Category "Photography Books"

This Week in Photography Books: Alice Garrett-Jones

 

I’ve lived through three seasons in the last ten days, and it’s making me crazy.

It was 80+ degrees here in Taos until October 1st, when fall arrived in earnest, with yellow trees and cooler days. (Nothing too bad, but definitely not summer.)

Then we drove into Colorado at the beginning of this week, and some freezing rainstorms blew in at 7000 feet, where we were staying.

It was the worst of cold-wet-nasty-late-autumn for sure.

It snowed at the higher elevations, so on Tuesday, we drove over the Rockies, near 10,000 feet for two hours, and there was a blanket of thick snow covering everything.

Sub-freezing temperatures.
Icy roads.

Total winter in every way.

You’re not supposed to experience three seasons in ten days. That’s not the natural order of things.

It’s like living in a jet-lag bubble.

And to top it off, I just got out of the car after a six hour ride, coming back across to the Western side of the Rockies yet again.

More storms. Cold rain this time.

There were sections of slick road where the slightest misstep would have meant peril. We passed chunks of the landscape that had been ripped through by wildfire in June, and already green things had grown up in between.

What I’m saying is, I’m in one of those mind-spaces where I’m a bit bleary, or punch drunk. I’d be willing to consider almost any strange idea with an open mind, because I’m a tad woozy.

Almost boozy.
You know what I mean?

I remember one time when I was jet-lagged, just back from Rome to NYC, and I got hired to scan an old, highly damaged piece of nitrate film. (The kind that could spontaneously combust.)

I’ve never before or since seen a negative as scratched up. It was more like a Seurat painting than any proper photograph. No sane, regular person would have attempted to retouch it.

But I wasn’t sane. I was jet-lagged.

So I started, (just to start,) and constantly moved around to different parts of the negative, in random ways, so that it didn’t seem to repetitive.

In honor of that woozy-brain moment, (and the fact that the film didn’t catch fire and kill me,) I’m going to consider another seemingly impossible idea: what if Evolution had played out in a completely different way?

What if human beings didn’t descend from apes? What if we’re not cousins with chimps, but rather evolved from a common bird ancestor?

What if human-bird hybrids were real, and the god-creatures we see in Mesopotamian relief sculptures were actual beings, rather than scary masks?

What the hell am I on about? Am I actually drunk, as opposed to metaphorically?

This week’s book, “Aunt Paloma Was A Pigeon: An Alternative Theory Of Evolution,” created by Alice Garret-Jones, turned up in the mail recently.

I’m glad it did, because this is one of my favorite books in a long time.

It’s strange and absurd and thoughtful and surprising. The book is exceedingly well done in every way, and as photography makes an eventual appearance, we’re going to consider it enough of a photo book to review here at the column.

What if we evolved from birds?

Pigeons, no less.

In New York City, (and likely elsewhere,) they call pigeons flying rats. People have concocted these metal-spike-impediments to prevent them from nesting in many places. (Have you seen them?)

But Ms. Garrett-Jones presents a parallel universe where things played out differently.

I must admit, I studied Biological Anthropology at Duke, as I needed to take two science classes, and they were reputedly the easiest.

I remember learning the difference between Australopithecus Afarensis and Australopithecus Africanus. Or when Homo Hablis morphed into Homo Erectus.

That we were literally apes, all hairy and making chimp noises, is pretty fucking strange, when you think about it.

Is it that much weirder to imagine we were Bird-People?

Coooooo, coooooooo.
Coooooo, coooooooo.

Or what about Simon and Garfunkel?

“Coo-coo-ca-choo, Ms. Robinson?” Is that some coded shout out to our avian ancestors?

I’m being silly here, and in fairness, the book is serious about it’s charmingly funny conceit.

It has statistics about how male pigeons are better Dads than humans, and uses drawings, graphics and type-face to great effect. Ms. Garrett-Jones considers attention span, so the reading/looking pace is smart and snappy.

I think my favorite page, (though it’s hard to pick one,) is the side view comparison between a human arm and a bird wing. It’s printed on vellum, (one of several surfaces throughout,) and the similarities are so striking.

“Why not,” I thought?

Is it any weirder than coming from monkeys?

That’s about all I’ve got for you this Thursday evening. (Yes, I’m writing at the last minute, by my standards.) I hope you have a great weekend, and that more books in my submission pile turn out to be this good.

If so, we’re all in for a treat this autumn.

Bottom Line: Marvelous, imaginative, mixed-media book about evolution

To Purchase “Aunt Paloma Was A Pigeon: An Alternative Theory Of Evolution” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Marina Font

 

There was a dead rabbit hanging from our fence yesterday morning.

(I saw the ravens picking at it.)

I only noticed as I looked in the car’s rear view mirror, ready to drive the little ones to school on an otherwise drab Tuesday.

It was pretty high up there, so I figured a bird had gotten its prey stuck, but then I made the mistake of telling Theo about it.

In a flash, (I have no idea how he covered ground so fast,) he was standing below it, and came back reporting it was stapled to the wood.

Not good.

Not good at all.

It’s twenty-five minutes to school each way, plus the drop off, so I had the better part of an hour to stew on the horror of someone stapling a dead rabbit to our fence, not 100 feet from my house.

I called my friend Ed, who was my mentor at a school for at-risk youth for many years. He understands the community, and what it might mean for someone to do that to us.

He thought we should call the cops, and alert the neighborhood. I agreed, and thinking about it made me so angry as I tore into the driveway at high speed.

But as soon as I exited the car, with my Iphone ready to capture the evidence, I saw the rabbit was gone.

Gone?
Gone!

I ran inside, yelling at Jessie, “Why did you take it down? We need to show the cops!”

“I didn’t take it down,” she said, still in her robe. “I didn’t even go out there.”

I was stunned.

The culprit returned to the scene of the crime to steal the evidence?

Oh my god!
This was a big deal now.

I ran, frantic to the fence, searching for any evidence I could find. Would the cops even believe me?

Halfway down the fence, where it reached about 8 feet high, right there on the ground, I saw a very dead rabbit with its eyes and guts eaten by the birds.

I looked up, and saw where the carcass had been wedged in between two fence planks. They were smeared with guts, in a natural way.

There were no staples, nor staple holes.

I could see how it all went down, and remembered I’d assumed it was birds before Theo came back with slightly false information.

(Only slightly false, but that little detail made all the difference.)

I immediately called my friend, thanked him for his advice, and apologized for the false alarm.

No need to start a neighborhood watch just yet.

It was only nature.

We humans fancy ourselves as distinct from nature, and of course that’s laughable. We’re animals, like monkeys or rhinos and lemurs or emus.

Our big brains and opposable thumbs helped Homo Sapiens evolve into the King of Earth, and sure we know how to shave our faces, but we’re still just animals.

Wearing clothes.

Clothes are what really separate us from everything else; trees and rocks included. We put on clothing as protection each day: from the sun, the wind, the cold, and the unwanted glances of strangers at our private parts.

Fabric provides people with a second skin, and like food, music and dance, the style in which fabric is created represents one of the most obvious ways that global cultures differ.

Our relationship to fabric, when you think about it, is a symbol of our relationship to our humanity, and the power-dynamics that shape how our societies have evolved. (I won’t get started on how women have been constricted by their clothing through various centuries.)

All of this comes to my mind having just looked at “la anatomia es destino/ anatomy is destiny,” a new book by marina font, published by minor matters in Seattle.

First off, I have to give a shout to the packaging here. The book arrived wrapped in tissue paper and tied up in red string. I photographed it before dissembling , so you can see it down below.

Ultimately, this book is a meditation on the near infinite ways an artist can riff off of one essential form: the naked female body.

As you’ll see in the photos below, though, it’s not a book of nude photos.

Quite the opposite.

Marina has used various forms of thread and yarn, or sometimes more random things I can’t identify, (Is that gold leaf in one of them?) to cover this one ubiquitous image.

Before I get started, I’m going to quibble for a moment, because it’s a book review and why not? I thought the opening three images were a bad choice to begin the narrative.

They don’t fit as well with everything that follows, and it took a bit longer to then necessary for me to figure out what was going on. (As far as sussing out the concept.)

I thought the rest of the editorial choices were spot on, and the pictures were cool as hell. You can see in one installation shot how the 2-dimensional-wall-photos connect via yarn/string to 3-dimensional sculptural installations in the real world.

(The book does a good job of translating the 3d into 2d, which is always problematic.)

I have some favorites, like “fire” and “ice,” and the mandalas, but overall, the feminist ideas, and the subversive thoughts about the role of craft practice in high art come through. It’s always tricky for typologies and conceptual pieces to get the right information across via stripped-back systems, and it’s very successful here.

Lisa Volpe, a photography curator a the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, provides and ending-essay that makes these ideas visible and comprehensible for those viewers/readers who might not have connected the dots.

(3 minute pause.)

It’s funny, but I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes staring at this book, trying to figure out how to finish the review. (That never happens.)

As I’m looking, a new thought hits me: check out at all those sewn pieces. I bet each one takes a long time to make, and no small amount of skill.

Each individual piece. And there are so many! Not to mention the time it takes to make each photo-piece, and then photograph it for the book.

A project like this requires patience, and a willingness to put in the time. It’s philosophical in that regard, as is the original premise of all these variations on one female form.

Each one the same, yet different.

Like people.

Bottom Line: Hybrid, beautiful photo-sculptures of the female form

To purchase “anatomy is destiny” click here 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Fred Lyon

- - Photography Books

 

The future is scary, and the present is complicated.

That’s the truth.

As I write this, the United States Senate is holding hearings about whether a man who’s been accused by three women of sexually inappropriate conduct should be given a life-time appointment to the highest court in the land.

Mind you, Judge Brett Kavanaugh was nominated by a President whose administration is currently under investigation, and there is a not-insignificant chance that the Supreme Court might at some point have to weigh in on things.

To a vast chunk of America, this is one more example of crony capitalism at work, in which corruption masquerades as party discipline, or shared principles, or MAGA.

What it really comes down to, though, is that for almost all of America’s history, Non-ethnic White Christian men ran the country in every way possible.

They got the jobs, they got the girls, the nice cars, the best houses. The stock options, the secretaries who’s butts they repeatedly patted, the second home at the beach, the three-martini lunches.

It was always thus, as the American colony was essentially founded by Non-ethnic White Christian men, and as we’ve discussed in this column in many ways over the years, those with all the power never, ever give it up without a fight.

Andrew Sullivan wrote just last week that to the Woke Left, white men are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, which is the exact opposite of where they stand in MAGA-land.

Of course a shift that radical, coming in a relatively short period of time, was going to cause a backlash in the world of White People. (And of privileged, Washington DC-area prep-school Yalies in particular.)

How could it not?

The reality is that America was never the meritocracy it claimed to be, so minority cultures have fought against racism and classism to try to claim a spot at the table, even if it required drastic programs like Affirmative-Action.

We’re seeing it clearly today, as organizations like Women Photograph and Diversify Photo close ranks around their own gender, or racial/ethnic/cultural affiliation, with the express goal of sticking together to battle the White Male Patriarchy.

Speaking as a man who’s often called white, (and also an avowed liberal,) I think it’s great that our media colleagues are now focused on presenting more diverse perspectives, and supporting those whose voices have inappropriately been suppressed by the traditional power structure. (We try to do our part here at APE as well.)

Personally, I’ve started calling myself Jewish-American, because who on the left wants to be considered a White Guy these days? But it’s also true, (I’m 100% Ashkenazi,) and growing up in the 70’s, even in the Greater NYC area, I was always aware that ethnic White people, (Jews, Italians, Irish…) were not in the same class as the WASPS who ran the show.

I was always aware of my ethnicity, even though I didn’t face much overt Anti-semitism. The Holocaust happened only 30 years before I was born, though, so as Jews we felt like a historically-dominated-and-tortured minitory, rather than the rich, elite culture that is so often pilloried by the same right-wingers who hate women, people of color, and fresh immigrants.

(Jews will not replace us.)

Like I said at the outset, the present is complicated. And that sense of fear about the now-and-whats-to-come often breeds heavy nostalgia, the type that fuels the aforementioned MAGA.

Make America Great Again means that this county was once great, and the changes that have come with a more diverse citizenry, (or population,) have made things worse.

The only way to get Great Again is to return to a world where those Non-Ethnic White Christian men run things exclusively, and get to grab all the crotches they want.

(Honestly, just when I think things couldn’t get more surreal, Trump comes out and says that he empathizes with Kavanaugh because he too has been inappropriately accused of sexual assault. Multiple times.)

Whether you think America is great, was great, or will be again, there’s no denying that we often romanticize the past, and deify its heroes, who were living under a very different context and culture.

Take Steve McQueen, for instance.

I admitted two weeks ago that I’d recently gotten into his films, after having caught up on the John Wayne canon 3 or 4 years ago.

I loved Clint Eastwood, growing up, because who doesn’t, but the macho stoicism they represent is a marked counterpoint to the over-the-top, cartoonish masculinity of the action stars of my childhood: Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenneger.

Just yesterday, I watched “Bullitt” for the first time. It was mind-blowing to see how the English Director Peter Yates moved so slowly in his story, taking time for monotonous details that would be cut out of ANY Netflix film in 2018. (Or Amazon. Hulu. Marvel.)

McQueen rarely spoke, and his live-wire energy was barely contained in his body, as he didn’t move very often. There were no character-establishing feats of strength to introduce his talents.

No weightlifting or jumping over walls.

Rather, he was juxtaposed against Robert Vaughn’s slick, patrician, Pacific Heights, rich-Republican-type politician.

When McQueen refused to kowtow to the man who behaved as if he were inherently superior, he announced that middle-class, or more likely working-class White guys had just as much right to this country as did the 1%.

You can’t miss the message if you know where to look. (It helps to know the San Francisco signifiers, like which neighborhoods are WASPY, but really, the point is not subtle.)

Again and again, Steve McQueen just stares people down, letting them know he doesn’t give a shit. That he’s not afraid. That’s his super-cool-super-power. (And he relishes saying “No” to Vaughn, repeatedly.)

Later, they make him sprint in a turtle-neck-sweater and blazer, after he ditches his London-fog trench coat, but other than that, and the immortalized driving chase scene, it’s mostly McQueen’s I-don’t-give-a-shit-ness that encapsulates the American attitude of the late 60’s that he still stands for.

(Quick sidebar: as “Anchorman” has always been one of my favorite films, I laughed pretty hard when I realized that Ron Burgundy’s turtle-neck-sweater-look, and jazz flute, came straight out of “Bullitt.”)

At one point, early in the car chase, McQueen drives beneath an underpass onto Ceasar Chavez, (then called Army,) and I walked in that same spot just last year, on my way to my old neighborhood.

My mind exploded as I saw the earlier version of the Mission District, representing parts of a city that is changing so fast its residents are either leaving, bitching about it, or both.

“Bullitt” romanticizes San Francisco so strongly that I felt like Tony Bennett was about to pop out of my toilet and sing to me with all his heart.

And it also highlighted the Embarcadero freeway which was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake.

I worked across the street from the seedy hotel where part of the film takes place, yet had never once seen images of how radically different the city was with a concrete highway along the waterfront.

Luckily, San Francisco had a stalwart chronicler all these years. A man with a camera wandering the foggy corners where vice supplanted virtue. A photographer who ran with the famed Herb Caen, and hit all the jazz clubs you wish you were alive to have visited.

That man is Fred Lyon, and I believe he’s currently 94 years old. I had the privilege of interviewing him for the NYT a couple of years ago, and as I guess he enjoyed the experience, Fred was kind enough to send me a copy of “San Francisco Noir,” a new book published by Princeton Architectural Press. (With a foreword by PAP/Chronicle Books publisher, and San Francisco scion/mega-collector Nion McEvoy.)

To be honest, (when am I not?) I did find the production values here were not exactly to my liking, with some glossy paper and odd spread-design, coupled with the black backgrounds.

Not only that, but as many of Fred’s best photos went into a previous PAP book, which came out a couple of years ago, this one definitely feels like it’s B-sides and deep cuts.

Criticism done, of course these photographs are fantastic. Thank God Fred was out there, as how else would we have this trove of pictures of men in fedoras, and stevedores working the docks? Women in stockings stepping up onto streetcars, and long vistas up the huge, imposing hills. (My mechanic in SF, back in the early aughts, taught me to put an automatic transmission car in low gear before attempting to drive up the steepest of them.)

I know today’s column is long, and yet much of what I’ve written is not about the book. (What else is new?) But if you think about it, the entire review is about the book.

When people feel threatened, when their lives or jobs have gotten worse, it’s natural to wish things could go back to the way they were. Let’s slap up a wall to keep out the brown people. Take away their right to vote, or rescind their citizenship.

This type of reactionary thinking is not going away. But neither is this new America, I’d venture.

The one in which men and women, Caucasians and people of color, all feel like this country is supposed to be working for them. That the system should not be rigged for the steely-eyed, Christian white guys.

It’s one of life’s little ironies: non-MAGA Americans might not want to go back to the 1940’s and 50’s, but we sure like looking at photographs of what the world was like back then.

I know I do.

Bottom Line: Melodic vision of rakish San Francisco, back in the day

To purchase “San Francisco Noir” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Tod Seelie

- - Photography Books

 

Last week, I told my parents to fuck off on their 50th Wedding Anniversary.
(Metaphorically, not literally.)

It was not my proudest moment, and I admit it looks bad upon the surface.

But there was more to it than all that, and it just so happened I reached my breaking point on a ceremonially important day.

C’est la vie.

We can’t control the way life plays out, and normally the most we can control is our own reaction to the hand we’re dealt. (Even then, it can be difficult.)

I never planned to have a weekly column here at APE for the last seven years, but that’s what’s transpired. I’ve been reviewing photobooks, and sharing my life story with you guys each week since I was 37 years old. (Back when I had a wife, a mortgage, and a toddler in the eye-teeth of the Great Recession.)

Yes, folks, we’ve made it to the anniversary column, as it all began in mid-September of 2011.

Now I’m 44, and I’ve got a wife, two kids, (6 and almost 11,) a refinanced mortgage, two car payments, a new photo retreat, and a global platform here, at the New York Times, and through my artwork, which has been seen by many.

Though I keep banging away at the keyboard, the person doing the tapping is essentially different from the guy who began here seven years ago.

All my cells have turned over, as have yours. (If you’ve been reading the entire time: a group that likely includes Rob, my wife, and the father I just pissed off at the beginning of this column.)

One way I know I’m different is that things that used to bother me, or make me insecure, no longer do.

As I grew up relatively-suburban-normal, by the time I embraced my inner artist/party-guy/cool kid, I never thought I was part of the most-in-crowd.

Even when I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to go to Pratt in 2002, and had an underground gallery called BQE33 in my apartment, (along with the requisite hipster late-night-jammers,) I still thought the real players in the art world were well-protected by a velvet rope I would never cross.

Rich Kids.
Yalies.
Aristocrats.
And of course the “Beautiful Losers.”

I shared my story of Ryan McGinley-envy here in a column years ago, and won’t dredge it up again. (I probably re-mentioned it while critiquing Mike Brodie a few years later.)

Rest assured, no matter how cool I thought I was over the years, that type of artist, (or crowd,) definitely brought out my insecurities.

Nowadays, as grounded as I’ve ever been, that stuff simply doesn’t rattle me anymore.

Not one bit.

I see cool in a different way. It’s being truly comfortable in your skin, owning who you are, and treating everyone with respect until they prove they don’t deserve it.

Hell, just yesterday, I was watching “The Great Escape” for the first time. You’ve got to disqualify James Coburn and Charles Bronson, for the ridiculous accents they were forced to adopt, but DAMN, James Garner and Steve McQueen were so goddamn cool I almost became a bi-sexual.

Afterwards, I hit up Wikipedia and learned that McQueen had been in juvie, street gangs, the military, and military jail. And that he was in the saddle for those amazing motorcycle scenes.

Garner too had fought for his country, and been wounded, so both guys radiated their inner confidence onscreen, and it impressed me well after they’d passed away. (Reading they were both lifelong stoners was a pleasant surprise as well.)

Where does this all leave us?
Will I ever get to the book review?

Of course.
Glad you asked.

Today, I’m breaking with our pattern of male/female to show a book that is bang-on perfect for my musings, and also because the review is painfully late.

I normally keep proper track of my book stack, and get to everything within an appropriate amount of time, but somehow I lost Tod Seelie’s excellent “Bright Nights: Photographs of Another New York,” by Prestel, that he sent me back in January. (Apologies, Tod.)

My mistake was everyone’s gain, though, as this book fits squarely in the sweet spot of things I crave for a review. It gives us an insider’s view into several, (not just one,) subcultures we would not otherwise access, it’s extremely well done, and also represents a time and place in a seminal way.

(Add in the fact that I’ve probably reviewed more photobooks about NYC than any other subject, and you hit the trifecta.)

Coincidentally, given that I wrote about my time at Pratt last week, (before I found this book,) apparently Tod and his artist/hipster buddies were at Pratt the same time I was, in the early days of the new millennium.

I’m guessing they were young undergrads, and I was already a serious, near-30-something graduate student with a live-in girlfriend, but still. Same school. Same Brooklyn. Same overall life goal. (Become a successful artist, I’m guessing.)

As the photos in this book imply, (and the copious essays by art-world-insiders back up,) Tod Seelie and his friends are in the biggest museum collections. A band that existed at my own art school, Japanther, (of which I still hadn’t heard until today,) apparently was in a Whitney Biennial, the mother of all insider blessings.

And as I looked at these excellent, cool photographs, I didn’t feel jealous. Or unworthy.

No single dose of envy popped up.

The very kids who used to drive me crazy, who got the acclaim the young-me craved so badly, and all I could think was, “Great book.”

I admit, the Gen-X’er in me did roll my eyes at the requisite hot naked chicks, (as always, Boobs Sell Books,) but beyond that, I found it comprehensive and joyous.

These art-school kids, and bike-riding kids, and music-playing kids, all had a shit-ton of fun during the 11 or so years these pictures were made. (They seem to stop in 2012, around Hurricane Sandy.)

Tod Seelie sent me this book at the turn of 2018, and but it didn’t register in the moment. I’m glad it waited until today, because last week’s closing wish was that you get out there and have some fun this September.

I know there are a lot of you facing serious storm issues, so you have my very best wishes, (New Yorkers included,) but I’ll end today by suggesting that we all have growing left to do, no matter how old we are.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

Bottom Line: Awesome, comprehensive look at the Beautiful Losers

To purchase “Bright Nights,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Ron Koeberer

 

I almost cut off my thumb in 2001.

It’s true.

I was making dinner for my girlfriend, and almost sliced it off on the jagged-lid of a Muir Glen tomato can. (Sorry for putting that visual in your head.)

After the blood spurted on the wall, and after I called my landlord who told me to go to the hospital, and after I almost got driven across the city by a couple of drunk-guys, luckily, Jessie got home and drove me the half-mile to the closest ER.

It’s 2018 now, and I’m only just getting my range of motion back in my hand, after the surgery.

Most of us know it’s the difficult times in life that make us better and stronger. We grow though challenges, even though most people will go pretty far out of their way to take the easy route.

(Go with me here.)

I never, ever would have chosen to almost cut off my thumb. But doing so meant that I had to defer graduate school a year, and move to NYC in the summer of 2002. (Rather than July 2001, if you catch my drift. 9/11.)

Not only that, but Jessie told me she wasn’t ready to move in 2001, (even though she’d previously agreed to go if I got into art school,) so had I not sliced through my thumb-flesh, I would have been forced to choose between my education and my girlfriend. (Now wife.)

Instead, we both stayed on in San Francisco another year, and then went East to get bitch-slapped by Gotham City for three years. (Again, growth through difficulty.)

In retrospect, from the vantage point of a 44 year old with two kids and a mortgage, those years when Jessie and I were in our 20’s, carefree, partying late into the right, relaxing on beautiful beaches each weekend… it seems pretty quaint.

We used to drive around the Bay Area all the time, and one favorite spot in particular was Guerneville, on the Russian River.

Everyone has a favorite California spot, (or two, or three,) but Western Sonoma County was always high on my list. Green hills in winter, golden colored in summer, with the winding Russian River valley cut with vineyards.

I haven’t been there in ages, but I’m pretty sure it’s the kind of place that was a raging inferno this summer, due to wildfires.

Or was it last summer? Or next summer?

Dealing with mega-fires will obviously become the new normal out in the Golden State, but people will continue to move there because the economy offers opportunity, the nature and culture are world-class, and the weather is impossible to beat.

The California lifestyle is as good as it gets, (minus traffic and pollution,) if you can afford it.

Today’s book embodies that glossy, shiny California dream almost perfectly. And it allows me to get out of my comfort zone, (something I’m always preaching about,) by showing the kind of book I rarely review.

Almost always, I review fine art and documentary photography books by established publishers.

Almost always.

Sometimes, I review self-published publications that look like they were made by established publishers.

But rarely, almost never, do I review self-published photo books that look like something my uncle made to give to his stock-broker clients as a present at Christmas. (Sorry, Uncle Keith. Hate to through you under the bus.)

Rarely, but not never.

When we became a submission-based column a couple of years ago, I was essentially agreeing to look at what you send me, and write from this selection. (Of course PR agents do offer me books, and I can’t write about everything.)

But I felt it meant I needed to be willing to write about things that didn’t fit my normal set of expectations.

Like “View from a Bridge, photography by Ron Koeberer: The Russian River, Monte Rio, California, USA.”

Ron tucked a letter into the front cover, so I read it first, in lieu of any statement or foreword. Apparently, he’s a commercial photographer who shoots for film, tv and stock. The book is a collection of images from a personal project he does for fun.

The colors and flattening of the picture plane scream hyper-digital, and some of the crops made the photo professor in me want to stick cocktail toothpicks into my eye-sockets.

But I kept turning the pages.

I won’t keep you in suspense here, nor will I make poor Ron think that I’ve chosen to review his book only to be snarky and ironic.

I like this book.
It’s fun.

And that’s the one part of the art-making process that should be absolutely necessary, on some level at least, but that often gets lost in our sense of mission, or journalism, or commercial profiteering.

Making art, whether you’re cooking, knitting, drawing, taking pictures, making videos, or songs, should be an inherently creative, positive experience for the maker.

Hell, even people who dredge up their worst bits for their work still benefit, because we feel better once the basement is clean of those nasty cobwebs.

I wanted to show this book today because this column is a part of my art-making process. You guys know I’ll show up here each week, each year, and that I’m trying to stay sharp for you. (If this place gets boring, there won’t be a place.)

You dig?

So today, one week after I froze you out with some winter hunting, let’s use Ron Koeberer’s book inspire us all to get out there this month, while the weather is good EVERYWHERE, and enjoy ourselves.

Bottom Line: Cool, fun, personal project about the California good life

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers. 

This Week in Photography Books: Clare Benson

 

Autumn comes early in the mountains.

It’s true.

The East Coast may be boiling under a late-August heat wave, but my next-door-neighbor’s trees are already turning yellow, and we had to add an extra blanket to the bed last night.

It always fucks with my head, realizing that late-August isn’t entirely summer around here.

But you get used to it.

One minute, you’re swimming in the Rio Grande river, sunning yourself on the rocky beach like an over-grown lizard, and then, just a few weeks later, you’re dreaming of ski season.

Sure, the knees will be another year older once you buckle up your boots, and the freezing cold might penetrate your bones a bit more each season, but that’s the way it works.

Fall follows summer, and winter comes next.

Unless and until the Earth’s weather patterns are well and truly screwed, (a likely future scenario, we’re told,) rural humans will follow the seasonal cycles, and repeat the habits they learned from their parents.

Out here in New Mexico, there are plenty of people who grew up hunting with their Dad, uncles and cousins. (Or maybe a Mom or an aunt?) It’s deeply engrained in the local Hispanic and Native American cultures, for sure, to the point that camo is an acceptable form of fashion in the local burrito joints around town.

Not surprisingly, there is not a massive overlap between the hunting/4-wheeling/fishing culture, and the more bougie, gringo pursuits like skiing, snowboarding, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, etc.

Some, of course, but not much. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met someone from Taos who’s never skied before, but could chop down an Piñon tree and cut it up for firewood blindfolded.

(Not that I’d recommend anyone operate a chainsaw without looking. Very bad idea.)

This concept even made a recent New Yorker cover. (I only know because my son asked me to explain it.) As a first, I’ll photograph it so you can see what I mean.

As I told Theo, it’s all about the Two Americas, where people can worship the same mountains, and pledge allegiance to the same flag, but feel like their neighbors inhabit a different universe, if not a separate country.

As always, I’m on a rant for a reason, as I just put down the strange and cool “The Shepherd’s Daughter,” by Clare Benson, published last year by photolucida.

The Portland-based organization runs the photo world contest “Critical Mass,” (which I’m currently judging,) and its top prize is a published photo book. Ms. Benson won the 2015 competition, and the book turned up in the mail last year.

Because I was a judge, I was sent a copy of the book, so it ended up on my bookshelf, rather than in the submission pile. But as you know, I’m always looking for opportunities to highlight female photographers, so today, I pulled it down to take a look.

Ironically, Clare Benson seems to embody a hybrid of the exact dynamic I mentioned above. We met coincidentally in April, when she came to an artist talk I was giving in New York. It took place in a German beer hall in Queens, and she asked me all sorts of intelligent, very art-world questions about my work.

At some point, she mentioned that she’d studied photography at the prestigious program at University of Arizona, home to the Center for Creative Photography, and the Ansel Adams archive. So I took her for a city art person, out for a night of cheap German beer and good conversation. (The room was populated by Yalies and Columbia students/professors, so you can imagine the demographic I’m suggesting.)

Boy did I have Clare Benson wrong.

Or rather, like me, she seems to be an artist who can navigate the ivory towers and gritty streets, while still having a foot firmly planted in raw America.

To be clear, the most mountain-man thing I’ve ever done is chop off a deer’s paw, and I’ve never killed anything bigger than a mouse. (Though I have killed a lot of mice and flies.)

Clare Benson, so this book shows and tells us, comes from an actually hardcore family of hunters in Northern Michigan. If you’re not a fan of chopped up animal parts, you might not want to look at the images below.

The photographs appear to be staged, or created, rather than found, as Clare is featured in some of them, and there is a constructed vibe coming across. (The text confirms it.)

These are art photographs in documentary photography’s clothing.
(Is that too far a stretch for a pun?)

They’re cold, and structured. They feel like they’re real, in the sense that Clare’s connection to the land and culture comes through. But we also understand the function of the animals as still lives, almost: as talismanic markers of a world she knows, but doesn’t inhabit on a regular basis.

In the words of a (very) famous television show, (and a series of books that probably won’t be finished,) Winter is Coming.

I know it is.

There’s a chill in the air at daybreak, and according to my neighbor Morris Arellano, the elk have come down from the mountains already. (He told me this morning.)

Before you know it, the leaves will drop, the snow will arrive, and I’ll have a whole new host of problems to bitch to you about each week. (Freezing snot, clogged chimney, shoveling the driveway, etc.)

So for today, while some of you are still sweltering, I thought a cold, smart, original book was just what you needed. And if you want to eat some rabbit in Michigan this winter, now you know who to call.

Bottom Line: Spare, bleak, poetic book about winter hunting.

To purchase “The Shepherd’s Daughter” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Caleb Cain Marcus

 

I keep it real hear at APE.

Always have.

In a 7-year-weekly-column, (and 8 years of service overall,) you’re bound to repeat yourself now and again.

I know I have.

One story that maybe doesn’t come around often enough, though, is how I came by this philosophy of honesty. (By now, perhaps I’m equated with it.)

The truth is, it wasn’t my idea.

When Rob first hired me, in 2010, and then proposed sending me to NYC to cover the PDN Expo, he gave me one particular piece of advice.

“Be as honest as possible,” Rob said. “Sure, it will turn a few people off, and maybe you burn a bridge or two. But you’ll gain far more than you lose by being honest, and most people will really respect you for it.”

Despite the quotation marks above, I admit this is a paraphrase, but I have a good memory, and this was a seminal conversation in my life.

I’ve had more than a few people approach me over the years and say they felt like they knew me, because of the way I write this column. I take that as a compliment, and don’t intend to change any time soon.

So here’s the fresh news: I just finished a two week run in which I was working 12-18 hours a day on Antidote.

Every day.

I’ve worked non-stop, dating back to my workshop in LA last month. Basically, I’ve never been challenged as much professionally, and thankfully it all seems to have come off well. So after I write this column, (and do an interview for the NYT,) I’m calling it a day, and taking a long-deserved rest.

My major lifelines at the end of Antidote, when I was REALLY dragging, were my two buddies, Caleb Cain Marcus and Kyohei Abe, who were on the faculty for Session 2. Seriously, you couldn’t ask for better friends, (nor teachers,) as they inspired our students, and helped me figure out how to grow as a leader.

In addition, they each gave artist talks that entranced our students, as the through-lines between their evolution as artists were so clear to behold.

I met Caleb at FotoFest in Houston in 2016. In an otherwise unsuccessful venture back across the table as an artist, I made a truly great friend, and that is worth more than its weight in chicken feed. (Odd metaphor, right? I told you, I’m fried.)

I’d previously reviewed his brilliant book, “A Portrait of Ice,” but we’d never met or spoken. I can go back and date when I reviewed his next book, “Goddess”…

(Pause)

OK. I’m back.

I reviewed “Goddess” in December of 2015.

Basically, I reviewed this guy’s last two books before I ever knew him.

But now he’s one of my best friends in the world, and was instrumental in helping me build Antidote from nothing.

So as I begin this review, honest about my connection to Caleb Cain Marcus, you can decide whether I’m biased about the impending “A Brief Movement After Death.” (By Damiani Books)

Being honest, I’ll also share that I prompted him to write the excellent, brief, foreword, and I also edited its text.

Can I be objective?
Now that you know?

Well, I’ll photograph the entire book below, so you can decide for yourself.

Am I hooking up a friend?

Or writing a review of the perfect, slim, (and perfect-bound) little volume for a short review today?

The title, and “heavenly” cover, tip us off to the book’s meaning, but that aforementioned foreword gets right to the point. These skyscapes, in ethereal colors, contain little repeating specks that look like flocks of birds, but are in fact the renderings of a pendulum-like grease pencil, swinging above the surface of a print.

The pictures, together, are ruminations about what happens to our souls after we die, as the artist contemplates his demise as his young daughter grows before him.

The title and the text direct the read here. The colors and skies could imply different things, under another context, but we know where to go because we’ve been told.

As for those bird flocks, they could also represent groups of souls, or the disconnected embodiment of even one soul, floating up to heaven. (Or whatever you might call the after-life.)

The pictures move up the page, and jump from side to side, in an obviously constructed rhythm. The colors, cool blues and warm oranges and yellows, provide contrast right out of color theory.

Just as I thought to myself, “I think this is enough pictures,” the book ended. Literally, that was the last page. So just as last week’s review was an example of getting the picture volume right, so is this. (But in the opposite direction.)

Honestly, I don’t know where we go after we die, and neither does Caleb.

But I do know that books like this can make us think and feel at the same time. The question, the premise, gets inside our head immediately. (It sets the tone, as does the placid cover.)

And the color speaks on an emotional level.

I’ll leave you contemplating mortality, today, and hope you enjoy your summer holiday.

Bottom Line: Slim, sleek, beautiful, visual poetry

To Pre-Order “A Brief Movement After Death” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Max Sher

 

There’s a sameness in writing a weekly column.
Each week, another book.

Each week, another deadline.
And another.
And another.

It’s gone on like this for nearly 7 years, and you’d think I’d resent it.

The sameness.
The monotony.
The routine.

Lather.
Rinse.
Repeat.

Surprisingly, though, I don’t resent it at all.
I enjoy my routine immensely.

At the moment, in-between Antidote retreats, with a chicken and corn mole to make, and some bison bolognese to prep, I’m fully out of my daily grind, and out of my comfort zone.

As of next week, though, with the kids back in school and Antidote behind us, I’ll revel in the sameness of it all.

Get up.
Make the kids breakfast.
Get them off to school.
Go for a hike.
Do my work.
Pick the kids up from school.
Make dinner.
Watch tv.

And then do it again and again, until Xmas break.

There’s a beauty in this routine, in that it’s life. It’s what we do. It’s the structure through which we share moments and meals with our loved ones.

Everyday life may not be where we make our most vivid memories, but it’s the meat and potatoes of the days of our lives. (If that’s not the cheesiest sentence I’ve written in this column, maybe somebody can find a better example?)

The truth is, I’m punch drunk at the moment, which you can probably tell. My earlier paragraphs look like a succession of William Carlos Williams poems.

Or maybe ee cummings?

Regardless, even now, half-useless as I may be, there’s always a point.

(I’m keeping it short today, given my life constraints, and the likelihood you’re on vacation anyway.)

“Palimpsests” is a new book by Max Sher, published by Ad Marginem Press, that was sent all the way from Russia. I’m honored he made the effort, and am glad he did, because it’s a very cool book.

And perfect for today.

This group of cultural landscape images was made across the former Soviet Union. It appears to be, and the text and excellent end-graphic confirm, a categorical look across an unimaginably big space.

We Americans like to think about things in comparison to Texas, so let me Google something… just give me a second.

(Pause.)

Nope. I couldn’t directly find how many times Texas fits into the Soviet Union. Though this link from Texas Monthly comes close.

Regardless, my point was simply that the Soviet Union, which Vladimir Putin may be keen to fully rebuild, was FUCKING HUGE. It contained many cultures and sub-groups, yet when the country was built upon ideological, rather than cultural terms, it led to a uniformity of architecture and assembly of public space that is amazing to behold. (Amazingly boring, if you catch my drift.)

I’m surprised these pictures don’t seem bitter, or condescending, though so many of them are bleak. Again and again, the light is flat. (ed note: When I photographed the book, I realized the light quality and quantity were more varied than I realized upon initial viewing.)

The colors, when they arrive, are often in a pastel palette. Oranges and pinks and greens and turquoise.

But mostly things are gray.
And boring.

There are few people in these images, which suggests perhaps the public sphere outside Moscow is under-populated? Or maybe Max just prefers landscapes?

It’s all so much the same, despite the wide geographic spread, and a shot at the beach. (Sochi?)

I’ve squeezed about as much as I can from this brain, but I’ll end with a couple of compliments. The compositions and color palette in this book are really top notch, but so is the volume of pictures.

So often, I find myself reminding you guys “less is more,” and this is not the case here. To create that feeling of the seductive repetition with slight variations, Max Sher was wise to include so many photographs.

I kept flipping the pages, waiting to see the next iteration, like an old Calvin and Hobbes calendar, circa 1995.

I’ll stop now, before my references get more obscure than the People’s Front of Judea.

Bottom Line: Sleek, smart book of Soviet landscapes

To purchase “Palimpsests” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Hinda Schuman

 

Have you ever seen “The Godfather Part III?”

Be honest.

Have you ever sat through the whole thing?

I didn’t think so. (I watched it back in the day, but that was a long time ago.)

Well-before Sofia Coppola became known as the director of such films at “The Virgin Suicides,” and the excellent “Lost in Translation,” she appeared as a vastly under-qualified actress, playing a lead role in the final film in her father’s trilogy.

Sometimes, as Americans, I don’t think we grasp the reach of our culture. Our cinematic and television history has impacted kids growing up across the planet.

Take Norway, for instance.

I’m currently binge-watching the brilliant “Lillyhammer” on Netflix, starring all-time great Jersey guy Steven Van Zandt, also known as Little Steven from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and as Silvio throughout the entirety of “The Sopranos.”

Like his buddies Bruce and Jimmy Iovine, he’s become a full-fledge superstar in his own right.

I’ll spare you any further, in case you want to catch up, but there are Sopranos and Godfather references sprinkled throughout, even though the entire production was Norwegian, beyond Mr. Van Zandt. (Who also served as writer and producer.)

But back to my original question.

The reason you have likely NOT watched “The Godfather Part III” is that before the internet, someone mentioned that they heard from their cousin that it was long and terrible. (Or maybe just terrible.)

“The Godfather Parts I and II” are rightfully known as masterpieces of 20th Century Art.

They were as good as the medium of celluloid cinema can get.

So why make Part III?

Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to quit, people. You want to leave the stage while they’re still screaming your name.
(Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!)

That’s what I came away feeling, having just put down the extremely interesting, and for-the-most-part excellent new “Dear Shirley,” by Hinda Schuman, recently published by Daylight. (Quick shout out: Daylight often makes risky design decisions, and I like that.)

“Dear Shirley” begins with two essays that set the scene, so it doesn’t want you to go in blind, context-wise. I respect the decision to include or elide context, (depending on the book,) but in this case, I appreciate the heads ups by Sunil Gupta and Magdalena Sole.

Part 1, also called “Dear Shirley,” is a masterful project. It’s dynamite, and speaks to us from the front lines of the identity politics wars of the late 70’s and early 80’s, as ethnic, racial and sexual minorities fought to claim space in America.

I know the Pictures Generation taught us to question reality, but the diaristic letters to the off-screen Shirley, (like Vera from Cheers,) seem real to me. And the pictures line up with a narrative of a young, gay, Jewish woman who marries a man in Vermont in 1971.

By 1978, they seem to be experimenting with an open relationship, but really her husband is slowly falling in love with Nancy, and pushing Hinda out.

She finds love with Susan, and their relationship grows, suffers setbacks, and ultimately seems to prevail. We learn this from the many letters in the book, all to Shirley, until they’re not.

There are many nude images, frankly, and I can’t photograph them for you, as we’ve maintained a SFW policy in the column for years. But they’re strong, and I like the inclusion of contact sheets along with the staged portraits and few landscape establishment shots.

It feels real, and I trust it to be real, even though perhaps I should question it.

Part 1 seems to end in 1988. And design-wise, I think use of text-printed vellum, in small see-through blocks, was successful. (If risky.)

My only “but” with this book, if you’re sensing a “but” coming, is that I think Part 2, “A True Story,” is not very good. I get why it’s there, bookending life, but the quality difference between the two series is way too big to ignore.

The former images were technically astute, artistically composed black and white photos, and the accompanying writing was taut in every way.

Every single thing felt necessary.

The color pictures seem to have been shot with a not-very-good digital point and shoot, and the writing evokes bad high school poetry. Colors and compositions are off, and the entire technical competence is called into question.

But then the biographical text at the book’s end made me reevaluate the story, as my certitude that Part 1 was “true” was called into question by the seemingly false narrative of Part 2.

“A True Story” suggests that after a time together, or perhaps after a reunion, Hinda and Susan get a divorce late in life. Their love story ends, and heartbreak is the predominant sentiment.

But that blasted epilogue heavily suggests that the two women are happily married and still deeply in love.

Which is it?

I’m betting that Part 1 is “real,” and Part 2 is “fake,” but I can’t say I’m sure.

Can a book end on a riddle?

Can a book review end with a question?

Bottom Line: A fascinating look at coming out in the 80’s

To purchase “Dear Shirley” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Ira Block

 

In life, the only constant is change.

(If that isn’t a hell of a koan, I don’t know what is.)

Life moves in cycles, as do orbits. The wheel of karma turns, and eventually makes its way back around for everyone.

What was once young becomes old, and then dies.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but most of us avoid contemplating our mortality. Denial works for Climate Change, sure, but also for the slow decline of our mental and physical faculties as we push the boundaries of aging.

Take baseball, for instance,

It was once considered America’s pastime.
Mickey Mantle.
Babe Ruth.
Hank Aaron.
Willie Mays.

These were the most famous guys in the country.

A generation of Baby Boomers grew up idolizing their favorite ball players; rhapsodizing about the mythical Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn, a Mecca for the fuzzy memories of a generation. (Including my own father.)

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I followed baseball on par with football and basketball. I liked the before-and-since-putrid New York Mets, who were briefly good, and won the World Series when I was 12.

I stopped watching baseball in earnest about 15 years ago, during the steroid crisis. Something about seeing smug Barry Bonds get away with it, and cynical San Franciscans defending his awful behavior, soured me on the sport.

That was about the time the Mets choked their way out of contention two years in a row under Willie Randolph, and again, they’ve only been good two or three times in 30 years.

Now, it seems the Mets are cursed by the ghost of Bernie Madoff. The team owners, the Wilpons, profited heavily from his schemes, and were forced to pay massive fines that have since crippled their team.

But really, I don’t care about baseball anymore.

And neither do most kids these days, if the think-pieces are to be believed. (Or my own 10 year old, when I asked him.)

The NBA is fast-paced, so kids love basketball, but getting a Gen Z child to watch a full baseball game, over three hours, seems as likely as Donald J Trump magically turning into a gracious, empathetic person.

(“Listen, Pence, honestly, I’m sorry. I feel bad for all those times I called you a Nancy-boy in the locker room. For all those times I tempted you to be in a room alone with a woman who wasn’t your wife. Really, I’m sorry. I apologize wholeheartedly. I was a terrible guy, but I swear I’m a changed man.”)

Baseball has the oldest fan base of the major sports in America, and is currently considering tinkering with the rules to make the game faster.

But can it really compete for attention in a cohort that likes watching video game competitions on Youtube on their phones and Playstations?

Honestly?

Not bloody likely.

What’s that you said? American culture is not the only culture in the world?

Well, that’s true.

You know where they still like baseball, even today? (Other than LA, which is Dodger-crazy?)

Cuba.

Cuba is mad for baseball. And if “Cuba Loves Baseball: A Photographic Journey,” by Ira Bock, is to be believed, baseball is more religion than sport on the big, Caribbean island.
(Published by Skyhorse Publishing)

This one turned up in the mail in April, around opening day, and waited its turn in the book stack. (Patiently, patiently.)

It seemed like the perfect choice today, what with our little theme of books with helpful, evocative titles.

“Cuba Loves Baseball.”

That is clearly what this book is about. Two smart forewards, (one from broadcasting legend Bob Costas,) set the scene for how much Cubans love baseball.

And then the pictures do the rest.

Apparently, Ira Block was a Nat Geo guy for a long time, and you can see it, with his facility working in another culture. (And yes, he was one of those Brooklyn Jewish guys who went to Ebbet’s Field all those years ago.)

Like many of the books I review, this one suffers from too many pictures. There are many gems in here, aesthetically and in mood and tone, including a really excellent set of portraits of older baseball players. (I’ll photograph all of them, so you can see it below.)

But other than being a bit heavy on the edit, I really liked this one. It sets the intention to transmit a sense of love. (It’s in the damn title.)

And I think it succeeds.

There is joy in the subjects of these pictures, but also in their taking. Ira Block states in the epilogue that the project brought him back to his childhood, and I think that shows.

Baseball is alive and well these days. You just have to look a little further South to see it.

Bottom Line: Fun, joyous look at Cuba’s love of baseball

To purchase “Cuba Loves Baseball” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Tara Wray

 

I saw the greatest Kung Fu movie the other day.

New stuff.
Nothing vintage.

Netflix had been nudging me to watch “The Bodyguard” for a long time, as Chinese action movies are strong in my personal algorithm. (I don’t know why I resisted.)

Oh, sweet algorithm.
You know me so well.

“The Bodyguard” not only features living legend Sammo Hung, but it was the first film he directed since the seminal “Once Upon a Time in China and America.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Sammo plays a fat, old, retired super agent, but his weight is not his biggest problem. Unfortunately, Sammo’s character, Old Ding, is suffering from serious dementia.

Like, so-bad-he-lost-his-own-granddaughter level dementia. (And they never found her, setting up his tragic backstory, some of which was unspooled in a short, wonderful, animated sequence.)

What’s that?
Have I ever seen a fat, old, senile action hero before?

No.
I have not.

I mention all of this because the final battle scene takes place between Sammo and three massive, nasty-looking, fully-tatted-up Russian gangsters, presumably trained in Sambo and jail-fighting.

One had a knife as big as a sword, and in fairness, Sammo did take them on one at a time, but then he (SPOILER ALERT) kicked each of their asses and killed them individually.

I mention this here because last night night, after dinner, I was telling my son about all this, and how cool it was that Sammo beat up three Russian bad guys. (An old guy! Who knew?)

Theo looked at me like I had a fork sticking out of my ear.

“It was in the movie, right? I mean, it was staged.”

Then my wife piped up, trying to save me embarrassment.
“I think he means the choreography was really good, honey. He knows it wasn’t real.”

I tried to defend myself.
“I know it wasn’t real. I just mean… it’s cool to see… I… Sammo Hung…”

And then I walked away with my tail between my legs.

But you guys know what I mean, right? Action heroes are powerful symbols for mass culture, and this underdog, woebegone loser, Old Ding, comes along and stands up for the little guy against those evil, psychopathic Russians.

Not only was this film unique in its choice of hero, and super-well-built with its choreography, but it also featured, out of nowhere, an all time great song right in the middle: “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” by Bill Withers.

Such.
A.
Great.
Song.

Shit like that is what made America great to begin with. (Funny aside, in the hotel in LA last week, I saw a guy in a red MAGA hat. Seemed odd on the West side of LA. I approached and saw that it had a yellow “not” sewed on it, this not 3 days after the fiasco. Someone got to work quickly on that one.)

Where was I?

Right.
“Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”

People move to New Mexico and California for the sunshine. It’s addictive, that Vitamin D, as is the requisite blue sky. (Yellow and blue being a power combination in color theory.)

So I was intrigued to open “Too Tired for Sunshine,” a new book by Tara Wray, published by Yoffy Press in Atlanta. I never know when I’m going to go off on a little sub-theme in this column, but this is now two books in a row where I gave serious thought to a book’s innards, once I read the title.

Normally, titles are afterthoughts, if we’re being honest.

But this one is so damn poetic, and visual. (The opening essay confirms Ms. Wray is also a writer.)

Too tired for sunshine.
Why?
Are you depressed?
Or just world-weary?

Have you succumbed to a deep, French ennui?

Or have you sucked so much juice from life that you need to stay in bed, despite the great weather, because you need to rest up for the next onslaught of creativity?

I admit, the earlier reads make more sense, based on gut feeling, but when you look at these pictures, you realize it’s both.

We see dark reality, the kind that often kills off naiveté: chopped up animals, an actual bloody heart, more blood on snow, a blood-red eyeball.

But beyond that, most of the book has a witty wonder that is lots of fun.

The warm, glowing light on an Adams apple. Two donkeys facing one way, and the third in the opposite direction. A grandma in colored curlers, followed by flowers in the same color palette. And lots and lots of silly dogs.

At first, I took exception to an image that turned up, blurry, with conventional light trails.

1. I hate light trails.
2. It had no business being in the edit, as it was then constructed.

(Can you believe I debuted the listicle last week, and then came right back to it?)

But then, later on, there were other such images inserted for balance. So even my one nit-picky quibble was put to bed before the end of the book. (Though I still hate light trails.)

There is serious joie de vivre in this book. It’s perfect for today, because my half-dead brain was not getting woken up by any half-ass book today, and this one goes all they way.

Bottom Line: Funny, poignant, POV on life in general

To Purchase “Too Tired for Sunshine,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Steven Bollman

 

The internet’s out, so I’m grumpy.

Yesterday, it was the electricity.

That’s life here in the Rocky Mountains. (And in New Mexico in particular.)

You learn quickly that everything is a trade-off.

On the one hand, we have the nature and the culture, both among the most unique and astonishing in the US. On the other, we have the poverty and incompetence, which compete daily in a twisted dance of darkness.

If you study ancient religion and philosophy, it’s clear that different groups of humans, in disparate parts of the planet, came to an understanding of the power and ubiquity of opposites.

In places as widely spread as Far East and Southern Asia, the Middle East and Peru, iconography or words developed to specifically describe the phenomenon.

We’ve all seen cheesy tattoos of the Yin Yang symbol, but that doesn’t strip it of its import. We Jews have the separation of Earth and Sky in the opening of Exodus, and the Chavin de Huantar culture, in the Andes, made art in which graphic lines had two purposes: strands of hair also functioned as snakes.

These days, when someone wants to discuss dualistic thinking, without any nuance, they describe it as being black and white. (We’ve all said it: he or she doesn’t understand complexity, and only thinks in black and white.)

Ironically, as any photographer knows, black and white photography is all about shades of gray. Tonal range is defined by it: how many different gray tones have you produced to create a rhythm with your whites and blacks?

Black and White photography was the gateway for almost all art students, before the 21st Century. It was the first language you learned, before moving on to color.

These days, only a tiny percentage of photographers learn one before the other. It’s almost all color now, and black and white is a niche, or a filter to slap on in Instagram when you want to be artsy. (Or when your light is crap.)

In the art world, there will always be black and white, but here too it has migrated into the realm of “alternative process.” It represents the past, from a McLuhan-esque perspective, so it can be utilized for nostalgic purposes, or to mess with viewer’s temporal expectations.

Occasionally, though, we’ll find a project that is straight-up throwback. It presents the kind of pictures that feel like they were made by a member of the Rat Pack, reincarnated for the Justin Bieber era.

That’s what I felt about today’s book, “Almost True,” by Steven Bollman, published this year by F8 publications in the Bay Area. He sent it in a few months ago, and it sat on the pile, patiently waiting its turn.

I popped it out of the cardboard yesterday, and was very glad I did. (Normally, I look and write, but this one required a bit of contemplation, as far as how to approach it properly.)

“Almost True” sounds like “Almost Famous,” another throwback project, when Cameron Crowe summoned his halcyon days as a young reporter onto the big screen.

The title also messed with me a bit, as I kept waiting until the end text to learn whether the book was something other than it appeared to be.

It seems, on surface level, to be an exceptionally well-edited group of old-school, black and white street photographs. We sense the stylistic influences of Cartier-Bresson, Frank and Friedlander everywhere, but that’s OK.

Who hasn’t been influenced by those lions, and how does one even begin to make work like this without seeming derivative?

Well, there are a few ways.

1. Make really damn good photographs, and show us a wide range of times and places.

2. Drop in temporal references that cement the project in the now, as opposed to the then.

3. Give the pictures a way to live together that doesn’t evoke someone else, thereby making room for your own voice.

I don’t think I’ve ever dropped into listicle form here before, so there’s a first time for everything. But it reinforces my point: structure can have power.

This book is broken down into sections, with clear themes, and I could feel it from the start, before I knew what it was. “Almost True” made me guess from the get-go, but I didn’t get it right away.

In Chapter 2, I noticed the contortionistic positions of the subjects, and that gesture and body positioning were the hook. So I flipped right back to Chapter 1, and noticed that every picture featured people looking up and away.

Chapter 3 was pictures within pictures, including a nudie poster, (Boobs Sell Books,) and a cool Tupac reference. Then we have people separated by barriers, and Chapter 5 is about connections between consecutive images.

For example, one image has a finger pointing, and the next is of a bird in the sky, in that exact spot. This section also gives us our first dead body. (Seemingly.)

In my read, the subsequent chapters were about women, then transcendence, men, and finally the last one screamed “film stills.”

The artist might quibble with me, for all I know, but that’s also part of creating these implied narratives: they always leave room for the viewer to complete the story.

Frankly, I think this is a killer book. I’m glad I waited a day to write, because the appreciation sunk in, despite the fact that I liked the book immediately.

Yesterday, I was in suspense, waiting to find out of any of this was fake, because of the suggestive title. But the well-written essay, by Alfredo Triff, and the simple, geographic titles, (from 1987-2017) prove it is a collection of straight photos.

There’s lots of chiaroscuro, and a high-key style in general, (not so many creamy shades of gray,) but it fits the neo-noir vibe perfectly. And including images of things like drones, (See Listicle #2 above,) also sets this apart from images made in earlier eras.

Basically, this one comes highly recommended.

Now if they can just get the internet running again, my mood might turn around completely.

Bottom Line: Excellent, compelling collection of black and white street photography

To purchase “Almost True” click here 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so that we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Sigrid Ehemann

 

It’s cool to be funny.

Funny has power.

It’s why a female comic with frizzy hair and a high-pitched voice went from little-known, to globally famous a few months ago. As I don’t regularly watch The Daily Show, (despite what a recent column suggests,) I certainly hadn’t heard of her before the Huckabee-Sanders-Kerfluffle of 2018.

(Try saying Huckabee-Sanders-Kerfluffle five times fast. I could only make it to four.)

Anyway, I was re-watching “Back to School” with my son last night, and unsurprisingly, it held up. (As did “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which we saw last month.)

Rodney Dangerfield, a fellow Jew, was a genuinely strange-looking guy. From our contemporary vantage-point, there is no f-ing way that anyone who looks like THAT would ever be the romantic lead in a comedy.

Ever.

But still, Rodney pulled it off, bug-eyes and all. (Seriously, he bugged out his eyes A LOT.)

And Sam Kinison, another not-looker with very strange style, (and crazy hair,) also held his own on the screen. (They don’t make them like that anymore.)

Funny has gravitas because it is often a coded way of speaking truth to power. (Or in Ms. Wolf’s case, not-so-coded.)

Funny allowed Donald J Trump to become the third most powerful man in the world. (Xi Jinping, Putin, then Trump, if we’re counting.)

Trump uses funny to disarm, but also because it allows him to say and do terrible things, and then deny he meant them.

“I was only kidding. Locker room talk.”

“I didn’t openly mock a disabled person, even though they caught it on tape.”

“God, why are you so serious. Can’t you take a joke?”

Funny is entertaining, and Trump honed his entertainment skills on NBC for ten-ish years before being famous and polished enough to claim his ultimate prize.

We all need to lighten up a bit, IMO, even in the face of a scary world. Because neither Trump, nor Putin, is coming into your living room this evening.

Nor are they coming into your kitchen. (Shout out to John Raztenberger, who’s an avowed Republican.)

It’s OK to have fun, crack jokes, and enjoy your life, even if you hate the President. Frankly, when I heard Tony Bourdain had killed himself, I wasn’t surprised at all.

In a recent episode in Uruguay, he’d said that Happiness was a sickness, and that he hated happiness and happy people. (I’ll find the segment and quote it, if I have time. It’s still on my DVR. I can’t bring myself to watch the episodes that aired since he died, nor can I delete them.)

Humor is powerful, but also a rational response to the irrational parts of human nature. Our logical brains are strong, but as much of what we do, and the outcomes of our collective efforts make no sense, (private prisons?) having a laugh, as the English say, can be wise as well as cathartic.

Speaking of English, I’ll have to ask Sigrid Ehemann why her new “Pussy Magazine” is written entirely in English, when she’s German. (Based in Dusseldorf.)

The obvious answer is that it’s the world’s default language, and she wants it read around the world.

Still, it’s curious there’s no German within, isn’t it?

No matter, because I absolutely love this new project, and if it weren’t in English, I wouldn’t have the chance to read it.

Sigrid sent in another publication last year, about a charming chihuahua, and I knew she had talent, ingenuity, and a great sense of humor.

I said as much here in my review.

This time out, she’s gone a step further and moved beyond Trump, (an obvious target for all of us,) and taken on the #MeToo movement, and the awful men’s behavior that spawned it.

Issue 1, which is by far the best, sets up the dynamic of image and text, which we had last time, but it’s pushed into a fashion direction this time. (Style credits and such.)

It’s aimed for women of a certain age, (older than 40,) whom society deems irrelevant. It tackles issues directly, whether grabby bosses, male/female pay imbalance, or the fact that women are still vastly underrepresented in exhibitions. (We see the statistic 10 men for every woman.)

Just yesterday, Jörg Colberg and some other colleagues on Twitter were questioning the demographics at Arles, where it was reported white-guy-exhibitions were totally dominant.

I chimed in that as it’s simply unacceptable not to have a more diverse representation these days, I went out and solicited more female submissions for this column directly. Outreach has made a difference, so ladies, please keep those books coming in.

“Pussy Magazine” is a perfect example.
No man on Earth should, would or could have made this.

And the world would be a sadder place without “Pussy Magazine.”

Like Sacha Baron Cohen pranking Sarah Palin, humor is sometimes the only way to get at an issue.

Speaking of issues, only Issue 1 here feels vital. It’s perfect, and as I looked through it, I wondered how it could be topped. (The answer is, it wasn’t.)

The first time out, the combination of the odd model, the insane bag-on-the-head fashion, and the text are shocking in their perfection.

Like “Glow” earning a “10” for Season 2, and then muffing the landing with a tone-deaf-2-minute-ending, (bringing its score down to a 9.90,) sometimes you have to know when you’re done.

Issues 2 and 3 felt like the second and third best ideas, and the repetition of the same model and style was just extra. There were two brilliant, laugh-out-loud-funny images in the 3rd issue, though, so editing is a tricky business.

I’m going to photograph all of Issue 1 down below, so you get a full sense of the rhythm of what Sigrid has done.

It’s so fantastic it should speak for itself.

But it definitely shows us why ensuring male and female artists have an equal voice is not just fair, but also to our massive benefit.

Pussy power indeed. (Can I say that?)

Bottom Line: Hilarious new Post #MeToo “magazine” from Germany

To purchase “Pussy Magazine” contact the artist here

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

This Week in Photography Books: John Divola

 

Growing older isn’t sexy.

(And it isn’t always fun.)

I rolled my eyes in deep mockery when I heard the millennial term “adulting” for the first time. As a bona fide adult, (with two kids, a mortgage, student loans and car payments,) I thought it was a cheeky way to trivialize how hard it is to keep all those balls in the air at once.

But as I thought it over, I realized it was kind of an absurdist word for an absurd concept.

Growing up.

Most people stop growing, physically, by the time they’re 18. Just yesterday, in the newspaper, I saw an 18 year old referred to as a “man.” Personally, I’d say an 18 year old boy, or a kid, but the Santa Fe New Mexican obviously disagrees.

People can grow, physically, by getting fatter or building muscles, but we mostly use it to refer to the process by which we get taller, and then it stops for a while, before we begin to shrink.

But growing, emotionally, is a process that need not be bound by age. Rather, in my experience, it’s a mentality.

Are you willing to look carefully at your flaws and weaknesses?

Are you willing to admit when you’re wrong and apologize meaningfully?

Are you curious about how your life might look if some of your flaws became strengths?

It’s that kind of attitude that allows people to grow, no matter their age. And it can take positive forms too, of course.

What have I always been dying to learn?
What would I like to try before I die?
Where am I desperate to visit, and am I willing to move mountains to make it happen?

You get the point.

Personally, I like being 44. Since I turned 40, I committed to a 4 year stint in therapy, (which I recently wrapped,) and have also invested in exercise and martial arts.

I’m fitter, happier, healthier and stronger than I was at 40. Or 35. Or 30.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, because lord knows I’ve made mistakes, (and pissed people off along the way,) but when I know I’m wrong, I say I’m sorry.

And as a part of “growing up,” I’ve found it fascinating when I revisit certain things, or ideas, and see them completely differently.

Take today’s book, for instance.

“Vandalism,” by John Divola, was published this year by MACK in London. I was excited when I heard it was imminent, because I’ve loved this project from the first time I saw it, and happen to know the artist as well.

I was fortunate to interview John about these pictures for a VICE story two years ago, and it was one of the few interviews I’ve ever done where I was consistently wrong-footed.

This dude was one step ahead of me, for most of the conversation, and never gave the answers I was expecting. Much of the time, it seemed like he thought my ideas about his work were hopelessly naive.

I saw the pictures in “Vandalism,” many of which are collected in this book, as an act of anarchic, early West Coast Punk and Graffiti art.

They were made in 1974-75, just as I was born, and from the contemporary perch, they perfectly channeled that sensation of breaking things to parallel a then-breaking America.

The pictures became counter-culture counterpoints to the gas shortages, Nixon and Carter, Vietnam, and America’s diminished standing in the world.

They felt like a colossal “fuck you,” and anyone who’s been a teen-ager can relate. (Or a rebel. Some of us are, some are not.)

John Divola told me I was way off.
It was all about mark-making for him.

It was about the abstractions.
The shapes.
The interventions.
The act of painting.

In this read, the pictures are documents of events and actions. The homes were well and truly abandoned, so it’s not like the graffiti was affecting anyone’s property.

Rather, they’re pictures that capture the actions of a heady, well-trained art student. A SoCal boy who went to good schools, and exercised theories while Zenning out and making abstract art in quiet places. (Which he still does.)

Though I eventually realized I was talking to an incredibly bright, talented, cool legend within the field, I still didn’t get where he was coming from.

I was sure I was right, even though it was his freaking art.

Needless to say, when I opened “Vandalism” this morning, and went page by page, I could only see it his way.

Shapes after shapes. Circles and patterns. Bulls-eyes and spirals.

Again and again.

The background, the houses themselves, with their dust and their rot, recede into the background. They become stages for the young artist who was playing with circles like a latter-day Malevich; these wall-forms competing for attention with the ghosts who roamed the halls.

In fact, while I appreciate the work differently, and perhaps more now, it was that sense of repetition that actually became the book’s Achilles heel.

MACK is rightly known as one of the best photobook publishers in the world. They make beautiful objects, and Michael Mack told me here in the column, in 2012, that they see the books as art pieces themselves.

I get that.

The production values here are phenomenal, as the tonal range of the images really comes to the forefront. There are no essays, or any text really, so that Zen vibe is strengthened by the quiet and the minimal design.

All to the good.

But in books like this, (and others I’ve seen them do,) I feel like the narrative becomes a record rather than an experience. It’s a collection of reproductions of important art, rather than a story to be unlocked, or a trip to be taken.

It’s not that I have such a short attention span, but as I look at and review books every week, I’ve come to appreciate the ones that try to vary their approach to keep me guessing.

It’s no different from the way most filmmakers use suspense.

I’m sure the book was produced this way intentionally, and as I said above, there are benefits to this approach. But as much as I like to focus on the details within each picture, after 50 of them, the eyes do begin to glaze.

Perhaps I’m quibbling, but then again, the other approach, which we’ve seen recently with reviews like “War Sand,” can also be pushed too far, resulting in mish-mash books instead.

Because “Vandalism” is spare, I’ll finish with my current, 44-year old version of why these pictures are so Rad.

The world often feels like it’s straight-up chaos. Pure insanity. It may always be crazy out there, but some time periods are certainly more rambunctious than others.

2018 is 50 years after 1968 and 100 years beyond 1918.

Whether you like round numbers are not, the symmetry with other times of great upheaval is difficult to miss.

But there is still order, and stillness, and quiet, even in the craziest of times and places. These photographs speak to that sense of order within chaos, because that’s exactly what they present.

In these sad, weary, abandoned spaces, shapes and patterns don’t just emerge.

They declare.
They stand proud, in their ugly beauty.

The creative act, and its aftermath, will continue to survive while are there are people alive to enact them. John Divola’s photographs in this project are twisted, hipster-youngster-driven-cave-paintings.

And I love them.

Bottom Line: A classic project, brought back from the 70’s

To purchase “Vandalism” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Kristine Potter

 

“I would argue that Manifest recapitulates the dehumanizing role of division in the conquest of the Frontier, by divorcing agency from lifeworld.”

–Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, November 2017, in the official essay for Manifest

 

You might need to read that quote a couple of times to understand it.

I’m pretty bright, (so they tell me,) and I’m still not sure what it means. In effect, I’m tipping my hand about the book I’m reviewing today, but we’ll get to that later.

(As always.)

Rather, I’d like to focus on the use of language itself up above. One of the things that distinguishes this column from other spaces that investigate photography is that I endeavor to come across as a “regular” guy.

We talk about big ideas, sure, but I wrap them in jokes, or Pop Culture references. There was a time when I was a fan of flowery similes, but after the NYT got a hold of me, I began writing clause-packed sentences dense with information. (Like this one.)

Even so, it’s important to me that the language I use is accessible, as I want people to understand what the fuck I’m talking about.

In the tradition of the great inscrutable Frenchmen, (Derrida, Foucault,) some writers, and their attendant writing, rather aim to create barriers around their concepts. They utilize words like solipsistic, tautology, hermeneutics.

I’m sorry, but most Trump voters, the populi to his populism, would get angry reading a sentence like the one I lead with today. (And in fairness, the sentence that followed it DID include the word solipsistic.)

It makes people mad to feel like they don’t understand something.

That they’re dumb.
That you’re smarter than they are, and you know it.

I think that feeling, that sense of inferiority, of being looked down upon by rich people in the fancy house up on the hill, (Shout out to Luke Cage Season 2,) is at the core of what people mean when they say “elites.”

Elites are college educated urbanites. (Or in some cases, suburbanites.) They like arugula, and The Daily Show. Even better, they like the opera, and caviar.

Heartland America, when it rebels against “elite” culture, is reacting to a sensation. It feels bad to be looked down upon, but now, in 2018, these folks are having their moment.

(But before I get too empathetic, you have to watch this Daily Show clip about what Trump voters think of the Space Force.)

The history of the US is littered with pendulum swings: the liberal 60’s begat Nixon, the Reagan-era gave us Clinton, whose sleaziness made W. Bush seem wholesome. Then he ushered in Obama to clean up the Great Recession mess, and those who hated him have their savior in Trump.

But in classic Trumpian fashion, Il Duce managed to take the rhetoric to previously unseen heights at a recent rally.

He said, “We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are and they say they’re the elite. You’re the elite, we’re the elite. Let’s call ourselves, from now on, the super elite.” (Courtesy of The Hill)

That’s where we are in 2018, people.

It’s all happening.

But still, I’ve been pushing myself lately to remember that Red America is still America. If we want to remain one country, at some point, we have to accept that the other “bloc” that has different opinions gets to win elections and enact policy too.

The American West has been solidly Red for generations, though places like New Mexico, Colorado and even Nevada have recently cleaved off from the herd.

Most of the West, with its wide-open landscapes, and unimaginable space and scale, still feels like it always has, at least in the 30 years that I’ve been around the joint.

Beyond the people who were born here, some places draw new residents with their “outdoor lifestyle,” “hip coffee shops” and (Insert random developer’s phrase here.)

Places like Denver.

And there are glamorous-view-spots throughout the West too, like Telluride, Sedona, or here in Taos.

Still, these spots are specks of dust compared to the enormity of the West. Most of it is dry and dusty. People are poor, and in some places live in conditions that one can reasonably call “Third World.”

In some cases, like The Mesa community here in Taos, people live simply, in trailers, huts or teepees, out of choice. Because they’re turning their backs on mainstream culture.

Desert rat types.

They’re all over this region, in ways that create their own kind of anonymity.

And ultimately, that’s why I liked “Manifest,” the new book by Kristine Potter, recently published by our friends at TBW books in Oakland.

I appreciate this one because it manages to capture that sense of the general-ness of the light, and the heat, and the landscape.

Rocks and scrub.
Glare and sand.

I also really appreciated the production values too. I rarely mention separations here, (the last I remember is the Henry Wessel book by Steidl,) but there was one image where the shadow detail in a rock face was so impressive that I almost gasped.

(I think that sentence would also draw the ire from our imaginary, aforementioned Trump voter.)

Then there are portraits of men, shirtless, which smack of the female gaze. (As the title of the book references Manifest Destiny.) These are cool too, and I get that they’re trying to be subversive, undercutting the traditional methods of representation, but even that feels a touch stale.

I made fun of the essay at the beginning today, (Sorry, Stanley,) but it mentions that Ms. Potter comes from a long line of Western families, and that she went to grad school at Yale. (The most infamous of photo-world mafias.)

It explains all the big-word-theory-driven sentences, and the attempt to try to make this work more conceptual, more theoretical than it really is.

When you go to Yale, you can’t say, “I like taking black and white photographs of the West.”

It has to be more than that. Justifications are created. It can’t just be, “I like it. It’s fun.” Or, “I want to make pictures that help me connect with the landscape of my lineage.”

Because those are the reasons I like this book. It keeps it real in ways I can respect, (and others I might mock,) but it definitely knows what it wants to be.

And it’s executed flawlessly.

Bottom Line: Dry, glaring, Western photos for a hot, dry summer

To purchase “Manifest” click here

If you would like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so that we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Donald Weber

 

Hi everyone.

How’s it going?

Did you miss me?

I took last Friday off, as you may have noticed, as once a year Rob gives me a break from the weekly deadline. This time out, I wisely eschewed email and social media, got in the new family cruiser, and headed North with the wife and kids to Colorado for a little R&R.

Or that was the plan, at least.

We had a great vacation; maybe the best ever. It was fun, and filled with lots of family QT, (including swimming in pools and springs,) but relaxing it was not.

As it happens, my 10 year old son has become addicted to basketball over the last six months. At first, he was just watching it on TV, LeBron James in particular.

Then, about three months ago, he got interested in playing, and has been insanely obsessed ever since.

It’s all he talks or thinks about, and if he’s not practicing at the court, he’d like to be. (Just so you can visualize, our local hoops are behind the volunteer firehouse, next to an irrigation ditch and a goat/sheep pen.)

Luckily for Theo, there was a great park across from our motel, with a pristine basketball court, and another in the tourist district of the town we visited, so we played there too.

I dragged my tired, 44 year-old-carcass to the court three times a day, including in the blazing Rocky Mountain mid-day sun, to make him happy.

Also, because it seemed karmically appropriate.

I learned about sports from my Dad, and as I’ve written over the years, it has been a massive passion since childhood. I played three sports growing up, (one per season, including basketball,) and watched endlessly on TV. (Which I still do.)

I even blog about my favorite soccer club, Arsenal, FOR FREE, because it’s so much fun to be a sports writer, like the guys I read growing up. (Shout out to Joe Adelizzi of the Asbury Park Press.)

Lately, though, (Sorry, Theo,) the addiction seems a bit much. I mean, I’m 99.9% supportive of the new habit, but .01% of me finds it obnoxious as hell. “Take it down, a notch, bro,” thinks that tiny part of me.

But of course, so often in life, the things that annoy us in others are the things we don’t like about ourselves. I actually had someone complain to me recently about another person’s behavior, when this person had done the exact same things to me.

(Self-aware, he was not.)

With Theo, I feel deep pride, all the time, watching him grow and compete. He played his first five-on-five pickup game one evening, and got up in the face of the biggest, most-talented 15 year old in the park. (Ballsy, if unwise.)

Seeing behavior play out over the next generation, and then wondering if I don’t need to amend my own personality a bit, is one of the wonders of parenthood, and of the genetic encoding that underpins it.

How much of who I am is dependent on my Dad, who’s an energetic powerhouse? (To say the least.) Or my maternal grandfather, who defied the odds to be a professional musician for decades?

When I recognize my flaws, how much can I really do to make them better? I’ve always believed self-improvement is possible, (and still do,) but are there some levels of our personalities, some parts of our psyche, that will always lurk below the surface, like a miniature submarine?

I’m wondering, having just spent the better part of the morning with “War Sand,” a fascinating, well-timed, yet genuinely odd publication from Donald Weber, whose brilliant “Interrogations” was reviewed here in the column years ago.

As soon as I plucked this one off the book stack, I was sure I’d be writing my intro about Trump. You know, the whole setting up concentration camps thing. The taking babies from their parents thing.

That one.

As a 4th generation Jewish-American, I grew up hearing stories about the Holocaust, (all the time,) and about the greatness of America, facing down the Nazis and saving the world.

High School and College taught me about our darker history: slavery, the genocide of Native America, Japanese-American Concentration Camps, CIA assassinations.

Things like that.

So as a writer who spent years, in this very space, warning about Trump, and the ideas he represented, I’m obviously disturbed and upset.

Aren’t we all?

But instead, as I started writing about “War Sand,” it was the idea of lineage and legacy that came to the forefront, because it’s at the heart of this book. (If obscured until late.)

“Interrogations” was one of the freakiest books I’ve ever seen, as Weber photographed actual scenes of violence, like a B movie come to life.

I assumed he’s a tough guy with an extreme personality, or rather a personality that doesn’t shy away from the extreme. (Instead, he seems drawn to it.) Ultimately, that unlocks the puzzle this book presents: why it was made, and what ties it all together.

From an opening cover featuring embossed graphics of martial arts, to a set of sky photographs with scientific data and hidden-coded-crossword puzzles, to photographs of the ocean, this book doesn’t explain itself so much as force you to ask questions.

But then you consider the title.
War Sand.

The fighting, the sky, the beach: I think Normandy.

This must be Normandy.

And it is.

Subsequently, we see dry photographs of the landscape as it is now, then a whole section about microscopic and electron microscope images of shrapnel embedded in the “war” sand, followed by a long story, on pink paper, that also features a meta-criticism of itself via footnotes.

By that point, you’re on page 277. (Did I forget to mention this is a dense book?)

Buried in there, in all those competing image styles and different motifs, I found one line. Writing in the first person, Donald Weber says he collected the sand on the beach in a shopping bag, unlike his grandfather, who might have used a glass vial.

It was a small little detail, but it nagged at me, and I almost went to the Goggle. Earlier, one of the text sections had spoken about the team of British commandos who’d snuck into France to steal samples of the sand, so tests could determine if the beaches could handle heavy equipment during the D-Day invasion.

Unlike his grandfather?
What did it mean?

After the pink-paper-essay, we see a new section, in which toy photographs narrate the story of the commandos, which did, in fact, include Donald Weber’s grandfather.

What was only hinted at earlier is told explicitly, and even that isn’t the end of the weirdness. After that section, we finish with a montage of images of actors in movies about D-Day, including the obvious, (Lee Marvin, James Coburn,) and the less-expected. (Tom Selleck? Robert Duval as a Nazi?)

So odd. Especially as all these styles, or mini-series really, are mashed up in one book. (Which then ends with an index, and a story about the Englishman who learned Jiu Jitsu and Kung Fu in China and then taught it to the entire Allied army.)

This book reminds me a bit of Debi Cornwall’s “Welcome to Camp America,” or Laia Abril’s “On Abortion,” as that style of mixing up disparate image groups to tell a larger story is en vogue at the moment.

I think the technique is effective, insofar as it keeps people from getting bored, or tuning out. It keeps them guessing too, and allows for the rhythm of different chapters.  And “War Sand,” a book about what happened the last time the world faced a run of right-wing extremism, (Germany, Italy, & Japan back then,) could not be more topical.

It’s methodical as it forces us to contemplate where all of “this” might be headed, by facing the nasty past. (And with the shrapnel-sand, how the past still exists in the present.)

Books like this inform, using visual language, which is why they’re popular. But for me to be completely, totally entranced, I like art to get under my skin emotionally as well.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, multivalent look at D-day, and a photographer’s legacy

To purchase “War Sand” click here

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

This Week in Photography Books: Claire Rosen

 

Imagine an alien planet, teeming with life.

There are plants, trees, rivers, oceans, and lots of creatures. Bunnies, of course, but also lizards, horses, orangutans, beetles, rhinoceros, and thousands of other species.

(Or their alien-planet equivalent.)

Then, all of a sudden, (in geo-time,) a new species emerges, called the Krackstock. These Krackstock are rapacious, and begin churning through the planet’s resources.

Soon, they enslave the chicken, cow and pig-like creatures, and set up death camps for each species. After the ritualized killing, at massive scale, the Krackstock would then eat their victims.

Eventually, most of the existing species were in peril, as was the health of the entire eco-system of the planet. (I don’t know, let’s call this fictional planet Narcinon.)

If you were watching a movie, a great early-George-Lucas-style sci-fi flick, wouldn’t the Krackstock be the bad guys?

They’d have to be, right?
Devouring an entire planet?

We’d hate the Krackstock, and actively root against them, as some Super-Bunny came along to save the day!

(I’m guessing you’re on to my sly metaphor by now…)

According to all science, we, humanity, are living in a burning building of our own making, yet many actively deny it’s even happening. (Frog, meet pot.)

As Climate Change seems so enormous, yet not-sinister, it’s a menace that might make Earth uninhabitable for almost any life.

How is this not a greater priority for people?

I think it’s exactly because the problem is immense but faceless. It seems like there’s nothing to be done, but that’s not true.

Sure, you can install LED lights and save electricity. Put in solar panels. Eat less meat. Buy a more gas-efficient or electric car. Minimize your use of packaging.

Recycle.
Re-use.

But there’s one, concrete maneuver that you don’t hear enough about…

Planting trees.

Trees, as we all learn in 3rd grade science, breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Trees actively battle Climate Change, and as places can be de-forested, so too can they be re-forested.

We just planted in 3 aspens and a pine tree last week, and eventually they’ll provide plentiful shade, which will keep our house cooler as the planet warms. (We make such considerations at this point. Don’t you?)

Fighting back by beautifying your yard, and adding to the splendor of nature is a no-brainer. And now’s your last chance before Fall, as it will be too hot to plant in a week or two. (Most places.)

This idea, though, that we’re girding ourselves for tougher times ahead, feels like it’s in the air. Similar periods of political upheaval and partisan turmoil have been messy, in America’s history, not to mention increasing pressures being put on governments, economies and societies by extreme weather.

I haven’t written about the 21st Century Hustle for a while, as even great catch-phrases get old. (Then they go off to Arizona and retire quietly to a life of “Murder, She Wrote” and bad Chinese food at 4:30pm.)

The 21st Century Hustle was an idea borne of necessity, which theorized that in a perma-freelance world, creatives should build multiple skill sets, so they can offer more value to the community, but also because it makes a person stronger and better.

Learning to paint can make you a better photographer, essentially. (Or learning to cook, dance, sing, etc.)

But while it’s easy to espouse advice like “get out of your comfort zone,” it’s much more difficult for a person to get a
“How To” guide, a set of parameters, without learning from a teacher directly.

Though I actually became an artist after serving self-help guru Julia Cameron at a restaurant back in 1995, (long story,) I don’t normally read those types of books myself.

One great way to break out of habits is to actively try new things, so after a friend recommended a great book about dharma and Yogic philosophy, (which I loved,) I decided it was time to push further in the opposite direction, and read “Imaginarium: The Process Behind the Pictures,” by Claire Rosen, published by Rocky Nook.

I don’t normally review books like this, as you know, but a colleague recommended it a few months ago, after reading in the column that we’re looking for submissions from female photographers. (We still are. Come on, ladies, please help me keep some balance here…)

I’ll say from the outset that I didn’t exactly find myself cozying up to Ms. Rosen’s voice in my ear, but I appreciated almost everything she said.

Having been through graduate school, therapy, and 13 years of teaching, I was familiar with most of her ideas and references: Jung, the Collective Unconscious, meditation, getting enough sleep.

I nodded along for most of the book, constantly impressed at how thorough Ms. Rosen was as a guide. She offers ideas on:

How to search for ideas in your own past.

How to use different techniques to stimulate creativity, like exercise or getting enough alone-time.

How to build teams of capable people.

That a book that quotes Tony Robbins also has exacting sample schedules for commercial photo shoots, and graphs and charts for how to brainstorm or find personal branding information, is kind of rare.

Basically, I was flabbergasted that this book is just So. Damn. Thorough.

That word, “commercial,” used to pop up more here in the column than it does these days. I think, back in 2010, there were still more stringent lines between aspects of the medium: commercial, documentary, fine art.

These days, such notions of consistent, long-term employment with one publication, or of firm striations within the industry, seem quaint.

Rather, Ms. Rosen comes across as the consummate hustler herself, and I appreciate her game, if not her personal photographic aesthetic.

It was the one part of the book that stuck in my craw a bit, (along with the oddly changing fonts,) the attempt to make it part-photo-book by including small selections of Ms. Rosen’s work throughout. I could see the strings behind it, the attempt to brand in many ways as possible, because a part of the book quotes directly from a branding consultant that Ms. Rosen hired, Beth Taubner.

There was corporate-branding-speak alongside ideas about Feng Shui, color theory, suggestions for organizing your desk, and other small-scale concepts that I admit I’m still thinking about.

I’m also not-too-far away from doing some of the brainstorming exercises Ms. Rosen recommends, or at least forcing myself do journal and make lists. (Other ideas she discusses.)

While her voice is not my voice, (jokey-and-discursive,) she communicates effectively, and I was able to read it for chunks at a time. (Today’s Wednesday, and I finished the book yesterday after staring Monday morning, as I promised you.)

Basically, I read this book to review for you guys, but came away feeling I had some fresh motivation to push myself, and a few new ideas too.

Most people think they have things sorted, and don’t need help. But a jolt of someone else’s energy every now and again, even if it means reading, (rather than listening,) is a great idea.

If you’re up for a kick-in-the-pants, and a lot of practical advice, this book might be perfect for your summer reading list.

(Again with the lists?)

Bottom Line: Serious, thorough guide to creativity and success

To purchase “Imaginarium” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, so we we can maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Katsu Naito

 

Once upon a time, Billy and Sally Bunny were frolicking in the front yard.

Behind them, Aspen trees swayed in the light breeze; the leaf-flutter shadows dancing on the wall.

(Yes, bunnies know what shadows are. Duh! What did you think, bunnies were dumb, because they have small brains?)

Sally Bunny had her back to the trees, and the rich, red fence behind them. Billy Bunny faced her, his back heels sitting on the concrete steps that divided the front yard in two equal parts.

(Of course bunnies can do math. Get with the program!)

Sally and Billy faced off, and then Sally pounced at Billy, her front legs a blur, like vintage Cassius Clay, as they forced Billy back.

“I didn’t have to step back, you know. I wanted to,” he taunted.

“You wanted to? Are you fucking kidding me? I made you step back. My Bunny-Fu is far too quick for the likes of you. Puny bunny,” Sally replied.

“Oh yeah, let’s go again. Again, I say. Again!”

The bunnies resumed their positions, and upon some instinct-driven signal, Sally pounced, and Billy retreated.

Again.

“I did it again! Admit it. You’re no match for me.”

“Whatever. You’re faster. A better bunny-fighter. I get it. You win. Satisfied?”

“Not really. When you put it like that, it takes all the fun out of it,” Sally said.

“Fine. I’ll try again. You’re the best bunny fighter I know. Much quicker than I will ever, ever, ever be. (Pause) Is that better?”

“I’ll accept it.”

“Do you think the humans know we can see them,” Billy asked?

“What do you mean, do the humans know we can see them?”

“Standing there at the window. The four of them. Do you think they know that we know that they’re watching us,” Billy wondered again in earnest?

“They must know,” Sally replied. “They must. How could they not? Just because they’re humans, and we’re bunnies, that doesn’t mean we don’t have eyes and brains? That we can’t distinguish a human from a hawk from a field mouse? Why would they think that?”

“Good point, cousin. That wouldn’t make any sense. They must know we can see them, and that we can talk to each other, same as they can. And that you’re a better fighter than I am, but my Greek Salad is the bomb.

“Speaking of which, I hope the human boy watches “Chopped” again tonight so I can pick up some more tricks,” Billy said, and then the two bunnies hopped off.

END SCENE.

We watched those bunnies this week, after my daughter noticed them facing off. I’m 100% certain the above story is true, and you’ll never convince me otherwise.

But I thought about the whole thing again today after looking at “Once in Harlem,” a new photobook by Katsu Naito, published by TBW Books in Oakland.

Man, is this a cool book.
I love it.

(Pause)

Now that the transition is over with, I have an announcement to make. This is the first week in many months that I didn’t publish a female photographer in this slot.

I made up my own rule to alternate male and female photographers, as a way of creating a balance to a book selection that had become wholly unbalanced. (Almost all men.)

Today, (I’m writing on Thursday,) I honestly didn’t have a book in the stack I could review by a female artist, and I’ve put out the call many ways, as you’ve seen. I’ll do more outreach in the coming weeks, and do have a potential book for next week that is reading-heavy, so I’ll get started on that first thing Monday morning.

But I’m not going to compromise the integrity of the column, and am featuring a photographer of color today instead, so I think that satisfies the spirit of diversity we’re trying to foster here at APE.

Back to the book.

The end notes confirm that the Katsu Naito lived in Harlem from 1988-94, but really, it doesn’t matter.

The looks on the subjects faces, of suspicion, disdain, hopeful curiosity, sardonic humor, or straight-up-stare-down, are so damn good.

Some of these people look at Katsu Naito like he’s an Alien with three arms sticking out of his head. Or the Earth-bound ghost of Andre the Giant.

Or a talking bunny!

This book is one of the rare occasions where you really don’t need words at all.

We can imagine them.

When I looked at one photo, I heard Gary Coleman’s voice spontaneously in my head, “Whachoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

(I swear.)

And when I got to the picture of the little baby holding a bottle, mad-dogging the camera, I nearly peed in my pants. (And I never pee my pants.)

Oh man, this stuff is funny.

It’s rare that photographs so clearly depict the residue of the interaction between photographer and sitter. The exchange is written all over their faces.

The photographs are evidence that getting out of your lane in life can provoke strong reactions, but also opportunities for massive growth and new knowledge.

I don’t know Katsu Naiuto personally, but I’d be willing to bet he came out of his time living in Harlem, (six years,) a wiser, different person.

It serves as another great reminder why supporting diversity matters. When people from different backgrounds and cultures mix, new ideas emerge.

Until next week…

Bottom Line: Fantastic portraits by a Japanese guy in Harlem

To purchase “Once in Harlem” click here

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