Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books: Sol Neelman

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

Sorry. It can’t be helped.

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave, I say. Leave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Weird Sports 2” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Sachiko Kawanabe

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

It’s true.

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

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

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

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

There is nothing else, at the moment.

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

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

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

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

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “sononite” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Alessandra Mauro

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

Taunting me.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not pretty.

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

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

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

It won’t hurt a bit.

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

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

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

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

Why not indeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Photoshow” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Mike Slack

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Mad Men” ended this week.

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

To forgive.

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

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

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

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

Shrubs of Death? How great is that?

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

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

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

I really thought that. I swear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Shrubs of Death” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Lindsay Morris

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

Ever.

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

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

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

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

Who am I to judge?

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

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

It doesn’t get more real time than that.

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

And so I shall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “You Are You” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Ken Schles

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

But I don’t miss it.

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

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

Like the 80’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motion, always motion.

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Invisible City” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Christopher Williams

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

Should it matter?

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

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

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

And now?

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

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

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

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

What would you think about that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope. It was blank. Only red.

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

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

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

To Purchase “Printed In Germany” Visit Photo-Eye

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This Week In Photography Books: Michael Danner

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

And yet, we persevere.

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

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

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

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

And yet, we persevere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase visit http://dannercriticalmass.com

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This Week In Photography Books: Roger Eberhard

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, kid, thanks.”

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

“Maybe, kid, maybe.”

He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go here to purchase “Martin Parr Looking at Books”

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This Week In Photography Books: Alexandra Huddleston

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

They are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Ingvar Kenne

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such. A. Classic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever seen Ron Jeremy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week In Photography Books: Andy Freeberg

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got a lot of good feedback on last week’s review. Honestly, I wasn’t that surprised. Who doesn’t love to read the ramblings of a slightly deranged mind?

It was as if I were Raskolnikov for a few moments. Fleetingly crazy, only without the menace. Who knew what I might say? I could have written the whole thing stark naked, having a laugh at everyone’s expense, and no one would have been the wiser.

This week, however, I’ve moved past the pain-killer phase of this particular illness. As two of my students correctly predicted, it migrated from my throat to my chest. Now, I have bronchitis, which is less painful, but more annoying.

All day long, I’ve been hocking up phlegm.
Cough. Cough. Chest boogers.
Cough. Cough. Chest boogers.

Not. exactly. sexy.

And yet, as I said last week, the trains must run on time. Books must be reviewed. Content must be produced. It is the way of the 21st Century, and who am I to question reality?

(Were I still in the Dostoyesvky-impersonating phase, I might do just that. “The world. It is bleak. People. They are dark, miserable animals. Happiness is an illusion. We are all capable of murder. Why go on living? What is the point? I really should kill myself. Or better yet, someone else. They don’t deserve to live. I hate them. I love them. I am thoroughly confused.”)

Are you confused? Shall I make things less complicated for you?

How’s this? Andy Freeberg’s new book “Art Fare,” published by Sojourn, is awesome and hilarious, in a dry, insider-kind-of-way. He laughs at the type of powerful, humorless people that normally intimidate the shit out of regular folks like us: Contemporary Art Dealers, and their bespectacled minions.

This book requires little explication, which is why it is perfect for today. The pictures below will amuse you, for certain, and allow me to wrap this column up quickly, so I can go back to my obnoxious, Russian-level suffering.

Cough. Cough. Chest boogers.

The pictures were made in the Miami Art Fairs, and feature gallery owners and workers in front of the goods they buy, sell and trade. Not much to figure out.

There are connections between the people and the art, occasionally. Like the guy in front of his own painting, with his wiener hanging out.

But what I really loved was the fact that almost all of these people have adopted the kind of affected, bored-of-the-world, I’d rather check my Iphone than stare at a wall, I’m-better-than-you-are kind of postures. It makes you want to punch them in the face, collectively, but then, not really. They’re just flawed human beings, as are we.

Everyone gets bored, I suppose, and if you stare at the art too long, perhaps your mind will explode.

I’m sure they’re secretly insecure, these Art World Denizens, and trying to fit in, like the rest of us. So they wear faded black T-shirts, like their buddies do, and pretend not to care. (Like their buddies do.)

Bill Hunt, who writes an essay, is also featured in a photograph, at his former gallery Hasted Hunt Krautler. In fairness, his pose affects no such ennui. (Which really ought to be a Russian word, instead of French. Don’t you think?)

He ends with Chuck Close, in his wheelchair, looking at an Andy Warhol “Soup Can” on the wall. What a great way to “close” a book. Perfect, really.

Blaustein out.

Bottom Line: Hilarious, well-observed investigation of the Art-World-Gorillas in their natural habitat

To Purchase “Art Fare” 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: Carolyn Drake

by Jonathan Blaustein

I didn’t sleep well last night. Forgive me if I ramble on. I’ve got no other options.

That’s the thing with a weekly column. The deadline is always there. Over the years, you learn to live with it. Rather than a demarcation of stress, the looming responsibility becomes a comfort, as my young daughter always clings to her fuzzy pink blanket. (Which she calls Cokie.)

It’s been years now, that I share my musings and life experiences with you: the nameless audience. You’ve been around for my ups and downs. As I write, some of the downs come back around again, like a decrepit ferris wheel in a faraway carnival.

The cages creak, in need of oil. The rust has overtaken the paint. Soon enough, it will all be a cacophony of textured brown. Like the desert, if it were only slightly darker in color.

Why didn’t I sleep last night? Because I’ve caught one hell of a wicked virus. The kind that makes my throat feel like a thousand tiny knives are puncturing my skin, every time I swallow. I had one of these bugs a few years ago, and wrote about it then. (Do you remember?)

Now, I’ve gotten another. Not two seconds ago, I swallowed, and the scratchy pain flooded my brain with cortisol. Yet the ferris wheel keeps spinning, and the book pile looms in the background, filled with goodies about which I expound, for your pleasure, every week.

What about today? Can you tell that I’m half-bonkers? Does it matter? What if I found a book, on my very first try, that matched my loopy mood perfectly, like yin abuts yang, forever in harmony?

Would it be possible? What would such a book look like?

I’m glad you asked.

“Wild Pigeons” is a new book by Carolyn Drake, recently produced by Colour & Books. That is was one of two books in my stack with pigeons in the title seems beyond coincidental. That it is the second book in a week that dares to “Put a Bird on It” is less surprising, as there would not be a cliché, there would be no smoke, without the fire.

I didn’t know it was Ms. Drake’s book though. Her name, and the title, are on the spine only, and I didn’t bother looking. So all I got was three white birds on a white cover. Honestly, such a book could be about anything. Presumably birds, but last week’s bird book was about the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake, so I was curious.

Oh yes.

It opens with a section of pages that are shorn shorter than what will come later. Two text pages greet us, the second states “I cannot tell if I am dreaming or awake.” Which is exactly how I feel at the moment, hopped up on honey tea and pain killers.

Then, we see a grave, below prayer flags, in a desert. After, a portrait on a wall: four boys with their heads covered with a certain kind of hat, like a yarmulke, only bigger. Then, more desert. And more desert still. A brown-skinned man on a motorcycle. A woman on the ground. A boy perched upon wires, tied by rope to a man on the ground.

Where are we? What is going on?

Time to guess, I thought. I supposed we were in Central Asia, though Mongolia did pop in my mind as well. Not enough grassland for Mongolia, though. We see headscarves, and farmers, yet lush things grow as well.

The words “fever dream” popped into my head, but that’s really not a phrase I ever use.

We get to the wider pages, and the orientation shifts entirely. You flip the book sideways, and are met with collage images. Some have text written on them. It is trippy, this book, and I like it very much. Very much indeed.

At some point, I see the word Uyghour, and then it makes sense. The asiatic features. The vast deserts. The head scarves. We are in Western China, I realize, and it has all been hinted at perfectly, so far.

Eventually, the pages shrink again, and we are back to straight photography. Apple carts, and pit bulls lunging. Cow throats slit in the streets, blacksmiths, and billiard games too. There are still blacksmiths in 2015? (Of course, silly American. Of course.)

Holy shit. This book is wild. If I were in a normal state of mind, I’m sure it would induce a sort of temporary insanity. As I am already temporarily insane, I feel like this book was made just for me.

The pages widen again, the orientation flips. Again. And now the photographs are at night. The close of the story. When the bats fly, and trouble canvasses the streets like a beat cop trying to avoid boredom.

Eventually, we reach the end text. A long story, translated for our benefit. A statement by the artist, who explains that the collages were her way of getting the local Uyghurs in Xinjiang to participate in her project. Anonymously. (She spent years visiting the place, and dug deep into the culture.)

Stranger still, there is a brief interview between the artist, an old grandfather, and an interpreter. Why is it stranger still? Because it’s printed on the back cover.

Somewhere, the ghost of Jack Kerouac is reading this review. He is judging me, and unfortunately, I’ve come up short. (“Listen, man. I get the vibe you’re grooving for. I do. I do. But it doesn’t feel quite right to me, man. Like, maybe you were trying too hard? Or maybe you weren’t on enough drugs? You know what I’m saying? The book though… it’s pretty hip. Hip, man. Hip.”)

Bottom Line: Amazing, innovative, mind-altering book made in the true hinterlands of Earth

To Purchase “Wild 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: Rinko Kawauchi

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m glad they call it Climate Change these days. (Instead of Global Warming.) Makes more sense that way.

At first, I thought it was a euphemism, meant to seem less-threatening. But then I realized that despite the fact that something like thirteen of the fourteen hottest years on record have come in the 21st Century, it’s really the preponderance of extreme weather that will get people’s attention.

Nothing shakes things up like death statistics.

When the Climate Changes, we get things like what’s going in Boston. Where the snow is higher than Bob Marley at 4:20am, the night after a Reggae Festival in Kingston. (And have you heard the Marley family is getting into the legal weed business? Genius!)

As for Taos, we spent most of the winter enjoying unseasonable 55 degree days. Two weeks ago, I took my students shooting around campus, and they were all wearing T-shirts. Again, this is the Rocky Mountains, for goodness sake.

But last Friday, OMG. Winter came roaring back like a kiln-fire surrounded by hippie potters. It was raging. We had a four-day blizzard for the first time in I can’t remember. It was so beautiful. Outside my door, everything looked like a Japanese Landscape Painting.

So. Very. Quiet.

What do you do during a four-day-snowstorm? Right. Watch movies.

We caught “Chef,” a really poor Indie film from Jon Favreau, of “Swingers” and “Iron Man” fame. I’ll spare you my treatise on why it was both implausible and hollow. What really got my attention was the manner in which Favreau, as the titular Chef, was driven to temporary insanity by a particularly difficult online critic.

All I could think was: been there. It’s hard for me to believe how personally I used to take the comment section criticism here. It was always so cruel and personal. Still, I cringe thinking about how angry I used to get at those anonymous trolls.

Now, we moderate. Keeps the discourse civil, though there’s rarely any discourse at all. The past two weeks, though, I noticed that someone questioned my choice of book, as I’ve been trying to vary my selections a bit. Both comments were civil, open-hearted, and thoughtful. So I replied.

You don’t have to agree with me. But if you have an intelligent thought, and take the time to share it with me, I’m willing to write back. Frankly, it was all I ever wanted. Conversation is interesting. Hate? Bo-ring.

But what did I promise you last week? That this week’s book would be right in the eye of the storm. The average, normal, medium-type of book that I often review.

What would that look like? Talented artist. With other books to his/her name. Respected career. Political and/or relevant subject matter. Handsomely produced. Most likely not from the United States.

Right?

Right. Here we go.

“Light and Shadow” is a new book by Rinko Kawauchi, recently published by Super Labo in Japan. I’m always asking for books that tell us what we need to know. Preferably though the pictures, but that type of communication can be difficult.

This book does just that. It’s clean, spare, and white, with a picture of a bird on the front. (Put a bird on it.) As befit’s Ms. Kawauchi’s style, the first few pictures are in color, and well-composed. The second photo has sun flares that look like emoji. (Is emoji a Japanese word? Must be, right?)

If you look carefully, the next two pictures reference rubble, seen from afar. Then, we get two inserted pictures of birds, the first of which clearly shows them soaring over a garbage heap. Broken down wooden things.

First thought, I love that the inserts look like 4×6 pictures from Walgreens. (Or its Japanese equivalent.) Second thought, earthquake damage?

The book continues in this manner. A broken street, rendered in twilight blue. A bright yellow dandelion spouting up out of a patch of green grass. The next time we see the bird inserts, there are three photos instead of two.

Growth. Change.

There is more rubble. More flowers. More light flares. More twilight blue. A pink balloon. And a dog roaming the streets to boot.

Even with our short-news-cycle-attention span, it’s not hard to connect this to the Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear Disaster phase that hit Japan a few years ago. Almost any viewer would connect the dots.

There is a short statement that confirms what is by then obvious. And the back page states that a portion of the proceeds will be donated to disaster relief. Which is a good thing. Because while I never look at prices, I happened to notice this one sells for $80. You can feel good about spending that, if you want one.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, haunting photos of Japan, after the quake

To Purchase “Light and Shadow” 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: Andrew Macpherson

by Jonathan Blaustein

I watched “Breaking Bad” for a little while, but then had to I quit. Cold Turkey. No more Heisenberg blue meth for me.

No sir.

I was doing a Netflix-binge-watch-thing, and made it into the beginning of Season 3. Darker and darker went the ride. Darker and darker still.

All of a sudden, after one more adrenaline dump, it became clear to me. There is no happy ending here, only a vortex of misery. Redemption is not interesting to Vince Gilligan. He’s just hooking people, deeper and deeper, so that the whole show
becomes a metaphor for addiction.

This train only runs in one direction, I thought, and it’s time to get off. Now. Before this shit gets any darker. Darker and darker, like the moonless night sky. That’s what’s ahead.

I don’t regret my decision, despite the near-universal-plaudits of the later era, and the mass-American-hysteria that accompanied the final season. It seemed like everyone but me was emotionally invested in the outcome, and that was just what I had planned.

That said, I’m completely in love with “Better Call Saul,” the newly introduced spin-off. First of all, Big Shout Out to Bob Odenkirk, who is brilliant. I know he gets plenty of props, but add mine to the list.

And having just been in Albuquerque the other day, it is oddly satisfying, as a New Mexican, to see scruffy Burque bathed in the glow of good camerawork. It might not be as warm and fuzzy as a breakfast burrito from the Frontier, smothered in scathingly spicy chile broth, but it comes close.

The story, if you’re not familiar, covers the backstory of Saul Goodman, Mr. Odenkirk’s character from “Breaking Bad.” Turns out he used to be a small-time hustler named Jimmy McGill. At what point does he adopt his new persona? His alter ego?

I don’t know.

They’ve just finished Episode 4, and most series like this take years to unfurl, like the American flag once had 13 stars, and then more, and more still. Hell, New Mexico didn’t even become a state until 1912, so they were adding stars for more than a century. Each time, making the previous flag irrelevant. Or, more likely, a very expensive collectible.

Even when you adopt a new identity, you’re mostly altering your name, at first. Authenticity takes time to develop, like a good green chile stew. We cook ourselves to condense the flavor, and build up complexity. Bit by bit.

Why am I waxing philosophical about such things today? (As always, good question.) It’s because I’ve just finished looking at “Pink: 10 Years,” a new book by Andrew Macpherson, published by Bravado. As I said last week, readers are sending me things these days, and this one popped up in my PO Box a little while ago.

It’s about as different from what I normally review as you can get, but I think that’s a good thing. As far as I know, Pink started out as a girl named Alicia, who could sing really well. I think maybe she’s from Pennsylvania, but you know how much I hate Googling things to be sure.

Truthfully, I’ve never been a fan of her work, nor have I gone out of my way to dislike it. She’s a massive Pop Star, so her music isn’t meant for the likes of me. She has a great voice, I know, and a rocking body too.

What else can I tell you?

Well, no one knows this, but before my wife and I moved to Brooklyn, in 2002, we spent 6 weeks criss-crossing Mexico by bus.
We ended up in Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo, in the middle of summer. It was hot as a bowl of habañero salsa. Your eyelids wanted to melt into your eyeballs, each time you walked down the Quinta.

When we weren’t in the ocean, we stayed in our hotel room, air condition cranking, watching TV and reading books. My wife would certainly be shocked to know I’m sharing this seemingly random detail, stolen from the bowels of my memory, but she spent hours at a time watching music videos, mostly in Spanish, which she doesn’t speak, to catch a Pink song, each time they brought it back around.

She might not remember that at all. And it would probably take me a fair bit of time on YouTube, which didn’t exist back then, to figure out which link to post here. So I won’t. (Update: Jessie confirms the story, and claims she was interested in “Get the Party Started” because it had a killer dance number.)

As for the book, it’s vibrant, and snappy, filled with well-made publicity stills, album covers, and behind the scenes concert shots. There is a running commentary, by Mr. Macpherson and Pink, which gives their current take on things that happened years ago.

Inspirational statements are graphically imposed, from time to time, and they all reflect a vision of positivity and hard work.

As for the pictures? I was mostly taken by how clearly Pink was “faking it until you make it,” in the beginning. The tongue came out, and the hair was bleached. True. But there was no gravitas in her expression, early on. No piercing intelligence behind the eyes.

More than once, contemporary Pink refers to her former self as a “baby,” and you can see why. She may have been captivating America’s teen-aged girls, and building a brand, but she was still figuring herself out.

As the book goes on, you think it’s going to be gradual, but really, it’s not. You reach a certain page, and there it is. Strength and confidence appear, like a black-hatted bad guy on the horizon. Soon after, we see her daughter. The baby has become a mother, and any and every parent can relate that feeling.

(“If I don’t grow up now, on the double, I’m going to ruin this little human, and that is one mistake I can’t allow myself to make.”)

There was one detail that really stuck out, like the shocking neon pink of the page edges. Pink shares that when she first wanted to sing and do acrobatics at the same time, her trainer was dubious. So Pink instructed her to punch her in the stomach, repeatedly, while she sang.

Can you imagine thinking of that, much less asking someone to do it to you? Totally. Fucking. Insane.

But I suppose that’s what it takes, if you want to become a Global Icon. A One-Named Brand. A color: personified. (My young daughter’s favorite color, incidentally. Like every other two-year-old girl on the planet…)

OK. We’re done here. This book is not like everything else I review. And last week’s book was about as typical of what I normally cover as you can get. So I guess that means next week, we’ll end up somewhere smack in the middle.

Bottom Line: Glossy look inside the evolution of a Pop Star, and, a human being too.

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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.