print, ed. # 1/10 (printed 2009), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of David and Cindy Bishop Donnelly, John Gaston, Mary and George Hawkins, and Mary and Jim Henderson in memory of Beth Block. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Will Michels is the co-curator of the “War/Photography” exhibition that recently closed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The show will travel to venues in LA, DC and Brooklyn, so be sure to check it out if you can. Will was kind enough to speak to me in the exhibition space while I was in town earlier this Winter.

Jonathan Blaustein: Thanks for meeting me here, Will. I’ve never done an interview like this, in the middle of an exhibition, so forgive me if I nervously start at the beginning. What was the impetus for something this large and grand?

Will Michels: The impetus was that I’m a Houstonian…

JB: Born and raised?

WM: Born and raised.

JB: But you don’t call yourself a Texan?

WM: Absolutely.

JB: You do?

WM: Absolutely.

JB: Understood.

WM: I went to the High School for Performing and Visual Arts,and then went to Pratt Institute art college in New York Brooklyn. I graduated with a degree in architecture during the worst architectural recession in this country’s history. The job I found was project architect restoring the Battleship Texas. So this art guy got thrown into a military world by chance. I worked for the Battleship Texas for approximately ten years.

JB: Where is that?

WM: Thirty miles South of here. Between here and Galveston, Texas.

JB: So you graduated from school in New York, and then came back to Texas to work?

WM: Absolutely. I got thrown into the military world, and embraced it. I’m a photographer, and after many years, I began photographing veterans of the Battleship Texas, and military re-enactments that were all associated with the ship that I worked on. So that’s where military and photography mixed.

As part of my job, I had to look through pictures to help restore the ship back to the way it was. That’s where my interest in military pictures comes into play. I would read books, and would turn the page, and there would be a Robert Capa. Uncredited.

It drove me nuts. Just started making me think. Also, I’ve worked at the Museum of Fine Arts since I was 17. I’ve worked here for 28 years.

JB: People can’t see my facial expression, so let me go ahead and describe it as perplexed; shocked. I’ve heard of people starting in restaurant kitchens at 17. That’s not uncommon. But I’ve never heard that in a museum. Were you an intern?

WM: I started selling recorded tours for the “Kandinsky in Paris” exhibition in 1985. I’ve been on payroll ever since. I’ve only been full-time for seven years, but I’ve been either teaching or doing part time jobs since 1985.

JB: What about this particular show?

WM: A few years back, the museum acquired the Manfred Heiting collection, which included a copy of Joe Rosenthal’s “Old Glory goes up Mount Suribachi”. It is the first print ever made.

JB: This is from Iwo Jima.

WM: Yes, Iwo Jima. It’s a print made by the man who processed his film on Guam, named Werner Schmidt. It’s a remarkable little print. I assume you’ve already seen it. It was the research surrounding that photograph, and other photographs in the Manfred Heiting collection, that gave me the confidence to approach Anne Tucker, the primary curator, about doing a very small exhibition about War photography in a small stairwell gallery.

Her response was, “You know that’s only twenty pictures.” And mine was, “That’s all I want.” (laughing.)

JB: That’s funny, given where it ended up. Unfortunately, no one who reads this will be able to see this exhibition in its current format. So how many pictures are in this wing of the museum?

WM: Four hundred and eighty one pictures.

JB: It took me three full hours yesterday, and I think I got my eyes across everything. But retention wise…

WM: It’s hard to digest it in just three hours.

JB: Right, but…

WM: That didn’t really bother us much. We wanted it to be an all-consuming experience.

JB: Well, the exhibition is almost the size of a building, and I’m not exaggerating. From an audience perspective, this experience is overwhelming. It’s almost not designed to be seen only one time. Was that something that you and your colleagues took into account?

WM: I just want to say that this is a result of Anne Tucker and I looking. We had a great opportunity, because we had early grant money that allowed us to travel and look, with no agenda. All we did was gather pictures, and look at them. We started recognizing patterns. There are some things that happened in every conflict. The woman grieving at the grave is in every conflict, every War, no matter what size.

We started seeing this commonality that was happening, and it started driving us to think about the pictures. After that, we started editing, and in our natural conversations, things started breaking up into the categories. One of the last decisions we did was to make it be in the order of War.

The desire to have it in the order of War, that’s what drove the numbers. For us, it was not only about visitor experience. We were concerned about the people who serve, and the photographers who shoot pictures. We needed to include enough pictures to honor what they did, for visitors to be able to get what they did.

JB: It comes across as a comprehensive, informational record of a core human experience.

WM: One of the mistakes is to assume this a history of War photography. And it’s not. There are major, major pictures missing. It’s about the relationship between photography and War.

JB: I get that. At the same time, almost all the images in the show, more than 90%, come from the field of journalism, or from the military photographers themselves. And this is an art museum. So what…

WM: There are four types of photographers: military photographers, including amateurs, which is the soldiers by soldiers. The journalist. The commercial photographer, which includes portraiture. And the artist. So what was your question again?

JB: I wasn’t quite there. I was headed towards the fact that we’re standing in the middle of an art museum. From a standpoint of art, context is, was and will probably always remain a buzzword. The way we experience something has a huge determination on the impact that it ultimately has upon our brain and our soul.

The vast preponderance of images here come from the tradition of journalism. There are so many of today’s journo-stars on display here: Damon Winter, Peter van Agtmael, Yuri Kozyrev, Jonathan Torgovnik, Ashley Gilbertson and Tim Hetherington… I could keep listing, and maybe I’ll come back to it.

Did you want to make a statement about presenting journalism in an art context, or was it more that you didn’t feel that there was as much art that dealt with these issues?

WM: For me, a photograph is a photograph. I don’t care who took it. It’s not about journalism to me. It’s about amazing pictures. It’s about good compositions, good storytelling; the photographer being at the right place at the right time, and the choices that he or she made to get there. I think journalism is one of the most overlooked genres of photography because it’s just pigeonholed as journalism, and not amazing compositions.

One of our earliest conversations about this show was, Ann said, “This exhibition will fail if we are not true and make sure that every picture is an amazing picture that stands on its own.” We didn’t want it to become “The Family of Man,” which because of its tight edit, reduces everything to be about one thing. And War is very complex. Everybody brings emotional things to it. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t this oversimplified look at War.

JB: I think you unequivocally achieved that, both in the scope and the quality of images on display. I even stopped and asked a couple of people, who I noticed were in there as long as I was, what the hell they were doing. You wouldn’t think regular folks would have two hours in the middle of a week day. They were both students.

As far as the selection process, there was a three person curatorial team. How did you choose, amongst the three of you, which images were of a proper quality?

WM: First of all, let me say that Ann and I are confident that we looked at over a million pictures to cull it down to this 481. That includes playing cards, cameras…481 objects. So the process is we would go to the print room, and put up Xeroxes of all the photographs, and we would do it by trip.

The first thing we would do was peg them into categories. For example, we would move something that was originally categorized from our trip to Perpignan, and then put it in “Patrol.” Then we would spend a day, and just review “Patrol.” Then we would edit down. Each category is like its own exhibition, and we treated it as such. We wanted to make sure that each category was diverse in its time periods, in its subject matter, and in its photographers.

The final result was a vote of all three of us. If things got there three votes, of course it was in. If it got two votes, we argued and discussed it. If it got one vote, it was knocked out.

JB: A friend, who had been to one of the museum talks, told me that the most contentious argument in the exhibition was over Nina Berman’s “Marine Wedding.” Is that true?

WM: Absolutely. Because I can’t stand it.

JB: I’m not trying to put you on the spot here, but Nina was one of my first interview subjects. I saw that project at the tail end of the Whitney Biennial, and it moved me to push myself further as an artist. But since you said it so vociferously, why don’t you like that picture?

WM: (long pause.) I’m pretty well-spoken, and I can speak about photography well, but I have a hard time speaking on that one, because I can’t put my finger on why I don’t like it. One thing I wrote to her is that I do not feel like she took advantage of the people. That’s not what I feel.

I just don’t think it’s a good picture. I don’t like it as a portrait. And she argues that it’s not a portrait, it’s a picture of somebody having their portrait taken.

I’m just not compelled by it.

JB: So it’s not that you don’t like the emotions that it brings up in you?

WM: No. But clearly, it brings up an emotion that I can’t quite peg. But the reason why I can’t peg it is the reason why it’s in the show. Because it does spark a dialogue. One thing I told Nina, when she was here for the opening, she pulled me aside and asked me if I still felt the same way. I said, “Yeah, I still don’t like it.” And she said, “That makes me really sad.”

I said, “No, it shouldn’t. Any show, whether it’s War or Monet, if visitors like everything in it, the curators have done something wrong. They haven’t pushed boundaries.”

JB: Earlier, you talked about how important it was to you guys to do justice to the photographers, and the experience of War. I’m really curious at what point you started to consider the experience of the viewer, and what your hopes were for the impact of something this comprehensive on your audience?

WM: (long pause.) For me, it was a genre of photography that is seldom looked at. I would bring books back from Europe, and the festivals we would go to, and people would say, “How come I haven’t seen pictures like this before?”

JB: It’s not seen in the art context, for sure.

WM: It isn’t seen, period.

JB: Well, I’ve interviewed some of these War photographers, and they’re rock stars, within the world of photography. They sit at the top of the Pantheon for their bravery, and their seeming insanity, and their willingness to put their life on the line.

WM: That world is pretty small. And I don’t think people know that that world really exists. Your average everyday human. (pause.) Sorry, I forgot where I was going after that. Because you ask good questions.

JB: Thanks. You spent the better part of a decade of your life sifting through the darkest, nastiest corners of the human condition. We all know they’re there.

WM: I have always felt that people need to see this stuff. I agree with Ken Jarecke. (ed. note, in the exhibit, Mr. Jarecke has a photo of a burned up Iraqi soldier’s corpse.) There’s an amazing quote up that says, “If we’re big enough to fight in a War, we should be big enough to look at it.” I’ve never wanted to pull any punches about this. If you’re going to look at it, you should look at every part of it. Including things that make you uncomfortable. Like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.”

JB: I have it in my notes to ask you about that film. While I was walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking that it’s so quiet in here. Still photographs don’t have sound. I was mentally comparing it to what Spielberg did, which was so emotionally manipulative.

And just as I was taking that down in my notes, a police siren went by. My first thought was that it was part of the exhibition, but then I realized it was street noise.

WM: What is never a part of anything is smell. It’s the smell of War that nobody can comprehend, unless they’ve experienced it.

JB: When you’re using an inherently quiet medium to discuss an inherently overwhelming sensory experience…we’re standing in this huge room, and it’s so quiet. I wanted to know what you wanted the viewers to walk away with, or what you hoped they’d walk away with? I feel like you couldn’t have spent ten years, and then not had personal desires for that.

WM: There are two major groups that come to look at this work. The art world, and the military world. The military world, in general, just looks at pictures. And they want to know what type of tank it was, what the battle was like, and the insignia on the uniforms. They don’t have much interest in the idea that there was a photographer, or any idea of the craft that it took to make the picture.

Art people tend to want to make it have a bias. To make a statement. And they look at composition and mood, and put it in the context of history last. My hope was that the two groups would become aware of each other. And that the military people would be aware that the photographers are standing there, taking pictures as well. And vice versa.

But also that one is not more important than the other. They are absolutely symbiotic, and work together. I don’t think people in the past have looked at it in that context.

Every artist has been affected by War, in some way. Almost all of them have done pictures about it, in some way. One of the things I love about this show is that there’s a Robert Frank in it, and a Walker Evans. And a Diane Arbus. Most people don’t think of those as War pictures, but they are.

I’m interested in how War permeates into everything, whether you want it to or not. I was brought up, not Anti-War, but if I got a cap gun as a present, it quietly disappeared. Poof. It was gone. It was my Mom’s way of dealing with it.

And then, when I got to the ship, every stereotype I ever knew about War, and people who fight, was proven wrong. I took a step back, and gained a deep respect for it. Because I don’t understand War.

JB: That was one of the things that really struck me. I like to think big picture, so I spent a lot of time yesterday contemplating what I could take away from this. I don’t think I learned much about humanity that I didn’t already know. But it presents reality in a way that is impossible to ignore.

WM: We’ll go back a little bit. I think one reason why this is successful is that we never had an agenda. We wanted people to make their own conclusions, their own comparisons. People can look at every picture in here, but they’re only going to remember one hundred of them.

JB: If that.

WM: And for everyone it will be a different hundred. That’s what we wanted: people to be immersed in something that they hadn’t before. For them to be able to generate their own thoughts and conclusions about what’s happening. The end wall is kind of evidence of that, where people get to make their comments.

JB: I think you were extremely successful in that agenda. I looked very hard for a slant, and you’re not going to get one.

WM: You’re not going to find one.

JB: This show is about to move, no? It’s going to the Annenberg Center for Photography in LA, the Corcoran in DC, and then it finishes at the Brooklyn Museum.

WM: This is the only place where it’s going to be like this.

JB: I’m not going to push the “Everything’s bigger in Texas” narrative, but people won’t see this. They’ll see a condensed version of it?

WM: Right. We were able to build this space for it. One thing we are very pleased about, though, is that the catalogue exists, because it is even more complete than what is on view here in Houston. Because we’re an art museum, we have to have a physical piece to hang on the wall. There were a few occasions where we’d have something on the checklist for years, and when we requested it from the institution, they said no. So we have to find a substitute.

The catalogue, though, has every photo that we wanted to be in this exhibition, whether the loan was denied or not. There are four or five pictures in there that are reproduced as giant plates, but they’re not here. The catalogue is the most complete expression of the vision. At the Annenberg, they’re only going to have 150 pictures. That will be really whittled down.

JB: Where can people buy the catalogue? Amazon?

WM: I’m unsure at this time. I believe it’s sold out at Amazon and Yale, and that the only place you can get it right now is here at the museum’s bookstore. We’re working to get it re-printed. It’s been selling very well.

JB: There are a few contemporary photographs mixed in within everything else in the early rooms. There are pictures by An My Le and Luc Delahaye, both of which are really powerful surrounded by everything else. But then, in the last room of the exhibition, after a viewer’s brain is pretty well wasted, we see a group of contemporary art photographs exhibited only by themselves.

I don’t have much to criticize about this show, as it’s pretty fascinating. But I felt a little let down because, A. I didn’t really have the chance to give them their due, and B. they were less powerful by themselves than the earlier images that were interspersed. Why did you go that route?

WM: The difference is that with both the An My Le and the Luc Delahaye, that artist went to the front to take pictures, knowing that they were going to put them in an art context. The pictures in the last room are all done after-the-fact.

JB: You mentioned earlier that the exhibition is sequential, with Reconnaissance at the beginning, and the casualties at the end. So from a narrative structure, putting the art at the end was the choice to make?

WM: I had to initially argue to get the Remembrance section even considered. But we’re an art museum. To exclude a major genre in War photography would have been a travesty. I think people have a hard time going from documentary to interpretive art. They have a hard time making that transition.

But I think it’s a really, really, important genre in the idea of Art. I see no difference between this Luc Delahaye and the Walker Evans in the other room.

JB: There’s a good chance the artist (Delahaye) will be selling this picture of a dead Talibani soldier for five figures. $10,000? $20,000? Who’s to say?

WM: They were very expensive, in an edition of 3, and they were sold out immediately. We looked into purchasing it, but the edition was already sold out.

JB: From a standpoint of exploitation in art, this to me is a far more controversial picture than Nina Berman’s, and yet it’s given…

WM: It’s a better picture. Period.

JB: (pause.) It’s certainly compelling. I think it was the picture that elicited the strongest emotions in me. I hated it, pretty strongly, when I first saw it. I’ve learned that it’s best to take some space and then come back to something. Upon second viewing, I thought, I know this is an art photograph. And because it’s an art photograph…

WM: Why is it an art photograph to you?

JB: Why? The oversized scale. The use of what’s obviously a large format camera. The fact that I’ve heard his name as an artist. But I hadn’t seen his work before.

WM: A large format camera? The old Rosenthal is a 4×5.

JB: Sure, but even though this is an art museum, the journalistic images speak for themselves. Within the art world, we’ve been trained for the last 30 or 40 years, post Jeff-Wall, to question the veracity of a picture. So much staging, if you will. An informed art viewer is going to look at this photograph and say, “How do I know this is even real?” I can’t assume that this is a real, bearded, dead Afghan dude.

WM: I think it’s really a mistake to start pigeonholing the pictures like that. I’ve never done that. That is where people assume art has a bias.

JB: If I saw that in a gallery in Chelsea, I would have been forced to ask those questions. Context is key. I don’t think it’s a bias so much as a training.

WM: The bias has been trained.

JB: Why should I assume that he’s dead?

WM: Why should you assume that anybody in any of these pictures is dead? That’s my question. Why are you singling out that one picture to question it?

JB: Fair point. I’m not coming at this from a negative perspective. Anybody walking through here should be asking questions of themselves. I singled out a particular picture mostly because it was interspersed with everything else, as opposed to the art that was segregated. You gave a reasonable answer. Obviously, everything in this experience has been thought out and planned, and it shows. It’s a little sad that everybody who gets to see it in the other cities is not going to get this experience.

WM: I’m curious if you noticed, when you were going through the show by yourself, that the photograph next to it is of the same dead Taliban?

JB: No. Most definitely not.

WM: (laughing.) Luc Delahaye, (on the left) Seamus Murphy. (on the right.) They are two very different pictures.

JB: The second one that you’re alluding to is black and white, smaller, and has a more journalistic composition. (As opposed to deadpan.)

WM: It’s more about the landscape. Additionally, people who are used to looking at War pictures, when they look at the Delahaye, they look at it and assume it’s a pilfered body. He’s missing his shoes. His wallet has been pulled out, and is at the top of the frame. When a soldier falls on the battleground, one of the first things that gets taken is their shoes. They’re like gold. If they fit you, and his shoes are better than yours, you swap them out. So that’s what it implies in this picture.

In reality, he was shot while praying. And his shoes are still there. They’ve never been stolen. So they’re two very different pictures. This one (Delahaye) does reference painting, and the other references journalism.

JB: And you don’t have a problem with the degree to which this death was commodified as art?

WM: Absolutely not. What matters to me is that the photographer was there, and took the picture. As far as I’m concerned, he’s taking it for an audience that would normally not look at a picture like that. So he is doing journalism a favor by forcing the Art World to look at these pictures.

JB: Great answer. Some of the most successful photos for me, the ones that resonate in my brain, have a power and an ambiguity, outside of the caption. Like the dead arm jutting up through the grave dirt. Pancho Villa had someone assassinated, and they weren’t dead enough, so they tried to climb out.

Some of the pictures don’t need a caption. Were there photographers that you thought were so successful that they elevated above the rest of the meta-narrative?

WM: What was really great about the project is that we looked at all of the images without names in front of us. We just looked at them in terms of categories. Those mini-exhibitions, as I called them earlier. Pretty late in the project, both Ann and I separately panicked. Because we hadn’t looked how many Capa’s were in it, and such. We didn’t know how our weight was. So we shook the project, and everything percolated up to the top. The great photographers had the most in it. The most is Roger Fenton.

JB: The Roger Fenton photos were from 1855, and throughout the show, I thought they were consistently genius.

WM: He’s one of my favorites. He’s a brilliant, brilliant photographer.

JB: That was a broad question, but I came up with the same answer in my viewing experience. His great-grand kids have got to be dead by now, but let’s give him a collective shout out. The dude was massively talented.

Another surprise, given the World War II focus, was how little we see of Hitler. The ultimate “bad guy.” Because every good War story has to have a great bad guy.

Who did you think was the biggest monster in the show? There were a few that I’d take a free shot at, if I had one.

WM: I don’t know what you mean by your question?

JB: You know, straight up “bad guys.” You don’t see a lot of that in the exhibition, given the measured tone. People who when you look at the photograph, they elicit hate and anger. Like that Serbian soldier kicking the corpse he just killed. But I don’t want to give away my top choice.

WM: Laurent Nkunda. (by Cedric Gerbehaye, from the Congo.)

JB: Yeah, he was the Number 1 a-hole. He reminded me of Marlo Stanfield from “The Wire.”

WM: He’s a cocky, arrogant, evil man. That’s what he is.

Texas Roundup Part 4: “The Progress of Love” at the Menil Collection

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The day after my three hour “War/Photography” marathon, I paid a visit to the Menil Collection. It’s located on a beautiful little side street with grandiose trees and well-kept sidewalks. Tow-headed little Texan kids frolic on large public sculptures jutting up out of the grass-covered park next door. It was downright serene.

The Menil is an outpost on the global Art trail, like Marfa, so far to the West. (Or the Rothko Chapel 100 yards up the street.) Flip-flop free, the Menil attracts scarf-wearing bohemians, bespectacled intellectuals, and super-skinny hot chicks. I’ve been twice now, and noted both demographics each time. (So it must be true.)

Surprisingly, the Menil is free of charge. While it draws an elitist crowd, used to paying significant sums for the pleasure of viewing high art, it is open to all. In a perfect world, this would mean that everyone would know and go, but that’s not how it works.

There was a temporary exhibition on display, “The Progress of Love,” organized by the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos. (And the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. Odd mix, no?) The show featured work from and about Africa, and in true Art World fashion, mixed up all the different media together. Glaring neon sculptures sat beside paintings on cell-phone bills, installations on the ground, and gelatin silver prints on the wall.

It always comes back to context, no? Photography is typically ghettoized by itself, or occasionally seen as one form of expression among many. (Really, why have we grown so accustomed to our medium sequestered from the rest?) Personally, I enjoy looking at photographs in such environs.

Just outside the gallery, one confronts a giant Valentine’s style heart on a wall, made up of pairs of custom glass night-sticks. Upon first glance, they look like nun-chucks, but are really ceremonial police skull crushers. The heart and the fist. Sex and violence. Love and power. Get it?

There was a large contingent of photography on display, and all of it good to excellent. Early on, Kelechi Amadi Obi had two color light box pieces, each showing a female warrior Queen, on horseback, rocking a big sword. (Like Jeff Wall does the Arabian nights.) The Queen was in the company of men, a hard-scrabble bunch, but seemed to rule naturally. I was hoping it was created by a female artist, but alas…

On the two walls on either side, Lyle Ashton Harris was showing pictures from the “Jamestown Prison Erasure series.” We see colorful cell walls from inside thickly buttressed prisons. Decals were depicted, Jesus, of course, but also fancy cars. Then the same walls showed the discolored phantom where the decals once stood. Existence/non-existence. Life/death. Freedom of the imagination/the oppression of incarceration.

Contemplating severity, I looked up and saw a bright yellow Volkswagen bus. Not a model; the real thing. Life-size and shiny, by Emeka Ogboh, it was commissioned for the exhibition. The vehicle had stickers on the back, with sayings like “No Money, No Friend,” “I am afraid of my friends, even you,” and “No food for lazy man.” There was also a sticker for Arsenal Football Club, based in North London, where I’ll be next week. (Assuming they let me in the country, notorious as I am.)

The door to the van was open, and there were headphones on one of the seats. There were no signs to explain whether the piece was interactive, so I slowly reached my hands out, waiting to see if a guard would jump me. (I felt like a kid playing “Operation” for the first time, hoping I wouldn’t get tased.) I placed the headphones over my ears, and heard an African man dictating a personal ad to a sexy, high-class sounding British lady. I got bored after a minute or two, and moved on.

There were many other photographs on display, most dealing with varying takes on sexuality and desire. One diptych featured a transvestite, rocking the makeup in one photo, his face stripped stripped bare in another, by Zanele Muboli. In one photo, he stood just beyond a field of tall grass, his legs scraped up. In the other, he stepped out onto a roof-deck, waiting to party, or perhaps model for a photo shoot?

In the next room we see a naked man, on a bed, looking back at the camera, teasing with sexual ambiguity, by Samuel Fosso. I thought about how hard it must be to be gay in a continent in which some countries deal with it so harshly. (I mean you, Uganda.)

That room had music piped in, a repetitive refrain, “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” As many of the photographs included people in bars and nightclubs, and the theme was Love, it fit. If I were a museum guard working in that space all day, though, I’m sure I’d want to kill somebody. (Again, with the sex and violence. We’re hardwired to pay attention to both, said some guy on NPR the other day. And NPR is never wrong.)

Walking back towards the Volkswagen, I realized there was traffic and street noise blaring in that room too. I hadn’t heard it on my first time through, as I was too busy concentrating on the work on display. And, I suppose it didn’t surprise me in the least. Much as I wondered why there weren’t other sensory experiences in the “War/Photography show,” in a place like this, it took me some time to even notice.

This show, like exhibit at MFA,H, was absolutely worth a visit. When I mentioned it to my Photo World buddies around town, none had even heard of it. And most told me they hadn’t been to the Menil in ages. No surprise.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Art World experience is superior. It sticks to its non-traditional tropes as cleanly as the Photo World loves its traditionalism. Neither is better or worse. Just different. But as one who walks in both worlds, and never feels perfectly comfortable in either, I do wonder how much we’d all benefit if more people dipped their toes in unfamiliar waters.

Texas Roundup Part 3: “War/Photography” at MFA,H

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The “War/Photography” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston lured me into town. When I heard that Anne Tucker, the long-time chief curator and power broker, had spent the better part of ten years on the project, I figured that was enough of a reason to head Southeast. (On Southwest, ironically.) Political capital is scarce in this world, and I figured if she’d gone all in, the result would be worth my time. And it was.

As I entered the spacious gallery on a breezy Tuesday afternoon, my attention was pulled from the exhibition map by a strange clomp, clomp, clomping sound. I looked up, and saw a scruffy, messy college kid in a ratty t-shirt and gym-shorts. His flip-flops were slapping the ground like an obnoxious metronome. Rarely have I seen someone dressed like that in a fancy museum, but rarely have I been in Texas.

The show was daunting and grand, with galleries off-shooting a main hall, like capillaries stemming off a blood-filled artery. Pump, pump, pump. It took forever to make it out of the first big room, dominated by historical and contemporary journalism, and a multi-image panel of the second plane striking a Twin Tower, by Robert Clark. He got to the roof of his apartment building just in time, after seeing the first crash on television.

Other highlights: Roger Fenton’s horse drawn photo van from the Crimean War in 1855, and Ashley Gilbertson’s photo of a soldier watching George Bush’s apology for Abu Ghraib on TV. When I finally looked down said hall, it seemed to be 100 yards long, like a football field in a Texas High School stadium. (Side note: I once flew into Dallas and saw two full-sized High School stadiums on opposite sides of the same street. Different school districts.)

Calculating the distance, my spirit was crushed. So much violence, so little time. Three hours, all told, I spent in the custom-built-hanger space, filled with almost five hundred photographs that presented as categorical a photographic depiction of War as has likely ever been assembled. In the end, the nice Vietnamese guards insisted I had to leave, as the museum was closing. (Actually, they subtly suggested it, and as I didn’t get the hint, they got a bossy colleague to shoo me out the door.)

In the span of those hours, I slowly looked and contemplated. Death and destruction, bombs and ships, planes and slingshots, guns and swords, frightened boys and casualties of War. I thought of all the fat cats that designed these conflicts, plucking hicks from the sticks to use as cannon fodder to advance their greedy ambitions. There were decomposing corpses, burned-off faces, miserable rape victims, and even the goofy Diane Arbus dude in the silly straw hat. Ultimately, it was a joy to witness such sorrow, if that makes sense.

The show clearly lacked an agenda. No obvious “War Should Be Abolished” message here. If anything, it made me grateful to be an American, as we haven’t had to live with the horrific repercussions of grinding conventional War on our shores since the 19th Century. (Excepting Pearl Harbor, I suppose.) Too many others have.

As I crossed the threshold into the first side-gallery, I found myself lamenting the absolute silence in the room. War is the messiest, most sensory overloaded phenomenon humans have created. (See our previously published Ben Lowy interview for confirmation.) The show was so traditional in construction, created to highlight photos and wall text. I craved something to break it up.

No sooner had the thought popped into my head than sirens wailed about the room. Ah, piped in sound, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. Then I realized it was just an ambulance going by on the street below; a happy accident. In a more Art World context, (as opposed to Photo-World,) I noted, such things would be built into the experience. Not better or worse, just different. (Co-incidentally, a subsequent visit to the Menil Collection provided the perfect Art World counterpart. I’ll tell you about that one next week.)

As I walked in and out of galleries, back and forth, I appreciated that they were well-attended. People looked like average citizens, out and about, educating themselves. Suddenly, I heard the clomp clomp clomp again, and saw the kid who entered with me. I was impressed, as we’d been there an hour and forty-five minutes by then. I couldn’t help but query him, and learned he was a photography student, an intern at HCP, and was biding his time because he couldn’t afford see the show twice. (There was a surcharge on top of regular admission.)

When I asked him what impact the show was having on him, he grew silent, contemplative. I waited for him to deliver a reply, until I realized it wasn’t forthcoming. He just didn’t know. So I let him off the hook, politely. After all, he didn’t turn up expecting to be interviewed by a pushy fake-journalist with a bushy goatee.

I’ll spare you too many more details, because I was fortunate to interview one of the co-curators, Will Michels, and we’ll bring you that piece shortly. (Natalie Zelt was the third curator behind the project.) Will delved into the specifics of the decade-long process, so I’d rather not repeat. But one point I found incredibly salient was that the show was designed with two audiences in mind: museum goers, and Military viewers. (This being Texas, and not the coasts.)

That’s why it seemed to lack a typical liberal agenda. Personally, I don’t know anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s easy to demonize the evils of war, lacking intimate knowledge of the experience. What do I know about the pride of proper execution, a job well done? Like it or not, violence is embedded into our human operating system, and wishing it away comes to naught.

The show closed in the beginning of February, so this review comes to late for you to check it out. Thankfully, a condensed version of exhibition travels to the Annenberg Center in LA, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC, and the Brooklyn Museum as well. If you can, go see it. It’s worth the investment of time, money and precious brain space. You’ll probably feel bad for a while, but in a good kind of way.

Texas Roundup Part 2: Kate Breakey at the Wittliff Collections

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Everybody loves a good idea. The best are often simple and elegant. What if we could build a machine to let people fly like birds? What if people could fit their entire music library in the palm of their hand? What if we could all share tiny bits of information, for free, with anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world?

Good ideas would not exist without their counterparts: bad ones. The worst are often genius, in a bad is good kind of way. (i.e., the mullet.) Most often, though, they’re just plain bad. For a while, my favorite bad idea occurred when I was hired to photograph the bloody slaughter of some local New Mexican cows. My client was a restaurant that wanted to use the snuff pictures to market hamburgers and steaks. Not surprisingly, they are now out of business.

As high as that one might rank, though, while driving from Houston to San Marcos, Texas the other week, I witnessed the granddaddy of all horrible ideas. El numero uno. El jefe. The boss.

I was headed NW on Highway 80, between the little town of Luling, and San Marcos. En route to the Texas State campus, I was excited to see Kate Breakey’s new exhibition, Las Sombras/The Shadows, at the Wittliff Collections.

While carefully minding the speed limit, as I was reminded many times that Texas cops are best avoided, there it was, just off the road to the East. I saw the wrecked plane before anything else. Like the car crashes I mentioned in last week’s column, plane crashes, while less frequently seen by the side of the highway, are equally riveting.

The plane had a crumpled nose, mushed into the dead grass. (Well, sir, you have my attention.) Next, I saw the sign next to it… for skydiving lessons. The hanger loomed in the background, like a kid at a soccer game, ashamed of his dad for berating the ref. Shall I summarize? A company that sells sky-diving lessons thought it wise to advertise said services with a plane crash. I have to nominate this as the worst idea of all time. Anyone care to disagree?

Without bad ideas, though, there would be no such things as good ones. (Yin, yang, etc.) And Kate Breakey’s exhibit was the perfect antidote to the ridiculous wreckage. Should you live anywhere in Texas, or plan to visit Houston, San Antonio, or Austin before July 7th, I’d recommend that you drive to San Marcos to check out the show.

I’d seen an installation of Ms. Breakey’s work at the excellent Etherton Gallery in Tucson back in 2010. I was intrigued. The taste whetted my appetite, and was the impetus for my 3 hour trek through Texas.

Speaking of appetite, I was fortunate to stop at Luling City Market for some of the best Texas barbecue on Earth. It’s so good, when I pulled up outside the joint, a fat man jumped out of a still-moving mini-van next to me, so excited was he to stuff his face. The sealed smokehouse in the back of the restaurant offered some seriously brilliant meat. Cows and pigs, which I rarely eat, called out to my rumbling innards, and insisted they make their way inside my belly. Mission accomplished. (What would a Texas series be w/o at least one George W. reference?)







I’ve always been fascinated by the dichotomy between animals and meat. Alive, they’re animals. Living creatures. Sentient beings. They moo and oink and quack and baa. Dead, they’re food. We don’t call them animals anymore. But if you don’t want to eat them, or kill them, or sell them, there are yet other ways to enjoy a good carcass.

A few years ago, Ms. Breakey got the great idea to pick roadkill and other dead things up off the ground, and turn them into art via the simple, direct process of a photogram. (Talk about preservation technique.) The resulting images do justice to the realities of nature: death is the inevitable conclusion to the cycle of life. And it also perpetuates the food chain, in each and every ecosystem. Bug eats grass, lizard eats bug, bird eats lizard, bobcat eats bird.

There are over two hundred images on display, in different sizes and random vintage frames. Save mountain lions, wolves, bears and humans, the biggest predators around, we see as categorical a display as I can imagine of life and death in the mythical American West. Snakes and birds and mice and rats and frogs and javelinas and foxes and leaves and everything in between. (Including the ominous vultures, which were everywhere in Texas.)

The exhibition map gives all the specific names, but dead, in shadow and repose, there is no way to tell the difference between a yellow-billed cuckoo and a black-throated sparrow. They all just look beautiful, and a little bit horrible as well. The basic human fascinations with collecting, categorizing, preserving, memorializing, and fetishizing are all interwoven.

Some animals repeat, but I was told no two prints are alike. The vultures are huge, as are the coyotes, but the bald eagle is the picture guaranteed to grab your attention. (Like a crashed plane by the side of the road. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Apparently, the eagle photo was the most difficult to obtain, as bald eagles rarely drop dead in front of roaming photographers. But strings were pulled, and there you go.

The group of photographs, which I enjoyed in a large, empty gallery, with the subtle sounds of the air conditioning unit in the background, is absolutely fantastic. As a resident of the Southwest, I can attest that the fascination of living in the midst a raw and dangerous natural world is real. If you bump into the wrong creature on the wrong day, you might just end up dead yourself. But the ability to communicate those feelings via art is extremely difficult.

I’d heartily suggest that those of you who can see the show do. There are a few parking spaces reserved for visitors to the Wittliff Collections, in a parking structure under the college library. Kids on skateboards will whizz by you, daring you to hit them with your tiny rental car. (I came so close.) The gallery is on the seventh floor of the library building, and the entry way welcomes you with classic Southwestern decor, including a Saltillo tile floor.

One installation in said entryway was a particular favorite. An eagle, a snake, and a cactus were brought together again. Otherwise known as the sign that led some bloodthirsty Aztecs to found Tenochtitlan so many years ago. (Now Mexico City.) Of course, this wouldn’t be a good story if I hadn’t seen an eagle with a snake in its mouth fly over my shrimpy rental car on the way out of town. Is this true? Do you have to ask?

Texas Roundup, Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last week, I wrote a column that tried to tell it like it is. The world we inhabit, one that revolves around photography, is painfully un-diverse. Here in the United States, those in the profession are very, very likely to only interact with others of a similar background. (And skin color, sadly.)

While I left room for the exceptions, the fact that there seem to be so few is troubling. How do we change this? Whether it’s people complaining about all-white competition-jurys, all-male Superbowl commercials, or writers like me scrambling to review books by women and minorities, the numbers are obviously skewed. What to do?

The only answer I’ve been able to glean is to do some boots-on-the-ground style outreach. As I’ve said before, I spent seven years teaching photography to at-risk minority youth. I’ve done the work, and seen how easily art concepts can become embedded in young minds of any color or gender.

Another tried-and-true methodology is to honestly examine one’s own biases, and then try to challenge them. Most of us have a hard time admitting to negative preferences or stereotypes. Not a pleasant conversation to have with oneself.

Looking inward, I had to admit I was biased against Texans. (Here in New Mexico, it’s a state passion.) As I mentioned in a column a month or so ago, after years of seeing Texan plates on personal Tour Buses towing Hummers, it was easy to get angry. Throw in the bluster and big belt-buckles, and I can honestly say I was proud of the hate.

Whether geographically, racially, or gender-based, it’s not OK to dislike people en masse. (Obviously.) So I was thrilled to spend a little time in Houston last year, and realize that my pre-conceptions were off. I didn’t hate Texans, just the folks in the Dallas to Amarillo corridor. And even in Texas, that seems to be an established sentiment. (Yes, I am now mostly joking.)

As much as I enjoyed last year’s taste of Texas toast, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to re-visit H-town last week. I even planned a little road trip up to Central Texas for a quick visit to über-hip Austin. (Did I listen to some country music along the way? You bet I did. KNRG, the Renegade, is all Texas music, all the time. The first three songs I heard were all anti-urban. (Including a hysterical mockery of the aforemetioned Dallas.))

To be clear, this article is but an introduction to a series, like we did with San Francisco late last year. (How’s that for polar opposites?) I saw some fantastic art exhibitions, met with some intelligent, friendly and unpretentious art professionals, and ate some truly amazing food. Basically, I had a great time. From Texas hater to convert in 10 short months.

Before I leave you, though, I want to share one of my thin-sliced-stereotypical observations. I can’t take advantage of it myself, being chained by mortgage and blood to this extraordinary piece of rural paradise I call home. But some of you can. So here it goes.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States. The three cities above it, NYC, LA, and Chicago, are famously expensive. Houston is not. They are also known for exclusivity, and make it difficult to break into established networks, lacking the proper school connections and/or friend lists. Houston is extremely open and accessible, from what I’ve seen. (And the FotoFest Biennial provides entry to all comers.)

Beyond that, Houston has the kind of financial and cultural resources that exist in very few places in the world. Its economy is booming, and ought to continue to grow, as the energy sector is unlikely to wither. The port, connected to the city via the shipping channel, is also thriving. (And global trade is not going away any time soon.) The unemployment rate is below 6%, and the median income is over $70,000 per year. (Thank you for the statistics, Houston Public Radio.) Essentially, the place is leaking money.

The city is vast and diverse, with massive immigrant and minority communities, including Vietnamese, African-American, and Latino. It’s like a Texan Los Angeles in scope, minus the mountains and oceans. (Of attitude.) It’s the perfect place to encounter those from backgrounds different than yours: a city where biases go to die.

I noticed vacant commercial real estate everywhere; storefronts just waiting to be turned into artist-run galleries or commercial photo studios. I also spoke with an artist/curator who produces art shows for those downtown mega-corporate-skyscrapers that I mentioned in last year’s article. While state funding for the arts has been cut, (it is still Texas,) the public-private combination seems to offer insane amounts of cash and opportunities for the local community.

In the parlance of economics, Houston is an undervalued resource: a city just waiting for a fresh round of hipster-style-gentrification. And if you doubt me, you can trust Forbes magazine, which listed Houston as the coolest city in America in 2011. I’m not sure what their criteria was, and it’s likely to be very different from mine. (As Forbes itself is actually uncool.) But you can bet there will be a proverbial gold rush of 20-something energy-sector/hedge-fund yuppies who’ll rush down there due to Forbes’ blessing.

Who are they to you? Will they be your new friends, if you move to H-town? Probably not. Would you find them “cool,” in their khakis and button down polo shirts? It’s unlikely. (Again with the stereotyping.) But might they make up the bulk of your collector base, or client base, for decades to come? Now you’re getting the picture.
















Jennifer Shaw Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jennifer Shaw is a fine art photographer based in New Orleans. Her project Hurricane Story was published in 2011 by Chin Music Press. She is represented by Guthrie Contemporary in New Orleans, and by Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta. Ms. Shaw also teaches photography, and is the director of the photoNOLA festival.

Jonathan Blaustein: Did you ever watch the Jetsons when you were a kid?

Jennifer Shaw: Uh-huh.

JB: When you were watching people talking to each other on screens, did you ever think it would happen in your lifetime?

JS: Not really.

JB: And here we are.

JS: It’s my second Skype conversation ever.

JB: Ever? I’m honored that I pushed you to do something new. I just used a bank drive-thru window for the first time in my life. Sometimes technology is scarier than it ought to be. I always thought I was too dumb to figure it out, but it wasn’t that hard.

Do you use the drive-thru window?

JS: Of course.

JB: Everybody had it figured out but me. You are in New Orleans right now, as we speak.

JS: Right.

JB: But I saw in your bio that you were born in Indiana, and raised in Milwaukee. So you are a child of the great Mid-West.

JS: Correct.

JB: What brought you to NOLA?

JS: I graduated from art school. I don’t know if you went to art school, but there’s not exactly some great corporate job lined up waiting for you. It’s more of a decision of where you want to go to make a life as an artist. I always had this fascination with New Orleans. You know, the mystique. The Crescent City.

I decided after one last long, bitter winter in Rhode Island that I was going to move South. I came down here, and here I am.

JB: How long ago was that?

JS: 1994.

JB: 1994? Old school. I was just in New Orleans for photoNOLA, which all of our regular readers will know. When I do these travel pieces, I don’t have a lot of time to make observations. I keep my eyes open, and talk to people. It works. But the downside is that I’m making judgements based on a really thin slice of reality.

I wrote a piece about the city booming with money and energy and galleries. Putting Katrina in the past. That was a spot observation. I have to admit that I could be really wrong. Just because Mercedes Benz is sponsoring the Superdome…was I rushing to judgement? Or are things doing really well down there, as I surmised?

JS: New Orleans is always a mixed bag. There are parts of New Orleans that are doing really well, but there are still some areas that haven’t fully recovered from Katrina. But culturally, we’re definitely in a beautiful, Post-Katrina boom.

The arts scene is thriving. It’s always been healthy, but especially now. The St. Claude arts district is new. A lot of artist-run co-operative-type things going on. So that’s exciting.

JB: So I wasn’t completely off base?

JS: No, no.

JB: Because that was your opportunity to tell me I was full of shit in my article from a few weeks back.

JS: (laughing) No. I loved your observations.

JB: It’s 2013, so we’re coming up on almost 20 years of you living there. Is this boom unprecedented in your time in the city?

JS: I think so. A lot of the larger institutions have been here for many, many years. The Julia and Magazine St galleries have been here for a long time. But the St. Claude and Downtown scene, where it’s funky and fresh and vibrant, where the artists are starting their own spaces…that’s all pretty new. Post-Katrina.

JB: When I was in town, it was suggested that maybe part of the boom had come from the people who came down to New Orleans to help out after the storm, and then stayed. Thereby bringing in aggressive, fresh energy. Was that something that you noticed? Was it all the government money? What do you think was the cause of the Renaissance?

JS: There definitely has been some “brain gain,” as they say. People who maybe came down to volunteer to help with the re-building, and then just fell in love with the city. There certainly was money flying around afterwards, but I think that’s dried up to some degree. There was a point where there was federal or insurance money, and things felt really hopping. (With lots of construction and renovation everywhere.)

I almost feel like I’m not qualified to answer the larger, institutional-type questions.

JB: No problem. Ladies and gentlemen, while you read this interview with Ms. Jennifer Shaw, you can choose to disregard some of what she says because she does not claim expertise. All right? It’s in the record. You might not be the right person to answer these questions, but you’re on the other end of the video screen, so you don’t have much of a choice right now, do you?

JS: No.

JB: What about the Southern Hospitality? When you first moved South, what was your reaction?

JS: It’s charming, right? Makes you feel right at home.

JB: photoNOLA, as I understand it, is an off-shoot or project of the New Orleans Photo Alliance.

JS: Correct.

JB: And the Alliance is an artist-run, artist-founded, member-supported community organization, with its own gallery in the Lower Garden District. Is that about right?

JS: Yes, non-profit as well.

JB: When did it get started?

JS: The New Orleans Photo Alliance formed in 2006. Another one of those Katrina silver linings. Don Marshall runs the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and has a long history of working in the arts in New Orleans. After Katrina, he started calling meetings with different groups of artists, encouraging us to form our own collectives and non-profits. To help resuscitate the arts, and the wider cultural rebuilding of the city.

Out of these groups of meetings with the photographers, we eventually decided what to do, what to be, and the name. One of the things I thought we should do was start a photography festival.

JB: Was that emergence concurrent with the creation of the Photo Alliance, or did it take some time?

JS: It was pretty concurrent; it came out of one of the early meetings. We first met in February or March of 2006. There had been a couple of Mardi Gras-themed group photography exhibitions. You know there’s always a big crowd at a group show.

Everybody came out and was just so thankful to see each other again. Hugs all around. Lots of “How did you make out during the storm?” There was this great energy flowing, and I think Don had attended one of those openings. I don’t know if that was one of his catalysts for getting us together, or if it was a part of his mission to organize lots of different types of artists, and getting us forming these self-sufficient organizations.

I’m totally losing track.

JB: It’s OK.

JS: So there were these two shows, and then a formal meeting is called at the Jazz and Heritage foundation. We decided, yeah, this is a good idea. Why not go ahead and do this?
Start an organization. So we had a series of monthly meetings to figure out what we might accomplish as a group. What sort of form it would take, and what the goals might be. What the structure would be.

By December of that year, we had our first officers, and a group show that started membership. We made it so the entry fee gave you membership into the New Orleans Photo Alliance. That was the beginning of it all. Don hooked us up with an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center. When he got that plotted, I said, “Let’s take this December show at the CAC, and use it as an anchor to get the festival started.”

I knocked on the doors of galleries and other venues, and said, “We’re going to do a festival. Would you have a photo exhibition in conjunction with our show at the CAC? It’s going to be called photoNOLA, a month of photography.”

So that was the beginning. The first year was just exhibitions throughout the month, but nothing what it’s like now, obviously. (Portfolio reviews were added in 2007.)

JB: I didn’t know that the Photo Alliance came out of the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It’s a really interesting idea, the DIY ethos of artists getting together to do if for themselves. Given how much work it takes to do the business and self-promotion aspects of a career, the idea of getting together to lessen the load, and create the rising tide model, makes so much sense.

Were you the head of the photoNOLA festival from it’s inception?

JS: Pretty much so, yeah.

JB: Now, we both know that there are people who do that job, the Director of a non-profit, and that’s their only job. But on top of that, you also teach photography, and you have a full-time art career, and you’re a Mom.

JS: Right.

JB: So you’re trying to juggle everything at once. The 21st Century Hustle. I wanted to hear a bit about the founding of the organization, so thanks. It’s kind of a leading and inappropriate question, but do you think this would not have happened without the storm? Was there a burgeoning sense of collaborative energy because of the Internet anyway? Or do you think this was really a reaction to tragedy?

JS: I think it was totally a reaction to tragedy. I don’t know if something else would have come up in a different form later without the storm. But with Katrina, with everybody being out of the city for two months, and desperately wanting to get home, and desparately missing all of our friends and connections, I think it made us all appreciate people in a way that we never had before. Community ties too, not just in the art world.

There was a whole civic rebirth after the storm, on many different levels. Schools, and community organizations. So Katrina had a lot of silver linings, and the art scene and the Photo Alliance are certainly two of them.

JB: As is your book, “Hurricane Story.”

JS: (laughing.)

JB: So there’s that. My house got destroyed in a Hurricane, and all I got was a hard-cover book. Is that a T-shirt yet?

JS: (laughing still.) No. I should clarify, though, my house did not get destroyed. I’m on the sliver by the river, where there wasn’t any flooding. Just wind damage.

JB: Oh, congratulations.

JS: (laughing again.)

JB: I know, it’s seven years later, and I’m saying, “Congrats that your house didn’t get destroyed.” Let’s not give people the wrong impression.

I picked your book up and reviewed it in the very beginning of my book review column. I didn’t know you, or your name, or your work, or photoNOLA. I grabbed the little object off of my stack, and was kind of shocked. I hadn’t seen anybody personalize the tragedy in such an empathetic, but slightly light-hearted way.
Because you used toys.

JS: Right.

JB: What was the impetus for telling this really difficult story that way, about your evacuation, and having a baby on the day the storm made landfall? What was the genesis?

JS: I had a Holga that I’d modified into a macro-camera, and I hadn’t done a lot with it. I had some King Cake Babies lying around, and I think one day, I saw one lying around, and it reminded me of…I don’t know. Something just sparked, and I decided to pull out that macro camera and try it on those King Cake Babies, and maybe that’s the way I can deal with Katrina.

I’d taken some traditional disaster pictures, but didn’t feel like I owned that. You know? I felt like I was doing it in a documentary sense, for posterity. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable saying that was my art, or trying to sell that kind of work in galleries. I don’t know.

It was just these King Cake Babies, this macro camera, and a roll of black and white film. It just rolled, and made sense. This is it. This is what I need to be doing.

JB: What exactly is a King Cake Baby?

JS: Good question. Sorry. Every year from 12th Night through Mardi Gras, New Orleanians have mounds and mounds of King Cakes. Inside the cake is a little plastic baby, and the tradition is, whoever gets the slice with the King Cake Baby has to buy the next King Cake. It’s a continuing tradition at parties, and in offices, for weeks on end. We all get really fat. Getting the baby is a special thing, so you tend to collect them. They’re small and plastic, and made in China.

JB: Just like everything else.

We left in the dark of night

At 3:47 a boy was born

There were rumors of alligators in the streets

The chaos was hard to fathom

Convoys of rescue trucks passed in the other direction

Mardi Gras was amazing

photoNOLA, New Orleans, 2012

by Jonathan Blaustein

They say time heals all wounds. I’m sure that’s not true. To heal implies making things better. The parents of those poor Connecticut children will never be better again. With time, though, they will likely hurt less. They will keep on living. And in six weeks, most of us will forget they exist.

Sometimes, though, the rest of us, those glued to our screens during a tragedy, are the ones who get stuck. Occasionally, the bystanders will latch on to the moment of horror, and not let go. Like with Hurricane Katrina.

I went to New Orleans last month to attend the photoNOLA festival. I was booked for their portfolio reviews, and was also hoping to get around the city a bit and see things. But my very first impression, in the airport, served to solidify my preconceptions about this storm-ravaged region. The place was under construction disarray, with plywood tacked up willy-nilly. I even grabbed a snapshot of a marker-written “Baggage Claim” sign that was about as ghetto as anything I’ve seen.

Like I said, my vision was stuck a bit in 2005. When my Eritrean cab driver approached Downtown, I saw the Superdome up ahead, and then we drove right past it. At first, I held my breath, and saw those roof tiles gone in my mind. Then, I looked more closely. The place was shiny-metal-gleaming in the rosy late afternoon light. It is now sponsored, heavily, by Mercedes Benz. The stadium was stylish and expensive looking, in 2012.

I was on notice. The multiple cranes seen erecting buildings around the city were another sign of money and development. (You can learn a lot from the cranes on a skyline. We saw so many in Spain, in 2004, that I knew something was up. Or, as the Spaniards would tell you, tragically unsustainable.) Lucien, of whom you’ll hear later, told me the cranes were raising jails and hospitals. Two constant sources of cash.

I also learned that Eritreans will eat in Ethiopian restaurants. Though the two countries were locked in vicious wars for 30 years, that forced my cabbie to flee to America, apparently the food is pretty much the same. (He was sullen, so I tipped him poorly. I still feel guilty about it.)

The short version of my trip is that I found a city booming. So much so that I only saw a fraction of what was on display. Photography exhibitions were everywhere. Robot parades, Second lines, lectures, openings, music, art, it was everywhere. Good for New Orleans. While we may still have Katrina on the brain, especially in Sandy’s wake, the folks living there have most certainly moved on. Thank goodness.

I ate amazing food, day after day. I was kidnapped, three times, by photographers visiting from various parts around the South. The cliché about Southern Hospitality was on full display, and I’m now officially down with it. (For you foodies out there, Friday’s dinner was at Clancy’s. Book it. And celebu-chef John Besh’s pizza place, Domenica, was also a standout.)

The festival began a couple of days before I got there. There was a gala benefit on Thursday night, and lectures by Sasha Wolf and Mary Virginia Swanson earlier on Friday. I missed them all. You know I’ve got a baby at home, so my trip was too brief. If I return next year, I’ll make sure to stay longer. And I’d heartily recommend you go yourself, but don’t shortchange it.

My reviews were on Saturday, and I began with a meeting with an associate curator from the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first time I’d met with someone from there, the gleaming art Mecca, and I thought hard about how to approach it. I decided that the likelihood of her seeing something in a box, and it then ending up on the wall, or in the collection at the MoMA, was next to zero. Probably more like zero. (Maybe down the line, but still…)

The second route would be to be “insanely memorable.” While I can be charming on a good day, 20 minutes is not a very long time to strike up the kind of conversation that impresses someone enough to go straight to the top of their to-do-list. Possible, but, again, unlikely.

On the other hand, one thing I could reasonably hope for would be to get her honest opinion about my work. Presumably, you don’t work there unless you really know what you’re talking about. So advice, a critique, was something that seemed attainable, and potentially very helpful.

That’s how I approached it. I didn’t even show her prints from my established project, “The Value of a Dollar,” or try to woo her with my extensive resume. Rather, we focused on my in-progress work, where it was headed: what she liked, what she didn’t like. It was fascinating to hear her riff on my work, and very encouraging.

I’m sharing this, here, because I’ve been and am an advocate of portfolio reviews. The process has really made my career, and many others before me. But I’ve been victim, in the past, of that desire to make every meeting out be the game-changer. To hustle and schmooze. Talk without listening. What do they call that, the elevator pitch? Please.

The beauty of these events, and photoNOLA was an excellent example, is that you can learn more about what you’re doing from seasoned professionals. Can these meetings lead directly to exhibition, publication, and acquisition? Yes, they can. But even more, they can help push us further along, outside the domain of the “like-asphere.” (Am I coining this term, or does it already exist?)

The event was based out of the International House Hotel, just next to the French quarter. (In which the streets truly do smell of booze and urine.) The reviews took place in the hotel conference facilities, across the street, in a couple of rooms very well set up for the attending photographers. (Free wifi, free food, coffee and water? Classy.)

There were countless events in the evenings, so much that without a car and a better sense of direction, it was hopeless to try to attend most. I was bummed about that, as I didn’t get to see as much as I’d hoped, and was mostly restricted to the CBD and the Quarter. (Though one kidnapping brought me to the Lower Garden District. Cool spot. Hipster central.)

Ultimately, I realized that a surfeit of options of things to see is a good problem. You can only be in one place at a time, and you can’t talk to everyone. That’s why I’d recommend a longer stay, and why I hope to get back as soon as I can.

As for the events I did see? It started with the Shelby Lee Adams Lecture at the Ogden Museum of Art, on Friday night. He was super-intelligent, and showed a range of lesser-known work from his long career. Some of his portraits of Appalachians reminded me a lot of Roger Ballen’s pictures of poor South Africans. The pictures are straight, but the folks are so seemingly pitiable, and the lens so sharp, that the intent can seem mean or exploitative. Or, I should say, some folks interpret them as such.

As Mr. Adams is from and lives amongst his community, and his subjects love the depictions, I’m inclined to find them cool as hell. But he was very defensive about his critical reputation, mentioning it on three or four occasions. He took swipes at “Academics” at the University of Kentucky, and others. My companions and I all commented about it, as it seemed a waste of energy. He’s got great work, and is successful and acclaimed. (As he said, to paraphrase, once you get a Guggenheim, you can do whatever the hell you want.)

I was reminded of my own past fury at our pack of rabbly commenters, though I’ve since decided to leave people to their opinions. The critics are out there, in every field and forum. If you put your work out there, and it’s good enough to draw attention, then you have to learn how to take/live with the criticism. Because it will most certainly come.

Still, it was a great presentation over all, but we had to split a bit early for late dinner reservations. The next night, I was able to catch the end of a group Q&A with Keith Carter, Josephine Sacabo, Shelby Lee Adams, and Louviere + Vanessa at A Gallery for Fine Art Photography, in the French Quarter. The place is a must on any future visit to New Orleans. Tons of great historical work, and some contemporary Black and White photography as well. (Helmut Newton’s pictures jumped off the wall. Sexy photos, sexy town.)

Let’s wrap this up. photoNOLA rocks, and New Orleans rocks. It’s a city with an unfathomable amount of cultural events, and more insane restaurants than you could ever, ever eat at. The cost of the portfolio reviews is less than some competing events, which is a bonus. And every dollar you spend will pump right into the local economy.

The cabdriver who took me back to the airport was, in fact, right out extras casting for all the movies they’re shooting here these days. He could easily have been a character on David Simon’s “Treme.” Aforementioned, his name was Lucien, a fifty-something African-American guy, born and raised in NOLA.

He was funny, loquacious, and intently offered me his wisdom. We swapped stories for the whole ride back to the airport, talking shit about money and power. (I wish I could quote him on that week’s NFL shooting tragedy, but it’s NSFW.) When I lauded the local hospitality, and promised a speedy return, he summed it up for me as follows: “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice to people.” Amen.

The Best Photos I Saw This Year That I Haven’t Already Written About Yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a dirty little secret. Photography is not my favorite medium. I have equal love for Painting, Sculpture and Cinema, which inspire me greatly as an artist. Perhaps they should take away my cool-guy-photographer club membership?

But when in professorial mode, my first lectures are always about the magic of photography’s essence. Light and time. Harnessing powerful elements of the Universe. Freezing people and moments, forever. Thinking about that gets me every time.

Unfortunately, a by-product of living in a time of unprecedented image saturation, I’d be hard pressed to say I see that magic within the rectangle, very often. I see a lot of photographs in my line of work, and then we all do via our massive media addiction. We’re all drowning.

Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I visited the Legion of Honor Museum on the edge of the Presidio. The gorgeous, resplendent building abuts a golf course, and sits above the rocky cliffs jutting up from the Bay. The fog was thick, sitting in a bank that touched the tops of the Eucalyptus trees.

I didn’t even know the museum existed, but there were banners plastered around the city, promising a Man Ray/Lee Miller exhibition. That was enough to draw me. Who wouldn’t want to see his work? I’d heard of Ms. Miller before, but didn’t know her work or backstory at all.

Down some old-school-curved-stone stairs, with vaulted arches hard at work, the exhibit was in the bowels of the historical building. Did it used to be someone’s mansion? What was the history? I didn’t have a chance to find out, as the museum was about to close when I arrived.

Time to cut to the chase. The gorgeous Ms. Miller stole the show, as well as my heart. Wow. What a presence. And through the exhibition, it was clear that my name is only last on a very long list of the infatuated that included Man Ray, Picasso, and probably every man she met in Europe before World War II.

She was tall and blonde, with striking blue eyes. Ms. Miller was beautiful the way Grace Kelly was beautiful. Just the perfect, Upper Class-looking WASP goddess. Normally not my type.

She exuded a kind of wounded, cold, intelligent reserve. Bottled up, statuesque. In fact, early in the exhibition, there are a couple of photographs of her playing a statue in a Cocteau film. The verisimilitude was off-the-chains.

Her photographs begin in the second room, alongside of Man Ray’s. It seems as if the show has been designed to show her off, as she is better represented than he. And subsequent rooms show only her work, and the work of others who were inspired by her.

Man Ray’s photographs of Lee Miller amp up the sexuality. He fetishizes her, and when you see the portraits of him, you can understand his excitement that he got to have sex with her at all. In her self-portraits, though, she is subdued and classical, her intellect beaming out. Two completely different visions of the same woman.

I’m still weirded out that I had powerful urges towards someone I knew to be dead. The whole notion of freezing time, of encoding moments from the rush of history, was foremost in my thoughts. In the bowels of this old museum, on a misty late afternoon, it was almost as if there were ghosts about. (Let’s hope she’s young and hot as a ghost. I’ve no interest in the 70 year old Lee Miller haunting my dreams.)

OK, the photographs are what this 2nd Annual column is supposed to be about. Ms. Miller had one image of breasts that had been lopped off in a mastectomy. Just sitting there. Right below a photo of dead rats hanging in a shop window. Of their moment, as surrealism, they screamed of the dark soul looming within the model’s body.

And she was also tough enough to go into the Concentration Camps after the end of the War. Her photos of German officer’s bodies, after suicide, reeked of that same Surrealist training. She knew from absurd, which was a fine a response as any to the atrocities, the death and destruction. Crazy photographs. Crazy. Together, they were definitely the best photographs I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet.

Man Ray and Lee Miller eventually broke up. She married an Englishman. I have her biography on the shelf, given to me by a friend, but I haven’t opened yet. (I’ll get there.) This friend, in the know, told me that Lee Miller had been sexually abused as a child. Common knowledge, apparently.

Upon hearing that morsel, it all fit. I’d known something was wrong with her all along. That’s why I was so smitten. In those years that she and Man Ray documented, she had it all. The looks. The brains. The creativity. And the soul scars that seared her humanity into celluloid.

Richard Misrach’s lecture at the Center for Creative Photography

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The weather in Tucson is brutally hot most of the time. 115 degrees Fahrenheit for almost 7 months a year, so they tell me. But the other five months are beautiful, when much of North America is freezing its collective ass off. Not being a lunatic, I’ve visited in October and February, and, as a result, love the place.

I was overdue for a visit to hang out with my good friend Ken, his wife Lisa, and their lovely daughter. Ken and I were chatting on the phone one day, and I made that all-too-familiar, non-specific promise to come “as soon as I can make it work.” Generic meaninglessness.

Ken then mentioned that the great Richard Misrach was due to lecture at the Center for Creative Photography, on the campus of the U of A. “Misrach, dude. Misrach,” was the final refrain of his argument. I stammered. No obvious excuse came to mind. “Uh, uh, Misrach, dude. You’re right. I’ll buy a plane ticket today.”

And so I found myself, earlier this Fall, fresh off the airplane, handing Ken a breakfast burrito from an Indian Casino outside Albuquerque. Before you say yuck, I got it only a couple of hours before, and it’s designed to keep in long-haul trucks on the Interstate. Delicious.

It couldn’t have been seven minutes from the time I stepped off the airplane to the time we were driving away in Ken’s Prius. The hybrid car is not as out-of-place as you might imagine in Super-Red-State Arizona. Tucson is actually a liberal island in a sea of anti-immigrant hostility. (Though these folks do have to live on the fringe of the Mexican Drug War, with a strong Mexican Mafia presence in town as well.)

I’ll spare you any more details on what he and I did in the handful of hours we had before the lecture. But cruising on the Prius-driving-tour gave me a bit of perspective on where the town is situated. The city is actually surrounded by mountains, and pretty ones at that. I’d rank it highly on the natural beauty scale. But that probably doesn’t matter if you’re sitting inside with your underwear pressed up against the air conditioning unit.

We turned up at the CCP about an hour before kickoff, to get some good seats reserved. And to catch up with the other artists that drove into town from California and Phoenix. People pay attention when a big dog pops his head out in public.

The lecture began soon enough, and the audience was both packed and silent. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been in a quieter crowded lecture hall since taking final exams at Duke all those years ago. But this was fun instead of hysterically stressful.

Mr. Misrach structured the lecture as a linear narrative of the projects he’d done throughout his career. I was familiar with all of the earlier work, the Desert Cantos photos upon which he built his career. The Salton Sea. The fires. The Bravo 20 Bombing range pictures. The salt flats.

The projection was excellent, and the pictures looked amazing at 15’x15′, or whatever it was. It made me want to create super-giant prints, or do projection installations. Anything to achieve that powerful sense of scale. He claimed inspiration for the Cantos series, in which the projects interlock to inform each other and the whole, from Dante and Ezra Pound.

Mr. Misrach continued on through pretty pictures, like “Golden Gate” and “On the Beach,” and also showed newer things I’d not seen. Images from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Iphone images, (of course,) and a return to working in Cancer Alley, Louisiana. The project, which began in the late nineties, originated as a commission from the High Museum in Atlanta.

I’d first seen one of the large scale color images at the now-defunct Friends of Photography in San Francisco many years ago. He showed dozens of these photos, each more compelling than the next. Factories, chemical plants, plantations, riverscapes, old shacks, all in that famously perfect light. I felt the work certainly on par with Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of corporate-sponsored environmental degradation.

I heard the first seat creaks from the crowd at the one hour mark, just as he was discussing his new Aperture book “Petrochemical America,” with design work by Kate Orff. Then, things took a strange turn. (And then stranger still, but I’ll get there.) Mr. Misrach wrapped up the lecture with a segment on the private salon he has at his studio with a handful of younger Bay Area Artists. He went on to show slides of their work, including Doug Rickard, Paul Schiek, Jason Fulford, and my previously-mentioned-friend McNair.

That the San Francisco collaborative scene made such a prominent appearance here in Tucson, just a couple of weeks after I was in SF, was totally surreal for me. I’m not sure people knew what to think. Was he promoting his younger buddies, blatantly, or showing off work that inspired and intrigued him? This was quickly followed by an excellent Q&A, in which Mr. Misrach seemed to enjoy responding directly, rather than sticking to the script.

Here are a few quotes I thought you’d find interesting. On the political impact of his work: “Whether they can change public policy? I don’t think that’s real.” On how he stayed safe in the dangerous situations in which he often found himself: “I was young and stupid.” On how he deals with delving into bleakness of eco-misery: “It’s a job.”

He also said, of art making, “the process is metaphysical.” Let me be the first to agree. Finally, speaking about switching from large format film photography to medium format digital, he said, “I’m making better pictures now than I could possibly do with an 8″x10″ negative.” Hard to believe, but I suppose he’s earned our suspension of disbelief.

Seconds after he finished speaking, Lisa waved to a friend, and her diamond engagement ring flew off her hand, in full view of dozens of people, and disappeared into thin air. I’m always telling my son that things don’t vanish, but it happened before my eyes. Fortunately, the ring was discovered a month later, in the bowels of the pocket book of the lady sitting next to her.

Then, we headed back to their place for a Taco Truck dinner, and a little impromptu, photo-geek-salon/taco fiesta. We had five photographers with five MFA’s between them: a Guggenheim Fellow, two artists showing at Klompching in Brooklyn, a photographer who went to school with Gregory Crewdson, and me.

The consensus on the lecture was that Mr. Misrach was too literal and linear, and didn’t provide inspiration for my colleagues. His target audience was clearly the many young college students in attendance, who were likely less familiar with his canon than we. Alec Soth was suggested as a model of the inspirational lecturer, as several of the photographers had recently seen him speak at the Medium Festival in San Diego.

Personally, I hung on Mr. Misrach’s every word. Beyond the countless incredible photographs, and the consistently relevant issues, seeing that many years of production inspired me. Just do the work, he implied. Keep doing the work. It was kind of Zen.

Back at our round-table, I mentioned the Cindy Sherman show at SFMOMA, and we kicked around comparisons of major artists who’ve lost it and got it back again. Robert Mapplethorpe came up in the photo world, but most comps were to music. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen.

Finally, someone asked the following question, with which I will leave you. (Feel free to discuss it amongst yourselves.) Over time, what costs more, having a child, or an art career?

The San Francisco Fall Season: “About Face” at Pier 24

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the last exhibition review, I told you how to see some excellent art, in San Francisco, for free. Just go to SFMOMA on the first Tuesday of the month. With your savings, you can buy a couple of mouthfuls of seafood at the Ferry Building down the street. Or four pears. Seriously, I paid four bucks for an asian pear that was nearly as big as a large guinea pig.

From there, it’s a short walk along the water to Pier 24. I’ll say this now, prominently, so that it doesn’t get misunderstood. Pier 24 is always free. That’s more great art without spending a dime. But, and here’s the catch, you must book ahead via their website. They have several “viewings” a day, limited to 20 people per session.

The pier, which actually sits below the bay bridge, sat vacant for 30 years, I was told, before it was renovated to its current very chic status. You’d never know from the anonymous wharfside locale, but the innards are stuffed with more photography goodies than a pelican’s belly.

Once buzzed in, you’re offered a catalog, to borrow or buy, which shows you the names and relevant info for each work. (There is no wall text, which some might not like.) I met up with Pacarrick, and he knew a docent named Mark, so I made those guys hold the catalog, and we embarked straight away. We could go one of two ways, and chose to go with the natural flow, into a room filled with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s wax figurine photographs.

I’d seen them at Fraenkel Gallery, when they were exhibited many years ago. Then, I was dismissive of the work. “He just photographed someone else’s sculptures. Big deal.” Here, though, my opinion spun. These large scale black and white portraits have gravitas. And they’re spooky too.

It’s probably a good time to mention that much of the work on the wall was procured by the same Fraenkel gallery, either to sell to the Pilara Foundation, which runs the place, or to arrange the borrowing of work to be shown. As I wrote in the intro article, much of San Francisco is working with itself, and this partnership has created something terrific here. (Along with shipping crates full of hedge fund dollars.)

So there’s a touch of backstory. Where were we? Past Sugimoto, we see a room with work by Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan. Two more Bay Area luminaries. And then, a few feet away, there’s a wall installation of photography baseball cards by Mike Mandel, who collaborated with the late Mr. Sultan. (Definitely a conversation starter.)

They were obviously taken in the 70’s, and were thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. I was standing with a Peruvian dude, and an Asian guy who’s exact heritage I don’t know, and didn’t bother to ask. I looked at them, giggled, and looked back at the wall of photographers. All were white. And at least 75% had moustaches. For real. We counted. Then we counted the women, and there were a few, but not many.

I’m not being critical. Times change, and thank god there is more diversity in photography than there used to be. The grid of photo heroes and big wigs was clever and fun. Who uses the baseball card motif to talk about war? It was a great artifact of the photo community back in the mutton chop days. (Like I said, there is visual evidence of my mullet/braces phase. Not that you’ll find it.)

The exhibition space slowly unfolds, and is absolutely huge. Museum size, with genius stuff wherever you look. I recommend that you actually use your entire 2 hour window. (I didn’t.) Go in, see half, go out, grab a coffee. Look at the water. Listen to the sea gulls. Then go back.

Back to the moment, I walked through to see a huge wall of Lee Friedlanders. That guy is one brave dude. He consistently turned the camera on himself, willing to depict his “image” in unflattering ways. The honesty, combined with his consistently off-putting compositional style, is the secret to his creative staying power. (IMHO)

Next, Avedon. Big portraits from “In The American West.” (I neglected to mention an earlier four-image-panel of John, Paul, George and Ringo that was orphaned in a corner.) I risk the wrath of many of you, but I don’t dig the Western portraits one bit. Slick and stylish, yes. But no soul. The dirt on their faces might have well have been pancake makeup.

Not to bag on Mr. Avedon exclusively. The Beatles pics were suave, and then just a bit further on, he has an entire room to himself, with smaller studio portraits of major honchos. Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, and on and on. (Regan was hanging next to Caesar Chavez. Nicely done.) A ton of portraits to see there. My brain was starting to slow down.

But not before I reached the Richard Learoyd section. I profiled his book, “Presences,” in my very first book review column, last year. So I was familiar with the representations. But as large scale prints, the camera-obsura-created photos were the showstoppers for me. Radiant, and beyond sharp. Wicked light and color. One pairing stood out, a man and woman’s naked bodies. Backs arching slightly forward, faces unseen. Identical poses, subtle differences. Magnetic.

If I have any criticism of Pier 24, it’s that it’s a bit like a photo exhibition on steroids. Don’t forget, Barry Bonds hit all those homeruns ten minutes up the water. Really, really close. But the stands were always packed, and here, it’s so much great work that I don’t want to nitpick. (It is pretty lame of me to criticize them for being “too good.”)

It’s just that my brain is getting tired remembering all these photographs, and you’re going to want to stop reading soon. From there, Diane Arbus had a room. An African-themed gallery had work by Pieter Hugo, and the combination of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. Great. Then a Japanese room, and a Chinese room. This being San Fransisco in 2012, diversity will be respected. Oh yes.

Then, we doubled back to the main entrance, to go see the final wing. The first room had a group exhibition featuring work by many, many famous names. I could list them, but what’s the point? The one photo you couldn’t not look at was by Vanessa Beecroft, of all people. It was the biggest, so that explains a lot. But it jumped off the wall. Ms. Beecroft seems best known for staging naked modeling shows in the Guggenheim, so to see an image of this quality made Pacarrik and I wonder how much she spent on a DoP.

Then, a room of mug shots, and the Paul Schiek photographs I already wrote about in the book review for “Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me.” As I learned in SF, those images, which work brilliantly as a little soft-cover-book of found photos, (and which were originally shot by an anonymous, talented jail-house photographer,) are a really big deal in San Franscisco right now. They just showed at Stephen Wirtz, and were here in a prominent spot at Pier 24. The prints are big of course; presented as high-end appropriation art. In that context, I’m a bit skeptical.

But the last room in the house, (if you take the wrong path,) is the best room in the house. August Sander. Vintage prints. In a very large grid. I was too tired to count the photos. And I was too tired to enjoy them.

We’re all fans of the master German portraitist. I’ll spare you the mushy love talk. It’s a brilliant room of photographs, and I was way, way too brain fried to enjoy it. I’m still pissed off.
So, I’m saying this clearly, when you go visit Pier 24, which you should do, go see the August Sander photographs as soon as you get there. Or, at least, don’t see them last.

The San Francisco Fall Season: Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

It was sweating hot on the first Tuesday of October. If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, keep that phrase in mind. First Tuesday. Because it’s free at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). If you’re the type to get off on saving $18, go then. If you are, however, the type to hate the hordes, then avoid it.

I can understand both perspectives, so when I dropped in on SFMOMA see the blockbuster Cindy Sherman exhibition, I was glad to save the money, yet noticeably cranky because of the crowds. (Karma got me back the following day. At the de Young museum, an older gentleman actually gave me an ironic bow/apology combo, with a smirk on his face, when I asked him not to stand quite so up in my grill.)

SFMOMA is one of my very favorite museums in the US. Amazing place, with consistently interesting shows. I was excited to see Cindy Sherman’s show here, having missed it on earlier incarnations. (It’s now at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)

I’ve always been a fan of her early work, the “Untitled Film Stills.” It’s important, for the obvious reasons. (Feminism, Post-Modernism, Hollywoodism.) I’d never seen more than a handful at once, but they’re lovely. Together, those images pounce in a large 3 wall grid installation early on in the show. (It’s preceded by the earliest self-portraits, from 1975, which are electric and indicative of her continued style.)

Seeing the whole grid together, it’s clear that she’s genuinely acting. That’s what brings the vision through. She’s energetically invested in each photo, through varied landscapes. Ms. Sherman works the drama, and has the charisma of an of-that-moment-Suzanne Somers. (Yes, I just made that comparison.)
One photograph, taken at a train station in Flagstaff, gives off the Western vibe. In another, she has a crucifix in her cleavage. Classy.

The next room has color versions of the Film Stills, larger, mostly from the 80’s. Still strong. Upon closer examination, some of them, with more ornate, luxe costumes, are actually from 2007 and ’11. Despite the more expensive production values, the new ones are definitely not better than the old.

The “Centerfold” images are next, and still compelling. She’s working it, trying to squeeze the last of the “Film Still” style. From there, we walk along, and hit a big skidmark. (No future pun intended.)

The large scale color images adorning the walls of the subsequent room are offensive on every level. (Among those levels are quality and good taste.) The photos depict grotesqerie that makes Joel Peter-Witkin look slightly less alone in his crazy. A cut-off, limbless torso with a tampon in a vagina, and, also, a cock with a cock ring. There’s a photo of putrid rotting entrails, “Untitled #190”, that reminded me of the stomach contents of that fat guy who exploded in “The Meaning of Life.” (I couldn’t eat anover bite.)

So, so, so bad. What’s the point? I’m so rich and successful that I can get collectors to buy photos of rotting shit? Or was it, first, I gave them the surface version of femininity in America, so now I’ll follow with the extreme opposite: what it feels like to be objectified and relegated to second class status? Probably neither. But the pictures suck.

Then, the clowns. I had the privilege, or bad fortune to see these when they debuted at Metro Pictures. At the time, I thought they were horrifying, and the epitome of mailing it in. Once you’re famous enough, people will buy anything to get a piece of the investment action.

Here, they were creepier than in my memory. Again, bad. Bad, bad. Are they interesting for evoking revulsion? I suppose we’ll have to give her that.

At that point, I’d decided that Ms. Sherman was just one more major talent who got soft and rich and lost her edge. She’ll always have Flagstaff. And then, walking into the final rooms of the exhibition, I was surprised. (You know I like to be surprised.)

Those last few galleries were redemptive. Praise Jesus. And to what do we owe this renaissance? I’m going with The Great Recession as my hypothesis. “Untitled #463,” from 2007-8, is a large scale color photo that shows two versions of Ms. Sherman. Both are brown-haired, middle-aged, city party ladies after work. We see a red plastic cup filled with what? Probably not keg beer. She plays each broad to the hilt. Not exactly flattering.

Then, “Untitled, #466,” from 2008, shows a gray haired, grand dame in a beautiful blue silk caftan coat, floor length. She’s standing in an archway of a regal-type Spanish or California Mansion. It’s not a nasty image, but establishes the rich, powerful, older-lady-type vibe. A demographic which Ms. Sherman herself joined. It also references, no doubt, her collector base.

Grand dames buy a lot of expensive art. There are several pictures in the grouping, and they are subtly critical in their depiction of said dames. Her performances are nuanced, but powerful. No mailing it in here. The production design is as good as the acting. Great, great photos, I thought. She’s back.

Why then? Why at all, given how few artists ever pull out of the money-coma-induced nosedive. Well, though it was not so long ago, it’s easy to forget that the American and European economies fell off a cliff in 2007-008. People lost half their wealth within the span of less than a year. Fear was everywhere. Even, presumably, among the super-rich.

So I’d speculate that Ms Sherman felt the pinch, like the rest of us. Wherever her wealth is, she would have gotten hit, and then people would have stopped buying her pictures, for a little while. That kind of freaked-out energy feeds creativity. It’s primal.

Does it matter why she got it back? Or, for that matter, will we ever know? Of course not. It just makes for fun chatter. I loved all of the pictures in the last group, and was happy to see that “IT” could be re-captured, once lost. Inspiring.

In fact, it kicked off a long, round table, two hour conversation about who still has it, who lost it, blah, blah when I was in Tucson the following week to see Richard Misrach lecture at the Center for Creative Photography. Has he lost it? What is his new work like? Stay tuned.