Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books: Jeanine Michna-Bales

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

There are exceptions, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially those with a taste for the extreme.

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

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

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

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

Amazing stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Piotr Zbierski

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

A state of mind?
A sensation?

An emotion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not much else is.
Clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: John MacLean

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever.

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

Nobody had ever lost a lead that big.
Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are your artistic inspirations, I wonder?

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books: Claire Felicie

by Jonathan Blaustein

Hope is a mentality.
A state of mind.

It’s not a thing you can touch, like a coffee table, or a bird’s feather.

It’s in the air around us, like oxygen, but that doesn’t mean it’s always available. Hope is often there when you need it, but not always.

Like now.

The last few weeks have seen an outpouring of grief, anger, fear, and hostility beyond anything I can recall. I’ve been conscripted several times to be the voice of reason, assuring friends and loved ones that there are precedents for what’s happening in the United States.

We have a history of nativism and racism that goes back to our nation’s founding. Even NYC, a sanctuary city if ever there was one, used to be a very rough place for foreigners. Look no further than the incredibly violent Scorcese film “Gangs of New York,” if you doubt me.

We’ve had Nixon, W. Bush, and Reagan in the modern era, but the US has a history of enacting laws to restrict immigration, or at least the status of immigrants. We all know about the Ellis Island phase, lend me your tired, your poor and your huddled masses, but America has been cruel as often as it’s been kind.

But looking back at shitty phases of our history is not a particularly effective way to summon hope, I’d suggest.

Hope requires a belief, inside one’s soul, that things are going to be OK in the end. That everything will get better, if not soon, than eventually. Unfortunately, while it can be inspired, (a la Obama,) it can’t be manufactured elsewhere and then transplanted, like a pre-fab home.

You actually have to believe, to have hope, which is why February 2017 is such a tricky time for millions and millions of people.

They’ve actually begun to doubt that things will ever get better again. I blame social media, personally, as an echo chamber of everyone else’s’ fear and misery is not the best place to hang out, if you’re trying to get your head on straight.

But Facebook is as popular as its ever been, offering people confirmation of their worst thoughts and theories: World War 3. The return of a Hitler-like force for evil. The end times.

Not good.

Basically, much of America’s population is suffering from PTSD at the moment, and apparently the condition is contagious.

As artists, though, it’s our job to look past the current moment; to think differently from the masses, even if we all share the same digital platforms. There aren’t many people with a plan of action these days, to counter the Trumpian revolution, but I’d suggest it’s the same plan that worked for you last year, and back in the Aughts, under George W.

Do your work.

Investigate what’s going on out there. Report on important stories. And summon your empathy for those who are suffering worse than you are, because caring for others stimulates positive chemicals in your brain.

Normally, I don’t dispense all my advice until I’ve reviewed a book, but I’m feeling a bit more hopeful right now, having just put down “Only The Sky Remains Untouched,” a new book by Claire Felicie that arrived in the mail this past Autumn.

It’s one of those publications that makes you into a detective, as it doesn’t explain itself until the end. And the design adds to the sense of dislocation, as the pages are shuffled to force you to connect the dots.

After opening it up, one is bombarded with bleak, sad, black and white images of wintry nature, followed by a building in a serious state of decay. Then, half of a human shows up, as the other half has been reserved for the next set of pages.

That’s the pattern that develops: the torso of a person, lying down, juxtaposed with the grim space in which the photographs are being constructed. (Or so I gather.)

They’re all men, with one exception, and many have copious tattoos. Like their environment, they’re sad, lonely, and emitting some very depressing energy.

Who are they?
Are they prisoners?
Soldiers? (Several wear camo.)

What gives?

The book’s end provides answers, as well as individual histories. The subjects are former Dutch soldiers who all suffer from PTSD. Each person agreed to be photographed in an abandoned Dutch weapons facility, to represent the horrors that kicked off their collective condition.

As you know, I almost never quote from a book’s text, but today I’m making an exception.

Ms. Felicie wrote, “This book is also an homage to all those who suffer from inner wounds and traumas and have the will to face as well as share their problems. The brave veterans you have met in this book had the courage to do so. As their recovery progresses, it is my belief that they can set an inspiring example for their companions in adversity.”

In 2017, I’d suggest we’re all “companions in adversity.” Nobody can promise you it will all be OK. Nobody knows what the future will bring, not even Elon Fucking Musk.

So instead of spending one more hour posting or commenting on FB, how about you get going on a new project, or inject some life into an existing one, and get back out there.

We’re artists, writers, journalists, editors, image makers, influencers, and nothing’s going to get better until we make it so.

Bottom Line: Haunting, inspiring look at veterans grappling with PTSD

To Purchase “Only The Sky Remains Untouched” go here: http://clairefelicie.com/only-the-sky-remains-untouched

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This Week In Photography Books: Axle Contemporary

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever seen Duck Dynasty?

I haven’t.

But I’m aware it’s a reality TV show featuring some dudes with long beards who wear camo. Though I’ve never seen a minute of the program, it has leaked out into the popular culture, like a silent fart, so I’m aware, tangentially, what it’s about.

It’s meant for rural folks in the South, I suppose. I have no idea who the protagonists are, but they are the kind of stars that a certain type of bayou badass can get behind.

The kind of stars who will stand up for their Red State values, even when the only other celebrity known to rep for Trump is Chachi, whose fame died back when Henry Winkler could still fit into that tight leather jacket.

Not surprisingly, then, the TV shows that we watch track well with our political affiliations and cultural preferences. A few weeks after the election, the NY Times even ran an Upshot story that tracked the correlation between a TV show’s viewership, and its fans’ behaviors.

The results were mostly intuitive, but one statistic really jumped out at me. Basically, the data demonstrated that Native Americans, particularly those living in the Navajo Nation, had almost the exact same viewing habits as African Americans across the country.

Folks out in Shiprock are watching BET like they’re OG’s from Bed Stuy.

No lie.

Having lived in the Southwest for years, I wasn’t exactly caught off guard, as African Americans and Native Americans have one very large thing in common: both communities never benefited from the immigrant experience in America.

For centuries, people have migrated to the United States based upon small networks of relatives, or neighbors from the village or shtetl back home. One at a time, or 10 at a time, newcomers moved to particular cities, and neighborhoods, because someone’s cousin, or best friend’s uncle, promised them a job when they got there.

Or maybe it was the lure of a place to live, even if it was a couch in an overcrowded, roach infested shithole on the other side of the tracks.

Still, a choice was made.

But, as we all know, Native Americans were here before America, and had their homeland ripped away at the cost of millions of lives, and African Americans were stolen from their homes, violated in every possible way, and then shipped across the world to be exploited until they died.

(And we wonder why Vlad Putin is always reminding people that America is less-than-pure.)

History lesson over, it is interesting to think about the commonalities between Native and African Americas, given that they seem to share certain cultural predilections.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow get a picture of what people actually look like, out in Navajo Nation? Actual people? Real people?

Thankfully, I just put down “E Pluribus Unum: Dinétah,” a new book by Axle Contemporary, which showed up in the mail a little while back. It’s an exhibition catalog featuring a recent project by Matthew Chase-Daniel and Jerry Wellman, the founders and directors of Axle, a mobile art gallery that popped up in Santa Fe in 2010.

I’ve exhibited at Axle before, but then again, so has much of the Northern New Mexico art community. These guys are out there constantly, working hard to promote other artists, while making their own work, but also investing time and money into public art projects involving the local Native American population.

Sadly, despite our tri-community diversity here, (Native, Hispanic and Anglo) there is less inter-mixing than one might expect. Each community often keeps to itself, and any time “gringos” try to get involved with the Native American world, it is fraught with vestiges of colonialism, white guilt, and a nostalgic fascination with the “other.”

So as I flipped through the pages of this book, I was genuinely inspired by what they had accomplished. To be clear, given how picky I am, I do not think these photographs are amazing. They’re casual. People smile. Pictures are occasionally blurry.

Based purely on the quality of the images, this project is not something I’d normally review. But judging the work solely on the photographic excellence misses the point. This work is about giving back, meeting new people, and allowing a community to have a say in its own portrayal.

Basically, Matthew and Jerry spent 12 days out in the Four Corners area, and invited people to come into the truck to have their portrait made. They asked people bring something to hold; an item that had personal importance to them. Then, they printed the photo on the spot, so the subjects could leave with an instantaneous memento.

They also posted prints on the side of the truck, so the venue became a rolling photo exhibition, of the community, for the community.

We see people clutching car keys, energy drinks, cold hard cash, sunglasses, toys, pets, musical instruments, and even a priest holding rosary beads.

There are guys dressed like gangbangers, cowboys in their hats, little children sitting on their siblings’ laps, and a couple of culinary students brandishing knives like they’re ready to debone a chicken.

Like I said, real people.

I’m always on about the artist’s responsibility to dig deep into narratives they know well. To push the viewer, by showing us elements of reality we normally cannot access. To enlarge others’ knowledge by mining one’s own, and sharing the results with the rest of us.

Normally, at least in the books I review, the message is that great work is what moves us. Such books demonstrate technical mastery, original style, and creative risk-taking.

But today’s book takes a slightly different strategy. Maybe don’t worry so much how amazing your pictures are? Rather, focus on how you can use your photographic practice to benefit others, even if you’re not making masterpieces in the process.

Bottom Line: A book that offers a cross-section of life in Navajo Nation

To Purchase “E Pluribus Unum: Dinétah” Go Here: http://www.axleart.com/epu-dinetah

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This Week In Photography Books: Philip Trager

by Jonathan Blaustein

In Wednesday’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman, the highly opinionated columnist, imagined a world in which Donald Trump tweeted nice things. Inspiring things.

Positive things.

Mr. Friedman wrote tweets, seemingly from a parallel universe, in which Mr. Trump, who will be inaugurated today, worked hard to win over skeptics. He fake-tweeted, (in the real news,) suggesting ways in which things might have gone differently, were Mr. Trump a classier sort of guy.

My father sent me the article, thinking I’d appreciate it. While I read it in its entirety, it made me a little angry.

What’s the point?

Trump is who he is. How can we possibly doubt his character and intentions, given decades of evidence that he’s just not a nice human being?

I admit, after my initial shock at the election results, I spent a week or so giving our next President the benefit of the doubt. I even wrote a conciliatory column, reaching out my hand to any potential Republican readers.

At this point, though, I accept that it was wishful thinking, as the slew of incendiary tweets and right wing cabinet appointments have laid waste to any optimism I might have tested out. (Where am I in the grieving process? Acceptance? Bargaining?)

Thomas Friedman and I have four things in common. We’re columnists, we’re men, we’re Jewish, and we write for the New York Times. But he’s a famous millionaire, and they don’t pay freelance bloggers so well, I’m afraid.

Given our different vantage points, even with the similarities we share, it’s not surprising that we’ve come to very different conclusions. He imagined a world in which Trump was magically moral, and I think he’s naive for even typing up such thoughts on a functioning computer.

That’s just the way the world works. As artists, we know this. If we’re doing our job right, we dig down deep into our experience, and come back with something that will speak to others. The more we connect to our own personal knowledge and desire, the more likely we are to speak to an audience.

Therefore, even if two artists nominally approached the very same subject matter, the resulting work could/should turn out to be very different.

Right?

I’m glad you asked, because this week, I had the opportunity to view “New York in the 1970’” by Philip Trager, a book published by Steidl that turned up in the mail this Fall. If you read every week, you’ll know that last Friday, we covered Richard Sandler’s book of photos from the Big Apple in the same time period.

I had the idea to check this one out, thinking it might be interesting to turn mid-January into a little compare and contrast assignment. I figured the two visions would have some overlap.

Not even remotely.

Mr. Trager’s pictures, made with a large format camera on a tripod, rather than grabbed in 1/60th of a second on the subway, are nearly devoid of people. Rather than focusing on the embittered, the downtrodden, and the decrepit, Mr. Trager drove around New York in awe of the majestic architecture.

Rather than look down, he chose to look up.

The pictures remind me a fair bit of early Thomas Struth, but given when they were shot, he wasn’t being derivative. And they do lack that take-a-deep-breath visceral beauty of Struth’s empty cities.

But Mr. Trager’s photographs are very well made, and present a New York that it is hard to believe ever existed. It’s regal, and quiet. It doesn’t even seem dirty, and I have no idea how he pulled that off.

We see eagles jutting off the Chrysler building. Wall Street. Macy’s. Times Square. Columbus Circle.

And, of course, the Twin Towers.

He gains access to rooftops, and presents perspectives we are not accustomed to seeing. All of it, of course, in a grayscale that would make Gotham proud. (Shades of gray standing in for the bleak skies that haunt my memories.)

This is an accomplished and excellent group of pictures, if a touch emotionally dry. It makes for a superb book, partly because Steidl is renown for it’s high-quality printing.

When I picked it up, I had no idea what was inside. It showed me things I haven’t seen before, which is one of my primary qualifications for a review, but in this case, it did it in a new way.

I knew New York in the 70’s. Hell, I could see the city back then from my hometown in Jersey. It loomed large, and my recollections of it mesh well with what Richard Sandler photographed.

But this NYC, all stately buildings and quiet grandeur, I can’t believe it ever existed. Did it? Or was Mr. Trager just able to take advantage of one of photography’s inherent strengths: the ability to decontextualize a fraction of time from its larger surroundings?

As NYC in the 70’s is no longer around, outside of the art made to represent its legacy, I suppose we’ll never know.

Bottom Line: Classy book of NYC architecture, back in the day

To purchase “New York in the 1970” go here: http://www.artbook.com/9783869308067.html

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This Week In Photography Books: Richard Sandler

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just got back from visiting my parents in Mexico. It’s an annual pilgrimage, as they leave Taos for a tropical climate each winter.

Every time, though, like the Brady Bunch’s vacation in Hawaii, things always go horribly wrong.

Two years ago, I wrote about how my wife and I were nearly dragged out to sea when we swam during a storm’s aftermath. Another year, we drove across the Rocky Mountains, during a blizzard at 2am, on the way home from the airport.

There’s always an undercurrent of drama, unfortunately, and this year was no exception. Among other problems, I got a horrible stomach virus that had me puking through the night, and then our car died on the highway driving back from the airport in Albuquerque.

It’s been a trying week, to be sure.

But it’s always difficult visiting Playa del Carmen, as what was a sleepy beach town 15 years ago has since morphed into a bustling city of more than 200,000 people. My brain remembers previous incarnations, back when it was quiet, and the ocean was still clean, but there’s no avoiding the reality that Playa is now a thriving metropolis, with all its attendant problems.

Cities have street life. Pollution. Noise. Constant activity.

They allow one to people-watch, as the urban narrative plays out in real time. Stand on a corner, watch the Euro ravers walk by. Wait a minute, and there’s an elderly Mexican grandma wearing a Señor Frog’s T-shirt.

Jackhammers wail everywhere, as the growing city is under continuous construction. There are parts of Playa del Carmen that have changed so radically, it’s hard to reconcile what I see with what I know to have existed.

It reminds me of New York, in some ways, as I grew up just outside that great city, and my memories of day trips in the 70’s and 80’s are markedly different than the city I lived in from 2002-5. And now, in 2017, New York is about to enter an even stranger phase, as native (but hated) son Donald Trump turns The Big Apple into his personal vacation home for the next (hopefully) 4 years.

New York used to be New Amsterdam, but no relics from its 17th Century past remain. New York is constantly gentrifying, which is why Polish pickle stores in my former neighborhood, Greenpoint, are now cold-brew coffee shops for hirsute hipsters.

C’est la vie.

But you know this is a book review column, which makes it likely that some photo-book got me off of today’s tangent, right? Of course!

I just put down “The Eyes of the City,” a new photobook by Richard Sandler, recently published by powerhouse. The 70’s and 80’s vibe coursing through this production is so strong, I’m half expecting Ed Koch to pop out from under my bed and scream “Surprise! You’re on candid camera!”

(As Ed Koch is dead now, though, visions of Zombie Koch turn gruesome very quickly.)

Despite the typically florid introduction, this is a book that needs little explication. It’s a lengthy series of street pictures from a long ago, but the sweet spot captures NYC at it’s most dirty, dangerous and addictive.

The subways were covered with more graffiti than there are giant billboards in Times Square. Old men walked around in hats and trench coats, like they were all living in one giant London Fog commercial.

Legless street people rode skateboards, the Twin Towers loomed above the Financial District, and live sex shows advertised on street-side signs written in magic-marker.

So many New Yorkers are nostalgic for that era, back before internets and facebooks and hybrid cars. Back when danger meant getting mugged by some lowlife, as opposed to being blown up by a crazy terrorist.

As I’ve written countless times before, photography’s unique skill is to transport us through the space-time continuum. To allow us, even briefly, to enter chambers in our consciousness where the dead still live, and trains never run on time.

This book does that for me, and given New York’s oversized place in global culture, I’m betting you’ll dig it as well.

Bottom Line: Really cool photos of New York, back when it was dingy

To Purchase “The Eyes of the City” Go Here: http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/the-eyes-of-the-city/

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This Week In Photography Books: Ashly Stohl

by Jonathan Blaustein

I haven’t seen “Rogue One” yet.
Have you?

It’s the newest installment in the Disney-Marvel-Lucasfilm-entertainment-constortium of evil.

Well, that last part might not be true. We won’t hate them just because their products are so darn tasty. (Mmm, meatballs.)

Elsa, Olaf, the Avengers, and Luke Skywalker all rolled out like so many products on the assembly line.

Thor.
Iron Man.
Captain America.
And Darth Vader?

It’s almost as if one company, Disney, has amassed a treasure trove of endlessly repeating variables of highly valuable intellectual property. (Because they have.)

But that’s just a b-school way of saying they’re putting out entertaining movies, and telling stories that a huge segment of the world’s population wants to hear. Shades of gray good guys. Charismatic bad guys.

Superheroes AND science fiction.

It’s true I haven’t seen “Rogue One” yet. And I missed “Dr. Strange.” But the idealist in me? The part the cold dead hand of cynicism has not yet touched?

That part remembers “Star Wars” being the single. coolest. thing. that. had. ever. happened. to. me. I remember, in kindergarten, how much we all fought over who got to be Luke Skywalker. Back in ’79.

Imagine us, in our 70’s big-collared shirts and thick, bowl haircuts. Giggle at our cheesy attire. I remember it so well. And you know what else I remember?

No one ever wanted to be Darth Vader, in our children’s games.
Never.
Not once.

So imagine my amazement when I looked at “charth vader,” a book that turned up by Ashly Stohl, published by Peanut Press. No, this is not a story you see very often.

The book, which is black, and intimate, is filled with relatively small, very well composed, black and white photos of a small child wearing a Darth Vader mask.

Always.
The Vader mask.

Luke.
I am your father.

Say what now?

The end notes confirm it’s the artist’s son, Charlie, (hence the title,) and that he has a condition that impairs his vision. The pictures convey a sense of loneliness, and I wonder if that’s a projection, because of they’re kind of spare.

Are they sad?
Is Charlie?

Is the mask a protection from the world, a joke to put smiles on people’s faces, or a projection of strength from a little person who’s at a disadvantage, relative to the rest of us?

Maybe all of the above?

I think the pictures are lovely. And they build upon a theme from last week’s column too. There are a lot of lemons rolling around the world right now. (Assuming Climate Change hasn’t killed off all the lemon trees yet.)

Metaphorical lemons, I mean.
And now that it’s 2017, I’d recommend you buy a little sugar, hack up some ice from your front yard, and make a little lemonade.

As parents, we know how hard it is when our children get sick. Even a nasty cold.

But the little statement at the end states that Ms. Stohl has two children with eye issues. I’d say that would lead to a lot of stress.

This book, “charth vader,” smacks of being a witty, personal project that took that stress energy and turned it into something positive, via the art-making-process. I’ve taught and written about it for years, so I know it works.

Art helps you get through difficult times.

But books like this can be a great reminder, in this first column of the year, that if things are hard, or you want to speak your peace, put it into the work. We’re creative types, all of us, so make the best stuff you can in 2017.

Do it for Charlie.

Bottom Line: Inspirational, whimsical book from the Dark Side

To Purchase Charth Vader go here: http://peanutpressbooks.com/collections/books/products/charth-vader

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This Week In Photography Books: Jay Turner Frey Seawell

I’m sitting on my daughter’s white couch, looking out the window at the falling snow. There is a white sludge of bird poop on the glass, obstructing a small part of my view.

That detail is unimportant, I suppose, but it’s also true. And of course the bird dropped his little present not three weeks after we had the windows professionally cleaned for Thanksgiving. (Isn’t that always the way?)

Because winter has arrived here in earnest, and our mountains draw the biggest storms around, it’s the time of year where we build fires in our wood-stove each day.

It’s an antiquated system:
Burn wood.
Heat house.
Fire pretty.
Fire burn.
Don’t touch.

The first step, (after I sweep the ashes from the previous conflagration,) is to roll up some old newspaper. My dad taught me how to do it when I was a kid, and I still use his technique. These days, though, we add napalm bricks that make the whole process much easier.

Building the fire forces me to look at information on paper, (talk about antiquated,) and the other day I saw the most disturbing “news.” On a single page, in some random edition of the Albuquerque Journal, there was a story about a man who killed his young son by leaving him in a hot car for 7 hours, and a blurb about a woman who fed her stepchild to the family pigs, after the murder.

Unsurprisingly, I felt the cortisol drop in real time. Just looking at those words made my body change, and my mood alter. And that was only after a cursory 5 second glance, when I wasn’t even trying to read the paper. (Burn, baby, burn.)

It got me thinking though, about the idea of “news.” Where did it come from? This need to know what was happening in parts elsewhere. I can see the value of Paul Revere riding through the dark night, as the British WERE coming.

But the mass dissemination of salacious stories that have no impact on our daily lives? How did it become so necessary? And now that we’re assaulted with such information all day, every day, instead of 7 times a week, will we ever break the habit?

Not to be Debbie Downer, but I’d suggest we’re stuck with the habit, as long as such information is treated as a commodity. While the nightly news, brought to you by Cablevision, is no longer the arbiter of what everyone thinks, (thanks to the breakaway republic of FoxNewsistanBreitbartlandia,) everyone’s trying to make money off this “news.”

The entire cycle, taken to it’s absurd conclusion, just delivered the Presidency to Donald J Trump, and it’s not even clear he wants the job. Sure, he wants to be President, because it will make him even richer and more famous, but does he really want to do the grunt work that Obama clearly relished?

Highly doubtful.

But the “news” organizations essentially handed him the election by covering every rally, (for free,) writing about every insane comment, treating the entire process with a respect that it clearly did not deserve.

I guess it serves us right.

Honestly, though, while the snow out the window is somewhat calming, I’m a bit riled up having just put down “National Trust,” a new soft-cover book by Jay Turner Frey Seawell, (whom we’ll refer to as JTFS,) recently published by upstart Skylark Editions in Chicago.

Now that we’re no longer getting our books from photo-eye, I’m relying on what people send me. (Yes, we are accepting submissions, but please contact me first. I don’t want you to waste a book on something I’d never review.) JTFS and the folks at Skylark thought I might dig this book, and boy, were they right.

I hope the artist is getting some publicity at the moment, because he certainly deserves it. Much like my project “The Value of a Dollar” took off because I was thinking about food a couple of years before EVERYONE was, these pictures were shot in advance of our current political climate.

JTFS lives in Washington, DC, I believe, and from 2011-13, he photographed the media facade/political industrial complex. Man, are these pictures good.

They’re sharp, both in image clarity and observational skills. They clearly pull back the curtain to reveal, what exactly? And I’m not even being metaphorical. There’s an image, called “Supreme Court,” that clearly depicts a curtain of a column, right where we’d expect an actual column to exist.

We see the bright lights, including one picture where the apparatus perfectly covers a “talking head,” as he fixes his expensive cuff-link. The compositional style, which manages to be chaotic and restrained at the same time, emphasizes the read that the world has gone amuck.

We’re all trapped in a bubble that keeps growing, even as we spend so much less money obtaining said “news.” As such, the closing picture, of a five dollar bill torn asunder on the sidewalk, made me think that somewhere in the afterlife, Abe Lincoln, who gave his life for this nation’s unity, is up there thinking, “They get what they fucking deserve.”

That’s right people. Sad Abraham Lincoln is my takeaway, as his ghost has to contemplate D Trump entertaining right wing billionaires in his own bedroom. (Maybe even in his own bed.)

All because we can’t turn off the TV. We can’t step away from the Twitter. We can’t unlike what the world has become. I rarely ask for more from a photo book, and neither should you.

Bottom Line: Exquisite, perfectly timed look at the Washington media-political-industrial-complex

To Purchase “National Trust” Go Here: http://www.skylarkeditions.org/shop/national-trust-by-jay-seawell-1

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This Week In Photography Books: Christian Nilson

by Jonathan Blaustein

I spent a day in Switzerland many years ago. (1997, to be exact.) When I say a day, I mean just that.

A day.

My brother and I were on a backpacking trip around Europe, back when that was still a thing. We didn’t get along very well, truth be told, but thought it might be fun to range around together.

So we did.

We took a night train from Rome that got in to Lucerne in the morning, and caught a night train out that evening, so the entirety of my knowledge of Switzerland was crafted in about 12 hours.

What do I remember? Well, it was very beautiful, obviously. Jagged peaks rising up out of a clear blue lake. Crisp, clean air. Meticulous architecture.

Anyone can tell you that.

The real story, one I’m reluctant to admit, was that we went to a country fair that afternoon, and were aghast at how funny-looking people were. I recall it so clearly, as we both joked for hours that all that inbreeding had created some oddly unattractive people. (I say inbreeding because the mountainous terrain naturally meant it was difficult for people to travel from one village to the next, back in the day.)

It sounds terrible, I know, but it’s not like I make a habit of mocking people. (On second thought…) But really, the fair was just so weird. We saw local contests, like a tug of war, and there were pavilions filled with farming and industrial equipment.

Not a clown, bearded lady or tilt-a-whirl in sight.

Most people though, when they think of Switzerland, imagine banks, chocolate, watches, and neutrality. That last one seems a quaint and outdated concept in a brutal 2016. Honestly, who could be neutral about Donald J. Trump?

“Well, I suppose he has his good qualities, and his bad qualities. He is OK, I guess. Neither horrible nor amazing. I’d compare him to an under-sweetened bowl of oatmeal. It could be better, of course, but it could also be worse.”

No, imaginary Swiss person. One cannot maintain neutrality in the face of an absurdist film come to life. It’s simply not possible.

Thankfully, such stereotypes are just that. Clearly, a country with three languages and a million mountains is about more than money, sweets and grinding gears, right?

As usual, I’m glad you asked. I’m prepared to answer the question, as I’ve just put down “The Swiss,” a new book by Christian Nilson, published by Scheidegger & Spiess. Sure, the title is meant to evoke “The Americans,” by the Swiss photographer Robert Frank, but beyond that, I found it to be a refreshing and original piece of work.

Christian sent the book along because he figured I’d dig it, and he was correct. I think it’s great, as it fits in with my typical review criteria: it shows us something we haven’t seen before, and it does so with well-crafted style.

Turns out, Christian has lived in Switzerland for a while, but is originally from Sweden, so he brings an outsider’s perspective to a place he knows well, which is often a recipe for success. Throw in a heavy use of daytime flash, and you’ve almost tailor-made a book to my own personal tastes. (This being the most subjective of book-review-columns.)

We see scenic mountains, of course, and the picture with a tiny church perched precariously on a ridge-line is pretty terrific. But it’s the strange, almost geeky absurdity of certain subcultures that really surprises.

A dude in a Batman costume, holding a child in his monstrously large hands. A gross-looking plate of food that appears to contain a mass of mayonnaise covering a phallic pickle. We see men in traditional costumes, sure, but also a woman playing the accordion with a ridiculous man-bun on top of her head.

There’s a bio-diesel car jimmy-rigged with a Monster energy drink sticker on its exhaust pipe, a garden gnome, skiers being pulled by horses, an a nuclear-reactor sitting behind a dapper playground.

Dog shows, outdoor wrestling, and Dora the Explorer make appearances as well. And we can’t forget the picture of an apricot farmer, Aprikosen Andi, who sports a glossy advertising selfie next to his fruit stand.

Though I’ve always felt bad for remembering the Swiss as less-than-gorgeous, there is one picture of an unattractive woman at a summer festival that felt like it was ripped straight from my memory banks.

Best of all, though, is a strange sub-theme of people sitting in chairs and on beds with large, protruding feet. There are two photos in particular, of women with gigantic feet, that don’t really make any sense at all, except they’re so strange that they’re perfect.

Each time I found a new big-foot picture, I could almost see the thought-bubble pop up in front of my face. WTF, the thought bubble said. WTF?

It’s impossible, of course, to boil a country’s citizenry down to a few dozen photographs. Can’t be done. But we can get a sense of how an artist views a society. According to this book, Switzerland seems like a mix of gauche German taste, colorful Italian opulence, and a kitchy, Jerry-Lewis-loving French sense of humor.

Sign me up.

Bottom Line: Sharp, irreverent book that investigates an under-the-radar European culture

To Purchase “The Swiss” Go Here: http://www.christiannilson.com/the-swiss-book/

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This Week In Photography Books: Michael Lundgren

by Jonathan Blaustein

Imagine if atoms had consciousness. Electrons and protons would surely be enemies, like the Flash vs the Reverse Flash, or Tomi Lahren vs Trevor Noah.

The Sharks vs the Jets would have nothing on the rivalries happening on the atomic level. The Electron King, Negator, would likely try to take over all of atomic reality. (He’s such an asshole, Negator, thinking he can do whatever he wants.)

Negator might even trick some people into thinking he’d change things for the better, but we’re not so easily fooled. Negator is all about destruction. He thinks negative energy is stronger and smarter than positive energy, and he intends to win at all costs.

Ruthless Negator. I hate that guy.

Except he’s not a guy. He’s an imaginary construct I’m presenting here for comedic/metaphorical effect. The point is, there are worlds upon worlds, and universes inside universes, existing right here and now.

Be it the atomic level, the cellular level, oozing creatures miles deep in the sea, or ant colonies living in our front yards, we human beings are only aware of the tiniest fraction of what’s actually going on out there.

Honestly, we’re clueless, no matter how much shit we can research on Google.

Our brains, our consciousness, depend upon seeing ourselves as the center of the Universe. Like astronomical knowledge before Galileo, we’re just plain wrong. The things that obsess us, myself included, are about as significant as Donald Trump’s promises.

But there are people out there, shamans, artists, academics, speakers-in-tongue, who do seem to have the ability to see past the normal. To shake the tree of life, and watch as a few apples fall to the ground, ready to eat.

Michael Lundgren seems to be such a person.

I wrote about him a few years ago, as I heard his lecture at the Medium Festival in 2013. He’s based in Phoenix, a graduate of the esteemed ASU program, and likes to prowl the Sonoran desert, looking for cracks in reality’s facade.

I’m not saying the dude takes peyote. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. I have no personal knowledge either way. But he goes into the desert, a regular 21st Century American, and returns with photographic evidence of the weird, dead and unexplained.

As this is a book review column, you’ll rightly guess that I just put down “Matter,” Michael’s new book, recently published by Radius in Santa Fe. (I couldn’t talk about shamans without a New Mexico hook, right?)

The book is handsomely produced, as are all the Radius offerings, but is oriented to landscape, like you forgot to click the proper icon in Photoshop. It mostly feels like a gimmick, though I get that the images receive far more space than they would otherwise.

I’m not a big fan of turning pages that way, but accept that it’s also a rebellion against convention. As is wedging a fold-up poster of the cover-image-pictures into a sleeve in the back of the book. (I’m guessing it’s mostly intended for artist studio walls or inspiration boards.)

Over the years as a photographer, I’ve learned that if you stare at something really, really hard, like it makes your eyes hurt kind of staring, that intensity tends to show up in the pictures. As such, I’m guessing Michael Lundgren needs to keep some Advil handy at all times, because these pictures are so sharply observed.

Algae-covered foxes, dog covered bears, putrid looking puddles, perfect if inexplicable orbs, naturally occurring quarries, chunks of concrete, and rifts in the landscape that reference tears in the space-time-continuum.

It’s all here.

By now, 5+ years into this column, you know I have a soft-spot for weird shit.

Strange art = good.
Derivative art = bad.

It’s not that simple, of course, but you get my drift. Some people are called to search for answers, knowing full well they’ll never arrive. I’m betting Michael Lundgren is such a guy.

Maybe one day, I’ll get invited out to a drum circle, down near the Mexican border. There will be tequila, magic mushrooms, and a roaring fire. I’ll sit down in the dirt, cross my legs into a lotus position, and crack through another level of consciousness.

But until that time, at least I have the book.

Bottom Line: Excellent pictures filled with strange phenomena in the Sonoran desert

Go here to purchase “Matter”

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This Week In Photography Books: James Welling

by Jonathan Blaustein

The sun is out again today.
Thank god.

After an unseasonably warm November, winter came in earnest last week. Below zero wind chill. Industrial-grey skies. High clouds looming above, like hall monitors, ensuring nobody has any fun.

This time of year always makes me sad.

It gets dark so early, and here in Taos, we’re all addicted to the sun, so when it goes away for even 2 or 3 days at a time, my mood drops off a cliff faster than Wil E. Coyote.

The morbid, bleak light.
No leaves on the trees.

There’s no snow on the ground yet, so the brown, dead grass reminds me of my own mortality. Early winter is the seasonal equivalent of angsty, teen-age poetry.


Why?
Why is the world so unfair and cold?

Why?
Why don’t my parents understand I’m not a kid anymore?

Why?

Why is death a part of life, when death is cruel but life
is beautiful?

Why?

My blood pumps through my veins.
I feel it.

Why must it all come to an end?
Why must I lose everything?

Why?

Like I said, the sky is blue today and the sun is unencumbered. It’s so bright, I had to close the shades in my daughter’s room so I could see the computer screen to write for you guys.

So I can joke about such things today.

But sometimes, I do feel sad. I miss the long, easy days of summer. I think about my children growing up so quickly.

I wonder how long I’ll be remembered when I’m gone?

I’m in this mood now, truth be told, having just looked at “Diary/Landscape” a book that turned up in the mail by James Welling, published by The University of Chicago Press. The cover, no surprise, is gray; the font somber.

James Welling is known as a conceptual photographer, or maybe a conceptual artist, but his pictures normally look like straight photographs. While I’ve known of him for years, it’s hard for me to conjure a specific image in mind when I think of his work.

People think of ideas, when they think of conceptual art. It’s an obvious connection. But it often has as much to do with process and structure. Having a system in place, the end result of which is your artwork.

This book, perhaps because it represents an early project, really speaks more about traditional photography, and less about ideas, I’d say.

At the end of the introduction, written by Art Institute of Chicago curator Matthew S. Witkovsky, there’s a telling Welling quote. He says, “I think that all landscape photographs are a stand-in for abstract art, which is a stand-in for emotion in art. To me it seems very obvious that I’m photographing emotions.”

As far as I understand it, in the late 70’s, when Mr. Welling was a younger artist, he photographed the diary of his Connecticut ancestors, written by his great grandparents as they toured Europe, and he also photographed around his parent’s new home in Connecticut as well.

Black and white pictures.
Large format.
Somber.

His relatives had been prominent in the mid-19th Century: his great-grandfather both a Congressman and a Senator who rubbed elbows with Abe Lincoln. It is presumed, given the New England location and his family’s history of importance, that the Wellings are an old, prosperous, (or once-prosperous) WASP clan.

Such people are not known for expressing their emotions.
Quite the opposite.

We know this.

But the pictures in this book, the old diary pages and church steeples. The weathered siding and leafless trees. The barren fields and gnarled limbs.

It reminds me of those endless East Coast winters, when it can be cold and gray for months on end. You might not see the sun for 3 weeks. It’s torturous.

Just thinking of it makes me depressed.

That’s the thing about this book.
It’s kind of weepy.
Elegiac.

The pictures are beautiful, and they express emotion, which, given the cultural milieu, is a rebellious act. Though it’s certainly understated, I like it very much.

Because, like that blasted Pixar film “Inside Out” branded in our brains forever, sadness is a genuine emotion. It’s a part of our identity that cannot be ignored, nor willed away. Huge swaths of life are tragic, and having that feeling pervade an object like this is not an easy feat to accomplish.

So for all of you out there, living in places like Upstate New York, or Upper Peninsula Michigan, I’ll make sure to put my face in the sun every day for you.

I promise.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, bleak, black and white photos from New England

To Purchase “Diary/Landscape” by James Welling go here.

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This Week In Photography Books: Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m binge-watching “Marco Polo” on Netflix.
Talk about entertainment.

I was just lecturing my students, not two weeks ago, on the Southern Song era in Chinese art. (Long one of my favorites.)

It produced landscape paintings of staggering beauty and influence; perhaps the first to use negative space as a positive compositional element. Blank white silk represents water, mist, and snow.

I told them, (as my Chinese Art History professor taught me,) that the Mongols ruled much of China, from the North, so the Song Empire, much diminished, resided in Southern China instead.

A week later, after stumbling on the series last Friday, I found myself watching an extremely expensive recreation of the very same place and time. The Mongolian steppes and palace intrigues from 800 years ago appear, in HD, in my fucking living room.

Benedict Wong is mesmerizing as Kublai Kahn. I guess that’s the nature of binge-watching, that the story takes over, you’re immersed in it for a day or two or seven, and then you move on. And I DO have a soft-spot for period pieces with high production values.

Which is why I decided to route through Los Angeles, on my recent trip to San Diego for Medium. I’d been sent the book that accompanies “Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France” by the Getty Center, (curated by Karen Hellman) as it’s the companion to the exhibition of the same name, which closes November 27th.

Southern Californians: If you’re too lazy to read the rest of this piece, at least remember this: Go see the show!

I stopped looking at the book after 10 pages, when I first opened it, as I decided to buy the ticket to LA then and there. I figured, if I’m going to see the photographs in person, why spoil it with the book first?

Turns out, they’re very different experiences.

Though the title might sound a shade academic or dry, the pictures are nothing of the sort. Gustave LeGray is one of my all time favorite photographers because, like his 19th Century contemporaries Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron and Carleton Watkins, the pictures seem to jump off the wall. (The same sensation as seeing a Velasquez in a room full of paintings by his peers.)

LeGray’s photographs are always visceral, and dripping with emotional resonance. (So it’s no surprise he steals the show.) His landscapes, including on the waterfront, or in the Fountain-bleu forest, have that vibe that Atget later tapped in to.

A haunting feeling you’re sure is in the picture, rather than being a function of the age of the print. An EXTRA sort of perception.

We learn that LeGray touched up his negatives from the beginning, to increase contrast, and only achieved his masterly seascapes by later sandwiching two negatives together. Is that extra something his ability as a printer? Utilizing subjectivity, as an era-appropriate Instagram filter?

I don’t know, but there is a side-by-side in the book, with Edouard Baldus, and I think it’s clear LeGray’s photograph is more compelling. (And contrasty.)

In LA, I was equally smitten by Charles Negre’s photographs of people. Italian street musicians, in particular. In the book, I noticed, these same images are not nearly as powerful as the talismen I encountered in the flesh.

In the exhibition, I had a feeling I only remember having once before, at the Met, when I first saw Egyptian encaustic portraits from 2000 years ago.

I’ve used the time travel metaphor so many times, but this wasn’t that. (Or, at least, not JUST that.) It was more like I was seeing something I wasn’t meant to see. Something intimate, like the way certain tribes were said to fear a photograph can steal your soul.

The fact that photography was so young, so packed with potential back then, so experimental in its nature, gives this entire exhibition a super-charge that was so worth going out of my way for.

The galleries were packed, so it’s hard to even use a word like intimate, but that’s what it was. The clothing, the patina, it made me sad in a good way, like schadenfreude.

The focus is tight. Little more than a decade in France, 160 years ago. But with such a comprehensive display: people, places, things, the sacred and the profane, you have a sense of “being there” more than almost any other show I’ve seen.

There is also a strong educational component to the exhibit, (and essays in the book,) so we learn about the initial use of salt paper prints, paper negatives before glass, and see the negatives themselves presented on light-boxes. The whole thing is super-slick. (Remember what I said before about liking sharp production values?)

I have a very good memory, so I’m certain there are photos in the book that are not in the show. And almost all of you won’t be able to make it to the Getty by Sunday. (Though hopefully some of you can. The museum is free, don’t forget.)

Some of the extras pics, by LeGray, are as strong as anything in the show, hinting the archive goes much deeper than what was on the wall. So I’d say the book would be a great purchase as well.

When we delve into things like this, we are reminded that we too will be history one day. Images, ideas, cultures change over time. These days, Thanksgiving is mostly seen as a holiday where we eat lots of turkey, watch football, and perhaps have a drink or two to celebrate.

But what are we celebrating?

Speaking for myself, I have a beautiful, loving family, I live in a country that, for now, is still free and prosperous, and I get to type out my thoughts and share them with you guys each week. (I even get paid for it.)

Now is the time of year, especially in light of the extra election stress America has been living with, where you take stock. Count your blessings. Appreciate what you’ve got.

Because no matter how bad you might have it, there are people in this world, in Syria or elsewhere, who are facing gruesome death each and every day.

Even little kids.

So I hope you had a good holiday, and I’ll be back with another photo-book again next week.

Adios.

Bottom Line: Excellent book that captures the spirit of long ago France

Go Here To Purchase Real/Ideal: Photography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France

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This Week In Photography Books: Curran Hatleberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was just talking to a friend about comment sections. Ours, in particular. It seems like a hundred years ago, but was really only 4 or 5, when anonymous trolls insulted me each and every week.

My god, did I hate that shit.

It’s easy to say, “Don’t take it personally,” but I most certainly did. Rob must have gotten tired of my complaints, because I couldn’t let it go.

These days, we moderate, and it’s a bit of a wasteland down there. Not much going on. Tumbleweeds drifting across the information superhighway. Tarantulas creeping along the asphalt, as there’s no one else around.

Except for Stan.

Every now and again, Stan Banos, who’s been reading for ages, will pop up with a comment to keep me in check. He was there back when it was crowded, and he’s there now that it’s chill.
I appreciate his feedback, as he is intelligent, and has a different perspective than I do, so that makes for good dialogue.

If I’m being honest, I even inserted a clause in last week’s column with him in mind, and he took the bait. As I was gushing about how much fun I had in NYC, LA and Chicago, I thought it important to mention that I had not visited places where life is hard.

Places lacking the glamour of a gleaming art museum, or a cool bar with expensive drinks. After-parties are great, of course, but I’m at least smart enough to know when I’m experiencing privilege.

Sure enough, Stan chimed in to stress that life is insanely difficult for a large swath of this country, and things just don’t seem to get better. We all know there are millions of people living rough, and I acknowledged that as well, but Stan stood up and said, don’t pretend it isn’t happening.

So in Stan’s honor, I was glad to look at “Lost Coast,” a new release by our friends at TBW Books, from artist Curran Hatleberg. It investigates a culture in California, in the far North, that most of us don’t get to see, and it’s not exactly pretty.

I’ve written about books like this before, so I won’t claim that it’s insanely original. But it feels authentic, and hit me hard just now, as we’re all anxiously awaiting the results of an election that is increasingly driven by race and class.

There is no introduction on this one, and only the end-note-thank-you’s ground this as taking place in Humboldt County. (Famous for its insanely strong weed. Or so I’m told.)

A CA license plate tips us off before that, and an image with a pile of logs in front of a shipping port hints that it’s up North, but we’re not sure until the end.

I wrote last week that I had not dropped in on homeless encampments along the railroad tracks, and sure enough, some of the people photographed here look like that might be their next stop.

Even though I’ve seen worlds like this before, what really interested me were the subtle details. A father and son peering in the window of a motorbike store. You can’t see their faces, and I guess we don’t even know if they’re related, but the implied narrative screams yearning to me.

We see pit bulls, sure, but also a man attempting to cut a watermelon on a piece of cardboard, just outside the boundary of a gas station.

Another gas station, replete with no loitering sign, features a group of people doing just that.

A man with a reconstructed nose makes me think of meth and coke, hard drugs that will warp your face and ruin your life. A burned up trailer reinforces that read, suggesting a meth lab fire.

Yet one house has pink trim and a satellite dish, and another has a perfect pink rose bush outside in the yard. Even in difficult lives, people still crave beauty and a sense of normalcy.

A man has his head shaved, while showing off a hairy back, and the next picture features a bearded dude drinking Olympia, (the World’s worst beer,) while he plays with a ball made of aluminum foil.

Kids run around barefoot, a creepy-looking guy fills a gas can at yet another gas station, and a front yard barbecue looks fun, I suppose, if the pit bulls leave you alone.

I have no idea if Stan will like this book, or appreciate that I keep him in mind sometimes when I’m writing. It’s hard to remember what goes on outside your own world, I suppose, and that’s why I love this job so much.

No matter how stressed you might be, it’s important to be cognizant that even in a rich country like ours, there are too many people suffering deprivation. That’s why some will occasionally turn to a savior who promises to make it better by himself.

By next week, we’ll find out if he gets the chance.

Bottom Line: A well-crafted, taut look at hard living on the Lost Coast

To Purchase “Lost Coast” Go Here.

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This Week In Photography Books: Meghann Riepenhoff

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Once upon a time, I wrote about stereotypes and clichés.

It was fun to resurrect phrases left for dead. I did it because good writers avoid them, and I was rebelling against the norm. (Or maybe I just wasn’t a good writer?)

Sometimes, though, we use a phrase just because other people do. We don’t think about where it comes from.

I’m thinking of “bone tired,” because I tried to explain it to my son the other day. Everybody says it, but I suspect only people over 40 really know what it means.

When you reach a certain level of exhaustion, your bones actually ache. At the moment, I’ve got a tingling feeling from my tibias to my clavicles, and there’s not much to be done. (Not much but complain, I suppose.)

I was in Chicago last week for the brilliant Filter Photo Festival, and worked straight through the weekend. Unlike last year, this time I came home with my voice and my wits in tact, but the latter has faded as the week’s gone on.

This year, I again saw nearly 40 portfolios, and will have plenty of work to show you in the coming weeks. I saw remarkable exhibitions, met with so many fascinating people, ate at a steak house with a heap of financial planners, danced to a human beatbox at a late-night afterparty, reviewed countless photographs, and talked for 5 days straight.

I made a few changes compared to last year, beginning with my reviewing approach. After much thought, I decided to temper my advice based upon what I sensed the person could actually hear and handle. Rather than just imposing my will on the situation, which led to a few bad results last year, in 2016, I decided to be patient, listen, and then react.

Not surprisingly, it was a successful tactic. Getting ripped to shreds by one reviewer at FotoFest in March, when I took my own work, reminded me how easy it is to ruin someone’s day with a few poorly chosen words. Or with a confidence bordering on arrogance.

Last year, despite a powerful urge, I failed to eat any Chicago deep dish stuffed pizza. This time, my friend Melanie and I rectified that at Giordano’s, and the results were good enough, but far from awesome. (Yes, Susan Burnstine, you tried to warn me off. I should have listened.)

Finally, in 5 full days in Chicago in 2015, I never made it to Lake Michigan, even though the hotel was only a half a block away. (Lake Shore Drive proved a formidable impediment.)

This year, I asked how to get access, which was insanely easy, and went to check it out on my very first day. There are sandy public beaches, ladders to climb down for a swim, party boats on Sundays, and very blue, luxurious water.

The smell might be different, (since it’s a lake,) but by the look of things, it’s as pretty an urban scene as San Sebastian or San Francisco. I simply can’t overstate how nice it is.

I went for a run there one morning, ambled other days, and then on Sunday, on my way to and from Expo Chicago, I walked along the shore instead of through the city. Great plan!

Unfortunately, it was rather hot on Sunday. And humid too, of course. Very, very humid.

So as I pumped my arms, power-walking like a worker-bee on my way North to grab the subway, the sweat-storm began. I felt the first trickle, didn’t think too much about it, and then it was a flood that overwhelmed my shirt.

I was sweating so much, was soooooo wet and sticky, and right next to me was all that cool, blue water. Taunting me. I wanted to swim so badly, I considered my options.

“Jonathan,” said the lake, “you know you want to jump into me. Come, Jonathan. Give in to your desire. It will feel so good.”

Opting against a full scale assault in my clothes, I bent down, took a knee, reached into the undulating blue, and cupped some water in my hands. I reached back, splashed my neck, and then did it 10 more times.

I’m not a religious Jew, to be honest, but I know we have a tradition of the mikvah. Consecration in water. It felt like that then, a moment I’ll remember for a long time.

The next morning, (I returned home after 1am,) I went down to our stream and repeated the process. Cool water on the same neck.

A journey begins, and it ends.

Speaking of journeys, I wrote about my big trip to Texas earlier this year, and mentioned I met an artist at FotoFest, Meghann Riepenhoff, who was having a moment at the time.

Well, Meghann just sent me an exhibition catalog of her work, “Littoral Drift,” now in its second edition, and of course it was on top of my pile today when I needed to write for you guys. (It’s Thursday. Deadlines await.)

There’s been a trend in California lately of photographic artists making one-of-a-kind objects out of old-school, hands-on processes. Chris McCaw might have gotten it started, but Matthew Brandt, John Chiara, Klea McKenna, and Meghann have all come up with styles that are steeped in the past.

Meghann makes cyanotypes in water. Chemistry mixes with primordial cocktails of salt and sea, resulting in abstracted, beautiful, dreamy objects. In person, they were lovely and textured.

In book form, it’s hard to communicate scale, so I commend the attempt to conjure our imaginations with various installation shots. But mostly this book is about the pleasure of looking.

Like the evanescence of frost, molecular structures under a microscope, or the unmistakable smell of my daughter’s hair, we all know that nature is more powerful than we are. Its aesthetic instincts are nearly always perfect.

I like that this work channels a sense of that visually, as well as existentially. No water, no art. No sloshing, no looking.

As you might imagine, I’ve just hit my limit for today, especially as I’ve got to teach a class all afternoon. (No rest for the weary, I’m afraid.) But this weekend, I’m going to take a big fat nap, and it’s going to be glorious.

Bottom Line: Gorgeous catalog of innovative cyanotypes

To Purchase Littoral Drift Go Here

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This Week In Photography Books: Jason Langer

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

He was handsome.

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

This was no twink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me, sir,” he said.

“What can I do for you, cowboy?”

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

“How’s that?”

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

“You don’t say?”

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

“I never would have known.”

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

“It takes all kinds.”

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

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

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

“Sounds reasonable.”

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

“How can I help you, cowboy?”

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

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

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

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

And… scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Jason Langer: Twenty Years” Visit PhotoEye

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This Week In Photography Books: William Eggleston

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I did.
But it wasn’t there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I couldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what was this black and white then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just enjoy, until the moment is gone.

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Dana Lixenberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

No higher speed was offered.
Period.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No harm done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No sir.

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

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

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

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

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