Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books:

by Jonathan Blaustein

Did you read last week’s column? If so, you won’t be surprised to hear I’m a shade worn out this week. I feel like Doctor’s
office carpet that hasn’t been cleaned in two decades.

As such, for the first time in nearly 4 years, I asked for a week off, and Rob obliged. (He’s a good dude.)

And yet…

The idea of dropping out seems so foreign that I find myself typing these words. I can’t seem to cut the cord.

Rather than blowing you off completely, I thought I’d share a tiny bit about how I’m viewing the aftermath of my great disappointment. Thankfully, it gets easier each day.

I’ve been exercising like a steroid-fueled-flat-brim-hat-wearing-MMA fighter, to channel the frustration. AND spending extra time with the kids, to soak up the love.

The reality is that the challenges we face make us stronger. They give us character, and eventually, gray hair. We can’t control how people treat us; nor how they behave in our presence. But I can state with certainty that I kept my cool under pressure, and I learned more about myself through difficulty.

No book review today, unfortunately, and you might even find the above advice trite. C’est la vie. But when given the chance to abandon you for a week of leisure, the pull of normality, of routine, was too strong to resist.

I hope you all have a great Summer weekend, and I’ll be back next week with my first post in a series about the excellent work I saw at Review Santa Fe in June.

This Week In Photography Books: Mark Power

by Jonathan Blaustein

I hate being cryptic. It’s not my thing. Ever since 2010, when Rob suggested I be as honest as possible, I’ve tried to do just that. (Sometimes to my detriment.)

Today, though, I find myself in something of a pickle. I had a very rough week, and normally would spill the beans forthwith. Straight-away. Right now.

But as my career has grown, and I’ve realized just how small is this photo-world of ours, the habit of discretion seems to have taken root. It would be a very bad idea to give the details of what just went down. But as much as I hate to tease, I also hate to miss out on a teachable moment. (You all roll your eyes at that, right?)

The crux of what happened, though, I can most definitely share: Someone dangled a life-long dream in front of my face, and then snatched it away. It went something like this.

Suppose I was a fox. A hungry fox named Reginald. Now Reginald was a bit more hungry than he was smart. He was walking down the normal dirt path through the forest, thinking about food, and all of a sudden he heard someone whisper.

Come here, kid. Come here.

Reginald turned to look, and he saw a big coyote.

I’m Carl, he said.

Carl the coyote?

Just so. And kid, you’ve got to see what I have behind this hedgerow. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. A hundred chickens. Just for you.

What, said Reginald. That’s impossible. Do you know how hungry I am? I’d eat my way through the year on 100 chickens. I’ve dreamed all my life of running into a small city of chickens.

Well, said Carl, here you go then. Step right through this hedgerow here.

Reginald stepped through the hedgerow. He was sweating profusely from all the anticipation.

Just as he had his fingers within range of the first chicken, the amuse bouche… WHAM! Carl’s hand wrapped itself around his rear left paw, and he felt himself flying through the air. He landed on his head, back across the road, in a daze.

Stupid fox, said the coyote. Did you really think it would be that easy?

Most dreams don’t come true. That’s me talking. Not a coyote or a fox. Mine still might, and I have plenty to be thankful for regardless. But that doesn’t change the fact that most dreams don’t come true.

I know that.

And I also know that good fences make good neighbors. But what about walls?

The Berlin Wall, in particular. What must it have felt like to stand there, watching as it opened on that fateful day in 1989? How many people had dreamed of their freedom?

All those East Germans, dreaming of a better life. And then it happened. Someone made a call, after the rumors had spread, and the guards at the gates said let them through. What might that have looked like?

Well, we don’t have to wonder. I just finished looking at “Die Mauer ist Weg!,” a new book by Mark Power, published by Globtik Books. Yes, we’ve got a great one this week, folks.

Take it out of the wrapping, and it’s a weird cardboard thing all in German. The cover looks like a tabloid paper headline. (But I don’t read German.)

After a title page, we get a very cleanly written, engaging statement by the artist, setting the scene. He was about to quit his photo career, back then, and a friend convinced him to give it one more go, and sported him some cash to boot.

He used the money to buy a plane ticket to Berlin, maybe on a whim? And he’s standing there, somehow, when it all goes down.

These pictures are so cool. All those cameras. All that 80’s German style. All that history. In real time.

In the statement, Mr. Power suggests that such a thing could not happen now, a few people with cameras, shooting film, and telling the story for history. Now, of course, there would be thousands and thousands of live video feeds on Periscope.

(As I’ve said before, the 20th Century seems like a long time ago.)

The few pictures of empty East Berlin are dynamite. The whole thing is thoughtfully produced, with a cardboard inner wedge to keep the pages in place. (Removable, which is handy.)

This book captured a seminal time in modern history, but takes the effort to embed the pictures in a book package that doesn’t leave those photos to do the work alone. Very instructive, I think, for the rest of us.

Bottom Line: A great book that shows the fall of the Berlin Wall

To Purchase “Die Mauer ist Weg” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Alejandro Cartagena

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just watched a horse walk in circles. There were two gates, in front and behind, that marked his turf. Slowly went the horse. Slowly turned the rotor.

No one was there minding him, outside the barn. I happened by at the end of my run, and decided to play spectator for a moment. It seemed so obviously metaphorical. (And put there just for me.)

We believe ourselves so different, each from another, each race distinct. But the majority of people in the world will do these things, day in and out. Sleep. Eat. Wash. Work. Walk. Talk. Copulate. Procrastinate. Etc.

Our media, social and old fashioned, binds us together through an electronic web. It’s real enough, though we can’t see it. What have I learned from the great InterSphere?

Twitter is the news these days. And it’s also the reason I know that Donald Trump said some nasty stuff about Mexico. Or was it Mexicans? And what did he say exactly? Does it matter?

What I came away with was that racist, idiot Donald Trump offended an entire nation. Is that the gist? You can only glean so much from 140 characters at swipe speed.

Or what about “El Chapo” escaping a maximum security prison in Mexico? Did you hear about that one? Do you know who he is?

Was anyone surprised the most powerful cartel boss in Mexico got away from the authorities? If so, did they tweet their dismay? What might that have looked like?

“OMG. Can’t believe they let him get away again. #Corruption #Jailbreak #Oralé”

Personally, I would have said something like, “Of course he got away. If those monsters in New York State could figure it out, with nothing going for them outside of charm, paintings, and a large penis, then how could any prison hold a man with limitless money and power?”

Twitter didn’t exist when the Mexican Drug War started. We’re so self-involved here in the US that most people have forgotten about it entirely. After Enrique Peña Nieto went on his own charm offensive, after his election, the PR gurus pushed the story down below the fold. It was all about the Mexican economy. Let’s not rock the boat.

But now they have egg on their faces, or huevos, if you will, because this story perfectly fit the entrenched narrative that the inmates are running the country. If you can pay, you can play. (Insert further random cliché here.)

This is not a news site, and I’m not a proper journalist. But we do attempt to discuss big ideas, and pragmatically dispense advice about the way things are. As such, I interviewed Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena a few years ago, and he told what it was like living on the front lines of the Drug War, in Monterrey.

Alejandro is a friend, and a prolific artist, so I was not surprised when “Before the War” turned up in my mailbox the other day. Apparently, the pictures within were shot between 2005-7. (Hence the title.) So let’s take a look.

This is one of those publications that I pretty much had to review. Not because of my personal connection, but because it pushes the boundaries of what we’d call a book. The title is actually printed on the envelope, so even the packaging is a part of the production.

In that regard, it reminds me of something that TBW books might make. (As we learned from their publisher Paul Scheik, it’s the little details, done properly, that make all the difference.) It’s also note-worthy in that the pictures are really not that special, which is a subject we’ve highlighted of late as well.

Pull the tab to open the envelope, and you’re faced with some explanatory text. The war began in 2008. There are more than 80,000 deaths recorded since then. It has been a clusterfuck of tragic and enormous proportions.

Slide the plastic sleeve out of the envelope, and open that too, and there is a pile of smaller inserts, seemingly printed on newsprint. (Cheap to produce, and a built-in Marshall McLuhan reference to the old way news was disseminated, pre-Twitter.)

The first leaflet has text from a press conference in which President Felipe Calderon, who began the War, spoke directly to a heckler. There are pictures interspersed, and then stories. Poignant tales that make you feel something.

Kidnappings. Murder. Appropriation of property. All crimes that fester in the vacuum of Chaos.

There is a subsequent fold-out-poster with portraits, and text snippets that refer back to one of the previous stories. Then a faux-postcard. Then still more leaflets filled with the kind of empty, blurry photos, including soaring birds that make me think of vultures.

A few weeks ago, I critiqued another book for using the horror motif gratuitously. Here, it’s different. The pictures were made before-the-fact, but the production elements enable the pages to channel a certain type of emotional tenor, for a very particular reason. (You see people, you think ghosts.)

It’s almost Baroque, as the darkness that inspired the “book” drips back off the pages, taunting you to imagine what other people’s lives are like. Do you really want to know?

I’ll try to write something funny next week, as the last two reviews were a tad heavy. You know I like to keep the balance. But today, while it’s Summery, and hopefully you’re getting ready for a great weekend with your friends and family, maybe pour a little bit out for the homies now beyond.

Bottom Line: Innovative, experimental, and emotional “book” about the Mexican Drug War

To Purchase “Before The War” Visit: http://tienda.alejandrocartagena.com/product/before-the-war-2nd-edition/

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This Week In Photography Books: Zun Lee

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just stormed into my bedroom in a huff. I didn’t exactly slam the door, but closed it demonstrably, and then turned the lock.
Obvious message: Do Not Disturb.

From whom was I fleeing? My beautiful family, of course. We’re well into Summer, by now, and the kids have been out of school for seven weeks. Which means we’ve all been together, seven days a week, since then.

(Primal scream!)

As I suspect you’ve surmised by now, I love my family more than anything. My two children, 7.5 and nearly 3, are fantastic human beings. Sugar and spice we call them. I could not love them more.

But everyone needs some space to think, much less write book reviews, and I’ve had little of either for quite some time now. It’s mostly a pleasure and a privilege, to spend so much quality time together, but there is an element of claustrophobia as well.

I’m a Jewish guy from a good background with a very solid education behind me. Despite the facial hair, and perhaps because of the lack of tattoos, I know I look the part of a doting middle-class father.

When people see me holding my daughter’s hand in the supermarket, they smile. When people see me cheering at my son’s soccer game, they nod in approval. When people see me walking down the street, alone, they don’t recoil in fear.

It’s a freedom that so many people in the United States lack. The ability to be out in public space, and not seem a Menace to Society. I don’t know what it is like to be African-American, or Latino, and I clearly never will.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with the impact of racism on the lives of men of color. Racism is an inescapable conversation in this nation at present, for good reason. #BlackLivesMatter

It’s quite the conundrum. The stories are everywhere, and impossible to avoid. And yet the experience of living in someone else’s skin- skin that doesn’t look the same color as mine- is something I will never know.

Thankfully, I just finished looking at Zun Lee’s book, “Father Figure,” recently published by Ceiba, and it’s been the catalyst of the musings above. Given how cleanly this production shows us something we haven’t really seen, I’m sure you’ll be interested in the photos below.

This is one of those books that seems to support all the advice I’ve tried to give out here of late. If you want to make something original, and perhaps important, you’ve got to start from your own lived experience. It has to be personal. And the more honest, the better.

Apparently, Zun Lee was raised in Germany, with an abusive father. He took comfort in the home of American GI’s stationed there, in particular with a changing roster of African-American families. They offered him the support and nurturing he lacked, and craved.

Fast forward many years, and Mr. Lee learned that his biological father was in fact an African-American, (who deserted his mother,) as opposed to the man who actually raised him. Quite the Mind-Fuck, I’m sure. It troubled him to feel like one more statistic with an absent Dad. One more piece of kindling on the conflagration of stereotype.

So he decided to use his photographic practice to learn more; to see for himself what “proper” loving African-American fathers looked like. To search out the type of environment he wished he’d had, and in the process, provide ample evidence that what we think we know is far from the complete story.

I like these pictures. They’re really well-made, but surprisingly, they didn’t touch my emotional core. My eyes never teared, and my breath never left my chest for long periods of time. I’m not sure why that is?

Could it be that I’m callous? Or that my lack of understanding for what these men’s lives are really like clouded my heartstrings? I don’t know, but I always like to check in and see what I’m feeling and why.

The book contains some excellent writing, in particular Mr. Lee’s opening essay, which overshadowed the brief piece by Teju Cole that preceded it. If you want to learn how to share your secrets with others, reading his story will give you a boost.

But there are also interview blurbs spread throughout, on pages opposite the photographs. Each was poignant, giving solid parenting advice that resonated deeply with my own acquired knowledge. It was Universal, I felt, and in a way undercut the notion that races are inherently and irrevocably different.

Even though we are, to a degree. I can wear a hoodie without being shot.

I’m not surprised these pictures are popular, nor that they’ve gotten support from major African-American photographers, and photojournalistic power-brokers. (Including my editors at the NYT, apparently.) This is the type of messaging that people are desperate to see, because it’s real, and it’s a giant, bony thumb in the eyes of the Fox News assholes who demonize men like this, 24/7.

This is an excellent book of solid photographs, showing us something we really ought to see. As such, I’m happy to highlight it, and would not be surprised if many of you wanted to buy it. The more people who see these pictures, the better.

To tie it back to this little run of reviews, in which I’m lecturing a tad more than normal, I’d also suggest that it’s an inspirational book. (Beyond the way you might think.) Most photographers don’t have the courage to use their art process to dig deep into their gaping wounds. It’s painful, and difficult.

But as the great Roger Ballen told my students this past Spring, the darkness is where the very best material resides.

Bottom Line: Excellent book examining the lives of loving, African-American fatherhood

To Purchase “Father Figure” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Shore

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just got home from a family vacation. In Colorado. So my brain is not working as well as it normally does. (Must. Activate. Remaining. Braincells.)

In fact, I just deleted several paragraphs, and jumped right back to this spot. I never do that. These columns normally flow like the water in the Rio Hondo, right after the snow pack begins to melt.

But not today.

Today, I want to talk about nostalgia. Or, more correctly, the way in which some temporal markers take on a power that is far greater than what they have earned. I’ve got a handy example, so you know exactly what I mean.

I was at Review Santa Fe a few weeks ago, as I’ve mentioned. The articles highlighting the work I saw will be coming out in the near future, but I wanted to share an unrelated anecdote. (What’s that you say? I’ve never met an “unrelated” anecdote? Point taken.)

One of the photographers at the event had a previous career as a TV journalist back in the 90’s. It’s not important whom I’m discussing, but let’s just say that the person held an outsized place in the culture at the time, despite never being a superstar.

During the weekend, I watched as one GenX photog after another seemed starstruck and smitten. Again, this is not Tom Cruise we’re talking about. But some things that are important to us, at critical times in our youth, never really lose their power. (That’s why the rest of us can’t really understand how much Baby Boomer guys love Mickey Mantle.)

Speaking for the 90’s, I think that “Seinfeld” was such a cultural touchstone. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) It’s freaking 2015, and it still seems like Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are America’s weird, narcissistic best friends. Who would have thought a show about NOTHING could make such a lasting impression?

Sometimes, NOTHING is the best possible subject, because it allows an artist to super-impose his or her own vision, or range of emotions, directly onto a historical stage. Even time can feel more important, when it’s supporting a flimsy premise; when all that matters is the way color, light, and composition meld together into an enduring scenario that would otherwise escape notice.

Am I talking about anyone specific?
Stephen Shore. American master.

The last time I wrote about him, I mostly-trashed his book of photographs made in Israel. I pined for the less-complicated, almost breezily brilliant pictures made in his heyday. Back in the 70’s.

So that’s what we’ve got for today: Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places: The Complete Works,” recently released by Aperture. It simply doesn’t get any better than this, my faithful readers. No irony required. This shit is fantastic.

It took me a lot of brain power just to make it this far, so that means I’m going to wrap it up rather swiftly. I’ll shoot an extra few pictures so you can enjoy the ride a little longer, but for once, there’s not much I can say.

The pictures really are about “NOTHING,” in the sense that the collection merely records one man’s travels, and the things he saw, back in the 70’s. There were many images made in mid-1974, and my imagination ran wild, visualizing this guy, moseying around with a big camera, while I was drinking formula and spitting up on my Mom back in Jersey.

The truly iconic pictures, like “Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974″ stand out, in that we’ve seen them before. They’re etched in our minds, like our grandmother’s face. But they fit into the continuum of Mr. Shore’s journey, and deliver about as much pleasure as the other plates. (Beyond giving a quick jolt of nostalgic thrill, reminding us of the phase when we first discovered them.)

The last two weeks, I’ve talked about developing your own voice. It is hard, I admit. Starting from your own passion and knowledge base is a good idea.

Another way to go about it is to obsess about your favorites. Look at their work until your eyes bleed. That way, the next time you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’ll recognize when you’re about to snap one of “their” pictures, and then slowly let your finger off the shutter.

Bottom Line: A classic, meant to be appreciated over time

To Purchase “Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places: The Complete Works” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Yusuf Sevinçli

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. ”Tis some midnight visitor,’ I muttered, ‘rapping at my chamber door. Only this, and nothing more.'”

Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven,” as I remember it from 7th grade

You never know what will stick in your head. Some things stick that we’d rather not, like an image of James Foley getting his head hacked off. Other things hang around, and we savor them, like the aftertaste of some magical Ecuadoran chocolate.

In general, it’s good to be memorable, if you’re a photograph. It means there’s an element, embedded in your pixel or grain structure, that enables you to stand out from the literally endless crowd.

The numbers of pictures made each day, week, or year, are simply too large to process. They might as well be infinite, these jpegs, because I can’t imagine anything stemming the tide. Even in the end of the world, as imagined by Sci-Fi genius Neal Stephenson, the jpegs and .mov files withstand the apocalypse.

Given this reality, (tons of pictures, not the end of days,) it’s the job of a conscientious photographer to try to figure out the secret code to originality. It’s often said that developing a voice, or Point of View, can help differentiate oneself.

I’d say that’s true, but perhaps it’s easier said than done. In a world of 7 billion people, it can be a tad tricky to figure out what makes you different from everyone else. Even self-awareness is not the magic bullet it might have been back in the day, when the “Average American Male” was as cognizant of his emotions as a pile of railroad ties.

Then again, you, the audience, are not limited to America. That’s one of the very best things about the Internet. It brings us all together. British photographers know what’s on the wall in Los Angeles. Japanese book makers know what’s on the shelves in Roman stores.

It’s all out there.

Normally, we think this is a good thing, in that we keep abreast of our community. Sure. That’s true.

But it can also make it that much easier to ape someone’s style. To allow the creative creep to happen, in which you’re subtly absorbing information you might not even realize. Before you know it, you’re not exactly appropriating, but your pictures are less original than they might have otherwise been.

Which brings me back to “The Raven,” or at least, what I remember of its opening stanza. How do scary movies work? They use scary music, with lots of low-timbre, asynchronous drums, strings, and piano. The color palette revolves around some shade of Black.

The world that Edgar Allen Poe conjured, before cinema even existed, haunts us still. (Pun intended.) Scary movie tropes are there because they work. Lots of light, with shiny colors? Not scary. Skeletons emerging from black muck? Scary.

It’s the same thing with a certain style of photography. Black and White. Grainy. Low light. Blurry. Creepy. Discomfiting.

Having said those words, do any images come to mind? I bet they do. I reviewed Ken Schles’ book “Invisible City” a month or so ago, and it would fit the bill. But it was done back in the 80’s, and those pictures conjured a mood that by all accounts resonated with the New York City that actually existed.

“Good Dog,” a book in my photo-eye pile, by Yusuf Sevinçli, made in Istanbul, may represent that city just as well. I have no idea, as I’ve never been to Turkey. (Though I’ve heard it’s a lovely.)

The book, though, reminded me of so many others that I was not able to take it seriously. I apologize, as normally I lavish praise on the books I write about. This one certainly has redeeming qualities, and some of you may even want to buy it.
(I’m not suggesting it’s worthless.)

Rather, it’s devoid of creativity, despite its edginess. Last week, I deviated from my normal style, and wrote a critique directly to a young photographer. Having received a thank you note, I feel I hit the mark. And the comments were favorable too, though one person did suggest I was in attack mode because the pictures were so traditional.

Everyone knows I like edgy work, but what does that even mean? I’d suggest it refers to photographs that contain an element of tension and surprise. They throw the viewer off-guard, with unexpected choices. I enjoy sitting with such pictures.

“Good Dog,” therefore, does not match up with that description. The trope does, with it’s darkness, grain, big eyed kids, dangling Eggleston light bulb, flowers, panty-covered vagina, flies, dogs and birds. It’s supposed to be edgy. I get that.

But after seeing such things more times than I can count, I was bored of this book well before I finished. I even made a game of it, saying, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” until the boob shots showed up. They had to be there. It was inevitable.

Why?
Because Boobs Sell Books.℠

I’m sure Yusuf Sevinçli is a talented artist. He shows in galleries, and might well sell a lot of his work. I’m not suggesting he’s a hack. Surely, these are the types of photographs he enjoys making. (And with Ken Schles thanked in the end notes, he appears to have some well-placed supporters.)

However, I didn’t want you, the audience, to think I took a shot at Seth Hancock last week because of the style of work he likes to make. Rather, I sought a teachable moment, where I could speak to all the image-makers out there. In particular, because it’s a message I’ve heard directly from other colleagues at portfolio reviews.

Make the pictures you want to make. Do what gives you joy, or satisfaction, or scratches the incurable mental itches that cloud your sleep.

But when it comes to making a book, and putting things out there for the rest of us to see, don’t sell yourself short. There are many ways to tell the same stories. And tropes can even be broken. In fact, it’s the subtle tweaking of tradition that tends to create the deepest resonance.

Bottom Line: Weird, dark photos from Istanbul

To Purchase “Good Dog” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Seth Hancock

by Jonathan Blaustein

A picture is worth a thousand words. So they say. And “they” are normally right, so we repeat the cliché ad nauseam.

But what if they’re wrong? What if words ARE better at some forms of communication? Are we all in the wrong business?

It’s an interesting question. These days, images are more popular, and by assumption powerful, than ever before. We discussed the idea a while back with curator Russell Lord, a photography expert if ever there was one.

The idea is that photographs convey information beyond the boundaries of language. A picture of fire will read as fire in China, Chattanooga, or Timbuktu. Fire warm. Fire cook food. Me like fire.

We don’t need words to recognize an object, or even a set of actions. Soccer/Football is a global sport, and a portrait of Lionel Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo, will be recognizable in most parts of Earth, with no further explanation.

But what about emotions? What about the subtle nuance that resides inside a human being’s soul. (Should we accept the existence a soul, which is DEFINITELY a conversation for a different day.)

I’m waxing philosophical, as my brain is still in some form of image-induced stasis, after looking at dozens of projects at Review Santa Fe this past weekend. I’ve come to find that the best work gains quick acceptance in a portfolio review environment.

You can always spot the artists whose work is breaking out. They stand up a little straighter. Look you in the eye. They know they’ve got the goods.

But that leaves a rather large percentage of photographers who are making good photographs, or even just decent. They mostly get silence from their reviewers, or quiet nods. It’s hard when you’re not getting compliments or criticism, so I go in the other direction.

I give honest, kind critiques, and now, people seem to be seeking me out just for that. They know I’m there to help.

So today, we’re going to attempt such a thing in a book review. It’s more of a catalog, really, called “10 Minutes With A Stranger,” sent to me directly, by the photographer Seth Hancock. (Now of Los Angeles.)

I received it a while back, and just took a look. It’s not like anything I’d normally review, and you regulars know I’ve tried to expand my range of late. So let’s go there.

Seth, I’m guessing you’re a commercial photographer. By calling it a personal project, and the shooting style you adopt, I’m inclined to read the situation thusly. Perhaps you do editorial work too, but I don’t think your training is in art.

The project, which we’re looking at here today, consists of images you made of random strangers, on a long and winding American Road Trip, while you were moving from New York to LA. You limited your time with all the people you met, and beyond photographing them, you also got them to share very personal information with you via a diary.

You must have some very impressive people skills. (Rico Suave, my friend. Rico Suave.) I liked the idea, and I like the book, but perhaps not in the way you intended.

The pictures have a very “commercial” look to me. They’re shiny, and some of the people are even smiling. (The big no-no in the art world.) I can tell straight off that you know how to operate a camera, and a set of lights. And I did like the two images in which you had the subject hold a light to their face. (Very meta.)

But if I were judging the photos alone, they really don’t tell me much about who the person is, nor are they distinctive from other photographer’s pictures. There is no edge. No overtone of emotion. The wall between subject and camera is thicker than Donald Trump’s bullshit. They’re neither off-putting, like early Thomas Ruff, nor are they poignantly beautiful, like Rineke Dijkstra.

The journal entries, however, are often heartbreaking. I can’t believe you got people to open up to you like this, in such a non-traditional way. (At least for a photographer.)

A young man writing a tragic letter to his dead wife. A young woman sharing her fears and pain after having a stroke, brought on by faulty medication. A man, chilling on a stoop that says “No Loitering,” writing of his trip down the wrong path, and subsequent redemption.

An African-American cowboy quietly bemoaning racism. An older man, who raises wolves, and wishes humans could only be a shade more lupine. Or a young Latino woman who said the best day of her life was when her father abandoned her family. (We can only imagine…)

I read each and every page. Word by word. Wow, were these stories powerful. I felt connected to the subjects on levels profoundly beyond what the pictures allowed me to access.

Yet, I’d never have read the words, had the pictures not existed. Not only do the images anchor the project, but I only review photo books. No photos, no review.

So, Seth, I’d encourage you to figure out how to imbue your future pictures with the depth and emotional intensity found in these incredibly honest admissions. Is it even possible for you? I don’t know.

But the best portraits obviate the need for explication. They leave us with more questions than answers. And typically, the best stories don’t have pictures. Perhaps you’ll break new ground one day?

Either way, I’m glad you sent your book my way. It held my attention, and made me think. It gave me access to new information: in this case, the inner world of a set of strangers I’ll never meet.

Bottom Line: An interesting personal project that illuminates a set of random lives

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This Week In Photography Books: Sol Neelman

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s a Thursday. You know what that means. Yup, this is a column
I’m going to pull straight out of my _________.

Sorry. It can’t be helped.

It’s not that I’m lazy. Just the opposite. The last few weeks have been as busy as any I can remember, and I’m about to leave for Review Santa Fe to look at portfolios to publish here. My brain feels like it sky-dove out of a plane and landed on a concrete basketball court.

Ouch.

Normally, I’d like to be fresh heading into an immersive festival weekend, but as I said before, it can’t be helped. Instead, I’m going to make lemons out of lemonade, and listen more than I talk at RSF, because I’m too punch drunk to charm anyone, even if I wanted to.

But a column is a column, and that means I’m here to gut it out. Man up. Leave it all on the field. (Insert random sports cliché here.)

Are you sensing a theme? Shall I spell it out for you? Yes, we’re going to talk about sports today. And not just any sports. (Or sport, as the Brits say.)

Today, we’re going to riff on “Weird Sports 2,” a new book by Sol Neelman, published by Keher Verlag in Germany. Sol’s appeared in this column twice before. I wrote a blurb about “Weird Sports,” before I adopted my now-patented-ridiculous-rambling style, and then we chronicled his habit of wearing Lucha Libre masks in an article about the New York Times Portfolio Review in 2013.

Now he’s back, in all his Weird Sports-loving glory.

This is the kind of book that is very hard not to like. In fact, if you hate it, I’ll have to accuse you of lacking any sense of humor whatsoever. Which means you’re no fun, so I’d rather you spent your Friday reading time elsewhere.

Leave, I say. Leave.

Just kidding. But it is a book that chronicles the odd and sometimes depraved way that human beings choose to spend their spare time. Are there inspirational photos? Yes, like the picture of blind sprinters cruising down the track at the Paralympic games in Beijing.

But those are the exceptions, not the norm. Ostrich racing. Monster Wrestling. Zombie 5k runs. Sandboarding in Morocco. Musical chairs. Quidditch. Bog snorkeling in Wales. (Sorry, but that’s just gross. You might find Richard III’s crushed skull down there, if you’re not careful.)

What did I learn? That an astonishingly large number of weird sports seem to exist in the Pacific Northwest. Portland and Seattle, are you really that funky? What gives? Haven’t you ever heard of basketball and soccer? You know, normal past-times?

I might quibble about whether a Beard and Mustache Championship counts as a sport, and let’s not hate on Sol for including “World Naked Bike Ride,” (again in Portland) because, say it with me now, Boobs Sell Books.℠

As to the Lightsaber Fencing practitioners, can we really be surprised that they’re getting their game faces on in San Francisco? (No, we cannot.) And if George Lucas wasn’t cashing royalty checks from those nerds before the book came out, I’m sure he is now.

That’s what I’ve got for you today. The clock is running down, and I need to pack for RSF. Frankly, I’m a little pissed I’ve got to miss Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight. I’d tell you to watch some Lebron James brilliance, but by the time you read this tomorrow, the game will be over.

To Purchase “Weird Sports 2″ Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sachiko Kawanabe

by Jonathan Blaustein

The sun doesn’t care if you live or die.

It’s true.

The glowing orb, impossibly far away, hangs in the sky, while we spin around it. Its heat and light enable our existence, yes, but don’t fool yourself.

The implacable star has no feelings about any of us. It just is, and so are we. The only difference, near as I can tell, is that we are here for the briefest of times, aware our journey is finite.

The sun, on the other hand, will outlive us all.

I’m sitting at my white kitchen table, musing as usual, enjoying the ambient sounds of chirping crickets. Outside, the aspen leaves shimmer as only they can; proof of the slight breeze that animates them. Bird calls complete the scene.

There is nothing else, at the moment.

I just finished meditating, which is a practice I’m trying to adopt. It might explain my metaphysical mood. Meditation is one of those things that are clearly good for you, like spinach, but it takes dedication to adopt it properly. (We’ll see if it sticks.)

So I AM calmer than I might otherwise be. But it’s not just the silence, and the sweet muscle relaxation that comes from sitting still, breathing in and out in rhythm. No, my mood was further enhanced by just the right photobook, at just the right moment.

I’ve really come to love this job, because I have a routine that revolves around entering other people’s worlds, each and every week. I’m rather picky about what I like, when I see things on the wall. I want NEW. I want innovation.

But with books, I’m far more interested in crossing the threshold of an immersive experience. Losing myself, as I do when I have a camera in my hand. (Don’t we all.) Or when I’m swimming laps.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe.

What engendered this New-Age-Reverie? “sononite,” a new book by Sachiko Kawanabe, recently published by Omoplata/Superlabo in Japan. I’m sure you’re not surprised, because nobody does Zen like the Japanese.

This is a genuinely lovely book. It ticks all the right boxes: beautiful, quiet, contemplative, philosophical, and well-made. I’ll do my best to write about it, but books like these really do need to be held.

It opens with a horizontal orientation, back to front. Immediately, we’re interacting with the book in a non-traditional way. After the cover, we get a short bit of thoughtful text that gives the crucial details: the story is about an apple orchard that the artist found, and visits regularly.

She loved the place so much, in fact, that she and her young daughter spread her beloved grandmother’s ashes among the trees. This is not just a grove raising food for people. It is also a final resting spot, but grandmother will not rot, as the apples do. The fires put an end to that.

Thereafter, the orientation shifts to vertical, and we begin in Winter. The snow reflects those sun rays, and the white set against the blue sky is just right. Nature may not care if we live or die, but it does know how to give the perfect backdrop on which to play out our daily drama.

Winter to Spring, Spring to Summer. At one point, despite the uniform loveliness of the images, I found myself wanting something new. On the next page, I noticed a picture with a blue cast that seemed unnatural, even in evening light. My attention returned.

That happened again when the artist’s daughter appears, and yet again when I turned the page and found a lovely burgundy book-mark-string. As always, pacing details are important, and respected, in well-made books.

Summer gives way to Fall, and the fully grown apples desiccate on the ground, as we all will, one day. (Unless we ask them to burn us.)

This book works on several levels. It allows you to contemplate your mortality without grief, because everything is impermanent. (Even the sun.) But it also gives us the opportunity to shut out those thoughts, if we so choose, and luxuriate in some very beautiful pictures of a sweet little apple orchard in Japan.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, Zen book that shows us the cycle of life

To Purchase “sononite” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Alessandra Mauro

by Jonathan Blaustein

The cursor blinks. Blue on white. Blink. Blink.

Taunting me.

“What are you going to say this week, Blaustein? Are you going to tell us a story about your kids? Or deconstruct a Hollywood movie? How are you going to keep it fresh?”

It’s a surprisingly annoying cursor. Poking at my insecurities. And yet I’m fond of it. (Him? Her?) It’s kept me company for years, and only now have I even realized it’s blue.

I guess I’m not that observant. Blink. Blink.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m pretty fried at the moment. Yesterday, I drove to Santa Fe, then Albuquerque, then Santa Fe, then home. 6 hours and 250+ miles of Wild West road-tripping, all to drop off pictures for an exhibition, and shop for clothes along the way.

Everything I bought was either made in India or Bangladesh. Some items were extremely inexpensive, others more reasonably priced. But it all came from a sweatshop, or so I’d imagine. Normally, I don’t think very carefully about that. But I recently saw a John Oliver rant on the truth behind the international clothing industry.

It’s not pretty.

And I was left with a mental image of children stuck behind sewing machines. It’s dancing through my mind, just now, and igniting some serious guilt about my purchases.

As I’ve learned, and tried to share with you here, sometimes you just need to turn your head sideways to see something with a completely new perspective. It can make obvious things that were obscured, like dropping a pair of corrective lenses over your young son’s faulty eyes.

Today, I’m going to review a book unlike any I’ve covered. And I’m going to do it in a way that’s different from the manner in which you’re supposed to review such a book. Watch, as I break two rules at once.

It won’t hurt a bit.

“Photoshow” is a recent offering from Contrasto in Italy. It was edited by Alessandra Mauro, and contains interviews and essays that explore the history of the photographic exhibition. Yes, it’s a publication that attempts to corral a 3-dimensional experience into 2-dimensions, and compress nearly 200 years into a few hours of reading.

Or so I’d imagine. Because I didn’t read a word.

This is a book you’re supposed to read. It even included an interview with Quentin Bajac, the head curator at MoMA, whose opinions and expertise are certainly worth exploring. (I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days..but not today.)

Rather than skipping a review, because I write about pictures, not words, I decided to open the book and look at the photos. Why not review this as a photobook, and acknowledge that many of you would likely enjoy the essays too?

Why not indeed?

It’s the rare publication that starts with pictures by Talbot and Daguerre, and ends up with a photo of Erik Kessel’s room installation of 24 hours worth of pictures from Flickr and Facebook. In fact, it may be the only such publication ever made.

We see a killer image by one of my favorites, Gustave le Gray, and a trio of pictures by Roger Fenton, including the classic that shows his mobile horse buggy/ photo studio. My long-time readers know how much I love Fenton, so that selection got my attention.

Marcel Duchamp’s famed urinal at Edward Steiglitz’s gallery? Installation shots from “The Family of Man?” Joseph Kosuth’s seminal three versions of a chair? All mashed up with Jeff Wall’s work and lots of work on walls?

Skip the words, and this is one cool book. Read the words, and you come out with more education than you started. Either way, it’s a win win.

I’m sure some of you will be shocked at my perceived laziness. That’s understandable. You’re not supposed to review a book without reading it. But you’re not supposed to support a system that enslaves children either, and we all seem tragically OK with that.

Bottom Line: Cool pictures, lots of words, and a heap of photo history

To Purchase “Photoshow” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Mike Slack

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Mad Men” ended this week.

Did you see it? Were you dissatisfied? Personally, I like to imagine Matthew Weiner’s recurring nightmares about “The Sopranos” last episode, and its less-than-stellar reception.

Can’t you see him tossing and turning in a king-sized bed, replete with high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets? Unconscious, with the Pacific Ocean shimmering out the window, he wonders how to live with himself if he fucks up the end of “Mad Men” the way David Chase faded to black.

He must have been a neurotic mess in the days/months/years leading up to Don Draper’s denouement. I’m certain of it. Because otherwise, he wouldn’t have over-thought things to the degree he did.

SPOILER ALERT

Ending the show with a meditating Jon Hamm’s beatific smile would have been just about perfect. The skeptical, stoic Don Draper, finally merging with the emo-boy Dick Whitman. The straight-laced beefcake, who looked Iconic in his 50’s hat, finally trusting in the Universe enough to go easy on himself.

To forgive.

That would have been a profound message about mankind’s ability to grow and change. (And woman-kind, of course.) But no. Matthew Weiner had to take it one step further, and ambiguously suggest that the momentary enlightenment was put directly in service of inventing that famous Coke commercial that we will all have stuck in our heads forEVER.

A classic bit of over-thinking, especially as he didn’t bother with the epilogue showing Don Draper’s triumphant return to pitch the idea. That would have made more sense, traditionally, than the half-done act of running the ad.

But then, most of us get in our own way, from time to time. We overcomplicate things. Normally, it’s better to keep it simple; to see your job as making the donuts, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. (What if we made the wheel square? Instead of round? We could build pyramids with this newfangled contraption.)

Today’s book does just that. (Keep it simple, that is.) Mike Slack’s “Shrubs of Death” had me at the title. I might have rushed past last week’s telling book cover, but this one grabbed me by my chakras and didn’t let go.

Shrubs of Death? How great is that?

And then, it delivered on its promise. We see a lot of shrubs. Each picture is cropped just right, to anthropomorphize a bit of shrubbery. (There’s a Monty Python joke in there somewhere. I’m sure of it.)

I giggled for the first few photos, and then started flipping more quickly. It was like a paper version of an animated gif. What would you call that? A flip-book? An analogue cartoon?

No matter. Halfway through, I thought to myself, “This is cute and witty, but honestly, Mike Slack could have shot this whole project in 25 minutes.”

I really thought that. I swear.

I even made puns in my mind about Mike being a Slacker, and making a book out of the experience just because he could. Then, the end notes claim that he did, in fact, shoot the entire group in one day. (The consistent light was a giveaway.) Apparently, he made the pictures at a cemetery in Indiana. (Hence the title.)

Let me be clear here. This is not a great book. And charging $32 for the thing requires some genuine hubris. But at least Mike Slack didn’t over-think anything.

He got a funny idea to shoot shrubs in a cemetery. Maybe he always thought it could be a book. And then he did it. The fact that I had it in my hands proves its existence.

Why am I highlighting it today, if I only like it ironically? Because art is in the making. We all have lots of ideas. But sometimes, it’s best to just get out there and make something. Anything.

The truth is harsh. No matter how smart you are, sometimes, you just need to photograph those shrubs… before you’re the one 6 feet under the ground.

Bottom Line: A funny little book that won’t change your life

To Purchase “Shrubs of Death” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Lindsay Morris

by Jonathan Blaustein

My daughter is a spitfire. A wild-cat. A force of nature. She is genuinely fierce, and has tried to kick me in the face more times than I can count. (Luckily, I’m quick enough to dodge, and of course, she isn’t trying to hurt me. But she did tag my wife just last night.)

She also loves the color pink, and wears her Elsa-themed Disney princess dress as often as we’ll allow it. I’ve seen her in a tiara, and it’s cuter than a waterskiing squirrel. But she won’t let us put her hair in pig-tails.

Ever.

Honestly, like many a hetero-guy, I was frightened of having a daughter. I imagined future scenarios with boys at the door, waiting to take her out on the town. I was one of those boys, years ago. Their minds are not very complex, I’m afraid.

Once she was born, though, I realized that you take each day as it comes. We’re not yet 3 years in, and I’m eternally grateful that she wasn’t a boy, as it’s expanded my world immeasurably, learning to live with this head-strong, moody, gorgeous little blue-eyed girl.

And, on several occasions, I’ve wondered whether she’ll be interested in those boys that come to the door, or if she’ll prefer girls instead. I don’t mean to shock here. If I had to guess, I’d suspect she’s straight, like her brother and her parents.

But it’s 2015, and thankfully, most of us are comfortable with the idea of gender mutability and homosexuality. It’s cool with me that my little girl likes to wrestle and fight, in addition to playing with her dolls.

Who am I to judge?

It’s ironic, tragic, and a bit thrilling that we live in a country, and a world, that offers unprecedented rights for LGBT people, while concurrently, hordes still try to restrict their freedoms. It’s so of-the-moment to watch things evolve this quickly. (#YOLO)

Hell, I wrote a story for Lens in March, in which I profiled an artist who’d photographed Hijras in Bangladesh. Those are men who gender identify as women, and occupy a stratified position in the Muslim society. The article’s text was slightly amended, after a qualified commenter claimed I’d used improper gender nomenclature in my explication.

It doesn’t get more real time than that.

I’m always interested in the way photographers show us things we haven’t seen. Things that are relevant to the here and now. So it was inevitable that I’d want to review “You Are You,” a new monograph by Lindsay Morris, recently published by Keher Verlag in Germany.

And so I shall.

The key to the book sits on the cover, but I didn’t notice, as I opened it rather quickly. The first photos give the sense of a camp environment, but not much more. Picnic tables around a campfire. Lush green vegetation. An archery target affixed to a tree.

Then, after the title page, we’re treated to a visceral, and not-too-long poem by Victoria Redel, that describes a young boy with the courage to publicly acknowledge his love of glitter, and other “girly” things. It was a moving piece of writing, and then the next page, (the cover image I’d skipped past) shows what appears to be a short-haired boy, with a flower in his hair, frolicking with a gaggle of girls.

OK. I get it now. This is not just any summer camp. Interesting things are happening here, and I want to know more.

In each subsequent photo, I found myself scouring the images more carefully. Is that a boy? Could it be? What’s going on here? What’s the deal?

The pictures are uniformly well-made, and the sense of joy and play leaps off the page. I’ve been not-so-patiently awaiting summer, and this book made me want to bellow at the gods to make the good weather come that much sooner. (Or at least bellow at the fuzzy bunny staring at me, just outside the window, in case he has a direct line to Mother Nature. Make it warm, little bunny. Make it warm.)

There is a fair bit of text at the end of the book that gives us the context we’ve mostly guessed at. Ms. Morris spent several years visiting, and photographing, at Camp You Are You, which takes place over a weekend every summer. It allows “gender-nonconforming children and their families” a space to hang out together, play, and explore their identities collectively.

The end section features resources for people wanting more specific info, several essays, and testimonials directly from some of the parents. It’s a photo-book with the heart of a instructional pamphlet. Or maybe it’s both.

People like us, we’re the target market for this sort of publication. Open-minded, liberal, supportive. I’m sure some of you might break that stereotype, but creatives in general tend not to be small-minded homophobic racists. So this book might well be for you.

Personally, I’d be more curious to see the expression on someone’s face, someone who believes in denying others the freedom to be themselves. What might they say, while flipping through these pages? How much evidence of joy would it take to set them off, to fire up their anger? How many kids would they rather see cooped up inside an oppressive box?

Bottom Line: Excellent, positive, life-affirming look at a summer camp for gender-nonconforming children

To Purchase “You Are You” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Ken Schles

by Jonathan Blaustein

Some people party for fun. Others do it out of habit. Still others because it distracts from deep sorrow. Until they wake up the next day, with yet more to forget. (And more rotgut to swill.)

I don’t binge drink anymore. I don’t feel nostalgic for lost evenings stumbling around cities, the dark world vibrating before my eyes. I remember the feeling well, though, like a phantom limb.

But I don’t miss it.

At first, it was fun, as I was a “good boy” who never had the chance to rebel, as a youth. By the time I got around to it, I gave it my all, vomiting with regularity. Fighting too. And yelling. But it never turned me into the lothario I craved to be.

Realistically, I wouldn’t be the me I am today had I not made my share of mistakes. And I certainly had some good times. It’s a phase, for most of us, and then we grow out of it.

Like the 80’s.

I suppose the 70’s might quibble, but I think the 80’s were the most phase-like decade ever. Everyone was happy when it was over.

The end of the Disco era saw a New York awash in drugs, sex, and the diseases they spawned. Mostly AIDS, of course. But the city had not-yet-recovered from the dank 70’s, so it still appeared a ruin, in many ways. Pre-Internet, Pre-Guiliani, it really was Gotham.

I picked up on bits of the vibe, through the evening news, and on occasional trips into NYC with my folks, to catch a Broadway play or a baseball game. (That’s what the Bridge and Tunnel folks did.)

But my take is only tangential. Occasionally, you’ve got to go to the source to see, feel, or know what went down, all those years ago. Thankfully, we can do just that.

“Invisible City,” by Ken Schles, is a photo-book I’ve heard of many times, but never seen. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue what it was about. But it’s been re-released by Steidl, so now we all have the chance to flip through a touch-stone of the 80’s, New York City style.

The book doesn’t tell you it’s New York, and it doesn’t have to. The night time, the grime, the Brooklyn Bridge, they all conspire to let us know where we are. The decay of the city, the fashion, give us the time period. (As do the end notes, which inform us the book was originally released in 1988, designed by New Mexico’s own Jack Woody.)

At first, I was thrown, because the pictures are not uniformly excellent. They’re not the kind of photographs that make you envious of the artist’s talent.

The effect is more cumulative, as it should be, in a good book. Picture after picture is blurry. Grainy. The camera was constantly in motion, which is a damn good structural metaphor for a city that never sleeps. There is graffiti, and street lights, and a baby carriage standing, alone, in a creepy hallway.

Cafe Bustelo shows up twice, which proves these guys were keeping it real.

We see lots of drinking, but none of it emblematic of joy. It’s more the addiction variety, with women half-passed out on the toilet, or cross-eyed drunk in a restaurant. We sense a bohemian scene, not unlike Nan Goldin’s friends, but here it never coalesces into a redundant vision.

Motion, always motion.

There is a picture of two people copulating like animals in a ramshackle courtyard that was perfectly set up by a picture of pretty flowers overlooking a similar space. There are boobs, of course, because Boobs Sell Books℠.

Overall, we enter a space in time, and then we leave. I looked at it again, as soon as I was done, just to double-check that the world was there waiting for me, while the cover was closed.

There are excerpts from the kind of writers that give pictures like this high-level-intellectual-street-cred: Kafka, Baudrillard, Orwell. They were helpful and appropriate pieces of writing, but masked an important reality. Ideas, words, often take priority in a certain kind of art: the kind that alienates, and claims the high ground.

Pictures like this, though, speak to the gut. They isolate time from itself, which needs little philosophical underpinning. But I guess, if you’re going to make a classic book, backing up your ideas with heavyweights is never a bad call. (Duly noted.)

Bottom Line: A re-issued classic, straight outta the NYC 80’s

To Purchase “Invisible City” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Christopher Williams

by Jonathan Blaustein

The strangest thing happened to me yesterday. I was chatting with a neighbor while photographing his Apache sweat lodge. (Long story.) We’d met for the first time the day before, so I was making small talk about our little valley.

I asked him if he’d seen the pair of golden eagles that lived around here, and often roosted in the tall cottonwoods near the stream.

He said he had no idea there were a pair of golden eagles around here. His tone was dubious. Then he mentioned that there WERE a couple of red-tailed hawks living in the canyon, but of course that was something else entirely.

It was the third time in as many weeks that someone had told me my eagles were hawks. The first two times, I shrugged it of as misinformation. But yesterday? I realized I might have been the one mistaken.

So I ran home and hit up my trusty friend Google. My heart sank. My favorite birds, the one’s from whom I’d learned so much, were not eagles… but hawks.

Should it matter?

The birds are no less beautiful. Or majestic. Their hunting prowess no flimsier, nor their stupefying ability to soar through the air without seeming to move at all.

So what was the problem? In my mind, they were eagles: rarer and more special than common hawks. I identified with them as being the kings of the sky. That they lived in my yard made me feel special. I told many people about my eagles.

But they were never eagles. At least, not outside my own mind. They nested inside my expectations, and laid eggs that gave me courage and confidence.

And now?

Now, I have to get over myself. I’m still freakishly lucky to live in a place where I get to watch red-tailed hawks circle over my yard on a near-daily basis. The fact that I’m even conflicted about this says quite a bit about my ridiculous character.

But expectations are powerful things, even if they don’t have a tangible presence. Take books, for example. We “expect” them to make sense. To tell a story. To inform us of their meaning, at some point, before we cease to flip the pages.

That’s their job. To tell us stuff, either in pictures, words, or both.

But what if you found a book that absolutely refused to bow to convention? That reveled in fucking with your head, while simultaneously depicting a set of images made during an artist’s career?

What would you think about that?

I’m glad you asked. Because I just finished looking at a red monograph of work by the conceptual photography/art star Christopher Williams, and I’m still scratching my head.

I knew it was his book, because photo-eye had affixed a tag that said Christopher Williams, printed in Germany, $120. That’s all I got, even after looking at the whole book. (Though the “Printed in Germany” did appear at the end of the book too, on an insert, which was a tad reassuring. That they knew how to print words at all, that is.)

I would have figured out it was his book, had I not known, because I’ve seen some of his seminal images before. They’re always inscrutable. Pictures of cameras, deconstructed. Cars, tipped like cows in a pasture. Models, obviously on set, with color bars in the frame. Corn in the husk.

I’ve read a bit about him in the past, and know there are strong motivations behind the work. Big ideas. Political, even. But you’re never going to suss that out just by looking at the pictures. I’m a bright guy, and I wouldn’t even know where to start.

But start I did, and the first handful of pages in the book are red. Like, red red. Bright red. Cherry red. Coca Cola red.

There’s no name on the cover. When you finally find a photo, on a white page, it’s a piece of yellow foam wrapped into a sculptural form. The kind you might put upon your child’s bed to make it softer. (My son was praising his yellow-bed-foam just yesterday, coincidentally.)

That picture repeats later. As do others. There are seemingly African workers in front of a Heidelberg printing press. Some images, of apples, run off the page, and reference the printing process. That, I can say with confidence.

There is one picture of boobs, that repeats, because, as we all know, Boobs Sell Books℠.

Random repeating images. Lots and lots of red pages. No words. Pictures that are odd, and perhaps discomfiting. Maybe a little hypnotic. But they give you nothing concrete.

It’s like the whole book is the spawn of a mad scientist who had sex with a bespectacled artist. It only makes you angry if you think you’re supposed to get it.

But what if you don’t try to get it? What if there’s nothing to get? The world is a messy place, as I wrote last week. Logic and reason exist, but so do chaos and terror. Money rules the day, and it always has. (Though it might have taken the form of salt, gold, oil or jewels.)

When I was done, I practically chuckled at the chutzpah it takes to make a book with no words. There’s even an insert at the end, the type that typically contains an essay or two. Maybe an artist’s exhibition history?

Nope. It was blank. Only red.

Like the look on your face, perhaps, while you’re reading this. Will you like this book? I don’t know. But I think it’s awesome, because it undercuts almost every sane idea about how to make a photo-book.

And all that red made me realize my red-tailed hawks are perfect, just as they are. What’s in a name, anyway?

Bottom Line: Inscrutable, almost offensively strange, yet perfectly awesome book by a brainy art star

To Purchase “Printed In Germany” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Michael Danner

by Jonathan Blaustein

Life in the 21st Century is a futile attempt to answer a set of unanswerable questions. (I’m sorry for the downer, but it’s true.) We’re faced with existential problems that lack easy, digestible solutions.

And yet, we persevere.

How do we reconcile the fact that we are not-so-slowly killing the Earth, but many of the radical things we might do to arrest the changes would likely slow our economy? Which would impact our competitiveness as a nation. And perhaps lead to unrest.

Of course, many people with the political power to enact change, here in the United States, don’t actually believe in science. Or at least they publicly disavow accrued knowledge, so that it doesn’t impede the steady progression of corporate cash into their campaign finance accounts.

I’m not nearly as cynical as it might appear, but honestly, it’s hard to see how we’re going to solve our environmental problems. Because they are inextricably linked to money, and as we all know, cash is king.

Even if, by some miracle, a corporation invents a device that scrubs carbon from the sky, how much do you think they’ll charge for that machine? Can you imagine? Rich countries get to “buy” a cleaner environment, and little Third World backwaters will be shit out of luck.

And yet, we persevere.

I’m musing, mostly because it’s Earth Day today. (We should all wear green, I’d think, but St. Patrick’s Day got there first.) But also because I just opened up “Critical Mass,” a book by German photographer Michael Danner, recently published by Keher Verlag.

This book falls squarely in the category of experiential, which my regular readers know is one of my favorite types of photobook. The pictures within are not drop-dead amazing, but they don’t need to be. Their formal structure screams German, as does the methodical nature of the project.

Mr. Danner photographed in 17 nuclear power facilities in Germany, and brought the results back out in a haz mat suit, I’d imagine. Of course, I thought of Homer Simpson, at times, and once of Thomas Demand’s amazing “Control Room,” but other than that, this book felt fresh to me.

It opens with a set of black and white archival images, which refer to protests in the past. I assume it’s protests against nuclear power plants, but there is no text in the beginning to corroborate. (That comes at the end.)

From there, we enter a world of color, though much of the exterior reality is drained of vibrance. Then we head to the entrances to the facilities. At that point, we realize that the book is segmented into “chapters,” which offer the repetition of showing us the same thing at different plants. (I couldn’t do it justice in the photos below, as I have spatial constraints.)

The entrance gates. The locker rooms. The haz mat suits. The cafeterias. The conference rooms. The gym. The gym?

We can imagine some nameless drone walking through the turnstiles, clocking in, grabbing a presumably free currywurst, changing in the locker room, suiting up, and then going about a “routine” that carries with it the risk of melting down a whole region of a prosperous country, and potentially polluting the air of an entire continent.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Nuclear power provides near-boundless energy, without polluting the air, but the waste is beyond toxic. The Fukushima disaster, and Chernobyl before it, remind us that the economic cost of the megawatts can exceed what is written in a profit-loss ledger.

Do we have a choice about Nuclear Power? Or is it a necessity?
I have no idea. As I said at the outset, these questions bely easy answers.

Back to the book, and we finally move along the vent tubes into the reactors. Industrial-looking behemoths. How do they work? Fuck if I know. Uranium? Plutonium? The methane from aggregated rhino farts?

From there, we enter the bowels of the facilities. One long, dark tunnel after another. This was my favorite part, because the imagery was visceral and striking, as opposed to much of the book, which was clinical and intelligent, but not dynamic.

We finish with a bookended set of archival pictures of protests from back in the 20th C. An era when most people thought the Earth’s resources were limitless, and our political rivalries binary. Us or them. Capitalist or Communist. Good or bad. Black or white. Life or Death.

Bottom Line: A methodical, experiential look inside German nuclear power plants

To Purchase visit http://dannercriticalmass.com

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This Week In Photography Books: Roger Eberhard

by Jonathan Blaustein

I met Bruce Springsteen a long time ago. When I still lived in New Jersey. Back when he was a GOD.

It must have been 1992, or thereabouts. I was working in a restaurant in Sea Bright. Down the Shore. The joint was built right upon a brackish inlet, across the street from the Atlantic Ocean.

I’d heard that Bruce liked to show up in an open-topped red Jeep, with Patti in the passenger seat, and the kids in the back. So I HAD been warned. But still, I was not prepared for what it felt like, being in his presence.

My tenure there was rather short, as I ran my mouth a lot, and made the mistake of allowing someone to buy me a drink in the bar, after my shift. I was patently underage, and they got rid of me as quickly as they could. Not the last time I would be fired, but it stung.

So I was doubly-lucky to be working the night Bruce showed up. I stood in the front, near the parking lot, next to two cute hostesses. Bruce pulled up in that Jeep, and bow-leg-strutted straight up to me. There’s no solid explanation as to why he came my way, instead of talking to the pretty girls whose job it was to greet him.

But approach me he did. My palms were sweaty, like a large man in a steam room, and I did my best not to stammer.

“Of course, Bruce. We have a table for you. Of course. We’d be happy to help you and your family. We’re so glad you’re here.”

“Thanks, kid, thanks.”

“Oh, and Bruce? I’m going to your concert next week. I hate to ask, and hope you don’t mind, but is there any way you’d play ‘Blinded by the Light?'”

“Maybe, kid, maybe.”

He didn’t.

But I couldn’t hold it against him. In fact, that night in the restaurant, I put sugar packets under his table to stabilize it, and filled his children’s ice tea cups when they were two sips below the top of the glass. I was attentive in the extreme.

He didn’t seem to mind. Bruce must have been used to the pure adulation of native Jersey boys. Especially Down the Shore. (That’s the local expression for at the beach, for those of you reading this around the world.)

Sometimes, certain people find themselves sitting on top of a pedestal carved from Carrara Marble. They peer down at the rest of us, uncomfortable at such heights, but seem willing to adjust their balance to keep the seat. (With others, like Michael Jordan, you’ll have to cut out their hearts and chop off their heads before they’ll give up their rightful place atop the perch.)

In the Photobook world, one I’ve managed to cover for you, here, for more than 3.5 years, one name reigns supreme: Martin Parr. I’ve got two interviews that we’ll publish in the coming months, with two genuinely excellent photobook publishers, each of whom agreed that the planet is currently inundated with photobooks. (The streets are flowing with four-color pages, all with photographs embedded in ink.)

That’s the way it is these days. So if you’re Martin Parr, it’s a rather good time to be the King of Photobooks. At least, if you like having lots of subjects. (Long live the King.)

That being said, there are probably more people in Albuquerque who’ve heard of Michael Jordan than there are humans alive who’ve heard of Martin Parr. Our culture still needs a sub- in front of it, if we’re being honest.

So “Martin Parr Looking at Books” is definitely a niche product, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a new photobook by Roger Eberhard, published by B. Frank Books, that shows us exactly what the title claims: Martin Parr looking at (photo) books.

Clearly, this is not for everybody. Especially as the pictures are not-particularly-compelling. Mr. Eberhard gets around that fact by giving us a colorful front-cover, a mirror-metallic inside cover, and a few big-font pages with quotes establishing Mr. Parr’s preeminence.

Then, it’s photo after photo of nothing but what you’d expect, given what I’ve already told you. But it is funny. Not LOL funny, but chuckle and smile funny. Ridiculous. It’s a goof on all of us, yet a good-enough-goof that I’m writing about it.

Some of you have taken to the comment section recently to ask why I’d review a given book, when there are far-more-worthy offerings to discuss. I’m guessing some of you will share that sentiment this week. Here’s the only rule: if it inspires me to write, I write.

Before the close, we’re provided with some blank-lined-white pages, ostensibly to write up our own “Best Photobook of the Year List,” because Lord knows there aren’t enough of those already. Hilarious!

But then again, the pictures are not even special. Party Foul! The end notes tell us they were submitted, or provided, to the artist. It’s a collaborative effort, apparently, stalking Martin Parr, and taking his picture while he looks at books.

One can imagine a sister-publication where Robert Parker is photographed while sipping Cabernet Sauvignon? Seth Rogen smoking blunts? Or Bruce Springsteen, papparazzoed, while chowing down on greasy burgers Down the Shore?

Then end notes also claim that Mr. Parr appreciated the joke. I hope you do too. There are so, so many weeks when the books I write about explore tragedy, destruction, and sorrow. So today, “Lighten Up Francis,” and have a laugh at our collective-photo-geek selves.

Bottom Line: Zany, odd, niche photo book that skews itself, and us

Go here to purchase “Martin Parr Looking at Books”

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This Week In Photography Books: Alexandra Huddleston

by Jonathan Blaustein

Today is Tuesday. The day I’m writing this. Tuesday.

But it’s also Friday. Because that’s when you’re reading it. Friday. Strange, no? The existence of twin temporalities? It’s enough to give me a headache.

Fortunately, that prospective malady will be the only one I complain about today. Because I’m finally feeling better. It only took 3 weeks, but hey, who’s counting?

Today (Friday) is no ordinary day, though. It’s Good Friday, which is holy in the Christian tradition, because it was first holy to the Jews. Jesus’ last supper was a Seder, because he was Jewish, which explains why Passover and Easter always seem connected.

They are.

If you were here in Northern New Mexico today, (Friday) and you drove along the highway, you might see pilgrims walking along the side of the road. There are hordes of them who head from all directions towards Chimayo, where they’ll convene to pray, and commune with the seemingly-sacred healing dirt.

I don’t know much about it, to be honest. But I do know that I’m sitting here in a mostly empty classroom, today, because many of my students celebrate. Some of them are even on a pilgrimage of their own, walking South from Costilla, on the Colorado border, to Questa, 20 miles away.

I should have asked them why they do it, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time. 20 miles is a long stretch, if you ask me. So I’d guess the suffering relates to the nasty business Jesus faced at the end of his life.

People often feel the need to walk until their bodies are begging to give out. To push their flesh to the breaking point, in the hope that their spirits will ascend to new knowledge planes. I’ve been known to drive to the Post Office, a mile away, so I’m clearly not one of those people.

But Alexandra Huddleston is. And she’s a New Mexican to boot. So perhaps we might learn a thing or two from her experience.

I know this having just looked through “East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage” her new book, published by Blind Cat Valentine. As I said earlier this year, I’m trying to expand my definition of a reviewable book, and this one helps me do just that.

Apparently, in September of 2010, Ms. Huddleston set off on an 800 mile walk around the Japanese island of Shikoku, so she could follow the Buddhist pilgrim’s trail to the aforementioned 88 temples. Her diary entries, which are included within, seem to indicate that she made the trek over 7 weeks time. Which means her feet must have been really f-cking tired, when all was said and done. (Her blisters must have had blisters.)

The intro text also mentions that she completed the 500 mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain the year prior, which means 1300 miles all told, in search of understanding in two religions. East and West.

Now, the reason why I’d normally not review this book is that the pictures are not amazing. They’re very good, for sure, but I normally prefer a shade more pizazz. More oomph. More edge.

But they are personal, and in conjunction with the diary entries, which tell tales of poisonous centipedes, Korean monks, and free mochi, I get a real sense of who Ms. Huddleston is, and what she’s searching for in this life.

The book is intimate, and thoughtful, and it feels like something she’s sharing with the world, even though it was really meant for her. A way to flesh out her thoughts, to codify her memories, and to honor her journey.

That’s my takeaway, at least, and I felt that it was worth sharing with you, today (Friday? Tuesday?) so that we could acknowledge the power of other peoples’ beliefs, and wish them well as they pray, walk, and ponder.

Bottom Line: A personal, pilgrim’s journey around a Japanese island

Go Here To Purchase “East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage”

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This Week In Photography Books: Ingvar Kenne

by Jonathan Blaustein

I often reference movies in this column. Have you noticed? You must have. Otherwise, you haven’t been paying attention.

What’s wrong with you? Why would you bother coming here, every Friday, if you weren’t going to pay attention?

What’s that? You do pay attention? I’m making unfair accusations? Jumping to conclusions based upon spurious assumptions?

I’m sorry. Forgive me. After 17 days of being under-the-weather, I’m grumpier than an alcoholic-undercover-Russian-soldier, fighting in Eastern Ukraine, after the daily vodka ration’s run out.

But I often find a good photo book will make me think of a film, and once the idea’s in my head, the fingers dance upon the keyboard like a Spring Break frat boy trying to impress a bevy of pretty ladies. (Sadly, it’s all in the hips, but most meat-heads are not flexible enough to move them.)

The movie I’ve got in mind at present is “Groundhog Day.”

Such. A. Classic.

Harold Ramis, RIP, had all sorts of Buddhist motivations, but nobody laughs in Meditation group, so he clearly needed Bill Murray’s genius to make this one fly. What a scenario. You wake up every day, and it’s the same day all over again.

How long did it take Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, to turn to a life of crime and perpetual suicide? Not that long. Monotony is a killer, even if you CAN fill your day torturing groundhogs, eating pancakes, or chasing after peak-hotness Andie MacDowell.

In the end, we all learn a valuable lesson, through Phil’s evolution towards enlightenment: Life without growth and change is meaningless. Even fun stops being fun, when that’s all you know. (When you’re trapped in a pleasure prison of your own making.)

Where is this coming from? Clearly, I’m not talking about me, because you already know I’ve been sick for two-and-a-half weeks. No, I haven’t had much fun at all.

I’m thinking, rather, of “The Hedgehog and The Foxes,” a new book that turned up in my mailbox recently, all the way from Australia. It was made by photographer Ingvar Kenne, produced by the MAUD design studio, and forced me to ask the questions, above, for reasons I will elucidate for you. Now.

This book is about the legendary porn star Ron Jeremy. He may be the man living the oddest existence on Earth, or at least, the one with the least-expected life.

Have you ever seen Ron Jeremy?

I’d like to think we all have, but then again, not a safe assumption. Though this is the second book I’ve reviewed this year that delves into pornography, I should probably mention I’m no expert on the subject. But I’ve certainly seen Ron Jeremy’s ugly mug in the past, and I might have even seen his private parts.

The story is that his johnson is so prodigious that he’s had a long-standing career sticking it into various orifices, for money. It was never about his looks, or his sad sack physique. Always, it was about his penis.

Mr. Kenne got to spend some quality time in the presence of “The Hedgehog” as he bounced from one vapid party to the next. He seems to have always been in the company of ladies, some of whom are very attractive. He signs boobs with sharpies, and shoves his hands up women’s pants, presumably at their request.

Through it all, Ron Jeremy exudes an Angst that would chill Vladimir Putin’s soul, if it weren’t already in cryogenic territory. Wow, do I feel bad for this guy. He seems so depressed, amongst the depravity, that I doubt he’s even capable of crying anymore.

Trapped in a world of his own making. A scenario many men would kill for, so I’m told. Getting paid to have sex with pretty women. But I wouldn’t trade places with “The Hedgehog” for all the money in the world.

Kudos to the artist for really showing no boobs or butts or cocks at all. The book is essentially clean, focusing on the emotional tenor of the tale, rather than the dirty goodies. We see the story unfold with lots of black-page-breaks, enhancing the noir quality.

In the middle, Mr. Kenne manages to zoom in and zoom out at the same time, as the contact-sheet-style gives us smaller images, but many more of them. It makes it feel like we’re there for every moment, rather than just the best shots.

There’s a sad poem at the end, which gives words to those emotions. Apparently, all Ron Jeremy ever wanted was to be a serious actor. To be known for his talent, rather than his member. A letter, which the artist included in his packet, states that despite being in each other’s company for close to 24 hours, “no show of human interest and interaction took place between” Ron Jeremy and the artist. (Again, the pictures gave that one away too.)

Apparently, there’s a short documentary video that accompanies the book, and a Limited Edition too, but I’m not sure what they’re about. I don’t want to know, really. Because I need to put on a stupid movie, right now, to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.

Bottom Line: Very well made book that shows us the road to Hell is paved with good intentions

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