Category "Photography Books"

This Week in Photography Books: Jo Ann Chaus

 

Control is an illusion.

Human beings, IMO, see themselves as far more important to the Universe’s ecosystem than we actually are.

It explains why we took over Earth, subjugating all other species to our needs. (Seriously, did you see that viral story about the baboons escaping from a Texas research facility by boosting over barrels?)

We are far from the only intelligent life form here, yet we act as if we are.

Perhaps I’m not telling you anything you didn’t know, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I work to sublimate my ego. (I’m not trying to get all Buddhist on you, but I have been enjoying the Dalai Lama’s Twitter feed lately.)

What could be more 21st Century than the Dalai Lama, and the President of the United States, spreading their ideas around the planet, in real time, via an app created by (likely) stoners in NorCal?

Basically, I’m suggesting we’ve reached “Peak Absurdity” in 2018, and it’s time to admit that none of us know what the fuck is going on.

Not me.
Not you.
Not anyone.
(Especially not DT Junior. Boy, does that kid seem dim.)

Here’s the hard truth: not everything makes sense, and the good guys don’t always win. While that might be a great synopsis of “Westworld” Season 1, it’s also an apt description of our Global times, with authoritarianism on the march in so many places.

And that reality is the impetus for today’s book review, as I recently put down “Sweetie & Hansom,” a cool, self-published photobook that showed up in the mail a few months ago, by Jo Ann Chaus.

I met Jo Ann at Photo NOLA in December, and we hit it off. As I wrote in my post-review-review, she is a Jewish grandmother from Northern New Jersey, and I couldn’t shake this sense of familiarity, as we obviously come from a similar “tribe.”

She was making edgy self-portraits, including dressing up in a French maid’s outfit, and I loved the series. It was cohesive, and I understood her POV.

Which is a stark contrast to “Sweetie & Hansom,” which I could not suss out, no matter how hard I tried. (Editor’s note: As I was going back through the book again to photograph it, it seemed like maybe this was about three neighboring families? But I wouldn’t swear to it.)

Normally, I’d bristle at something that doesn’t explain itself, and is difficult if not impossible to parse. Normally, I’d criticize it for a muddy vision.

But as long-time readers of this column know, I often get onto multi-week themes, even if they’re not intentional. And our current module is about opening your mind, getting out of that blasted comfort zone, and growing by expanding your range.

To be clear, I like this book a lot. I like the pictures within, and I like its vibe. I never review a book I don’t find interesting, nor one that doesn’t make me think, and compel me to write.

I suspect you guys will dig it too.

At first, I assumed that Sweetie and Hansom were nicknames for Jo Ann and her husband, and it would be about them. When the book opened with an older, naked man’s ass, I thought of Susan Rosenberg Jones’s project about her oft-naked husband, Joel.

And the array of family photos, composted together, made me think of Nancy Borowick’s “The Family Imprint,” though this book precedes it. (Sweetie & Hansom was published in 2016.)

Then I read some poetry which alluded to loss, and the protagonists changed to another late-middle-aged couple. Who may have lost a son to a drug overdose?

Like I said, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, as Jo Ann & her husband return to the story’s forefront again, so it’s hard to get a proper sense of who the protagonists are, or what the narrative is here. (Second editor’s note: Or perhaps I guessed right in my first editor’s note?)

Death is a part of this book. I know that, because there’s a photo of a death certificate, and poem about someone discovering their dead son Larry.

But is it real?

Is any of this?

The images are obviously staged, and take inspiration from Larry Sultan and Gregory Crewdson, but they’re weird in a way that I appreciate.

There is a thank you page at the end, but even that doesn’t really explain WTF just happened.

And for once, I’m OK with that.
It feels appropriate to our moment in time.

The end notes do suggest that Jo Ann studied in one of the ICP programs, so perhaps this was her final student project? As with everything else, I can’t be sure.

So today, I might leave you slightly confused, rather than entirely satiated, but at least we’re keeping it real.

Bottom Line: Weird, cool, inexplicable book from Jersey…

To purchase “Sweetie & Hansom” contact the artist here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week in Photography Books: Gabe Wolf

 

Getting out of your comfort zone isn’t easy.

You’d think it would be, as the phrase has become a parody
of a cliché of an aphorism.

I dispense advice here, almost weekly, and pontificate on issues big and small.

(Politics. Economics. Art. Racism. War. Movies. Sports. Family.)

I’ve found it’s easier to give advice than to take it. Nobody likes to be told what to do, so teaching and inspiring work better without sanctimony.

Part of how I try to stay fresh is to force myself to grow and change, even though it’s hard. (Just the other day, I reminded a family member that not doing things, just because they’re hard, is the opposite of the artist mentality.)

But with respect to taking my own advice, (which I could be better at,) this week, I accepted help from a friend, when all my traditional instincts were pushing me to figure it out on my own. I’ve had print-head issues lately, and have to make a new portfolio for the NYT Portfolio Review later this month.

I was on the verge of paying a fair amount of cash for mediocre machine prints, when my buddy was offering to use his considerable expertise, badass printer, and high-end-Hahnemuhle paper for free.

My wife and friend both pointed out that it seemed reasonable and wise to accept his offer.

To take the help: better prints, no money.

But every part of me, which isn’t used to asking for favors, was trying to find a way out. Then I remembered a comfort zone
is the place where we do what we always do.

Our patterns and habits.

So I shut up for a moment, thought about it, thanked my friend profusely, and started thinking about some great presents to buy him to show gratitude.

Likewise, I try to keep this column from getting stale. Rather than be OK with showing more male artists than female, we engaged in some outreach last year, and are now able to alternate male and female artists each week.

50/50.

(Keep those submissions coming in, ladies…)

I also get in habits in the kind of books I show. Weird, edgy, fine-art goodies, or journalistic, socio-political documentary books about those aforementioned major issues.

Along those lines, most of the books I review come from the perspective of the urban, artsy hipster/journo, rather than a regular dude living in the country.

Like, way out in the country.

Deep in the Heart of Texas.

I don’t feature a lot of books like that.

So…obviously…that’s what we’ll do today.

Gabe Wolf, who goes by the name Lone Wolf, sent me a copy of his self-published, hard-cover book, “XV: On the Road with Lone Wolf,” which covers 15 years of his documentary photographs of cowboys, and rodeo culture in general.

This book hails from Kempner, which is as close to the heart of Texas as you can get. (Near Killeen, Southwest of Waco, Northwest of Austin. I got a burrito near there two years ago, and it was delicious.)

It feels categorical in a way I appreciate. The series is lived-in, meaning you really got the sense that Gabe Wolf put in the miles.

Along those lines, the photos are taken all over the greater Southwest, including TX, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Tennessee. (Maybe I missed a few?)

The images are well made, and the consistent change in size, format and picture placement speak to the self-published aesthetic. It feels DIY, and I dig it.

At some point, I noticed a sub-series of images of a young rider who appeared to be a Native American. Given the 4 Corners locale, I figured he might be a Navajo.

The captions said his name is “Derrick Begay,” which is a Navajo surname. And then I re-looked at the title page, and it said the book was published by Ma’iitsoh.

Maybe I need to break my rule and use Google for a minute?

(Pause.)

No, Lone Wolf does not appear to be a Native American guy.

And the word I’ve been hesitating to use so far, “commercial,” does show up on his website in several places.

There’s a lack of edge, here, that would normally preclude me from showing the book. But by opening my mind a bit, I’m appreciating the behind-the-scenes vibe. The book feels “authentic,” to use the parlance of our times.

And the best images, including the black and white silhouette of Begay set against the backlight, are pretty awesome.

If this came from a major publisher, it would be slicker. And there would less images.

I’ve leveled the criticism at a bunch of books lately, too many photographs, but I don’t feel that way here.

The captions in the end give detailed information, and the sponsors are not Aperture or some fancy gallery, but rather, The Original Team Roping Association and Lone Star Ag Credit.

How can you not love that?

Bottom Line: 15 years of cool cowboy photos across the West

To purchase “On the Road with Lone Wolf,” click here

If you would like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Victoria Will

 

This is a true story.

Back in 2013, almost five years ago, I began writing for the New York Times.

Though I’d been blogging for four years by then, it still seemed like a major leap.

I remember thinking that people were whispering, can he write in a serious way? Isn’t he just the guy who obsessively talks about himself, and says fuck a lot, and makes jokes?

(Obviously, five-years-ago-me thought people actually talked about him. 44-year-old-me knows people are too busy just-getting-by to wonder what I’m doing out here in my horse pasture.)

Anyway, it will be five years in May, and I’ve written 45 articles, so I guess it was always going to come around again.

I recently sent a pitch to a local magazine, and included a few of my NYT clips. I heard back that they liked the idea, but wondered if I was also able to write in a more light-hearted, whimsical style?

After the LOL, I quickly sent them last week’s column. The one with an opening sentence that includes the word shit.

I admitted the subject matter was serious, mental illness and darkness and all, but the jokes showed I could handle it with a light touch. I explained that most documentary photo books, which include most of my submissions, often have a heavy socio-political theme.

I’ll admit that I’m writing on a Thursday, and my kids are binge-watching on a Kindle Fire in a bedroom nearby, because they don’t have school today.

I’m in Full Dad Mode.

That’s the context.

But the first book I picked up, which I’ll review in a different week, when I’m not on deadline, it was another one with a powerful, political subject matter.

And lots and lots of reading.

I rarely do this, but I put the book down.

After all the heavy books lately, it didn’t feel right for today.

I wanted something lighter.
Something visual.
Digestible.

(Like I said, this is a true story.)

I knocked on my son’s door, as my book stack is in his closet, and interrupted the digi-gorging so I could grab something else.

I swear I never do this.

The first thing I found, from the top the stack, had a woman’s name on the envelope, and I’m trying to alternate male and female artists each week.

This was the one.
I could feel it.

It came with a nice note, from someone named Victoria Will, and she complimented the column. (Thanks, Victoria.)

Very kind.

The cover featured what looked like a tintype of Maggie Gyllenhaal, and it reminded me of an image I once saw on Vulture’s best photos of the year, of Philip Seymour Hoffman shot in that style.

It stopped me in my tracks.

I included that one on a list of my favorite images, on fototazo, and then it receded into my memory.

Filed away, like so many other things.

LeBron James scorelines.
Restaurant names.
That sort of thing.

But the second I saw this Maggie Gyllenhaal image, it made me think of PSH.

That’s a powerful imprint.

That one was one of Victoria’s too, and this book, “Borne Back,” was published in 2017 by Peanut Press, and features a set of tintypes made at Sundance. (Including Robert Redford himself.)

I admit, in the context of this review, the book serves as the metaphorical “Us Weekly,” something light and easy, when I don’t feel like exercising my brain too hard.

(I’m saying it so you don’t have to think it.)

But, to be clear, that’s not true.
And this is a true story, remember?

Actors are professionals at communicating information through their bodies. It’s not just the eyes, though they’re of course the most important part, if we had to rank them. (And Hollywood loves a good ranking, no? A list, B list, C list_)

I know professional models do it too, but actors emote in real time, all the time, for a rolling camera. They master the subtle nuance of movement, and the good ones can bring that out for a still camera too, under proper direction, from someone who knows what they’re doing.

That’s the premise I felt behind this work.

An intro by actor Jason Momoa confirms that Victoria Will makes people feel comfortable in their skin, and then she makes tintypes, which naturally contrast the old school with the contemporary.

I’ve seen a lot of people work with tin types lately at portfolio reviews, and remarked on that in this column, after my trip to Photo NOLA last December.

Here, though, it has a defined purpose. It creates this temporal clash.

Add the textural power of the gloopy or sliding chemistry, and it allows for a stylistic structure that gives a boost to the famous faces.

Like a trampoline.

Which explains why that image of a dead actor came back to me
so quickly.

I remember him best as Brandt in “The Big Lebowski,” more than anything. And then how I felt when I read that his performance in “The Master” was closer to reality than I could have known.

Poor guy.

But of course I never knew him.

Celebrities are in the odd position of having millions of people know who they are, and feel some odd connection. They actually ARE gossiped about by people all the time.

People in Spokane.
Or Des Moines.

In that sense, we imagine celebrities perfect the public face; the extension. “I’ll show them this, this outer skin, and it will keep them happy, and they’ll buy their movie tickets, or downloads, or however the kids are consuming content these days, and the real me I’ll keep for myself.”

Kevin Bacon looks a little like an orangutan.
Elijah Wood looks like Billy the Kid.

Scoot McNairy looks like Caravaggio himself, and that dude
was so good in “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Godless.” (Shout out to Scoot McNairy.)

Flea really brings it.
Anna Kendrick looks like Morticia Adams.

Billy Crudup looks like an Edward Weston vegetable.
Lance Reddick looks like he knows what I’ve done when no one’s looking.

Nick Cave looks like he was drawn, not photographed.

And Scott Weiland stopped me in my tracks.

I was 19 when Stone Temple Pilots first got hot. Now that the 90’s are trendy again, we should give those guys their due. No, they weren’t Nirvana, but then who was?

STP were loud, and brash, and they had that theme song to “The Crow,” which I saw in the theaters with Evan Lucash back in Jersey. (Shout out, Evan.) It featured Brandon Lee, another tragic hero, and he died during the filming.

We mark our lives, sometimes, by the art we consume, popular or otherwise.

We use elements of culture to understand who we are.

The biggest movie stars become parts of America, be they John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Denzel Washington.

“Borne Back” gets this, which is why the edit leaves Scott Weiland for the final photograph. (And Sam Shepard as the first.) He’s far from the most famous, Weiland, nor the most important artist in this book.

But he died recently. And people of a certain generation (X) will know that.

It exacerbates that final part of why I like this work.
The permanence.

Sure, these are scans.
But they’re scans of plates.

Those plates are one of a kind, and if treated properly, should last for hundreds of years.

There’s a plate somewhere with Scott Weiland’s face.
It outlasts him already.

In this obsessedly-digital-world, reminders of the analog, of the 19th Century, give these pictures extra frisson.

It’s the perfect book for today.
See you next time.

Bottom Line: Dynamic, fun, excellent set of celebrity tintypes

To purchase “Borne Back” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Roger Ballen

 

The last season of “House of Cards” was a bit shit, if I’m being honest.

And still, I watched.

The main plot premise, (spoiler alert,) was that the Republican nominee for President was working with a social media network to mine and scrape their data, so he could micro-target and manipulate people into voting for him.

(Pause.)

I swear. I’m not making this up. Those guys wrote it, and of course it seems to have actually happened.

In reality.

To counter this, the crooked President, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, used NSA software to do some data mining of his own, so he could counter their highly-unethical program.

Kevin Spacey’s performance was probably what kept me glued to the TV for 5 seasons of binge-watching. He’s the kind of actor that everyone loved to watch, for years, as he brought a powerful intelligence to his roles, dating back to his brilliant performance as Keyzer Söze.

The master-manipulator-criminal-genius.

In “House of Cards,” of course, he murdered, cheated, lied, and was also secretly gay. He played a sociopath with such conviction, it was almost as if he were plumbing the depths of his own psyche.

In reality.

Of course, now we all know that’s true. According to multiple news reports, which came out in the early part of the #MeToo movement, Kevin Spacey is a lying, raping, pedophile.

He appears to be an actual sociopath.

In reality.

And now we’ll never know how Frank Underwood was meant to meet his fate, as Spacey was rightly fired from his job quicker than DJT can make it through a single Big Mac. (Shout out to Dave Chapelle, as his Kevin Spacey joke in one of his new Netflix specials was much better than anything I can come up with.)

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we should all tread lightly, each and every day, lest we find our friends and loved ones are secretly awful.

Rather, my point is that people are far messier and more complex than we’d like to believe, and each and every one of us has a shadow. (Shout out to Carl Jung.)

In Kevin Spacey’s case, it seems he was able to channel his charismatic-evil, believably, into some of his roles. But for the rest of us, the dark parts of our psyche are there, and those of us that admit it, and shine a little light down into the basement from time to time, seem to be a tad healthier than those who deny their demons.

And that’s just talking about those of us who consider ourselves sane. Once brain chemistries get shaken around, or life circumstances get too difficult, or we were simply born with faulty genetics, mental illness can change the game entirely.

Just the other day, I was telling a new Taos resident that our town is famous for having a super-high incidence of mental illness. As a Wild West enclave for outlaws and weirdos, it’s always been a draw for those that have a hard time with conventional society.

There’s even a part of Taos County, dubbed “The Mesa,” that is essentially lawless, and has an extremely high proportion of mentally ill people living together, miles from everyone else.

People disappear out there all the time.

But mental illness, according to some, is really a construction, as who is anyone to judge what’s “normal” and what’s not?

What if the darkness was really the light?

My longtime readers, (Hi Dad, Hi Rob,) might rightly remember that phrase from my extensive interview with Roger Ballen back in 2013. He’s an American-born, South Africa-based photographer and artist renown for skulking the depths of the nastiest corners of the human condition.

(Sorry, Joel-Peter Witkin, but I think Roger has surpassed you as the King of the creepily surreal.)

It’s a great interview, IMO, as he had some pretty interesting things to say, and decades of experience to back it up. We stayed in touch, tangentially, and I felt fortunate when he offered me a copy of “Ballenesque: roger ballen: a retrospective,” his new career-spanning tome recently released by Thames & Hudson.

First off, as Roger Ballen has always preferred books to exhibitions, due to their permanence, he’s published a lot of them in his career. If you already have one, or some, you might not need this one.

It’s big, and bold, and includes a long-running, diaristic statement by the artist, that’s broken up through the chapters. If you’re a serious fan, I’d say this book is a must-purchase. And if you’re new to his work, and dig the style, which now has its own adjective, (hence the title,) then I’d say you should buy this one too.

Though I was familiar with many of the images in the book, there were some genuine surprises, like the few fashion photos he made for the New York Times, of the actress Selma Blair, in 2005. Whoever had the idea to take a slim, Hollywood It Girl and put her through these paces should be fired.

Not surprisingly, Roger admits he was not offered another fashion gig thereafter.

But he’s done music videos, like Die Antwood’s amazing “I Fink U Freeky,” built scary Ballen houses for art installations, (no thank you,) and also did a project with fellow creepster Asger Carlsen, whom I also interviewed back in the day.

(I’m no prude, as you know, but seeing Carlsen’s gorgeous, naked, young female bodies digitally morphed left me feeling a little queasy, in 2018, as it seems simultaneously too easy, and too misogynistic for my liking.)

The French painter, Jean Dubuffet, comes up a few times in the text as well, and I was glad to see it, as personally, I think his work had a tremendous influence on the raw, naked, visceral style that is now called “Ballenesque.”

I always loved Basquiat, and found him super-oringial, until I saw Dubuffet’s work, and realized that all of us have influences, and even radically new things take their inspiration from somewhere. (Like Orville and Wilbur trying to fly like birds, which are also a common Ballen subject.)

The most controversial part of this work, without a doubt, is Ballen’s photographic treatment of mentally ill people. Work like this is always pilloried for being exploitative, though the artist develops deep and longstanding relationships with his subjects.

The text gives us some really juicy quotes on the issue, including the part where Ballen admits that when people ask him what his subjects think of the work, he says, “I am not sure what anybody thinks.”

Tough to argue. But he questions whether mental illness is a societal construction, at one point, wondering who has the right to declare what’s normal?

As we discussed in our interview, he spent much of his career as a mining engineer in South Africa, as he didn’t want his art practice to get corrupted by the need to make money. (The lengthy biography also emphasizes he grew up throughly counter-culture.)

Anyone that looks at this work, and hears him discussing the need to plumb the depths, will have no trouble making the metaphorical connection.

So on that note, I’ll leave you with his direct thoughts on the subject, and suggest you consider your own darkest thoughts, rather than pretending they’re not there, and then locking the door behind them.

“Delving into the deepest parts of one’s subconscious is like going down the mine, down the shaft. You get there, and now you are on level ten, whether in the mine or in the mind, Things are not going to manifest themselves down there, so I have to go from level ten back up again and make visible what I have found, bring them to the surface. That is the hard part.”

The hard part indeed.

Bottom Line: Massive, through retrospective for a master of darkness

To purchase “Ballenesque” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week in Photography Books: Debi Cornwall

 

I’m listening to the hum of the fan beside me.

A magenta bag, filled with birthday socks, sits glowing in
the sunlight by the window.

Thankfully, I’m free.

Free to say what I like in this space each week. (Thanks, Rob.) Free to wear what I’d like, and go where I please.

These freedoms come at a cost, as we all know.

The United States government, through war and covert (i.e. CIA-led) actions, has undermined freedom, democracy, and sovereignty elsewhere. Countless have died in wars in other places, like Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, as we’ve maintained our position at the top of the global economic food chain.

Given our original sins, slavery and the genocide of Native America, we shouldn’t be surprised that we also fomented revolution, claimed territory by force, committed assassinations, and installed puppet regimes in foreign countries.

(As much as I dislike Vlad Putin, he’s always pointing out that we’ve done the same things he’s accused of…)

The Monroe Doctrine was conjured to claim our sphere of influence over this part of the world. We’re seeing a return to that bygone era, (Shout out to Professor Timothy Lomperis, Freshman Year at Duke,) where major powers like the US, Russia and China patrol their own waters, and balance each other out.

Add to the list of things nasty things we’ve done in the name of democracy: torture.

Yes, in the early years of the War on Terror, George W. Bush had some lawyers, (we’re looking at you John Yoo,) come up with legal justification for “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Including: water boarding, slapping, sleep deprivation, sexual touching, being forced to live in your own shit and piss, no access to light, little activity, hooding, general humiliation, and being shackled in painful positions.

I’m likely leaving a few out.

These black sites are on all of us, as citizens.
We’re complicit.

These discussions will be before us again, as Trump’s new nominee to head the CIA once ran a black site herself, and has been outwardly in favor of torture, according to this article in The Atlantic.

But Barack Obama famously promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and didn’t, so again, this issue crosses political affiliations.

I’ve been thinking about it all morning, having read/looked at Debi Cornwall’s excellent “Welcome to Camp America,” published by Radius Books in Santa Fe.

Straight up, I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy this one as much as some of the others I’ve reviewed lately. It’s a bit clinical for my liking. Such opinions are, of course, subjective, and it’s obviously a well-made production of important work.

It’s informative, and rich, and succeeds in many ways.

But since I try to always keep it real, and have been gushingly-over-the-top in my praise of late, I thought I’d tell the truth.

I like that the book forced me to pay attention. Like the other books I’ve featured lately, this one has multiple themes that repeat throughout, interrupting each other in a rhythm, so you’ll never get bored.

There are dry, formal landscape photos taken from inside the areas she was allowed to photograph at Gitmo.

Then, there are fold out pieces, untethered and interspersed, which feature former detainees who were freed, and have been patriated to other countries, Uighurs and Egyptians in places like Albania.

Always these men are photographed from behind. (A nod to the military regulation at Gitmo that says no faces are to be photographed? More likely, as Fred Ritchin suggests in his essay, it was out of empathy for the men’s privacy.)

Personally, I don’t like the unbound tactic. But I’m a big fan of the use of Arabic text, as it reminds us there is more than the American perspective to consider.

My favorite photos are the still life objects available at the gift shop. Dolls, and stuffed animals and lip balm?

Dial 911 for the tacky police.

There are smudgy, difficult-to-read pages depicting the actual torture techniques employed in the Bush Era, and a lawsuit/ story that plays out, slowly over the book, in first person.

Eventually, we realize it’s from the standpoint of a soldier who was playing an unresponsive inmate in a drill, only the soldiers kicking the shit out of him didn’t think it was a drill, and then the tapes were destroyed.

There are always tapes, with people like this, and they’re always getting destroyed. It’s like something out of that Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson movie from back when they were both important.

What was that called?

That reminds me, in the book, that soldier who got beat up by mistake even said the safe-word was literally “Code Red,” like that movie, god, what was its name?

At first, jolting between that many types of images, and words, and styles of viewing, with overfolds and pull outs, it felt like a bit much.

I questioned what the personal connection was, between the artist and the subject, because clearly there was one. Nobody jumps through that many military hoops to get access, and publishes damaging information, in a photobook, without an ax to grind.

It goes against human nature.

So there it was, in Ms. Cornwall’s statement at the end of the book. “For twelve years I practiced as a wrongful conviction lawyer representing innocent exonerees in civil rights suits in the United States.”

That would do it.

I learned a lot from this book, and think it’s kickass in many ways. It’s just that it left me feeling a bit cold.

You know who else was cold?

One of the torture victims, when he was left shivering, naked, in his own excrement, while the air conditioning was turned on full blast.

I read that in this book. I expect it will stay with me for a while.

As it should.

Bottom Line: A fascinating, multi-layered look at Gitmo

To purchase “Welcome to Camp America,” click here 

This Week in Photography Books: Tom Griggs

 

Hey guys.

Thanks for coming back.

After the last couple weeks, with the anger and the sorrow, I wasn’t sure if I’d see you today.

You might not realize it, but I always try to keep the balance in mind. If I hit you with some really heavy stuff for a few weeks, then I think it’s time for breather.

Lately, I’ve also had the opportunity to alternate male and female photographers each week.

Like I said, balance.

So today, we’re going to have a really short review. On the off chance you really like the long articles, and want to see them every time, I’ll offer my apologies.

Last week, I began making connections between the books that were sent to me by some very talented female photographers. I’m fairly sure I use the word emotional.

It’s a tricky word, emotional, and a tricky premise to suggest that women are more emotional than men. It’s often used as a pejorative term, and I should know, as it’s been hurled my way many times.

We all have emotions. (That should be blindingly obvious.) But traditionally, men have been less comfortable exploring and understanding their emotional reality. We all know the stereotype of the macho, stoic, heroic, cowboy type.

It’s been held up as a model forever, and only recently has “emo” been an acceptable state of mind for certain subsets of the male population.

Today’s book, “Herida y Fuente,” was made by an American photographer, Tom Griggs, who’s been living in Colombia for a long time. (Published by Mesaestander) He runs the blog fototazo, and works hard to support Latin American photography.

He’s definitely a good guy.

But I hadn’t seen his work before this book showed up a few months ago. I finally got to take a look at it today, and found it to be soulful, soft, and definitely emotional.

There’s a lot of visual darkness in this book, but it’s mostly the kind that serves as a foil for little spots of illumination. (Chiaroscuro, if you will.) The pictures are lovely, moody, and indirect. As the title is in Spanish, and there’s no English text at all, you’re on your own as far as interpretation goes, unless you speak Spanish.

(I know some, but not enough to decipher the title without Google’s help.)

Beyond the repetition of the black color palette, there are hints of discord. We see glimpses of the female body, but rarely the whole thing. A partner? A wife?

There’s one photograph that reminded me of a breast self-examination, so I wondered if there was an undertone of cancer?

But then we see pillows piled on the couch, like someone had to sleep there. Later, there’s a made bed that no one has slept in. In that sense, the book feels like a set of stills from a movie by one of those crazy Mexican directors.

There are flowers, and butterflies, and a sensibility I would feel comfortable describing as feminine. Unlike some people, I don’t see that as a negative term. Lots of artistic guys are comfortable with their emotions.

Eventually, I did translate the title, which means “wound and source.” I have no idea if this is a literal narrative, but the title clearly pushes us towards seeing this as a romantic breakup, a tumultuous relationship, or a legitimate battle with illness.

There’s a long poem on the back cover, also in Spanish, but I didn’t bother to run it through the software. I figure if Tom wanted us to read it in English, he would’ve written it in English.

Here are some of the words I made out: Contacts, tangents, proximity, separation, distance, bodies, corrosions, rooms, concrete forms, poetic manners…you get the point.

After the disconcerting reviews the last two weeks, I see today’s book as a heartfelt love poem tucked inside a photo book.

Hope you like it too.

Bottom line: A beautiful, poetic meditation on love? 

To purchase “Herida y Fuente,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, to maintain the balance.

This Week in Photography Books: Nancy Borowick

 

IKEA has it all figured out.

They rope most of us in with their cheap, stylish furniture. (Everyone loves a good deal, right?)

But that’s not enough for IKEA. They throw in Dollar hot dogs, cheap Swedish meatballs, free childcare, and I swear one time I saw a sign for free coffee.

It’s a heavy pitch indeed, but it makes sense, as they’re trying to convince people to walk around a space that is at once maze-like and cavernous. (We practically hugged the employee in Denver last time, when she finally showed us a shortcut.)

I like to be a student of success, when I can, and have learned a lesson or two from the Swedish behemoth. Most of the time, I try to be funny and/or witty in this part of the column, and then entice you into reading about a photobook. (At least that’s what I tell myself. I’m sure some of you skip right to the book each time.)

I never planned to be entertaining, or political, though as last week attests, it’s best to step away from the keyboard when I’m in a bad mood.

But there’s nothing funny about the book I read and looked at this morning. It was a completely unique experience in all my years reviewing photo books.

I cried the entire time.

Not bawling, if I’m being honest, but the tears streamed down my cheeks at a consistent pace, like the lines of Taiwanese people buying toilet paper at the store, when it was announced the prices would soon rise. (Apparently, it led to shortages. Napkins, anyone?)

Right, I was writing about crying. I was preparing you for a sad review.

So why am I in a decent mood?

I guess it’s because excellence makes me feel good. Seeing things done well, in particular photobooks, gives me inspiration and excitement to keep pushing forward.

Last fall, Women Photograph, the advocacy organization that recently won an ICP Infinity award, was kind enough to nudge some female photographers to submit books for review in this column.

I thanked them recently on Twitter, and am doing so here, because it lead to reviews of Kathy Shorr’s “SHOT”, Nina Berman’s “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” and now “The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss,” by Nancy Borowick, published by Hatje Cantz.

(We’ll also be looking at Debi Cornwall’s “Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantanamo Bay”, by Radius, and it’s good, as Debi gave me a preview in NYC last spring.)

I know the books that were recommended were pre-selected for being successful, but their commonalities are impossible to ignore.

These books are personal, and emotional. They’re exhaustive, and incorporate text that is as strong as the pictures. They use nontraditional materials within, like cards and medical forms, to break up the monotony of the narrative.

And each discusses a subject that is at the outer edge of human experience, while simultaneously being entirely human.

(At this point, I’ll stop lumping Nancy’s book in with the others, and tell you why it’s so great.)

Nancy Borowick grew up Jewish, in New York, to loyal, loving parents. Her father, like mine, was a lawyer, a baby-boomer, a Giants fan, and his initials were HB.

Like my folks, her parents went to costume parties, took their family on skiing vacations, and had photographs of embarrassing 80’s fashion.

It’s no surprise that life in the New York City suburbs might be similar.

I get it.

But that’s where our stories diverge. (If you don’t make that hard right turn, at just the right time, you’re sure to crash into the concrete stanchion up ahead.)

Cancer runs in Nancy Borowick’s family, and Nancy’s mother, Laurel, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, and it recurred in 2009 and ’11. Her father, Howie, developed terminal pancreatic cancer in 2012, so her parents slowly died together.

Her father was buried 364 days before her mother, who had to live that last year of her life without her soulmate.

The book opens with a heartfelt essay, by my friend and mentor James Estrin, who warns of the extreme emotional nature to follow. He said he cried many times, as this project evolved, and I thought, “Yeah, well, I don’t cry. It’ll never happen.”

Like I said: water works.

The bulk of the book is comprised of black and white photographs that document this phase of the Borowick family’s life, including a wedding, and unfortunately two funerals.

There are diary entries, pain journals, statements from each of her parents, reproductions of handwritten greeting cards, old photos from family albums, and even scans of needlepoint that collectively rocket the reader into the story.

Having two parents die of cancer simultaneously is a hardcore, unlikely experience. It’s the kind of thing everyone prays will never happened to them.

The book is therefore an allegory, as much as a family album. My greatest teacher, Allen Frame, always preached that the deeper you dig into your own personal life, the more likely you are to tap into a universal story.

That’s what Nancy Borowick has done here. There is an inherent shock value in her premise, in her life, that will always draw curiosity. So this book could’ve been mediocre, and I think people still would’ve paid attention.

Instead, by varying the narrative techniques, and ratcheting up the sadness, the power of this family’s love comes through loud and clear. That’s why I felt inspired, rather than wretched.

It’s why I was excited to write about this book for you, instead of sheepish. (Ironically, as the morose emotions coursed through my system, I thought about losing my wife, or dying without seeing my kids grow up, rather than focus on my own aging parents.)

The narrative, design, and photographs here are all top class, so together they create the gestalt of a talismanic object. If I hadn’t been so blown away by Nina Berman’s book a few weeks ago, I’d be happy to tell you this is the best book I’ve seen in a long time.

Instead, I can gladly say the books I’ve been receiving from female photographers are kicking some serious ass. They’ve all been dynamite, so I don’t have to pick a favorite.

Fellas, you best bring it, or step to the back of the line.

Bottom Line: A brilliant book about tragic circumstances

To purchase “The Family Imprint,” click here

This Week in Photography Books: Mario Lalau

 

Sometimes, it feels like the world is run by idiots.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Regular people don’t quest for power. They’re too busy trying to get the bills paid, their children fed, and their posts liked on Instagram.

It takes a special kind of ego to yearn to control others. (I know there are a few idealistic public servants out there, like former President Obama, but they are certainly the exception to the rule.)

Just this morning, for instance, the Taos School system head-honchos refused to cancel classes, despite the massive snowstorm sitting over town. Any fool could’ve looked at the radar and seen what was coming, especially as it began snowing last night.

But our town is most definitely run by morons.

Instead, they made thousands of people drive on icy, snow-covered roads to get their kids in on time.

And then they canceled school an hour later, making everyone repeat the hairy drive a second time.

If I hadn’t seen the same scenario play out year after year, I would’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. But they don’t deserve it. Dumb fucks.

Few things make me angrier then risking children’s lives for no reason.

Of course, one can always pull out an empathy-cheat-sheet to handle the press conference afterwards. Are you kidding me? By now, you’ve all seen the photo of Trump’s tiny hands surrounding a numbered list, required to remind our current president how to talk to children who survived a deadly mass shooting.

The last time I wrote about mass shootings, and predicted another with absolute certainty, I actually got a nasty email from one of our readers. Apparently, in the United States of America, dead children are seen as nothing more than collateral damage to an assault weapons addiction.

So if the guy who wrote me that email is reading this column: fuck off. I didn’t respond to you last time, and I won’t this time either.

I live in a place where the police can’t get to you in time, if something really bad happens. Lots of people have a weapons for self defense.

I get it.

The only reason these lunatics want their AR-15s is to potentially revolt against the government one day. That’s it. You don’t need a semi-automatic rifle to kill a deer, or an elk, or even an endangered species.

But like I said at the beginning, it’s often the biggest douchebags who make the important decisions that govern our lives and safety.

I’m no nihilist, but I’m certain the world is neither orderly nor sane.

Thankfully, today I opened up a photo book by Mario Lalau, a Brazilian photographer I met at Review Santa Fe in October. The dude was cool as hell, and like me, has occasionally been accused of looking like a terrorist. (If you have a slightly swarthy complexion, and wear a beard, it’s bound to come up.)

Mario lives in Texas now, and he told me a hilarious story about making friends with his gun-loving colleagues down there. (He has a strange day job, but I don’t remember what it is.)

After the festival, he sent me a copy of “Tropeço,” published by Foto Editorial, and it felt like the perfect publication for today. (For the record, because of all the portfolio review articles I wrote over the last five months, I’m backed up at looking at the book submissions. If you sent something in to me, please be patient. I look at everything eventually.)

I’m not going to tell you this book is brilliant, because it’s not. It’s barely even a book.

According to some notes he sent along, they actually jumble up the pages of every copy. As it is not hardbound, (or bound at all,) this would certainly be possible.

Mario was really funny in person, which I always appreciate, and these images are representative of a witty vision, as someone wanders the world with a camera.

The pictures are fun, smart, and well-observed.

There’s a randomness to it all that feels very appropriate in 2018. Many of the pictures are phallic, with cones, and buildings, and trees jutting up from the Earth.

The one repeating motif I could discern with certainty was the absurdist, winding Lombard Street in San Francisco. What could be a better metaphor for now than tourists flocking to see a little stretch of asphalt that makes no sense?

I’ve occasionally mourned the fact that I rarely get strange, weird, small-batch, art book submissions these days. I’m sure many of you prefer it that way, as most of the books I review now have a strong sense of mission.

The photographers document an issue, and try to raise awareness.

Not today.

While I admit I woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning, even if I’d arose cheerily, my morning-social-media-check would have assassinated any latent optimism.

But this book, with its emphasis on finding little moments of bliss, or synchronicity, in the face of unending chaos has definitely put a smile on my face.

Thanks, Mario.

Bottom line: A strange and hip little jumble of a publication

PS: It’s crazy that I’ve never done a PS before two weeks ago, and here I am again. But I saw this quote from Mario in an email, and it’s too good not to share: “I’m the guy who told you a story about a lonely, wild boar BBQ with an armed patriot, who called me Omar instead of Mario because of my suspicious beard.”

To purchase Tropeço, click here

This Week in Photography Books: Nina Berman

 

I’m not feeling very creative at the moment.

The sky is gray out my window, and the dreary light is making me lazy. In a perfect world, I’d get back in bed, pull the covers around me tight, and take a big fat nap.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

I bitch and complain as much as the next guy, but in general, I’m aware of how good I have it. While life can turn on any given day, I’m healthy, have a beautiful family, and live in a wonderful place.

If I feel hunger, I go to the refrigerator and make myself some food. So in the grand scheme of things, I have little to complain about.

Living with comfort and security is the root of the American Dream. Without question, we take it for granted. It’s hard not to, as the micro-stresses of daily life add up, and in the aggregate make it difficult to maintain perspective.

As artists, we have a built-in stress relief mechanism, as long as we have the energy to use it. I’ve written many times that I taught abused teenagers for 10 years, and was able to see firsthand how creative outlets allowed them to channel the powerful emotions they have, in response to their tragic circumstances.

Art is its own form of therapy.

I knew my students had undergone horrific situations. As I wasn’t their therapist, I never asked for details. (It didn’t seem appropriate.) My wife, who is a therapist, and works with the same population, has heard frightening stories that would make most people reach for a bottle of whiskey.

Or a big fat joint.

She doesn’t tell me the details, because she’s not allowed. (It’s all confidential.) So she keeps it inside, and sometimes goes to therapy herself, but when things are really bad, I can see the stress energy wafting off her skin like the heat waves that rise from my old wood stove.

Frankly, it’s rare that we find ourselves inside someone else’s nightmare. Sure, some people like to get scared, and pay to watch a creepy movie.

But that’s fiction.

Occasionally, we find ourselves privy to someone else’s darkest secrets. Occasionally, we choose not to look away. (Even when it’s the stuff of pure darkness.)

In my six and half years writing this column, I’ve often shared that my favorite photobooks are experiential. They carefully consider how to unspool the thread of their narrative; how to engage an audience by divulging details in just the right way.

I love books that show me things I haven’t seen before, and give me insights I couldn’t otherwise access.

I’ve also admitted to being something of an Anglophile, as I’m addicted to English football, and wrote stories on this very blog about my remarkably joyous trips to London in 2012 and ’13.

It’s easy to idealize a place when you only see its slick surface. People do that with Taos all the time. They come here thinking it’s a quaint, little tourist mecca, with hip art galleries and magnificent nature.

But as I’ve said before, it’s the most hard-core place I’ve ever lived, and I did a three year stint in Brooklyn.

There are plenty of entertainment options that glamorize English gangsters, like the stylish “Peaky Blinders,” the several movies about the Krays, or (insert random Guy Richie movie here.)

But I just put down a photo book that made my head spin, in a good way, though its contents are shockingly awful. (The kind of awful that enlightens, not the kind that comes from poor execution.)

“An autobiography of Miss Wish” is a new book by Nina Berman, in conjunction with Kimberly Stevens, which was published in the fall by Kehrer Verlag in Germany. It’s generated a fair amount of positive press, and I feel fortunate to have been sent a copy a few months ago, when I was actively soliciting submissions from female artists.

(By the way, the first round of outreach was successful, but I’m down to my last two books by female photographers, so hopefully you guys can help spread the word to get a new batch of submissions for us.)

Kimberly Stevens is the latest name adopted by an Englishwoman who’s had as difficult a life as I’ve ever encountered. This book shares the kind of stories my wife keeps to herself. It’s hard to read what is presented here; to look at Nina Berman’s photographs, and Kimberly’s drawings and diary entries.

The shortest version is that Ms. Stevens was adopted at two into a family of violent, murderous, child-purchasing, sex traffickers. She was raped, tortured, and prostituted for her entire childhood. Even worse, the gang that ran her continued to kidnap her anytime anyone stepped in to help.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ll photograph the drawing she made of a dismemberment, part of a series of flashbacks that were symptoms of extreme mental illness brought on by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In what can only be described as a coincidence, or an act of God, Nina Berman bumped into Kimberly in the early 90s in London, when she was still going by the name of Cathy Wish. She photographed her roaming the city, and they struck a friendship.

As Kimberly’s captors were so well-connected that the police couldn’t protect her, an officer from Scotland Yard suggested she escape to America, and even gave her the money to buy a ticket.

So she came to the United States, (the exact type of immigrant our current president despises,) and made a life for herself on the streets, in the shelters, jails and mental institutions of New York City.

Throughout, Kimberly has suffered from multiple personality disorder, suicidal tendencies, drug addiction, HIV, and dissociative fugue states.

(Like I said, this gives hard-core a new definition.)

The book, which is remarkably well done, shares the story with us in a variety of ways. From medical reports to text messages, consistently interspersed with Ms. Berman’s documentary images, we’re given access to Kimberly Stevens’ life story.

Throughout her time in our country, Nina Berman proved to be her support system.

Her family.

Her rock.

I interviewed Nina Berman for this blog many years ago. She struck me as an extreme personality. You have to be, to somehow believe Kimberly Stevens could carve out a life worth living. That she wouldn’t be better off just jumping off a bridge, or out a window, both of which she tried to do.

Instead, they made this book as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the ultimate survivor.

As far as I’m concerned, photobooks don’t get much better than this.

Bottom line: A collaborative masterpiece

To purchase “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” click here


If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Paul Gaffney

 

Any idiot can deny something.

It’s takes no effort at all.

What could be easier for a lazy person?

Here.
I’ll show you.

I hereby deny that gravity exists. Even though the book I just dropped fell, and hit the couch, still, I insist there’s no such thing as gravity.

Here’s another.

I deny that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is an inherently conservative institution, founded by the famously anti-leftist J. Edgar Hoover.

Who cares that he assassinated Black Panthers?

And that as recently as 2016, we all thought James Comey was a conservative fascist who ruined Hillary Clinton’s chances of getting elected.

Now, these stiff-suited-corn-fed-white-boys are suddenly smoking weed with Jerry Brown?

It’s ludicrous.

But I didn’t mean to get off on a political rant today. Rather, I was thinking about all the people out there who deny that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate patterns.

Theoretically, that should not be a political statement. There is vast empirical evidence supporting the idea that gas emissions trap heat within the planet’s atmosphere, which affects different places in different ways.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” a movie now almost 12 years old, predicted an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events. In addition, traditional weather patterns were meant to shift as well.

Any sentient person can see that in America alone, we’ve been hit with massive floods, hurricanes, droughts, mudslides, and wildfires. (Hell, we even have man-made earthquakes these days too.)

Here in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah are having their worst winter in recent memory. There’s almost no snow at all. (Though here at Taos Ski Valley, our new billionaire owner has certainly been willing to pay for man-made snowmaking. Until the water allotment runs out…)

It was so warm in December, January and now February, it seems as if winter were only a rumor.

Just last year, we had tons of snow, and I’m sure we will again next year. But each random catastrophic weather event, wherever it hits, cost billions of dollars, and wreaks havoc across all strata of society. (Though of course low income people suffer disproportionately.)

Some might say Nature is fighting back.

That we, tiny humans, think that we can do whatever we want, but we’re wrong.

I don’t know who or what controls the wind, the clouds, the rain, the sky. But I do know I’ve been looking out my window at dry grass all winter, instead of white frozen Wonderland.

And I know my trees are thirsty.

I recently saw a headline on Twitter that plants lost certain activity function when exposed to anesthesia. I admit I didn’t read the article, but it implied some sort of sentience.

When you live among raw nature, as I do, it’s not hard to believe such things.

I admit I just came back from my daily walk, but really I’m ruminating, having just looked at “Perigee,” a new book by Paul Gaffney in Ireland, which turned up last autumn.

I reviewed an earlier book of his, “We Make the Path By Walking,” and recall he spent an inordinate amount of time on solo walks in the Irish countryside. (That’s a lot of quiet time, bro.)

This new book is simply beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it. So much clean white paper, in a double fold.

The stiff black binding. So many empty pages. And the images within are special as well.

We learn at the book’s end that the series was made during an artist residency in Luxembourg. (Seriously, do they just give you the whole country for the residency? Sitting here on the other side of the world, I imagine Luxembourg being about as big as Disney World. No offense.)

I’m sure Paul spent a lot of time walking in the woods there, though the book gives us almost no words at all. He thanks his family and friends at the end, which I think is super-classy, and there’s only one fraction of a song lyric.

“But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzled”

It’s interesting context, after-the-fact, because with the strong contrast, and yet consistently dynamic total range, the pictures made me think of electricity, as much as anything else.

Bioluminescent undersea creatures pulsating with life. Or a network of neurons in a Pelican’s brain.

On some level, I understand that they’re just simple black-and-white landscape pictures made in forests. Lots of people do that.

But between the exquisite, minimal design, and the vibrant energy within each picture, (much less the entire edit,) I think this book is just about perfect.

I’m sure you will too.

Bottom line: a little Zen gem, like a poem

PS: I’ve never done a PS before, but when I just went to find the purchase link, I learned another book that was in the package was also a part of “Perigee.” It had no words, and I had no way of knowing they were connected. Apologies.

To purchase Perigee, click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week in Photography Books: Carolyn Marks Blackwood

 

I never get homesick.

Not for New Jersey.
(Where I’m from.)

It never happens.

But lately, my home state has crept back into the dark recesses of my consciousness. It began recently enough, when I found myself reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

My son, Theo, was writing his first term paper, and chose Franklin as his subject. I saw the book sitting there, and picked it up out of curiosity, more than anything else. When I read that old Ben first landed in New Jersey at Amboy, not 10 miles from where I grew up, it definitely piqued my curiosity.

The book was a bit of a tease, if I’m being honest, because as fascinating as it was to be inside Franklin’s mind, he died writing it, before he got anywhere near the Revolutionary War.

The man spent pages and pages describing a system for removing dust from the streets of Philadelphia, but never thought to speed it up so we could hear what he thought of George Washington, or the Revolution in general?

Mind-melding with Ben Franklin, straight out of the 18th-century, reminded me of the feeling I had walking the Monmouth Battlefield, or going on school field trips when I was young, and being told that Washington had slept there.

At the moment, I’m deep into binge watching an AMC show about the Revolutionary War, with the awkward title of “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” (Seriously, for all the money these people make, nobody thought to come up with a better title?)

The show is exceptional, so you certainly have my recommendation to watch it yourself, but it’s also been feeding the odd homesickness as well. (As an aside, the show gives good evidence that the New Jersey/Long Island Island rivalry goes back to the old days, when Jersey was Patriot territory, and Long Island was a Tory stronghold.)

My hometown, Holmdel, had its fair share of 18th-century architecture. Not to mention graveyards. (Can you imagine how scary it would be to live next to some of these places?)

Right now, I definitely feel some chills up my spine, having just put down “The Story Series,” a new book by Carolyn Marks Blackwood, recently published by the Roberto Polo Gallery in Brussels. (She just had a show there, and it’s now up at Von Lintel in LA.)

When Ms. Blackwood originally wrote me, she mentioned that she lives in upstate New York. In a sense, it doesn’t matter, because the pictures in this book channel that 18th-century creepy vibe better than just about anything I’ve seen.

The book mentions that these pictures are meant to be exhibited at a very large scale, so when I was looking, I tried to imagine projecting them as wall size, which helps explain the sort-of-painterly, soft focus, lower-resolution aesthetic presented within.

According to an opening interview, Ms. Blackwood is also a screenwriter. It makes perfect sense, as each of the snowy, or dark, wintry pictures is accompanied by a one or two sentence narrative.

They’re novels, for the Twitter age.

I think there’s a range in quality between the pictures, and some would be banal, without the text. Regardless, when combined, I think they give off a strong, local, historical mood.

The paper is dark. The pictures are dark. They’re like ghost stories, without the ghosts.

My one quibble here, and it’s something I’ve mentioned a bit lately, is that I think there are too many pictures. I know that books differentiate themselves from catalogs by being bigger, and having more images, but I definitely think that more is not more, in most cases.

Less is more.

See you next week

Bottom Line: Cool, creepy, painterly book of East Coast landscapes

To purchase “The Story Series,” click here

This Week in Photography Books: TBW Books Subscription Series No. 5

 

Taos is a famously spiritual place.

Our mountain is sacred, and considered one of the world’s energy vortices, if you believe that sort of thing.

So people around here are pretty open to seeing the hand of fate, rather than ascribing any and all oddities to coincidence and chance.

As such, last summer, I chose to take a different route home, which I never do, and drove past my former Kung Fu teacher, walking a dog with a little girl by his side. (I hadn’t seen him in years.)

Not believing it was a coincidence, I parked the car, walked across the street, and said “Hello.” It felt like a sign, so I decided to start studying again, and have been training now for nearly 5 months.

Wing Chun is not for everyone, but I’m enjoying myself immensely. It’s exercise, self-defense, and Buddhist/Daoist philosophy all rolled into one.

The downside, though I hadn’t really contemplated it, is that you can get hurt. Fighting, apparently, can lead to injuries. (Who knew?)

My left hand is strained at the moment, as I hurt it punching a bag a couple of weeks ago, and re-injured it during training last week. Typing right now hurts like hell, and I have to keep it to a minimum, so I can get better and drop 1200 words on you next week.

As such, I”m going to keep it short today. Like super-short. Shorter than DJT’s attention span. Shorter than the line at Chipotle. (You get the picture.)

But to counteract the effects of an abbreviated review, I’m going to show a 4 book set, called “Subscription Series No. 5,” put out last year by our friends at TBW Books in Oakland. (We hate the Warriors in my household, but love Oaktown.)

The series, overseen by Paul Schiek, features books by Mike Mandel, Susan Meiselas, Bill Burke, and Lee Friedlander. How’s that for a line-up?

Pretty badass.

Each grouping comes from the past, though Friedlander snuck a few contemporary images into his edit.

What do they have in common?

I’m not sure.

They’re all black and white, and show people in interesting subcultures: Santa Cruz boardwalk beach kids, Downtown NYC schoolgirls, Appalachian snake-handlers, and people with heads. (OK, “people with heads” is not a sub-culture, but I’m trying to tie a bow on this, so I can stop typing and ice my hand.)

The suite of books is really cool, and Mike Mandel even features images of cunnilingus behind a beach shack, which I have never, ever seen before. (And I won’t photograph here, as Rob likes to keep things SFW.)

Anyway, I’m out, and will be back next week with portfolios from Photo NOLA.

Have a good one, and if you’re going to punch a bag this week, make sure to use proper technique.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, slightly absurd book series by some masters

To purchase “Subscription Series No. 5,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Naomi Harris

 

I haven’t been skiing yet this year.

Mostly because we don’t have any snow. As I’m writing this, the East Coast is under a blizzard watch, and the American South just got more snow in a day than we’ve had in a month.

But I’m not going on a Climate Change rant today.

Rather, I’m moping because I miss flying down the white mountain while the snow falls all around me. It’s magical, standing on top of a white peak, frozen conifers dotting the landscape.

I’ve been skiing in Taos Ski Valley since I was 14, and now I’m 43, so the place is like a second home. Furthermore, one of my wife’s good friends is a Blake, the family that owned the resort for 60 years, so that always made it more special.

Though Taos is famous for our adobe-style architecture, most of the buildings in TSV were designed in a Swiss Alpine style, and feature European names like the Edelweiss, or the Bavarian.

And there are trails named after the men who engineered a failed coup against Adolph Hitler, for crying out loud. (Stauffenberg, Fabian, Oster, Tresckow)

To be clear, Taos Ski Valley sits on land once “owned” by the Taos Pueblo Native Americans, which was then appropriated by colonists from the Spanish Empire, before being taken as war spoils by the United States in the 19th Century.

So where does the Euro-centric architecture/culture come from?

Well, Ernie Blake, the founder, came to America as Ernie Bloch. He was a Swiss German Jew who left Europe, founded a little ski area at the edge of the world, yet still wanted to create an atmosphere like home.

Pretty weird, right?

Well, yes and no.

Because all of contemporary America was founded by European expats who came over here to begin again, and brought their culture with them. (To be clear, I’ve written many words over the years about the exception that is African-American history, but we’re not going there today.)

If you drive through parts of Texas, you see signs advertising kolaches, a Czech snack food that is fairly far from home. Why? Because it was mostly Czech and German immigrants who beat back the Comanche in the 19th Century.

We all know there are a shit-ton of Scandinavians in Minnesota, Polish-Americans in Chicago, Irish in Boston, French descendants in Louisiana, and so on.

There are weird-ass European town names that pop up all over America, including places like Brooklyn, which has become synonymous with American cool. (Or obnoxious, bearded hipsters, depending on your POV.)

How could it be otherwise, when an entire Continent has been populated with riffraff from elsewhere?

That much I understand.

But what about the other way around? Are there places in Europe that are obsessed with America, even though our histories officially diverged around the time of the Boston Tea Party?

I’m glad you asked.

Because I just put down “EUSA,” a fun, new book by Naomi Harris, recently published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, so I feel pretty qualified to answer your question.

To begin with, I believe Naomi Harris is Canadian, so the entire premise of a book looking at the overlap between America and Europe begins with a touch of absurdity. Thankfully, it meshes perfectly with the vibe of the book, and the style of the images, so don’t bother with this one if you lack a sense of humor.

The last few weeks, I’ve discussed how certain books utilize the cover to generate interest. This is no different. As the below picture attests, this cover is made from the sort of plasticy-rubbery composite that makes one think of travel guide books of old, or maybe textbooks you might have bought in college.

The title is also built out of smaller versions of itself, which I had to squint to understand, upon first viewing, thereby grabbing my attention further.

Inside, we’re met with a well-written explanatory essay, by the artist, laying out the parameters of the project. Ms. Harris visited tourist-type-places in the US that honor the heritage of the local founding culture, but also spots in Europe that display a fascination with American culture.

Mostly the Wild West.

You know, like, where I live.

The short version of my opinion is that it’s a cool, smart, funny project, and the images are really well made. (There are also more than a few images of scantily clad ladies, so there’s a slightly sexed-up energy as well.) As Gen X is famous for its embrace of irony, I can only imagine that Ms. Harris is no Millennial, but I’m too classy to Google her birthday and out her age.

The long version is that I think the book is flawed, which is OK, because it’s clearly reaching out towards some edge, without knowing exactly where it is.

The idea that global culture, in particular urban culture, is becoming homogenized is nothing new. We’ve heard plenty about it, and the rebellion against globalized culture struck fiercely in 2016-17, giving us Brexit, Trump, and the incessant use of the word “cuck.”

(Seriously though, I’m willing to bet that EVERY guy who uses the word “cuck” on Twitter hasn’t gotten laid in at least 5 years.)

So by giving us a visual mashup, and intentionally creating images that force you to look hard, trying to surmise which Continent you’re seeing, the book takes its place on the frontline of cultural exploration, here in 2018.

My problems come more from the book’s structure. Frankly, I think there are too many images, and it’s been slightly over-designed. It’s not that some images are of a lesser quality, rather I question whether this many are necessary to make the point, or present a cohesive vision?

Sometimes, less is more.

Secondly, the book is regularly interrupted by an email exchange, printed sideways on vellum paper, between two art world insiders: Erik Kessels of Holland, and Carolina Miranda of LA.

Yes, I knew who they were without having to look it up, but at this point, I’m something of an insider myself, I suppose. (Though I’ll carry my rebellious streak until I die.)

But most readers, outside our small circle, would not know such things. The interviews are witty and interesting enough, but lacking context, and showing up randomly, they take me out of the narrative a bit, and I question whether it’s an effective technique.

(Again, edgy projects take risks, so I’m not trashing her for doing so, just wondering if it’s as successful as hoped.)

At the end of the book, there is a bit of explanation as to who the two writers are, emailing each other across the ocean. (He’s an artist and ad man in Amsterdam, she’s a cultural critic for the LA Times.) So the editorial team understood context was necessary.

I just think they put it in the wrong place. (I suppose I’m quibbling, but that is a part of the job.)

Overall, I think it’s a smart, cool project, with many compelling images within. The irony works well, the saturated colors refer to digital reality, and the sum total presents a world in which we can be fascinated by the Other, rather than simply afraid.

That’s a message that bears repeating in these tumultuous times.

Bottom Line: Very cool book about the intersection between the Old and New worlds.

To purchase “EUSA” click here

If you’d like to submit a book to be considered for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Corinne Vionnet

 

Well, 2017, it’s time for you to go.

Sure, we had some memories.
You were nothing if not dramatic.

You’ve given us natural disasters aplenty, (Harvey/Irma/Maria) political intrigue so unwieldy it could choke a coked-up giraffe, and now, apparently, you’ve frozen the entire Eastern half of the United States.

But as I made my 2017 jokes a few weeks ago, I’ll spare you here. Rather, I’ll settle into that other tried and tested trope: the New Year’s resolution.

Next year, I plan to spend less time looking at screens than I did in 2017.

And I hope you do too.

It’s shocking, how much of my day is spent staring at a screen. Unlike many of you, I’m no phone junkie. But between my laptop and my television, I clock hours and hours each day in a mediated existence.

I’ve been fighting back lately, having replaced some social media time with a hike up the hill each day, as I previously told you. (Such genius! The daily walk. Perhaps I’ve invented something new?)

In general, though, I’m as much a screen-freak as anyone.

Sometimes, if I’m lying in bed watching Netflix on the computer, I’ll look above the screen, to the mountains outside my window, and then pause the show for a moment, and close the laptop.

Something innate in me recognizes the need to see what’s before me, what’s real, rather than the entertainment I’ve jacked into through the Matrix.

And then I’ll raise the screen again and press play, leaving contemplation of nature for another day. (Or art, food, cars, music, books: there are so many treats in the analog world.)

So I’m planning to give myself a screen-free-day over the next few weeks. There will be piles of books and magazines. Lots of food to cook, and kung fu to practice. (I started studying again this year, as 2017 has not been all bad, just insane.)

Will I follow through?
Would you try it yourself?
No screens for a day?

I’m in mind of the question, having just put down “ME. Here Now,” a new book by Corinne Vionnet, recently published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta.

The book was hand-delivered at a cafe here in Taos, as one of the Fall Line crew was vacationing in town, so we met for coffee. My desire to review books by female artists is hopefully well-known by now, so I told Virginie I could review this one after looking at 3 pages.

That’s all it took.

Because it brought me back to the 2011-16 photo-eye years, when I used to regularly get my hands on weird, smart, well-produced, small-batch art books.

For years, I saw that shit all the time, so you did too.

These days, though, my submissions tend towards serious, social documentary books, for the most part. (Not that this one isn’t serious.) But it’s edgy, and strange, which I love.

I think it took me until the third photo to realize I was looking at pictures of people taking pictures with their cell phones, and that the images in the book were likely shot on/from/of computer screens.

But with each passing page, in the midst of the consistency, the weird hand positions made me question whether it was real. What is real, these days, anyway?

Were there digital manipulations?
Why did everyone hold their phones up to their eyes?
Who does that?

Then there’s a block of images, breaking up the narrative, which shows a ghostly black and gray mirage, sandwiching a beautiful European building.

After that, back to the creepy phone photographers.

What to make of it all?

Well, it’s disturbing and dystopic, while also suggesting that elements are “documentary,” or un-manipulated, if you will.

But a good book asks good questions, and then doesn’t leave you hanging. So just as I was scratching my head, I turned the page, and there was an explanatory essay by noted photography critic and theorist Marvin Heiferman.

That’s the publishing equivalent of saying, “What, you have questions about comedy? Why, here’s Jerry Seinfeld to satisfy all your curiosity. You’re welcome!”

It’s established directly that Ms. Vionnet is photographing tourists at Sacré-Coeur, the beautiful cathedral at the highest point in Paris. (Photographing up explains the subjects’ repeated camera positions.)

Though it’s a great essay, pictures like this don’t need words to explain why they’re unsettling. We all know our lives are moderated by machines, more and more, with each passing year.

This is indisputable.

It’s gotten to the point that people mainly communicate via the machines, and not IRL. (You know, in the same room, through sound waves emanating from one’s vocal cords.)

So perhaps we should all adopt the resolution in 2018 to moderate the impulse?

And go for a walk each day, when possible.

Bottom Line: Seductive, creepy, excellent art book about our virtual reality

To purchase “ME. Here Now.” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Orestes Gonzalez

 

I don’t know from Miami.

I may have had lunch there with my grandmother and her husband, driven in an 80’s Cadillac, but if so, I was just a kid at the time.

I’ve heard all the Florida jokes, and told a few myself. My cousin, the comedian Ken Krantz, has made me LOL on Twitter several times, with Florida as the butt of his humor.

But Miami has a different reputation.

It’s less about the con men, and the illiterate meth-dealing hookers, and more about glitz, glamour, and a stylish, Pan-Latino global elite.

Even so, I’m not sure most people would say they have a positive impression of Miami’s culture, and likely know little of the Cuban community at its heart.

(True story, when I pitched Miami as a potential vacation destination, my wife said, “No, I don’t think I’d like the people there.” I said, “But you’ve never been there.” She replied, “Yeah, just from everything I’ve ever read or seen on TV.”)

I told her that it was probably just a stereotype, but then again, I don’t know for sure. Because as I said at the beginning, I know jack squat about Miami.

I can tell you one thing, though.

If I had gotten to party at Uncle Julio’s house, back in the day, I can state with high confidence that I’d be a Miami lover for life.

But who is Uncle Julio?

It’s a fair question.

I’ve just put down the stellar “Julio’s House,” a new book by Orestes Gonzalez, recently published by Kris Graves Projects. I don’t do the best-of, end-of-year lists myself, and don’t read other people’s either, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ended up on some of them.

I know that no one, except for Rob and me, has read all of my columns. (I know I have. How about you, Rob?) But seriously, over a now 6+ year weekly column, themes emerge about what I think a good photobook should do.

I appreciate it when a book chooses to inform the viewer at the proper pace for the story. Meaning, don’t hide things I should know, and don’t tell me things I can easily discover for myself.

“Julio’s House” entices from the outset, with a great blue cover. Then we see a funky graphic page, which turns up later as wallpaper. (But we’ll get to that.)

The book opens with one sentence of text on a white page, and a photo opposite. Flip the page, and then you get two more sentences.

In short order, as a viewer, we know what we need to know, and yet we’re curious, and empathetic, wanting to know more. The book builds upon that, teasing out details with short, compelling bursts of text, mixed with historical photos and Polaroids. (I like Roula Seikaly’s summation essay at the end as well.)

We learn Julio left Cuba after the revolution, (he’d been working on a cruise ship,) and got a job in a hotel in Miami. And then all of a sudden, as the story is heading in one direction, they drop a little narrative bomb in the middle.

We turn the page, and see the first interior from what we can reasonably guess to be Julio’s house.

OMG.

The wallpaper from earlier shows up, along with some green carpet, and a style I can best describe as garish.

Like Liberace-level-gay interior design.

There are a few more pictures in this style, and they’re very well done. Really sharp, good light.

They’re ironic, and kitschy, but they also don’t feel mean. That’s a tight rope to walk.

The text starts to tell stories about parties, back in the day, and you’re just wondering, was Uncle Julio in the closet? Or was he out, even then? What must that have been like, in a culture famous for machismo.

Then, we get a series of Polaroids of gay men, with mustaches. Are they former lovers of Julio? Seriously, I’m into this, like a telenovela or something.

It’s reeling me in.

Sure enough, a few pages later, there it is.
“Julio was gay, and his flamboyant lifestyle clashed with the macho Cuban environment of the times.”

It’s like the book stimulates questions, gets you engaged, and then answers those questions at just the right time.

A lot of thought goes into something like this.

That I like the pictures, and think they’re very well done, only makes it better. There’s a perfect blend of the past and the present. The first person narration throughout works so well, and there’s never more text than there needs to be.

By the time we get to what I assume is a portrait of an elderly Julio, near the bouquet in his house, I’m feeling genuinely sorry to know he passed away.

And remember, we learned that in a one-sentence intro on page 1.

This is an excellent book, and like last week’s offering, I’m glad I picked it up off the stack when I did. Because it’s one more reminder of how great it is to live in a society where people of all faiths, nationalities, genders and sexual orientations are allowed to be themselves. (Insert appropriate Alabama joke here.)

Sure, it’s easy to think things are terrible, with you-know-who in charge, but this book affirms that as a younger gay man, Orestes doesn’t face the same challenges his Uncle did.

And we’re living in a world where books like this get made, and rightly celebrated, by a free press.

So maybe things aren’t all bad in 2017?

Bottom Line: Poignant, well-considered, excellent story about a gay Cuban icon

To purchase “Julio’s House,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Jason Reblando

 

My son is studying American history in 4th grade.

Benjamin Franklin.
The Revolution.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”

His little sister, all of five, misheard Patrick Henry’s quote, and apparently she and her best friend were chanting “Give me America, or give me death,” on the school playground.

(You can’t make this shit up.)

I pointed out to my son, however, that while that was the history I learned in school…

The Stamp Tax.
The Boston Tea Party.
The shot heard round the world.
Washington crossing the Delaware.

…That it was really only one part of American history. There were the Native Americans, of course, but our very own New Mexico had a Spanish Colonial history I was never taught.

New Orleans, where I went last week, came from a French colony that also gave roots to the America we know today. (And a hedonistic set of roots, at that. If you can’t have fun in NOLA, you’re not trying hard enough.)

I’ll have a set of review articles from Photo NOLA for you guys in the coming weeks, but for now, I want to share some advice I often give to people at the review table. (In particular, photojournalists and documentary shooters.)

There are two elements of the “fine art aesthetic” I identify for people who are shooting in a looser, camera-tilted, or just-grabbed sort of style.

First, I talk about formalism, geometric compositions, and balanced image structures that come from a Germanic tradition, like the Bechers. (#RIP) I think a solid structure, (mixed with great light,) allows a viewer to really sink into what you’re visually communicating.

Secondly, sharpness and clarity are the ultimate cheats, in great fine art photography. People use big cameras, and super-sharp lenses, because our eyes inherently read sharpness as pleasing.

And it’s sister, clarity, means that an increase in three dimensionality happens, and images separate well into foreground, mid-ground and background.

Sharpness is our friend, for sure.

So I was happy to open up “New Deal Utopias” today, a new book by Jason Reblando, released this fall by Kehrer Verlag. (Who continue to do a stellar job.)

It stuck in the back of my mind that this book had come in a while ago, and when I saw it was postmarked September, I knew I had to give it a look.

Truly, you could not find a better example of both of the above tenets. Not in one book. These images are razor sharp, and the compositions speak for themselves.

Not only that, “New Deal Utopias” also shows us something we haven’t seen before. (That happens to look like a lot of what we HAVE seen before, tonally, in contemporary America.)

The story is that Jason photographed in three towns which were built along utopian, idealistic, essentially socialistic lines during the Great Depression.

Public money went into building them, people were specifically chosen to live there, and there was green space built-in to offer a higher quality of life.

Fast forward 75 years, and the three towns with Green in their names, in Ohio, Maryland and Wisconsin, look a little worse for wear. (Like the grass coming up through the basketball court.)

I love the pennants, as a repeating motif, as well the excellent blend of interiors, exteriors, and landscapes. (This dude really knows what he’s doing.)

Though each image is titled, and the town is named, I’m more impressed by the overall contemporary-America vibe. It all feels like middle-America, down-on-its-heels-USA.

(It makes me think of an Empire in decline, while the obvious heir, China, flexes her muscles more obviously every day.)

Then again, there is one image of a dental care sign: Drs. McCarl McCarl McCarl & McCarl that made me giggle. A total changeup in tone that I often recommend, and this book contains short text quotes to break up the narrative as well.

Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t see this book a few months ago.

Today was just the right time.

Because it reminds me that America has always been an experiment, and that progress comes whether we want it to, or not. (These days, 10 year olds ask why the founding fathers owned slaves…)

This has always been a messy society, America, cobbled together out of all others, and I guess we’ll just have to see what 2018 brings.

Now won’t we.

Bottom Line: Excellent, precise look at a Middle-American Utopia

To Purchase “New Deal Utopias,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Patrick Nagatani

 

It’s Thanksgiving day, and unfortunately I’m working.

Weekly-column-deadlines being what they are, it was time to sit down and write. But don’t feel too bad for me.

It’s work, yes, but writing for you guys is not exactly like digging ditches. And I should know, as one day a year, I have to hook up with my neighbors to clean our acequia system. (Ditches, that is.)

But once I’m done here, I get to turn my attention to the festivities. There’s gravy to make, Brussels sprouts to wash, nephews to enjoy, football to watch, and plenty of turkey to eat.

Here in America, Thanksgiving is the one day a year that we all agree to eat a giant, dead bird.

(And typically a flavorless one, though my Mom’s brining technique at least keeps it moist.)

It used to be my favorite holiday, growing up in New Jersey. We’d get together at my Aunt Lynda’s house each year, in East Brunswick, and playing football in the yard with my cousins was Just. The. Best.

As a grownup though, (particularly one who has to host the feast, having been anointed by the grandmas a few years back,) I tend to focus more on the obligation of it all.

Each year, I like it less.

And to top it off, I had to be honest with my 10-year-old about the fact that while the Pilgrims and Native Americans might have gotten along at one point, (however briefly,) after that, our ancestors killed them all and took their land.

Yay!
Let’s eat.

But seriously, the holiday is called Thanksgiving. The idea of giving thanks, of sharing appreciation, of taking stock and being grateful for what you have, it’s baked into the title.

If we divest ourselves of any necessary connection to 17th Century Massachusetts, and think about a Holiday just for being thankful, then I can get behind that.

And as it’s just past 8am, and I’m mostly done here, maybe I’ll just find a way to have fun today?

Maybe I’ll thank my parents for helping out with my kids all the time? And thank my wife for working so hard?

I can thank you guys, for being a loyal audience. And thank my teachers, who helped me become the person I am.

Just last week, in fact, I went back to UNM, in Albuquerque, and gave a talk to Jim Stone’s Intermediate Photo class. We sat in a high tech digital lab, painted in sleek dark gray, yet I remembered learning in that same room, 20 years ago, when it had a few tables and chairs, and maybe a blackboard.

I took Photo 1 in that very room, in 1997, and now it’s 2017. You can’t top that: the 20 year anniversary.

Even better, not only did I tell the students about my work, but I also offered them the chance to critique something new I’m working on. Though they were only in their second semester, the students were amazing, and gave me some great ideas that I’ve already put into practice less than a week later.

So thank you, Jim Stone’s UNM students. I really appreciate the help.

I was lucky, back in 1998, to have a class with Patrick Nagatani at UNM. He’d already been there for a while, having studied at UCLA with the great Robert Heinecken. Patrick had been successful as an artist, including a fruitful partnership with Andrée Tracey.

By the time I met him, he was in the prime of life, and was extremely influential in helping me understand how to make art. Not to just click a shutter, but to have an idea in mind. To have a point. And to be willing to push yourself to make things you hadn’t seen before.

Now that I think about it, Patrick also told me to call Bill Hunt, when I was headed to NYC that year, and not only did Bill agree to see me, but he bought a picture out of the box, and helped me get my art career off the ground.

I’ve thanked Bill before, but I don’t know if I ever thanked Patrick.

He died a few weeks ago, after a 10 year bout with cancer.

Patrick Nagatani, a Japanese-American, got himself an obituary in the New York Times, because he mattered as an artist, yet it’s the one “honor” that no one ever knows they’ve received.

I last saw him, 3 or 4 years ago, outside a gallery in Santa Fe. He was being trailed by a Japanese documentary film crew, and kept stepping outside for smoke breaks.

I chatted him up, in the cool breeze, and his positive energy was infectious. The guy was the real deal as an artist too. We’d met in his studio, back in 2009, and he showed me work in which he’d appropriated low-res images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, enlarged and printed them, and then coated them with perfectly constructed strips of colored tape.

It’s hard to describe how lovely they were, and how exacting and tricky they were to make. Zen as shit too. (I doubt that sentence has ever been written before.)

Patrick did one project in which he created an altar ego, Ryoichi, and made models implying there had been previous versions of humanity that had existed, and then become extinct.

Weird stuff.

He was creative, and original, and my favorite work, by far, was “Nuclear Enchantment,” published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 1991.

I’ve never reviewed a book before that wasn’t current, but then again, Thanksgiving is no ordinary day. It’s also the 6th anniversary of the birth of this column: the night my mother-in-law woke us up by rapping a gun outside our bedroom door, and then I wrote about it in a Taryn Simon book review.

I was sad to see that I never had Patrick sign my copy, as I remember that I’d brought it into school once for that purpose. (Had I lost the nerve to ask, at the time?) But after skimming the informative, long essay by Eugenia Parry Janis, I dove right into the plates, and they hold up so well.

These pictures were made before digital reality. They are all old school: painted backdrops, real places, drawings, models, and real people, all overlaid, and shot multiple times on film, when necessary.

I believe he’d established the aesthetic in his work with Andrée Tracey, but damn if these images don’t perfectly anticipate the rise of our all-digital culture. Saturated colors, the real and the unreal intermingled, drawings mashed with photographs, all of it feels so current.

Photoshop was made for this stuff.
It’s so easy now.

But think about how hard it was back then, and how seamless the pictures are. (There are a few clunkers, but almost all are just amazing.)

These days, (as my Dad pointed out at dinner last night,) we’re always told to “stay in your lane.” Write or make art about what you know. Don’t try to interpret a culture that’s not your own.

We’ve been over this many times before, so I’ll spare you.

But Patrick Nagatani, who was born in 1945, and whose family back in Japan lived outside Hiroshima, was coming directly from his own cultural perspective by taking an interest in New Mexico’s nuclear history.

And the history of nuclear power.

So he researched it obsessively, with reams of help, and then titled his pictures in ways that would allow viewers access to crucial information.

Yet he also sampled directly from New Mexico’s Native American Pueblo culture, dropping layers of koshares and kachinas. These days, most people would shy away from that, but in “Nuclear Enchantment,” it’s just right.

Then, we’ve got to throw in the shoutouts to Hiroshige and Hokusai, the master Japanese 19th Century woodblock printmakers, as the dangling fish, and the soaring eagle/hawk, are direct references to their work.

Have you gotten all that yet?
I’ll summarize.

It’s historically accurate, well researched, analog tableaux work, that required teams of people to assist him, including his family, and blended Japanese-American, Japanese, and Native American art historical traditions, all while anticipating the predominant visual aesthetic of the next Century and Millennium.

Wow.

I’d also like to thank Martha Schneider, of the Schneider Gallery in Chicago.

We were chatting at Filter in September, and she told me that Patrick was very close to death. As he’d fought the vicious disease for so long, I was surprised to hear it had finally caught up with him.

She suggested I say my goodbyes while I could.

I wrote him, and we traded a few emails. I sent him blessings for his next journey, and I assure you, that’s not an email I’ve written before.

Patrick also insisted on having UNM send me a copy of his new novel, which I’m planning to read over Xmas break.

Jim Stone called Patrick the strongest man he’s ever known, and said he made it to his own book signing, just five days before he died.

Rest in Peace, Patrick.

And I hope the rest of you have a great holiday weekend. In these trying, Trumpian times, if you have people to be thank, I’d suggest you get on with it.

Bottom Line: An out-of-print masterpiece

To purchase “Nuclear Enchantment” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

 

 

This Week in Photography Books: Kathy Shorr

 

It’s hard to know the future.

To be aware of what’s coming, but unable to stop it from happening.

It’s not a hypothetical situation, though. It is hard, and I speak from experience.

In the United States of America, tomorrow, or maybe next week, there is going to be a shooting rampage that kills a bunch of innocent people.

I know it will happen.
And so do you.

That these tragedies cannot be prevented, even though we’re certain they’re just up ahead, is a special kind of torture. It’s our own national nightmare, and by now, many of us have given up on finding a solution.

Just like subjects from the Aztec empire, slowly ascending the temple steps, waiting to have our hearts ripped out “for the greater good,” we’re all sitting here, paralyzed, unable to believe the problem can ever be solved.

Some weeks I’m funny, and some weeks I’m optimistic, but on this subject, I’m neither.

The scope of the horror is too great, and the reality of each tragedy is too sad to contemplate. Better to embrace denial, like a long-lost friend, and hope the grim reaper raps on another door when it’s time to collect the souls.

These days, you can get shot in the head while you’re praying to God in Church, dancing at a country-music concert, or cowering under your desk at school. A bullet might rip through your car window while you’re waiting at the drive-thru, or maybe your assailant will point a gun in your face, stare coldly into your eyes, and then pull the trigger.

We all want to make it stop, but we simply can’t.

Isn’t there anything anyone can do?

I’m not hopeful, but then again, the world is populated with do-gooders, as well as killers, so there’s always someone out there willing to try.

In this case, I’m thinking of Kathy Shorr, as I recently put down “SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America,” recently published by powerHouse books.

Frankly, I had to put this one down before I finished it, and then pick it up again a minute later, because the sadness, the tension, was just too much for me.

The book’s premise is an interesting one, because while such stories often focus on the dead, this project interviews people who faced death, and survived. The people who can tell us exactly what it feels like to have their lives destroyed by gun violence.

The pain.
The fear.
The scars.
The aftermath.

The pictures in this book need little explication, as the title is enough to clue us in on what’s going on here. But still, there is an excellent foreward, there are quotes interspersed, and then a photo-based-bio index in the back. (Like last week’s book, I must say I’m a fan of the technique. It makes learning more about the subject easy and engaging.)

I’m not going to drop 1200 words on you today.

I just don’t have it in me.

My cynicism on this subject, and my anger at our inability to stop this wave of violence, has sapped me of my normally-positive-outlook.

Rather, I see our national gun obsession, and the powerful interests that block meaningful change, as twin towers of ignorance.

I want to believe things will get better, but I don’t.

Instead of depressing you further, though, I’m going to show a larger group of photographs from “SHOT.” Because sometimes, we all need to know that even if we’ve given up, others haven’t.

If Kathy Shorr were as hopeless as I am, she never would have made this book. It takes too much time, and too much effort, if you don’t believe it will make a difference.

Creating things, fighting back, pushing for change, making beauty out of heartbreak, these impulses suffuse this project. So I’ll let it speak for itself.

Bottom Line: A brilliant examination of our national disgrace

To purchase “SHOT,” click here

If you would like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com