Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books: Sally Mann

by Jonathan Blaustein

I write about my kids all the time.
You know this.

(You, the faceless crowd of e-readers.)

I remember in the Summer of 2012, when my daughter was born, I shared my confusion about changing her first diaper. How do you deal with a tiny vajayjay?

Are you gentle, like handling a fragile print? Or do you have at it, like scrubbing a recalcitrant dish in the sink. (Off, spaghetti sauce, off!)

It felt edgy to write about such things.
Transgressive.

But never would I ever post pictures of her little lady parts. Never, ever, ever.

Never.

Our relationships with our loved ones are so personal. They define us, really, even though we pretend our work is more important. I’m guilty of it myself, though if you asked me to give up my creative pursuits, or my kids, it wouldn’t be a choice at all. (Goodbye camera. Goodbye keyboard.)

Just yesterday, while teaching my photo class, a student began to cry as we discussed a picture of her granddaughter. There were two photos in succession, one a sweet, generic, black and white shot of a girl smelling a bouquet of flowers, her eyes closed.

Seen it before. On a greeting card.

The very next image, however, was of the same girl, in color, standing with an arched back, staring daggers into the camera. Her red dress was echoed by the red roses. Other flowers, also in color, surrounded her head like a halo. She was not happy, but we couldn’t know why.

Everyone in class loved the second picture, and tried to explain to the photographer why it was so much better than the first.

Personal. Intimate. Honest. Engaging. Edgy.

The eyes had a story to tell, and we wanted to know more. She began to cry, hurt all over again, reliving the moment where the young girl leaked misery. Her granddaughter had taken her glasses off for the shot, and considered herself hideous. The other kids teased her. (She wanted to cry, so her grandmother, her proxy, did instead.)

We talked about how pictures that surprise us, that give us the unexpected, that walk the line of propriety, are the ones we remember. We compared the first picture to the shot that comes in the frame when you buy it, and the second with the picture you put in the frame once you’ve removed the filler.

I promised my student that the pain she was feeling, the raw emotion, if channelled properly, would lead to photo gold. If she could handle it properly. If she had the courage to look at her life with a penetrating gaze, and then share it with the rest of us.

It’s a big if. Most people shy away from the cliff, when it heads straight down to the Rio Grande river, 650 feet below.

But not Sally Mann.

No sir.

Sally Mann made some pictures back in the 80’s, of her life, of her children, wild and feral, running naked around the Virginia countryside, and we still talk about them to this day.

Hell, I’m talking about them now, having just put down Aperture’s re-issued publication of “Immediate Family,” which I plucked from my photo-eye box a little while ago.

Such. Great. Stuff.

It’s hard to write about something that people know so well. We all feel attached to what we love, even if it’s someone else’s work. (Quick sidebar: two red tailed hawks just screeched over my own country valley, and right now, they’re careening around the sky outside my window.)

Where were we?

These pictures were guaranteed to shock, as they showed off the naked bodies of young children. How could that not draw ire and anger in a predominantly Christian country like America? It had to, right? (Cue the ghost of Jesse Helms nodding slowly.)

But get past the nudity, and you see some striking imagery. The picture of the child’s legs covered with flour paste? Never before have I seen something alive look so dead. I really wish I’d made that picture. Even the crop, chopping off the feet, is genius.

Ramping up the tension, it hurts my viscera just thinking about it.

We see skinned squirrels, dead deer, and children living in a make-believe land of wonder. An imaginary playland that must look like Kiddie Heaven, when seen from above.

The picture of the little child covered in a shroud, as if dead, only reinforces the dark juju running through this world. A touch of “Lord of the Flies” invading Never Neverland.

Really, fantastic stuff.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Bottom Line: A re-issued classic.

To Purchase “Immediate Family” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Melissa Ann Pinney

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got yelled at on Monday. (It was expected, but unpleasant.) Sometimes, even when you know what’s coming, you still can’t get out of the way.

We’d just changed the hours of our art labs at UNM-Taos, and as the Chair of the Fine Arts Department, a low-level manager in an unwieldy bureaucracy, it was my job to enforce the rules.

There’s an old saying about killing messengers, and as I stepped through the open door of the Print lab, I was fairly sure that drama was imminent. The door was meant to be closed, locked, the better for students to see the fresh sign declaring our new schedule.

I knew the man in the far corner of the room. He’d been to my wedding, though we didn’t speak that night. His parents were friends with my in-laws, his late Aunt one of the most famous actresses who’d ever lived.

That didn’t matter, as he’d been sharp with me in the past, and had an edge about him like a red aura. (Is red the color of angry auras? I don’t know, but it seems appropriate.) He glared at me, begging for trouble, waiting for the slightest provocation.

I tried to sound confident as I told him he couldn’t be here, even though he was. The rules had changed, it was decided by my superiors, not my idea, just doing my job. A not-my-fault ramble that was never going to succeed.

“You’re a liar,” he shrieked!

Spittle flew like paper airplanes, slowly arching towards the ground.

“A liar! This is all your fault! You’re trying to ruin the Printmaking department! I know you are!”

I could see I was getting nowhere, so I retreated to marshall reinforcements. I returned with a calm, confident administrator, one better accustomed to dealing with the crazies, and wielding bureaucratic power with a sense of finality.

He listened to her as he couldn’t with me. As I opened my mouth to speak, his face flushed again, and he bellowed, “Back off, Junior,” at the top of his lungs.

As there were now two of us to deal with problem, when only one was strictly necessary, I left the room, crossed the hall, and began to teach my photography class. The stress chemicals pulsed through my bloodstream, but I knew I’d be OK in a little while.

Back across the hall, two people still talked about rules, and systems, and why change is hard. Fortunately, this pair was able to communicate well enough. (Better than the first pair, anyway.)

I’m in mind of such things after having read, and perused, “TWO,” a new book by Melissa Ann Pinney, edited by Ann Patchett, published last year by Harper Design.

Ms. Pinney gave me this book in September, shortly after I’d finished my “21st Century Hustle” lecture at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. She paid me a nice compliment, handed it over, and asked that I take a look at it when I had some time.

This happens to me fairly often, at festivals, and as there was a long line of people waiting to speak with me, I said thank you, and tucked it away. It came home with me, and my wife placed it prominently on the shelf. (At least SHE thought it was special.)

It must have been Ms. Pinney’s mellow, polite mien, because the event didn’t stick in my mind. A couple of months later, she emailed to see what I thought of the book. Embarrassed, I realized I ought to take look at the thing.

I took it off the shelf, and promptly did a double-take. No, a triple-take, when I saw the cover. This photobook featured essays by Elizabeth Gilbert, Barbara Kingsolver, and Susan Orlean.

What now?

In fact, ten prominent authors had contributed stories, and Ms. Pinney’s bio, on the back-flap, stated her work was in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a few other massive institutions.

This was a prominent, important artist, working with major writers, and somehow, in our little micro-moment, none of that came across. No ego, no attitude, nothing beyond a few gracious words, patiently expressed.

I felt ashamed, and promised myself I’d give the book its due, once I had the time.

Well, today, 4 months later, I was able to stop my natural momentum, get on the couch, and start reading this thing. Reading pictures, yes, but reading words, more importantly, as that’s what sets this book apart.

The pictures in “TWO,” shot in many places, over decades, are uniformly well-made. Good light, good color, nice balance. Always, there is two of something; a pair of objects or people that imply narrative.

Or they’re meant to. Who are they? How are they related? What are they doing? What does it mean?

Normally, that’s what I’d ask myself. But I wasn’t actually sucked in to the imagery. It didn’t grab my heart, or my gut, and force me to contemplate.

But each time I came upon a story, I read. I skipped nothing, reading, reading, and then looking at the photographs in between.

Slowly, with each passing story, the book reeled me in. It humanized the photos, to the point that I’d pay heightened attention to each successive suite of pictures, after I’d finished the previous tale, poem, or essay.

I felt like the relationship between me, and this object, was deepening with each successive minute. At first I’d been neglectful, then skeptical, and finally entranced.

In my 4.5 years of reviewing books, I can’t think of a book quite like this. The pictures need the stories, and together, the two forms of communication ably support each other, like one of the old married couples mentioned in more than one essay.

Duality, expressed by Yin and Yang, or black and white, or even 1 and 0, is deeply embedded in the philosophies and realities of human-kind. We crave companionship, and pair off to make the next generation.

It takes a secure artist to cede this much of the stage to others, to see the value in the right kind of collaboration, and I’m glad I spent a part of my afternoon embedded in this charming little world.

Bottom Line: An excellent pairing of images and words

To Purchase TWO visit: http://www.melissaannpinney.com/

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This Week In Photography Books: MBLCK

by Jonathan Blaustein

Code.

Such a simple word.
Four letters.
Two vowels.
Two consonants.

Well balanced.

Such a basic word, for such a complicated concept. Even now, as I type these clean, black letters on the bright white Retina display, I’m aware they’re not as they appear. I see letters, yes, but underneath the alphabetic structure lies a string of numbers.

Ones and Zeroes.

Code.

Most of us are aware that binary code underlies the entirety of Digital Reality, which has eaten the Real World whole, like Goya’s depiction of Saturn devouring his child. We live so much through our screens, and all is illusion.

Ones and zeroes stand in for electrical impulses. On, off. Yes, no. If, then.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

But code, or the masking of one set of information in the form of another, is absolutely necessary to our daily lives. Codes are only helpful when they’re comprehensible, and often most valuable when they’re perfectly impenetrable. (Yes, I saw “The Imitation Game” a few weeks back, but that’s not what’s gotten me wound up today.)

No, I’m thinking rather of the assumption that code can be broken; its meanings interpreted. That’s how it works digitally, as code allows numbers to appear as pixels, pixels to resolve into pictures. Photographs in our Instagram feeds are so much more interesting as images; less so in the form of a string of digits as long as a unicorn’s tail.

But what happens when those assumptions are broken? I write this column every week, and every week I discuss a book that I understand. Sometimes, they withhold their meaning for a little while. Always, though, their secrets are revealed in the end. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Why would an artist not want us to know what is going on at all? Or who they are? Or why they sent you a book?

As you might have gathered, I’m not speaking in hypotheticals. (Of course not.) Last week, a little book box turned up in the mail, and I chucked it in a corner. Just now, I opened it up.

When it arrived, I noted that there was no name on the box, and I hadn’t been expecting anything. It only said MB, with an address in Austin, TX.

I know no such person.

I was curious and opened the box. I was met with a swath of thick, white wrapping paper, covered with hand-painted black marks. Little bits of charcoal, or paint chips, spilled out as I unwrapped the parcel.

Surely, I’d never received something like this before.

Inside the protective coating, I found a slim volume titled “INDECIPHERABLE.” Fair enough.

There was no letter, no essay, nothing at all, save a definition of the word. I flipped dutifully through the pages, and each time, I found a rendering of the black marks on white, on the left-hand side of the book. On the right, some sort of abstracted image, impossible to make out.

Page by page, I wondered. What is going on here? Are the black marks a kind of coded message? Do they mean anything at all? On the right-hand side, in a few images, banded lines appear? Is it an obscured computer screen? A scrambled message? An amalgam of many different photographs mashed together? (A technique I’ve seen a few times before.)

I really don’t know.

Eventually, the black-mark-hieroglyphics migrate to the right-hand page as well. The code eats the image. But what does it mean?

Believe it or not, it’s never explained. The book ends without a clue, save for the term MBLCK on the back cover.

I re-searched the package, looking for a note. A press release.
Some sort of explanation?

Nothing.

What the hell is going on here? I’ve never seen a book I couldn’t figure out, until now. But as it’s called “INDECIPHERABLE,” that’s clearly the point.

Why? To what end? Who is the mysterious MB, and why did he or she send me this coded object?

You regular readers know how much I hate to turn to Google to understand a book. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so here we go:

(pause)

First attempt: “MBLCK indecipherable Austin TX” reveals nothing.

Second attempt: “MB photo book indecipherable” reveals nothing.

Third attempt: “MBLCK photo book” reveals nothing

Fourth attempt: MBLCK photographer Austin” reveals nothing

(bigger pause)

This is a first. A book review with an anonymous artist, whose intention is totally unknowable. Why did you send me this, MB? What does it mean?

WHO ARE YOU!!!!!!!!

Does anyone have any intel on this? If so, please write into the comment section, send me an email, drop me a DM on Twitter, FB, or Instagram. Let us know in some digital variation or other, because I’m dying to know.

Aren’t you?

Bottom Line: Weird, inscrutable, impenetrable, coded photobook

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This Week In Photography Books: Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman

by Jonathan Blaustein

The gorilla stench clings to my nostril hairs, like Pigpen’s fog. Surely, I can’t still smell the gorillas? But my nose crinkles just the same.

I saw those gorillas in the Albuquerque Zoo on Sunday morning. We took the kids down to the “big” city, (irony intended) as when you raise your children in a horse pasture, they need to get out every once in a while.

My daughter, now 3.5, had never seen zoo animals in person before. It was time.

So we put on our coats to fight the 9am chill, and decided to walk off our big breakfast at the Central Grill, a fantastic restaurant that sits astride old Route 66. It came highly recommended by my old friend David Bram, and now I’m passing the tip along to you.

I could tweet it, if I really wanted to, but I don’t think I’ll bother.

The gorillas are the first thing you come to at the Albuquerque Zoo, and I think they might want to re-think that decision. The smell traveled across a fair distance, and felt like it took up residence in my nasal cavity. You’ll have to trust me: it was awful. (Because you’re reading it on the Internet, it must be true.)

It is one of life’s deep pleasures, to introduce a child to the wonder of a kookaburra’s surreal call, the magnificence of a family of hippos exiting their pond, or the quiet, regal menace of a snow leopard sitting in its pen, perfectly still.

For most of us, seeing such creatures from a safe distance, their danger muted by cage bars, is the only way we’ll ever experience them in the real world. Unless you have mad cash to splurge on a safari, or live in a place where a tiger might actually pounce and eat you, the mediated experience is all we have.

The only time I felt scared was walking below a mountain lion, who paced back and forth in his elevated cage. My fear was real, because those monsters live very close to my house. I could presumably see one, though I hope it never happens. My brain was able to suss out the difference, so my heart beat quickened.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The oddest moment, by far, was at the very end. (Just before we walked through the gorilla stink, which by then had managed to hang in the air, 200 feet from their habitat.) Our last visit was to the polar bear, who had no interest in swimming in his frigid water on a cold morning.

Back and forth he walked, on a concrete precipice above his abundant blue pool.

Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.

The problem was, to the naked eye, he didn’t look real. He was only 20 feet away, true, but my brain read him as digital. A trick of the light, I’m sure, but still, I checked with my 8-year-old, who’s been raised on screens, and he agreed.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a hi-resolution projection. A figment of the digi-verse, transposed onto reality by some next-gen projector, sitting just out the frame.

What a trip.

Are you surprised? Have you ever had the feeling before, that reality was no longer real enough? That your eyes, so accustomed to screen time, could no longer tell the difference?

I’m asking, having just put down “Geolocation,” an excellent new book by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman, recently published by Flash Powder Projects. (A new publishing venture by the aforementioned David Bram, and his partner Jennifer Schwartz. I’ve reviewed friend’s books before, so this is no precedent. But I thought you should know, and I’ll do my best to be objective.)

I’d heard of this project before, but somehow never seen it. The premise is conceptually tight: the artists take other people’s geo-tagged tweets, track down the location where they were tweeted, photograph it, and then pair the tweet with the image.

We’ve seen stalker art before, (see Albuquerque’s own Jessamyn Lovell,) but this is something new. It has to be, as it’s based on contemporary technology. But innovation is not a guarantor of quality, so I was curious to see the book and decide for myself.

The key to the project’s success is that they choose tweets that range from random and silly, to poignant and personal. Someone dies. Someone else craves love.

The tweet suggesting that life is just like the “Harry Truman” show brings the book together. Both the ridiculous faux pas, of course, and because unlike Jim Carrey’s Truman, so many of us now choose to be observed. To proffer our lives as other people’s entertainment. (Myself included. In this very space.)

The photographs are strong, as well as diverse. We see Canada, England, New York, California, Indiana, and places in between. No-place places and someplace places. It all fits.

In general, I think the work is really strong, and I’m glad to share it with you. The flaws in the book, such as they are, come in the way the sequencing of text and imagery happens. As the publishers are very new to this, (the book is their co-launch,) and I’ve reviewed at least 200 books over the last 4.5 years, I thought it appropriate to mention this.

There are too many pictures, and the poems and mini-essays that pop up, from curators and other trendy types on the photo scene, seem placed at intervals meant to challenge our attention span. Some books need smart people to tell us that they are “IMPORTANT.”

This isn’t one of them. The combination of concept and execution means that almost any audience will get this work. It’s funny and smart and the pictures are not boring.

In the best photobooks, less is more. More is not more, because it causes our eyes to glaze over, and incites a desire to skip ahead. Narrative flow, furthermore, is a delicate beast, like a hummingbird. (It needs to be handled carefully.)

So I wholeheartedly recommend this one, and give props the artists for their diligent work, done over hundreds of days on the road. To the publishers, I also give a big thumbs up, for sticking your fresh necks out to support this collaboration. I hope you’ll take my advice in the spirit in which it was intended, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Bottom Line: Innovative, witty, tweet-worthy 21st C photo series.

To Purchase “Geolocation” Go Here.

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This Week In Photography Books: Karen Knorr

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s Tuesday, the morning after the Iowa Caucuses. (When I’m writing this. You’re likely reading on Friday, of course.)

Today marks the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s incessant march to colonize Earth. Wouldn’t you just love to see the TRUMP insignia emblazoned on the side of the White House? I mean, after you moved to Canada, wouldn’t you find it funny? (Instead of tragic and/or shocking?)

I’ve said since the first Republican debate that my money was on Marco Rubio, so I’m sticking with that. The Republicans have a great habit of rallying around whomever is “most electable,” and he fits the bill.

Ted Cruz, who won the contest, seems more unlikeable than a genetically engineered TRex that’s about to eat your face off. A smugger man, I’ve not yet seen. And the hubris to pretend to be a man “of the people” when you’re educated at Princeton and Harvard?

We haven’t witnessed that degree of fakery since George W. was photographed “clearing brush” in Texas. (Oh George. Where have you gone? How we miss your bumbling mispronunciations.)

No, Ted Cruz will not be the next President of the United States. You heard it here. But then, neither will the Donald, a man who would gladly take the Malkovichian punishment of living inside his own head, surrounded by clones who spoke only his own name, were he given the chance.

“Trump?”

“Trump.”

“Trump Trump Trump?”

“Trump Trump.”

If we’ve learned anything from Donald’s six-month-performance-art-piece, it’s that how much money you have is not a marker of your intelligence, nor your worth to the rest of us. That guy clearly has billions, but he acts like a scared, insecure bully on the playground, making sure to charge $5 admission to the swing-set, just because he can.

He may have money, but as they say, money can’t buy class. In this case, I actually speak from experience. Back in 1996, I worked on a movie called “The Devil’s Advocate,” and personally delivered a $50,000 check to his assistant, made out to Donald Trump, for the use of his 57th St penthouse for ONE DAY.

That’s right. 50 grand for a day, not that he needed the money. The walls were covered in plated gold, something I’ve never seen before or since. Tacky beyond belief. An Emperor is how the man sees himself. (A taller Napoleon with bad hair.)

But gold walls or gold toilets do not make a better person. Not better than any of us. Just better at wasting precious resources.

The homes we live in, the trinkets we acquire, the animal pelts we collect, these do not reflect the quality of our character. The idea of aristocracy was misguided from the beginning. Much as some would like to believe it grew out of a reality that some families are superior to others, I’d proffer that it’s simply that some are driven to acquire wealth and power by any means necessary.

And others are not.

As I rarely get political, (though I’ve staunchly avoided mention of whom I support in 2016,) I couldn’t help myself after looking at “Belgravia,” a new book by Karen Knorr, released last year by Stanley/Barker.

Once you see it, the above rant will fit snugly into context, like a medicine cap on a bottle of Prozac. As the book brings us inside the homes, and minds, of the English elite, circa 1976. (Has there ever been a more photogenic decade?)

According to the end notes, though not hard to suss out from the content, Belgravia is a posh neighborhood in London, near Buckingham Palace. It is likely to West London conservatism what the East End is to hipsterism these days. (And if I’m wrong, I’m sure one of our many London-based readers will correct me.)

The portraits, staged in fancy rooms with grand fireplaces, are paired with snippets of conversation the artist recalled from chatting with her subjects. They fit, in the sense that we can imagine “these people” saying such things, despite the obvious artifice.

My favorite part was that several of the crops are not clean. Photographs like this, of formal people in formal rooms, are so often meticulously made. Every cut is perfect. Each composition as exacting as a valet cleaning off a just-used dinner jacket.

But these are rougher than that. They’re close to formal, but often deviate in observable ways. Rebellion, via composition? And the lighting is not perfect either. It’s often flat, rather than glamourous.

I counted at least 2 zebra-pelts, assuming they’re real. And other objects collected from around the Empire. Lions, cheetahs, elephants. Knick-knacks from the hinterlands.

Honestly, I didn’t love this book. But that’s the point, no? These people aren’t lovable. They’re just rich. They look normal, for the most part. (Not the Platonic ideal of a human, like a baby made by the unholy English union of David Beckham and Sienna Miller.)

That’s what the Upper Class look like in our minds, no? All jutting, cleft chins and wide-set blue eyes. They look better than we do, attended superior schools, so they deserve to rule?

No, this book just shows some lonely-looking, repressed rich people, clinging to their religion and their guns. (Sorry. That was an Obama quote.) I mean, clinging to their fancy things and big rooms.

Bottom Line: Ironic, old school pics of the British ruling Elite

To Purchase “Belgravia” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Edward Ranney

by Jonathan Blaustein

Imagine you’re an Ancient Peruvian.

It’s 2500 years ago.

You live in a desert near the Pacific Ocean.

It’s hot outside, and terribly dry.

Let’s call you Catequil, which means God of Thunder and Lightning. (According to the Inca-themed-dog-naming website I found on the Internet. So it has to be true.)

You, Catequil, aren’t much good at weaving. Your Dad is a decent enough farmer, but it’s not for you. Your brother is a warrior like nobody’s business. Man, is that dude good at killing people.

But you? Your reflexes are not that quick. Nor are you terribly co-ordinated, in the traditional sense. And for whatever reason, you just don’t have the green thumb.

Most people don’t, this being the desert, of course, but your Dad is so good at it. The way he looks at you, it’s just heart-breaking. You know he’s thinking, “How can I have a son who can’t grow things? Who can’t fight? Such a disappointment, my Catequil.”

It’s pretty tough, all things considered. And right now, you’ve got a piece of peanut stuck in one of your back teeth, and it’s driving you crazy!

Then one day, your friend, Khuno, (which apparently means High Altitude Weather God) comes to you with a good idea. He just heard about a new job, doing construction, and it pays well. 10 peanuts a day! Can you imagine!

You and Khuno go and see the foreman.

“What are we building, sir,” you ask?

“Nothing.”

“Come again? Surely, if you’re paying so well, we must be building something important. A new temple? A food storage facility? A fortress? You can tell us. We’re good at keeping secrets.”

“No, I’m not deceiving you boys. We’re not building anything at all.”

“Then why are you hiring a crew?”

“Because we’re going to scrape some lines into the ground, so that the gods in the sky will smile down upon us, and bestow their bounty on our people.”

“Come again?”

“I said, we’re going to make shapes in the dirt that will make sense from the sky. Spiders. Monkeys. That sort of thing. But to us, they’ll just look like lines in the dirt.”

“OK. Sure. If you say so. But is it really paying 10 peanuts a day?”

“Absolutely. The high priests say this job is getting fast-tracked, so the compensation is particularly attractive. You should count yourself lucky. We only wanted Khuno because his name is considered auspicious for this project. He vouched for you, so you’re on the crew, if you want the job.”

End scene.

Did this actually happen?

Well, of course not. But something like it must have. How do I know? Because I just finished looking at “The Lines,” a relatively recent book by Edward Ranney, published by Yale University Press. (Mr. Ranney, a New Mexican, is my good friend’s father-in-law, FYI.)

If you’ve taken a Latin American Art History class, EVER, you’ve heard of the Nazca Lines. Large scale, Ancient Earth-Work art installations, designed to be seen by no human. Certainly, not until helicopters and planes were invented, which would not have been foreseen in Ancient Peru.

Aerial photography works well for such things, but Mr. Ranney, who has been photographing archaeological sites in Peru for decades, did it differently. These pictures deviate from our expectations, because they’re taken at ground level. We see from the perspective Catequil might have witnessed, were he not a figment of my imagination.

This book, in fact, contains photographs made in the 80’s, 90’s and Aughts. It feels like he took his time, as you ruminate on each picture. The patient vision. Squinting into the sunny desert light. Staring at the subtlety of almost nothing. Dirt on dirt.

That it’s black and white is almost self-evident, as how else could one speak to the terribly old and eternal? If Richard Misrach went down there with his big camera and some color film, he’d probably do a good job. But this kind of bleak needs grayscale.

The suggestion of deep time.

Normally, I would have opened this review with some rambling diatribe about human obsolescence. How we’re here for such a short time. How our civilizations, no matter how advanced, are likely to crumble to dust one of these days.

But that’s not how it went, is it?

No.

This book, thoughtful and serious though it is, transported me back through time. I imagined what I wrote, so I wrote it. There WERE people. They DID scratch into the landscape. They worked hard, over many, many years.

And for what? A dream? The belief they’d curry favor with the power in the sky? A good pay packet and dental insurance?

We’ll never know, I suppose. Sure, there might be actual archaeological research into the subject, instead of my ridiculous speculation, but if you wanted to read archaeological research, you wouldn’t be here, would you?

These pictures are really excellent. I love the pacing as well, though the book did run on a little longer than I might have done. For the first third, it’s totally spare. No signs of humanity anywhere.

Then, we see some power poles. And valley land that reads darker than the rest. Grass? Water? From where?

Unfortunately, this could well be what New Mexico looks like, one day, in the distant future. (If we don’t play our cards right.) Which is why visions like this, ripped from history, are so important at the present moment.

Bottom Line: Gorgeous, bleak photos of the Nazca lines, on the ground

To Purchase “The Lines” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Scot Sothern

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve had quite the morning so far. The alarm went off too early, as my wife left for work too soon.

It was nearly 10 below zero outside, so my bare feet froze as I lugged my daughter to the car, well before the sun was up. Crunch crunch crunch went the snow beneath my slippers.

What kind of idiot doesn’t put on winter boots before going outside in that?

(This guy.)

Back indoors, and it was time for drama with my 8-year-old. He’s been giving us the business lately, as he’s smack-dab in the middle of a spoiled-brat-phase.

I saw it coming.

Since his birthday in October, it’s been an unending string of presents. Birthday. Halloween. First Hanukkah. Second Hanukkah. Third Hanukkah. First Christmas. Second Christmas.

You get the point.

Both sets of Grandparents treat him like the Second Coming, and all his best friends are feral, so it’s no wonder he went off-the-rails. Now, we’re tightening the reins, and he’ll be back to himself in no time.

But in the midst of our spat this morning, I made sure to mention that even though he’s getting in trouble a lot lately, his transgressions are relatively minor. He’s still an amazing kid: kind, loving, thoughtful, and obedient.

Just not as much as we’d like.

I told him that genuinely bad kids do genuinely bad things. The kind of things he couldn’t imagine. (Thank God.) Because if he really knew what the world was like out there, beyond his happy bubble, he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

But sleep he does, in his nice warm bed, with the heat turned up against the sub-zero cold.

We had that talk this morning, not two hours ago, and then I settled into my work-day and unpacked a book that had just arrived. Sometimes they sit in a pile for months, the few things people send me.

But this one was from Tony Fouhse, the photographer behind Stray light Press in Canada, and I knew it had to be interesting. I met Tony at the NY Times Portfolio review a few years ago. He was standing in a crowd of Canadians, and they happily chatted about the kinds of wild meat they’d eaten in the bush.

One guy said he liked Lynx. Said it tasted like chicken. They all agreed. These guys, I said to myself, are tougher than I am. I am soft, and weak, and perhaps that’s not the worst thing in the world, when the alternative is eating bobcat.

The book Tony sent is called “Sad City,” by Scot Sothern. I don’t know the artist, but I think I’m friends with him on Facebook. The name made me think of Vice Magazine, but I’m not sure that’s correct.

(Branding these days. Who doesn’t get caught up in that web.)

Anyway, the book grabbed me by the shorties from the word go. Holy Crap, is this a powerful object. Many people will hate such a thing. I get it.

But me, even though I live a somewhat pampered existence, I’m always on the lookout for people who are keeping it real.

The photos start in some nameless city. Street people. Down on their luck. Homeless. The kind of images people consider exploitative. The kind of pictures that better people use to raise money for the downtrodden.

This is no such book.

The stories start straight away, with titles above. They’re written in the first person, and while I know that people can make up all sorts of things, I trust that the artist/author is speaking from the heart.

He was a bad seed, growing up. A hoodlum. The kind of kid my young son cannot imagine, thankfully. He stole, and fought, and lived on the streets. He burned houses down, and watched girls get gang-raped in a drunken stupor. (Or does calling it a “train” imply consent?)

He reveled in the naïveté of his neighbors, who were foolish enough to leave their doors unlocked.

Some of the pictures correspond to the stories. He writes of looking right into the eyes of a beautiful hooker while she gives a john a hand-job. That comes after the photo.

Other times, the story comes first. Is that nattily-dressed, old school hustler walking down the street, in his Shaft-esque black leather jacket Hack Jackson, mentioned on the previous page?

We’re certainly meant to think so.

At first, this could be any major American city. But one story mentions the beach. Another speaks of Silver Lake. Then I know we’re in LA. The very next page shows us stars on the sidewalk: Hollywood.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that these things are not accidental. These narrative hints. They’re done with care, slowly unspooling what we’re meant to know. (Editor’s note: when I photographed the book, I noticed the word California in the background on the book’s inside cover. So he did hint from the beginning. My bad.)

I read every story, and you regulars know I’m always happy to skip ahead when I’m bored. The photo of the handless Vet, juxtaposed against mannequin hands in a head-shop window made me stop cold.

This is a terrific combination of imagery and text. It speaks of the hard streets, from the perspective of one who knows. Sure, this time, he was cruising in the passenger seat.

Blazing by.
Click. Click.

But I would not want to mess with Scot Sothern. (Nor his friends.) And the fact that he’s willing to lock elements of his life onto the page for our prurient interest?

I appreciate it.

Like I said, the dude keeps it real.

Bottom Line: Edgy, dark look at life on the streets of LA

Go Here To Purchase “Sad City”

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This Week In Photography Books: Jason Vaughn

by Jonathan Blaustein

Happy New Year, everyone!

Hope you’re shaking off the New Year’s hangover, and the post-Holiday/vacation blues. (Must. Turn. Off. Television.)

Sorry to have missed you the last couple of Fridays, but as it was Christmas and New Years, the magnanimous Rob Haggart gave this weary columnist a couple of weeks off. (Thanks, Rob.)

Believe it or not, given how many of my late-2015 columns complained of burnout, I’m actually feeling rather chipper.

Why, you ask?

Because I just got back from a family vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where my parents spend the Winter. You might recall that last time I went to the beach there, my wife and I almost drowned when the tide swept us out to sea.

(We made it, obviously.)

This trip was blissful. Exactly what anyone might ask of a Holiday. Great weather, food, drink and family togetherness. My kids jumped little waves in the Caribbean sea, and ate juicy pineapple chunks to quench their thirst.

It was such a “moment in time” that my Dad sobbed heavily as he dropped us off at the Cancun airport. (Dad, hope you’re not embarrassed by that tidbit.)

It was a rare spectacle, to see my father cry, but the message was clear: there can only be so many interludes in one’s life when all goes according to plan. When the love flows, the sun shines, the limes are fragrant, and all is right with the world.

As he is getting older now, the subtext was unmistakable.

You, our weekly readers, know well my penchant for philosophical digressions. I’ve never met one I didn’t like. So this one shouldn’t surprise you.

We are in 2016 now. Well into our futuristic 21st Century. With all our technology and know-how, still, across the planet, people suffer. War, famine, drought, these never seem to disappear.

Disease too.

When you’re healthy, and among your loved ones, it really is important to do your best to stay present. To savor your good fortune, even if you don’t feel like ruminating on the suffering of others.

Because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

I say this having just put down “hide,” a new-ish book by Jason Vaughn, published by Trema Förlag, and I’m guessing you’ll be in a similar mood, once we’re done here.

Apparently, Jason began a project a few years ago, looking at deer hunting stands in his home state of Wisconsin. He was interested in the tradition of hunting culture, and the way these structures are meant to be passed down from one generation to the next.

Suddenly, he found himself diagnosed with leukemia, at 32, with a 3 month old son at home. (And the project was put on pause.)

Holy Shit.

I learned this from the simple, clean text at the front of the book. While I often want to sort things out for myself, in this case, the context was spot on. It set the mood, and gave access to crucial elements in the artist’s life.

It also enhanced the gloom to come, with so much dreary winter light, and ramshackle shacks, page after page. There was also a shade of irony, as the structures are meant to last for generations, but they look so ridiculously rickety.

Normally, I’d get bored of a typology book that didn’t break stride, but the initial backstory left me stewing in pathos. Fathers, sons, daughters, and crying on the baking airport asphalt, because we all know our time is so limited.

I’m guessing Jason Vaughn is in remission, or he would have stated otherwise. (And likely wouldn’t have re-started the project.) I certainly hope he’s OK.

As to his book, I do think these pictures are strong, and the emanating vibe is striking. Especially as I get to show you the two images in which a deer stand sports a satellite dish.

It’s a good reminder that even as we cling to the past, and savor the present, the future is always up ahead.

Waiting.

Bottom Line: Poignant book about hunting structures

To Purchase “hide” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Todd R. Forsgren

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever heard of Conor McGregor?

Yes? No? (If not, he’s an Irish fighter, currently taking the MMA world by storm.)

I’m not much of an MMA fan, myself. But I started watching the occasional match a couple of years ago, when I was training in Kung Fu, and became tangentially aware of a few of the big players in the sport.

McGregor had a huge fight this past weekend: a title challenge against a Brazilian named Jose Aldo. Mr. Aldo, the champion, was undefeated for a decade, and a tough mother-f-cker, by all accounts.

People spend $100 to watch these fights on Pay-per-View. They’re events and spectacles, as much as physical battles. Fans shell out for the entertainment and expect good value in return.

Apparently, Conor McGregor likes to talk a lot of sh-t. So many fighters do, but he always backs it up, which only increases the vehemence of his fan base.

This time, his words proved prophetic. I didn’t see the fight, of course, because no way am I dropping a hundred bucks on such a thing. Not when I need to buy my son a new ski jacket since he lost his old one last Spring.

But I didn’t need to see it. No one did. Because the fight was over as soon as it started. According to media accounts, Jose Aldo came out and threw a punch, which McGregor deflected. The Irishman countered with a straight punch of his own, to Aldo’s jaw, that knocked the champion out directly.

13 seconds.

That’s all people got for their $100. Was it worth it? I have no idea.

But it got me thinking about what Jose Aldo must have felt like. He trained months for this bout. A decorated champion, cultured in the art of both attack and defense. He was likely just getting ready to get ready. Moving his body cursorily, adrenaline flowing, knowing he had a good long battle in front of him.

Bam.

He’s lying on his back, staring at the little birdies circling his head.

“What just happened,” he would have thought, in Portuguese.
“Onde estou?”
“How could my life be changed, that radically, in just a few seconds?”

It’s an interesting question. Like the people watching the Boston Marathon a few years ago. One moment, life exists as expected, and then, two seconds later, it’s different forever.

The limbo, the not knowing, must be the worst part. Disoriented, distressed, wondering if things will ever be the same again?

You know who else felt like that? The little birdies I just finished looking at as I perused “Ornithological Photographs,” an excellent new book by Todd R. Forsgren, recently published by Daylight. (Good thing he uses that R. I’m sure we’d otherwise confuse him with the other Todd Forsgren.)

This is a book that does what I’m always asking: it shows us things we’ve never seen before. Sure, we all see birds every day, and I can spot a raven just by looking out my window for 8 seconds. (Yes, I counted.) But this is something new.

Mr. Forsgren, who comes by his interest in ornithology honestly, having been steeped in its mystery by his parents, has photographed countess birds who’ve just been caught in a net.

Flash. Bang.

You’re a Blue-Winged warbler, minding your own business. You’re thinking about food, because you always think about food. Mmmm, wouldn’t a little inchworm be delicious right about now? Or a lady-bug? That’s right, I love me some lady-bug.

Pow.

You’re caught in a net. Your wings are trapped. You have absolutely no idea what’s going on, and unlike Jose Aldo, you don’t speak Portuguese. In what code does your brain express its massive fear?

I have no idea.

But this book allows us to read into those eyes. To wonder, how might a little bird react to such a drastic change in circumstances?

Apparently, the artist accompanied ornithologists in the field, and then set up a makeshift studio each time, to capture the image while the birds were being temporarily studied. My first thought, before reading any text, was that he’d trapped and killed these guys to get the photographs.

Awful, I know, but that was just an initial impression. The truth makes much more sense. These are glimpses of temporary interactions, and the birds were released unharmed. (But perhaps with trackers in them?)

The book is definitely one-note, as the typological aspect is not really broken up. It might have been more dynamic if they’d come up with a way of balancing the aesthetic consistency. But I’m splitting hairs.

This is a fascinating group of pictures, and definitely one that gives us something fresh. It adds to the overall body of knowledge we develop when we look at photography. (And art, by extension.) We, the photography lovers, are not so different from fight fans, or bird freaks.

We like to look.

Bottom Line: Badass bird book. Enough said.

To Purchase “Ornithological Photographs” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Caleb Cain Marcus

by Jonathan Blaustein

A few years ago, I got a sore throat that was so bad, I ended up on Percocet. Even then, the pain was unbearable.

The thing about that virus, picked up in Mexico, was that the pain was so intense I couldn’t function as a person. Every time I swallowed, I felt as if The Grim Reaper’s scythe was bisecting my adams apple.

Every. Single. Time.

It was so bad, in fact, that my wife had to drive me over the Rocky Mountains, in the middle of night, in a snow storm, so that I could get to the doctor’s first thing the next morning. (We flew through Denver. Big mistake.)

La Veta Pass, in Southern Colorado, is not so scary, if you’re in the daylight, and the roads are clear. You barely even realize you’re ascending, heading East, and they it’s a long, slow descent to the Great Plains.

Unfortunately, we were headed West, slowly up the mountains, and it was 1am. The roads were icy, in April, but much worse was the mist.

The Mist.

It blanketed everything. Visibility is the wrong word to use here, because there was none. It was as if a mystical 1st Grader had taken a magical eraser to reality. We could see our car, and ourselves, but nothing more.

Even today, thinking about the risk, driving up and down a mountain, unsure if we were even in the proper lane…it makes me want to kiss the carpet and thank the mountain gods that we made it home alive.

One tractor trailer, coming downhill in the wrong lane, and my fingers would not be tapping the keyboard right now. I wouldn’t have fingers. They’d be ash, decorating the stream-front on my property here in Taos.

Mist.

It has a quality all its own, and is notoriously difficult to photograph. Mist is to light what down comforters are to top-sheets. It overwhelms; owning whatever it envelops.

And Mist is the reason I’m reviewing “Goddess,” a new book by Caleb Cain Marcus, recently published by Damiani. Our regular readers may remember his previous book, “A Portrait of Ice,” which I reviewed a couple of years ago. Caleb traveled to the ends of the Earth to photograph glaciers, but as he used a super-hi-res digital camera, the resulting images were beyond hyper-real.

They looked like little models George Lucas might have shot in an alternate version of Star Wars.

In “Goddess,” Caleb spent 44 days along the Ganges River in India. Now, I’m normally the first guy to wonder what some random American might tell us about a far off culture. Especially one that has been photographed to death.

India. The Colors! You have to see the colors!

Unless you don’t. Unless the world is shrouded in Mist. Unless you have to fill in the space yourself. (With your imagination.)

This book is a little different than the ones I normally review, in that I don’t love it all. Even with that mist, some pictures look too much like what I’ve seen before.

But others…

There is a set of images here of straw huts that make me want to get on a plane, meet up with Caleb Cain Marcus, and buy the man a beer. Sure, they channel Claude Monet, but that’s not a bad comp for any artist.

They emerge from The Mist, these huts, and feel as primal as a cave man walking down 5th Avenue with a briefcase. It just doesn’t fit, that such structures exist in 2015.

But that’s my 2015, with my Apple computer on my white table, my Ipad next to it, and my Iphone in between. We in the First World live in the future, compared to the BILLIONS of people not privy to our creature comforts.

Are the huts homes for people? Or storage facilities? Do the pigs live out there?

I don’t know. And honestly, I don’t care. Those pictures put me in a mood. They transported me back to that dangerous highway, on a night when perhaps my whole family might have died.

That’s good enough for me. If you ask for more than that from a photo book, it might be time to smoke a fat joint and take yourself less seriously.

Bottom Line: Misty, gorgeous photos of the Ganges in India

To Purchase “Goddess” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Jesse Burke

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Mostly, how strange it is that none of us will ever know what’s to come, after we’re gone.

Will our children be OK? Will we save the planet? Will robots take over and turn us into meat slaves?

Such information is beyond our purview. Can you imagine what a Syrian wine merchant from Palmyra, circa 250 AD, would think of Siri? Or Robert Parker? Or ISIS?

Yet even then, parents loved their children, tried hard to provide for them, and likely wondered what would happen after they passed.

The human condition is cyclical, as much as linear.

It’s the reason we love our distractions so much. TV, Netflix, Ipads, Kindles, soccer matches, video games, anything to take our mind off the existential dread of knowing our lifespan is so limited, and that the world will continue to turn when we’re dust. (Until the sun dies too. In 5 billion years.)

Photography has always had a strong role to play here. It may not give glimpses into the future, but it allows us to retain a vision of life, just as we saw it, to help us remember when we’re nearing the end.

Photographs are totems that provoke emotion. They freeze time, and in a way, defeat it.

It’s odd, when you think about it, how little of our lives we actually recall. At best, it has to be .000000000000001% of our actual experience.

Glimpses. Moments. Nothing more.

But as artists, when we pour ourselves into a mission to combat that entropy, sometimes we end up with a marker of success. An object that we’ll cherish until we die, and hopefully, others might enjoy too.

Such is my mindset after looking at “Wild & Precious,” a new book by Jesse Burke, published by Daylight. The project was recently shown at ClampArt in New York, and also exists digitally as a short film, so there are multiple ways to interact with this tale.

That said, this is a book review, (nominally,) so I might as well explain why I like the damn thing.

Jesse Burke spent 5 years roaming the American Wilderness, intermittently, with his eldest daughter Clover. That’s what this story is about. There are many, many images of their travels. Pictures that are ours to engage with, but are really meant for Jesse and Clover, circa 2060.

That much is clear.

In an opening letter, the artist writes directly to Clover, and near the end, she writes back. This is a personal exercise, as so much of the best art is. We make it for ourselves, because we must, because we are driven by the spirit of creation, and then we share it with everyone else.

There are a few genuinely striking pictures, including several portraits of Clover, taken at points of distress. An eyepatch covers one eye, the other blood red, and the hint of a tear glistens on her cheek.

A bloody nose, which reminded me a bit of an Elinor Carucci image, makes us think of the liquid flowing through our veins. The stuff of life.

Many a photo shows Clover with animals in her hand, most of them dead. Trip after trip, and they’re exploring beaches, walking through forests, and finding the time to commune with Nature. Like in the Old Days, before the Entertainment Industrial Complex was born.

Personal as this project is, there was still time for a cultural gut punch, before I closed the back cover. About 3/4 of the way through, there is one photograph of factories spewing pollution into the air.

Only one, but it changes the context of the entire book. We think of Climate Change. Why all those animals, including a beached whale, might be dead.

The atmosphere is changing.

What will the world look like when Clover is my age? Or 80? Will there even be forests to explore?

Sadly, I’ll never know, and neither will you. Life, as precious as it is, is also something of a Devil’s bargain. And there’s nothing to do but live each moment to the fullest, and hope for the best.

Bottom Line: Poignant look at the love between a father and daughter

To Purchase “Wild & Precious” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: IPG Project

by Jonathan Blaustein

My daughter loves pink. (Big surprise.) She’s a 3 year old girl, so it goes with the territory.

Just yesterday, we were in a little market near the mountains. She was wearing pink boots, pink pants, a pink shirt, a pink jacket, and her new pink glasses.

She made quite the impression on her fellow shoppers. One of them even asked, “Do you like pink, by any chance?”

“Yes,” she said. “Pink and purple and blue.”

We associate pink with little girls. With innocence and youth. It’s a happy and flippant color.

Right?

Well, that’s what I was thinking when I picked up “Sumimasen,” a new pink book by the IPG project, recently published by Editions du LIC.

Wait, you say. What are you doing? You can’t move on to the book review that quickly. Where’s your unexpected and witty transition? Are you mailing it in because it’s a holiday week? (Thanksgiving, here in the US.)

Fair point. It may seem like I’ve cheated you out of my trademark writerly aikido. And yet…

This week marks the 4th anniversary of the column in which I developed my now-signature style. I still remember the moment when my mother-in-law rapped on our door at night, brandishing a rather large gun, as there were trespassers in our field on Thanksgiving.

Somehow, the drama filtered down into my consciousness, and the next day, this column was born. I respect history, and appreciate that I might not have a job right now, had that gun not scared me shitless.

So do you really think I’m going to mail it in on the Thanksgiving column?

I don’t think so.

But then again, this little pink book is so adorable. With anime-like characters on the cover. So inviting. It makes me think of Hello Kitty, and crayons, and the little Winter stockings my daughter wears to pre-school.

Kittens and daydreams and Candyland!
Yay!

You know what I don’t think of?

A Hello Kitty-mask-wearing, naked, Japanese porn actress whose entire life is captured on four webcams embedded around her small apartment.

(Dramatic pause.) What now?

That’s right. This cute pink book is actually a weird-as-hell meditation on the way Japanese culture forces people to offer two faces to the world: their true selves, which remain hidden, and the public mask, which shrouds the interior reality.

Let me say it again: What now?

Nothing could be less Thanksgiving-y than this book. It’s got plenty of boobs, and screen shots of lady parts. (As I’ve said 1000 times before, Boobs Sell Books℠) Yes, this is nobody’s idea of a children’s book.

(This is Mayura. Hi Mayura. See Mayura make breakfast. See Mayura clean the dishes. See Mayura masturbate with her large and intimidating vibrator.)

Normally, if I showed an edgy book like this, you’d just roll your eyes and say, “Blaustein’s keeping it real today.” But on Thanksgiving, it has to be more than that.

Let’s just say I wanted to bring the rhetoric down a notch from last week’s impassioned screed. True. But in this time of global strife, I think it’s always good to be reminded that the weird shit is what separates us from the Apes.

Anyone can put on a suit every day, punch the clock, make the donuts, and then drink away their misery in a big bottle of vodka. That’s called life. (For too many people.)

So this week, while you’re eating obscene amounts of turkey, laughing at your uncle’s inappropriate jokes, and restraining yourself from killing your obnoxious younger brother, remember this odd little pink book.

Because if this bit of naughty Japanese insanity can’t help you lighten up, maybe nothing can?

Bottom Line: Pornographic Japanese book in a nice little package

To Purchase “Sumimasen” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Lynn Saville

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m sitting in a silent room, over-looking a lilting snowman.

Is there anything more beautiful than a snow-covered field? The sunlight reflects into your eyes, and the blue sky looms above, like an approving grandma.

Perfect.

It’s odd to feel tranquil and safe, in this week when illusions of such phenomena were shattered like the outer layer a frozen puddle, when you crunch it with your boot.

Paris.
Such horror.

As this is an opinion column, it’s hard not to comment on the miserable situation that played out on Friday, November 13. (OMG, I’m only now realizing those assholes did it on Friday the 13th. Sick bastards.)

But what do you say? How can I add anything to the discussion that hasn’t been said already, or isn’t so blindingly obvious that it need not be said?

I will say this: my heart goes out to all the innocent people who lost their lives. To their loved ones, whose time on Earth will never be the same. To the residents of all the cities out there who now feel so threatened. Who grapple with an underlying level of fear and anxiety that will not go away any time soon.

But I also think about all the people, tens of millions really, who live that way already. Who reside in places like Iraq, Syria, Mali, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Israel, Ukraine, etc.

There are so many who live in situations where bombings, assassinations, destruction and mayhem are a part of daily life. Yet we collectively lose our minds when it happens in a place like Paris. In the West. With all the beauty and historic architecture.

I may not be a real journalist, (the jury’s out,) but I did write in this very column, not too long ago, about the banlieues in Paris. We looked at “Dédale,” by Laurent Chardon, and how he implied that the bleak, miserable surroundings in the Parisian suburbs must be wreaking havoc on the mentality of their inhabitants.

We are humans, and therefore flawed. Society, made up of humans on a mass scale, is therefore flawed as well. Should our species survive as long into the future as it has into the past, it will never lack for violence and misery.

But when chaos hits close to home, it feels that much worse. That’s how terrorism works. And lest you think I’m excusing anyone, I’ve already written on multiple occasions that ISIS are **the worst people on Earth**.

But the appeal of their recruitment pitch is not hard to discern.

They find young men, troublemakers already, who are of the lowest status in their home (or adopted) countries. They have no girlfriend, no job prospects, no future to speak of. These men most often live in the kind of miserable neighborhoods you might see in a Dardenne brothers film. (Brussels anyone?)

To these young men, they offer the chance to be heroes, to a certain audience.

Legends.

These recruits will get to play war, cops and robbers, spy vs spy, whatever clichéd story-book narrative you’d like to use. They will be famous, lauded by a crowd of social media well-wishers. And then, when it all goes wrong, as it always does, they won’t have to spend their lives in jail, tortured daily, nor confined to the hell of solitary confinement.

No, they will not.

Instead of facing decades of potential rape behind bars, with the push of a button, these sociopaths get to go to heaven, attended by 72 virgins. Permanent blowjobs, forever.

Which is to say that as long as there are oppressed, disturbed, and under-employed young men in the world, (and occasionally women) then this message will find fertile soil.

These ISIS killers don’t respect life, so it’s easy for them to take it from others. I may hope we wipe them all from the face of the Earth, but the ideas that motivate them are much harder to eradicate. (See Neal Stephenson’s seminal “Snow Crash,” for the best prediction on the power of viral information.)

It takes books and medical care and job opportunities to defeat that sort of nihilism.

Not bombs.

Because you can’t explode an idea.

In so many cities, here in the US, after 9/11, people did live in fear. Always looking over their shoulders. Is that backpack sitting by itself? Does that Muslim guy look shifty to you? If you see something, say something.

Eventually, those fears receded.

Cities without people feel scary. Emptiness, devoid of light, takes on a type of menace with which most of us are familiar. That’s why these assholes attacked social gatherings. They want to scare people away from drinking and fun. (Remember: no booze under Sharia law.)

Empty cities project a palpable energy, and the camera loves nothing so much as a cinematic scene. Which is why people have been so receptive to “Dark Cities, Urban America at Night,” a project by Lynn Saville, just released in book form by Damiani.

(Even today, I managed to make it back around to a photo-book.)

I have to admit, I like, but don’t really love these pictures. I’ve seen so many of them before, and I’ve even made some myself. (Haven’t we all?) But as a collection, it makes for a very attractive publication.

The pictures are moody without being outright scary. Taken at dawn and dusk, (dubbed the magic hours for a reason,) the images resonate calm and quiet, rather than “a bomb is about to go off” anxiety. As the artist is a New Yorker, I not-surprisingly appreciated the pictures taken out of town, when her discovery-meter was dialed up a little higher.

Upon second viewing, I became more aware of the construction metaphor. People are building, always building, whether it’s a pyramid or a skyscraper. And the empty storefronts, turning over, being re-energized, gives a temporal marker of American cities coming back after the wreckage of the Great Recession.

There’s one picture with a mural in it that says, “This is happening in your city right now.” I considered opening today’s column with that very quote, as Parisians, Londoners, Berliners, New Yorkers and Madrilenos are all worried more today than they were before. (The end notes credit Michael Conlin and William Butler for the Albany mural.)

Unless you’re reading this in Aleppo, or Mosul, or Donetsk, your city is likely safe enough to explore. You can go out for a coffee, and likely not have to worry about getting killed. So in this time of global sadness, let’s remember to appreciate the freedoms we often take for granted.

Bottom Line: Beautiful photos of American cities at night

To Purchase “Dark Cities, Urban America at Night” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Adam Ekberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve got a stream in my backyard. One month every year, it turns into a river. Snow, freshly melted, descends from the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and snakes along the border of my property.

It’s as nice as it sounds.

But life being what it is, sometimes weeks go by, and I never even see it. Wake up. Drink tea. Feed the kids. Get the lunches packed. Take my son to school. Do work for my 7 jobs. Go to the gym.

You get the point.

Two weeks ago, I had a mini-epiphany. How many people in the world would love to have a gorgeous mountain stream in their backyard? (Obvious answer: Billions.)

And how many of those Billions would go weeks without sitting at their private Zen paradise?

Likely answer: not that many.

So I made myself a promise that I’d endeavor to sit by that stream once a day, listening to the gurgle of water running around rock, watching the light glint from odd angles, feeling the shadow of ravens as they glide overhead.

I’ve mostly kept the promise, aside from a day when I left before the sun was up, and came home after dark. (I thought of going out with my Iphone as a flashlight, but I don’t think the bears have hibernated yet.)

What can I report? Well, my stress level has gone down, for sure. And my appreciation for life’s brevity is at an all-time high. On Sunday, one of our “adopted” red-tailed hawks screeched not 15 feet above my head, while the sun’s rays warmed my cheeks, and all was right with the world.

It may sound trite to you, but appreciation is a highly-undervalued state of mind. It allows us to find peace with our lot in life, and focus on the small moments that ground us in the present. (Granted, if I were living in Syria right now, I might not preach inner peace so blithely. But I’m in Taos. Thank God.)

Sometimes, a good photo book can offer the same sensation. It reminds a jaded psyche that no matter how many donuts you make, and how much you might hate the taste of sugary-glaze, there is still joy to be found in child-like wonder and curiosity.

Will I get hurt if I jump off that swing when it’s at its apex. (Shout out to Joanna Hurley for schooling me in the proper use of it’s vs its, early in my writing career.) Will I burn the house down if I point a magnifying glass at those dry blades of grass just off the porch. (Never did it.) If I tied 5000 helium balloons to my house, like that Old Dude in “Up,” would it lift off its moorings and head towards the great beyond?

These are the types of questions you’re forced to ask when you look at “The Life of Small Things,” a new book by Adam Ekberg, recently published by Waltz Books in Indiana. (Yes, Indiana.) There is a forward here by Darius Himes that forced me to write a good column this week, because I didn’t want to look outclassed to those of you who subsequently buy the book.

(Short version: Dude can write. If he ever gives up his gig at Christie’s, I may well be out of a job.)

The pictures in this book do speak for themselves, so I’m loathe to describe too many. They are cool, funny, and clever. Warm and cool is a difficult mix, but he pulls it off with aplomb. Balloons repeat, as do disco balls. Items that symbolize fun and leisure. (Birthday parties and Studio 54)

A goldfish in a bag, plopped upon a field, shows up two photos before a splash in a sea. I like that they’re connected, but not sequentially, as many would do. Flashlights abound, reminding us of sleep-overs and camp-outs gone by.

Milk jugs are punctured multiple times, conjuring not just the obvious spilled milk, but the act of “peeing,” which gets a laugh out of my kids every time. (Say pee or poop to an adult and you get nothing. Try it with a 3 year old, and you’re guaranteed a giggle.)

Explosions, fires, soap bubbles, and a lit-up vacuum cleaner lonely in the snow-covered gloaming.

Great stuff.

Yes, this book fits the bill for my “preference for edgy pictures,” which makes it the right book to discuss in my first book review in a month. But don’t fret. This one is not just for the hipsters.

Everyone still has a kid somewhere inside. You just need to know where to look.

Bottom Line: Fantastic book of innovative, witty constructions

To Purchase “The Life of Small Things” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Zhang Xiao

by Jonathan Blaustein

I never tell my kids what to do. I always ask politely.
Why? Because I hate being bossed around.

Doesn’t everybody?

Or is my assumption too embedded in my role as an artist, a group of rebels if ever there was one. Not to mention American: we’re as entitled a group of “exceptional” people as you’re likely to find.

Are there places in the world where people relish being ordered about? Really, how mutable is the human condition?. When I see images of women in full niqab, or hell, even the actual woman I saw on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I assume they’d rather be liberated.

Who wouldn’t want to drive a car? Or be allowed out of the house without a male escort? But am I mistaken? Do people like things just as they are? Perhaps culture runs deeper than we realize?

And what about autocratic societies that lack freedom of speech? How do people acclimate? Is it so repressive that you go out of your mind? Or do most folks easily adjust to a world of winks and sideways glances, rather than brash proclamations?

What is it really like to be Chinese, I wonder, in this century that seems theirs for the taking? Does the allure of wealth brought by Capitalism outweigh the frustration at having so little information filtered by the Great Firewall?

Again, I don’t know. (Am I attempting to break my own record for most rhetorical questions in one book review column?)

Regardless, I now have a much better real-world vision of what life is like in the Coastal regions of the Rising Tiger/Ancient Dragon, thanks to “Coastline,” a new-ish book by Zhang Xiao, published by Jiazazhi Limited. Before I ramble further, I will henceforth state that this is a really fantastic book, but it took some getting used to.

Open it up, and there’s an insert, folded over multiple times, and stuck in a little folder on the inside cover. I took it out, opened up, and found a few English essays among a larger grouping of what I took to be Mandarin text.

I looked at it, pondered for a moment, and then put it away. I wasn’t interested in being told what to think about the photos before I saw them. Return later, I figured. (So I did. The artist’s statement was far more enlightening than the mistranslated/typo-ridden Mandarin essays. Example: “Though the coastline separates the lad from the sea…”)

I began to leaf through the pages, and wasn’t yet captivated. Wow, I thought, this is a thick book. How many f-cking pictures are there?

Now, I often write about why a narrative structure is so important in a book. Progression, inter-relationships, ad nauseum. But I also admit that looking at books is experiential, and you have to be willing to bend to the situation.

So I began to flip towards the back. There are more than 100 photos, so it was a bit daunting to be so linear. To follow the rules. To be told what to look at, and when.

Flip forward. Flip back. Jump around, and the book comes to life. There is so much “LIFE” on display. Oddities, and normality, all rendered in a subtle color palette that announces itself over time.

There are pinks and blues and yellows, but he also handles brown and ochre with dignity. Two women wear white wedding dresses. Don’t they wear red in China at such moments? Is it a Westernization thing, or was I simply misinformed?

In one run, we get a man’s back, a man with his hand suggestively on another man’s back, and then a man doing pushups on the beach. Clever and cool. (There is a sub-theme of people doing physical exercises in random situations.)

Broadcasters interview subjects on the beach, a (drunk?) man from the provinces eyes the camera from beneath a metal stanchion, an ostrich runs amok, a dude walks down the street with his ass hanging out, and we close with a father (I assume) walking with his son, who’s wearing a white eye-patch.

A bonfire in front of a fake octopus. Swimmers. Fishermen. More and more.

Really, it’s a terrific collection of images, and most definitely shows us things we haven’t seen before. Not with this degree of authenticity, at least.

But can things actually be authentic in such situations? Do artists have to have their work censored, or approved, for books like this to be published in China? Again, I don’t know. But I’m more curious than ever before what life looks like in China 2015, and that is always the marker of an excellent photo-book.

Bottom Line: Awesome, thorough look at Coastal life in China

To Purchase “Coastline” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Gerry Badger

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m going to Chicago this week. As such, I’m writing on a Sunday. Absolutely unprecedented, but what can you do?

That’s life these days, in the throes of the 21st Century Hustle.

Ironically, one of the reasons I’m headed to the Windy City is to deliver a lecture on just that subject. (12:30pm Sunday at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel.) I’ll also be reviewing portfolios at the Filter Photo Festival, so you can look forward to seeing some cool projects in October/November.

Honestly, the 21CH gets me down sometimes, even though I publicly espouse it. Doing lots of things, and trying to do them well, is a viable strategy for cobbling together a decent income, but it’s trying on the soul.

It’s not a bad thing, working more. Not at all. But being an artist does require the occasional day of sitting on your ass, thinking about things. Or nothing at all. Every now and again, you DO have to get bored to come up with new ideas.(Counterintuitive, I know.)

That said, my life has never been better. My wife and kids are healthy and happy. The career is doing fine. So what if I’m tired all the time?

It could be a lot worse.

That’s the thing about perspective, though. If we had it all the time, we’d never need to find it again. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t occasionally lose ourselves in the caverns of our own minds. Fortunately, it’s one thing we can always look to art for: the chance to appropriate someone’s vision, to understand their worldview through their creations.

At least, that was where my mind went, having just put down “It Was A Grey Day: Photographs of Berlin,” by Gerry Badger, recently published by Peperoni Books.

This is one volume where the title gives it all away. Was it one day? I doubt it, but it was most certainly gray/grey/gris/sin color. I used the word bleak a few times in last week’s column, which is a shame, because otherwise, I’d definitely be using bleak today. (Who says good writers can’t repeat words? Bleak. Bleak. Bleak.)

All I could think about, while flipping through the pages, was that this Berlin must surely exist, because there were so many incarnations of it on display. Graffiti. Detritus. Broken down moments in the urban continuum.

Hell, in one photo, we can see the letters “Spair” painted on a brick cylinder, some sort of old chimney, and I was sure it must have come from “Despair,” because that’s what I was getting off of these photographs.

Now, I like the anti-aesthetic as much of the next guy, and have been known to make an ugly photo or two myself. (Goopy canned snails, severed deer’s head, decapitated cows…) Meaning, I have no bias against ugly beauty.

But when it’s all I see in a group of photos, I assume more about the artist’s state of mind than I do about the putative location. These pictures are about Berlin, I suppose, but they’re more about why Gerry Badger only saw this Berlin with a camera in his hand.

Where is the joie de vivre? Or was it simply that finding these less-than-glorious moments was the exact respite Mr. Badger needed from his other duties? Exaltation in the form of decay?

As the pictures are all well done, and communicate said mood, I thought it was a book worth reviewing. But there’s more here too. Gerry Badger is known as a writer, perhaps more than as a photographer. As I say in the aforementioned 21CH lecture, if they know you at all, count yourself lucky.

I began to read his closing essay, and then felt compelled to stop. In a sort of information creep, I was immediately seduced by Mr. Badger’s writerly voice. He was contextualizing before he even kissed me goodnight. The big names, the intellectually-bent quotes. I could see it all coming, and even skimmed to make sure it was thus. (It was.)

It’s his book, and more power to him. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the statement, the pitch, the lecture, the TV appearance, the personality, it speaks as loudly as the pictures, when given the chance. People expect that from their successful creators these days.

Would Steve Jobs have changed the world without the black turtlenecks on stage? (Always, on stage.)

To be clear, I’m not saying it was a bad essay, or that Mr. Badger shouldn’t have written it to accompany his photographs. Quite the opposite.

It’s just that in my role, which in this case involves reading pictures, I was much more interested in the naked honesty of these depressing photographs than I was in hearing the artist speculate why they are, or are not important. Great writers can make anything sound interesting. But a picture is worth a thousand…potatoes?

Bottom Line: Bleak, ugly beauty in Berlin

To Purchase “It Was A Grey Day: Photographs of Berlin” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Laurent Chardon

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

They’ve had no rain up in Washington, which you’ve probably heard. Even less snow last Winter. I just saw a headline in the NYT that the Sierra snowpack is at its lowest level in 500 years.

That’s about when Cortes conquered Mexico. The last time there was this little snow, Italians had never eaten a tomato. (Crazy times, this Climate Change.)

Though Seattle is famously pastoral, I recently dined with some friends who live there, and they still flee the city on Summer weekends. They head to “real” nature for the peace and quiet, and will go to great lengths to get there.

Apparently, Josh, Katie and the kids wait 2 hours in a queue to get their car on a ferry. They ride the boat, and 2 more hours to disembark, all before they drive to their preferred camping locale. (5 hours in total, each way.) That’s how badly some people want to escape the urban jungle, and this in a beautiful city surrounded by water and mountains.

This need to be elsewhere is as strong as it is strange. Why can’t people enjoy what they have? Because baking concrete and ceaseless noise will mess with your brain.

Yes, today I’m wondering about the relationship between cities and their immediate environs, after looking at Laurent Chardon’s new book “Dédale,” recently published by Poursuite.

The banlieues, or suburbs, that surround Paris have been in the news quite a bit, of late. They’re getting a lot of publicity as hotbeds of Islamic unrest and Anti-Semitism, but also for the riots that seem to happen every couple of years. (Burning cars, that sort of thing.)

Why has it been thus? Because those neighborhoods are apparently ghettos for the immigrants, and people of color, that La France has been slow to adopt. (Much less embrace.) As we’ve learned in America, segregating poverty does not make it disappear. Averting your gaze affects your gaze, but not what you choose to ignore.

I’m no expert on the banlieues, as I haven’t been to Paris in 15 years, and even then, it was only for a night. What I know of the situation comes from what I’ve read, mostly. And now, from what I’ve seen.

This book, like some of my favorites, doesn’t give you anything. You have to sort it out for yourself, and even then, supposition is required. (That’s my way of saying the following sentiments may be incorrect, relative to the artist’s intentions.)

Open it up, and save for the title, all we get are photos. Bleak, graffiti-covered industrial and abandoned structures. Mostly at night. These are to Brassaï’s glowing, Romantic night time Parisian pictures as Johnny Manziel is to Tom Brady.

The cover gives us a map of a Metropolis, and the architecture and few bits of language in the initial photos allow me to guess we’re in the Paris orbit. (Which the end notes confirm.) The stark landscape makes me believe we’re on the outskirts, where the poverty lives. (No gleaming Gothic cathedrals in this one…)

Then, surprisingly, I notice that a page feels thicker than the others. I play around a bit and open it up, finding two double spreads of portraits. Grabbed photos of pedestrians at night, lit up by what feels like the glow of the city center.

Then back to the gloom. The process repeats itself three or four more times. Always the same: up close, stolen street portraits, the kind that require copious light and unsuspicious people. You’d never get pictures like this, lurking somewhere unpopulated, shoving your camera in the grill of scared strangers.

To me, it’s a structural metaphor. The shiny center, encircled by a sad, weary infrastructure. The breezy heart of the city, with danger pervading the darkened edges.

This is just my read, of course, because the book gives nothing away. The end notes, in French, tell us the artist dedicates his book to his parents, and that the pictures were made in Paris and its surroundings, in 2003, 07, and 2010-13.

That’s it.

The use of black and white is perfect here. Not only does it reference Brassaï, but it gives a genuine menace to these pictures. It makes you wonder how safe Mr. Chardon was, while he snapped away.

They make the outskirts look bad, but not the banlieue residents, as there are none to be seen in the lightless places. So we begin to wonder: who would prosper in an environment so ugly and decrepit? How can people be expected to succeed, on the fringes of Paris, when their world is as bleak as Paris is beautiful?

I genuinely don’t know. Do you?

PS: This column has gone on for so long that when I tried to save my document as “Chardon,” I learned the title was taken. Apparently, I reviewed another of his books back in 2013. Not sure what that says about my memory, but I’ll have to re-read it, to see what I thought of his previous effort.

Bottom Line: Chilling photos on the outskirts of Paris

To Purchase “Dédale” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Mike Mandel & Chantel Zakari

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve got Boston on the brain at the moment.
Why, you ask?

I caught “The Departed” on cable over the holiday weekend. It’s one of those movies that’s better the second time you see it, though I don’t know why that is. Matt Damon, God bless him, rocks the thick Southie accent like the pro that he is.

Gooh Sawx!

Jack Nicholson, however, doesn’t even bother trying. One out of every 25 words has a half-accent, but that’s about it. Still, given his massive JACK charisma, I really didn’t mind. I always thought this was a minor Scorsese film, and it may well be. But when Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Damon, Nicholson, Vera Farmiga and Leonardo DiCaprio are giving excellent performances, I’d be a fool to dismiss it.

Then, the next day, I was leafing through a copy of The New Yorker, and began to read a piece about the Salem witch trials, from the late 17th Century. It’s an engrossing article, as they always are, but I was stopped cold by a period map, showing the entirety of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The British names: Dorchester, Gloucester. The spots embedded in American history: Salem, Concord, Cambridge.

At one point, it was “The Frontier.” Hard to believe nowadays, as highways tie those places together tighter than a courtesan’s corset.

History is always less-popular than entertainment, but in this case, the strands wrapped around each other, like a helix, and encouraged me to speculate. Why did all those Pilgrims emigrate, given the almost psychotic odds stacked against them?

Because they wanted a better life.

Were the current occupants of the Continent happy to see them? No, they were not. (Understandable, given the subsequent Genocide.)

It seems that’s always the case with immigrants, though. No matter how pressing their case, locals wish the newcomers would just keep moving along. How else to explain the crisis enveloping Europe at the moment?

Could any group of people have a more valid reason for fleeing than the Syrians? These poor folks are literally stuck between Bashar Al-Assad, and ISIS. The former used to be the worst person in the world, but somehow, ISIS managed to top it. Those that stay behind face the tragic risk of a painful death.

But many Europeans, fearful for their jobs and economic security, would just as soon see people beheaded. It’s mind-boggling, but there you are. People have no choice but to leave, yet they’re unwelcome where they’re headed.

Frankly, it makes me think of the Tsarnaev brothers. Remember them? How were they treated in Massachusetts, I wonder? I wrote a piece in 2013, admitting my guilt at feeling a touch of empathy for young Dzhokhar. He seemed like a dumb kid caught up in a horrific world of someone else’s making.

Were these immigrants embraced by their new community, or shunned? Does it even matter? Nothing can excuse the mayhem and misery they unleashed, but still. I’d love to know how it all went down.

That’s impossible, I’m afraid. But what of the aftermath? The shutdown of Boston? The massive manhunt? What must that have looked like?

Finally, a question I can answer without resorting to another question. I need not imagine the manhunt that ultimately found Dzhokhar, as I’ve just finished looking at “Lockdown Archive,” a new book by Mike Mandel & Chantel Zakari, recently put out by 18 publications. (Though apparently printed by Blurb.)

We always make our way back to book, don’t we?

While I’m unfamiliar with Chantal Zakari, I know Mike Mandel from his famous Photo World Baseball card series, which I wrote about in a review of Pier 24 a few years back, and his seminal project re-contextualizing found imagery with his partner, the late Larry Sultan. (That was one long sentence. Apologies.)

That knowledge helped me appreciate this fascinating and genuinely impressive book, assuming images were found, not taken. The volume is broken down into small sections, all of which purport to show what was happening in Watertown, MA, on April 19, 2013, the date of the big manhunt.

As the premise of a lockdown means the artists couldn’t have been out and about, making images, I guessed that the pictures within were taken from the Internet, TV, and other media sources. The end notes confirm as much.

Which means that no living soul saw, with his or her own eyes, the entirety of the situation as we see in this book. Gray teams, black teams, swat teams, helicopters. It’s all here.

Evacuations. Press conferences. Rolling Hummers. Sad children. An African-American man, in a classy hat, with his hands up at gunpoint. Bullet holes and screened-in-porches and Red Sox gear.

Wow.

The end notes also tell us that so many law enforcement officers showed up to help, uninvited, that the entire endeavor was a logistical nightmare. It was almost like a Wild West posse formed, just to make sure that a bleeding 19 year old boy had nowhere to hide.

Ironically, it was only after the lockdown was lifted that a resident was able to go outside, notice his boat had been invaded, and call in the big guns.

We all know what happened next.

My favorite part of this job is looking at books that show me things I’ve never seen before. I drop that standard on you all the time, because the more I see, the harder it is to accomplish the goal.

This week, we have something that none of us has seen before. So I trust you’ll be satisfied. (At least I hope so.)

Bottom Line: Innovative book, featuring collected images reconstructing a famous manhunt

To Purchase “Lockdown Archive” Visit Photo-Eye

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