Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books: Jason Langer

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

He was handsome.

That was the first thing the barkeep noticed. Handsome in a country kind of way.

This was no twink.

The young man in the cowboy hat couldn’t have been more than twenty-five; more likely he was just past the legal drinking age. He’d come in about ten minutes before, walked up to the bar with a bow-legged gait, and asked for a Bud draft.

He paid with a five, left a dollar tip, then retreated to a table with a good view of the ladies.

The barkeep was certain he’d kept the last buck to give to one of the girls, so he wouldn’t feel too bad about hunkering down. You’ve got to give them SOMETHING if you want to stare at their tits, and a dollar is something, as opposed to nothing at all.

If this were another bar, in another part of town, the barkeep would have hit on the cowboy. That beer would have been free, so too the next. He was good-looking enough for five free beers, if we’re being honest, but only in another story.

In this one, the cowboy was clearly straight, so the barkeep could do nothing but cop the occasional stare.

The music was too loud, just like every other night. Some sailor just walked in with a handful of buddies, only this one looked like he was trying to fit in. A more promising candidate, that’s for sure.

The barkeep was actually ogling the sailor when the cowboy came back to the bar.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said.

“What can I do for you, cowboy?”

“Well, sir, I find myself in a bit of a predicament, you might say.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, sir, you see, the problem is, I’m not exactly supposed to be here.”

“You don’t say?”

“No, sir. I just came up here to town to arrange the sale of my family’s almond crop. We’ve got a farm out there in the Central Valley.”

“I never would have known.”

“Well, that’s kind of you to say, sir. But my Pa, he don’t take kindly to me frequenting these types of establishment. He thinks it’s a waste of money.”

“It takes all kinds.”

“Well, that’s how I feel about it, but my Pa don’t exactly agree. You see, the reason I came up here to talk to you is that I’m supposed to be home right about now, but here I am.”

“You’re right here in front of me, handsome.”

“Like I said, I’m supposed be home, and here I am. As to the problem I mentioned, well, I’ve got to call home and tell my Pa that I had a flat tire, and I’m a couple hours behind.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“Well, I hope that’s true. But the problem I keep mentioning is that I just spent my last five dollars on this here beer, your tip, and a buck for the lovely lady over there. I think her name’s Lexus.”

“How can I help you, cowboy?”

“Well, sir, I feel right bad asking you this, but I need 25 cents to call home on that there pay phone, but I don’t have a dime. Is there any chance you might spot me a quarter, and I can pay you back next time I come in?”

“Well, cowboy, that’s no trouble at all. Normally, I’d just give you the quarter. But since you’re so cute, how about you give me a little peck on the cheek, and we’ll call it even,” said the barkeep, now extending a quarter in his right hand.

The cowboy looked sheepish, or at least pretended to, then took the quarter, leaned in, and kissed the barkeep on the left cheek. It was over before it started, then he sauntered to the pay phone in back, lit up by Miller High Life neon, dropped the coin into the slot, and began to dial.

The light glowed off of his cowboy hat, as he leaned towards the payphone, to better hear over the noise, and in that one half second, the barkeep knew he’d give that young man anything, if only he’d ask.

And… scene.

In photo class, I sometimes talk about implied narrative. The idea that a story is right there, practically suggested, if only we have the creativity to fill in the blanks.

A great photograph might walk you so far down the path that you’re lazy if you don’t bother to connect the dots.

The image in question comes from “Jason Langer: Twenty Years,” a book released by Radius earlier this Spring. It sat in my pile forever, and now that I’ve opened it up, I’m glad I did.

Another writer might have been seduced by the cowboy, but I was hooked by the payphone. It’s SO fucking 20th Century. (And the Miller High Life sign was pretty great too.)

I interviewed Jason Langer a few years ago, and I enjoy his work, though I wouldn’t say I love it. As with the review a couple of weeks ago, one particular picture made this book worth writing about.

Jason shoots in black and white, and his style fits in the center of three Venn diagrams marked “moody,” “set in the past,” and “overtly strange.” Most of his pictures look like they could have been shot in any decade between 1880 and 1960.

They’re much more “hat wearing” Don Draper than “Esalen-era” Don, if you catch my drift. Old fashioned, but in a way that reveres gray-scale, rather than mocking it. There’s just not much irony to be seen.

I found, oddly, that the pictures in the book from the last century had a stronger impact on me than the more recent work. But for once, it didn’t seem that the artist had been less successful.

Rather, and more subtly, my brain seemed to accept that the 90’s, that last pre-internet decade, really did belong to another temporal universe than ours. Almost like, after Y2K, or 9/11, we all jumped tracks to another reality. The continuity strings between the 19’s and the 20’s were cut, and we’ve all been making it up as we go along.

That’s why the payphone grabbed me so much. How quaint, how antiquated, and yet, 20 years really isn’t that long ago. (Or 18, as this photo was shot in ’98.) At first, it felt like New York, but Pacific Bell was a West Coast thing, right?

Then I thought of all those go-go bars in San Francisco; the ones near North Beach. I think there are a gaggle of them on Broadway, but honestly, I wouldn’t know. I was with my wife by the time I lived there, so the strip club phase was already in my personal rearview.

There are many excellent photographs in this book. Jason is a pro, understands his own vision, and as I’ve seen his work before, I think they did a great job creating a smooth edit. If you like this sort of photography, the book will be for you.

But I’m just glad I had my moment, pretending to be a cowboy, hoping a gay bartender might do me a solid. I’ve got almonds to move, goddammit, and they’re not going to sell themselves.

Bottom Line: Classy book where the 19th, 20th and 21st C’s collide

To Purchase “Jason Langer: Twenty Years” Visit PhotoEye

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This Week In Photography Books: William Eggleston

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

It all began when I forgot my cell phone.
(Which is rare.)

It’s a strange feeling, like being naked except for your socks. There’s a discomfiting sense of incompleteness when our devices are left behind.

I was driving Theo home from soccer practice last night, when we’d normally be eating dinner. Instead, we began our ascent of Blueberry Hill, just as the sky turned crazy.

As photographers, we know how crucial light is to our end product. No matter how hard I stress the point, my students still don’t get it, as appreciating illumination is a life-long endeavor, and they’ve only just begun.

But last night… any fool could see things were special.

Climbing in 2nd gear, right behind two big pick-up trucks, I looked to East to Taos Mountain, which was glowing amber. When green trees turn gold, every photographer reaches for the camera.

So I did.
But it wasn’t there.

Instead, I’d been given an opportunity to really look. I often feel that photography, while freezing time for the future, actually makes it more difficult to revel in the present.

Thinking about taking pictures leaves less RAM for appreciating what’s in front of you.

By the time we’d crested the hill, it had begun to rain lightly, even though the sun was beaming in the West as it dropped towards the horizon.

We cut across the Taos valley, everything before us shining like a swarm of lightning bugs in July. I turned to Theo and said, “We’re definitely getting a rainbow out of this.”

As the car sped North, there it was. Not one rainbow but TWO! (The Double-Rainbow being a New Mexico speciality.)

We call it walking rain, out here, when you can see curtains of moisture, from the clouds to the ground. It is beautiful, of course, but you get used to it.

Nothing could have prepared us, though, for the massive mist of walking rain, gleaming copper, enveloping the mountains, slashed in two by the double-rainbow. The ROYGBIV colors were so intense, reality became a hyper-real touch-screen.

Air, something you normally can’t see, was multi-hued, and it was so luscious that I wanted to reach right through the silver Hyundai’s window and touch it.

Theo kept saying, “Take a picture, Dad. Take a picture.”

But I couldn’t.

Then, and I swear this is true, a huge lightning bolt rent the sky, right between the two rainbows. Theo and I screamed aloud, as words failed us. (Today he said, “It was magic, Dad. Actual magic.”)

Four cars pulled off the road rapidly, as if they’d blown a tire, so the drivers could snap the perfect Instagram square.
I kept reaching for my phone, like a phantom limb, but it was futile.

We lived those 15 minutes, and I can recall so much more now than if I’d tried to capture it. It’s a paradox, especially for an audience of photographers.

Is it ever a good idea to just put the camera down and watch?

I ask you, now that I’ve just finished with “William Eggleston: Portraits,” a new book that turned up in the mail from the National Portrait Gallery in London. (Thanks guys!) I’ve been meaning to show you this one, and today’s the right time.

It’s a perfect foil for the Diane Arbus book we reviewed two weeks ago, as this also introduces a black and white vision that pre-dates what we know of Eggleston’s masterworks. (You might recall I reviewed his brilliant “Los Alamos” project earlier this summer.)

As I wrote then, William Eggleson’s mature work, his rambling American color photographs from the late 60’s and early 70’s, is as good as anything that’s been made. He owns color; a certain saturated palette in particular, and you’ll have to claw it out of his cold dead hands.

So what was this black and white then?

Unlike Ms. Arbus’ early 35mm photographs, which contained the tension inherent in her later work, these early pictures look like they could have been made by any number of people. They’re exploratory, rather than resolved.

They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a big chasm between good and historically great. There’s even a photo that looks suspiciously like a Robert Frank picture from “The Americans.” (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Once he shifts to color, the work takes off, but the book still has a continuity problem. We see several of his seminal images, which are inter-mixed with portraits of his family, and pictures of famous people. (What I wouldn’t give to have sat in the back seat as he shot a peak-talent Dennis Hopper, in the early 70s, on the very same road I drove through Taos last night.)

The portraits, and several proto-selfies, are all strong of course, and it wouldn’t be complete without Eggleston naked in a red room, his penis hanging out for all to see. (I said red room. Not red rum.)

The exhibition was organized by the NPG, which is a terrific museum. I saw a cool Man Ray portrait show there a few years ago, which I reviewed here, and recall having a similar problem.

When you decontextualize an artist’s work, you break the narrative that projects create. Pictures are designed to go together so themes can emerge, and symbols repeat. I spent 10 freaking minutes analyzing his use of Coca-Cola Red at Pier 24 in May, because I was so interested in how he had achieved this kind of greatness.

But here, for the sake of an exhibition-constructed narrative, the spell was broken. All fine pictures, yes. But they didn’t take my breath away, despite Sofia Coppola’s implicit promise that they would. (She wrote a brief introduction.)

I’d guess most people would still want this book, as it brings together a chunk of excellent photographs, while giving you a glimpse into the artist’s private life. In 2016, no one can seem to get enough of the backstory. (It includes an extensive Q&A with the artist as well.)

But it reminded me that sometimes, when you’re looking at perfect light on your daughter’s cheek, or a day-dream happy expression in your wife’s eyes, you need to fight off the urge to take a picture.

Just enjoy, until the moment is gone.

Bottom Line: Fascinating yet flawed look at Eggleston’s portraits

To Purchase “William Eggleston: Portraits” Visit the National Portrait Gallery in London

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This Week In Photography Books: Dana Lixenberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the early days of the Great Recession, Barack Obama signed a stimulus bill injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the American economy.

Little ol’ Kit Carson Electric Cooperative here in Taos was given 64 MILLION DOLLARS! The goal was to wire up homes in our rural area, providing fiber-optic cable directly to every house that requested it.

The program put people to work, laying cable and digging trenches, but also provided much needed affordable high-speed internet to residents locked into high prices for very little service.

I was stuck in that situation, paying evil CenturyLink $45/month for a promised 1.5 mb/ second. (It was always slower than that.)

No higher speed was offered.
Period.

Seven years later, I finally got my 30mb/second for $40/month. As of last week, I’ve officially joined the 21st Century. (Insert government efficiency joke here.)

My first move, after telling CenturyLink to fuck off, was to set up Netflix. All those shows you’ve been watching were finally in my grasp, like a handful of lollypops fresh from the piñata.

I began with “House of Cards” since it came first; Netflix’s big debut. My wife and I sat down on the couch, and were immersed in a fleshed-out universe of power, greed, desire, betrayal, and, ultimately, murder.

Jessie pulled out near the end of the first season, realizing this was not a redemptive story. She had no interest in filling her brain with negative, Machiavellian schemes, once she realized there would be no light at the end of the tunnel. (I made a similar choice with “Breaking Bad,” and never regretted it.)

So now I’m on my own, pressing the “next episode” button like a rat begging for pellets. Please sir, may I have some more?

More drama. More pain. More controversy. More emotional escape into the fictive lives of others.

We’re all voyeurs at this point. We peek in on our high school friends in bikinis on Instagram, read salacious tidbits about politicians on nytimes.com, or perhaps binge-watch “The Wire” to fool ourselves into thinking we could possibly know how hard some people have it, on the other side of the tracks.

As photographers, and photo-book lovers, we often get our “virtual” reality as we turn the pages of someone else’s story. Photographer X goes to visit Culture Y, and the resulting Z images hold our attention for a little while.

No harm done.

But occasionally, you pick up a book that might not deviate from that pattern, but it renders others’ lives in such emotionally wrought detail that you don’t feel like a snoop. Rather, you have the sense that your understanding of the human condition has ratcheted up one notch, and you’re the better for it.

“Imperial Courts, 1993-2015” a photo-book by Dana Lixenberg, released by Roma last year, is such a book. Frankly, this one is about as good as it gets.

There’s little text to guide at the beginning, but it’s clear the photographer visited some African-American projects, beginning in 1993. The portraits are exceptional, and I didn’t need the end notes to confirm they were made with a large format camera.

You don’t get pimple detail like this without breaking out the large-scale hardware. (Certainly not in 1993. Maybe these days you can swing it, if you have 80 Grand to spare.)

The photo of criss-crossing highways on the cover suggests SoCal, but it’s not until we see a California license plate, maybe 1/4 of the way in, that I was sure this was LA. (I might have guessed, but that’s different from knowing.)

Two well-written essays at the back confirm what you slowly piece together for yourself. Imperial Courts is a housing project in Watts, and Ms. Lixenberg returned multiple times over the decades to revisit the work.

Unlike Nick Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” which is categorical in its dissection of the aging process, skin decaying before our eyes, this project relishes its gaps. Apparently, the artist stayed away for 15 years at one point, the series always simmering in the back of her mind.

People grow up. They have kids. Their kids have kids.

Some die.

Hair styles change. Fashions evolve. But according to the pictures and the words, life in Imperial Courts more or less stays the same.

Poverty. Violence. Lack of opportunity. Resilience. Strength. Community.

The book reminds us that most of these people have likely never seen Malibu. Perhaps not even put their feet in the sand in Santa Monica. Places like this may sit adjacent to LA wealth, but for all practical purposes, they’re living in another world.

The back section serves as a visual index, showing family connections between subjects, and printing images that were not afforded enlarged status in the plates. (The B-sides, if you will, but they’re all excellent.)

Ms. Lixenberg was drawn to LA to photograph the Rodney King riots in 1992, and one assignment begat a project that has carried her into middle age. I was a senior in high school that year. I’d barely even been to California.

Now I’m 42, and was cruising the 405 just this summer. But I didn’t drive through South Central.

No sir.

A book like this does everything right. The pictures are amazing. The cultural history is respected. The subjects received prints, and became friends with the photographer. Relationships were built, and some broken, as residents passed on.

I’m not sure that any photo-book, even this one, can fundamentally change who you are. Is it anything more than entertainment? Maybe. If it inspires you to create more, to strengthen community bonds, to strive for greatness, then perhaps art has more power than we realize.

Bottom Line: Brilliant, in-depth photo series shot in Watts

To Purchase “Imperial Courts, 1993-2015” Visit PhotoEye

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This Week In Photography Books: Pascal Amoyel

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve got good news.

School started up last week, and now that I’m teaching two classes, rather than trying to run an entire dysfunctional art department, my life has gotten much better.

Hard as is to believe, teaching is actually fun again.

How does that affect you? Well, it means you won’t have to put up with my whining and complaining each Friday. These columns might just get funny again, rather than being storehouses for my misery and distress.

Speaking of funny, did you hear that Donald Trump is taking a trip to Mexico today? Can you believe that’s actually happening? Just imagine it:

“Hey, Ivanka, get me a Piña Colada and make it snappy, OK?

“Sure thing Boss. I mean Dad.”

“You know what. Forget it. I changed my mind. Now I want a Corona.”

“OK. Corona it is. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to have one of the assistants get it, because I’m kind of busy, you know, running your companies.”

“No. No. You do it. Nobody gets the beer cold like you do. Honestly, (to the room,) I don’t know how she does it. It’s like she has magic fingers, and as long as she hands me the beer, it’s so freakin’ cold.”

—Ivanka leaves room, returns with a Corona.

“What the hell is this? Where’s the lime? Lots of people are talking, and they all say that you can’t drink a Mexican beer without a lime.”

“Sorry, Dad. I’ll have someone get you a lime.”

“Limes. How weird are they? They’re really green on the outside, but not so green on the inside? How does that even work?”

“I don’t know, Dad. But it’s just fruit. Not nearly as important as going over our notes for today’s meeting with President Peña Nieto.”

“Peña Nieto? That sounds like Piña Colada. You know, I think I’d really like a Piña Colada. Ivanka, honey, run out and get me a Piña Colada, OK? And be quick about it. Somehow I have a beer in my hand, but I really want a Piña Colada.”

And scene…

That’s the thing about visiting foreign countries: we go with all sorts of expectations, and so often they actually determine our experience. If you expect Mexico to be filled with rapists, and you’re suspicious of everyone you see, you likely won’t have such a good time on Spring Break in Cabo. (Or on your trip to meet the President.)

Or if you expect the American South, for example, to be mysterious and poetic, then you’re likely to have that kind of experience as well. Right?

I only ask having just put down “Not All,” a new book by Pascal Amoyel, published by Poursuite Editions in France. I’ve reviewed a few of their books in the past, enthusiastically, and recall they were all shot in Europe.

Not this one.

From what I gather, the French artist spent two months in the American South in the Spring of 2014, photographing away, and this book was the result. It’s a pretty simple narrative, all things considered, and we know how many photographers take a crack at depicting this photogenic region.

(Seriously, are all trees in the South strange and/or creepy, or just the ones that get photographed?)

The short version is that this book is nice, but not exceptional. As I flipped through the pages, I couldn’t help thinking this was a generic version of a place I’ve seen in books many times before. It is not compelling, though the pictures are certainly well-made-enough.

And then, I turned a page, and saw a photograph unlike any I’ve seen before. A decrepit, paint-stripped, white shotgun house, set against a couple of hedgerows, with a red brick chimney jutting into the blue sky. Normal enough, I suppose. But affixed to the clapboard siding is a sign that says “CHIROPRACTOR.”

Holy shit. I laughed so hard. What a picture.

If Walker Evans were alive today, he’d make that image.

I came down off my photo-high, and kept flipping away. The book was underwhelming again, until I came upon a picture of a woman’s slightly distended belly, and her very small pink bikini bottom. Strange angle. All tight.

Is it a woman? Or a girl? If it’s a girl, isn’t this picture really inappropriate? And if it’s a woman, is she pregnant? Or does she just have a little pot belly, like that weird French chick in “Pulp Fiction?”

The next photo, of a purple scarf spread over the green grass, makes for a cool little diptych.

Nicely done.

But two stellar pictures do not constitute a great book.

This is one of those reviews where I like something about a book, and it spurs me to write, (always my chief criterion,) but I do wonder if it isn’t a good example of what happens when every photographer wants a book for each project.

Pascal, I appreciate you sending this along, and I mean no disrespect. But if you want to be a great artist, I think every picture in the book, or certainly 90% of them, needs to be as original and stellar as those two shots.

And of course, I’m speaking to all of you here, not just Pascal. The truth is we live in a world where some publishers make a lot of money each time you sign a contract. (To be clear, I’m not saying this about Poursuite, as I’ve found their other books to be really tight, and not overly-produced.)

But it’s the truth. If you really want a book, and are willing to pony up your own money, or hit up the “crowd” to pay for it, you can have a book.

But is that enough of a reason?

Last piece of advice, people: next time you’re hankering for a taste of the South, but you can’t afford the plane ticket, just hit up the video store, or Netflix, and rent “Hustle and Flow.” Because it’s hard out here for a pimp…

Bottom Line: Nice book about the South with 2 knockout pictures inside

To Purchase “Not All” Visit PhotoEye
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This Week In Photography Books: Diane Arbus

by Jonathan Blaustein

New York City is larger than life.
We know this.

In the last year, I’ve been to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th largest cities in the United States, and loved them all.

(Big ups to LA, Chicago, and Houston.)

Realistically, though, there’s only one New York.

JayZ, Derek Jeter, Ed Koch, Giuliani, Joe Namath, you name it. There are people we associate with the Big Apple because they stepped onto the biggest stage, and made it their own.

Cats on Broadway, Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park, John Starks, Jackie O, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, Biggie Smalls.

My Dinner with Andre.
Reggie Jackson.
Daryl and Doc.

The Statue of Liberty.
Robert Moses.
Debbie Harry.
Andy Warhol.
John Gotti.

You know what I’m talking about.

NYC has a mythology so strong that we call it Gotham, straight out of fucking Batman. It’s a city of blackouts, not blinding sunshine, and anyone who’s ever lived there for a while will describe “her” as an entity, a living thing.

And you won’t like her when she’s angry.

Within photography circles, Diane Arbus is seen in much the same way. A mega-talent who either honored, or took advantage of weirdos, depending on your vantage point. A once-in-a-generation vision so distinct that most of us can conjure Arbus pictures in our head with ease.

Grenade boy.

Most of her photographs could not have been made by anyone else, and her imprint has been seen on many photographers since. (I’m looking at you, Nan Goldin.)

When I think of Diane Arbus photographs, I think of carnies and losers, trannies and freaks. Strippers and Hustlers. Giants and fools.

But I don’t automatically think of New York.
Do you?

Fortunately, I picked up “diane arbus: in the beginning” at photo-eye on my last visit, and boy are you in for a treat. The book is published by Yale University Press, in conjunction with the current show curated by Jeff Rosenheim at the Met Breuer. (Which used to house the Whitney, of course, in a horse trade between NYC Titans.)

This book oozes New York. It features early pictures, made almost entirely with a 35mm camera. So while we also associate Arbus with the square format, these photographs undermine what you think you know.

Simply put: they’re brilliant.

The book represents a whole trove of images that weren’t well-known until recently, many years after her suicide. And they firmly establish the roots of her talent, in my (not-always) humble opinion.

The plates start in the mid-50’s, and really look like they were made by Robert Frank. (At least at first.) But they were contemporaneous with his pictures, so even though similar, they couldn’t really be derivative.

Grainy, grabbed people on the street. The 50’s vibe is so strong that if I close my eyes…

“Hey guy. How youze doin’?”

“Uh, I’m good. Who are you?”

“Name’s Ritchie. I live out on Coney Eye-lan. Whatta you doin’ he-uh?”

“Uh, I don’t know Ritchie. One minute, I was writing a book review, then the next minute, I’m in my imagination, talking to you.”

“Wow. That’s crazy, Pops. Crazy. You wanna get outta he-uh? Me an’ the boyz is goin ta hang out undah da boahd-wahk.”

“Yeah. Sure. I guess. Will there be girls there too?”

Sorry. That was weird. But you get my point, no? These pictures are the equal of what all the other famous street photographers were doing. And it’s not even what we consider her classic work!

As you might expect, things eventually get a little weird. And dark. Then darker still.

The gaping-corpse-chest-cavity, below the dead guy’s receding hairline?

Nasty.
Just nasty.

We see Siamese twins in formaldehyde at a carnival, a hacked up woman in a wax museum, kids in monster masks. Then the strippers and trannies show up too.

It’s like watching someone grow in real-time, as she took the gritty-street-photo aesthetic, and then force-fed it some creepy and transgressive shit. The content shifts so slowly, you don’t feel the water boiling as it cooks you alive.

In the end, we get the crammed christmas tree and boy with the grenade, in all their Medium Format Square glory, almost as smelling salts. Yes, this is the same photographer whose pictures you’ve memorized. Yes, she also made these badass street photos too.

Diane Arbus was a legend, and she belongs on the truncated list of NYC greats. The show is up at the Met Breuer until November 27th, so get your ass over there to see for yourself.

I’ve booked a trip to New York this Fall, so you can bet I’ll check it out. To be honest, I haven’t been back to NYC in 2.5 years, and I miss it, so that partially explains the overly-earnest introduction today. Hope you’ll forgive me…

Bottom Line: A masterpiece publication featuring Arbus’ early work

To Purchase “diane arbus: in the beginning” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Christoph Bangert

by Jonathan Blaustein

Lying in bed last night, waiting for sleep, a random thought occurred to me. We’re less than a month away from the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Isn’t that crazy? The seminal event of the 21st Century, I would argue, happened so long ago that teenagers have been born since.

Can you imagine what 9/11 would have been like in a Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat/IM world?

I remember sitting glued to the TV, watching Peter Jennings, because that’s how we still received our information. Step away from the screen, and life in San Francisco appeared normal. But it was so very hard to step away from the screen. Impossible, really.

These days, we are drowning in information. We have so much, it has become difficult to concentrate. Lately, I’ve found myself musing to friends that we don’t really NEED to Google a fact in dispute. Simply knowing we could is enough.

But some bits of information, from 2001, and the subsequent wars of revenge, still stick in my mind. Mohammed Atta. People jumping from the towers to their deaths. Abu Ghraib. IED’s.

The last one is such a strange little acronym. Improvised Explosive Devices. Technology otherwise known as “let’s jimmy-rig some shit that will blow up a lot of people. The more the better.”

We’ve since seen art that reflects the tension inherent in such moments. Katherine Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner, comes to mind. It’s a powerful film, but not exactly funny. Why would anybody joke about something as serious as war?

It’s a good question, and one asked in the forward of the excellent new book “hello camel,” by Christoph Bangert, recently published by Keher Verlag in Germany.

Straight off, it’s an exceptionally well-made object. The cover graphic on fabric is terrific, the print quality is high, and I though the consistent double-page spreads really let the photos breathe.

In his statement, Mr. Bangert, who covered those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the NY Times and other sources, directly references the hilarity of the war experience. It’s buried in the traditional notion of the absurd, which suggests some things are so ridiculous, so outside of rationality, that it’s best to throw up your hands and laugh at it all.

While I rarely, if ever, quote a book, I’m going to break my rule here, b/c it’s just such a good passage:

“We want war to be a dramatic, heroic fight between good and evil. But it’s not. There are no heroes. War is as messy as it is layered and confusing. And at times it’s weird and hilarious, too. The moment we realize that the mass murder of human beings is an ordinary, daily event that is organized and executed by ordinary people like you and me, we begin to realize the significance and true horror of war.”

It’s the hilarity that I most enjoyed about “hello camel,” mostly because it’s delivered in such a terrifically dry way. The compositions of these pictures are formal, enhancing the sense of reason. The light is always great, delivering believable, dynamic color.

In other words, they’re really good photographs.

But time and again, the structure is contrasted with an amazing sense of improvisation. That’s the word that kept coming back to me. Improvised.

Speaking from an American perspective, (the photographer is German,) we’ve all heard the stories about George W. Bush’s botch job in the Iraqi reconstruction. They slapped that shit together faster than I can build a lego set for my kid.

(Wait. Wait. We’re missing a piece. Fuck! Where did that little red square get to. Goddammit. We need that piece!)

We see palettes and sandbags propping up a satellite dish. Blast walls erected everywhere. Models of forward operating bases cut out of cardboard. An outhouse in the middle of a dirt field. Old tanks re-purposed for target practice.

It’s tragic because it’s silly, and it’s tragic because it’s tragic.

There’s one picture, in red light, of some masked men torturing someone. I let out a huge breath. Nothing funny about that. But the thorough captions, at the end, inform that they’re models in a Kurdish museum.

A wedding couple sit in the middle of an ornate, obviously expensive clam shell, in 2005. A bikini-clad soldier, with a tramp stamp for God’s sake, sits by a pool, conveniently protected by another blast wall.

I assumed the photo of jihadi’s brandishing their weapons to have been appropriated off the Internet, but the captions claim it’s a straight photo. Apparently, Mr. Bangert has bigger balls than I do, b/c no fucking way would you catch me clicking the shutter on that moment.

NFW.

I always say I like to see things I’ve never seen before, but obviously I’ve reviewed books on this topic. This publication, however, gives us a strong perspective that we normally don’t see.

It’s only funny if you get the joke, and even if you don’t, it’s still powerful. Not only that, but in the end notes, by thanking anyone and everyone, including the people who baby-sat his kids while the book was on press, Mr. Bangert proves he’s also a very polite guy.

What’s not to like?

Bottom Line: Witty, very well made book about the Post-9/11 wars

To Purchase “hello camel” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Wagstaff Collection

by Jonathan Blaustein

Time is a strange beast.

We tend to think of it as fixed and finite, when clearly it is neither.

As I understand it, according to Einstein, the closer you approach the speed of light, the slower time will affect you. Essentially, time’s innate duration grows.

Before “Interstellar,” most people would have found that confusing. But then that Great Wave! And Anne Hathaway’s big brown eyes!

That’s just the theoretical level. If you think about your daily life, doesn’t the same hold true? I was in California with my family for two weeks, and it seemed like a month.

We’ve been home for nearly three weeks now, and it feels like it’s been 5 days. (For real.)

I’m sure that’s happened to you as well. When we travel, in particular, our senses heighten. We make more memories, and perhaps savoring slows the clock as well.

Photography also manipulates time.
We know this.

But every now and again, I get a reminder, something tangible, that helps me re-connect to the mystery of what we’re all doing.

Back in LA, a few days before California caught fire, I took my family to the Getty Center, where I planned to see the Mapplethorpe show, which we covered previously. I thought it would be an optimal place to introduce the kids to “Great Art,” but at nearly 9 and almost 4, they were still too young to get excited.

Big ups to the current installation of replica Chinese Buddhist cave art. The reproductions were meticulous, and each “cave” took 3 artists 10 years each to make. Simply stunning stuff, and that it all takes place in an air-conditioned tent in the searing California sun?

Mind-boggling.

The kids enjoyed the snack bar and sculpture gardens most of all, with one exception.

They definitely got down with “The Thrill of the Chase,” which exhibited work from the Wagstaff Collection, the immense trove of greatness assembled by Robert Mapplethorpe’s former lover & patron, the patrician collector Sam Wagstaff.

The group is super-strong on very early photography. (1840’s and up.) I began to photograph it, as I had the Mapplethorpe show, but was immediately stopped by security and told to put the camera away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t shoot the show for you.

I wanted the kids to see the exhibition for one reason in particular: Abraham Lincoln. I walked my son up to the photo of our former President, by Alexander Gardner, and let him look carefully.

“That’s the actual Abraham Lincoln,” I said. “The man himself. The real thing.”

His expression was inexplicable; equal parts incredulous and wow-that’s-amazing.

It was a genuine moment, and then he wanted to see everything else he could. The one instant when he realized that photography froze history, saved it, and allowed us to look back from our unimagined futuristic world?

It was memorable for me, to say the least.

There are some excellent, fantastic photographs in this show, and the book that accompanies it, “The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.”

The show was curated, and the book edited by Paul Martineau, published by Getty Publications. (It turned up in the mail the other day, which means that I get to share the images with you below.)

Seeing the pictures in the book, I immediately recognized my favorites from the IRL experience, like Arthur Rothstein’s rad portrait of some early-version-knock-around Union Guys. Theo’s choice was Larry Clark’s hippie-dude Kung Fu kicking his buddy in the park.

Thankfully, now I get to show you the brilliant photo-booth-strip of Andy Warhol that I mentioned in my review two weeks ago.

Then we have Julia Margaret Cameron. And August Sander. Edward Weston. William Eggleston. Walker Evans. Irving Penn. And so many more.

The book’s essay makes mention of a few glaring omissions to the collection. The New Topographics artists, like Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore are absent. So too is Atget.

Too dry, perhaps?

The book features Pyramids in Egypt, 150 years ago, back before paved roads, cotton candy, and the Internet. And Roger Fenton’s famous cannon balls appear as well.

George Barnard, over whose Civil War landscape photos I drooled in San Francisco, also turns up.

I loved Edward Curtis’ “The Eclipse Dance,” from 1910-14, which may have been staged, but gives me the willies, like I’m looking at something I’m not meant to see. (Here at Taos Pueblo, some dances are open to the public, but all the deep knowledge is kept in the underground kivas, far from outsider’s ears and eyes.)

The whole family stopped cold at Timothy O’Sullivan’s “Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada” from 1867. Jessie guessed it might be White Sands, New Mexico.

I thought it looked more like a film still from a Western than anything I’d ever seen. Except the movie is the simulacrum, and the print is the actual history. (How Meta is that?)

It features a wagon being pulled across the soft desert in the searing light. Who was inside? What did they have for breakfast? Why are those sand tones so creamy?

And the craziest thing of all? It’s the WILD FUCKING WEST! The actual place, just as if we’d stepped into a time machine. I’m sorry, but even when I get jaded, this type of work brings me back to the passion.

Really, all the best historical work, this many years later, makes think of mortality. Gustave LeGray’s “The Great Wave,” from Sete, France, saddens me more than almost any image I know. I first crossed paths with the print at LACMA 7 years ago, and rejoiced at the Getty when I saw it again.

I close my eyes, and imagine a wave crashing, 159 years ago. And then another wave.

And another.
And another.
And another still.

Millions of waves have come and gone since then, and they’ll keep crashing when everyone alive today passes on to whatever comes next.

Time might be relative, but down here on the human level, our story only ends one way. This book, and the show on which it was based, remind me of my mortality, but not in a way that makes me anxious, which is hard to do.

Sam Wagstaff lived a glamorous life, and then died miserably of AIDS. These pictures are his legacy, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn from what he accrued.

The exhibition, which has closed in LA, will be on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, CT, opening September 10. Mr. Wagstaff was a curator there once, long ago, and I expect he’d be glad to know his collection will be on the wall.

To those of you in the greater NYC & Boston areas, take a train, or an Uber, and go see the show next month. It’s definitely worth the trip.

Bottom Line: Well-produced catalogue of an excellent show

To Purchase “The Thrill of the Chase” Visit The Getty Store

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This Week In Photography Books: Ken Grant

by Jonathan Blaustein

If you haven’t heard, I’m what they call a nice Jewish boy from Jersey.

It’s a stereotype, sure. It means I’m polite, kind, and respectful to my mother. If you have me over for dinner, I’ll show up with a bottle of wine, and offer to help clean up afterwards.

Like I said, a nice Jewish boy from Jersey.

The other day, however, an old white guy in the supermarket parking lot mistook me for a Latino gang-banger who was about to steal his wallet.

No lie.

I was wearing a black, UNM graphic T-shirt, and my new sunglasses are of a style you might find on a Homies doll, or an extra in a not-particularly-well-funded movie. (Stylistically, that is. In fact they’re made of recycled materials, and I bought them at Whole Foods in Santa Barbara. #Bougie)

Anyway, there I was, walking towards the market, and the OWG was headed back to his car. In a flash, I realized I’d forgotten my re-usable shopping bag, so I pivoted quickly.

In that instance, the dude turned back to me, and I saw his eyes grow large, his body tense up in anticipation of attack, and his pace quicken to make it back to his car before I could mug him.

All this in broad daylight, mind you. It happened in a half-second, but I know what I saw.

He looked like a tourist from Oklahoma, and thought I was another sort of guy all-together. Of course, he let out a huge sigh of relief when I stopped at my own car to open up the door.

Given all the “actual” racism that exists in this world, and the frequency with which it ruins lives, I’m not implying that this asshole hurt my feelings. Rather, it was a strong suggestion that the clothes we wear, the facial hair we grow, the manner in which we saunter, all of these things are coded messages to others.

In some places, the color of your clothing can get you beat up, if not killed. We all know about Crips and Bloods, but Red vs Blue plays out in England every day. (But for very different reasons.)

You might have heard of it, with respect to Manchester, (United’s red, City’s powder blue,) but today, I’m thinking of Liverpool, that other famous Northern English city.

The reason? Well, it’s a photo-book, obviously. In this case, “A Topical Times For These Times,” a new book by Ken Grant, recently put out by RRB Publishing.

You regular readers know how much I love Arsenal Football Club, and wouldn’t you know it, but Arsenal and Liverpool face each other in 10 days, kicking off the 2016-17 Premier League season. Am I obsessed?

Yes.
I am.

But not nearly as obsessed as the English football fans who grew up with loyalty for their local club, rather than picking a team as a 37-year-old because you like the fancy-passing and cool uniforms.

Liverpool is a historically famous club, but as a city, it actually features two teams: LFC is red, and Everton is blue. Royal blue. Blue like the paint you buy at the art supply store, before the color dries out because you forgot to put the cap on right.

English fans are famous for violence and drunkenness, (which often go together,) though in 2016, they were out-done by the organized Russian thugs at the European Championship in France.

Red and blue don’t mix well, as the US Political system will attest. But in this book, Ken Grant admits that both he and his father have habitually gone to both Liverpool AND Everton matches. It all depended on who was playing at home on a given weekend.

That’s the type of loyalty breach that’s likely to get you a head butt. (Oi, mate. Watch out before I crack your skull like a silly melon.)

The cover, in red and blue, references its innards, but surprisingly, the pictures are all black and white. It’s almost confusing, but serves the purpose of re-uniting a larger community that’s been rent apart by fan-dom.

The photos have been made since the 80’s, so the grayscale also forces you to look hard to suss out whether something is historical or current. (The text even references Liverpool’s new manager, Jurgen Klopp, who’s a rockstar in football management circles.)

Here in America, being into soccer, and even calling it football, is something of a hipster fetish. It’s not the meat, potatoes & beer thing to do. It means you like arugula, white wine, and Barack Obama. (I happen to love all three.)

But over in England, is there anything more “keepin’ it real” than supporting your local team? Or heading out onto the green to play a weekend match with your mates from down the pub?

Looking at a book like this, you get the genuine sense of a community, on the other side of the world, that has seen better days. A place that likely voted for Brexit this summer. A place that is grappling with the difficult realities of the 21C.

Places like that need their entertainment. They reel when scores are killed at a match, as happened in the Hillsborough Disaster of ’89. They cheer when a neighborhood boy makes good. And they cringe when Steven Gerrard slips, blowing the Premier League title in an instant.

They drink because it’s fun, not just because it takes the pain away.

My only criticism of this book is that it has too many photographs. Editing allows the strongest pictures to emerge more gracefully, but perhaps we don’t need perfection?

Basically this is a cool book, filled with little stories from far away. It’s just enough to satisfy a cranky book reviewer who wants the new EPL season to start already.

Come on you Gunners!

Bottom Line: A cool look at football culture in Liverpool

To Purchase “A Topical Times For These Times” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Tetsuya Kusu

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

Mmmm, sushi. So yummy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places you drive through without stopping.

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

Something tells me you’ll enjoy it too.

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Taryn Simon

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sort of thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

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

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

Bottom Line: Thorough book that demystifies the James Bond legacy

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Leon Borensztein

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

Not even once.

Today, however, I wept.

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

So why this book? Why now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew?

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

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

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

Make a book.
Have at it.
Go nuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Toni Greaves

by Jonathan Blaustein

We all make choices in life.

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

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

Then there are people like LeBron James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite the magical ending.

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

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

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

Say what now?

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

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

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

Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lemon-fresh scent included.

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

To Purchase “Radical Love” Visit Photo-Eye

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

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

But it’s also true.

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

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

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

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

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

I know I do.

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

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

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

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

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

“Dad,” she said, “who’s THAT guy?”

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

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

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

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

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

But what exactly is “A-B-Cheeeese!”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But yellow is the best.

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

Because he’s got the crazy-eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you think?

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

Go Here To Purchase A-B-Cheeeese!

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This Week In Photography Books: Magda Biernat

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

(Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.)

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

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

My people good.
Other people bad.
Fire scary.

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

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

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

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

Diptychs?

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

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

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

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

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

Full stop.

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

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

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

Of course not.
Ridiculous question.

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

Bottom Line: A meditation on Climate Change

To Purchase “Adrift” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Zora J Murff

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

Yes, you’re having a really bad day.

For sure.

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

Pure. Bloody. Chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It allows for catharsis.

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

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

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

Kids who had nothing handed to them in life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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

Sadness chief among them.

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

Heartbreaking stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Beautiful book about life inside the system

To Purchase “Corrections” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sara Terry

by Jonathan Blaustein

I am blessed.

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

Or good enough.

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

We all do.

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

That much is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank god for that.

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

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

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

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

Wow, is this thing powerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Emma Phillips

by Jonathan Blaustein

My kids love yogurt pretzels.

I do too.

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

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

Like fruit.

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

Wait. Where was I?

Right.
Yogurt pretzels.

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

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

Say what now?

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

Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

How’s that for a symbol?

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

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

Somewhere.

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

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

Nevada?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Salt” visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Colin Delfosse

by Jonathan Blaustein

I quit my job last month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it does.

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

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

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

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

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

No artifice necessary.

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

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

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

What’s not to like?

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

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

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