Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books: Dafy Hagai

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got a fat stack of books in Santa Fe the other day. Fresh meat. Yum yum.

I never know what I’m going to get, when I re-up at photo-eye. If it’s new, I’m willing to look at it. And these days, people also send me things, so that opens up new worlds of possibility.

As such, I’m wondering if it’s time to be a shade more discriminating in what I review, like a coin collector who won’t spring for just any old piece of silver. (“Excuse me, Bertram, but if you think I’m going to pay $2 million for an 1875 Buffalo nickel, you must be smoking the super-skunk.”)

The first book I reached for today was a Thomas Struth number made in Israel; part of the “This Place” project that I’ve mined for content on many an occasion. Struth? A German in Israel? It’s got to be good, right?

Well. I guess. If you’re into boring pictures.

I hate to throw another photo legend under the bus, but there you go. I’m sure he’s going to read this and have a good cry, but I’m no hater. When the man was good, he was genius, so we’ll always have the old days.

Co-incidentally, the very next book I grabbed, seduced by its snappy blue-on-white color palette, was also made in Israel. Now, I’m sure some of you will think that I have a predilection for such things, as I’m known to be Jewish. But I assure you, I’m as keen to see what’s going on in Kyrgyzstan, Kathmandu, and Kuala Lumpur.

As it happens, this book, the second one I grabbed with grubby hands, like a drunk frat boy reaching for one more In’n’out burger…it’s a doozy. And not necessarily in a good way.

Some weeks, I write about shit you’ve never seen before. Other weeks, like last Friday, I try to highlight really smart and innovative offerings that you might actually want to buy. And then there are the columns, like this one, where you might get agitated.

Consider yourself warned.

“Israeli Girls” is a new book by Dafy Hagai, recently published by Art Paper Editions, in Ghent. I’m writing about it now, because I’m so darn confused. Sometimes, seeing the words pop up on screen helps me suss out my thoughts. (That so many people are reading the results is almost ancillary.)

What’s my favorite catch phrase, beyond “The 21st Century Hustle?” That’s right: Boobs Sell Books℠. They must, or photographers wouldn’t insist on jamming them into their narratives like a Tokyo salaryman wedging onto the subway at rush-hour.

This book is one where, after the very first picture, of a young woman flashing her tennis-skirt-covered tush like a baboon in heat, I knew the boobs were coming.

Sure, the title, “Israeli Girls” hints at the subject: Israeli Girls. But, I thought, there has to be more to it than that? Not long ago, I wrote about Christopher Everard’s meticulously researched investigation of the pornography industry. Billions of dollars are spent helping people get their rocks off.

Does anyone really buy a photobook for that, when they can get it for free on the Internet, minus the classy production values? Or for $39.99 from Vivid Video, with more bells and whistles? Does it matter that these girls are Israeli? As opposed to Dutch? Or Californian?

The book features kind-of-edgy pictures, and we could whip out the Balthus reference, though these young women seem to be of proper age. But I don’t know anything about them, because the book lacks any supporting text at all.

It’s just a bunch of pictures of pretty girls, made in an arty style. Yes, there’s a pink tennis visor on a children’s slide. And when the boobs come, they’re accompanied by under-arm hair, which I’m sure is meant to counter-balance the traditional notions of beauty.

But I’m just not sure what to think. Is this book the equivalent of an ironic mustache, one of my all-time pet peeves? If you want to grow a mustache, grow a f-cking mustache, OK? Don’t pretend that you’re better than your mustache, and you’re only wearing it to make fun of every other tool who wants to look like a 19th Century barkeep. (“May I offer you gents a libation this fine afternoon?”)

If you like pictures of pretty girls, fine. Go for it. Get a job at Playboy, and shoot boobs to your heart’s content. More power to you.

But this book wants to have it both ways. So why am I writing about it? Because I’m annoyed that it’s crawling around inside my head. I don’t know much about VICE, though I’m aware it’s become a Billion Dollar Brand. Is this book made for VICE guys? Or has VICE become respectable these days?

Again, I don’t know, because there is no essay, no titles, no rambling narrative meant to give me so much as a clue. Just some pretty Jewish girls, seducing the camera with their pouty lips and firm flesh. (On general principle, I won’t show you the boob shots, as a faux-protest, but I’m just too wound up not to write about this one.)

OK?

OK. I’m done here. You might hate me for taking up your time to discuss a book I only like “ironically,” or you might thank me for giving you a properly pretty diversion on what’s likely to be a frigid Friday.

Either way, see you next week. (Same Bat time. Same Bat channel.)

Bottom Line: Odd, mysterious, and probably vapid book about pretty Israeli girls

To Purchase “Israeli Girls” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Sugimoto/Misrach

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve been watching a lot of John Wayne movies lately. I was always a Clint Eastwood guy, so I’d never really understood the Duke, until recently. It’s stupefying to discover the way one man stood as a symbol for an entire nation.

John Wayne captures the rough, charismatic, violent and patriarchal vibe that permeated the US in the post-WWII years. If his middle name were actually Manifest Destiny, would anyone really be surprised?

He led with his big, hamhock fists, and we all needed to trust that he knew what he was doing. He was John Wayne, after all, a facade built upon poor Marion Morrison, just as our fair country was crafted upon the bones of a conquered race.

I even read a quote in which Mr. Wayne said he had no problem with the fact that America stole all this land, because the Native Americans weren’t using it properly. For real. I read that. (Though in our suspicious Internet age, I guess that doesn’t mean he said it.)

I was discussing my newfound fascination with a friend of mine just after Christmas. Iván was my professor in graduate school, and he studied film at NYU. He agreed that John Wayne represented America during it’s reign as the big-swinging-dick-World-Power, but suggested he had been supplanted by another fictional hero for the post-Vietnam era: Forrest Gump.

We had a good giggle at first, because it’s hard to even believe how much everyone cared about Forrest back in the nineties. (Run, Forrest, Run.) But afterwards, he said he was dead serious. Forrest was a bumbling, compromised, win-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth, trust-in-the-luck-of-the-Universe kind of guy. Nobody thought he was a real superhero, but he managed to turn out OK.

These days, Forrest Gump seems quaint to the point of irrelevance. We like our heroes ironic and snarky, like Robert Downey Jr, beefy and dim, like Channing Tatum, or not-even-American, like Chris Hemsworth and Michael Fassbender. And as for Forrest, he’s been relegated to the cultural dustbin.

He did leave us with a few words to live by though, didn’t he? “Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.”

How can you argue with Forrest on that one? You can’t. Especially when, like me, you’ve just opened up a plastic sleeve to find “Assignment No. 2: Sugimoto/Misrach: San Quentin Prison,” published by TBW books in Oakland.

My first thought was very 21st C: WTF?

You find what looks like an institutional file folder, replete with a water stain up top, and a red ink smudge closer to the bottom. It sits there, that red ink stain, judging me. The more I look at it, the more it resembles a tornado.

Open it up, and the left side has a succession of names, including those two aforementioned art stars. Then, on the right, we see a statement claiming that an essay, to follow, was written by a prisoner in San Quentin named Michael Nelson. Whatever we’re to read was apparently written while he was in solitary confinement.

They had my attention all along, but now my eyebrows have stood at attention like a Guantanamo prison guard. What are we about to see, I wonder. And will it be filled with facts about the tragic, embarrassing incarceration rate in this country? It is to be an essay that makes us question how such a dilemma came to pass?

No. Not at all.

Flip out again, and you’re staring a sheet of lined, yellow paper, with text handwritten in blue ink. Or so it seems. I’ve seen enough photobooks to know that it’s a high grade reproduction, but still, it’s interesting.

The flap on the righthand side states that all the proceeds of this publication will go to support the prison education programs that spawned this project. Things begin to fall into place.

The first page of the essay is a letter, in which Mr. Nelson apologizes for missing class, as he cannot attend in his current circumstance. He wonders if he’ll be able to achieve full credit, while locked up by himself in what must be some form of hell.

Again, can I get a WTF?

Open the last two flaps, and we see a reproduction of a famous Sugimoto picture from his movie theater series, and a photo of a drive-in movie theater screen from Misrach’s seminal “Desert Cantos” work. We’re looking at two examples of seminal work from the 20th Century.

Flip up the first page of the yellow-paper-stack, and we find a thoughtful, well-written essay that compares and contrasts the two images. It’s a copy of an actual prison class assignment from 2011.

Wow.

I’ve seen a lot of things in my day, and a lot of books in the 3.5 years that I’ve been writing this column. But I’ve never seen anything like this.

The essay is smart, but takes a turn towards poignant when Mr. Nelson alludes to his own situation in life. The metaphor of a world changing beyond recognition, seen in the pictures, also seems well-chosen, for someone living on the inside.

At the end, we get a page that explains a bit more about Mr. Nelson’s background. Jailed for murder at 15, 17 years into a 25 year sentence. Like many a good Bay Area liberal, he’s found himself working within the system to help others.

His info is followed by straight bios for Mr. Misrach, Mr. Sugimoto, and Mr. Dertinger and Ms. Poor, who both teach at CSU Sacramento, and work with prisoners as well. It was a rare mis-step, I thought, the conventional bio page in a production this original. Good information to have, of course, and smartly placed, when your curiosity is at its peak…but then, we all have bios. (One more piece of PR that makes us feel like we’re products to be bought and sold, in lieu of our prints and services.)

Regardless, I hate to quibble, as this is a very inspiring piece of work. Definitely one to buy, as your money will serve others, and this feels like something rare that people will look back on, down the line.

Bottom Line: Incredibly innovative production

To Purchase “Assignment No. 2: Sugimoto/Misrach: San Quentin Prison” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Gill

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s Thursday, which means this column is due later today. Unfortunately, the writing will be sub-standard. We all know things are better once they’ve had some time to marinate, whether it’s pictures or words or chicken teriyaki.

My apologies. It couldn’t be helped. This has been one crazy mother f-ing week, and last week was just as challenging.

Have you ever found yourself in a phase where you were forced to stand by your words? When it seemed like the Cosmos was waking up each morning with the express intention of testing you to your core? Checking whether you actually had the stones to follow through on a promise?

Welcome to my world.

Yesterday was one of the hardest days I’ve had in a while. It began at 6:30 am, with a prompt wakeup by my ever-energetic son. Lots of errands, paying bills, getting the kids off to school. Then I had to teach a class. (Got a new student, too, so it was back to square one.)

From there, still more errands, then a trip to Santa Fe to drop off a picture for a show, and pick up more books with which I can entertain you. (We hope. I always wonder if I might have a day where I’m more obnoxious then helpful.)

Then, and only then, did I drive to Albuquerque to be interviewed for a PBS television show about my project “The Value of a Dollar.” I’d sworn to the producer at the outset that I’d be helpful, relaxed and engaging. The perfect subject, I assured her.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “No matter what, I’ll be low-maintenance.”
(Cue the ominous foreshadowing music in your head.)

The shoot went well, and then after a quick beer with a friend, I drove the nearly 3 hours back home at night. The big moon lit the road, but I was too busy trying not to have my brains fall out of my ears to notice its beauty.

I’m done, I reminded myself. Done. I did it.
It’s over.

The phone rang early this morning, and I missed the call. I noticed the 505 area code, and realized it was the aforementioned producer. Calling to congratulate me, I wondered?

No such luck. It seems one of the cameras wasn’t working right, and we have to shoot the whole interview over again. I took a deep breath, smiled, and told her “No problem. I’ll do even better the next time.”

Inside, my soul was crying like an inexperienced actor. Deep, overly-emotional sobs, with a shaking chest. But I pretended not to notice, and just got on with being a good sport.

It’s one of those core life lessons, I think. If you do the hard work, and push yourself, your life will be richer, and your pictures will improve too.

Some of those lessons, once learned, are hard to unlearn. With respect to photography, one of the classics I picked up years ago was to try to put the camera in odd and unexpected places. (I tell my beginning students that every semester.)

Be creative where you put the camera. Up high, down low, and into the randomest corners you can find. In fact, I said it just yesterday, to that new student. His classmates concurred, assuring him they’d already stuck their cameras inside nasty holes in the wall, into the musty innards of their school’s structure.

They loved the resulting pictures, and encouraged their new colleague to do the same.

Because as many of us know, when you stick the camera into wacky places, you never know what you’ll find. (Or what boring subject the camera will transform into a bit of ephemeral magic.)

Such is the case with “Pigeons,” a new book by Stephen Gill, published last year by the Archive of Modern Conflict in London. Now, I know that bird pictures, and bird books, are something of a cliché. Like I’m always saying about boobs, birds also sell books.

But we’ve never seen a bird book like this one. Oh no. I’m quite confident of that. Because Mr. Gill stuck his camera into some pretty nasty and dodgy crevices. Under girders, around steel beams. Up where these grayscale flying rats reside, when they’re not busy pooping on statues and cooing you to sleep at night.

While I might have gone out of my comfort zone with last week’s book, this one is right in line with what I normally like to show. It’s innovative, strange, and likable in it’s funky ugliness. A great idea, well executed, will always grab my attention.

The use of shallow depth of field is strong, as it highlights the awkward textures inside the birds’ nests. You almost feel the cold and damp, but in a good way. (It won’t make you Siri up the EasyJet website to see how cheaply you can get to Sevilla next Wednesday.)

Personally, I hate vermin. Some mice have just eaten the wiring to my car’s speedometer for the second time in a few months. It’s going to cost me a couple of hundred bucks to fix. Little bastards.

Pigeons I don’t mind so much. Probably because we don’t have any here in the mountains. (And if we did, we’d likely call them doves.) I get to look at magpies, ravens and eagles instead. Now I’m wondering what their homes look like, and hoping some enterprising photographer will show me where they hide.

Bottom Line: Very cool look inside pigeons domiciles.

To Purchase “Pigeons” Visit Photo-Eye.

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Margaret Morton

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, you’ve got to mix things up. Even though it’s harder than sticking with what you know. I like easy as much as the next guy, but it CAN make a person complacent.

Just look at McDonalds.

Why did it become a massive capitalist behemoth? With tens of thousands of locations? Because you only have to be smart enough to walk up to the counter, or drive up to the window, and point at a number.

I want combo #2.
You could grunt, and it would still work out.

If you can string together enough syllables, in proper order, to say, “Combo #2,” and you can cobble together enough pocket change to pay the $2.99, then you can have yourself a burger, some fries, and a highly-sugar-and-caffeine-laden beverage.

What could be easier than that? And as to the cows that go into that burger? Why bother to make them run around a grassy pasture? Why not just let them stand in their own shit, all day long, until it’s time to kill them?

What’s easier, letting them stand where they are, or going to the trouble of designing a cow-exercise program?

No contest.

But just the other day, I was reminded why the hard way promotes growth. I was headed in to teach my second straight class in the new semester: “Beginning Digital Photography.” I asked for an extra class, THIS class, in fact, because I can teach it in my sleep. I know my patterns. I know my lectures. Cold.

No drama at all.

Except there were only 5 students in the room, instead of the usual 25. And the University didn’t want to cancel. So, on the fly, I realized I’d have to re-tool everything I know, in order to keep a very small room entertained and enlightened for 2.5 hours straight, for 15 weeks.

My first thoughts were based in fear and frustration. My desire for the lazy way was screeching in my consciousness, like a wolf that just chewed off its own leg to get out of a trap. Then, I caught my breath, and realized I had no option but to make it work.

I began to ask the students questions I normally wouldn’t. I established a completely new vibe, and laid down ground rules. By the end of class, we were all laughing, and I was excited as hell.

Often times, change is forced upon us. We resent it, and then realize it was in our best interest. This time, I went through the stages of grief in warp speed. Which allows me to give you my high-minded advice all the quicker.

What does that have to do with a book review, though? I’m glad you asked. Because, as always, I’m trying to reach a cogent point before I’ve hit 1000 words, and your attention span begins to wane.

Today, I want to highlight “Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan,” a new book by Margaret Morton, recently published by the University of Washington press. That’s a long title, yes, and it likely gives you a clue to its subject. Not a lot of room for surprise.

This book is one that I’ve looked at several times before, and decided not to review. (Yes, I know we’ve had this conversation before.) But this morning, I changed my mind. (And not because I’m out of books, which has been the motivation in years past.)

No, I decided to write about this book because I chose to change my criteria a bit, to keep things from getting stale. This book is not inherently exciting and dramatic, and I don’t think the pictures will change your life. They’re not brilliant, nor are they particularly innovative.

Before you hate me for damning the book with faint praise, let me continue. The pictures are kind of washed-out, bleached, and bereft of people. They’re not razor sharp, nor are they showy. The tonal range is minimal, so they don’t grab you in the guts either.

But they are consistent, in their tone and compositional style. They keep coming at you, like the less-talented fighter who out-works the flashy favorite. (Hello Buster Douglas, what are you doing in 2015?)

They transport you somewhere else. Somewhere quiet, where everyone’s already dead. The aesthetic reinforces the content, and there is a distinct narrative structure. You start far away, pull in very tight, and then drift back out again.

Very smart.

Perhaps I fall victim to shiny visuals, or off-beat and absurd concepts? I show you books that are edgy, or already famous, or that reflect an arty style you’ll like for sure.

This book, however, does something that I’m always asking for, despite it’s grayscale production: it shows me, (and you) something I’ve never seen before. Frankly, even in this ever-more-connected world, I suspect it depicts something almost no one has seen before: vacant cemeteries, in the form of mini-cities, in the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan.

That’s about as far off the beaten path as anyone can get these days. I wouldn’t even know how to fly there if I tried? Do you route through Tajikistan? Or am I a fool, and everyone knows that Uzbekistan is the best layover, what with their killer mutton stew?

Kidding aside, these pictures have a sere, world-weariness that didn’t seduce me. It put me off, even though I was inherently curious. But I never forgot the book, so I came back to it again.

It’s not the grand vistas that grab you here, it’s the details. Is that a scalp nailed to a wooden post? What do the rams horns mean? The deer? Are these competing warrior clans, with different spirit animals?

The stars and sickles jut up into the sky, whose color we can’t know, as we’ve been denied the opportunity.

Why the cages? What do they mean? Is that a desiccated eagle? Or a falcon? How hard is it to train a falcon anyway?

This book is not something I’d normally review, and I think that it’s healthy for me to keep expanding that definition. It does have a lot to offer. And it’s my job to sit still long enough to share that appreciation with you.

Bottom Line: Austere publication highlighting graveyards at the end of the line

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Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Christopher J Everard

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever heard of Sasha Grey? Maybe?
Maybe not.

As it happens, she’s a young actress from California. I first saw her in Steven Soderbergh’s taut little film, “The Girlfriend Experience.” She is lithe, Sasha Grey, with long, fine dark hair, and oil-black eyes. Those eyes are world-weary like Scarlett Johansson’s, but not in that same I-grew-up-in-New-York-so-I’m-smarter-and-cooler-than-you sort of way.

Do you know what I mean?

She was hard not to watch, Ms. Grey, as she played a very expensive call girl who provided a particular service: she pretends to be her John’s girlfriend, beyond just sexing him up.

Her acting is languid, sure, but again, it’s hard to look away. She was oddly mesmerizing. Then I saw her during her multi-episode cameo on “Entourage,” which I’m loathe to admit I ever watched.

At that point, I’d already learned her somewhat-but-not-really shocking story: Sasha Grey was a porn-star, despite her small boobs and overall lack of looking the part. What did I think, when I first heard the news?

That poor girl. She must have gotten all worn out. Apparently, she’d made a tremendous amount of movies, in which she often had sex with multiple partners at once.

My first thought was not, “Good for her. Making something of herself. Commodifying her compelling sexuality. Way to go. The American dream in the making.”

No. I half-worried that she was tarnished goods.

At no point did I consider tracking down some of her X-rated material online. That seemed a bit like peeking through the curtain at your neighbor undressing, as I’d first seen her in a “mainstream” film, though she did get naked, as I recall.

Can we all agree that my reaction was strange? Or maybe not strange, as it’s normal to be embarrassed by pornography, even though most people use it in some form or other.

No, my reaction was not strange. It was inappropriate. Yes, that’s the right word. I was practically Puritan, which is unpleasant to admit.

Our collective guilt at our carnal urges, and the manner in which we occasionally satisfy them via visual means, was the cause of the awkward thoughts I had vis a vis Ms. Grey, and her choice of professions.

My bad, in retrospect. More power to you, Sasha. (Because I’m sure you’re reading this, right?)

It’s one of the great hypocrisies of our time, the way we all engage in the same kind of behavior that we’re all pretty sure is wrong. I think the subject is worth investigating, which we can easily do via “Denied Reality- Episode 1: Our Industry,” a new book out by Christopher J Everard, published by Interlife Pictures.

The artist sent me a copy, suspecting that I might like it. If I didn’t know better, I’d think some people were paying attention with respect to the types of books I prefer. Because this one hit the mark in almost every way.

Mr. Everard is based in London, and is British by birth, near as I can tell, though he did spend many years living in the US. So his predilection for our culture is understandable, as is his curiosity about our prurient interest in sex, which he deems a “Denied Reality.”

Open up the book, and there are a succession of well-made-but-not brilliant images that come without an explanation. So I thought, “Gee, I wonder what I’m looking at?”

As if he perfectly anticipated the question, the very next page had small black and white thumbnail images, with well-written captions. I had a desire, and the book satisfied. (No pun intended.)

It appears that this book is a research-based, first-person narrative exploration inside the porn industry which is based, primarily, in Los Angeles. As the book is being released while Larry Sultan has his retrospective at LACMA, he is referenced appropriately within.

This is a book that speaks to photo-book-geeks, because it varies up its delivery like a crafty pitcher who can no longer throw the heat, so he has to keep the batters on their toes.

Immediately after a few more photos and caption pages, there’s an honest, hilarious essay by Daniel Blight. It’s also in a first person style, and breezy, without being pretentious. No art-speak, but lots of references to masturbation, smoking hash, and improper behavior.

Basically, it was the exact style I like to read. Mostly because I also like to write that way, as you well know.

This book, unlike almost everything I review, was one I had to put down and come back to. Because there is good, engaging writing interspersed throughout. It’s too dense to breeze through it like a normal photo-book, or read it in one shot, unless you’ve allotted the proper time.

In that regard, it’s different from what I normally see, which is something I’m always begging for in this space. Do it differently. Make the book into an experience I/ we’ll remember.

Mr. Everard seems to have interviewed a lot of subjects in the industry, walked red carpets, attended award banquets, traveled to Arizona to meet some professionals living outside the LA bubble, and road-tripped to Utah, after he learned that its residents are the highest per capita consumers of porn in the US. He actually mentions statistics in several places that suggest that most of the Red States/Republican States/States with the highest rate of church-goers actually top that list year in, year out.

Hypocrisy, anyone?

The conclusion reached, and perhaps dispensed a few too many times, is that the people in the pornography industry are hard working Americans. They bust their humps (no pun intended) to put food on their table, support their families, and have time on the weekends to play with their kids. They’re great dads, moms, and children.

The industry supplies jobs, and pays taxes. It is an American success story that we all pretend doesn’t exist. Because we are ashamed of ourselves; not the people who supply our fix. They deserve better, the artist suggests.

All in all, it’s a great book. The pictures within, which contain surprisingly few “nasty” images, and even fewer boobs, are not the type to blow you away. They’re not AMAZING. Just really good, particularly in illustration of the overall narrative.

But they don’t need to be more than that. It’s the book we judge, and the way in which the text and images support each another, and the pacing, degree of information, accessibility of the concept, it all makes for a genuinely excellent experience.

Mr. Blight has another great piece at the end, mocking Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and I’m still not sure if it’s a reported story, or if he just made it up. There’s even a “Designer’s Cut” edit of pictures that wouldn’t have otherwise made book. That’s extra content that you get if you’re special, and buy this particular edition of the book. Extra stuff, like those porn sites are always offering, so I’m told, if you’re only willing to drop your credit card number.

Bottom Line: Honest, smart, very-well executed look at the things we like to see, but never discuss.

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This Week In Photography Books: Brad Moore

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just flew in from New Orleans, and boy, are my arms tired. (Ba doom boom. Tch.)

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. It flowed out of my fingers, and then, there it was. As ridiculous as that bad joke is, the underlying truth stands.

I did just get back from New Orleans.

And every bone in my body is aching from the deep exhaustion of ten hours of travel each way, with 26 critiques sandwiched in between. (Plus the amazing parties and such. It’s not a drag, by any means.)

Since this column is as much a running commentary on my life as it is a series of book reviews, I must share that I feel like sleeping for 3 days straight. Instead, I came home to my two young children, and that’s just a daily marathon.

Enough bitching. What can I tell you today? NOLA rocks. I’ll be featuring it at length in the coming weeks, so I’ll spare you too much backstory in the here and now. Suffice it to say, it is a city that has “The Magic.”

I live in Taos, a small mountain town that is renown for it’s spiritual juju, so I know of what I speak. New Orleans has an ineffable something that makes it an addictive locale for many a tourist.

Let’s face it, the world is big. Far bigger than any one person could ever explore. Even Tony Bourdain has seen but a fragment, no matter how tired HIS bones might feel.

Places, cities, such as we know them, are nothing but an aggregate of people, structures, and landscape. That’s it. Yet somehow, they manage to develop distinct identities. The Castro is not the Lower East Side.

North London is not the North side of Chicago. These statements are so obvious as to be practically meaningless, and yet I type them still.

Why?

Because as photographers, or lovers of photography, we know that the best work manages to tap into the Zeitgeist of a place. To allow us to learn something crucial about a spot we might never have seen with our own eyes.

The camera is the proxy for the artist, and the artist is the proxy for the tourist. Here, declares the artist, is something you ought to see. Now, declares the artist, I will show you things that will embed in your memory, and make you think you know more than you do.

Speaking of which, I was in Southern California in late October, as you well know. (If you were paying attention at all.) I love that place too. It’s pretty, sure, but there is a seedy normality to the joint that I find alluring.

I’ve spent next-to-no time in Beverly Hills, or its ilk. Give me a low-rise little beach town any day. (Big Shout Out to Leucadia.)

Brad Moore has managed to capture an essence of SoCal that I’m pretty sure you’ll love. The SoCal of the Inland Empire, and Orange County, and mismatched patches of pavement. We can all see it in “Brad Moore,” a new book recently released by the nascent publisher Acuity Press, also from Southern California.

Why will you likely love it? Because it mashes up the anonymous modernism of the super-structure with the random chaos of real life. Korean churches behind geometric facades. Buddhist temples in half-abandoned-looking row houses.

And a seamless, flat, gray sky that references the smog, for which the place is often known, and the fog, that ever-present menace to coastal sanity. (Hey Fog, if you blow out now, so I can see the sun for a few minutes, I’ll give you $500. What, you can’t spend money, because you are an apparition made of moist sea air? Fuck you, then, fog. Fuck you.)

The book is really well-made, the images razor sharp. The repetitive shapes jump out at you, but just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, you’re given a surprise.

A big blue truck on a lawn, where we’d otherwise expect to see a house. What? And there are two dark smudges with streaks running down. Was the truck struck with paint-ball pellets? A group of miscreant teen-agers marring the otherwise “perfect” suburban existence?

No explanation necessary, really. Who doesn’t love a good mystery?

Later, a pile of green lawn beckons, the color as intense as a magic mushroom ride. What is that on the grass? Oh, it’s a tarp, holding a heap of grass shavings that are no longer a part of the territorial integrity of said lawn.

Brilliant illusion. Maybe the ideal metaphor? The gloss, disembodied from the host.

OK. That’s as much as I can squeeze out of my tired brain. I’m leaving Southern California, in my imagination, so I can look out my window to the shocking number of gopher mounds that dot my backyard.

Fucking Gophers. Why don’t you move somewhere where they’ll actually appreciate you?

Bottom Line: Terrific pictures of Southern California

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: John Gossage

by Jonathan Blaustein

When I was young, a school year felt like a decade. Time moved like blue children’s goop, as it slithers out of its container. (Slurp, slurp, slide a millimeter, slurp, slurp.)

I’m well aware that this idea is far from new. That time moves more quickly as we age. I know it. You know it.

So why do I mention it now?

Because it will be Thanksgiving next week. We’ve already had snow here, and it’s dipped below 0 at night. Honestly, I’m not sure how this happened. Summer feels like it was just here; the moisture residue on the window pane, after you’ve breathed upon it.

In the last few years, I’ve finally figured out that a year is a natural cycle. Perhaps it’s connected to our planet’s journey around the sun. Perhaps not.

Who am I to conjecture?

But it most certainly does affect the way we feel. Nearing the end, rounding third base, if you will, we’re all exhausted. Worn out. Tired deep in our bones.

I’m sure you feel that way too. We all do. Thanksgiving offers the illusion of respite. Sure, we won’t have to work for a few days, but all that eating, socializing, and digesting takes energy few of us have to spare.

Then it’s a glamour-less push to Christmas break, where many of us will finally get a chance to unplug and recharge. To stop. To sit. To allow ourselves to regenerate for the new year.

What will we do in 2015? Will we try new things? Attempt to learn new skills? Push ourselves to defecate on what we already know, in the hopes that it might fertilize a new way of seeing?

Right. It wouldn’t be one of my book reviews if I didn’t leave you with at least one uncouth image. So consider the job done. But a book review it is, so let’s get to it.

Today, I want to highlight “Who Do You Love,” by John Gossage, recently published by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. It is a strange production, to be sure, and its oddity is confirmed in an interview at the end, between Mr. Gossage and Darius Himes, the former director of the gallery.

I was genuinely unsure of what I was seeing, when I first perused. Why the cheap cardboard cover? Were these actual prints glued to the pages? I gently moved my fingernail along the edge, and found it was a smooth sheet of paper. Why the big tan borders, and the odd pieces of color?

Take a moment, read the captions, and you realize these are re-creations of actual assemblage pieces. They’re simulacra. Virtualizations of slightly 3-dimensional art that exists in the world. Not one more iteration of a digital file that can be done with what you please, including embossing it on a coffee cup.

As many of you know, I interviewed the artist here a couple of years ago. He was the funniest, most engaging, and perhaps even the most charismatic person I’ve interviewed yet. Brimming with energy and wit.

These pictures are quiet. Thoughtful. Subtle. Emotive like an almost finished cigarette. So very different from the man himself.

The aforementioned interview with Mr. Himes confirms that Mr. Gossage almost never ventures outside of the purely photographic. (Though the boxes he told us about, called, “Hey Fuckface,” if I recall, are likely another attempt.) These pieces were a deliberate challenge to what he knew of photography.

And experiment. A car crash, as he said.

I wasn’t sure if I liked them the first time through. On the second pass, I decided that I did. Especially as the little pieces of virtual colored paper begin to take form, to have personality, to make you think of art in general.

And play.

The photos too have a power to them, on repeated viewing. The hand, held up, like Stop. The X of the steel beams. The outright beauty of the shadow of a border fence over a Pacific beach.

Mr. Gossage admitted in our interview that he’s made a lot of books. Probably more than he could count, unless he had a CV handy. Many of us have still not made even one. (Myself included.)

I can’t imagine it’s that easy to use this type of forum for experimentation. Making a cardboard book that attempts to re-create the subversive spirit of a cardboard photo project. It takes guts, and the foreknowledge that some people will find it underdone.

Even the title, “Who Do You Love,” takes on an unexpected meaning as the opening page depicts lyrics from that 70’s song that you won’t get out of your head, once you realize what I’m talking about. (“I walked 47 miles of barbed wire…”)

Anyway. Enough for today. You get the point.

Me being me, you can be sure there will be more on “what we can expect for next year,” in the weeks to come. But let this be the start, before you’ve even had your first, sweet taste of tryptophan. I wish you much luck in exciting new ventures, should you have the stones to try reinvention in 2015.

Bottom Line: Cool, slightly crazy attempt to recreate assemblage art

To Purchase “Who Do You Love” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Thomas Mailaender presents Noël Howard Symington

by Jonathan Blaustein

The rules are, there are no rules. I had to look that up on Google to see what film it came from. I would have bet “Hot Dog,” the movie. That classic ski comedy (with boobs, of course,) that came out in 1984.

If you have the same sort of 80’s nostalgia I do, or at least enjoy a giggle down memory lane, here’s a good link for you. The Chinese Downhill scene. Yup, that would have been my guess.

Google says it comes from “Grease,” though. Another piece of cinematic history. Apparently, it’s said in the buildup to the big car race, for which “Greased Lightning” was the foreshadowing. (Think of me what you will, but that was my favorite song when I was seven.)

Does it really matter who first said something as purely rational as that? The rules are…there are no rules. It’s like a Zen koan had sex with some of Sun Tzu’s war theory. (Hey now.)

What’s the point, though? It might as well apply to Capitalism, because, really, what else could explain our remorseless gutting of Planet Earth’s resources.

Sorry. Sorry.

I’ll keep it light this week. It’s the only decent thing to do.

In the art world, which doesn’t always make sense in the photo world, you can make art any damn way you please. Want to serve food and call it art? Be my guest.

Or how about gardening as art? Go for it. Trim your hedges to your heart’s content.

Appropriation, you say? A fancy word for stealing other people’s shit? Fire away.

That last one has been, and will likely always be controversial. I interviewed Sam Abell a year or so ago, and he bluntly said that HE made Richard Prince’s most famous image. Because he did.

The art is in re-contextualizing, we’re told. I’ve done it myself, though my motivations were at least altruistic. Stealing from corporations and such. But this isn’t about me. (I swear.)

“The Night Climbers of Cambridge” is the book we’re going to look at today, and it fits the bill for witty and light. (God Bless the English.) The black velvet cover, with barely visible text, announced itself as a book I would enjoy. (Yes, I judged the book by its cover.)

You’ll love the photos, because, who wouldn’t? A bunch of college kids, way back in 1937, took to climbing buildings at various colleges in Cambridge. Apparently, it was an established tradition. I’m only surprised they didn’t dress up in women’s clothing first. (Cheeky devils.)

The photographer was named Noël Howard Symington, though he took the nom-de-guerre Whipplesnaith. (As my wife would say, “Of course he did.”) He and his buddies did stupid-young-man stuff, but they lit it and took pictures too. How positively 21stCenturyJackassian of them.

So what’s the trouble then? Why did I bother to introduce ideas of appropriation and give you that juicy link to “Hot Dog?” Because the book is credited to the artist Thomas Mailaender, who collaborated with the famed Archive of Modern Conflict.

That’s right, it’s his book, not Mr. Symnington’s. The latter artist retains copyright, but the former owns the archive. So it’s his book, and his “art,” in re-introducing it.

What say you on the matter?

Honestly, I think appropriation can be among the most powerful tools an artist has. I take this, I claim it, I change it, and I subvert its intent. I am rebel, hear me whinge.

But here, it’s just someone buying someone else’s stuff and then putting his name on it. I mean, sure, there could be other motivations. Perhaps I’ll get a politely worded email from The Archive of Modern Conflict telling me that I’ve got it all wrong.

So be it.

Otherwise, I have a hard time understanding why some artists need to put their name on other people’s stuff. Found objects? OK. Anonymous pictures discovered in a scary attic in Iowa? Maybe. Maybe.

But when you know who made something, calling it yours isn’t art. It’s lazy. Why not just show us what you like, make the book, but don’t put your name on it? They call those people curators, no?

Or better yet, do what Quentin Tarantino does. He let’s his buddies say “Quentin Tarantino Presents,” like he did with RZA’s mostly crappy kung fu film, “The Man with the Iron Fists.”

Thomas Mailaender presents Noël Howard Symington. Clunky, sure, but at least it’s honest.

That’s my take anyway. As to the climbers? They’re awesome. Parkour before the trends. School prank with the whiff of possible death.

What’s not to like?

Bottom Line: Awesome photos of English college boys climbing pretty buildings

To Purchase “The Night Climbers of Cambridge” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Louie Palu

by Jonathan Blaustein

OK.

I know last week’s column was a little tough. Missing teenagers, presumed dead. Nothing funny about that.

So maybe you turn up this morning hoping for something lighter. A joke maybe?

How’s this one: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from all the assholes who keep telling jokes about why chickens cross roads. (You know, like me.)

Yes, even the jokes today are meta-and-annoying.

No, today is Wednesday, the day after the Republicans swept the elections, more or less, and now control both Houses of Congress in the United States. I’m well-aware that many of you live elsewhere, but still, this is a global story.

President Barack Obama now faces a legislative branch united in it’s hatred of him, and all the things he stands for. Hell, it wasn’t enough that the dude’s hair’s gone gray. Now he needs a bunch of rich white dudes blowing raspberries in his direction, and making fake fart noises every time he walks by.

(Hey Mitch, watch this. FFFFFFFTTT. Do ya get it? It sounds like a fart. Get it?)

I’m sure some of you are probably happy about the results, even though most all creative types are liberal. The odds are simply against every single one of you being disappointed today, so congrats on your success.

Me, I’m a bit blasé about the whole thing, simply because history shows this is what happens in a President’s 6th year. I even saw a tweet today that says the Senate has gone to the opposition party in every such election since FDR. (And if I read it on Twitter, it must be true.)

Overall, I’m pretty happy with what Obama has done, especially under the circumstances. If last week’s article has taught us anything, it’s that even Heads of State often lack the necessary power to do what they would like. Money is king these days, and probably always has been.

And kings are Kings, don’t forget.

One issue that probably rankles Obama’s base more than his Republican adversaries is Guantanamo Bay. Gitmo. That mystical prison at the edge of Cuba. The one he promised to close, and then didn’t.

Mostly because no one in America would allow those bearded savages to come into their prisons, their communities. (Yes, I’m being a tad ironic by calling them savages. They’re probably horrible pricks, but I can’t say that just because they’re suspected jihadis. We’ve never met in person.)

Those guys are hidden away. From all of us.

Sure, there have been some photo projects to emerge of late. Some that might have moved you. But essentially, that place is the mother-of-all-lockdowns. And we’re not meant to know what’s actually going on.

So I was thrilled when this concept newspaper, “Guantanamo: Operation Security Review” turned up in my mailbox the other day. It was made by Louie Palu, who gained access during official press tours between 2007-10. The deal required photogs to submit their digital cameras at the end of each day for government inspection. And file deletion.

The pictures here are taut, and fraught, if not horrifying. The fences. The chains. The beards. The dichotomy of white Christian people in camo soldier outfits, and tan Muslims on their knees, praying.

I was impressed, surprisingly, by the photos of the paper sheets that verify the “existence” of digital files that once “existed,” and have since been “destroyed.” The actual, tangible evidence of censorship. In the interest of safety? National Security?

Sure, maybe. But in light of the NSA spying scandal, it is hard to trust these days. Even in Barack Obama, and I love the guy. Wouldn’t want to be him right now, though.

NFW.

As for the prisoners, the whole issue has regained prominence in the wake of the ISIS territorial expansion. If released, would these guys be on battlefields within days? Or would they just want to hold their children?

Do they have children? Or wives? Or do they just want to blow themselves up so they can get busy with a gaggle of chaste virgins in heaven?

Should due process exist in a purported Democratic Republic? Can we hold these men in perpetuity? I have no idea. It seems a little extreme, but then so does the beheading of innocent journalists.

Honestly, this is one cluster-fuck of a situation with no potential for an easy solution. Even a difficult one is hard to imagine. Which is why it’s so important to see pictures like this from time to time. To remind us how much we don’t know.

Bottom Line: Fascinating concept newspaper, inside Gitmo

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This Week In Photography Books: Alejandro Cartagena

by Jonathan Blaustein

I quoted Joseph Goebbels in my college-entrance-essay. It’s true. Of all the strange things I’ve told you about myself, I bet that one tops the list. Hard to believe I was accepted anywhere at all, dropping Nazis into my text.

If I remember correctly, I mentioned his theory that with respect to propaganda, if you’re going to lie, lie big. The larger the falsehood, the more likely people are to swallow it. Or so he said.

Little fibs will be sussed out by a suspicious public, but outright fantasies, they might swallow. I’m sure my good buddy Vlad Putin was paying attention, the way he blames his attempted takeover of Ukraine on the Ukrainians.

Stay classy, VP.

That’s one way to perpetrate your population: to make shit up. Another way, quite the opposite, is to stop talking entirely. To use the shade of secrecy as a way of enveloping the truth. It’s equally insidious, when utilized properly.

I bring this up, as I caught up with Alejandro Cartagena last weekend in Los Angeles. (Culver City, to be exact.) He was at the Kopeikin Gallery for a new solo show, and as I was in town, I dropped in to give him un abrazo and see how he was doing.

For those of you who don’t read my stuff with perfect regularity, Alejandro is a Mexican photographer based in Monterrey. I interviewed him two years ago, and he shared with all of us the harrowing reality of living in the middle of an active war zone. The kidnappings, the fear, the murders in public places.

How Awful.

Now, I’ve been to Mexico twice in those intervening years. My folks spend time in Playa del Carmen in the winters, and I’ve basically been tasked with delivering my children to their door. Gotta see the grandkids, que no? Tourist Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula, is literally a thousand miles from the drama that Alejandro was enduring.

Lately, at least since President Nieto was elected, I’d heard very little about the Mexican Drug War. Almost nothing. Their economy was booming, went the conventional wisdom, and Nieto has taken on some of established monopolies. Things are looking up, it has been implied.

And then, a few weeks, ago, that horrible story broke. The 43 young college students who protested. How they were kidnapped by the local police. Hoarded into buses. Delivered to the Cartels. Never to be seen again. (Goebbels would be proud.)

That is among the worst things I’ve ever heard. And their bodies are hidden so well that the truth will probably never come out. Locked away in a cave somewhere, shrinking from the clarity of light.

I mentioned this to Alejandro. How I’d been suckered into thinking Mexico was on the way up. How foolish I felt, hearing how bad things really were. How naive.

It was no accident, he told me. That was the plan. Nieto’s big idea was to stop talking about the Drug War. Entirely. Denial by omission. A coordinated PR campaign in lieu of a genuine solution to the misery.

That’s what he told me, at least. And he pointed out that despite the publicity generated by the missing students, it was not properly reported on, how many mass graves were discovered while searching for the boys. Multiple mass graves. Lots of them. Each filled with decomposing bodies.

Casualties of War.

Now, sometimes, you come to this column to read funny things. I get it. I keep it light when I can. I’m not trying to ruin your morning coffee, or your lunch break, or your quiet-time looking at your iPhone on the light-rail home.

Forgive me.

But sometimes, in my duties as a quasi-reporter, I learn things. Things I ought to share. Here.

Alejandro is on my mind not just because I saw him a few days ago, but also because when I came home, I found “Carpoolers” in the mail. Wrapped up tight like an X-mas present. (Yes, the Christmas season is practically upon us. And it was just summer. WTF?)

The book was published by Conaculta/Fonca, and is a special production indeed. I included a photo of the wrapping, which was sealed with a sticker that says “please carpool.” A few extras are included with the book, seemingly encouraging you to tag them, Shepard Fairey style, to make the point that carpool lanes get you to work faster. Or save the planet by limiting carbon emissions. (Or something like that.)

The book is well-built, with a photo cut into the hard-cover, and a royal blue spine that matches the denim-on-denim dude in that image. He sits beside construction supplies, a ladder, and a bunch of junk. (Foreshadowing.)

We showed a few of these pictures in the aforementioned interview, but the whole endeavor has grown up like corn stalks out of a secret grave. The book makes sense as an object, and is experiential, like most of the books I’ve been reviewing of late.

The premise is simple. Alejandro hung out on an expressway overpass, and photographed poor Mexican workers on their way to work. It’s meticulous, getting the compositions just right, and I’d bet anything there are thousands upon thousands of misfires. (Occupational hazard.)

The reason the book sings is that he’s been able to develop patterns. Several times, we see the same truck, which seems impossible. Which guy didn’t make it to work that day, and which is there each time?

Are they reading the paper one day, and zoning out the next? Does the garbage get cleaned out, or is someone sleeping on the very same dirty piece of torn foam? Honestly, how did he do it? Find the same trucks more than once?

I have no idea.

There is a piece of newspaper included, halfway through, and I was curious why. (Except for the boob shot inside, because, as we all know, Boobs Sell Books.℠) Sure enough, the next few pictures depict the guys reading the local tabloid rag. A way to pass the time.

They’re all guys, now that I think about it. A few times, they look up and smile. Which breaks the implicit barrier between subject and shooter. Once or twice, they spy him and scowl. More what I’d expect, given the discomfort of the situation.

One time, apparently, Alejandro rode in the back of a truck himself. To get the vibe. He made photographs with the camera pointed up, documenting the view, which often featured helicopters. Ferrying Monterrey’s wealthy elite? Or perhaps a cartel jefe?

Who knows?

But this is one book that will give you a peek into a world you couldn’t possibly know. And I was happy to see it, even if it distracted me from thinking about those 43 stolen boys. RIP.

Bottom Line: Thoughtful, well-constructed view down into pick-up trucks in Mexico

To Purchase “Carpoolers” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Kris Vervaeke

by Jonathan Blaustein

I took my daughter into pre-school on Friday morning. For once, I wasn’t late. What a relief.

One step down the industrial-carpeted hallway, and I was hit in the face with the smell of puke. Vomit. Throw-up. Call it what you will.

The odor was intense, like a kung fu stuntman awaiting a high-wire scene. My goodness, was it unpleasant. And, of course, a horrible omen.

Not. Good.

By nightfall, she was projectile vomiting, my daughter. Fever too, though mild. I was wiping sick off the concrete floors for almost an hour, all together.

Normally, this would not be such a big deal. Kids take ill all the time, and pre-schools are notorious germ factories. All parents know that.

But now is not a normal time. Ebola panic is everywhere, and I’m getting on a plane on Wednesday. The moment she began to evacuate her stomach, the old-fashioned way, I had visions of myself retching into a barf bag, on a Southwest flight, while the pilot re-routed us to the nearest airport.

No joke.

Once a virus comes in the house, you’re really just waiting for it to get on with things. The waiting. It’s miserable. Compound that with fear of sparking a riot in the airport, as your fellow citizens rush away from you as quickly as their chubby, sweat-pants-wearing legs can carry them…

Like I said, not good.

Thankfully, if you can say such a thing at such a time, I got hit with the bug yesterday. Sunday. It was efficient, like Harvey Keitel’s cleaner in “Pulp Fiction.” No wasted effort. I started to feel bad in the late morning, was stuck in bed within the hour, had two quick puke sessions, and was asleep at my normal bedtime.

I woke up today, weakened, but otherwise OK. No appetite, true, but no fever. To be clear, I am not suggesting I have Ebola. Just the opposite. But it’s insane that we’re living in a world where a simple stomach bug can set off that kind of fear.

Fear of death. Fear of misery. Fear of leaving this world, to be forgotten. Forever.

(Sorry. Didn’t mean to freak you out. We’re all going to be OK.)

But it did get me thinking about all those nameless people dying in West Africa. They don’t stand a chance, those guys. You eat a piece of bushmeat, and the next thing you know, your eyes are bleeding and you go to the local shaman for help? Are we really living in 2014?

Sometimes, I wonder.

We all die, and then they have to put us somewhere. A cemetery, most likely. But who even knows who goes where, once your immediate family submits to the ravages of time. I once photographed a gravestone from 1776 that was smack dab in the middle of a suburban front yard in Jersey. (You never know how things will end up, centuries hence.)

But I wasn’t thinking those things as I perused “Ad Infinitum,” a new book put out by Kris Vervaeke. In fact, the only thing I was thinking was, “What the fuck is going on here?” (And “Thank god my son’s asthma attack, ten minutes ago, because he inhaled a bunch of garage dust swept up by the plumber, at his grandma’s house, wasn’t serious.)

On first viewing, this book was perfectly obscure. Page upon page of pictures of Chinese-looking people, faded away. Creepy business. Were the portraits bleached? Photoshop? Who are they? Why are there so many of them? (Insert random billion chinese-people joke here.)

No. Seriously. There was no text. No titles. Nothing.

For once, I’ll admit I skipped and flipped. Because there were so many of them. The monotony. All those portraits. (Ad infinitum.)

I couldn’t find anything at all. I turned it upside down. I flipped from the back. What?

Finally, I noticed that the page numbers were interrupted. They ran up, and then started over again. A clue?

I sourced out the point of interruption, and found a one page statement that explained what was going on. Honestly, I was a shade disappointed. Sure, it was good to hear the backstory. Clarifying.

These are portraits from headstones in a cemetery in Hong Kong. They have been separated from their owners’ names, out of respect, but also to create the sense of disorientation that hit me so squarely. They are faded, and destroyed, because they have been subject to the elements. Worn down by the undefeated prize fighter extraordinaire: Time.

I was only-a-little-sad to learn the truth, simply because I thought I was looking at the first book I’ve seen yet that had the guts to tell nothing at all. No hints. Which would have eventually pissed me off, and maybe I wouldn’t have reviewed the book? Tough call.

But this one has a haunting quality to it that seemed perfect in the run-up to Halloween. And ideal for me to dive into on a sick day, home, watching pointless movies on cable. Waiting to get better, so that I can just be some anonymous dude at the airport on Wednesday. Arousing no suspicion at all.

Bottom Line: Creepy and obscure portraits from a Hong Kong cemetery

To Purchase “Ad Infinitum” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Berhnard Fuchs

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was riding in the car with my son, just the other day. He recently turned 7. As we approached my old studio, which I left in 2013, he let out a big sigh. It was demonstrative, that sigh.

Weighted.

“I miss your old studio,” he said. “I miss the good old days. Those were some good times, back then. We used to look at animal videos on Youtube, and play with stuff, and Juma the barber was still alive. He used to give me pretzels. We’d visit the Montoyas. Your landlords. They’re nice people, and they’re going to die soon too.”

“Those were some good times,” he finished.

Again, I stress this child is 7.

“You mean,” I said, “that you miss the days when you were 4? Back when life was simpler, and you didn’t have to do homework in 1st grade?”

“Exactly,” he answered.

“There’s a word for that,” I said. “It’s called nostalgia. It means you long for the easy days of your youth. It’s a kind of sadness that makes you feel good at the same time. It’s a complicated emotion. A first for you, I think.”

“Nostalgia,” he said. And then promptly forgot the word. But we did stop the car to visit the Montoyas, who are nearing 90, unwell, and not long for this world. His deep sigh, which kicked off the entire conversation, led us to visit our elders, which is always a mitzvah.

It’s funny how that thought-pattern seems so deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Did our ancestors used to say things like,

“Grog, I really miss that cave we used to live in, back in those mountains over that way. You know, the one by the broken tree near that river? The smell of bat shit was so pungent, its true, and we never saw the sun. But those were some good times, in that cave, making fires and painting horses on the wall with berry juice.”

I wonder.

I wonder, especially now, having just put down “Woodlands,” a new book by Berhnard Fuchs, published by Koenig. Back in 2011, when I first started this book review column, I reviewed a book by Mr. Fuchs. Those were some good days. I don’t remember his book, exactly, but if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have written about it.

This one, entirely made of color landscape pictures, was photographed in the land of his youth. I’m guessing it’s Germany, but I suppose it could be Austria.

Either way…

In a short, but relevant opening passage, Mr. Fuchs says these tree-filled hills bring him back to his youth, and give him a feeling of “everydayness.” (Which is a kind way of saying it all looks alike.)

You can feel the longing buried amongst the snow and gray skies. There are green, summery pictures too, for sure, but they all deny me the deep horizon that I crave, living in New Mexico, where I can see for 100 miles. They’re claustrophobic, these pictures, and there are a lot of them.

By the end, I was rushing through to get to the end, so I could breathe again. There are a few photographs that are stellar, on their own, but mostly, this is another experiential book.

You feel the place.

You get nostalgic, even if it’s for a city somewhere, or an island, or a waterfall that’s only for you.

There are no cultural markers here. No road signs. No irony, really. It is what is says it is. Woodlands.

Home.

Bottom Line: A seductive sameness in the woodlands of Germany

To Purchase “Woodlands” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Nicolo Degiorgis

by Jonathan Blaustein

I once made fun of the Chinese government. It’s true. You can look it up in the APE archives. I was defending Ai Weiwei, when he was unfairly incarcerated, and I said some rather indelicate things.

These days, the evil enemy de rigeur is ISIS, or ISIL, depending on which acronym you prefer. Those guys are genuinely awful, but I think I’ll stop short of name calling this time.

Why?

Because those fuckers are so crazy, and Internet-Savvy, they might just send a sleeper over the Mexican border to come chop off my head. So, to be clear, I’m not making fun of you, ISIS. I’m merely pointing out your preference for horrifying, anarchic violence, in the name of worshipping your deity. (Different strokes, different folks, I always say.)

One of the sad facts of the ISIS ascendance is that they cast a pall over the many millions, if not billions, of peaceful, law-abiding, God-loving Muslims around the planet. Those folks wouldn’t behead a fly, unless it was buzzing around their head incessantly. Then, maybe they’d just swat at it, trying desperately to make it go away, before they had to resort to insect murder.

Please, Mr. Fly, go somewhere else. Leave me alone. I bear you no ill will. I will not kill you unless you leave me no choice.

Muslims are people, like Jews and Christians and Buddhists and Hindus and Zoroastrians. Here in the United States, we talk a good game about respecting religious freedom. Hell, I can even remember that classic asshole George W. Bush declaring that Muslims were not the enemy, right after 9/11, and right after he put Iran and Iraq on the Axis of Evil list. (Mixed messages much, George?)

We may allow religious freedom here, but that doesn’t mean it flies elsewhere, even in the developed world. Apparently, though Islam is the second largest religion in Italy, after Catholicism, there are only 8 official mosques in the entire country. How can I rattle off this specific statistic so easily?

Good question.

I read it in a Martin Parr-scribed introduction to “Hidden Islam,” a new book by Nicolo Degiorgis, recently published by Rorhof, in Italy. The book is subtitled “Islamic Makeshift Places of Worship in North East Italy, 2009-2013,” so let’s not count this one among the many books that try to fool you, or dare you to figure out what the heck is going on.

Frankly, I really liked the clarity. It helped me adjust to the bleak, generic, black and white buildings that are broken down into categories on the cover as well. (Warehouses, shops, supermarkets, etc.)

I didn’t read the introduction right away, because I sometimes skip the text. (Dirty secret time.) Also, I didn’t see it, at first. It wasn’t obviously there.

I was turning the pages gingerly, for a while, believing this was one more book that used double-page, sewn spreads, just to make it seem more significant. Then, halfway through, one of the pages started to come undone. So I pulled it the rest of the way, hoping I wasn’t ruining it. (Again, I don’t get to keep these books. You break it, you bought it.)

To my great surprise, I had stumbled upon a color image of the inside of the makeshift mosque, with many people kneeling on the ground in prayer. Say what now?

I tried the trick again, and found it was, in fact, the way the book was built. Hidden Islam indeed.

The juxtaposition of the banal black and white and the revelatory color images is terrific. Really smartly done. Not something I’ve seen before, at least, not that I can easily recall.

This book is earnest, and means to show us things we cannot otherwise see. And it takes aim at some conservative fat cats in Northern Italy, who don’t allow the migrant worker Muslims to pray in any sort of official capacity. So that’s admirable, as one can imagine some of those power brokers are connected to the Mafia. The Cosa Nostra. Ndgragheta. (Call them what you will.)

I can’t claim that the photos within the book are legendarily good. But they don’t have to be. As I’ve said many times before, a book is an experience, when done properly. And this experience was memorable.

May we all, someday, live in a world where we can worship as we please. A world, I would hope, where murderous psychopaths in pickup trucks have been put in their proper place. (I don’t mean you, ISIS. You guys are swell. If you’re into that sort of thing. It’s all relative, right?)

Bottom Line: Terrific, sly book that shows us private moments of worship

To Purchase “Hidden Islam” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Keliy Anderson-Staley

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a young student named Montanna. She grew up in the hinterlands of Virginia, but recently moved to the boonies of New Mexico. (Confused yet?)

Montanna often walks 5 miles to and from the bus stop, each way, if she wants to make it to school. She said her folks don’t always have enough gasoline to drive her up the dirt road. Other times, she stays with a neighbor who lives close to the highway.

Yes, we’re living 2014 out here.
I swear.

New Mexico was just ranked 50th out of 50 states in poverty rate, which is nothing to brag about. The allure of the Wild West comes with a price, I’m afraid. And it’s often hardest on the youth.

Montanna is a committed and bright photographer, so I’d be surprised if she didn’t claw her way success. That type of hardship builds character. It etches itself into one’s countenance, like wrinkles on an orangutan’s face.

Co-incidentally, I saw Montanna staring back at me from a sheet of metal, just the other day.

We had an outdoor art festival here in Taos, last Friday evening. The Native American photographer Will Wilson set up a make-shift studio along the main street. A friend dragged me out at night to see it, which was the equivalent of Dracula venturing out in the daytime.

I bumped into several of my students waiting in line, and watched Mr. Wilson make Montanna’s portrait, using the wet plate collodion process. Then they disappeared into his tent/darkroom, along with the Project Runway contestant Patricia Michaels, who was having her picture made at the same time. (Unfortunately, Heidi Klum couldn’t make it.)

The trio emerged, a few minutes later, and Montanna beamed as she held her tin type for all to see. (Yes, it was dark out, but the bright flood lights more than made up for the black sky.) The portrait managed to capture her toughness, her freckles, and her determination.

I have to say, it was remarkable. These are young artists shooting with cell phones, so the old-school technique demonstrated the magic we all remember, back in the chemical days. It was a revelation for them.

The ubiquity of computerized photographs alters how we view historical processes. They become that much more precious, and the labor involved assumes added import. When everything is so easy, why make it harder on yourself?

It’s a fair question, and one that today’s book can help us answer. “On a Wet Bough” is a large, red hardcover by Keliy Anderson-Staley, released by the nascent publisher Waltz Books, in Indiana.

The artist, whom the end notes tell us was raised “off the grid,” has been making tin types for years. According to the text, we also learn she’s extremely prolific, which suggests she’s patient, hard-working, and perhaps a tad obsessed. (She’d probably be a perfect mentor for young Montanna, come to think of it.)

The book is filled with portraits, made in the style of the 19th Century. But these are not pictures we might confuse with olden days. They’re clearly contemporary.

The sitters stare seriously at the camera, with many a mad-dog look in their eyes. Others seem sad, some are contemplative. Did she tell them not to smile? How much time did she spend with each person? Was she trying to capture their individual souls, or is it more about her desire acquire a volume of personalities?

I was startled to see a few photo-world folks looking at me, like Brian Clamp, Doug DuBois, and Christian Patterson. It broke the illusion that these were all strangers, lacking histories I could easily access. I suppose that’s only an insider read, but surely she considered its impact on a certain type of viewer. (Especially as photographers are typical buyers of photobooks.)

Initially, I wasn’t as captivated as I expected to be. Perhaps it’s because the unique quality of the metal object is essentially lost, once it’s digitized and embedded in paper? That would make sense. Making a book destroys the inherent nature of the pictures.

But then I got to a couple of portraits of shirtless men rocking chest hair. What? The texture and the oddity brought me back into the moment. They were great pictures, but also added a touch of funk and originality that was theretofore lacking.

Next, we get to a section of dual portraits and group pictures that definitely had more zing. Why is that? Does Ms. Anderson-Staley have an easier time chatting when there are more people around? Is it just a coincidence?

Frankly, these types of pictures will always be compared with Julia Margaret Cameron. Fair or not, it’s going to happen. It gives me extra appreciation for Ms. Cameron’s relationship with her sitters, that allowed her to make pictures that really do haunt, two lifetimes later.

These pictures don’t rise to that level, but why should they? They’re from another time, and were cranked out by the hundreds. So I think that’s an inappropriate standard. Especially as this is an accomplished project in its own right.

In a book, seen in the LED glow of 2014, the pictures have a weight and a power I think you’ll appreciate. And they stand as a great reminder that hard work is often its own reward, as cheesy at that might sound in our “selfie-ish” era.

Bottom Line: Very-well-made book of old-school tin type portraits.

To Purchase “On a Wet Bough” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Shore

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant the other day. My Dad was across the table; we were both a little sketched out. The joint seemed like a front for the mob: dirty, empty, and unintentional.

Dad was buying with a coupon, so I guess I already appear ungrateful. Which might end up as the theme of the column, when all is said and done. (Yes, that is foreshadowing.)

We were waiting for our tacos when the door flew open. Dramatically. In stepped a very large, crew-cut, blue-eyed man dressed like rancher, in jeans and a Western shirt. He was sporting a baseball cap that made reference to Texas. (I couldn’t say beyond that, exactly, as he was moving rather quick.)

Behind him marched a procession of five children and a wife, all wearing homemade long dresses and bright-white bonnets. They looked Amish, or like refugees from a compound in Utah that they featured on “Big Love.” It was a little bit Kubrick, to say the least.

Stranger still, once they got settled, the big man began speaking, very loudly, to two Mexican men, the only other patrons in the place. Fluently. In Mexican-accented Spanish.

I did a triple-take.

Odder-yet-still, within five minutes, he began singing. In Spanish. At the top of his lungs. In the middle of lunch.

What?

I had no frame of reference.

Sometimes, life catches you by surprise, like a leopard pouncing on a lady who’s just out to wash the laundry. There’s no way to prepare.

That’s how I felt when I opened up the new Stephen Shore book, “From Galilee to the Negev,” recently published by Phaidon. Wouldn’t you know, it was the next book on my stack, after last week’s genius Israel offering by Rosalind Fox Solomon.

Stephen Shore, doing Israel, for the “This Place” folks? How lucky was I? How lucky are you?

Awkward silence.
Fingers pausing on the keyboard.
How to proceed?

All right, I’ll just be honest. I found this book less-than-enthralling. Slightly under-dramatic. It’s hard to believe he’s covering the same country as Ms. Solomon. No sooner than I’d written about the tension in the air, the vibe pulsing through everything in its path, than I open up this book.

I know, many of you will consider it blasphemous that I’d even hint at criticizing a master of the medium. A member of the metaphorical Mt Rushmore of 20th Century photography. How dare he, you might think.

I get it. That’s why I chose to review the book, if you call this a review. I’ll let you see some photos and make up your own mind.

Mr. Shore, at his best, managed to squeeze deep pathos into the most meaningless of situations. That’s his hallmark, a level of perception that supersedes mere mortals. Not to mention his subtlety with color, and super-sharp large format negatives.

In this book, there is not a lot of life. (No chutzpah, if you will.)

What happened?

I couldn’t tell you. Which makes it interesting. How does a great artist go to a fascinating place and not make fascinating pictures? How did Baz Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” end up so bad I couldn’t make it 10 minutes into the film?

Not to suggest that this book is bad. It’s not. It just depicts a place entirely more placid than in the books I reviewed by Mr. Brenner and Ms. Solomon.

Am I an ingrate? To expect greatness from a great artist? Are average fish tacos worth it, if you don’t have to pay for them? Did that big Texan break his family out from some Branch-Dividian-esque compound near Waco?

I have no idea.

If I were a betting man, I’d say they were his kids, he does ranch work near the Mexican border, and makes his family dress differently than he does. I’d also bet that Mr. Shore enjoyed making these pictures as much as he did in his stuff from the 70’s.

It’s hard not to see this project as something like the Rolling Stones might make at this stage of their career. They keep touring, and people keep buying tickets to hear “Satisfaction” in person. Their fans are thrilled to get the experience, and consider it money well spent.

Am I being unfair to Mr. Shore, when I compare his book directly with two others that were made in the same place? Or by expecting his work to reach the same heights it did years ago? Are these questions worth asking?

Let’s finish by wishing you a Happy New Year. If you celebrate that sort of thing.

Bottom Line: Confusing book about Israel from a master

To Purchase “From Galilee to the Negev” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Rosalind Fox Solomon

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I know a photographer who won’t tell people he/she is Jewish. It’s a secret. He/she worries for his/her safety, if the information ever got out.

I still remember the fantasy of Barack Obama’s inaugural days as President, when people spoke of a post-racial society. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. How ridiculous that idea seems, in retrospect.

There is, and has always been, the other. People who don’t look like you, talk like you, or copulate like you. People who worship a deity with a different name.

Them.

They’re not like us.

Me, I admit I’m Jewish in this column all the time. Why? It feels a touch defiant, as my people are disliked by many. Growing up, in the 70’s and 80’s, I still felt like I ought to keep my identity on the downlow. And this was in the orbit of New York City, no less.

I suppose I revel in the rebellion of claiming membership in a controversial tribe. “The Tribe,” as we often call ourselves. If it ever comes back to bite me, this freedom of identification, I suppose you can say “I told you so.”

As I mentioned some time back, I visited Israel when I was young, but have yet to return. I’m hoping the opportunity presents itself, but I guess we’ll have to see. It’s a country that is claimed by many, and owned by few. A more tortured history, you’re unlikely to find. (Insert random suffering reference here.)

The Jews were expelled for daring to stand up to the Romans. A diaspora of millions, created with the stroke of a pen. (Or a quill? What would those Romans have written with, I wonder?)

Regardless, the Palestinians were kind-of-ejected as well, and they’d like to get it back. The Christians, too, feel a deep connection, as it was the birthplace of the Jewish man Jesus, a messiah to some.

Regardless of which side you root for, it’s not a stretch to say the tension is carried through the air, there, like heat waves rising off of pale cobblestones. The wounds might never heal. Or perhaps they will? Who am I to speculate?

But that tension, that crippling feeling in your stomach, pulsates through “Them,” a new book by Rosalind Fox Solomon, recently published by MACK.

This book is one of the series commissioned by the project “This Place,” which invited major artists to Israel to poke around. A month or so ago, I reviewed an excellent book by Frederic Brenner, from the same series, and I might do more still, if the quality is this good going forward.

Open it up, and the first page shows a tourist holding a map of Israel, talking to two African women. It sets the scene, in a subtle way. Then, three words on otherwise blank pages: the holy longing. Afterwards, a photograph of a sere, desolate desert. It’s safe to guess we’re in the Holy Land. (At least, I did.)

I wasn’t aware, when I first perused, that this book was a part of “This Place.” I was curious what motivated the production. I hate to repeat words, but it’s just so cripplingly tense. It made me physically uncomfortable, turning the pages.

So much passion. Anger. Dismay. Banality. Drama.

There are text breaks on blank pages throughout, and they might crack through your veneer of world-weariness:

“you don’t understand”
“i want my kids to live in peace”
“god is here for everyone”
“security will be suspicious”
“i love you i love you i love you”
“take care of your mother/ i’ll call you tomorrow.”

Needless to say, those lines could have been uttered by anyone wrapped up in the conflict. They’re universal, which is part of the book’s message, I suppose. When so many have been done wrong, over so long, who can claim a superiority of suffering?

I almost skipped to the end of this book, several times, just to break the spell. I wanted it to be over, the unpleasant perceptiveness. I wanted to feel safe again, in my own house, with asshole neighbors, yes, but not ones who wanted to kill me.

I resisted. The urge, that is. It’s my job to look at these books and report to you, so I stayed strong and went one page at a time. Like a good boy.

It’s rare that I pick up a book and have it affect me this palpably. It’s experiential, this one, so much so that I haven’t really mentioned the successful use of black and white, or the square frame. So many of these pictures appear as if they could have been made 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago. They feel timeless and fresh at the same time.

Despite the fact that the end credits name-drop some heavy hitters in the art world, and that the invited artists were all meant to be “prominent,” I’d never heard of Ms. Solomon before.

Too bad for me.

She is clearly an insightful, creative, and powerful artist, near the top of her craft. For as many books as I see, for one to crack me over the skull like this is worth mentioning again. You might consider buying this one.

It’s special.

Bottom Line: Masterful depiction of every-day life in a perpetual conflict zone

To Purchase “Them” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Lucas Foglia

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I went for a little walkabout this morning, with three of my students. (Making pictures, of course.) The ladies are all in High School, and were born and raised here in Taos. None has left town very often, from what I can gather.

One went to visit some family in California this Summer. But it was only San Bernardino, which is kind of depressing. (Unless you love smog so thick that it makes mountains invisible. In which case, you might love it there.)

I tried to explain to the young photographers that when you’ve never left a place, or had the context of other cultures flashed before your eyes, you have to work a little harder to understand what makes a place unique. No sooner than I’d said that, we passed an old house that was cracked in two, with a rickety outhouse behind it.

I remind you, this is 2014.

I asked, “Do you think someone would find a functioning outhouse interesting in New York City? Or LA?” They agreed it was likely, but didn’t find an outhouse so unusual in their own lives. And then there was the broken-down-blue-school-bus on someone’s front lawn, which sported a giant rusted saw blade on the back, as an ornament.

We soon found ourselves at an old chapel, Nuestra Senora de Dolores, from 1873. That, they agreed, would be interesting to folks in the outside world too. I investigated the backyard, and found a well-preserved headstone. The woman buried beneath my feet had been born in 1845, when the land was still called Mexico.

“Can you believe it,” I wondered? They could, in fact, believe it. So much so that only one could be bothered to come take a look. Things like that aren’t so special here, though I’m sure they reek of American West authenticity, to you.

People have always been, and I venture will always be fascinated with the Frontier culture out here. It’s drawn dropouts from elsewhere, like me, and camera-toting tourists on day trips for as long as there have been cameras. It never gets old, but it does change. (Like Taos going from Native American territory, to New Spain, to Mexico, to America in short order.)

Given my confidence in your expected interest, how could I not review Lucas Foglia’s new book, “Frontcountry,” recently published by Nazraeli. The answer is, I could, and I will.
So let’s get to it.

Truth be told, I saw a show of some of this work in a gallery I’d never heard of, when I visited NYC last April. Speaking of change, Chelsea stays the same, but the names of the spaces are in constant rotation. This one, Fredericks & Freiser, was new, so I hope it’s still around.

I didn’t love the prints on the wall. They didn’t have a lot of pop. And I didn’t have a lot of time. But as I’ve learned, and have tried to share with you, a book is a completely different experience than a gallery exhibition. It’s in your hands, in your home, and there are often many more pictures to peruse, at your leisure.

Mr. Foglia does come across as a wandering, wondering, researching photographer. His first book, which I also reviewed, looked at a subculture of people who have returned to living in the wild. This one focuses on a much larger population of people who live off the land, but have always done so. Cowboys. Ranchers. Western types.

I give him props for his technical ability, and for his dogged desire to paint a holistic picture of life out in the West. The book leans heavily on Nevada and Wyoming in particular, so the world looks a little different from the one I inhabit. (A lot whiter, that is.) There are more natural resources around those parts, so mining and extraction make their way inside the pages as well.

Co-incidentally, there is a picture made here in Taos, yet it feels like a bit of a throw-in. But the rest of the book is seamless. Guns, cow entrails, exploded homes, mounds of garbage bags full of beer cans, soccer players juxtaposed against staggering mountains, a dude balancing on a fence post waiting to shoot coyotes. Basically, life for many in the mountainous fly-over states.

I don’t mean to impugn Mr. Foglia for not being “one of us.” That’s a freedom the West allows. You come out here, try to fit in, and before you know it, you speak with a twang, under certain circumstances. He’s a good enough artist that the thoroughness will win you over. (Though I do wonder if a tad more emotional resonance might have pushed the project over the top.)

These are some very well executed large format pictures. There’s a shot of a bulldozer roaming over coal mounds that’s so sharp, it looks like a model. Not real at all. I wondered, did he hit it with a big flash, or has he switched over to using a digital camera? Doesn’t matter. Great shot.

There are maps at the end, to orient you, which further amps up the anthropological bent. It’s not the West of Wenders, or Shore, who bottled up nostalgia and emotion, despite themselves.

It’s more the West as Gursky might do it. Clean. Clinical. And very much a project that represents what it sees, as best it can.

Like I said before, people will always eat this shit up. And photographers will always come out this way to take their shot. Like the suckers who keep trying to beat Jon Jones. They can’t help themselves.

This book, at the very least, will clue you in to a reality that you normally have to see for yourself. It’s excellent, and I heartily recommend it. Adios, partner.

Much obliged.

Bottom Line: Excellent, clinical view of the contemporary Wild West

To Purchase “Frontcountry” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Vincent Delbrouck

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was talking today with Marcie, my new Native American friend. She’s from the Taos Pueblo, and we really enjoy chatting about art, culture, religion. Stuff like that.

No matter how much you might feel a spiritual connection with Native American views on the sacred nature of Earth, it feels trite when you’re not raised in that culture. (If you’re white, I mean.) Which lends a certain frisson to the conversation.

To be frank, Marcie doesn’t give off the vibe that I’m a poseur. Just the opposite. She’s open, honest, and nonjudgmental. Rather, the voices in my head are self-generated. Too many hours digesting post-modern theory in graduate school, I suppose.

Of course, the Native Americans are not the ones who believe that Nature is sacred. There are strains of Buddhist tradition that teach of Inter-connectedness, or Inter-being. We are all one. I am the rocks. You are the trees. We are all made up of the particles of the Universe.

It’s profound.

In the course of our conversation, Marcie asked if I was actually Jewish? I replied that of course I was, because in my religion, you are born that way. (If your mother is Jewish, you’re a Jew.) She pushed forward, asking if I actually practiced? Did I believe?

“That’s a tougher question,” I replied. I’m like a religious version of the aforementioned Post-Modernism: a pastiche. A little of this, a little of that. So many of us are, these days.

But I do like to meditate, when I have the time, and believe that the silent absence of something can be just as powerful as presence. I’d rather have a clear, empty mind than an over-driven, neurotic, Woody-Allen-inner-monologue any day of the week.

Given that, and my oft-professed love of seeing something I’ve never seen before in a photo book, how could I not review “Some Windy Trees,” a new self-published soft-cover book by Vincent Delbrouck in Belgium?

Open it up, and after the requisite blank page, you find yourself looking at a solitary, windblown tree. The book contains several such images. Trees you want to stare at for a while. They’re so lonely. And beautiful. Mountains in the background too.

Turn the page, and you see nothing. Just more blank white paper. (As I once titled a photograph of my own, paper comes from trees.)

As I flipped through, I did a triple take. He keeps interspersing emptiness. At one point, you actually flip twice before you come to the next photo. I have definitely never seen that before. Empty pages on purpose. Who does that?

This guy, apparently.

There is a random insert of a scribbled drawing in bright red. Not blood red. Candy-cane red. Santa Claus red. Christmas-time red.

The back page tells us the pictures were made in high, windy valley in Nepal. (I suppose the cover image hints at the Himalayas.) A portion of the proceeds from each book will go to a foundation that supports the preservation of this particular region, called Mustang.

That same red repeats on the back cover, which is where we find the title. (That, I have seen before, as you regular readers will well know.)

I’m more than sure that some of you will think me crazy for celebrating someone for leaving photos out of a photo book. But what does it do? It focuses the mind. It draws attention to what is there. And it also gives off the whiff of enlightenment, that ephemeral state which the Himalayan Buddhists eternally seek.

Bottom Line: Strange, zen pictures of Himalayan trees from a Belgian

To Purchase “Some Windy Trees” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

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