Category "Photography Books"

This Week in Photography Books: Matthew O’Brien

 

This column is nearly 6 years old, and over time, I’ve told you guys a lot about my family horse farm here in Taos.

It’s a very special place, as the 60 acre property has 1/4 mile of streamfront, verdant pastures, rolling hills, ancient basalt cliffs, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains right outside the window.

This week, my wife and I launched a new photo retreat program, called Antidote, so we can share this place with our friends and colleagues in the global photo community.

Since we’ve developed a loyal audience here over the years, Rob and I thought it would be a good idea to tell you about the program, in case any of you wanted to apply. I’ve built an impressive group of instructors, and designed a retreat in which you can get critical feedback about your work, inspiration for new ideas, and opportunities to rest and relax here in Taos.

You can learn more about the retreat at our amazing website, (Thanks, Rob,) or by watching the short video I’ve embedded below.

 

That said, this is a book review column, and not an infomercial space, so I promise to get to the matter at hand.

One thing I do like to do with the column is develop themes over time, and create relationships between books from week to week. Rarely is it planned, but things always seem to fall into place naturally, a phenomenon for which I am grateful.

Lately, we’ve been alternating between projects made by locals, in their home regions, and wandering flaneurs who visit exotic locales, and bring stories back home with them. Last week, Marisa Scheinfeld showed us the ruins of the Catskills Borscht Belt, which means this week, we get to see a book by a traveling photographer.

Luckily, “No Dar Papaya,” a book by Matthew James O’Brien, turned up in the mail recently. (Published by Placer Press in San Francisco.) Matt reached out a little while back, as he thought I might appreciate his project.

He was right, as I think this is a cool, charming, surprisingly positive book. The premise is simple, as Matt shot in Colombia for 10 years, and the book is made up exclusively of Polaroids. (Mostly diptychs.) None of the images has been enlarged, and the consistency, the white image borders swimming in plenty of clean white space, makes for a pleasurable viewing experience.

The introduction, from a Colombian arts professional, suggests that Matt has been embraced by his Colombian hosts, but tells us little beyond that. The pictures tell the story, and then an excellent afterward by the artist uses words to confirm what the pictures imply.

There seem to be a surprisingly large number of young, attractive women in the book, and the end text shares that Matt was first drawn to Colombia to photograph two beauty pageants, which are the biggest things going down there. He also mentions a cultural addiction to plastic surgery, which is also hinted at in at least one picture featuring a woman with suspiciously large breasts.

But in general, the images show a beautiful country with a diverse topography and population. There are many portraits, and almost of all the of the subjects present themselves to the camera as open, warm and friendly.

Then the text confirms as much.

According to Matt, who received a Fullbright to support the work, despite the country’s difficult history of war and drug cartels, the hardscrabble Colombians have not closed their hearts to each other, or to outsiders.

As long as people understand the context of the title, “No Dar Papaya,” that is. In English, it means “Don’t Give Papaya,” but it’s an exlusively Colombian idiom that means, don’t be a sucker. Watch your back.

Apparently, Matt sees this book as a love letter to Colombia, and that came across to me. It’s a great reminder that there are positive stories, and visions, in even the darkest of places. (OK, maybe there aren’t any happy tales coming out of Syria these days, but you get the point.)

So wherever you are, as the heat blares down on your head, or the Southern Hemisphere winter begins to kick your ass, I hope this book will put a smile on your face, and show you something you’ve never seen before.

Sometimes, that’s enough.

Bottom Line: Lovely book of Polaroids of Colombia, by an outsider

To purchase “No Dar Papaya” click here

To submit a book for review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Marisa Scheinfeld

 

I started irrigating on the farm this summer.

Our property came with water rights, which means we’re allowed to use the ancient acequia system, designed by Spanish Colonists in the 19th Century.

The main pasture used to belong to our neighbors, before they sold it off, and I’m told their father raised corn, or alfalfa, depending on whom you believe. (I just use it to water the grass.)

Each Saturday, I head outside, all geared up with my shovel, and dig out the ditch, a few feet at a time.

Not surprisingly, it’s hard work, but the joy and sense of accomplishment are palpable. Lifting the gates, and watching the water flow down hill feels primal, as out here in the desert, water is life.

Putting on my work boots, and slopping out the muck, doesn’t seem strange, as I’ve lived in Taos a long time. Cutting sluices, and watching where gravity moves water, is not rocket science, and I even use my daughter’s pink sled to direct the water where I want it to go.

But sometimes, if only for a moment, I’ll look around and wonder how a Jewish guy from suburban New Jersey ended up in such a place?

I’ve certainly come a long way, but living in a lush field in the mountains is a great way to beat the heat. And as I water trees we’ve planted, and watch them rise, it’s hard not to imagine them growing tall and strong, providing shade for my children as they grow too.

A generation ago, when my parents were my children’s age, they lived in New York City, as their parents were born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. As beastly hot as NYC can get in the summer, with all that nasty humidity, back then, people didn’t even have air conditioners. (WTF!)

Nor were Jews necessarily welcome in the WASPY country and beach clubs where less-immigranty Americans escaped the heat.

Rather, both of my parents, and everyone they knew, went to the Catskill Mountains, (which out here we’d call hills,) and stayed with friends and families in bungalow colonies. My Mom said she shared a bed with her grandmother, and always, people were squashed together, because money was tight.

Her Dad, (my grandpa Sy,) was a musician and bandleader who worked in the fancy hotels, so Mom used to hang out there during the daytime. Those places had pools, which were more glamorous than the lakes where her family stayed. She got to play with the wealthier kids during the day, and then return to her bungalow at night to sleep.

It was a lot like “Dirty Dancing,” she said, and recalled one time when my Aunt Lynda, who is 5 years older than Mom, stayed out until 1am with her new boyfriend. When she got home, my grandfather chased her around the bungalow, screaming and hitting her with a broom.

You can’t make this shit up.

The Catskills were home to the Borscht Belt, a huge resort and entertainment industry that sprung up in the 1920’s, and continued through the early 80’s, though by then it had already declined tremendously.

I remember hearing stories about those places, when I was young, but given that we had our own swimming pool by then, and I went to sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, I can’t say I cared too much about the history as it was recounted.

Frankly, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” famously uttered by Patrick Swayze, (RIP,) had more of an impact than any story my Mom told me, back in the day.

However, when I got a look this morning at “The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland,” a new book by Marisa Scheinfeld, published by Cornell University Press, the first thing I did was call up Mom and ask her to tell me what it was like.

Ms. Scheinfeld was raised in the Borsht Belt, in the town of Kiamesha Lake, so this book fits in with our recent exploration of the divide between local versus wandering photographers.

In her very-well-written statement, she said that Arthur Ollman, the former director of MOPA in San Diego, once told her to “shoot what you know,” so she headed back East to document the places that have succumbed to time.

We all know there’s a genre of ruin-porn, which often features weeds and trees growing up in the man-made environment, and if you close your eyes, I bet you can conjure such a picture of Detroit without trying too hard.

But this project is something different. Ms. Scheinfeld has done copious research on the cultural history of our respective ancestors, which overlaps with learning more about where she was literally raised, and what’s become of all these former palaces and huts of leisure.

Much as I was touched when I walked through Ostia Antica, crumbling ruins outside Rome, or Teotihuacan, the massive pyramids near Mexico City, looking through this book gave me the willies.

The photographs are a testament to the finite nature of culture, and our lives, because they manage to cut beneath the surface of a once vibrant world that has disappeared in my lifetime.

There is a sculptural nature the pictures, and the desaturated colors speak to the reality of the weak light on the East Coast. (The mountains outside my house are called the Sangre de Cristos, because they turn red each night as the perfect light illuminates them like the blood of Jesus.)

The essays come before the pictures, and one, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, focuses on chairs. As I hadn’t seen the plates yet, I thought it was a pretty random subject, and wondered why she focused on such an esoteric symbol? But once you start flipping the pages, it makes a lot of sense.

The chairs have a totemic quality, much as I complimented Anthony Hernandez for his handling of concrete block walls. Here, the empty seats stand at attention, or slump into irrelevance, but always they remind us of the people who are no longer there.

On Facebook today, someone posted the weather forecast for Tucson this week, and it ranged from 110-118 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you imagine? Your fucking brains cook in your head at that temperature.

No thank you.

The temptation to escape the worst of summer has been around a long time, and over the years, I’ve reviewed books from lakeside and beachfront hangouts around the world. But this is the first time I’ve seen a book like this.

So next time the mosquitos are biting me, the water gets inside my yellow leather gloves, and I slip and fall into the muddy ditch, I’ll likely think of my grandfather, blowing hard on his trumpet, while the ghosts of my people’s past dance through empty halls.

Bottom Line: Fascinating look at the abandoned Borscht Belt

To Purchase “Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland ” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Priscilla Briggs

 

Just this morning, I was trying to explain Communism to a 9 year old.

Fortunately, he’s very bright for his age, and seems to be interested in history. But it’s still hard to break down planned economies, and the Bolshevik Revolution, to a person who was born on the cusp of The Great Recession.

Basically, I contrasted Capitalism, which is obsessed with extracting money and value from all things, with Communism, which intended to put ownership of the means of production in the hands of workers.

Karl Marx wrote thousands of words about the exploitation of labor by Capitalists. (It’s a rather famous book that railed against endless greed.) I told my son about how in practice, Soviet Communism meant the state had control over where you lived, what you did for a job, what you could eat, and where you could travel.

America, by contrast, offers freedom and choice. But in 2017, it’s pretty clear that regular people and the entire planet are cannon fodder for the big guns.

Cash rules everything around me indeed.

The Soviet Union collapsed, as we all know, and Russia is now a Capitalistic dictatorship. There may still be a Communist Party there, (I didn’t bother to check,) but if so, it’s one among many, and all are subservient to Putin.

But the Soviet Union was not the only major Communist power, of course. Not to be outdone by Stalin’s cruelty, Mao Zedong led a Communist revolution in China, in 1949, and eventually ruled over the massive, populous country for decades.

The upshot of Communism, supposedly, was that everyone would be guaranteed a place to live, a job, food, and time off. Theoretically, that would obviate things like homelessness, and it was meant to create a level playing field.

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

These days, though, China is Communist in name only. It has become a global economic powerhouse, and has begun to transition into being a political one as well. Capitalism is alive and well, in the Middle Kingdom, and its conspicuous consumption and income disparity seem rather familiar, if you ask me.

If the middle class in America continues to hollow out, we’ll be left with nothing but the rich and the poor. But in China, with their rapid development, hundreds of millions of people have been brought out of poverty.

Their middle class is booming while ours disappears, but still, the lifestyle difference between rural farmers and wealthy urbanites in China is still probably wider than in America at present.

Consumption is all the rage in China these days, and I can say that with some confidence, having just put down “Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism,” a new book by Priscilla Briggs, recently published by Daylight.

It’s funny, the way themes develop from week to week. Last Friday, I talked about that certain homegrown authenticity that projects have, when photographers work where they’re from. Aaron Hardin and Evgheny Maloletka made very different pictures, in the American South and Eastern Ukraine, but their photographs had that special sense of local juice.

Today’s book, by contrast, belongs to the far-reaching tradition of artists traveling to new places, camera in hand, and shooting what they see and explore.

From what I can gather, Ms. Briggs went to an artist residency in Xiamen, which likely kicked off her investigation. Regardless, the titles at the end confirm she shot in China between 2008-13.

I don’t mean to knock this book before I even get started, as the wandering eye can often bring a more distanced, perhaps critical view. Certainly, irony is often boosted by the outsider’s perspective.

And that’s mostly what we get here. The series is heavily ironic, as the most prominent repeating motif is the backdrop. The fake world, enmeshed with the real thing, comes up again and again.

(In fairness to Ms. Briggs’ observations, after writing the column, I discovered this Ai Weiwei Op-ed, in which he calls China “a place where everything is fake.”)

We see a real boat in front some very realistic-looking fake water, a park bench in front of a painted train car, which itself is in front of a virtual horse farm. Plastic geese before a faux Tahitian village. A fake snow scene, a fake tugboat, and a fake locomotive barreling down the tracks.

You get the picture.

There are also amusement parks, clothing factory workers, and a subset of young women who she photographs before the sea. (Which is real, I think.)

We’ve got hair extensions, fur coats, and pink lingerie that says luxury on it. And lots and lots of photographs of advertisements of women in bras and panties.

I mean lots of photographs.

Are the ads that ubiquitous in China, or is it something she zeroed in on to make a point? I’m not sure, since I’ve never been to China.

This is one of those books, though, that carries a clear point of view. It shows a tacky China, one that builds fake monuments from other places, (Hello, pyramid of Giza,) while simultaneously bulldozing its own history in an orgy of new.

I’m always interested in books that show me things I haven’t seen before, so this qualifies. It shows an absurdist strain of Chinese Capitalism, and I chuckled once or twice. The use of repeating motifs, and the way the edit is structured, shows me a lot of care went into making this book.

Well worth discussing on a Friday in June.

Bottom Line: Ironic, wry take on Chinese consumerism

Click here to purchase “Impossible is Nothing: China’s Theater of Consumerism”

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

The Best Work I Saw at the NYT Portfolio Review, Part 2

 

Today was meant to be a book review.

Aaron Hardin, whom I met at the New York Times portfolio review in late April, had given me a copy of his self-published photo-book, “The 13th Spring.”

Aaron’s a Southern photographer who got an MFA from the Hartford low-residency program, and lives in Tennessee, where he teaches college. His pictures are of that genre of Southern photography that is lyrical, poetic, vibrant, evocative, (insert appropriate adjective here.)

We’ve discussed the genre many times in this column over the years, and Aaron’s work reminds me a bit of my friend Susan Worsham. But that’s the point: from Eggleston through Sally Mann and right on down, photographing the South is a grand tradition, and I never hate on anyone for being an adherent.

I think Aaron’s pictures are strong, and he’s able to communicate a warmth and emotional sensitivity that separate his work from many a Southern photographer.

The book chronicles the time around his daughter’s birth, which a poem, (at the end,) says happened during a birth year for cicadas. Hence the little bug dude on the front cover, which was imprinted on a stately piece of canvas.

The second photograph, of a snake trying to sneak into a house, (despite the two door obstacle,) is pretty fantastic. He swears the snake was trying to get in, that it wasn’t set up in the least, and I believe him.

But it’s a photograph I’m sure he’ll get asked about for years.

The peacock as a repeating motif is pretty cool too. We’ve got the bearded, Jesus-looking guy, the tree growing up through a house, a white cat, a boarded-up shotgun shack, and some nasty bug-sex. (Hence the title.)

It’s a very cool book, I must say. Really well done. Alec Soth and Doug Dubois teach at Hartford, and one can see the influence of their styles, which make for an interesting mashup with Aaron’s Southern roots.

It’s like how the Three Six Mafia represents Memphis, but still sampled from artists on the coasts too. (Big shout out to “Hustle and Flow.” That movie never gets old.)

But like I was saying in the beginning, Aaron was going to get a book review all to himself.

Was.

Past tense.

No sooner did I plan a column on his book alone, than two journalists I met at the review, Evgheny Maloletka and Emelienne Malfatto, emailed me after getting back to internet service in the danger zones in which they were shooting.

Given what we discussed last week, you almost couldn’t make this up. Evgheny was working in the war zone in Eastern Ukraine, near where he grew up, and Emelienne is down in the chaos of Venezuela.

As such, I’m able to show you some of their work as well. So Aaron’s will have to share the spotlight a bit, but as he’s a nice guy, I’m pretty sure he can handle it.

Emelienne Malfatto is a French-Italian documentary photographer who is rather itinerant. When we met in New York, she’d come off of a stint in Iraq, a country at war at the moment, but then jetted off to Caracas, which is not a safe place. And then she pushed off to the hinterlands of Venezuela.

Pretty hardcore.

She showed me pictures of a community in Iraq that had risen against Saddam Hussain, and to retaliate, he drained the swamps of their native lands. I thought some of the pictures were great, but she wasn’t able to access those for me, being out in the field with little internet.

Emelienne is resourceful, though, and managed to transfer me a group of photos she made in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. They’re dynamite.

Evgheny Maloletka and I met at the review in New York, and then again on the F train to Brooklyn. Zenhya came up and introduced himself before the review, and was the only person to do so. Given that we use this blog to help educate young professionals, (among other things,) I have to say, things like that make an impression.

He said he had me on his list, and Good Morning, nice to meet you, I hope you have a good day.

You remember things like that.

Even better, his pictures were great. He showed me photographs of the war in the East that were so raw, but were made with visual sophistication, which is a difficult combination. Like Aaron’s pictures are clearly of the South by someone from the South, I’d argue a foreigner would be hard-pressed to make such emotional news photographs.

We also looked at a series about young cheese-makers in the Carpathian Mountains that had echoes of a medieval lifestyle, here in the 21C. And then we saw a project about a community of Romanians who were trapped in Ukraine, when the borders were redrawn.

We’ll look at the war photographs today, but I could easily show you any of the three projects. The dude is very talented, and I expect all three of the young people we’re featuring today will go on to have great careers.

Overall, I was thrilled with the quality of the work I saw in New York, and am glad to be able to share so much of it with you guys. Enjoy the beginning of summer, and we’ll be back with a book review next Friday.

This Week in Photography Books: Anthony Hernandez

 

There are more photo-books out there than ever before.

The market has proliferated, with the advent of crowdfunding, and publishers who will make you a book if you’ll pay their fee.

So if you’re planning on joining the crowd, I’d recommend you ask yourself a few questions first.

Why do I think my work needs to exist in book form?
Who is the potential audience?
Why will it be necessary for people to buy it?

Occasionally, I like to get you guys thinking about the reasons behind this photo-book industry I cover each week. By now, my tastes are well established, if broad.

One week, I’m praising pictures from the 19th Century, and the high quality of the packaging in which they’re presented. The next week, I’ll big up a little ‘zine that looks like it was made by some very talented teen-agers.

Any type of book can be excellent, if it gets the right balance of content, form, and intentionality. And I’ve interviewed several artists who prefer books, for their permanence, to exhibitions, which are ephemeral.

I love a good show, myself, because it allows scale to become a far more valuable element. Just as people go to the movies to see things on the “really” big screen, I like that in museums, I can see paintings that are 40 feet long, or photographs 8 feet high.

The book’s strength, in addition to longevity, is that it’s intimate. You control the experience in a more personal way. No pushy crowds. No bumping into people in the elevator. No dirty looks from the uptight gallery staff.

You can turn the pages backwards and forwards. Skip ahead. Or dash back to a favorite picture.

But in general, photo-books are linear narratives. The viewer will pick it up, start at the beginning, and carry on through to the end.

Therefore, what you do or don’t tell someone at the outset determines the context in which they understand your work. Some books want you to guess what’s going on, (like last week’s offering,) others ask you to read dense, academic essays before you even get to peek at a pic.

If I’m thinking about these things as a reviewer, I expect you to consider them before you spend the money to make a book.

What are you trying to say, and to whom are you speaking?

Given what I know of Anthony Hernandez’s work, I was a little surprised with what turned up in the mail the other day. The folks at MACK, in London, were kind enough to send me a copy of Mr. Hernandez’s new book, “Forever.”

I reviewed his excellent Amon Carter Museum exhibition, “Discarded,” last year, and was lucky enough to interview him a few months later about his retrospective at SFMOMA. (Since closed.)

He grew up in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, and has been making some pretty smart, considered, and at times beautiful photographs in and around LA for most of his life.

Much of his career has focused on examining the secret haunts and hidey-holes of the city’s homeless community, and the bleak public spaces left for those without Maybachs and mansions in Beverly Hills.

“Forever,” I learned, is a project in which he visited homeless encampments, boxes and jimmy-rigged shelters, and laid down where people sleep. Or where they catch a few minutes of rest, in the midst of the stress-horror-show that is life on the street.

Then he photographed from that vantage point.

I was entranced, as he said, “If you stop, and start thinking about, where I am? How can I be sitting here, or laying down on this bed, you won’t be out there. You won’t be making those pictures.”

I think it’s vital to know that about the photographs, to truly appreciate them. Some are too dry, or too reminiscent of things I’ve seen before, but others are absolutely perfect.

Like the twenty, beat-up, sad-looking copper pennies in perfect rows, sitting atop a thin strip of curb, set against the less-shiny brown of the pebbly dirt.

I think it’s amazing, visually. You can sense how deeply he stared at it. And then, you think, why would anyone living on the street leave money like that?

Are pennies now that worthless?

Or was the place tucked-away-enough they considered it safe?

Maybe they took off in a hurry, or were too high to remember the change?

It’s only one picture, and there are seven or eight I thought were that mesmerizing. Like the matchbook. The brick wall. The concrete block wall. (He does walls well.)

And, most of all, the curled, slightly faded portrait of a weepy-looking young girl. A studio portrait, made somewhere, by someone.

It’s taped or glued to the front of a hollowed-out concrete block. Presumably, in this context, it’s the first thing someone sees after they wake up, and the last vision before closing their eyes at night.

The picture is screaming in my ear: This is the last place I’d ever want to end up. The worst spot in the world. Alone, sleeping on rocks, thinking of the daughter I left behind.

Or maybe she’s dead? And the grief drove her father or mother insane?

The book is set up in such a way that it’s difficult (or impossible) to acquire this context, before looking at the pictures. I suspect it’s intended for art world people, who already know what his work is about.

They bring the knowledge with them, as I did. And I think MACK figured the book buyers would be cool with it. No didactic description necessary.

We can agree to disagree.

There’s only a bit that really hints at it, in the book’s closing essay by Judith Freeman. She uses a style in which the narrative and interview bits are jumbled together, distinguished only by font style.

Her words say, “To find a bed or chair, a place you can sit, look out from their point of view.” As it shades towards inscrutable, on first reading, I’d say they’re still assuming people will know what’s going on.

There is nothing wrong with making a book for art collectors and photo geeks. Most established photo book publishers are definitely going for just that market.

But, setting aside one’s preference for knowing versus guessing, I think it’s a very cool book. The best pictures are almost perfect examples of the anti-aesthetic.

Of ugly beauty.

I know from our interview that Mr. Hernandez was friends with Lewis Baltz, (RIP,) who was a genuine master at that skill. Composing so well within ugliness, mastering tone and texture, amid garbage and industrial spaces, that beauty emerged despite itself.

Design-wise, I have to give a shout out to the patterned purple cover followed by a rich, red, inside-cover paper . It’s pretty gorgeous, and makes me think of tailors on Saville Row with a taste for the naughty.

It’s a pretty interesting contrast to the glumness inside, and hearkens back to earlier in this article. Every choice you make, when you build your book, reflects your intention.

MACK, as a publisher, tries to make art objects. They don’t see books as information dissemination vehicles, but rather art itself. And art objects, unlike opinion columnists, need not explain themselves.

Bottom Line: Cool, well-designed, but slightly inscrutable take on homelessness

To purchase “Forever,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Jim Jocoy

“…it was like the only thing left that made any sense was to try and bash your head against it and hope to wake up somewhere new…”

 

Unlike other book reviewers, I detest opening my articles with a quote. In all the years I’ve been writing this column, I think it’s the second time I’ve pulled out this trope.

Why now?

Well, when I woke up this morning, (Wednesday,) I learned that President Trump had just dismissed FBI Director James Comey.

He had his personal security guard deliver a letter that basically said, “YOU’RE FIRED!!!”

It finally happened.

“The Apprentice” and the government of the United States of America have finally merged into one massive entity, all in the service of money and power.

I’m in a tough spot, myself, as I spent a year and a half before the election warning about our now-lunatic-Commander-in-Chief. And given the ridiculous nature of what’s transpired since he won, I find myself reluctant to continue the barrage here.

It all seems so pointless.

A few months ago, when everyone was talking about how “unprecedented” this all was, I scratched my head, and asked, “What about Nixon?”

I even asked my father directly, as Nixon’s break-in buddies were indicted on the day I was born, March 4th, 1974.

How is this not the same, I wondered?

“No, this is different,” Dad said then, though I suspect he’s since changed his tune. (Though in fairness, he has said for months he thought a 9/11-style special commission would eventually be empowered to look into the Russia mess, leading to Trump’s ouster.)

To be clear, I’m no sage, as I certainly didn’t predict the Donald would win. And I’m wrong often enough, so this is no ego-trip.

Rather, it’s the honest admission of an opinion columnist that I’ve reached the point where the degree of absurdity has exceeded my capacity to ruminate.

Sure, he must think, let’s fire the one guy who has the power to indict my buddies. Maybe no one will suspect my motives? And even if they do, at this point in time, there are no human beings alive who can stop me. So I’ll just have a private meeting in my office with the very Russian operatives that caused this whole mess to begin with.

What does a simple, rural, photo-book reviewer have to say that will stand up to a Hollywood-nightmare-plot-gone-wrong-from-which-none-of-us-can-wake-up?

The answer, my friends, is Punk Rock.

I was never a Punk Rocker, if we’re being honest, even though my cousin Jordan caught on to The Clash and all that good stuff while I was still bopping my head to Billy Joel.

My parents would play Donna Summer all night long, as the Disco era and then the early-80’s-one-hit-wonder phase dominated our 8-track, and the car stereo.

I wore my Izod shirts, and let my mother comb my hair like a good boy. I grew up playing sports, in the suburbs, and didn’t even know my parents hated Reagan until I was older.

“Just say no, Nancy Reagan? Ok. If you say so. Good boys don’t smoke weed.”

That was me. (Then.)

Punks were true rebels. They stuck pins through their flesh, and wore ripped clothes. Nowadays, I’m pretty sure you can spend $1000 on a pair of pants that are sold covered in fake mud.

Back then, in the late 70’s, after Nixon’s fall, this country was hanging on by a thread. (Sound familiar?)

And kids responded by throwing up their hands, saying “fuck it,” and then vomiting on each other. Or pissing in their own van.

Mohawks and skinny jeans and a sense that the world was too crazy to change. Political organizing was for squares, man. Punk was about violent music, fighting with your friends, and living with the calm assurance that the grownups running the world were morally and financially corrupt.

(Sound familiar?)

Rather than claim my current ennui stems from a Punk Rock ethos I’ve never possessed, I’ll just admit this rant was inspired by “Order of Appearance,” a new book by Jim Jocoy, recently published by our friends at TBW Books in Oakland.

I’ve interviewed their publisher Paul Schiek before, and that man, unlike me, is Punk Rock. He lived it, and told us so. He met his buddy, Mike Brodie, (he of the train-hopping punk photographs,) at a party where I’m pretty sure the pink puke was fresher than the beer.

So seeing this book turn up in the mail, from his imprint, made sense to me. I’d never heard of Jim Jocoy before, nor did I know this book was about Punk Rockers.

But it didn’t take much time to figure that out. The vibe, the style, and people were all just right. The book, however, denies us any dates, times or places until the end.

It’s sly, but a sticker affixed to the shrink wrap contains a quote from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, so I guess that’s the only clue that sets the scene, until the captions.

The book features a look at the original Punk scene in San Francisco in the late 70’s. Mr. Jocoy, like many a photographer before him, was the guy in his crew who liked to take pictures. (I’m guessing, but the proof is in the pudding.)

These photos, which were recently scanned from nearly-40-year-old slides, feel like they’ve been rescued from some old age home for Punks.

Can you just imagine?

The furniture would all be ripped. The carpet smelly. The fridges filled with only ketchup and a few stray cans of PBR, and the nurses would give you your pills at random times during the day, just to screw with you.

Some pictures are sharp, others blurry, and the color palette is vibrant, but not hyper-real. The blue of dyed hair, the ochre of Allen Ginsburg’s man-purse, the yellow of a club wall all feel like they were made in a world of chemical color.

The San Francisco I knew when I lived there, from 1999-2002, was on a roller-coaster ride of consumption and decline. The dot com boom, the dot com bust.

The San Francisco of these pictures was more dire, as there was no Internet. No email. No cell phones. No one to have your back, unless they were standing right beside you.

The photographs don’t scream action. They are more structured than that, though we do have an up-the-crotch vision of a dancer, probably at some club on Broadway. (The caption confirms as much, though I guessed b/c that’s where the go-go bars have always been.)

There’s an overturned car, a dude bashing an ambulance with his head, and a bevy of people passed out from whatever cocktail of booze and drugs they chose that evening.

I can’t say I’ve never seen anything like this before, as other books by TBW have mined the same broad territory. (Rebellious or down-scale white folks. Like “Lost Coast,” which we also featured.)

But what I like most about this book is that it’s not broad. It’s super-specific. These were the kids, and musicians, that responded to 70’s America with disdain, and an arrogant sense of their own righteousness.

They weren’t trying to change the system. Rather, they chose to opt out, in their own way.

These days, we don’t really have that option. It’s hard to hide when you’re bombarded by information and noise, no matter where you lay your head.

Which is why I opened this review with a quote. Sometimes, we do all want to “…bash your head against it and hope to wake up somewhere new…”

So if you’re feeling that way this week, take comfort. You’re not alone. And also remember, they got Nixon in the end. Trump might be on top now, but history has a way of flipping the script.

Bottom Line: San Francisco OG Punks, back in the day

To purchase “Order of Appearance” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Sigrid Ehemann

 

“If you build it, they will come.”

Has such a line ever been uttered in the history of cinema?

How is it possible that one tiny part of an 80’s baseball movie, (when no one even cares about baseball anymore,) could have become a mantra for so many varied things in the ensuing decades.

Sure, “Field of Dreams” had both James Earl Jones and a peak hotness Kevin Costner, but I’d argue that one line is more meaningful than the plot of the entire film.

Ghosts coming back to play baseball?
Sorry.
Not remotely plausible.

But that one line, rather than just being a movie quote that nerds like to bandy about, is a philosophical conceit that can apply to life itself, industry, creativity, you name it. (For pure quotability, it’s always “Caddyshack.”)

If you build it, they will come presents the idea that sometimes, you have to commit to something before you know if it will work. Or even ever come to exist.

It’s like, are you the kind of person who would move to a new city without a house or a job, or does that seem unimaginable to you?

Are you willing to self-finance your next photo project, because you believe in yourself, or do you only do something once the funding is in place first? (Grant, commission, sales, whatnot.)

I’m thinking of such things, having recently returned home from the New York Portfolio Review, which is produced by the New York Times Lens blog, and is held each April at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, just up the block from the Times Building, near Times Square. (Shout out to the excellent CUNY hosts.)

I’m going to write about the best work I saw in the coming weeks, but straight off, I have to tell you guys that in a day and a half, I was able to look at work from photographers on five Continents.

That’s all of humanity, save for Australia.

I’ve reported here before that James Estrin, David Gonzalez, and the Lens team work very hard to build a diverse event. Their outreach efforts are extensive, and result in the most well-mixed room I’ve ever been in.

Ever.

It’s like the 7 train of photographic talent, and I actually paid my own way to get there. Because I think it’s that important to get the chance to hear stories from such varied places, filtered through the lens of such capable photographers. (And videographers, these days.)

The review is free, and the NYT carries serious weight, so you get people applying from everywhere, and even the breadth I encountered was less than in past years, I was told, as multiple photographers had visa issues under the Trump administration.

If you build it, they will come.
You put the intention out there, and see what follows.

I’ve told you guys many times that this column is now user-supported. What I get, I can write about.

And I recently lamented that so much of the column had been about historical projects or heavy political issues of late. I practically begged for someone to send me the kind of thing I often got at photo-eye.

Self-published, or small batch.
Funny. Absurd. Reacting to life’s surreality with a dose of the ridiculous.

Send me something like that, I asked.

And wouldn’t you know it, but “Bruno is a Celebrity,” a new, self-published 2017 offering from Sigrid Ehemann, from Dusseldorf, Germany, turned up in the mail this week.

Thank you, Sigrid.

I’ve been waiting for this for some time now. I love great production values as much as the next guy, and praise them often. But I’m a Marshall McLuhan acolyte at heart. (The medium is the message.)

Some books need to be slick, and some don’t. This one looks like it could have been made at a high end Kinkos. It’s bound like a book report circa 1997, if you were really trying to impress your teacher.

Except for the pink on the cover, which adds a touch of whimsy. (Kooky colors inside too.)

It quickly becomes evident that Bruno is a small dog. I’d call him ugly, but then I know people think chihuahuas are cute too, so I’ll accept he might be adorable.

The book is broken up with text pages, in all caps, that are of-the-moment-critical of our contemporary-digital-narcissistic-Trumptastic-surveillance-state-NOW times.

It’s nominally about Bruno, (also a Sasha Baron Cohen alter ego,) but is really about all of us.

HE BEFRIENDS HIS OWN IMAGES ON TWITTER
HE CURATES HIS OWN BREAKFAST
HE LOVES HIS CHAINS & LEATHER BANDS (Well, that one actually makes sense.)

I could quote most of the text, because it’s funny in the OMG-this-is-actually-happening-kind of way. It’s resigned to our Trumpian moment, but also manages to say Fuck You while still being irreverent.

Humor does that.

Other than just being silly pictures of cute, little Bruno, (who has 5,475,127 followers on Instagram,) there are also strange, appropriated-looking images. Like the preacher hands or the celebrity singers.

Others, of dog toys, seem like they could have been shot for this book.

I love this thing, because it feels hot off the presses. Because it is hot off the presses. Rather than just being one more set of opinions on a screen, (like this one, I know,) it’s a bound group of pictures and words.

A book.
Old school.

When a man gets to be President who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy, why can’t a photobook say, about a dog, for crying out loud, “Bruno loves to fuck beautiful bitches.”

2017 is definitely that kind of moment.

Later, on another text page, we see

HE HAS MET DONALD TRUMP & HIS FAMILY
DONALD TRUMP IS SUCH A WONDERFUL ICON
HE LOVES THE PRESIDENTS HAIR & DANCE MOVES
HE ADORES THE PRESIDENT’S CURRENT WIFE
HE LOVES PRETTY SPICY, THE PRESS SECRETARY

This book is about Bruno.
And it isn’t.
It manages to push ideas, and critique culture, while also having fun in the process.

Kudos, Sigrid.
Keep up the good work.

Bottom Line: A fun, cool, silly self-published book about Bruno

To purchase “Bruno is a Celebrity,” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Per-Anders Pettersson

 

Well, this is embarrassing.

I could pretend it didn’t happen, I suppose. That would be the smart move.

Instead, I’m going to admit that I just got two completely different artists confused. Sure, that happens sometimes. But when you tell one person you like their work, when you’re really thinking of another, you should probably keep that to myself.

But since when do I do the conventional thing?

When I recently got an email from Per-Anders Pettersson about his new book, I conflated him with Anders Petersen, whose books I’ve reviewed in the past.

Sure, they’re both Swedish, and their names are nearly identical, but still, that’s definitely a party foul.

My bad.

I didn’t even figure it out until I began leafing through the excellent new book, “African Catwalk,” by Per-Anders Pettersson, recently published by Keher Verlag. Once I started flipping through the pages, it didn’t take me long to figure out something was amiss.

Anders Petersen typically makes edgy, black and white pictures of drunks at the bar. I’ve seen a few of his projects, including his partnership with JH Engstrom. The pictures are unflattering, and unsparing, but very engaging.

This book, on the other hand, featured extremely colorful photographs of various fashion weeks in Africa, shot over a number of years. I scratched my head a few times, trying to figure it out.

For context, just yesterday, I forgot my cellphone at home and had to drive all the way back to get it, then I got out of the car without putting it in Park, and finally, later in the day, I sat on my favorite sunglasses and broke them.

In other words, I’m not exactly operating at maximum efficiency these days, as my brain is more compromised than Jim Comey’s moral compass.

So, Per-Anders, my apologies.

It wasn’t until I went to the book shelf, and picked up an Anders Petersen production from MACK, that I figured out where I’d gone wrong.

Because while that Swedish photographer is known for capturing the downtrodden, in all their liquored-up glory, this book came from a far more optimistic and empathetic place. It’s all about documenting, and publicizing, the grassroots fashion scene in Africa.

With respect to the pictures here, there’s not much I can say that the jpegs below won’t tell you. The book is filled with cool, well-made, fascinating, behind-the-scenes photographs of a culture none of us would likely penetrate. (As Mr. Pettersson is based in South Africa, he has home court advantage.)

And despite the evident glamour, the essays within indicate there is a massive DIY element to the various fashion scenes. This is an art movement of the people, by the people, and for the people.

What’s not to like?

There’s a quote in one of the essays, by a UN Ethical Fashion executive Simone Cipriani, in which he says, “An African designer is similar to an artist, insofar as he or she smells the wind that blows among the trees of society. African fashion tells the story of society: its positivity, creativity and capacity to do a great deal with scarce resources.”

Personally, I’d quibble with saying designers are “similar” to artists.

They are artists.

As such, this book basically codifies the energy driving these thriving scenes. There is not a lot of money to be made in African fashion yet, we’re told, but the market is being built over time.

The marketplace came up several times in the writing, which is not surprising, as fashion is also a highly capitalistic venture. That’s the part that people tend to focus on the most: the money. (We can’t really think of fashion shows without imagining the wealthy, famous folks occupying the front row.)

This book, however, celebrates makers. It highlights talented, committed people who are working hard, far from the international spotlight. We get to see the team-work inherent in this field, and I suppose ogle some beautiful people in the process.

Basically, this is a very cool book that shows us things we haven’t seen before. It’s stylish, colorful, dynamic, and very well-produced.

Good thing they can’t knock off photo-books at Zara, or this one would be churned into a fast-fashion equivalent in no time.

Bottom Line: Excellent, positive book highlighting African fashion

To purchase “African Catwalk,” click here

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

 

This Week in Photography Books: Tom Atwood

 

Everyone’s a little grumpy this time of year, and I’ve bitched about April as long as I’ve lived in Taos.

Allergies. Ditch cleaning. Windy, gray skies.

Taxes.

It sucks, basically, and each year, I yearn for May like a kid awaiting summer vacation. It never comes fast enough, but then again, I learned years ago that waiting for a future event, in order to get happy, never works out so well.

The irony, of which I am aware, is that I’ve got it pretty easy. With respect to the global game of life, I was dealt a pretty sweet hand, but still don’t always find a way to win.

Others, here in America or elsewhere in the world, face far rougher challenges than I do. The truth is simply that the world is not fair, and some people face discrimination, or violence, through no fault of their own.

The history of humanity is littered with the corpses of the oppressed.

Part of why I’ve always loved America, despite our copious flaws, is that one can see a march towards a more equitable society, over the course of our history. There has always been the backlash, (which we’re seeing now with #Trump) but over the course of time, we’ve corrected many of our errors.

Whether it was overcoming slavery, giving women and minorities the right to vote, overturning anti-immigrant legislation, or the break-up of Jim Crow laws, the changes in our society from the 17th to the 21st Centuries have been profound.

The improved rights of the LGBTQ community would have to be considered one of those successes, despite the near-daily-deluge of tweets about gender-neutral bathrooms.

Just now, the morning after watching the finale of “Grace and Frankie,” Season 3 on Netflix, I learned that Lily Tomlin, who married her partner in 2013, said that she had to wait until after her mother died to come out of the closet.

At 76!

She said if she’d told her mother while she was alive, it would have killed her.

Ms. Tomlin is one of the titular stars of the show, but oddly, she plays a straight woman who was married to a man, (played by Sam Waterston,) who left her because he was gay. And then, during the show’s run, he married his law-partner, played by Martin Sheen.

Sheen and Waterston are straight, playing gay. Tomlin is gay, playing straight. Jane Fonda, easily the best actor of the bunch, has no such sexual identity confusion. And somehow, it all holds together.

To say popular culture has come a long way from Will & Grace, at the beginning of the Millennium, is an understatement. Think about it: back in 2000, if you said the word trans, by itself, people would assume you forgot to include the last two syllables.

Trans-mission.
Trans-ition.
Trans-action.

You get the point.

These days, now that LGBTQ issues are again symbolic of America’s endless culture wars, it seems more important than ever to depict members of that community three dimensional.

It’s vital that people can see flesh and blood human beings, not stereotypical Gay bff’s who never wear pants. (Now that “Girls” is over, maybe Andrew Rannells will find some roles that are less-obvious in how they objectify his body?)

Thankfully, I’ve just put down “Kings & Queens In Their Castles,” a new book by Tom Atwood, published by Damiani. Now that I only review books by submission, Mr. Atwood was determined to get my attention, as he emailed several times, and then hit me up on Twitter.

He seemed to think I’d be a good person to look at this book, and frankly, he had excellent instincts. This one is almost-tailor-made for a jblau review. (Thanks, Tom.)

The premise here is not difficult to discern, as Mr. Atwood spent years building relationships, and meeting fellow members of the LGBTQ community. He was allowed into people’s homes, into the heart of their lives, and made pictures across a very wide spectrum of contemporary LGBTQ culture.

Before I say anything else, I’ll admit there are a lot of celebrities in this book. (Some are totally expected, like George Takei, John Waters, and of course Alan Cumming.) The artist, in his opening statement, admits that people like to look at pictures of famous people.

No surprise there.

But it works well in this project, as it mashes up the concept of “celebrities, they’re just like us,” which comes from the world of US Weekly, with the promise of outing a few people you didn’t know were queer. (There weren’t many, for me, but I didn’t know Heather Matarazzo was gay.)

Beyond the thrill of seeing what Steve Kmetko’s home office looks like, (I jest,) what works best about this book is that it studiously avoids over-worked production values. (This is not a book suffused with Liberace’s ghost.)

Rather, we see a multi-racial group of “regular” seeming people. They have jobs, and kitchens. They shop at Trader Joe’s, and live in trailers.

They’re doctors, and social workers, and yes, they work in theater.

Ironically, one of the funniest bits of “Grace and Frankie,” this season, was a recurring plot in which some homophobic protestors disrupt a San Diego community theater play. As they walk around with placards, they chant about wanting theater to be reserved for straight people again.

It’s a great joke, and in his statement, Mr. Atwood does make mention of the high proportion of gay Americans in the arts.

(Again, no surprise.)

In the past, I’ve addressed the fact that you guys, our audience, are almost entirely composed of Blue-State-Liberal-Artsy-types. This column, therefore, is often the epitome of preaching to the choir.

But I recently got an email from a regular, Republican reader who assured me you’re not all so consistent in your beliefs. It was a polite note, I must admit, and lacked any name-calling or inappropriate vitriol.

Basically, we engaged in a bit of cross-party communication, which is pretty rare these days.
As such, I’ll try to assume, from now on, that you’re a more heterogenous mix.

But people keep coming back here, each week, because I spout off a bunch of words, and show a really cool book too. This one qualifies, as its insider access gives us glimpses into normal lives.

Regular places.
Regular people.

Like the gay bartender, from Utah, hanging out shirtless in his trailer. He’s not glamorous, and in another photo book, in a different context, we might think he was embroiled in the Opioid epidemic.

Instead, we can imagine a bit about his story. Do the guys at the bar know? If so, are the cool with it?

Or rather, does he live in the closet, making off-color jokes about boobs and harlots?

Does he have to pretend, to stay safe?

Without asking further questions, we’ll never know. But good books get conversation started, and this one definitely qualifies.

Bottom Line: A cool, important look at gay Americans in their homes.

To purchase “Kings & Queens In Their Castles,” click here

 

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

 

This Week In Photography Books: Zackary Canepari

 

The best art connects to something universal. (That’s why it’s the best.) It has a quality that speaks to people across our many divides.

Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” or a Van Gogh olive grove, can inspire almost anyone. Even better, look at Jackson Pollock’s seminal paintings, which attempted to represent Jung’s collective unconscious, and many believe they do. (Myself included.)

Pollock’s work doesn’t look so great in reproductions, because the scale, texture, and color patterns all need to be experienced in the flesh.

Sometimes, size matters.

(But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.)

There are universal aspects to humanity.
We love. We hate. We eat. We die.

We sleep, and dream.
We work, and aspire.

Some parts of humanity are the same, no matter when or where you live. (Even Neanderthals would have hoped for a cave with better-tasting-water, I’m sure.)

It is easier, I’d say, to focus on where we differ. Each tribe concerned with its own, excluding others. My history is not your history, and you can’t take mine, if it’s not yours.

In general, I’m open to critiques of cultural appropriation, when appropriate. In light of where things ended up, Marvel definitely should have cast an Asian actor as the lead in “Iron Fist.” (Opportunity missed.)

But where to draw these lines can be murky. How much sampling is OK? What belongs to all of us?

I bring this up in light of the Dana Schutz controversy. Her painting, in the Whitney Biennial, has drawn countless words because she based it on a disturbing image of a dead Emmett Till, a young boy tragically murdered during the Civil Rights Era.

The work was threatened with boycott by certain African-American artists, who wanted it removed, or even destroyed, to prevent her from profiting off the collective pain of their culture.

My colleague Maurice Berger, writing in the Lens Blog, sided with those who thought this use of appropriation uncouth. Calvin Tomkins, in The New Yorker, had a long piece on the artist, including up-to-the-minute details of the controversy, and her responses were exactly what I predicted.

When you try to look for that spark of the universal, you think in terms of the collective. Emmett Till’s story, and the Civil Rights era, are American stories. They happened here. If you’re born and raised in the US, our country’s legacy is yours too.

We hear a lot about white guilt, but not so much white shame. When you’ve been taught, for most of your life, that your country has done awful things in your name, you develop a certain cynicism. A willingness to explore the edges of things.

Furthermore, we were encouraged, in art school, that it was best to keep your mind open to all ideas. (Ms. Schutz and I went to NYC Graduate Art schools around the same time.) We were pushed to explore creativity, and then judge its aftermath once the work was done. Is it good, bad, brilliant, offensive, un-showable, ridiculous?

That’s what I thought she’d say, Ms. Schultz, and it’s exactly what she said.

She explored the ideas, knowing they were risky. She made her painting, based upon a symbol of hatred from America’s past. If you look on Google Images, you can see the style is consistent with her other work.

Censorship denies people the right to even make up their own minds about whether something is worthy of their consideration. Provocative work makes people think and talk, which is part of its point.

When things are made public, and put on display, we all get to decide whether something meets our moral standard or not. And with respect to publicity, those who sought to minimize the painting’s impact inadvertently fanned the flames of dialogue.

I’m fascinated, and I haven’t even seen the painting in the flesh yet.

But I do believe artists have a right engage with any culture or idea they want, and then see what happens.  (Just because you’ve made it doesn’t mean you have to show it). And as one who has taught in minority communities for nearly 12 years, I can affirm that cross-cultural communication is a good thing.

I’m on the subject today, having just put down “Rex,” a new book by Zackary Canepari, recently published by Contrasto books in Italy. I was anxious to get my hand on this one, as I first saw the project in Critical Mass in 2015, and fell in love.

It has since garnered much acclaim, as the story of a young, female boxer in Flint, Michigan spawned a movie, an interactive website, a book, and presumably print exhibitions as well. This thing thing spun off content like Disney around a new Marvel franchise.

(Dr. Strange! Not as funny as Tony Stark, but he has magic!)

The documentary film, “Rex,” was a hit, and even received a Guggenheim Fellowship this week. Big ups to Mr. Canepari, I’d suggest.

I like the book, and thought the gold cover was a terrific touch, as it alludes to the gold medal at the metaphorical heart of the story. Claressa and Briana are two sisters, living in the same water-poisoned town, living lives on separate trajectories.

The ravages of poverty that ensnare so many in towns like Flint have hit hard, as the family has moved around a lot. The girls’ mother had difficult, live-in boyfriends.

No stability at all.

The photographs of the girls’ lives are interspersed with text bits. The hand-written nature of the words suggests intimacy. Honesty. Direct to us.

It’s an engaging book, and the pictures are really well-made. I normally don’t quibble about such things, but having every picture spread over both pages, split in the middle, was a bit distracting. (I’m guessing they thought it was worth it, to make the pictures pop a little larger.)

Oddly, one of the most memorable parts of the book was the silent opening. Quiet, sad, empty, green neighborhoods beckon us. The pictures were visceral, and put me in the mood. (It’s funny how words sometimes get in the way.)

The book is well-produced, and has a nice narrative pacing. The portraits are always well-lit, and there’s a slickness to the photographs that belies a skilled technician as well.

I have to admit, though, I wonder when a story is mined in this many ways, whether some media aren’t more effective than others? Given last week’s book review, you know I’m a fan of cinema.

One advantage to that medium is how quickly we can create empathy with characters, when we have sound and motion and music. When facial expressions are not frozen, but fluid. In book form, some of the text segments tugged at my heartstrings, but most of the pictures did not have that visceral energy.

From the thank you page, it’s clear that Mr. Canepari has grown very close with these people. I don’t doubt he is thoroughly engaged in his subject’s lives, even though their culture is not his.

The short version is that Claressa, who won a Gold Medal in boxing at the 2012 London games, wasn’t able to escape Flint’s drama, so instead she escaped Flint entirely. She had boyfriend trouble,

coach trouble, and family trouble, so she moved to Colorado Springs to train full time at the US Boxing facility.

Her sister Briana had a kid, called fatdaddy, because she wanted a person in her life who’d love her completely. Their brother Peanut had a child too.

Their struggle represents other families, who are battling odds in dying cities, where you can’t even turn on the faucet.

In this regard, I don’t pretend to relate, which is why I turn to art to learn things I don’t understand. I would not make a photograph about what it feels like to be a poor African-American living in Flint, Michigan. Despite what I said about our commonalities as people, not everything is universal.

I applaud Mr. Canepari for having the guts to go tell a story he found fascinating. Clearly, the sisters embraced him in their lives, and want their story shared with others. I think I’ll have to see the movie, because I’m curious, but the book’s pretty good too.

Bottom Line: Slick, dynamic story about a young, female, Gold Medal boxer from Flint

To purchase “Rex” visit Contrasto’s website

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

This Week in Photography Books: Michael Lesy

 

Remember John Woo?

He’s a Hong Kong filmmaker best-known for his gangster movies, which often featured a young, insanely charismatic Chow Yun Fat.

“Bullet in the Head” and “Hardboiled” had a huge influence on American filmmakers, which continues to this day. The balletic use of gunmanship in “John Wick,” (and presumably “John Wick 2,”) are direct descendants of his Gun Fu techniques.

Frankly, if you’ve EVER seen a protagonist leaping sideways while shooting guns in each hand, you’ve seen vestiges of John Woo.

So I was shocked, and also pleasantly surprised, to know he had a career re-invention in the aughts, once he left Hollywood for China. He came over here in the late 90’s, and if I tell you that his two best films featured a post-Pulp Fiction-successful-and-therefore-neither-ironic-nor-charming John Travolta, that’s probably enough information.

Back East, as it were, in the run-up to the Great Recession, (almost on its eve,) John Woo dropped a massive, historical-kung-fu-action-war drama called “Red Cliff,” which was released as a 2+ hour movie in the West, and a 2 part, 4+ hour epic in Asia.

It was as if he took a large Hollywood budget, and instead of going futuristic and alien, like “Star Wars,” or “Avatar,” instead chose to retell a particular battle from China’s endless history of war and dynastic succession.

The story, which is set in the 3rd Century AD, (when China already had 55,000,000 people,) follows a North-South Civil War in which northern aggressors, behind the Prime Minister Cao Cao, try to invade the South to unite an empire.

The opposing side, an alliance between Sun Quan and Liu Bei, together still possesses far less troops and weaponry. SPOILER ALERT, the smaller forces prevail, due to some strategic wizardry on the part of its leaders, and the propitious use of weather prognostication.

One of the good guys, Zhuge Liang, is a master of strategy, who also possesses high-level battle-observational skills. He’s depicted, at one point, discerning the size and tactical spread of oncoming calvary, simply by listening to the pattern of hoof-print-sounds on the ground.

That this key part, a man of almost mystical ability, was played by a Japanese actor, the heartthrob and singer, Takeshi Kaneshiro, was particularly surprising to me.

Because the Japanese are almost always the bad guys in Chinese action movies. Their history of Chinese repression, and imperial aggression, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, makes them sworn enemy number 1.

The English are number 2 on the list, due to their colonial violence, which resulted in multiple wars, and the annexation of Hong Kong.

We Americans are pretty lucky, from what I can tell. We never stole any Chinese turf, nor murdered its citizens. Conversely, we gave them Capitalism and let them into the WTO, thereby helping to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

So hopefully our future Chinese overlords will treat us better than other Westerners? (Fingers crossed.)

Wait, where was I?

Right. “Red Cliff” was pretty badass, and proved John Woo has mastered another genre of cinema. Kudos to him.

Big shout out to my man Tony Leung, too, because he brought the necessary acting chops to make it seem more like an art film than an action flick.

These guys spent tens of millions of dollars, (if not a hundred,) to recreate the past for the viewing pleasure of a global audience. They re-animated and re-interpreted history, for our entertainment.

We yearn for such things.

Because as long as there have been cameras, and before that sketchpads, people have wanted to see what other places look like. Other people. Different colors. Different foods.

I’ve said before photography allows us to travel in time. I’m very lucky, (and forgive me if I don’t say that enough,) to get to see exhibitions, read books, and look at pictures online, as a job. Because of my employment, I share the best of what I see with you, each week.

“Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” a new book by Michael Lesy, recently published by WW Norton, definitely qualifies as something excellent to share.

It’s a fantastic book, actually, and fits in perfectly with the theme of historical work that we’ve been on for the last couple of months. (Have you noticed?)

Mr. Lesy makes a similar statement, in one of his well-written essays within, that photographs allow us to travel through time. And he should know.

He spent months combing through a massive archive of stereographs at the California Museum of Photography at Riverside. The Keystone-Mast Collection contains the entire remains of the two biggest stereograph companies of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

The essays educate us about the practice, of which I was unaware, in which stereoscopic images were packaged with text, and the mechanical means to turn them into 3 dimensional images that would appear before the eye.

An entire section of Keystone’s business was designed to sell to schools, so these pictures were the backbone of the American educational system for decades. (Before AV clubs.)

From today’s perspective, large parts of the content are racist. African-Americans are denigrated. The Chinese are savaged. Japanese culture, in contrast, is treated with respect bordering on veneration.

Mr. Lesy culled from 300,000 images to choose the selections in this book, which are broken down thematically, with sections of engaging writing in between.

The book focuses on 1900-10, the beginning of a new, dynamic century that felt like a different age entirely. (Sound familiar?) The writing makes explicit contemporary references to climate change, and treats the offending texts with proper context and condemnation.

Like the stereographs from which they originate, these pictures allow us the same vicarious thrill that the original buyers experienced. Except we get to step back in time as well!

Look at those dead Filipino rebels. (Staged, apparently.) Who were they fighting?

Us.

Why?
Because we were occupying their country.

The company’s network was vast, in both distribution and hiring photographers, so we see pictures from almost every continent. (No Australia or Antarctica that I noticed.)

There are cities. And battlefields. Aristocrats. And architecture. South Africa. Peking. London. You name it.

The wars were plentiful, and there is a fair bit about the Chinese rising up in the Boxer Rebellion, to battle the outside forces that were picking over her weakened carcass. There are pictures of that era in Beijing, (then Peking), including a beheading.

The Chinese are described as dirty, dishonest, and craven.

The Japanese, in conjunction with the biases shown by the photographer James Ricalton, who is chronicled within, are by contrast clean and orderly.

There were so many fascinating things to look at. I felt like a kid with a dollar in my pocket at the freak show, in Coney Island circa 1952, with so many choices I didn’t know what to do.

The best part is, I can open it up again, whenever I want, to get my jolt of a another tumultuous age, beset with technological changes and vast shifts in global power.

One of Mr. Lesy’s essays alludes to said shift, as the British Empire has ceded way to a world run by American and Chinese power. The 19th and 20th Centuries were not kind to the Chinese people, I now understand. (Thanks, Netflix. Thanks, Wikipedia.) How they co-exist with Trump’s America is anyone’s guess, but at least we’ll have Mar-a-Lago.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, excellent production featuring an archive of the world in the early 20th C

To Purchase “Looking Backward,” click here

 

 

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

This Week in Photography Books: Carl De Keyzer

 

No one alive has experienced a major war on American soil.

No one.

We adults can relate to 9/11, which still seems fresh, but that simply doesn’t compare to a massive ground invasion, where the tanks roll in and start killing people.

Even 9/11, which is the emotional touchstone of so many Americans today, seems like a token holiday to today’s youth.

I know, because I asked.

My students are all 15-18 years old, so not one of them was a sentient being during that horrible day. A few of them said their parents told them about September 11th, but for others, they didn’t even have that.

The consensus was that 9/11, for today’s kids, was akin to D-Day or Veteran’s Day for older generations. (Something that might get you the day off from school, but probably not.) They compared it to the way I might consider Pearl Harbor, which happened more than 30 years before I was born.

In other words, there are exactly NO people born and raised in this country who know what it feels like to be Syrian right now. Or a Congolese. Or even a Northern Mexican, as their Drug War has claimed countless victims right across the border from Trump’s proposed wall. (Maybe Fox News should run a story about El Chapo’s tunnels, JIC our gangsta President has forgotten?)

It’s all a game here in the US, (according to Michael Lewis writing for Vanity Fair,) because none of us is truly familiar with the stakes.

Massive World Wars that kill millions and millions of people, and devastate large parts of continents, are simply too removed from our collective experience.

Worse yet, the ghostly ramifications of the last time people killed each other here, en masse, are still being felt, as the Red State/Blue State divide tracks so-effing-closely with the boundaries of the Union and the Confederacy.

Honestly, I didn’t set out to write another dispiriting column. I know this space used to funny on a regular basis, and perhaps it will again some day. Lord knows I tried to crack 100 jokes at Trump’s expense, but it got us exactly nowhere.

These articles are now beholden to the books that turn up in the mail, and I respond to what I see, so if you guys start shipping in light-hearted, absurdist photo books, I’ll do my best to soften the mood.

Today, though, I want to show you a truly remarkable publication that came in during the Fall, in a batch of books I was sent by the University of Chicago Press. (BTW, if you Chicago-types have seen Obama around, can you please tell him there are 8 billion people out there who could really use his help?)

The book is called “The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front,” by Carl De Keyzer and David Van Reybrouck, in conjunction with an exhibition that happened in Bruges, Belgium, in 2014-15. It features a trove of previously unseen glass plate images from WWI, that have been digitized and cleaned up, which accounts for the killer contrasts and unscratched surfaces.

The sharpness is a result of the glass plates themselves, sharper than any print, and the color images were apparently made using potato starch, instead of collodion liquid.

I’ve always said I’m most excited when I see something I’ve never seen before, and that certainly happens here. The photographs, which were made by different photographers in Belgium and France, are mind-blowing in the best/worst possible way.

Children playing war games. Masked munitions workers, stuffing bombs for the next slate of killing. Razed villages. Bloated corpses in the mud.

We see an armless man selling souvenir postcards in front of the wreckage of the former tourist-spot. Or a soldier, alone, making a painting of the ruins that stand before him.

There are insanely-crisp photographs of Belgian architecture, taken by occupying German photographers, to preserve what was about to be annihilated. If you don’t see the antecedents of the now-famous, dry, Bernd-and-Hilla-Becher style, you’re simply not looking. (Or you might be my Dad, who doesn’t know about photo history, but reads each week because, you know, he’s my Dad.)

Most shocking of all, if you still have any breath left to exhale, are the set of portraits of young, dead, Belgian soldiers, made just after the war’s inception. They were used, we’re told, to identify the bodies of the young men, who all came from the same village, and died on the second day of WWI.

Big ups to the production team at the U of C Press, because these reproductions are about as good as I’ve seen, printing-quality-wise. They jump off the page and spit in your face, daring you to look away.

The sad truth of my job, which has been bothering me lately, is that no matter what I say, no matter how compelling the material I present here, it will never engage with any of Trump’s army.

That’s where were are in 2017. No amount of information, unless it comes from his mouth directly, can invade the pre-frontal cortex of a true believer.

Not even these pictures, which are definitive proof of what can happen, when things go really wrong.

So why do it?

Well, just yesterday, I went to see the new shows at the Harwood Museum of Art, here in Taos. They hired a new Director last year, and he’s doing great work, so there was much on the wall that moved me. 19th Century Spanish retablos, minimalist Agnes Martin grid prints, and some ink drawings, by novelist John Nichols, of Day-of-the-Dead style skeletons that were so good I smiled.

The first thing I did, when I left the museum, was to walk across the street to the art supply store and buy some good paper, a brush, and some Japanese ink, because all of a sudden, I felt compelled to do something beyond photography.

Inspiration is worth its weight in gold.

So I might not be able to imprint upon the minds of a certain type of American, but I don’t write for them. I write for you guys, the creators and difference makers, and if anything you see today inspires you to fight harder, or enjoy a few minutes of respite from the otherwise dire stories out there, that’s good enough for me.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, scintillating, never-before-seen pictures of WWI.

Click here to purchase “The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front,”

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

This Week In Photography Books: Eric Etheridge

by Jonathan Blaustein

Remember when people used to talk about the 24 hour news cycle?

How quaint.

These days, we’ve got a 60/60/24/7/365 news cycle, brought to you by the fine folks at Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc.

Personally, I don’t submit to the Borg all the time. I jump off email and social media each night at 5pm, and take the weekends off as well, so I avoid losing myself in the endlessness of it all.

Because it never. ever. stops.

There’s so much out there that I’m just as likely to get a sense of things during my “work hours,” as there is still plenty of time to look for memes and CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT TWEETS.

For instance:

Just since Friday, we’ve had the American professor in Korea who got interrupted by his adorable kids during his BBC Skype interview. At first, he knocked his daughter back like he was Frank Costanza reaching across at a jarring traffic stop.

His wife came in, trying to be stealthy like a ninja, but the camera caught it all. At first, the guy was criticized for being a grump, instead of taking his child on his lap and making light of the whole thing.

Then, media scrutiny switched to the people who’d mistakenly assumed the Asian woman was his nanny, not his wife.

Is that racist?

If not, I know something that is definitely racist. Steve King, a sitting US Congressman from Iowa, tweeted that he couldn’t wait for America to become homogenous, as foreign babies were ruining civilization.

His tweet was received enthusiastically by more overt scumbags, like David Duke and Richard Spencer. Then Representative King doubled-down, (rather than retracting,) and stressed that Western Civilization was superior to all others.

Not to be outdone, Kellyanne Conway may or may not have said that Barack Obama spied on Donald Trump with microwaves.

And finally, today, Jorg Colberg tweeted an article, which I promptly read, in which a British cultural critic named Adam Curtis persuasively argued that art was no longer rebellious, in any way, as its ethos of personal expression had so perfectly been absorbed by the insatiable beast that is Global International Capitalism.

It was a good piece, and got me thinking a bit, as I often wonder if so much of what I do, with my writing and photographic work, isn’t just preaching to the crowd.

Even photography itself, once a specific habit, has been appropriated across the globe by EVERYONE.

Is art still relevant, if it’s only used to trumpet individual voices, one at a time in a sea of noise, as everyone else now has platforms to scream ME ME ME ME ME simultaneously?

I’m glad you asked. (Seriously, that was an astute question.)

I’m feeling pretty good about art, right now, having just put down “Cocoon” a new book that documents a public sculpture done by Kate Browne in the Goutte D’Or neighborhood in Paris, back in 2014.

This one came in not too long ago, as the photographer, Eric Etheridge, (Ms. Browne’s husband,) saw my review of the book that Matthew Chase-Daniel and Jerry Wellman made from their public art project on the Navajo Nation.

He noticed similarities, and hoped I might like his collaborative book as well.

Eric, you were right. This was the perfect book for me to see today.

The gist is that Kate Browne has engaged in a series of public art projects in places with fraught, violent histories. There were Cocoons in Mexico City, on the site where the Aztecs were vanquished by the Spanish, and two in Mississippi that investigated the dark history of Slavery and Jim Crow.

This endeavor was done in Goutte d’Or, a historically North African, Parisian neighborhood that has become a way station for many on the contemporary European Refugee Circuit.

The artist builds communities during her projects, while engaging those same communities in the construction of her sculptures. She offers workshops, and other programs, that reach directly into the neighborhood, and teaches people how to make their own little cocoons, personal talismen, to represent difficulties in their pasts.

There is a section of the book that is almost exactly what Matthew and Jerry did, as residents are photographed in a white, studio environment, holding their personal totems. How wild, that two ideas took hold on opposite sides of the world.

But that’s only a small part of this book, as there are opening essays, including two by local community organizers, and it ends with a litany of direct interviews from project participants, describing their racial and cultural pasts.

Essentially, this book refutes the idea that art is only about yelling “hey look at me” in an obnoxious echo chamber. There are countless artists out there who work with others to build teams. To enhance society. To make a difference in people’s lives.

I wrote last week about that famously Chinese ending in “Hero,” in which the greater good is presented as noble, and duty paramount, while individual desire appears sinful in context. That used to give me the willies, as I thought it meant that China intended to rule the world.

Now, though, I’ve begun to wonder whether America isn’t wounded, as it’s become so much harder for people to work together, or even get along, across the partisan divide.

I don’t want to end on a negative thought, though. One defining feature of the Cocoon series is that the sculptures, like their namesake, are temporary. After a public procession at the end of its construction, the Cocoon is lit up, enjoyed for 2 days, and then struck from the scene.

This book serves as proof of its existence. True. But if you read these stories, and look at the vibrance in the photographs, it’s clear that the Cocoon project strengthened a group of marginalized people, if only for a little while.

Bottom Line: Cool book that documents an inspiring, collaborative, public art project in Paris

This Week In Photography Books: Bruce Morton

by Jonathan Blaustein

Whether you realize it or not, this column has undergone a sizable change over the last few months.

For five years, almost all the books we reviewed were borrowed from photo-eye in Santa Fe. They have a great selection of photo-books, for sure, but the types of books I wrote about were limited to what they had.

Furthermore, photo-eye is famous for getting small batch publications from weird, artsy publishers, so I often wrote about books like that. My friend Melanie, who worked there forever, would handpick a large stack of books, and they mostly consisted of big-time artists and the aforementioned edgy/Euro/Japanese stuff.

As of November, though, we ended our long relationship with photo-eye. Though people began sending me books a few years ago, our selections were heavily filtered through photo-eye, but now they’re coming from you.

It’s true that I can (and do) request books from publishers now, whenever I get a particularly juicy press release, but the guts of what I write about comes from the audience that reads this column.

What a populist notion.
How Trumpian of me.

I’m not saying the books will be better, nor worse, and I do hope we’ll be able to maintain our global perspective. But I think you’re already seeing that some of my selections seem more off-beat than they used to.

Things turn up in the mail.
I look at them.

So much of what I’ve reviewed in the last 5+ years has trended international. I can conjure images of Kazakstan or Calcutta as easily as I can pictures of New York. (OK. I admit it. We do show a lot of stuff from NYC. You got me.)

But it’s 2017 right now, Bub.
Get with the times, you know what I mean.

Trump might wear a blue tie to fool the gobsmacked, but he knows that his supporters are red-meat-and-red-hat-loving white people in the middle of the country. In so many cases, their lives are no better than they were in the late 90’s, and in some cases they’re worse.

The jobs that came back in the Obama recovery, Post-08, skipped rural America, and still others that were there even fifteen years ago have fled, like highwaymen who know the Pinkertons are coming.

Opioid epidemics and underfunded educational systems mean that large parts of rural America have been left behind by gleaming cities and Iphone-robot-sex-dolls and Silicon Valley and arugula-eating elites.

(My Republican Uncle even wrote the word “Proletariat” in a Post-Oscars Facebook post. What is this, Russia?)

Trump is right about one thing, though.
I’ll give him that.
He says the media is biased, and liberal, and of course that’s true.

We are the media. Right?
And we ARE highly educated, occasionally elitist, but most definitely liberal.

When we visit places, like Appalachia or El Salvador, we’re carrying our politics and context with us, so it often takes an insider to give us a more nuanced perspective. And given the state of the times, wouldn’t it be nice to get a glimpse into the world of heartland white people?

Luckily, “Forgottonia: The Audience,” a new self-published book by our friend Bruce Morton, turned up in the mail a month or so ago. Like Jeanine Michna-Bales the other week, Bruce is an artist I met at portfolio reviews whose work I’ve featured in this column before.

In fact, I showed a few of these very images a year and a half ago. Bruce was getting the project up and running, and I remember thinking that these color pictures of people in gatherings, in Bruce’s home area of Western Illinois, were just snarky enough to be a naughty.

The people were large, in so many cases, and I could feel class distinctions tallying up in my head like abacus figures.

Click Clack.
Click Clack.

But in Bruce’s handsome, gray, soft-cover, perfect-bound book, the tone is completely different. His take on things is interesting, in that he moved back to his hometown of Bowen, IL a few years ago after decades in Phoenix, where he got an MFA in photography at the great ASU program.

Bruce is of this place, then got his head filled with technique, theory, and decades of living amid other cultures, before returning home. That combination of curiosity mixed with empathy mixed with a local’s knowledge makes this one of the most interesting books about rural America I’ve seen.

I’ve typically been impressed by Bruce’s image-making craftsmanship, but these are far more casual than I’m used to. The photo professor in me occasionally blanched at some of his snapshot-style cropping.

But these pictures are honest, direct, and most certainly not condescending. They take us inside a world that looks like a different American reality, because it IS a different American reality.

I almost blushed when I saw the heavy acne on the forehead of a high school basketball player. I felt it in my gut, yet also had flashbacks to sitting on the bench, against Mater Dei, the night George HW Bush invaded Iraq to kick off the First Gulf War.

About half-way through, there’s a really slick bit of editing that bears mention. First, we see a wonderful shot of a yard strewn with empty white chairs. Then, the very next picture features a gaggle of African-Americans, crowded together on a public bench, while a few nice fold-up chairs sit empty before them.

Gut-punch.

Of course it’s the only photo of African-Americans, or any people of color for that matter, in the entire volume. (Shout out to Paula Gillen, who’s credited with the editing.)

There is a delicacy and a sweetness to this book that is the opposite of snark and derision. It’s respectful in a way that perhaps only a native son could muster, especially one who has seen the outside world, then still come home in the end.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, warm-hearted look at heartland America.

To Purchase “Forgottonia: The Audience” Go Here: http://www.bruce-morton.net/books/forgottonia-the-audience

This Week In Photography Books: Adger Cowans

by Jonathan Blaustein

Over the last six years, I’ve become addicted to Arsenal Football Club, a soccer team that plays in London. It’s gotten so serious that I even write about the team, for fun, at 7am kickoff, a popular American-run Arsenal blog.

It all started out innocently enough.

After I sold a chunk of photographs, when “The Value of a Dollar,” took off, I was able to buy a nice television, and hook it up to Dish Network. Straight away, they piped in all this international soccer, (for free at first,) and once I was hooked, they yanked it away.

I’ve had to pony up a lot of scratch to maintain the habit ever since.

While I could have ultimately supported a handful of teams, when I first started watching, (and might be happier had I chosen otherwise,) I was successfully charmed by Arsenal’s famed mega-manager, Arsene Wenger.

He’s hard to encapsulate quickly, partly because he’s so multi-talented. He grew up in Alsace, and therefore speaks French and German, in addition to English, Spanish, Italian and a bit of Japanese. He was trained as an economist, is known as a progressive globalist, and brought a certain Continental, Gallic, professorial cool to the thug-life English league in the late 90’s.

He went on to massive glory with “The Invincibles,” his undefeated 2003-4 team, which was immortalized in Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”. Then Wenger, who had previously managed in Monaco and Japan, designed a new stadium for Arsenal, and kept them in the black through years when the club was heavily debt-strapped.

Basically, I became an Arsenal fan, in large part, because Arsene Wenger was “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” Now, though, his temperament is too tetchy. He knows his time is coming to a close, but is battling with every ounce to hold onto his perch.

The short version is that Arsene Wenger is a legend, albeit one whom most fans and pundits feel has hit the retirement zone. He’s good enough to be good, but no longer good enough to be great.

I don’t think he deserves the “MIMITW” title anymore.

Therefore, we need a new “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Thankfully, I have a proposal for the perfect replacement. You might not have heard of him before, as I hadn’t, but this dude has been involved in SO many interesting things in the 20th, and now 21st Centuries.

His name is Adger Cowans, and I just finished looking at his new book, “Personal Visions: Photographs,” recently published by Glitterati. Take heed, as Mr. Cowans seems like a genuine candidate for the title, if this book is to be believed.

Adger Cowans grew up in a creative family in Ohio in the 1930’s and 40’s, and was surrounded by art and photography from a young age. There’s context provided for his hyper-productive career, which is then backed up by various statements referring to his massive charisma. Tuliza Fleming, a curator at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, specifically mentioned she’d noticed the power of his personal “cool.”

Better yet, in an afterward, Dowoti Desir, a writer described by the New York Times as a voodoo scholar and practitioner, writes things about him that can only be described as mystical.

One example: “His sacred counterparts are nested among the forces of the Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions such as the Marassa, the twins of the Haitian Vodou system.”

Another: “Cowans is the silent warrior on our path, the mayuba or the chameleon whose most powerful attribute is its ability to emulate or recreate the environment around them in every meticulous detail, while remaining true to its core.”

I bet he has your vote for “Most Interesting Man in the World” already, and we haven’t even talked about the pictures yet.

The book opens with essays and a personal narrative, including photographs of his family. (This book is built around his life, as well as his work.) There’s actually a picture at the very beginning, of his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather that is so creepy I almost don’t want to photograph it later. (But I will.)

After a stint in the Navy, Adger Cowans went to New York to apprentice with Gordon Parks, have a stint as a street photographer, shoot countless musical celebrities, and work as the set photographer for more than 20 movies in the 70’s and 80’s, including seminal films like “On Golden Pond,” “School Daze” and “Dirty Dancing.”

Adger Cowans has photographed Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Mick Jagger, Henry Fonda, Jesse Jackson, Samuel Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Biggie Smalls, Al Pacino, and so many, many more.

The book doesn’t seem to be tied to any current exhibition, so it’s more likely a career-encapsulator, as I think Mr. Cowans is “approximately” 80. I’m not exactly sure of his age, as the book’s only weak spot is that it doesn’t provide dates for any of the photographs.

There are multiple sections, and each opens with a quote from an established photography master. (Erwitt, Sander, Weston et al.) The first, featuring street photos from the late 50’s and early 60’s was my favorite, as the best evoke a romanticized version of New York, even though they’ve got uptown street cred. (The snow-covered car and umbrellas-in-the-snow couplet was particularly magical.)

Apparently, Mr. Cowans also paints, makes music, and works with fiber, bolstering his Renaissance Man stature. The book riffs on that distinction, showing different phases of his photography discretely, including digital concoctions, still lives, and experimental imagery.

Not all of the photographs are classics, it should be said, but many of them are really excellent. In particular, I loved the early portrait of Barbara, whom I believe is the mother of his son Eden.

It is oddly intimate to have that family-album-element, but it definitely hooked me into this book. By digging in, I learned about elements of the African-American art community of which I was wholly ignorant. (He was a part of two important art collectives, Kamoinge and AFRIcobra.)

My experience writing about this book was unique, as it strangely enticed me to spend more time than I’d originally planned. First, I looked at it, thought it was cool, and then sat down to write, as I always do. I tried and tried, and then gave up after 6 attempts.

That’s never happened before.
Ever.

Instead, I sat down by the fire, and read it cover to cover, then skimmed back over several parts again. I looked at the images few more times as well, to better understand his career arc.

For whatever reason, this book required more of me than a flip-through and a witty response. I’m not surprised though, now that I know Adger Cowans might just be the Most Interesting Man… you get the point.

Bottom Line: A Funky, fascinating lifetime of work by an African American photographic badass

To Purchase “Personal Visions: Photographs” Go Here: http://glitteratiincorporated.com/products/personal-vision-by-adger-cowans

This Week In Photography Books: Jeanine Michna-Bales

by Jonathan Blaustein

Let’s face it: most photobooks are for photo geeks.

Publication runs for most photobook publishers are very small: 500, 1000, maybe 3000 on the high side. As we’ve discussed through the years, in multiple interviews with artists and publishers, photobooks rarely make money, or even make their money back, and are often seen as glorified business cards.

That’s hard truth, but I’ve heard first-hand of an artist who had to rent storage for his/her remaindered books. This after paying out of pocket/crowdfunding tens of thousands of $$$$$ to make the production in the first place.

There are exceptions, of course.

Major artists with a solid history of book-sale-success will get the costs fronted. (Martin Parr being an example we discussed in our interview with Dewi Lewis.) And I’ve heard that one or two publishers still take care of productions costs.

The obvious benefit of the tight-knit-market is that by focusing on quality, and charging enough to provide it, photobooks are art objects themselves. Many sport spiffy cover textures, oversized paper, innovative construction, and crisp, snappy print quality.

They’re collected for a reason: because they’re (relatively) rare and beautiful.

On the flip side, there are projects that crack over into the mass market: photobooks that aim for coffee tables. They’re able to speak to larger audiences, as perhaps they document or explore issues, beyond the photo community, that have wide resonance in popular or mainstream culture.

They feature subjects like religion, sports, nature, and history.

Books like this can sell 100,000 copies, even in an era devoid of Barnes and Noble. These books often use less expensive materials, allowing for a lower price point that enables the larger audience.

It’s a trade-off, and one I suspect most artists would be willing to make, especially those whose work is message-driven.
Because the ability to speak to a large group of people is a huge motivator for artists with something important say.

Especially those with a taste for the extreme.

In this case, I’m thinking of Jeanine Michna-Bales, a Dallas-based photographer whose work I’ve featured in this column before. I first met her at Review Santa Fe, and saw her inspirational project, in which she reconstructed and photographed the Underground Railroad at night.

I loved her portfolio-sized, meticulously printed fine art work, as the inky blacks were darker than Steve Bannon’s soul. The pictures are so dark, literally, and they represent a shameful time in our nation’s history.

I’m thinking of Jeanine’s photographs right now, as I’ve just put down her new book “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad,” which was just published by Princeton Architectural Press.

We showed a chunk of the project here in 2014, during my usual festival roundup, and the photographs also look great on screen. The projected light allows for a luminous take on deep bayous and forgotten forests, late into the wee hours.

Amazing stuff.

And it was no easy project to execute, either, as Ms. Michna-Bales begged help from family, and hired off duty police officers to protect her, as she photographed each link in a painstakingly researched chain.

I requested this book as soon as it was available, and am predisposed to like it. There’s a cool intro by Civil Rights Leader Andrew Young, in which he segues from Curtis Mayfield to Bob Marley to Kendrick Lamar in one fell swoop of message-driven art.

The book is surprisingly small, with a horizontal orientation, and I wondered if it was enough space for these mysterious landscapes. The designer went a step further and put a dark, charcoal gray border around many of the photographs, shrinking them further, but also making their murky depths harder to separate. (I would have gone with white.)

That dark gray is ever-present, including on image-less pages, and it makes for difficult viewing, with all the dark photographs.

The images don’t have a lot of three dimensionality, unfortunately, as I think they might have pushed the limitations of the printers they were using. There’s a flatness to the darkness here that suggests hyperreality, a visual styling I don’t remember seeing in her gorgeous, fine art prints.

I know it sounds like I’m being critical, so please allow me to reframe. This project, as a result of its awesomeness, has had a lot of success. A traveling exhibition of prints is going on a multi-city exhibition tour through Texas, the South and Midwest, through 2020.

She’s won prizes, and been supported by excellent organizations like Photo NOLA and the Open Society Institute.

I think the dark design, and repeating motif of historical quotes opposite photographs, are meant to suggest a somber and serious mood. While I admit it’s not exactly to my taste, I think I see where this is going.

Princeton Architectural Press belongs to Chronicle Books, the masters of the mass-market photobook. Given that it’s the only photobook offered in the “new releases” section of the PAP website, which also features several different types of notecards, I think this book is poised to speak to a larger audience.

Unlike me, most mainstream book buyers won’t be holding the color separations up against my memory of her original fine art prints. They’ll see these quiet, creepy places, and their imaginations will activate.

They’ll see themselves there, crawling through the mud, scared shitless, worried if the hounds are on your scent. They’ll appreciate the pictures, but more than that, they’ll be reminded that our country was built upon a heinous system of injustice, and that combatting racism, especially in the Age of You-Know-Who, is a worthy goal for any photobook to inspire in its viewers.

Bottom Line: Dark, somber photographs of the Underground Railroad, reconstructed

To Purchase “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad” Go Here: http://www.papress.com/html/product.details.dna?isbn=9781616895655

If you would like to submit a book to be considered for review, please contact jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week In Photography Books: Piotr Zbierski

by Jonathan Blaustein

Nostalgia is a funny thing.
What is it, really?

A state of mind?
A sensation?

An emotion?

However we classify it, nostalgia is heavily responsible for the shocking shit-show that is the Trump Presidency. (I promise I won’t write about him every week.) Overwhelmed with longing for the past, a not-small segment of White America yearned for an idealized vision of the 1950’s.

They chose to reminisce, fondly, about an America that was entirely white. About a time when men, who wore hats, were the sole breadwinners, and women stayed home. It was a time when grabbing your secretary’s backside was fair game, and racist jokes were socially acceptable.

I’ll spare you a recap of this week’s version of Trumpsanity, but rest assured, it’s enough to make some people nostalgic for the George W. Bush years.

That’s a thing.
I’ve seen it on Twitter.

The world is so strange, at the moment, that some people think it was much better back then. As I recall, George W. Bush needed the Supreme Court to install him as President, presided over 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, started two massive Wars, (one of which continues, the other of which begat ISIS) and then broke the Entire. Global. Economy.

Thankfully, though, the mid-aughts did have some highlights.

Take my neighbor here in Taos, Donald Rumsfeld, for instance. He was pretty high on the unintentional comedy scale. (Remember those oversized glasses?)

When Rummy philosophized about the known unknowns vs. the unknown unknowns, he wrote himself into the book of ridiculous rhetorical history. But he was right on many levels, if just this once. (In case you’re too young to know what I’m referencing, Rummy theorized that there are things we know we don’t know, and things that we don’t know we don’t know.)

So much of life is run by the unknown unknowns, though that’s terrifying to admit. We like our lives to be routine-based, built upon a sense of normalcy. Our computers give us answers, but only if we know what questions to ask.

We can’t even imagine what came before the big bang, or where we go after we die. Scientists don’t know what makes up dark matter, so they named it like a secret weapon invented by Darth Vader.

There are underpinnings of reality that speak of magic, or the super-natural, and most of us wouldn’t even know where to begin, as far as understanding what really makes the planet spin every day.

I like it when a photobook makes me think of the unknown unknowns. And that’s where I’ve gone today, having just put down “Push The Sky Away,” a new book by Piotr Zbierski, recently published by Dewi Lewis in Manchester.

Structurally, this book is as well-put-together as you’re likely to find. The vertical orientation is big without being too-big; the black and white cover is stark. The photos are broken into three sections, as it’s a trilogy of projects, so there are black inserts that actually divide the book, but are removable. (So you have to put it back together each time.)

There are also small journal inserts, which are bound into the book, so the page size and image style also vary consistently. A lot of thought went into this presentation, I’m sure.

But what is actually being presented? (Finally, he talks about the pictures.)

The images are mostly made with instant photographic technology, (hence the sponsor shoutout at the end to the Impossible Project,) and there’s a heavy spate of pictures shot in India. That much is clear.

But not much else is.
Clear.

There are black and white, grainy, often blurry pictures of grandmothers and statues. Cities and oceans. Live people and dead monkeys. And much in-between.

In an opening statement, the artist writes of a desire to connect to primal forces, and I think you can see it. Talismanic objects. Ecstatics in prayer. Odd people from odd angles.

There’s a hint of Diane Arbus and Roger Ballen, for sure, mixed with a tiny dose of any random person’s travel pictures from India. But it’s that final mix, the creative special sauce, that makes this such a cool book.

It feels non-linear in a way that references worm holes and peyote sessions and smoke signals, all at once. Visually, it offers a viewer that feeling that some things will never be revealed, but it’s OK, because our brains are too small and fragile to handle ALL the secrets of the Universe.

Bottom Line: Trippy, dreamy images that hint at deep forces at work, beneath our every-day existence

To Purchase “Push The Sky Away” Go Here: https://www.dewilewis.com/products/push-the-sky-away

If you would like to submit a book to be considered for review, please contact jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week In Photography Books: John MacLean

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s Monday morning, and the sky is gray. (It can be confusing, I know, as you’re likely reading on a Friday, when the weekend is at hand.)

Everybody loves the weekend, but gray Mondays are about as fun as being the guy who has to wash Donald Trump’s underwear. Think about that guy the next time you get a case of the Mondays.

(Uh, Mr. President, it’s kind of hard for me to say this, but there was a strange stain on your boxers that I just couldn’t get out. I’m really, really sorry, Sir. We tried. We really did.)

This Monday, there’s one guy in America who feels like it’s Saturday night, all day long. That man’s name: Thomas Fucking Brady.

Now, if you’ve connected the dots properly, being from New Jersey as I am, I follow the New York Giants. The only team to ever beat Tom Brady in a Superbowl. (Twice.) I have no love for the Patriots, and was solidly rooting for the Falcons last night.

They jumped out to a massive 28-3 lead, and Fox kept dropping statistics on the screen about how nobody had ever come back from more than 10 in a Superbowl.

Ever.

Then they told us that in the history of the NFL playoffs, teams with a lead like the Hawks had were 93-0.

Nobody had ever lost a lead that big.
Ever.

My wife was half-asleep on the couch, bored as hell, just waiting for me to give up on the game so we could watch “Love,” a show we’re currently digging on Netflix.

I could feel her, willing me to change the channel. The ending seemed a foregone conclusion. I wondered what the analytics guys would say about the Falcons chances of winning, at that point. (This morning, I read either 99.7%, or 99.8%, depending upon whom you trust.)

“Still,” I said to Jessie, “We can watch Netflix when I’m sure the game is over. There’s too much time left to say it’s impossible.”

So I watched the epic, never-before-seen comeback. I watched it all. And as a sports fan, if you don’t love a story like that, you’re in the wrong business.

Tom Brady has now won 5 Superbowls, and I’m sure the extra ring will look good on his thumb. I don’t imagine a thumb ring will be comfortable, but what can you do?

He’s just a boy from Northern California, the perfect looking guy, if we’re being honest, who just happened to become the biggest sports legend in the biggest sports city in America. Bigger than Larry Bird, or Big Papi, or anyone, really.

Tom Brady’s just some dude from San Mateo, who grew up in the shadow of Candlestick Park, where Joe Montana plied his trade for the San Francisco 49ers. Joe Montana, the guy people used to say was the Greatest of All Time. Joe Montana, who won 4 Superbowls, the previous high for a quarterback. (Along with Terry Bradshaw.)

Imagine that.

Tom Brady grows up with Joe Montana as the obvious role-model. He absorbs something in the watching, maybe? And then he goes on, inspired, to eclipse Montana, the previous best.

It’s the way things work, as we take from others, learn from others, copy others, are inspired by others, or (insert random verb that makes sense here.) As humans, we have role models among our family and friends. Our parents, one would hope, have taught us to be good people.

As artists, we have colleagues, whose ideas are bouncing around the air now, and we have our heroes and predecessors. Our favorites, whose tricks we’ve cribbed, whose colors we’ve coveted, whose energy we’ve used to sustain us as we walk our respective paths.

It’s a personal collection, for each of us, our heroes, but in John MacLean’s “Hometowns,” published by Hunter and James, we get to see inside the artist’s own inspirations, and it makes for a really cool book, to be sure.

This one turned up in the mail a couple of months ago, but I’ve only gotten to look at it today. It is a really well made production, from a design standpoint: from the fold-over hardcover, to the initials code for artists on the back, to the fact that you can always see the code-key while you’re flipping the pages.

There’s a concept involved, in Mr. Maclean’s 23 city tour to track down his idols’ hometowns, but the project doesn’t lean too heavily on that. The pictures are really good too.

Many are straight, but convey a light that felt familiar to me. Ed Ruscha’s Oklahoma City and Robert Rauschenberg’s Texas both rocked a clear, Southwestern haze-free light I’d driven through before, many times. The sharp light made for sharp pictures, but little bits of humor crept in too. (Accessorize your garage. Oh Chevrolet, you’re so clever.)

The bent-over fence in Rauschenberg’s Port Arthur, TX was another favorite. Conversely, the cold wafting off of Wassily Kandinsky’s Moscow, and the gauze-y light in James Turrell’s Pasadena were equally evocative.

But there are lines that appear on Richard Long images, little Baldessari balls that pop up in National City CA, and a perfect flower crown in Gabriel Orozco’s Mexico City that hint the artist is intervening in the landscape as well.

He’s basically going to these places and doing his own jam, while clearly riffing on his influences. (Ie, one image in Lee Friedlander’s Aberdeen, Washington has the requisite graphic, head-ache-inducing composition.)

The Robert Frank pictures, done of quarry divers, are also excellent. Given that I like the idea, execution, and image quality on this book, I’d have to give it high marks.

Who are your artistic inspirations, I wonder?

Bottom Line: An excellent book about an artist’s personal quest to connect to his forebears

To Purchase John MacLean’s “Hometowns” Go Here: https://www.jmaclean.co.uk/store/hometowns/

If you would like to submit a book to be considered for review, please contact jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.