Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books: Tetsuya Kusu

by Jonathan Blaustein

I woke up in LA yesterday, and went to sleep here in Taos. As no airplanes were involved, you can trust it was a REALLY FUCKING LONG DAY.

16 hours on the road, all told, with two mostly-well-behaved kids in the back, and an occasionally grumpy wife sitting next to me.

Now I’m here, with a computer on my lap, rocking the boxers & a T-shirt look, listening to the room fan white noise, watching the shadow of an aspen tree through the translucent window curtain.

We came home after 2 glorious weeks in California, which were desperately needed. (Not that I need to tell you that.) I was quite-the-fried columnist for many months, but no longer. At the moment, even accounting for the difficult drive, I’m feeling fresher than some Santa Barbara sushi.

Mmmm, sushi. So yummy.

It was our first time attempting to travel like that with a 3 year old, (nearly 4,) and it was a resounding success. We had a proper bougie holiday: a week on the beach, 4 nights on a cliff in Big Sur, and then two days in LA so I could see some great art.

Yes, we hit a Whole Foods. Yes, I ate more beef than I have in the last year. And yes, California is currently teeming with Chinese and South Asian tourists.

Despite the fact that we drove, this most classic of American Road Trips, we mostly encountered the aforementioned foreign fun-seekers, and heaps of sun-drenched Californians. Basically, people with money, driving rented Mustang convertibles, leased Teslas, or recently-purchased Porsches.

Intentionally or not, (and unlike my San Francisco adventure in May,) I saw very few homeless people. Almost none, in fact. The drifters ambling along highways were in short supply. Or perhaps I was simply too self-involved to see them?

Basically, my experience was the exact opposite of the ramblings captured by Tetsuya Kusu, in his new book “American Monuments,” recently published by Zen Foto Gallery in Japan. He and I might have both occupied space in the Golden State, but beyond that, our worlds diverged completely.

I met Tetsuya at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego in late 2014. He was just hanging out, helping out, finishing up a big travel adventure in which he slept in his car, and roamed around California and the West Coast with his camera. The book’s end notes inform he was re-visiting a 3.5 year phase when he was a proper drifter, in which he voyaged with his mentally ill (then) wife.

The book presents a series of images in which he grappled with his divorce and re-found himself, by meeting and photographing people in the very underclass I conveniently ignored.

The pictures travel well-worn turf, but I don’t really care, because they’re really cool. There is always a place in the world for well-made photographs, in particular ones that treat disadvantaged humans with empathy and grace.

It’s very easy to imagine this Japanese surfer-dude chatting up the drunks at the bar. Telling stories. Asking questions. Gaining trust. Enjoying the process, and coming back with these monuments to an American reality that most of us don’t bother to see.

My body is still reverberating with the vibrations I-40, even 10 hours later. I close my eyes, and the LA palm trees pop right up in my visual memory. (California certainly is a beautiful place.)

But I also see Barstow, and Needles. Dry, nearly uninhabitable places teeming with grizzled faces, sun-bleached tattoos, and big-red-drunkard noses.

Places you drive through without stopping.

“American Monuments” takes the time to talk to these people, rather than passing them by at 85 miles an hour. It was odd for me to open up the package this morning, and view a parallel universe to the one I lived in the past two weeks.

Something tells me you’ll enjoy it too.

Bottom Line: Cool book showing life on the road on the West Coast

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This Week In Photography Books: Taryn Simon

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s been almost 6 years since my photographic project, “The Value of a Dollar,” went viral on the internet. 6 years since my life changed for the better, as the after-effects of the phenomenon were massive.

I sold a lot of work. Enough to have another child. And some of you have been following along the entire time.

But in the midst of the virality, one odd little blog post stuck out for me, more than almost any other. Some random person, in some random place, posted a handfull of quotes one day. I was featured, and just below me was Stringer Bell, from “The Wire.”

For some reason, being in such proximity to a massively influential fictional character made a big impression me. If I’m in the same conversation as Stringer, I thought, things just might work out OK.

Idris Elba, the actor who played the duplicitous criminal, has since become a Massive Global Icon. If you haven’t seen him in the brilliant BBC series Luther, do yourself a favor and Netflix that shit immediately.

Mr. Elba is also a DJ, apparently, but is mostly known for being a big, handsome, charismatic, extremely talented actor. (If you saw him in “Thor,” just forget it ever happened. Could you act if you had such ridiculous contact lenses?)

I mention it all, frankly, because Idris Elba really needs to be the next James Bond. Fuck Tom Hiddleston, or anyone else you might suggest. It must be Idris Elba.

No one else in the British Isles has his combination of suave confidence, flinty gravitas, and the raw physicality that Daniel Craig invested in the role. (Who wants to see a soft, posh, Roger-Moore-type Bond now?)

I don’t remember who it was, but someone came out last year and complained that Idris Elba would be too “street” to play Bond. Street being code for Black. Black being a stand-in for not-properly-English.

A few weeks past the Brexit, we’re all familiar with the seething sea of racism underpinning English culture. Even Leicester City’s hero, Jamie Vardy, was busted on video being a racist prick a while back. (Oi! Tell us something we don’t know, mate.)

The idea of a Black James Bond is anathema to the self-image that many an Englishman clings to, these days. Times gone by. The Sun rising and setting on the English Empire. A steady supply of subsidized tea.

That sort of thing.

But we’re not living in the 19th Century anymore, I can assure you. England can no more shut itself off from the world than I can properly spell Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious properly on my first try. (No way I got that right.)

I’ve mentioned Neal Stephenson’s seminal, futuristic masterpiece “Snow Crash” before, I’m sure, and among its many prophetic themes was hordes of refugees becoming the norm in the future. You simply cannot stop people from fleeing for their lives, unless you’re prepared to kill them. (Definition of irony, anyone?)

England, and the entire UK for that matter, are in for a rough few years, it would seem. The new millennium has not been kind to the old order, unless you believe the old order represents the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. (On second thought…)

But new ideas are out there, new systems of communication, and different types of entertainment. Hell, we just let my son buy his first video game, and it turns out that even a hand-held-Nintendo-machine can create seamless virtual reality, for cost of 5 beers at a baseball game.

James Bond, however, keeps going. He might be England’s most ruthless, sexy version of itself, but the system he represents, glorifying violence, gadgets and hot chicks, seems a bit antiquated in a world in which all the ladies on Game of Thrones are clearly WINNING!

The illusion of being forever young is at the heart of the James Bond narrative. He might age a little, but once the hair piece is no-longer-believable, you’re shown the door. (That means you, Sean Connery.)

The ladies, even more than Bond, are perfectly replaceable. (And far more vulnerable to bullets.) So many of them have died, in all these movies, that it’s hard not to discern a serious strain of misogyny in the source-code.

But what do all these props, as the female actors were more-or-less treated, look like now? As actual humans, they must have aged, right? And all that cutting-edge-tech, for which the Bond films are also known? Would space-age-60’s gadgets still look cool in the 21st Century?

Glad you asked, as I’ve just finished putting down “Birds of the West Indies,” a book by Taryn Simon, published a few years ago by Hatje Cantz. (Not sure how an older book ended up in my pile, but I’m glad it did.)

I’m a big fan of Ms. Simon’s work, and my review of “A Living Man Declared Dead” enabled me to create this now-familiar, rambling, discursive style. (Thanks, Taryn!)

Apparently, an ornithologist named James Bond was the inspiration for the super-spy’s name, and his main achievement was a book of the same title. (That one was presumably about actual birds, instead of the English slang term for women.)

There’s an index section at the back that actually does list the genus types of all the avians, but it seems tacked on, and purely ironic. But it’s her book, I suppose, so she can do what she wants.

The rest of the volume, including all the plates, feature the aforementioned guns, cars, and chicks that populated the Bond films from 1962-2012. If you’re wondering what Maud Allen or Tanya Roberts look like these days, seek no further. Some actresses refused to be photographed, presumably out of fear of destroying the illusion of perpetual beauty.

But most all are present, including a rumpled Grace Jones, a self-consicous Michelle Yeoh, and a see-through-shirt-wearing Sophie Marceau. (According to the text, the actress chose their wardrobes and poses.) Halle Berry and Famke Janssen take their place alongside fake nuclear devices, half shark heads, and more blades, guns and Aston Martins than you can believe.

It’s her signature style now, this categorical, dry, meticulous rendering of a subject mined for its metaphorical potential. We get it. Keep backdrop, swap out subject, click the shutter. (The end notes thank Phase One, so we can surmise she’s using a very, very expensive camera.)

Taryn Simon’s work also hinges on access; her rolodex that means she can ring up Barbara Broccoli, make her pitch, and hang up with a yes. If you or I tried that, we’d never even get the phone number.

C’est la vie.

As for this book, it’s certainly not genius, and I’m not sure you’ll want to buy it, but it is a very cool collection of bound pages. She cuts through one of the greatest ongoing illusions in contemporary culture. We get to go backstage along with her, and can have no doubts that the James Bond myth is alive and well in the 20 teens.

Which is more than we can say for England’s soccer team at the European Championship. (Burn!)

Bottom Line: Thorough book that demystifies the James Bond legacy

To Purchase “Birds of the West Indies” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Leon Borensztein

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve been doing this a long time, as the column will be 5 years in September. In that time, I’ve seen books from every continent on Earth, two times over. (Yes, there were two books from Antarctica.)

The experience has increased my understanding of the world immeasurably. I am definitely a smarter, more empathetic person than I was when Rob first suggested I review books here at APE.

But until today, I’ve never cried before, when flipping through the pages.

Not even once.

Today, however, I wept.

I was looking at “Sharon,” a new book by Leon Borensztein, recently published by Keher Verlag in Germany. This is as personal a book as I’ve seen, though others have risen to this level of honesty.

So why this book? Why now?

Well, “Sharon” is a photographic and diaristic account, by Leon Borensztein, of the 1984 birth, and subsequent life, of his daughter Sharon. Though her eyes are closed on the cover, and the text is scribbly, I had no idea what was in store, when I took the book out of its packaging. (This one was sent in a couple of months ago, and landed in the submission pile.)

Within the first few pictures, we realize something is wrong. Baby Sharon has electrodes on her head, and that can’t possibly be good, right? (It isn’t.)

The pacing, and the balance between imagery and text, always feel right. The pictures are universally square, well-made, and shot in black and white, but they’re not GENIUS. Thankfully, they don’t have to be.

It turns out that Sharon has physical, developmental, and mental health issues, including being mostly blind. It is clearly every parent’s nightmare, and one I fretted about through the entirety of my wife’s two pregnancies.

What happens if you have a baby, so many of us fear, and it all goes wrong?

29 years of Sharon’s life are documented here, and the diary text openly shares how difficult it is. How draining. How depressing.

To make matters worse, (as is often the case in relationships enmeshed in trauma,) Leon splits with his wife, and ends up becoming Sharon’s sole caretaker. His ex-wife is eventually busted for meth, suggesting she was unfit as a mother.

Wow, is this a heavy book. But it is also beautiful, because as Pixar teaches us in “Inside Out,” sadness is a valid part of life. Sometimes, it’s the only sane reaction to life’s unfairness.

In the end, Leon decides to place Sharon in a facility, after spending years trying to find the right one. He is well-aware, and presents to us, the statistics facing disabled women, with sexual abuse rates that are heart-breaking.

According to the last text in the book, it was a good move for father and daughter, as both were able to move on with life, while remaining extremely close. It’s just… So. Fucking. Poignant.

In life, I’ve found, sometimes the small coincidences keep piling up to the point where it makes sense to listen. I thought I was done with my little San Francisco series, but it turns out that some of the people about whom I’ve written in the last month were big supporters of this project.

Who knew?

And just this morning, I was engaged in a Twitter conversation with people about the over-saturation of the photo-book market. (Precipitated by a Tweet from NYT critic Wesley Morris, who lamented the closing of Powerhouse Books.)

I told a couple of Twitter strangers that with so many books on the market now, as near-every photographer makes a book for each project, it was of course impossible for them all to sell well. The supply has increased exponentially; not so the demand.

The responses to my Tweet were ironic, accusing me of quashing dreams. Not so, I replied.

Make a book.
Have at it.
Go nuts.

Just this morning, mere hours before I picked up “Sharon,” I told people there were other reasons to make a book, beyond financial remuneration.

Books are tangible. They provide closure. Deadlines push people to finish, to grapple, to face the work they’ve made, and then perhaps let go.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this book sold well. It’s an excellent publication. But somethings tells me it’s already a massive success for the artist, because it’s shined some serious light on the dark recesses of his life.

Life is beautiful, according to Roberto Benigni, but it is also rather tragic. Capturing both realities in one book is an achievement. If it can make me cry, for goodness sake, you might want to check this one out.

Bottom Line: Powerful, diaristic account of raising a disabled child

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This Week In Photography Books: Toni Greaves

by Jonathan Blaustein

We all make choices in life.

Some imagine this as fate, believing our desires are pre-destined by some deity or other. Others believe in free will, countering that our decisions are our own to make.

Most of the time, what we choose to do impacts us, and perhaps our loved ones or co-workers. (A few others, but not THAT many.)

Then there are people like LeBron James.

LeBron, who reclaimed his mantle as the Best Basketball Player in the World last night, crushed the hopes of an entire region when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. (I’m writing on Monday.) If you’re not up on sports, LeBron switched teams back then, joining the Miami Heat, in one of the more tone-deaf PR moves of the 21st Century.

“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” he said, thereby dooming gloomy North East Ohio to more basketball misery. The city had not had a Championship in 52 years, until last night, and it’s hard for anyone outside of that area to understand how many hearts were broken when LeBron left town.

Shockingly, in 2014, LeBron chose to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, claiming the pull of home was too great. (He was raised in nearby Akron.) It was unprecedented, both what he did and how he did it, this time engendering a PR coup by writing an open letter to the city of Cleveland, announcing his triumphant return.

It seemed like a somewhat insane move, as the Cavs were by then the worst team in basketball, and trading South Beach for Cleveland makes as much sense as Donald Trump’s campaign accounting.

The numbers people began spewing estimates of how much money would flow back into the Cleveland metropolitan area, and it was in the tens of millions. One man, who’d grown up under difficult circumstances, was hailed as a mini-stimulus-package, personally impacting the economy of an entire region.

He promised everyone a Championship, and last night he made good. It was a spectacular feat, from a sporting perspective, as the Cavs fought back and won a series, after being down 3 games to 1, a situation that had never been reversed in the HISTORY OF THE NBA.

Quite the magical ending.

There were videos showing downtown Cleveland as one massive party. People wept, including LeBron. (No team had won anything of note there since 1964.) It was revelatory, and came about, once again, because of the decision of one human being, and his concomitant devotion and belief.

LeBron James had a vision, and he made a seemingly odd choice, because the little voice in his head told him it was the right thing to do.

The same goes for a young woman named Lauren, who realized in her early 20’s that she had fallen in love with God.

Say what now?

Well, Lauren is the main subject, or perhaps we should say dramatic lead, in the beautiful “Radical Love,” a photo book by Toni Greaves, published recently by Chronicle Books in San Francisco.

“Radical Love” follows Lauren’s path as she eschews life in the outside world, and joins a cloistered convent of nuns in Summit, New Jersey. (The site of my own biggest sports fail, as I managed to just-miss scoring the game-winning goal, as the ball trickled across the goal line, in a huge playoff game back in high school.)

Lauren is attractive and photogenic, and, as Toni points out in the afterword, is living in a place and time in which she could follow so many paths. This is an unprecedented time to be a woman in the West, because despite the lingering stench of sexism, there are freedoms available that have never been available to women before.

Ever.

And yet Lauren, who apparently had a boyfriend at the time, felt that her future lay beyond closed doors, praying to that same God, on behalf of the rest of us. (The Nuns of this order live to pray for others.)

It’s obviously strange to see, as we’re accustomed to Nuns as asexual, older women, whose wrinkles keep them company in bed at night, rather than a man’s hairy arms. We imagine Nuns as dour; whacking palms with rulers, or wagging fingers at our filthy language and continued indiscretions.

But this book, which really functions as a long-form photographic narrative, dispels such cliché notions. These pictures depict happy people, engaged in a community that supports them, (and apparently us,) with love.

There are some remarkable pictures, in particular a recurring motif in which Lauren, and others, lie prostrate on the ground. One even captures Lauren making a snow angel, that most child-like of joyful activities.

Over the course of this 7 year project, we do get to see Lauren age and grow a bit; the ebullient sheen slowly wearing off of her skin as comfort and confidence replace the pallid flush of the new.

This is a lovely book, and it is clear that both its maker, and subjects, approach each day with positivity and grace. Those feelings emanate off the paper, an offering to anyone who picks the object up to take a peek.

As I sit here staring at the cover, I notice the barren black trees against deep navy. (And the implied crucifix as well.) It’s a heavy image, resonant of winter and death. It fits what I expected to find inside, but the innards were nothing like that at all. Instead, they shined like the freshly mopped floors of a convent kitchen.

Lemon-fresh scent included.

Bottom Line: Lovely, long-term project following a young woman as she devotes her life to God

To Purchase “Radical Love” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: A-B-Cheeeese!

by Jonathan Blaustein

Believe it or not, in the last four days, three different people lectured me about the relationship between the amygdala and the hippocampus, two powerful, oppositional parts of the brain.

(And yes, that is definitely the longest opening sentence in this column’s history.)

But it’s also true.

Under pressure, the primal amygdala, of fight or flight fame, supersedes the hippocampus, which controls higher functioning.
(Essentially, when we’re triggered, we can’t think straight.) Our body chemistry, which often speaks to us in the form of emotion, runs the show when we’re stressed out.

It’s fact, and new studies demonstrate that our brains actually rewire, based upon repeated stimulus. If you’re bugging out all the time, that becomes your brain’s default hardware.

For months, you’ve read along as my teaching situation, in which I was repeatedly doused with cortisol, bled into other parts of my life. It’s hard not to be grumpy and short-tempered, or at the least allow some of life’s joys to pass you by.

So many of us work a lot, or stay connected throughout the day/month/year.

Do you sometimes wonder if you’re not having enough fun? Or appreciating your children properly?

I know I do.

So many of us are photographers, but how much time are you putting into aping your kid’s joy, getting down on the ground to make memories, rather than just pressing the virtual shutter on your Iphone?

I’m thinking here of the new photo/children’s book, “A-B-Cheeeese!”, recently published by Paul Schiek at TBW Books in Oakland. It’s pretty random, relative to what we normally review here, but also a bit of HGH to beef-up our fun-deprived muscles. (Especially in yet-another tragic week.)

I’ve reviewed a couple of TBW offerings in the past, and interviewed Paul last year as well. Though we’d never met, when I got to Oaktown last month, he picked me up at the airport so we could grab some In’n’Out burger, and watch the Golden State Warriors on TV at his place.

We’re two odd ducks, as artists, in that we’re both huge sports fans. He was immersed in it, growing up in Wisconsin, as was I in New Jersey, so the idea of catching a game, in the Warriors hometown, was too good to pass up.

He pulled up to the airport in a blue truck, and I immediately went to the back door to throw my bag inside. Mid-toss, I realized there was a little human being blocking my flight path. It was a pretty, 2 year-old-girl with big brown eyes and whimsical curls, and I was lucky not to crush her with my travel bag.

“Dad,” she said, “who’s THAT guy?”

And that was my name for the rest of the day. “THAT” guy. Young Rosary warmed to me eventually, and we had some fun for a few minutes.

But then the game turned, and before we knew it, the Warriors were down 40 points. They were getting destroyed. Embarrassed even.

In case you don’t know, this season, the Warriors broke the NBA all-time record for most wins in a season, with 73. They’re accustomed to having their way with the opposition, not being annihilated on national television.

So by the time I left, there was bad-sports-juju in the air, and I forgot my copy of the book, along with a strap from the aforementioned luggage. Paul kindly sent both to me, back in New Mexico, because I really wanted to show this book to you.

It was made in honor of little Rosary, so it says, and she’s also listed in the back, as a Creative Consultant. (It makes me wonder if there aren’t some child labor laws being broken here.)

But what exactly is “A-B-Cheeeese!”?

It’s a play on the classic children’s book conceit of having one letter of the alphabet be represented by a word, image or phrase.

I still remember the Dr. Seuss version I read to my son when he was an infant. Big A, little a. What begins with A? Aunt Annie’s alligator, A A A.

Big B, little b. What begins with B? Barber, baby, bubbles and a bumblebee.

Here, each letter is paired with a word, and a historical, vernacular image that Paul purchased on Ebay.

A is for automobile, B is for bath time, C is for curious. F is for fish, and H is for Hello.

The pictures have been scanned, and are presented in the middle of a blank white page. But the text page color varies, blue for black and white, pink for color.

Some of these picture grab me more than others, but they all make me sad, on some level. Because a few of these kids are probably dead by now, or at least very old themselves. These anonymous stories are someone’s memories, and out of context, our vulnerability to time still shines through.

But it’s also hopeful, as the book is literally made for one child, yet shared with many, which was the plot of some early Neal Stephenson novel, the name of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. (Sorry Neal!)

As for favorites, I love fish, and laughing, and piñata and quack. I love reading and waving and xylophone.

But yellow is the best.

I bet if this kid had one do-over, that special 1970’s super-power, he’d make this picture disappear from reality in a poof.

Because he’s got the crazy-eyes.

These days, that picture would get posted on the dude’s Facebook page, and it would be there for every prospective employer to see. Forever.

Here, in the book, it’s being ogled by strangers, and I’m sure the guy will never know.

I like that this photobook is a children’s book, a gift for a daughter, and a new piece of history to age, with its already- old, forgotten histories inside.

This was a big week, let’s be honest. A horrible thing happened in Orlando, and for once, I didn’t devote an entire column to the Terrible Tragedy of the Day. Not to belittle such things, but it’s genuinely awful that these events happen around the world with such tragic frequency these days.

In light of all that suffering, a cute/cool little book with a premise built on love seemed the right choice for today.

Don’t you think?

Bottom Line: Poignant, hybrid photo book/children’s book

Go Here To Purchase A-B-Cheeeese!

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This Week In Photography Books: Magda Biernat

by Jonathan Blaustein

In England, Northerners mock Southern Londoners for being soft. Here in Northern New Mexico, people scoff at the Southern part of the State, and often refer to it as Texas.

Ted Cruz, a Texan, and former Republican Presidential candidate, recently derided “New York” values. (By which people assumed he meant liberal, gay-loving, and probably Jewish.)

“Those New Yorkers,” Ted thinks, “with their diversity and heathen practices. Repent, I say. Repent! The rapture is upon is!”

(Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)

No, North vs South is a powerful cultural motif around the world. (The Italians all nod their heads.) And wasn’t there some big war fought over those divisions?

Polar opposites are powerful. I’m not sure exactly why, though we so often define ourselves by what we are not. And homo sapiens tribal affiliations allowed the species to propagate.

My people good.
Other people bad.
Fire scary.

And what of our poles, North and South? How are they faring in these days of rampant Climate Change? I interviewed a Finnish photographer for the NYT earlier this year, and she’d spoken to indigenous people in Greenland who insisted the ice was melting fast.

How fast it melts, and how much rejoins the ocean, has dire consequences for the future of humanity, and all the other living creatures with whom we share our planet. (Except for the cockroaches. Fuck you, cockroaches. Everybody hates you.)

Back on point, I just looked at “Adrift,” a new book by Magda Biernat, published by Ink & Bellows. This is a lovely little production, and I do mean production. It’s not built like most books, as the text is pasted tight to the inside cover, and the images unfold accordion style.

The writing gives us the background, though I couldn’t help look at the pictures first.

Diptychs?

Blue icebergs in blue water, contrasted with white buildings on white landscape. They’re aesthetically pleasing, wonderful to look at, but definitely have a bit of a weird vibe as well. Particular the buildings.

As it doesn’t take long to flip through, I immediately re-flip, and realize the compositions of the icebergs and buildings ape each other formally. (It’s not exact, but close enough to get the point.)

So we know we’re certainly meant to see them as pairs, and I begin to wonder what that relationship implies?

On to the text, and some essay-parsing delivers this: the icebergs are melting pieces from Antartica, and the structures are abandoned indigenous hunting cabins in Alaska. Ms. Biernat covered the world, from Pole to Pole, and the book reflects two global warming stories she witnessed.

There is a proliferation of such imagery these days. The icebergs in particular. I don’t know if frequency alone, with respect to delivering the message, will get the job done. People simply can’t tune out until it’s too late, as the alternative is CATACLYSM.

Full stop.

Perhaps more metaphorical, lyrical ways of telling the story will become vital? (Like this book.)

It’s small, gray and sleek, like a baby seal. It’s delicate, like our ecosphere. Quiet, like the snow.

Basically, this is a cool book. Will it, by itself, defeat Climate Change?

Of course not.
Ridiculous question.

But if there are hundreds and hordes of people are out there, each trying to make an impact as storytellers, artists, consumers, conservationists, then perhaps we stand a chance after all.

Bottom Line: A meditation on Climate Change

To Purchase “Adrift” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Zora J Murff

by Jonathan Blaustein

How do you know you’re having a really bad day?

When you make a pregnant woman cry.
That’s always a good way to gauge when everything’s gone wrong.

If you’re not perfectly sure, having her young husband scream in your face, in public, will carry the point home.

Yes, you’re having a really bad day.

For sure.

That was a part of my yesterday, when two of my Art History students had simultaneous meltdowns. On the last day of class. Of course a year that has pushed me harder than a crowd of Walmart shoppers on Black Friday would end on such a note.

Pure. Bloody. Chaos.

It was my first time teaching this demographic before. And this class as well. (Intro to Art) So I needed to suss out the capabilities of my students, over the course of the term. Stunned, I found that half the class failed a mid-term I felt was pretty easy.

Then I heard most teachers resorted to doing open-book-open-notes tests all the time. My wife suggested I pivot to a final presentation, rather than a test, to avoid causing further stress upon them. (Some left entire pages blank, in pure freak out mode. I had to curve the thing 16 points, in the end.)

Cue yesterday, when the shit really hit the fan. Their presentations were so bad that pure plagiarism from the Internet, read aloud with many mispronunciations, became good work by comparison.

One student did a presentation on Michael Angelo. (Tony Angelo’s older brother?)

I suppose I ought to take some of the blame, as an instructor. I could have been more clear about my expectations.

But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t get through to people.

Other times, though, you can see Art make a difference in someone’s life. As a form of communication, it is something to behold. You witness it, and are reminded why this work is so important, poor pay be damned.

I had two photo students this semester who both used a photography project to conquer some deeply held fears. Both reconciled themselves; succeeding in ways our class simply couldn’t believe. One regained the ability to drive, after making pictures about a terrible car accident; the other confronted PTSD.

Art works because it allows people to take control over how they release their energy into the world. Instead of repressing rage, which eventually surfaces in violence and/or misery, we can transform it into a beautiful or ugly piece of art.

Making things is a transformative process: it takes what’s inside us, and births it into the world.

It allows for catharsis.

I saw it so many times, in the decade I worked with at-risk teenagers in Taos. It’s inspiring, the way they embrace creativity so easily at that age.

Their intelligence is there. They’re as smart as adults. They just don’t have the life experience to know what the world is about, nor the emotional maturity, and often have strong triggers from coming up hard.

I once had a student who would walk home 4 miles from work, getting in after 1am, just to wake up at 6 to get ready for high school again.

Kids who had nothing handed to them in life.

Kids like that often end up in the juvenile justice system, at some point. And what exactly does that look like?

I just put down “Corrections,” by Zora J Murff, recently published by Ain’t Bad Press, with a foreword by Pete Brook, noted expert about America’s Prison System, and author of the blog Prison Photography.

The object is genuinely beautiful, with a turquoise cover that makes me think of the Four Corners, and a graphic icon, meant to evoke the panopticon, that looks like a distorted Zia from there as well. (Navajo Nation, for the uninitiated.)

Pete’s intro suggests, but does not declare, that Mr. Murff worked inside the corrections system, in Iowa, minding the tracking devices placed on teenagers within “the system.” Kids who’d committed offenses, obviously, but not so bad they had to be in juvenile detention. (Jail.)

Apparently, GPS accuracy means the government really can know where ankle-tagged people are at any given time. How degrading is that? Is it not 1000 times better than being locked up?

Well, we get to see and feel what it’s like, in these exceedingly well-made photographs. We’ve seen this book type before, maybe the Christian Patterson-style of mixing up all different sub-genres: historical, paper documents, still lives, portraits. (Surely, there were people who did it before CP, but you know what I’m talking about.)

The ankle bracelet, followed by a blurred portrait, and then all the other people are shot with faces obscured. Not by big blocks or dots, but by gesture. A hood, an arm, a turned body. They don’t want us to know who they are, but they want us to know their stories.

Fair enough.

The clean graphic design on this book, the high quality of the pictures, the substantial feel, create a platform for emotions to translate.

Sadness chief among them.

There’s a document on page 53. (See photo below.) An orientation pod assignment. Sample questions? I am at my best when: never. I feel proud when: never. The happiest day in my life was: hasn’t happened.

Heartbreaking stuff.

I really felt it. I look at so many books, as you well know, but few get under my skin.

You could say that these kids are lucky. It’s much better than being in jail. But the vibe here is that they’re not lucky at all. They’re caught in a feedback-loop incarceration system that is ruining millions of lives and costing billions of dollars.

How often do we REALLY contemplate that our governments send billions of tax dollars to private corporations to incarcerate people for profit? Or that the failed drug war is enriching corporations, while devastating countless communities on both sides of the US-Mexico border. (Who gets rich off of opioid epidemics? Cartels, pharmaceutical companies and private prisons.)

A book like this can make you think about such things.

The epilogue states that Mr. Murff in fact worked as a “Tracker” in Iowa for 3 years, 2012-15. He worked within this corrections system, and was likely in charge of many of the young people in this book. (Unless the pictures are staged.) He had to go on the trauma rides with them, and presumably it was a stressful experience. (The very-well written statement confirms as much.)

One could easily see this art project, making the pictures for the book, even the book itself, as the product of one artist’s personal catharsis.

Composting stress into beauty. Getting our attention, and turning it towards larger issues plaguing this great country of ours.

Bottom Line: Beautiful book about life inside the system

To Purchase “Corrections” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sara Terry

by Jonathan Blaustein

I am blessed.

We all are, actually. If you’re reading this, I feel confident stating that you have a good life.

Or good enough.

The fact that you have Internet access, the proper device, and an interest in photography means you’re doing OK. You most certainly have challenges in your life.

We all do.

But in general, we, the global photography community, are doing pretty well for ourselves.

That much is true.

It’s often said we grow through struggle. Difficulty forces change, promotes wisdom. In my own life experience, I’d have to agree. How we handle adversity becomes a marker of our character, and the adversity itself becomes a guide.

As lovely as my children are, for example, when my son was born, 8.5 years ago, I was unprepared. He was difficult, perhaps, and I was stressed out, for sure.

But I felt more misery than joy during the first 6 months of his life. I did not feel blessed, despite my good fortune.

There were only a few times, in half a year, when Theo and I both felt at peace. My wife had recently gotten me an Ipod for my birthday, which we couldn’t afford, but it turned out to be a godsend.

I’d put on music by the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars, take Theo in my arms, and we would dance. Again and again, to the same songs, which spoke tales of faraway places I’d likely never see. (Sample lyric: “When two elephants are fighting, the grass they must suffer.”)

The songs, which spoke of misery and the abuse of power, contained a joy that was infectious. We danced, my son and I, and for those few moments, everything was OK. The music healed us, temporarily, and I can still see it in my mind’s eye, as if I were a spirit, looming below the ceiling, watching it all unfold.

That is what I know of Sierra Leone. It is one of many countries in Africa that have a history of war, bloodshed, and graphic violence that we frankly can’t understand, here in the West. We have no context; no frame of reference to comprehend gang rapes, and hands hacked off with machetes.

Thank god for that.

But other people in this world, people who had the misfortune of being born to different parents, they have lived through such things. Day after day.

They say life is not fair, but I’d suggest aphorisms have no place in the discussion of such tragedy.

Art, on the other hand, can communicate reality in a way that opens our imaginations up to places otherwise unattainable. Art, I’ve seen with my own eyes, can make a difference.

In this particular case, I’m thinking of “Chapter Four,” a recent newsprint publication by Sara Terry, which showed up in my mailbox the other week.

Wow, is this thing powerful.

I met Sara at FotoFest in March, at a dinner party thrown by a mutual friend. She was clearly a force-of-nature type person, and I have a soft spot for such folks. When I claimed to be grounded and secure with myself, she immediately asked if I that meant I was in therapy?

I calmly said yes, as I was not embarrassed to admit it.

But it was a telling moment. She was confident in her query, unafraid to risk offense. There was a strength in her gaze, and though I knew little about her art practice, (but I had heard her name before,) I had no doubt she was good at what she did.

Turns out, Sara is a filmmaker, a Guggenheim fellow, a former journalist, a photographer, and the founder of the Aftermath Project. She has spent more time in Africa than I’ve spent writing these columns over the last 5 years, and that’s saying something.

The newspaper tells stories of a forgiveness and reconciliation project, called Fambul Tok, that she worked on in Sierra Leone, after the country’s long civil war came to a close. It speaks of atrocity, yes, but focuses on redemption and love.

It is a treatise on the power of forgiveness, and the magical healing that comes from offering apology, admitting wrongdoing, and submitting to the judgement of one’s community.

Holy shit, is this an amazing story. Apparently, in village after village, perpetrators of violence were welcomed back into the fold, such was the power of these ceremonies.

Sara is a good writer, and manages to share tidbits of other people’s tales, dripping with empathy, embedded within her own first-person narrative. Under the guidance of a local activist named John Caulker, she documented a forgiveness project based around communal bonfires in far-flung villages across the country.

The photographs, far from serving as illustration, give us a way to connect to what we’re reading. It’s simply a lovely publication, one rife with inspiration, and something I think I’ll turn to when I’m feeling really low, going forward.

It feels like it might become a totem, the equivalent of those Refugee Allstars songs that saved me once, when I was drowning in misery, rather than basking in joy.

I’m not sure if these newspapers are readily available, so this might be one review where you get all you can from me, rather than being able to put your hands on it yourself.

As such, I’m writing about it as a proxy. I’d hope that you’ll take a minute, over your coffee, your lunch break, or even on the subway, and remember that no matter how bad your day is going, you are extremely fortunate.

And to the many of you out there, working on your own stories of redemption, starting your own NGO’s, and devoting yourself to the downtrodden: we salute you.

Bottom Line: Striking, almost magical publication about the power of forgiveness

UPDATE: Chapter Four is part of a ten-year-long, six-chapter project called Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa. It’s available as part of a handmade, limited edition (50) artist’s book, available on the project website: http://www.forgivenessandconflict.com

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This Week In Photography Books: Emma Phillips

by Jonathan Blaustein

My kids love yogurt pretzels.

I do too.

For some reason, they seem better-for-you than other kinds of dessert. Maybe it’s the word yogurt in the title? Makes them seem like a health food, rather than sugar-covered-salty-snacks.

Maybe if their official name was “sugar-covered-salty-snacks,” I wouldn’t buy them. I’d stick with 80% dark chocolate, or some other sweet snack that makes you feel bougie and special.

Like fruit.

We all love the yogurt pretzels because the combination of salty and sweet makes your tongue feel like it’s on a vacation in the Bahamas. The palm trees are swaying gently in the breeze. Island music bellows in the background, with plenty of steel drum.

Wait. Where was I?

Right.
Yogurt pretzels.

We expect our sweets to be sweet, but when you throw in the element of salt, your taste buds get a bit confused. But they like it. They really like it.

Our bodies have a taste for a salt for a very good reason. If we don’t get enough, we die.

Say what now?

That’s right. Without enough salt, we die. Humans need it. We may see it primarily as a flavor enhancer for our food, but it’s actually a vital, essential mineral, necessary for survival.

Who knew?

I did, mostly because I made friends with a salt merchant back in 2014. His name is Frank, and I really owe him a visit. (He has a store in Santa Fe called Olive Grove.)

I met Frank a couple of summers ago, and fell in love with the beauty and mystery surrounding his high-end salt crystals. Expensive stuff from Iran, Australia, Korea, that sort of thing. (Fancy food in Santa Fe? Quelle surprise!)

With Frank’s input, I learned that salt used to be the world’s most precious commodity, because of the whole life-or-death thing. It was traded around the world, worth more than gold, and was actually used as money.

Yet most of us see it as a processed, Morton-sponsored food item that causes hypertension if you eat too much of it. We love it on our chips, in our guacamole, and on just about everything you can imagine.

But rarely do we see it decontextualized. Which is odd, given its potential symbolic resonance. If you don’t eat enough, you die. If you eat too much, you die.

How’s that for a symbol?

Needless to say, I was very intrigued when I reached into my book stack, and pulled out an oversized, light-cream-colored offering. There was no name on it, and nothing to speak of, beyond one word: salt.

I opened it up, and missed the title page. All I saw were beautiful, slightly oversaturated pictures of a salt mine.

Somewhere.

I’ll always have a soft-spot for minimalism, and admitted last week, for the 100th time, that I love to see things I haven’t seen before. So I enjoyed these pictures almost as much as…
a yogurt pretzel?

Page after page shows us different visions of what I assume is one salt mine, somewhere. We get a picture of a camper parked on some salt flats.

Nevada?

I have no idea, because as I turned, page after page, I found no supporting material at all. I actually had to start over, and be very careful, just to find the artist’s name on the first page: Emma Phillips.

There are no titles, no statements, no captions. Nothing but salt, in its natural form, and the trucks used to move it around.

Hell, I don’t even know who published the damn thing. But I like the book a lot. It’s beautiful, and graceful, and even soft, in a way. (Are the pictures just a tad soft-focus? It’s hard to tell…)

Unlike its subject, there is nothing vital about this book. It feels like a luxury item. Well-made, understated, and in no great hurry to brag about itself. (Like Frank’s expensive salt in Santa Fe.)

This one is very cool, and I wish I could tell you more about it. But Emma Phillips thought her pictures spoke for themselves, and who am I to argue?

Bottom Line: Beautiful book about a salt mine, somewhere…

To Purchase “Salt” visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Colin Delfosse

by Jonathan Blaustein

I quit my job last month.

No, not this job. (Obviously.) I resigned as the Chair of the Art Dept at UNM-Taos, as of the end of this semester. Administrative work, it turns out, is not for me.

As you might have gathered, from the random comment here or there, the experience was not exactly smooth. I gave it my best, but institutional politics are notoriously bad, and everyone knows colleges and universities are the worst.

I’m here to report that the clichés are spot on. (Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, you know?)

What surprised me most was the degree of combativeness, and sheer aggression, that some people displayed over issues that in the “normal” world, would seem absurd. People screaming in my face about changes to lab hours.

Shrieks of anger at anodyne art exhibitions on the wall. Death stares from people who objected to my age, my attitude, or just my existence, it seemed.

Fortunately, that kind of battle puts hair on your chest. (Cliché #2. How many might I drop in one column?)

I got in my share of fights, growing up, as I had a propensity to stand up to bullies, and a proud streak that did me no favors. But I’ve learned over the years how to get along with others and assumed those skills would suffice.

But sometimes it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes, you have to embrace the drama. Accept the trappings of ritualized combat, and let the chips fall where they may. (Cliché #3)

Honestly, I’m rambling about such things having just put down “Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet,” a new book by Colin Delfosse, recently published by Éditions 77.

My lead-in might be a little weak this week, but there’s nothing soft about this book, I assure you. The design is cool, with primary colors announcing their intentions to impress.

And so it does.

Unless you read this column to punish yourself, like a Penitente in the Morada, you must enjoy some of the recurring themes. One I mention often is that my favorite part of this job is getting to see things I’ve never seen before.

If I pick up a book, and get to enter a world I didn’t know existed, there’s a good chance I’ll review the book. Unless, you know, the pictures suck.

This book transports us into the world of “professional” wrestling in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’m guessing that even with our Global audience, none of you know too much about the subject either.

The photographs are pretty excellent, and more than a little dramatic. They remind me just a bit of Pieter Hugo’s “Nollywood,” but only tangentially. Those pictures took heat for presenting exploitative visions of African men, so I guess some people might ask the same questions here.

But the book’s text clearly explains that the props, the outfits, the implications of spiritual power in totems, the appropriation of witch doctor garb, it’s all what’s actually done in wrestling culture.

No artifice necessary.

The book switches to horizontal orientation about half-way through, and a brief essay is followed by more pictures, this time with captions. I often commend books that break up the narrative, and allow for a flow-change within the viewing experience.

It keeps our interest, and lets us know the design team seriously considers how to communicate properly.

So we’re granted badass pictures of an obviously fascinating subculture, in a place most of us will never visit, with a beautiful color palette for the object, a creative use of narrative structure, and the chance to voyeuristically peek in on a wrestling world that would probably make Hulk Hogan crap his pants.

What’s not to like?

Bottom Line: Beautiful book that shows us some genuinely weird shit.

To Purchase “Toute Arme Forgée Contre Moi Sera Sans Effet” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Brian David Stevens

by Jonathan Blaustein

I live in a bubble. (At least it feels that way.) Taos is an insular place, and it holds on to its own.

It takes a great deal of energy to leave, as the nearest towns are miles and miles in every direction. It feels very much like an island in the middle of the Wild West, equal parts 19th and 21st Centuries.

When you don’t have the perspective of other places and cultures to keep you balanced, you begin to over-invest in the little daily rituals and dramas that play out. Insignificant social interactions take on import they don’t really deserve.

You begin to go a little crazy.

Fortunately, last week, I embarked on a great adventure, driving 2000 miles across the massive state of Texas. I’d been stuck in the Taos orbit for too long, and marshaled my resources to allow for a big art/photo road trip, all the way to Houston.

I was headed to FotoFest, to show my own work for a change, and stopped in Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Austin on the way. As the highway flashbacks are still fresh, I’ll spare you a succession of anecdotes, and err on the side of brevity. (For once.)

My trip was fabulous. It gave me a fresh take on my life, a renewed sense of purpose as an artist, and as a human being in general.

There’s nothing like the open road to clear your head.

I needed to get the hell out of town, because I’d recently found myself standing at the top of our hill, staring out into the desert, wishing I could escape. I felt trapped, surrounded by mountains, desert and volcanoes in all directions.

Now that I’m home, I recognized a similar feeling in “Brighter Later,” a new book from my pile, by Brian David Stevens, recently published by Tartaruga Press in England. To cut to the chase, for once, this is not a brilliant book. It will not change your life.

It will not, singlehandedly, give you new insight into the human experience. It’s simply not that kind of production. (Though the textured cover and sleek vellum text pages do make for a lovely offering.)

The artist, with whom I occasionally trade tweets, visited each county in England, and made diptych images looking out into the sea beyond. (Because he used to close one eye, and then the other, when he was a boy, looking at the sea.) The images resemble many we’ve seen of the horizon before, including the famous project by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

So they fail my self-imposed test of showing us something we haven’t seen before. Still, they’re beautiful. And that counts for something.

I was far more intrigued by the categorical nature of the undertaking. Two images, in each and every county. It made me feel like the artist was living in a world before boats were invented. I imagined him thinking, “There has to be a way off this godforsaken rock in the middle of the ocean! Maybe if I try Carmarthenshire…no good. Or Ceredigion? Damn. What about Ayrshire? No. Argyll & Bute? Not quite.”

I felt the desperation for peace, for beauty, for a visual reminder that things are big out there, on Planet Earth, even if we’re cut off from the action.

I liked that a personality emerged from the pretty ocean shots. Slowly, you begin to think about the artist. What was he searching for? Why did he have to go to every county? There’s a secret buried somewhere in this exploration, if only we can find it.

Right. I’m headed back to drool on myself, and do my taxes. Sometimes, when you do get out into the world, you come home to drudgery. That’s OK, as long as the memories of excitement carry you until the next big adventure.

Bottom Line: Beautiful ocean horizons, and the yearning beneath

To Purchase “Brighter Later” Go Here

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This Week In Photography Books: Haley Morris-Cafiero

by Jonathan Blaustein

I used to be overweight as a kid.

Not always, but often. I would gain and lose weight, in phases, but I never had a perfect body.

I still don’t.

Hell, at my wedding, I must have weighed 20 pounds more than I do now, courtesy of Tony’s Pizza in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Sample conversation:

“Tonys!”

“Hi, I’d like to order a large grandpa pizza for delivery please.”

“No prahlem.”

Do that every Friday for six months, and you too can pack on the pounds. The aftermath might not be pretty, but damn, that shit tastes good.

All kidding aside, any discussion of the concurrent obesity and diabetes epidemics in the United States is likely to be fraught. It almost perfectly pits the personal against the societal, and that’s not a battle that can be won.

In one corner, we have identity politics and issues around body shaming. Who are you to tell me how I should look? Or to judge me because of how much I weigh? It’s discrimination, it’s wrong, and you are an asshole for even thinking that my body is your business.

In the opposite corner, we have a genuine public health crisis, with millions of people eating themselves into disease. Why that happens is related to poverty, culture, access to healthy food, cooking knowledge, government subsidies for corn production, and the insidious advertising and food science efforts put forth by large multinational corporations peddling crap food.

Like I said, this issue is a field of quicksand suspended above a Florida-sink-hole. (Good intentions get sucked down faster than a shrimp-head at a Louisiana crawfish boil.)

Enter Art into the discussion, a notoriously subjective product that revels in ambiguity, and you’re guaranteed to draw some attention. And so it has been, for three projects I’ve noticed over the last few years.

Jen Davis, and then Samantha Geballe, have both photographed their large bodies in a self-portraiture format. Ms. Davis, whose work I saw at the Library of Congress, and wrote about, uses color. Samantha, whom I met at the Medium Festival a couple of years ago, and also wrote about, prefers black and white.

They both made striking, uncomfortable, compelling images of their own bodies. They stood in for the masses with weight issues and said, “Here I am. Look! Don’t avert your gaze. I am worthy of your attention, every bit as much as a skinny model with vapid eyes!”

Both artists subsequently underwent gastro-bypass surgery. (How’s that for ambiguity?)

I’m not sure about Ms. Davis, but Samantha has also documented her new body, and the vestiges of her old one. The pictures are great, and will be on display at the Houston Center of Photography from May 13-June 10.

Really striking stuff.

There is one other artist I know of working with these themes: Haley Morris-Cafiero. I heard about her project, “Weight Watchers,” but as sometimes happens, I knew of it, saw tweets about it, but never caught the pictures themselves, beyond a social media thumbnail. (The iconic pic of her walking on the beach.)

A few weeks ago, a respected colleague wrote to see if Ms. Morris-Cafiero could send me a book for a potential review.

I said sure, as I always do, with the caveat that I never know what I’ll review until I pick it up. This one, most definitely, is worth discussing here.

So let’s get on with it.

“The Watchers,” published by the Magenta Foundation, is a book that grabs you from the cover, quite literally. There are words embossed into the white rubber/plastic coating, and red text leaps off in the other direction. The words seem to come from comments about the project, and are a little incendiary.

(Sample: “You are courageous. You rule. Fuck everyone.”)

The overall design is excellent, as the red text on white returns again and again, as Internet comments are juxtaposed against each other. Negative trolls on the left hand side, positive supporters on the right. According to this format, this artist seems to summon wrath and kindness in equal measure.

But what does she do? What is her take on this very tricky subject?

Well, near as I can tell, she walks or stands around, while an assistant waits to snap the shutter the second someone looks askance at Ms. Morris-Cafiero.

Really, that’s the gist of it.

Ms. Morris-Cafiero, who is overweight, stands around by the side of a walkway, or in Times Square, or under the Eiffel Tower, and the camera-person captures people who look at her.

The obvious message is that people are put off by her body, which is often visible, as she wears bathing suits or workout clothes. The picture quality is good-but-not-amazing, as it seems as if these were snapped with a compact point and shoot camera, or maybe a digital SLR?

Things like light quality, color palette, and formal compositions are understated, I gather, to enhance the feeling of reality as it happens. But by gutting the efforts of technique, it puts a lot of pressure on content.

This is obviously a very smart idea, but I’m not sure it stands up to deeper scrutiny. There are several images in which passersby shoot Ms. Morris-Cafiero some serious shade; pictures in which you can tell that random strangers are being rude.

A few, yes.

But there are other images in which the strangers’ intentions are much less clear. A sideways glance is not an indictment of someone else’s character.

Furthermore, in many of the set-ups, Ms. Morris-Cafiero adopts very noticeable body positions. Her feet are splayed, or she looks confused, or dazed. Then there are the pictures in which she is holding a map, and looking confused, which will certainly draw the attention of many a person walking down a city street.

Despite the fact that I’ve already admitted this is a complicated subject, I’ll openly state that people who body-shame, or mad-dog someone else just because of how much they weigh?

Those people are dickheads.

There.
I said it.

But just because it happens to Haley Morris-Cafiero does not mean that I have to love her art project. Especially as I’ve seen, and written about, other projects that deal better in nuance.

This feels more like a Jackass outtake, to me. It’s clever, original, and clearly means well. I get the ideas it wants me to get. So it’s successful in that regard.

Maybe it’s even intentional? A viral-esque style for a project that was always going to go viral?

But it also feels like it’s taking advantage of some of the strangers, judging them the way Ms. Morris-Cafiero feels judged. I was inclined to like this project, but came away feeling unsure.

Or maybe it’s just that by making it a book, she included images that don’t support her message? Too many pictures made me think: “That’s not a dirty look. That’s just someone turning his/her head.”

What this book did is put me in an uncomfortable place, and I think that’s a big part of its allure. (Structural metaphor, anyone?) Do anything other than lavish praise, and I set myself up to be accused of being disrespectful, or biased. As I’ve written at length about so many difficult issues over the years, I’m clearly not afraid to offend.

So let me end thusly: This is a very interesting, edgy book, that draws attention to a murky, difficult subject. I think this artist has done something smart, if flawed, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Bottom Line: Edgy, well-designed, but imperfect book

To Purchase “The Watchers” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Maud Sulter

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a lot of opinions.

As I make my living as a columnist, (along with many other jobs,) it helps to have strong convictions. I share them each week, to entertain you, but also to discuss important ideas in digestible bits.

Occasionally, when you throw your opinions out there into the digi-sphere, you’re going to be wrong. Sometimes, spectacularly so.

C’est la vie.

In this case, I thought it best to admit my mistake. (Man up, if you will.) Better to face the error than to pretend it didn’t happen.

Right?

About a month ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Iowa Caucuses, I declared the death of the Donald Trump phenomenon. Marco Rubio was on the ascendancy, so I thought, and Mr. Trump’s high polling numbers would vanish, like indigestion after a nice constitutional.

The day after my article was published, Marco Rubio went off the rails in a debate, outing himself as a robot, (or maybe just a cyborg,) and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve made fun of Donal Trump in this column. Some of my best one-liners have come at his expense.

But I’m not laughing anymore.

Though I rarely stick my neck into the morass of American politics, today, I’ll make an exception. I turned 42 a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t ever remember this particular feeling before: despair mixed with fear and a touch of embarrassment.

The fact that we’re witnessing a major party candidate courting votes from the Ku Klux Klan seems more surreal than the Dali painting I dreamed about last night. How could such a thing happen in 2016? What does that say about America, that so many white people have lined up on one side, glad to be unaffiliated with the rest of the races that make up this country.

It’s just. So. Wrong.

I’m aware that Mr. Trump’s chances of becoming President are small, but any chance > 0 is scary. France can have Marine Le Pen, and England the UKIP assholes, but seeing a large chunk of America embrace racism to this degree has taken me by surprise.

Yes, I was wrong to dismiss Donald Trump. He’s a narcissist, and will never hear the voice of reason. Said voice could be blasted into his ears by the world’s biggest BOSE bluetooth speaker, and still he’d only hear his inner monologue. (As he said this week, his most trusted advisor is himself.)

Part of what’s so crazy, to me, is the difference between his spoken and written words. I heard Mr. Trump say, on a video clip, that his followers need to be “gentle” with the protestors. In a transcript, he’s disavowing violence.

But his voice dripped with sarcasm. His tone and inflection screamed, “Kick the shit out of those hippies and blacks. They deserve it!”

And the violence has begun in earnest. We have the sucker-punch heard round the world, the Chicago protests, and now, Mr. Trump is actually “predicting” riots if they try to take the nomination away from him at the Republican convention. Millions of his followers will take to the streets, he assures us.

What is that, if not the extortion of a nation, by a budding strongman. Nasty business, this.

Nasty.

The reality is that even though 2016 feels modern and futuristic, and gay people can get married in the United States, our history of violence and theft still lingers.

We stole people from their homes, entire cultures from their homelands, and our homeland from its original occupants.

Wishing away the vestiges of Colonialism simply won’t work.

Sadly, I’m in mind of such things, having just put down a lovely newspaper/exhibition catalogue, “Syrcas,” featuring work by Maud Sulter, recently published by Autograph ABP in London.

This little volume turned up in the mail recently, as last summer I’d met with Karin Bareman, one of their curatorial staff, and she thought I might like it. Fortunately for us, she was right.

We’re constantly hearing about the dearth of non-white voices in the Photo community, and these pictures are proof positive that a diversity of talented perspectives is vital. These images are cool as hell.

This project, which is on display at Autograph ABP until April 2nd, mashes up totemic African iconography with pastoral, entitled European art vernacular. Though they were made in the early 90’s, by the Scottish/Ghanaian artist, these photos feel totally relevant and current.

Mashups are a part of the global cultural lexicon now, as are digital compilations. Appropriation maintains its fascination as well. It’s all here for us, should we care to look.

These pictures carry a tension that I really love, and I wish I could see them in person. The African masks and symbols are proudly laid “on top” of generic mountain scenes and fancy ladies.

Defiance!

You will see me, they say. You will acknowledge my heritage. You will accept that we, and our history, are a part of your culture!

Whether we’ve discussed the tragic lot of poor, migrant communities on the outskirts of European mega-cities, or the lack of non-white faces at portfolio reviews, here at APE, we do our best to speak important truths. (Even though I am an entitled white guy myself.)

I didn’t write about a book today. Instead it’s a slim catalogue on newsprint. (But at least it has pictures.) And no, I don’t think my little diatribe will have any impact on the outcome of America’s Presidential election. (Unlike Mr. Trump, I harbor no delusions of grandeur.)

But I do get to show you cool things, when they pop up in my mailbox. That’s what this column is about. If you live in England, go see this show, and then tell me all about it. If you’re curious to learn more, fire up your Google and see what else is out there.

Bottom Line: Super-cool exhibition catalogue of a show I wish I could see

To Purchase “Syrcas” Go Here

This Week In Photography Books: Christine Osinski

by Jonathan Blaustein

My cousin had a baby yesterday.

Or, I should say, his wife did. I think he was at the bar, drinking, through much of the affair. (At least, that’s what I saw on Facebook.)

Certain things make you feel old, and they’re never what you expect. Cousin Kenny becoming a father is definitely one of them. (Even though he just turned 40.)

Kenny is the funniest person I know, (or co-funniest, with his brother,) and he became a stand-up comic a few years back.
I can easily imagine him onstage, but it’s harder to visualize him changing his new daughter’s diaper.

Why?

Kenny has always been lazy. He was nicknamed “The Snail,” when we were kids, and it’s not because he resembles a slimy curlicue shell.

He’s the type of guy who likes to sit on the couch all day, watching football, eating 56 chicken wings, and mocking everyone around him. That’s his style. The selflessness required of all new parents will be a challenge for him.

I’m sure he’ll sort it out, and I’m sure it won’t be easy. Hell, his comedy act features some serious bouts of misogyny, so that will likely change as well. (Or at least morph into complaining about having to say poo poo and pee pee instead of shit and piss.)

The whole thing makes me feel old as hell. I can remember Kenny, standing on his driveway in East Brunswick, New Jersey, back in the day, wearing some tube socks pulled up to his scrotum. Or riding his bike, replete with ginormous handlebars, up and down the road.

We all did that, back in the 80’s. We rocked the short shorts, long socks, dorky bikes, and overall lack of imagination about what life might offer us. There was no Internet, of course, which made it really hard to guess the world was wide, beyond our suburban horizons.

I haven’t lived in Jersey in almost 25 years, and still, it all comes back to me. The smell of fresh cut grass, or pollution on the New Jersey Turnpike. The sound of skee-ball machines at the Point Pleasant boardwalk.

The accents.

Hell, on Friday, while I was chatting with Kenny’s equally hilarious brother Jordan, we ended up slipping into a Staten Island accent to make each other laugh.

“Hey. Ha yaz doin’? Can I get yaz anotha ma-ga-ree-tah?”

It was always easy to make fun of Staten Island. It’s mostly just a huge landfill, so they say. The Outerbridge Crossing, the highway that connects Staten Island to New Jersey, might as well be a one way street: all the Islanders were moving to Jersey in hordes, when I was in high school.

What does Staten Island look like now, in 2016?
I have no idea.

But I can see the whole scene, back in the 80’s, having just put down “Summer Days Staten Island,” a new book by Christine Osinski, recently published by Damiani.

Will I get death threats from angry goombahs, for derogating their homeland? I have no idea. But if I were there now, insulting the Island, you can bet I’d get some seriously dirty looks from the locals. (They’d be mad-dogging me all day long.)

There were a few mad-dog photos in this most excellent book. A handful of pictures in which you can easily imagine the subject saying, “What the fuck a youz lookin’ at? Youz got a fuckin’ prahb-lem? Yeah, I’m tawkin’ to you. Who the fuck do you think I’m tawkin’ to?”

Stop me. I could go on all day.

Honestly, though, this book brought me straight back to my childhood. I guessed the images were made in 1984, and the end interview confirms ’83-84.

Pure. Classic. 80’s.

The hiked up tube-socks are my favorite detail, sure, but that must be because I can relate. The rampant shirtlessness is also perfect. But there is more subtlety here, if you care to look for it.

Like the house with two curlicue hedges, abutting an empty field. Man-made nature/ raw nature, sure, but I also wondered how far into the marsh a landfill might be? (We never see those.)

There is a picture of some kids playing in front of a bombed out car, holding up a van that says crime scene, while an actual van sits in a driveway across the street. (You bet I’m taking that as a Scooby Doo reference. The 80’s had the sleuths it deserved.)

Big cars are everywhere. (Obligatory Iroc Z28 included.) Big mustaches too. And a blonde, teen-aged girl, staring daggers at the camera, cradling a brown paper bag like it was her first born.

How much you wanna bet there was a bottle of liquor in there? I’m so curious, but like all my other questions, I’ll never know.

The answers are gone, forever.

That’s why I love this type of flashback photography so much. It reminds us that even though the global photography community now numbers in billions, and so many images are thrown away every tenth of a second, sometimes, we really are stopping time.

Freezing light, outside of the space time continuum.

It means I can sit at my white kitchen table, on a gray Tuesday afternoon, and be catapulted back to the 80’s, a time many of us would just as soon forget. (Yes, I had a mullet and braces. Find the pictures. I dare you.)

Bottom Line: Amazing pictures from Sta-en EYE-land, back in the day

To Purchase “Summer Days Staten Island” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sally Mann

by Jonathan Blaustein

I write about my kids all the time.
You know this.

(You, the faceless crowd of e-readers.)

I remember in the Summer of 2012, when my daughter was born, I shared my confusion about changing her first diaper. How do you deal with a tiny vajayjay?

Are you gentle, like handling a fragile print? Or do you have at it, like scrubbing a recalcitrant dish in the sink. (Off, spaghetti sauce, off!)

It felt edgy to write about such things.
Transgressive.

But never would I ever post pictures of her little lady parts. Never, ever, ever.

Never.

Our relationships with our loved ones are so personal. They define us, really, even though we pretend our work is more important. I’m guilty of it myself, though if you asked me to give up my creative pursuits, or my kids, it wouldn’t be a choice at all. (Goodbye camera. Goodbye keyboard.)

Just yesterday, while teaching my photo class, a student began to cry as we discussed a picture of her granddaughter. There were two photos in succession, one a sweet, generic, black and white shot of a girl smelling a bouquet of flowers, her eyes closed.

Seen it before. On a greeting card.

The very next image, however, was of the same girl, in color, standing with an arched back, staring daggers into the camera. Her red dress was echoed by the red roses. Other flowers, also in color, surrounded her head like a halo. She was not happy, but we couldn’t know why.

Everyone in class loved the second picture, and tried to explain to the photographer why it was so much better than the first.

Personal. Intimate. Honest. Engaging. Edgy.

The eyes had a story to tell, and we wanted to know more. She began to cry, hurt all over again, reliving the moment where the young girl leaked misery. Her granddaughter had taken her glasses off for the shot, and considered herself hideous. The other kids teased her. (She wanted to cry, so her grandmother, her proxy, did instead.)

We talked about how pictures that surprise us, that give us the unexpected, that walk the line of propriety, are the ones we remember. We compared the first picture to the shot that comes in the frame when you buy it, and the second with the picture you put in the frame once you’ve removed the filler.

I promised my student that the pain she was feeling, the raw emotion, if channelled properly, would lead to photo gold. If she could handle it properly. If she had the courage to look at her life with a penetrating gaze, and then share it with the rest of us.

It’s a big if. Most people shy away from the cliff, when it heads straight down to the Rio Grande river, 650 feet below.

But not Sally Mann.

No sir.

Sally Mann made some pictures back in the 80’s, of her life, of her children, wild and feral, running naked around the Virginia countryside, and we still talk about them to this day.

Hell, I’m talking about them now, having just put down Aperture’s re-issued publication of “Immediate Family,” which I plucked from my photo-eye box a little while ago.

Such. Great. Stuff.

It’s hard to write about something that people know so well. We all feel attached to what we love, even if it’s someone else’s work. (Quick sidebar: two red tailed hawks just screeched over my own country valley, and right now, they’re careening around the sky outside my window.)

Where were we?

These pictures were guaranteed to shock, as they showed off the naked bodies of young children. How could that not draw ire and anger in a predominantly Christian country like America? It had to, right? (Cue the ghost of Jesse Helms nodding slowly.)

But get past the nudity, and you see some striking imagery. The picture of the child’s legs covered with flour paste? Never before have I seen something alive look so dead. I really wish I’d made that picture. Even the crop, chopping off the feet, is genius.

Ramping up the tension, it hurts my viscera just thinking about it.

We see skinned squirrels, dead deer, and children living in a make-believe land of wonder. An imaginary playland that must look like Kiddie Heaven, when seen from above.

The picture of the little child covered in a shroud, as if dead, only reinforces the dark juju running through this world. A touch of “Lord of the Flies” invading Never Neverland.

Really, fantastic stuff.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Bottom Line: A re-issued classic.

To Purchase “Immediate Family” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Melissa Ann Pinney

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got yelled at on Monday. (It was expected, but unpleasant.) Sometimes, even when you know what’s coming, you still can’t get out of the way.

We’d just changed the hours of our art labs at UNM-Taos, and as the Chair of the Fine Arts Department, a low-level manager in an unwieldy bureaucracy, it was my job to enforce the rules.

There’s an old saying about killing messengers, and as I stepped through the open door of the Print lab, I was fairly sure that drama was imminent. The door was meant to be closed, locked, the better for students to see the fresh sign declaring our new schedule.

I knew the man in the far corner of the room. He’d been to my wedding, though we didn’t speak that night. His parents were friends with my in-laws, his late Aunt one of the most famous actresses who’d ever lived.

That didn’t matter, as he’d been sharp with me in the past, and had an edge about him like a red aura. (Is red the color of angry auras? I don’t know, but it seems appropriate.) He glared at me, begging for trouble, waiting for the slightest provocation.

I tried to sound confident as I told him he couldn’t be here, even though he was. The rules had changed, it was decided by my superiors, not my idea, just doing my job. A not-my-fault ramble that was never going to succeed.

“You’re a liar,” he shrieked!

Spittle flew like paper airplanes, slowly arching towards the ground.

“A liar! This is all your fault! You’re trying to ruin the Printmaking department! I know you are!”

I could see I was getting nowhere, so I retreated to marshall reinforcements. I returned with a calm, confident administrator, one better accustomed to dealing with the crazies, and wielding bureaucratic power with a sense of finality.

He listened to her as he couldn’t with me. As I opened my mouth to speak, his face flushed again, and he bellowed, “Back off, Junior,” at the top of his lungs.

As there were now two of us to deal with problem, when only one was strictly necessary, I left the room, crossed the hall, and began to teach my photography class. The stress chemicals pulsed through my bloodstream, but I knew I’d be OK in a little while.

Back across the hall, two people still talked about rules, and systems, and why change is hard. Fortunately, this pair was able to communicate well enough. (Better than the first pair, anyway.)

I’m in mind of such things after having read, and perused, “TWO,” a new book by Melissa Ann Pinney, edited by Ann Patchett, published last year by Harper Design.

Ms. Pinney gave me this book in September, shortly after I’d finished my “21st Century Hustle” lecture at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. She paid me a nice compliment, handed it over, and asked that I take a look at it when I had some time.

This happens to me fairly often, at festivals, and as there was a long line of people waiting to speak with me, I said thank you, and tucked it away. It came home with me, and my wife placed it prominently on the shelf. (At least SHE thought it was special.)

It must have been Ms. Pinney’s mellow, polite mien, because the event didn’t stick in my mind. A couple of months later, she emailed to see what I thought of the book. Embarrassed, I realized I ought to take look at the thing.

I took it off the shelf, and promptly did a double-take. No, a triple-take, when I saw the cover. This photobook featured essays by Elizabeth Gilbert, Barbara Kingsolver, and Susan Orlean.

What now?

In fact, ten prominent authors had contributed stories, and Ms. Pinney’s bio, on the back-flap, stated her work was in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a few other massive institutions.

This was a prominent, important artist, working with major writers, and somehow, in our little micro-moment, none of that came across. No ego, no attitude, nothing beyond a few gracious words, patiently expressed.

I felt ashamed, and promised myself I’d give the book its due, once I had the time.

Well, today, 4 months later, I was able to stop my natural momentum, get on the couch, and start reading this thing. Reading pictures, yes, but reading words, more importantly, as that’s what sets this book apart.

The pictures in “TWO,” shot in many places, over decades, are uniformly well-made. Good light, good color, nice balance. Always, there is two of something; a pair of objects or people that imply narrative.

Or they’re meant to. Who are they? How are they related? What are they doing? What does it mean?

Normally, that’s what I’d ask myself. But I wasn’t actually sucked in to the imagery. It didn’t grab my heart, or my gut, and force me to contemplate.

But each time I came upon a story, I read. I skipped nothing, reading, reading, and then looking at the photographs in between.

Slowly, with each passing story, the book reeled me in. It humanized the photos, to the point that I’d pay heightened attention to each successive suite of pictures, after I’d finished the previous tale, poem, or essay.

I felt like the relationship between me, and this object, was deepening with each successive minute. At first I’d been neglectful, then skeptical, and finally entranced.

In my 4.5 years of reviewing books, I can’t think of a book quite like this. The pictures need the stories, and together, the two forms of communication ably support each other, like one of the old married couples mentioned in more than one essay.

Duality, expressed by Yin and Yang, or black and white, or even 1 and 0, is deeply embedded in the philosophies and realities of human-kind. We crave companionship, and pair off to make the next generation.

It takes a secure artist to cede this much of the stage to others, to see the value in the right kind of collaboration, and I’m glad I spent a part of my afternoon embedded in this charming little world.

Bottom Line: An excellent pairing of images and words

To Purchase TWO visit: http://www.melissaannpinney.com/

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This Week In Photography Books: MBLCK

by Jonathan Blaustein

Code.

Such a simple word.
Four letters.
Two vowels.
Two consonants.

Well balanced.

Such a basic word, for such a complicated concept. Even now, as I type these clean, black letters on the bright white Retina display, I’m aware they’re not as they appear. I see letters, yes, but underneath the alphabetic structure lies a string of numbers.

Ones and Zeroes.

Code.

Most of us are aware that binary code underlies the entirety of Digital Reality, which has eaten the Real World whole, like Goya’s depiction of Saturn devouring his child. We live so much through our screens, and all is illusion.

Ones and zeroes stand in for electrical impulses. On, off. Yes, no. If, then.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

But code, or the masking of one set of information in the form of another, is absolutely necessary to our daily lives. Codes are only helpful when they’re comprehensible, and often most valuable when they’re perfectly impenetrable. (Yes, I saw “The Imitation Game” a few weeks back, but that’s not what’s gotten me wound up today.)

No, I’m thinking rather of the assumption that code can be broken; its meanings interpreted. That’s how it works digitally, as code allows numbers to appear as pixels, pixels to resolve into pictures. Photographs in our Instagram feeds are so much more interesting as images; less so in the form of a string of digits as long as a unicorn’s tail.

But what happens when those assumptions are broken? I write this column every week, and every week I discuss a book that I understand. Sometimes, they withhold their meaning for a little while. Always, though, their secrets are revealed in the end. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Why would an artist not want us to know what is going on at all? Or who they are? Or why they sent you a book?

As you might have gathered, I’m not speaking in hypotheticals. (Of course not.) Last week, a little book box turned up in the mail, and I chucked it in a corner. Just now, I opened it up.

When it arrived, I noted that there was no name on the box, and I hadn’t been expecting anything. It only said MB, with an address in Austin, TX.

I know no such person.

I was curious and opened the box. I was met with a swath of thick, white wrapping paper, covered with hand-painted black marks. Little bits of charcoal, or paint chips, spilled out as I unwrapped the parcel.

Surely, I’d never received something like this before.

Inside the protective coating, I found a slim volume titled “INDECIPHERABLE.” Fair enough.

There was no letter, no essay, nothing at all, save a definition of the word. I flipped dutifully through the pages, and each time, I found a rendering of the black marks on white, on the left-hand side of the book. On the right, some sort of abstracted image, impossible to make out.

Page by page, I wondered. What is going on here? Are the black marks a kind of coded message? Do they mean anything at all? On the right-hand side, in a few images, banded lines appear? Is it an obscured computer screen? A scrambled message? An amalgam of many different photographs mashed together? (A technique I’ve seen a few times before.)

I really don’t know.

Eventually, the black-mark-hieroglyphics migrate to the right-hand page as well. The code eats the image. But what does it mean?

Believe it or not, it’s never explained. The book ends without a clue, save for the term MBLCK on the back cover.

I re-searched the package, looking for a note. A press release.
Some sort of explanation?

Nothing.

What the hell is going on here? I’ve never seen a book I couldn’t figure out, until now. But as it’s called “INDECIPHERABLE,” that’s clearly the point.

Why? To what end? Who is the mysterious MB, and why did he or she send me this coded object?

You regular readers know how much I hate to turn to Google to understand a book. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so here we go:

(pause)

First attempt: “MBLCK indecipherable Austin TX” reveals nothing.

Second attempt: “MB photo book indecipherable” reveals nothing.

Third attempt: “MBLCK photo book” reveals nothing

Fourth attempt: MBLCK photographer Austin” reveals nothing

(bigger pause)

This is a first. A book review with an anonymous artist, whose intention is totally unknowable. Why did you send me this, MB? What does it mean?

WHO ARE YOU!!!!!!!!

Does anyone have any intel on this? If so, please write into the comment section, send me an email, drop me a DM on Twitter, FB, or Instagram. Let us know in some digital variation or other, because I’m dying to know.

Aren’t you?

Bottom Line: Weird, inscrutable, impenetrable, coded photobook

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This Week In Photography Books: Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman

by Jonathan Blaustein

The gorilla stench clings to my nostril hairs, like Pigpen’s fog. Surely, I can’t still smell the gorillas? But my nose crinkles just the same.

I saw those gorillas in the Albuquerque Zoo on Sunday morning. We took the kids down to the “big” city, (irony intended) as when you raise your children in a horse pasture, they need to get out every once in a while.

My daughter, now 3.5, had never seen zoo animals in person before. It was time.

So we put on our coats to fight the 9am chill, and decided to walk off our big breakfast at the Central Grill, a fantastic restaurant that sits astride old Route 66. It came highly recommended by my old friend David Bram, and now I’m passing the tip along to you.

I could tweet it, if I really wanted to, but I don’t think I’ll bother.

The gorillas are the first thing you come to at the Albuquerque Zoo, and I think they might want to re-think that decision. The smell traveled across a fair distance, and felt like it took up residence in my nasal cavity. You’ll have to trust me: it was awful. (Because you’re reading it on the Internet, it must be true.)

It is one of life’s deep pleasures, to introduce a child to the wonder of a kookaburra’s surreal call, the magnificence of a family of hippos exiting their pond, or the quiet, regal menace of a snow leopard sitting in its pen, perfectly still.

For most of us, seeing such creatures from a safe distance, their danger muted by cage bars, is the only way we’ll ever experience them in the real world. Unless you have mad cash to splurge on a safari, or live in a place where a tiger might actually pounce and eat you, the mediated experience is all we have.

The only time I felt scared was walking below a mountain lion, who paced back and forth in his elevated cage. My fear was real, because those monsters live very close to my house. I could presumably see one, though I hope it never happens. My brain was able to suss out the difference, so my heart beat quickened.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The oddest moment, by far, was at the very end. (Just before we walked through the gorilla stink, which by then had managed to hang in the air, 200 feet from their habitat.) Our last visit was to the polar bear, who had no interest in swimming in his frigid water on a cold morning.

Back and forth he walked, on a concrete precipice above his abundant blue pool.

Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.

The problem was, to the naked eye, he didn’t look real. He was only 20 feet away, true, but my brain read him as digital. A trick of the light, I’m sure, but still, I checked with my 8-year-old, who’s been raised on screens, and he agreed.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a hi-resolution projection. A figment of the digi-verse, transposed onto reality by some next-gen projector, sitting just out the frame.

What a trip.

Are you surprised? Have you ever had the feeling before, that reality was no longer real enough? That your eyes, so accustomed to screen time, could no longer tell the difference?

I’m asking, having just put down “Geolocation,” an excellent new book by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, recently published by Flash Powder Projects. (A new publishing venture by the aforementioned David Bram, and his partner Jennifer Schwartz. I’ve reviewed friend’s books before, so this is no precedent. But I thought you should know, and I’ll do my best to be objective.)

I’d heard of this project before, but somehow never seen it. The premise is conceptually tight: the artists take other people’s geo-tagged tweets, track down the location where they were tweeted, photograph it, and then pair the tweet with the image.

We’ve seen stalker art before, (see Albuquerque’s own Jessamyn Lovell,) but this is something new. It has to be, as it’s based on contemporary technology. But innovation is not a guarantor of quality, so I was curious to see the book and decide for myself.

The key to the project’s success is that they choose tweets that range from random and silly, to poignant and personal. Someone dies. Someone else craves love.

The tweet suggesting that life is just like the “Harry Truman” show brings the book together. Both the ridiculous faux pas, of course, and because unlike Jim Carrey’s Truman, so many of us now choose to be observed. To proffer our lives as other people’s entertainment. (Myself included. In this very space.)

The photographs are strong, as well as diverse. We see Canada, England, New York, California, Indiana, and places in between. No-place places and someplace places. It all fits.

In general, I think the work is really strong, and I’m glad to share it with you. The flaws in the book, such as they are, come in the way the sequencing of text and imagery happens. As the publishers are very new to this, (the book is their co-launch,) and I’ve reviewed at least 200 books over the last 4.5 years, I thought it appropriate to mention this.

There are too many pictures, and the poems and mini-essays that pop up, from curators and other trendy types on the photo scene, seem placed at intervals meant to challenge our attention span. Some books need smart people to tell us that they are “IMPORTANT.”

This isn’t one of them. The combination of concept and execution means that almost any audience will get this work. It’s funny and smart and the pictures are not boring.

In the best photobooks, less is more. More is not more, because it causes our eyes to glaze over, and incites a desire to skip ahead. Narrative flow, furthermore, is a delicate beast, like a hummingbird. (It needs to be handled carefully.)

So I wholeheartedly recommend this one, and give props the artists for their diligent work, done over hundreds of days on the road. To the publishers, I also give a big thumbs up, for sticking your fresh necks out to support this collaboration. I hope you’ll take my advice in the spirit in which it was intended, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Bottom Line: Innovative, witty, tweet-worthy 21st C photo series.

To Purchase “Geolocation” Go Here.

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