Category "Photography Books"

This Week in Photography Books: Corinne Vionnet

 

Thanks for reading, and giving this column its legs.

Thanks for taking what I say seriously, but also having the self-awareness to know when I’m joking. Lord knows I’ve written some crazy things in this column over the last 7+ years, but I’ve never felt the need to dumb things down. (And I have the coolest editor in the world, which helps.)

But mostly I’m saying thanks because after last week’s nakedly honest column, I got several lovely, positive emails in reply.

I don’t do this for the feedback, obviously, or Rob and I wouldn’t have gone to war with the Trolls back in 2011.

Not all responses are worth considering, but I was caught off guard last week when several readers reached out to wish me well, and let me know they appreciated the candor we offer here, and the attempt to contemplate real ideas. (Rather than ripping off hot takes faster than Stephen A. Smith can say “New Yawk Knicks.”)

So today, rather than gloat at the Democratic House victory yesterday, or rip into Trump and his followers one more time, I’d like to do something different.

I’m going to speak to everyone at once.

Democrats and Republicans.
Urbanites and country-folk.
Artists and commercial photographers.
Haters and lovers.

All of you.

The experiment we have going on here in America, that of a massive, heterogenous, democratic Republic, is fairly new. Relative to China’s 5000 year history, we are newcomers.

And as we all know, the founding of America, and its subsequent expansion, was rife with corruption, misery, and genocide.

Yet I’m still proud of this country, and the system and values that were built by genius Americans like Ben Franklin and George Washington.

It’s easy to disparage those old Christian White guys, and to point out their sizable flaws, like slave ownership. In fact, it might be easier to dismiss them than mine for the brilliance of what they enacted.

The American system of government has allowed for our polyglot society to grow and flourish, and unless and until you can be legally shot for your opinions, then our free speech principle is one to support and uphold.

And perhaps, for once, it’s time to quote Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”

These days, I feel like most people are defaulting to the idea that we can’t. That some awful future is guaranteed up ahead, and we’re all marching to the ovens with our eyes firmly on the floor.

But that is simply not the case.

There are nice, family-loving people in Red and Blue states. And there are cool, hip, fascinating childless folks in both urban and rural Americas as well.

It’s foolish to assume we can leave all this accrued hate behind, but then again, what is our alternative?

If “Divide and Conquer” is such an obvious and successful strategy, then perhaps it’s time to employ the “Re-unite and Thrive” response?

My Uncle and Aunt, whom I love, are both Republicans. They hate Obama, and want a wall.

But I can talk to them.
I don’t wish them dead.

Quite the opposite.

Perhaps, that’s the best I can offer you guys today. The idea that maybe, individually, each of us can make an effort to reach across the (metaphorical) aisle and tell your political counterpoint that you don’t hate them.

You don’t wish them dead.

You disagree, but conflict can lead to change, which begets growth.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a book review? Isn’t there an implicit promise that if you sit with my ravings, at the end, you get to look at a book?

Yes, that’s the deal.

And not surprisingly, today’s book inspired my desire to knit together what years of discord have rendered.

“Total Flag” is a new, small-batch, self-published photo book by the Swiss-French artist Corinne Vionnet. One of her representatives reached out offering the book a few months ago, as I’d reviewed another of her publications (by Fall Line Press) late last year.

Ironically, the European PR person was traveling to Texas, and thought she’d be able to send me this French-artist’s-take-on-America more easily, once inside our formidable borders.

Like Robert Frank, or de Tocqueville before him, occasionally the lone European flaneur has raided our shores to reflect our society better than we can from the inside.

This book is about the furthest thing from street photography you can get. Frankly, to the naked eye, it doesn’t look much like photography at all.

Sure, they could be shots of a computer screen. Maybe they’re totally straight, unmanipulated pictures too. But that doesn’t matter much, as what we really see is a set of digital information as it degrades to nothing.

I’ll admit, the idea of the flag succumbing to entropy is not the subtlest, or most original symbol for contemporary America.

Let’s be honest, it’s kind of obvious.

But as a book, it’s effective. Slowly, bit by bit, the fabric of America has begun to come apart at the seams. We were one nation, and that sustained us, but are we any longer?

Or will the City vs Country war allow us to implode?

Normally, I focus on what’s wrong, and call attention to our problems.

Today, I don’t feel much like doing that.

Rather, this book has inspired me to push for reconciliation, because the alternative is much, much worse.

Bottom Line: Abstract, symbolic book about the rendering of America

To purchase “Total Flag” 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: Joshua Lutz

 

Holy shit, has it been a crazy week.

Sometimes, I feel like I can’t catch my breath, because no matter how hard I work, and how much positive energy I try to push out into the world, everything is just too big.

Too wild.
Too raw.

I’m helpless.

Most days, almost every day, honestly, I know who I am, where I’m going, what I’m doing, and what my goals are.

Be a good husband and father.
Make good art.

Write smart, entertaining and beneficial things for you, my large (and largely faceless) global audience.

But every now and again, I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and I just can’t understand how the world is so fucked, with people constantly talking about the impending extinction of humanity, the onslaught of fascism, or the likelihood of Donald Trump’s 3rd Term.

Since the Enlightenment, it has generally been accepted that human beings are predominantly rational creatures, and that we make decisions based upon our own self-interest.

Capitalism, the big idea that drives all global commerce, is essentially built upon the concept of rationality. It accepts that because people are greedy, governments are necessary to serve as a counter-balance to that greed.

Dirty rivers and dirty air are guaranteed, unless there is a bulwark to force corporations, (or in the past, rapacious individual owners,) to spend additional money to dispose of their waste properly.

Still, I think most of us believe we’re normal, as are our neighbors, and that almost all of us share a common goal: to provide for our families, give them the best life possible, live in a nice house, have time for leisure, and get to eat food that is better than the insect-jello they had to eat in that super-depressing movie “Snowpiercer.” (Damn that Chris Evans looks good in a beard!)

I always tell people that Taos, where I live, has a particularly high incidence of mental illness, and anti-social behavior. If you live here long enough, it’s super-obvious to see. (And it makes sense, when you know the history.)

Taos was the one place to rebel, when the US claimed and invaded New Mexico after the Mexican-American War, and the Taoseños killed all the White folks and fed them to the pigs. (No lie. You can look it up.)

And since “Easy Rider” dropped in 1969, misfits, outlaws and malcontents have flocked here like they’re giving away free reefer.

My personal experience with the Taos Crazies, (as we call them,) changed radically a few years ago. I took over as the Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the college where I taught, despite being repeatedly warned that the student body was unruly TO THE MAX.

Foolishly, I assumed that because I’m a nice guy, and relatively high functioning, I’d be able to straighten the place right out. My bosses assured me they had my back, and were serious about reforming the place, to make it work better for the next generation. (Ron Howard voice: They weren’t.)

If you’ve been reading for the last few years, (Hi Rob, Hi Jessie,) you’ll know how it all turned out.

There’s a reason people use the expression “driving me crazy.” It’s not that mental illness is contagious, like the flu or Ebola, but when a healthy person is continuously exposed to a sick environment, eventually it gets to you.

Without exaggeration, I remember the time I was accosted by a woman who shrieked at me for not inviting her into an art show, when I had verifiably done so in several ways. (Including an email that I retained, making her assertions “fake news.”)

Or the time a guy who was actually friends with Jessie’s family got so angry, when I was forced to deliver bad news from my superiors, that the spittle flecks flew at my face like snow flakes in a beautiful blizzard.

Or the time an older woman, who admittedly did look a bit like a witch, came up to me, got right in my face, and screamed “BOO!” before cackling and walking away, gobsmacked at the fear that was plainly registered on my face.

(I could go on, but I won’t.)

I will admit, though, that I became progressively testier, and grumpier, to the point that I was being short-tempered with my kids, and knew I had to quit.

I began this ramble by talking about our collective crazy week, and boy was it. One lunatic tries to blow up the entire power structure of the Democratic Party, while living in a van, another shoots a bunch of elderly Jews while they pray, and all the while, the Saudi government changes its story about the Jamal Khashoggi murder more times than Eli Manning got sacked by the Washington Redskins on Sunday. (7 sacks, if you’re counting.)

The plain truth, as near as I can gather, is that the world is genuinely bat-shit, and the best we can do is try to keep it all straight.

Human beings are not entirely rational, as Jung and Freud figured out, and expecting us to behave “normally” is a fool’s errand.

Or as my therapist likes to say, “Crazy always wins.” You can’t convince crazy with logic, or reason. Better to recognize it, and then figure out a workaround.

If you’ve followed along so far, and didn’t decide that Blaustein must have eaten a bag of mushrooms before writing today, I applaud you. (And I’m stone cold sober, other than some really strong coffee and a healthy dose of late-October sunshine.)

Instead, I’ll blame these musings on “Mind The Gap,” an excellent, mind-bending, and genuinely insane new book by Joshua Lutz, published by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam. (While we’re being honest, I did once go half-mad after eating an Amsterdam space cake, before boarding an inter-continental flight, and recall trying to talk myself down, looking in the mirror of the airplane bathroom while flying over the Arctic Circle.)

Rob wrote to me, after last week’s review of “Hidden Mother,” that he’d never seen a book quite like that one. I heartily agreed, and passed the compliment along to the publisher.

As always, I never plan the connections between books, but this week, I can clearly declare that I’ve never seen a book like this one either.

And that’s probably a good thing.

Given what I’ve learned about mental illness, this book channels it better than any I’ve previously read or perused. It is a genuinely crazy photo book, which explores actual insanity, for our sadly twisted times.

(Before you say it, I know there were assassinations galore in the 60’s, and that Michael Douglas was a sex symbol in the 80’s, but really, 2018 feels like it hits new heights on the WTF scale.)

This book doesn’t make sense, and clearly isn’t supposed to. There are interludes that refer to history, blending 17th Century Indian attacks and Walt Disney with Robert Moses stories, and others that relate the 1-10 scale for people contemplating suicide.

A couple considers buying a house where a family was killed, (outside on the swings, not in any of the bedrooms,) and a parable is included about a Prince who’s the heir to the Mad King.

The photographs, (this is a photo book after all,) seem straight, and mostly black and white, but they could easily include digital composting, and you wouldn’t know it.

At first, I felt like the references were mostly about New York, but then I picked up New Orleans and Florida. (There’s definitely a picture that speaks to the mass shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando.)

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention the book opens up with an admission that the writer might be suffering from schizophrenia, which he may have inherited from his mother?

We’d normally assume it’s real, but for some reason, right away, I gathered it wasn’t.

The pictures are strange, and compelling, but by themselves don’t answer any questions. We’re trained to figure things out, or at least to try, and I have to say that’s impossible here.

Which, thankfully, is the point.

This book drives you crazy, and what better way to explore the experience of insanity?

Finally, in the image-title page at the end, we get a tad of closure. The photographic locations are more comprehensive than they seem, and include pictures made at Sandy Hook, Columbine, Pulse, and other places that contain the resonance of terroristic violence.

On some level, all the mass shooters are crazy. They have to be, because their actions are in no way rational.

Even if you think George Soros is funding the migrant caravan, how does killing an elderly 80-something Jewish couple stop the brown people from getting to the border?

It doesn’t, and every time you try to understand where that kind of hatred comes from, your head hurts just a little bit more.

Bottom Line: An excellent, appropriate look at our crazy culture

To purchase “Mind the Gap,” 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: Laura Larson

 

Have you ever heard of Bitty Schram?

(Probably not.)

Don’t worry. It’s a pretty obscure Pop culture reference. (Even for me.)

Bitty Schram is an actress who’s best known as the player in “A League of Their Own” at whom Tom Hanks shrieks, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

But if you think this is a column about the World Series, (Red Sox vs Dodgers,) you’re very wrong. I don’t give a shit about baseball anymore. The steroid era, (and the fact that baseball’s boring,) quashed any love I might have previously had for America’s former pastime.

Some of you might know Bitty Schram, though, as the sassy, spunky, spirited, Jersey-girl foil to Tony Shalhoub’s famous-early-aught’s OCD detective Adrian Monk, in the long-running USA series “Monk.”

Bitty Schram, (yes, I love typing that name,) co-starred as his assistant and sometime nurse Sharona Fleming, who was as Jersey as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi combined. (It helped that the actress was a Jersey girl herself.)

My wife and I occasionally watched the show back in the day, (it first aired in 2003,) and recently re-discovered it in its current incarnation as a streaming option on Amazon. (Or Prime Video. Whatever. Same shit.)

I remembered that they replaced the Sharona character at some point with a very bland, far-less-talented actress, and that we eventually stopped watching because the she kind of sucked. (No offense, Traylor Howard. If you’re reading.)

So this time around, I began to feel wistful for Bitty Schram, as the show evolved, knowing she was not long for this world. I even did a bit of Googling and discovered that she and two other co-stars had advocated for more money, (so they say,) and she was summarily fired and replaced mid-way through the 3rd season.

The male actors, who according to the internet were in solidarity with her, (including Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill of “The Silence of the Lambs” fame,) were not fired however.

And Bitty Schram was essentially never heard from again. (According to IMDB.)

We counted down the episodes until we knew she’d be kiboshed, and wondered how they’d handle it. An astute viewer could see that the chemistry was not quite right, towards the end, but as there was little warning for what the producers would do, Bitty Schram was there one week, and gone the next.

(They said she moved back to Jersey, and that was the end of it.)

Ironically, though, as they essentially cleansed her from the opening credits, there was one shot left in which her curly hair, just a hint of it, can be seen at the edge of the camera frame as she supports Monk’s arm.

It’s impossible to miss, if you know what you’re looking for, and that little bit of Bitty haunts the show each time I see it. (Sorry, that was a terrible pun.)

For a week or so, I felt really bad for her, and internalized her struggle.

Poor Sharona, treated so unfairly.

But then you could see the creators clearly wanted to pivot, as the meta-narrative became less about Monk’s paralyzing OCD and germaphobia, and less of a who-done-it murder procedural.

Rather, they wanted to increase the physical comedy, and give the brilliant Tony Shalhoub more time to shine. His new assistant, as bland as a piece of wheat toast with no butter, was there as straight-woman only.

No personality necessary.

Still, the hint of Bitty Schram sits at the edge of that frame, each episode, reminding me of all the under-appreciated women who stuck their necks out, only to get their heads chopped off. (Metaphorically. There’s no decapitation in “Monk,” to be clear.)

We take women’s issues seriously here at APE, which is why I’ve been on a year-long-crusade to increase our submissions from female photographers. Rob and I agreed that having balance was necessary, and vital, and it wouldn’t happen on its own.

You may have noticed our repeated request for such submissions at the end of each column, and you can trust that I also respond enthusiastically each time a publisher offers to send a cool book by a female artist.

And today’s no exception.

“Hidden Mother,” a recent photo book by Laura Larson, published by Saint Lucy Press in Baltimore, turned up in the mail recently, and I’m so glad it did.

Photo geeks are probably aware of the 19th Century trope of child portraits taken with mothers stabilizing their kids, hidden beneath a cloth so they didn’t become photo subjects themselves.

It leaves most people to question, “Why not just include Mom with little Timmy or Sally, (more likely Harriet or Woodrow,) and it’s a question the book poses directly too.

I assumed, when the book was offered, that it was a collection of these creepy pictures put together in one volume, and wouldn’t it be perfect around Halloween? (Coming next week, making this my official Halloween column.)

Boy, was I wrong.

Laura Larson has instead created a hybrid project that includes some intellectual-speaky essay writing, (replete with obligatory Roland Barthes reference,) but even that is a feint.

Mostly, the super-strange and unsettling “Hidden Mother” pictures are interspersed with poetic, lovely, personal stories about the process through which the artist adopted a little girl from Ethiopia.

As a single mother, no less. (Just like Sharona Fleming.)

Honestly, this is an excellent little book, and I love everything about it. The size is perfect, making it intimate, and just-right in the hand.

The writing is wonderful, and manages to straddle the line between formal language and a vulnerable spirit. And of course the pictures are great, in particular the set in which the “Hidden Mother” has literally been scraped away.

Sometimes, rather than leave her covered in the frame, they removed the emulsion, a complete eradication that is symbolically resonant in ways I need not explain in 2018.

Later, rather than expose the pictures she took of her daughter, Gadisse, (which she wants to keep for herself,) Ms. Larson describes the imagery in words.

Never too many, and never too few.

(It’s just right, like that fairy tale about the sassy, spunky, spirited girl who ate porridge that did not belong to her.)

According to the book, before she was united with her daughter, Laura Larson felt an almost umbilical-like connection to Gadisse via photographs she received through the Interwebs.

In turn, she sent selfies to Ethiopia that she made using Photo Booth on her Apple computer.

The 21st and 19th Centuries marry so well here, as do the imagery and text. It’s a killer book, and I hope you’ll read a few of the text pages below, rather than just look at the pictures.

It’s a great reminder, (to the many parents out there,) to take nothing for granted. If you’re lucky enough to have healthy kids, hug them tight, and make sure they don’t eat too much candy next week.

(But you can. You’re a grown up. Kit Kat’s for everyone!)

Bottom Line: Gorgeous, poignant story of the birth of maternal love

To Purchase “Hidden Mother” 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: Patrick Nagatani

 

“If fiction has given more to us than fact, then this is the greatest truth.” Ryoichi/Patrick Nagatani

 

There’s no such thing as truth.

That’s what they teach you in college or grad school, anyway.

Ever beholden to the French Philosophical titans Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, endless professors teach countless students that each piece of information is inextricable from the power dynamics that created and disseminated it.

It is the ultimate example of occupying the intellectual high ground, because the idea can’t be attacked.

If you try to undermine the principles, your counter-argument can be dismantled more easily than an Ikea Lack table. (Unscrew the four legs and you’re done.)

No matter what you say to critique the core essence of Post-Modern theory, your words will be deflected by attacking the vessel that hosts them: you.

Only a person from a very specific cohort, gender, or culture can critique that group, so if you’re not one-of-us, your words are too much a construction of your gender/status/culture for your opponent to give them credence.

(Each word must be parsed for its deeper social construct, like Bill Clinton musing about the definition of the word “is.”)

Unlike a few weeks ago, I’m not actually writing about the powers that be today, nor the intersection of varying levels of privilege.

Nor even will I attack Donald J. Trump. (Well, maybe just a little… for a laugh.)

Rather, I want to poke at some dead French guys, and the manner in which their very important ideas have come to undermine the collective fabric of society. (Since they’re dead, and French, we can mock them all we want. C’est vrai?)

There was something truly revolutionary in Post-Modernism, as it opened the door for various perspectives to be assimilated into the mainstream. (Going back to two weeks ago, Po-Mo was the operating system that allowed for minority voices to be taken seriously.)

By the time I got to grad school in the early aughts, though, I found the ideas a little restricting, with respect to helping us understand the burgeoning digital reality of the 21st Century. How would a philosophy that split the 80’s from the 60’s help us understand a world that was built on binary code?

Now it’s 2018, and we have a definitive answer.

Taken to an extreme, Derrida has given us Orwell, in the form of the President of the United States.

Like him or hate him, most people would be hard pressed to deny that Trump has a problem with the “truth.” He believes the larger narrative, the story he tells himself and his followers, is more important than what’s “true,” because there’s no such thing as true anyway.

I was concerned these radical leftist ideas would be co-opted by the right at some point, and that point is now. Unfortunately, given the stratification of media and information sources, these days there is essentially no way to provide new ideas to people that might challenge their entrenched worldview.

Even speaking for myself, I wonder whether I would be able to give Trump credit if he verifiably saved a young toddler from drowning in a Mar-a-Lago pool?

Can you imagine?

SCENE

A young child, drunk on too much ice cream, is stumbling around the edge of the resort pool. His parents, their backs turned, (they assumed the Burmese nanny was watching him,) are busy drinking gin and tonics, chatting with their neighbors about whether they should invite Brett Kavanaugh to dinner now, or wait until spring when it will seem less trendy.

All of a sudden, little Tad slips on the edge of the pool, and while he’s worrying about dropping his ice cream cone, he loses his balance and falls directly into the deep end.

(Unfortunately, he can’t swim.)

Thankfully, the President of the United States in is residence that day, and happens to be eating a triple-guacamole-bacon-cheeseburger, two tables away.

One might imagine the Secret Service would save poor Tad, but their job is to protect the President. So it’s up to DJT to jump into the pool, still wearing his Gandolfini-esque-POTUS-track-suit, and fish little Tad to safety.

END SCENE

Let’s say that happened.
For real.

How many Democrats in this country would come out and publicly say, “Great job, Mr. President. I really appreciate that you saved that pipsqueak from drowning!”

Would you?

I know this seems like a convoluted thought experiment, a stoner’s version of Schrodinger’s Cat, but bear with me here. In an era of fake news, where any sense of objectivity has been obliterated, what does the word “fact” even mean?

Or “real?”

True story: my 11-year-old told me the other day that he was more interested in the “virtual” LeBron James in his NBA 2K19 video game than he was in watching the “actual” LeBron James play an exhibition game against the Denver Nuggets. (Of course, the “actual” LeBron would appear on the same “digital” TV screen either way.)

To him, in that moment, the “fake” was more intriguing and compelling than the “real.”

I’m thinking about this today, if I’m being honest, having just put down “Buried Cars: Excavations from Stonehenge to the Grand Canyon,” by Patrick Nagatani. (Published by the Museum of New Mexico Press.)

I reviewed one of Patrick’s books last year, as he was my professor at UNM many years ago, and he passed away in the autumn of 2017 after a long bout with cancer.

He probably didn’t need to see 2018, though, as he had a pretty good handle on “truthiness” back when I studied with him in the late 90’s.

This book represents one of his stranger projects, and I recall him describing it to me before I’d read any of the French canon. (I was confused, but excited.)

The book presents this story as straight, all the way until the end, when they release the “truth.”

According to “Buried Cars,” Patrick collaborated with a mysterious Japanese archaeologist named Ryoichi, who had discovered some scientific evidence that would turn world history on its head.

Apparently, a series of sacred sites around the world included contemporary luxury cars that had been buried in previous centuries. The book features diary entries, and carbon dating information that proves that the cars, (like a Ferrari Testarossa,) were embedded in the Earth hundreds of years before they were actually built.

It is suggested that alien beings might have played a role in the car-burials, but whether they did or didn’t, worm holes were definitely to blame.

Wormholes that connected parallel universes in the multi-verse.

Now, if you’ve been reading for the last 7 years, you know I’m a sucker for parallel universe stories. (Though watching “The Flash” with my kids may have cured me of the predilection. Multi-verse stories get confusing VERY quickly.)

Patrick Nagatani conceived and created this project in the late 90’s, but had gone to graduate school at UCLA in late 70’s. These Po-Mo ideas would have been as familiar to him as his favorite dish at the Fronteir Restaurant across the street from the UNM campus.

When I first heard about this, like I said, I had a lot of questions.

What do you mean you have a fake-alter-ego?
What do you mean you made up a bunch of scientific data?
What do you mean you built models and pretended they were real?

You can just…do that?

These days, it seems quaint to think that photography tells the “truth” or provides “evidence.”

But in 1998, in just my second year as an art student, it was revolutionary.

Art is what you want it to be.

If you call it art, it’s art.

It’s not hard to see how that line of thinking connects directly to the underpinnings of contemporary, digitally-enhanced Global society.

Jamal Khashoggi left the Saudi embassy of his own recognizance. The water in Flint is safe to drink. The Arctic icecaps are not melting.

(You get the point.)

That this is a photo book, and one that was tied to a major exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum, seems almost secondary. The pictures of models painstakingly created are cool for sure, but they don’t have the same power they likely had when they were made. (Like Jerry Uelsmann’s stuff.)

Digital fakery is so easy these days that the “fools-the-eye” analog photography here doesn’t seem “real.” It’s more “cute,” and one can see how such work might have inspired contemporary model-makers like Lori Nix.

The “truth” is, I always found this work a tad kitschy, and much preferred “Nuclear Enchantment,” which I reviewed here glowingly last year. (I also preferred his meditative, contemplative, slightly-batshit, masking-tape-Buddhas.)

But I’m very glad this book was released this year, and the project lauded on the walls of New Mexico museums, because it could not be more timely.

As artists, we hope to make sense of the time and culture in which we live. We process those ideas into art for our own reasons, (often because of our need to make things,) but “Buried Cars” is proof that those musings might just be used by future humans to figure out what the fuck happened back then.

(Meaning now.)

Bottom Line: Trippy, intricate, false narrative about the multi-verse

To Purchase “Buried Cars” 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: 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.