Category "Photography Books"

This Week in Photography Books: Nina Berman

 

I’m not feeling very creative at the moment.

The sky is gray out my window, and the dreary light is making me lazy. In a perfect world, I’d get back in bed, pull the covers around me tight, and take a big fat nap.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

I bitch and complain as much as the next guy, but in general, I’m aware of how good I have it. While life can turn on any given day, I’m healthy, have a beautiful family, and live in a wonderful place.

If I feel hunger, I go to the refrigerator and make myself some food. So in the grand scheme of things, I have little to complain about.

Living with comfort and security is the root of the American Dream. Without question, we take it for granted. It’s hard not to, as the micro-stresses of daily life add up, and in the aggregate make it difficult to maintain perspective.

As artists, we have a built-in stress relief mechanism, as long as we have the energy to use it. I’ve written many times that I taught abused teenagers for 10 years, and was able to see firsthand how creative outlets allowed them to channel the powerful emotions they have, in response to their tragic circumstances.

Art is its own form of therapy.

I knew my students had undergone horrific situations. As I wasn’t their therapist, I never asked for details. (It didn’t seem appropriate.) My wife, who is a therapist, and works with the same population, has heard frightening stories that would make most people reach for a bottle of whiskey.

Or a big fat joint.

She doesn’t tell me the details, because she’s not allowed. (It’s all confidential.) So she keeps it inside, and sometimes goes to therapy herself, but when things are really bad, I can see the stress energy wafting off her skin like the heat waves that rise from my old wood stove.

Frankly, it’s rare that we find ourselves inside someone else’s nightmare. Sure, some people like to get scared, and pay to watch a creepy movie.

But that’s fiction.

Occasionally, we find ourselves privy to someone else’s darkest secrets. Occasionally, we choose not to look away. (Even when it’s the stuff of pure darkness.)

In my six and half years writing this column, I’ve often shared that my favorite photobooks are experiential. They carefully consider how to unspool the thread of their narrative; how to engage an audience by divulging details in just the right way.

I love books that show me things I haven’t seen before, and give me insights I couldn’t otherwise access.

I’ve also admitted to being something of an Anglophile, as I’m addicted to English football, and wrote stories on this very blog about my remarkably joyous trips to London in 2012 and ’13.

It’s easy to idealize a place when you only see its slick surface. People do that with Taos all the time. They come here thinking it’s a quaint, little tourist mecca, with hip art galleries and magnificent nature.

But as I’ve said before, it’s the most hard-core place I’ve ever lived, and I did a three year stint in Brooklyn.

There are plenty of entertainment options that glamorize English gangsters, like the stylish “Peaky Blinders,” the several movies about the Krays, or (insert random Guy Richie movie here.)

But I just put down a photo book that made my head spin, in a good way, though its contents are shockingly awful. (The kind of awful that enlightens, not the kind that comes from poor execution.)

“An autobiography of Miss Wish” is a new book by Nina Berman, in conjunction with Kimberly Stevens, which was published in the fall by Kehrer Verlag in Germany. It’s generated a fair amount of positive press, and I feel fortunate to have been sent a copy a few months ago, when I was actively soliciting submissions from female artists.

(By the way, the first round of outreach was successful, but I’m down to my last two books by female photographers, so hopefully you guys can help spread the word to get a new batch of submissions for us.)

Kimberly Stevens is the latest name adopted by an Englishwoman who’s had as difficult a life as I’ve ever encountered. This book shares the kind of stories my wife keeps to herself. It’s hard to read what is presented here; to look at Nina Berman’s photographs, and Kimberly’s drawings and diary entries.

The shortest version is that Ms. Stevens was adopted at two into a family of violent, murderous, child-purchasing, sex traffickers. She was raped, tortured, and prostituted for her entire childhood. Even worse, the gang that ran her continued to kidnap her anytime anyone stepped in to help.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ll photograph the drawing she made of a dismemberment, part of a series of flashbacks that were symptoms of extreme mental illness brought on by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In what can only be described as a coincidence, or an act of God, Nina Berman bumped into Kimberly in the early 90s in London, when she was still going by the name of Cathy Wish. She photographed her roaming the city, and they struck a friendship.

As Kimberly’s captors were so well-connected that the police couldn’t protect her, an officer from Scotland Yard suggested she escape to America, and even gave her the money to buy a ticket.

So she came to the United States, (the exact type of immigrant our current president despises,) and made a life for herself on the streets, in the shelters, jails and mental institutions of New York City.

Throughout, Kimberly has suffered from multiple personality disorder, suicidal tendencies, drug addiction, HIV, and dissociative fugue states.

(Like I said, this gives hard-core a new definition.)

The book, which is remarkably well done, shares the story with us in a variety of ways. From medical reports to text messages, consistently interspersed with Ms. Berman’s documentary images, we’re given access to Kimberly Stevens’ life story.

Throughout her time in our country, Nina Berman proved to be her support system.

Her family.

Her rock.

I interviewed Nina Berman for this blog many years ago. She struck me as an extreme personality. You have to be, to somehow believe Kimberly Stevens could carve out a life worth living. That she wouldn’t be better off just jumping off a bridge, or out a window, both of which she tried to do.

Instead, they made this book as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the ultimate survivor.

As far as I’m concerned, photobooks don’t get much better than this.

Bottom line: A collaborative masterpiece

To purchase “An autobiography of Miss Wish,” click here


If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Paul Gaffney

 

Any idiot can deny something.

It’s takes no effort at all.

What could be easier for a lazy person?

Here.
I’ll show you.

I hereby deny that gravity exists. Even though the book I just dropped fell, and hit the couch, still, I insist there’s no such thing as gravity.

Here’s another.

I deny that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is an inherently conservative institution, founded by the famously anti-leftist J. Edgar Hoover.

Who cares that he assassinated Black Panthers?

And that as recently as 2016, we all thought James Comey was a conservative fascist who ruined Hillary Clinton’s chances of getting elected.

Now, these stiff-suited-corn-fed-white-boys are suddenly smoking weed with Jerry Brown?

It’s ludicrous.

But I didn’t mean to get off on a political rant today. Rather, I was thinking about all the people out there who deny that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate patterns.

Theoretically, that should not be a political statement. There is vast empirical evidence supporting the idea that gas emissions trap heat within the planet’s atmosphere, which affects different places in different ways.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” a movie now almost 12 years old, predicted an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events. In addition, traditional weather patterns were meant to shift as well.

Any sentient person can see that in America alone, we’ve been hit with massive floods, hurricanes, droughts, mudslides, and wildfires. (Hell, we even have man-made earthquakes these days too.)

Here in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah are having their worst winter in recent memory. There’s almost no snow at all. (Though here at Taos Ski Valley, our new billionaire owner has certainly been willing to pay for man-made snowmaking. Until the water allotment runs out…)

It was so warm in December, January and now February, it seems as if winter were only a rumor.

Just last year, we had tons of snow, and I’m sure we will again next year. But each random catastrophic weather event, wherever it hits, cost billions of dollars, and wreaks havoc across all strata of society. (Though of course low income people suffer disproportionately.)

Some might say Nature is fighting back.

That we, tiny humans, think that we can do whatever we want, but we’re wrong.

I don’t know who or what controls the wind, the clouds, the rain, the sky. But I do know I’ve been looking out my window at dry grass all winter, instead of white frozen Wonderland.

And I know my trees are thirsty.

I recently saw a headline on Twitter that plants lost certain activity function when exposed to anesthesia. I admit I didn’t read the article, but it implied some sort of sentience.

When you live among raw nature, as I do, it’s not hard to believe such things.

I admit I just came back from my daily walk, but really I’m ruminating, having just looked at “Perigee,” a new book by Paul Gaffney in Ireland, which turned up last autumn.

I reviewed an earlier book of his, “We Make the Path By Walking,” and recall he spent an inordinate amount of time on solo walks in the Irish countryside. (That’s a lot of quiet time, bro.)

This new book is simply beautiful. There’s no other way to describe it. So much clean white paper, in a double fold.

The stiff black binding. So many empty pages. And the images within are special as well.

We learn at the book’s end that the series was made during an artist residency in Luxembourg. (Seriously, do they just give you the whole country for the residency? Sitting here on the other side of the world, I imagine Luxembourg being about as big as Disney World. No offense.)

I’m sure Paul spent a lot of time walking in the woods there, though the book gives us almost no words at all. He thanks his family and friends at the end, which I think is super-classy, and there’s only one fraction of a song lyric.

“But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzled”

It’s interesting context, after-the-fact, because with the strong contrast, and yet consistently dynamic total range, the pictures made me think of electricity, as much as anything else.

Bioluminescent undersea creatures pulsating with life. Or a network of neurons in a Pelican’s brain.

On some level, I understand that they’re just simple black-and-white landscape pictures made in forests. Lots of people do that.

But between the exquisite, minimal design, and the vibrant energy within each picture, (much less the entire edit,) I think this book is just about perfect.

I’m sure you will too.

Bottom line: a little Zen gem, like a poem

PS: I’ve never done a PS before, but when I just went to find the purchase link, I learned another book that was in the package was also a part of “Perigee.” It had no words, and I had no way of knowing they were connected. Apologies.

To purchase Perigee, click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com.

This Week in Photography Books: Carolyn Marks Blackwood

 

I never get homesick.

Not for New Jersey.
(Where I’m from.)

It never happens.

But lately, my home state has crept back into the dark recesses of my consciousness. It began recently enough, when I found myself reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

My son, Theo, was writing his first term paper, and chose Franklin as his subject. I saw the book sitting there, and picked it up out of curiosity, more than anything else. When I read that old Ben first landed in New Jersey at Amboy, not 10 miles from where I grew up, it definitely piqued my curiosity.

The book was a bit of a tease, if I’m being honest, because as fascinating as it was to be inside Franklin’s mind, he died writing it, before he got anywhere near the Revolutionary War.

The man spent pages and pages describing a system for removing dust from the streets of Philadelphia, but never thought to speed it up so we could hear what he thought of George Washington, or the Revolution in general?

Mind-melding with Ben Franklin, straight out of the 18th-century, reminded me of the feeling I had walking the Monmouth Battlefield, or going on school field trips when I was young, and being told that Washington had slept there.

At the moment, I’m deep into binge watching an AMC show about the Revolutionary War, with the awkward title of “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” (Seriously, for all the money these people make, nobody thought to come up with a better title?)

The show is exceptional, so you certainly have my recommendation to watch it yourself, but it’s also been feeding the odd homesickness as well. (As an aside, the show gives good evidence that the New Jersey/Long Island Island rivalry goes back to the old days, when Jersey was Patriot territory, and Long Island was a Tory stronghold.)

My hometown, Holmdel, had its fair share of 18th-century architecture. Not to mention graveyards. (Can you imagine how scary it would be to live next to some of these places?)

Right now, I definitely feel some chills up my spine, having just put down “The Story Series,” a new book by Carolyn Marks Blackwood, recently published by the Roberto Polo Gallery in Brussels. (She just had a show there, and it’s now up at Von Lintel in LA.)

When Ms. Blackwood originally wrote me, she mentioned that she lives in upstate New York. In a sense, it doesn’t matter, because the pictures in this book channel that 18th-century creepy vibe better than just about anything I’ve seen.

The book mentions that these pictures are meant to be exhibited at a very large scale, so when I was looking, I tried to imagine projecting them as wall size, which helps explain the sort-of-painterly, soft focus, lower-resolution aesthetic presented within.

According to an opening interview, Ms. Blackwood is also a screenwriter. It makes perfect sense, as each of the snowy, or dark, wintry pictures is accompanied by a one or two sentence narrative.

They’re novels, for the Twitter age.

I think there’s a range in quality between the pictures, and some would be banal, without the text. Regardless, when combined, I think they give off a strong, local, historical mood.

The paper is dark. The pictures are dark. They’re like ghost stories, without the ghosts.

My one quibble here, and it’s something I’ve mentioned a bit lately, is that I think there are too many pictures. I know that books differentiate themselves from catalogs by being bigger, and having more images, but I definitely think that more is not more, in most cases.

Less is more.

See you next week

Bottom Line: Cool, creepy, painterly book of East Coast landscapes

To purchase “The Story Series,” click here

This Week in Photography Books: TBW Books Subscription Series No. 5

 

Taos is a famously spiritual place.

Our mountain is sacred, and considered one of the world’s energy vortices, if you believe that sort of thing.

So people around here are pretty open to seeing the hand of fate, rather than ascribing any and all oddities to coincidence and chance.

As such, last summer, I chose to take a different route home, which I never do, and drove past my former Kung Fu teacher, walking a dog with a little girl by his side. (I hadn’t seen him in years.)

Not believing it was a coincidence, I parked the car, walked across the street, and said “Hello.” It felt like a sign, so I decided to start studying again, and have been training now for nearly 5 months.

Wing Chun is not for everyone, but I’m enjoying myself immensely. It’s exercise, self-defense, and Buddhist/Daoist philosophy all rolled into one.

The downside, though I hadn’t really contemplated it, is that you can get hurt. Fighting, apparently, can lead to injuries. (Who knew?)

My left hand is strained at the moment, as I hurt it punching a bag a couple of weeks ago, and re-injured it during training last week. Typing right now hurts like hell, and I have to keep it to a minimum, so I can get better and drop 1200 words on you next week.

As such, I”m going to keep it short today. Like super-short. Shorter than DJT’s attention span. Shorter than the line at Chipotle. (You get the picture.)

But to counteract the effects of an abbreviated review, I’m going to show a 4 book set, called “Subscription Series No. 5,” put out last year by our friends at TBW Books in Oakland. (We hate the Warriors in my household, but love Oaktown.)

The series, overseen by Paul Schiek, features books by Mike Mandel, Susan Meiselas, Bill Burke, and Lee Friedlander. How’s that for a line-up?

Pretty badass.

Each grouping comes from the past, though Friedlander snuck a few contemporary images into his edit.

What do they have in common?

I’m not sure.

They’re all black and white, and show people in interesting subcultures: Santa Cruz boardwalk beach kids, Downtown NYC schoolgirls, Appalachian snake-handlers, and people with heads. (OK, “people with heads” is not a sub-culture, but I’m trying to tie a bow on this, so I can stop typing and ice my hand.)

The suite of books is really cool, and Mike Mandel even features images of cunnilingus behind a beach shack, which I have never, ever seen before. (And I won’t photograph here, as Rob likes to keep things SFW.)

Anyway, I’m out, and will be back next week with portfolios from Photo NOLA.

Have a good one, and if you’re going to punch a bag this week, make sure to use proper technique.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, slightly absurd book series by some masters

To purchase “Subscription Series No. 5,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Naomi Harris

 

I haven’t been skiing yet this year.

Mostly because we don’t have any snow. As I’m writing this, the East Coast is under a blizzard watch, and the American South just got more snow in a day than we’ve had in a month.

But I’m not going on a Climate Change rant today.

Rather, I’m moping because I miss flying down the white mountain while the snow falls all around me. It’s magical, standing on top of a white peak, frozen conifers dotting the landscape.

I’ve been skiing in Taos Ski Valley since I was 14, and now I’m 43, so the place is like a second home. Furthermore, one of my wife’s good friends is a Blake, the family that owned the resort for 60 years, so that always made it more special.

Though Taos is famous for our adobe-style architecture, most of the buildings in TSV were designed in a Swiss Alpine style, and feature European names like the Edelweiss, or the Bavarian.

And there are trails named after the men who engineered a failed coup against Adolph Hitler, for crying out loud. (Stauffenberg, Fabian, Oster, Tresckow)

To be clear, Taos Ski Valley sits on land once “owned” by the Taos Pueblo Native Americans, which was then appropriated by colonists from the Spanish Empire, before being taken as war spoils by the United States in the 19th Century.

So where does the Euro-centric architecture/culture come from?

Well, Ernie Blake, the founder, came to America as Ernie Bloch. He was a Swiss German Jew who left Europe, founded a little ski area at the edge of the world, yet still wanted to create an atmosphere like home.

Pretty weird, right?

Well, yes and no.

Because all of contemporary America was founded by European expats who came over here to begin again, and brought their culture with them. (To be clear, I’ve written many words over the years about the exception that is African-American history, but we’re not going there today.)

If you drive through parts of Texas, you see signs advertising kolaches, a Czech snack food that is fairly far from home. Why? Because it was mostly Czech and German immigrants who beat back the Comanche in the 19th Century.

We all know there are a shit-ton of Scandinavians in Minnesota, Polish-Americans in Chicago, Irish in Boston, French descendants in Louisiana, and so on.

There are weird-ass European town names that pop up all over America, including places like Brooklyn, which has become synonymous with American cool. (Or obnoxious, bearded hipsters, depending on your POV.)

How could it be otherwise, when an entire Continent has been populated with riffraff from elsewhere?

That much I understand.

But what about the other way around? Are there places in Europe that are obsessed with America, even though our histories officially diverged around the time of the Boston Tea Party?

I’m glad you asked.

Because I just put down “EUSA,” a fun, new book by Naomi Harris, recently published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, so I feel pretty qualified to answer your question.

To begin with, I believe Naomi Harris is Canadian, so the entire premise of a book looking at the overlap between America and Europe begins with a touch of absurdity. Thankfully, it meshes perfectly with the vibe of the book, and the style of the images, so don’t bother with this one if you lack a sense of humor.

The last few weeks, I’ve discussed how certain books utilize the cover to generate interest. This is no different. As the below picture attests, this cover is made from the sort of plasticy-rubbery composite that makes one think of travel guide books of old, or maybe textbooks you might have bought in college.

The title is also built out of smaller versions of itself, which I had to squint to understand, upon first viewing, thereby grabbing my attention further.

Inside, we’re met with a well-written explanatory essay, by the artist, laying out the parameters of the project. Ms. Harris visited tourist-type-places in the US that honor the heritage of the local founding culture, but also spots in Europe that display a fascination with American culture.

Mostly the Wild West.

You know, like, where I live.

The short version of my opinion is that it’s a cool, smart, funny project, and the images are really well made. (There are also more than a few images of scantily clad ladies, so there’s a slightly sexed-up energy as well.) As Gen X is famous for its embrace of irony, I can only imagine that Ms. Harris is no Millennial, but I’m too classy to Google her birthday and out her age.

The long version is that I think the book is flawed, which is OK, because it’s clearly reaching out towards some edge, without knowing exactly where it is.

The idea that global culture, in particular urban culture, is becoming homogenized is nothing new. We’ve heard plenty about it, and the rebellion against globalized culture struck fiercely in 2016-17, giving us Brexit, Trump, and the incessant use of the word “cuck.”

(Seriously though, I’m willing to bet that EVERY guy who uses the word “cuck” on Twitter hasn’t gotten laid in at least 5 years.)

So by giving us a visual mashup, and intentionally creating images that force you to look hard, trying to surmise which Continent you’re seeing, the book takes its place on the frontline of cultural exploration, here in 2018.

My problems come more from the book’s structure. Frankly, I think there are too many images, and it’s been slightly over-designed. It’s not that some images are of a lesser quality, rather I question whether this many are necessary to make the point, or present a cohesive vision?

Sometimes, less is more.

Secondly, the book is regularly interrupted by an email exchange, printed sideways on vellum paper, between two art world insiders: Erik Kessels of Holland, and Carolina Miranda of LA.

Yes, I knew who they were without having to look it up, but at this point, I’m something of an insider myself, I suppose. (Though I’ll carry my rebellious streak until I die.)

But most readers, outside our small circle, would not know such things. The interviews are witty and interesting enough, but lacking context, and showing up randomly, they take me out of the narrative a bit, and I question whether it’s an effective technique.

(Again, edgy projects take risks, so I’m not trashing her for doing so, just wondering if it’s as successful as hoped.)

At the end of the book, there is a bit of explanation as to who the two writers are, emailing each other across the ocean. (He’s an artist and ad man in Amsterdam, she’s a cultural critic for the LA Times.) So the editorial team understood context was necessary.

I just think they put it in the wrong place. (I suppose I’m quibbling, but that is a part of the job.)

Overall, I think it’s a smart, cool project, with many compelling images within. The irony works well, the saturated colors refer to digital reality, and the sum total presents a world in which we can be fascinated by the Other, rather than simply afraid.

That’s a message that bears repeating in these tumultuous times.

Bottom Line: Very cool book about the intersection between the Old and New worlds.

To purchase “EUSA” click here

If you’d like to submit a book to be considered for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Corinne Vionnet

 

Well, 2017, it’s time for you to go.

Sure, we had some memories.
You were nothing if not dramatic.

You’ve given us natural disasters aplenty, (Harvey/Irma/Maria) political intrigue so unwieldy it could choke a coked-up giraffe, and now, apparently, you’ve frozen the entire Eastern half of the United States.

But as I made my 2017 jokes a few weeks ago, I’ll spare you here. Rather, I’ll settle into that other tried and tested trope: the New Year’s resolution.

Next year, I plan to spend less time looking at screens than I did in 2017.

And I hope you do too.

It’s shocking, how much of my day is spent staring at a screen. Unlike many of you, I’m no phone junkie. But between my laptop and my television, I clock hours and hours each day in a mediated existence.

I’ve been fighting back lately, having replaced some social media time with a hike up the hill each day, as I previously told you. (Such genius! The daily walk. Perhaps I’ve invented something new?)

In general, though, I’m as much a screen-freak as anyone.

Sometimes, if I’m lying in bed watching Netflix on the computer, I’ll look above the screen, to the mountains outside my window, and then pause the show for a moment, and close the laptop.

Something innate in me recognizes the need to see what’s before me, what’s real, rather than the entertainment I’ve jacked into through the Matrix.

And then I’ll raise the screen again and press play, leaving contemplation of nature for another day. (Or art, food, cars, music, books: there are so many treats in the analog world.)

So I’m planning to give myself a screen-free-day over the next few weeks. There will be piles of books and magazines. Lots of food to cook, and kung fu to practice. (I started studying again this year, as 2017 has not been all bad, just insane.)

Will I follow through?
Would you try it yourself?
No screens for a day?

I’m in mind of the question, having just put down “ME. Here Now,” a new book by Corinne Vionnet, recently published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta.

The book was hand-delivered at a cafe here in Taos, as one of the Fall Line crew was vacationing in town, so we met for coffee. My desire to review books by female artists is hopefully well-known by now, so I told Virginie I could review this one after looking at 3 pages.

That’s all it took.

Because it brought me back to the 2011-16 photo-eye years, when I used to regularly get my hands on weird, smart, well-produced, small-batch art books.

For years, I saw that shit all the time, so you did too.

These days, though, my submissions tend towards serious, social documentary books, for the most part. (Not that this one isn’t serious.) But it’s edgy, and strange, which I love.

I think it took me until the third photo to realize I was looking at pictures of people taking pictures with their cell phones, and that the images in the book were likely shot on/from/of computer screens.

But with each passing page, in the midst of the consistency, the weird hand positions made me question whether it was real. What is real, these days, anyway?

Were there digital manipulations?
Why did everyone hold their phones up to their eyes?
Who does that?

Then there’s a block of images, breaking up the narrative, which shows a ghostly black and gray mirage, sandwiching a beautiful European building.

After that, back to the creepy phone photographers.

What to make of it all?

Well, it’s disturbing and dystopic, while also suggesting that elements are “documentary,” or un-manipulated, if you will.

But a good book asks good questions, and then doesn’t leave you hanging. So just as I was scratching my head, I turned the page, and there was an explanatory essay by noted photography critic and theorist Marvin Heiferman.

That’s the publishing equivalent of saying, “What, you have questions about comedy? Why, here’s Jerry Seinfeld to satisfy all your curiosity. You’re welcome!”

It’s established directly that Ms. Vionnet is photographing tourists at Sacré-Coeur, the beautiful cathedral at the highest point in Paris. (Photographing up explains the subjects’ repeated camera positions.)

Though it’s a great essay, pictures like this don’t need words to explain why they’re unsettling. We all know our lives are moderated by machines, more and more, with each passing year.

This is indisputable.

It’s gotten to the point that people mainly communicate via the machines, and not IRL. (You know, in the same room, through sound waves emanating from one’s vocal cords.)

So perhaps we should all adopt the resolution in 2018 to moderate the impulse?

And go for a walk each day, when possible.

Bottom Line: Seductive, creepy, excellent art book about our virtual reality

To purchase “ME. Here Now.” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Orestes Gonzalez

 

I don’t know from Miami.

I may have had lunch there with my grandmother and her husband, driven in an 80’s Cadillac, but if so, I was just a kid at the time.

I’ve heard all the Florida jokes, and told a few myself. My cousin, the comedian Ken Krantz, has made me LOL on Twitter several times, with Florida as the butt of his humor.

But Miami has a different reputation.

It’s less about the con men, and the illiterate meth-dealing hookers, and more about glitz, glamour, and a stylish, Pan-Latino global elite.

Even so, I’m not sure most people would say they have a positive impression of Miami’s culture, and likely know little of the Cuban community at its heart.

(True story, when I pitched Miami as a potential vacation destination, my wife said, “No, I don’t think I’d like the people there.” I said, “But you’ve never been there.” She replied, “Yeah, just from everything I’ve ever read or seen on TV.”)

I told her that it was probably just a stereotype, but then again, I don’t know for sure. Because as I said at the beginning, I know jack squat about Miami.

I can tell you one thing, though.

If I had gotten to party at Uncle Julio’s house, back in the day, I can state with high confidence that I’d be a Miami lover for life.

But who is Uncle Julio?

It’s a fair question.

I’ve just put down the stellar “Julio’s House,” a new book by Orestes Gonzalez, recently published by Kris Graves Projects. I don’t do the best-of, end-of-year lists myself, and don’t read other people’s either, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ended up on some of them.

I know that no one, except for Rob and me, has read all of my columns. (I know I have. How about you, Rob?) But seriously, over a now 6+ year weekly column, themes emerge about what I think a good photobook should do.

I appreciate it when a book chooses to inform the viewer at the proper pace for the story. Meaning, don’t hide things I should know, and don’t tell me things I can easily discover for myself.

“Julio’s House” entices from the outset, with a great blue cover. Then we see a funky graphic page, which turns up later as wallpaper. (But we’ll get to that.)

The book opens with one sentence of text on a white page, and a photo opposite. Flip the page, and then you get two more sentences.

In short order, as a viewer, we know what we need to know, and yet we’re curious, and empathetic, wanting to know more. The book builds upon that, teasing out details with short, compelling bursts of text, mixed with historical photos and Polaroids. (I like Roula Seikaly’s summation essay at the end as well.)

We learn Julio left Cuba after the revolution, (he’d been working on a cruise ship,) and got a job in a hotel in Miami. And then all of a sudden, as the story is heading in one direction, they drop a little narrative bomb in the middle.

We turn the page, and see the first interior from what we can reasonably guess to be Julio’s house.

OMG.

The wallpaper from earlier shows up, along with some green carpet, and a style I can best describe as garish.

Like Liberace-level-gay interior design.

There are a few more pictures in this style, and they’re very well done. Really sharp, good light.

They’re ironic, and kitschy, but they also don’t feel mean. That’s a tight rope to walk.

The text starts to tell stories about parties, back in the day, and you’re just wondering, was Uncle Julio in the closet? Or was he out, even then? What must that have been like, in a culture famous for machismo.

Then, we get a series of Polaroids of gay men, with mustaches. Are they former lovers of Julio? Seriously, I’m into this, like a telenovela or something.

It’s reeling me in.

Sure enough, a few pages later, there it is.
“Julio was gay, and his flamboyant lifestyle clashed with the macho Cuban environment of the times.”

It’s like the book stimulates questions, gets you engaged, and then answers those questions at just the right time.

A lot of thought goes into something like this.

That I like the pictures, and think they’re very well done, only makes it better. There’s a perfect blend of the past and the present. The first person narration throughout works so well, and there’s never more text than there needs to be.

By the time we get to what I assume is a portrait of an elderly Julio, near the bouquet in his house, I’m feeling genuinely sorry to know he passed away.

And remember, we learned that in a one-sentence intro on page 1.

This is an excellent book, and like last week’s offering, I’m glad I picked it up off the stack when I did. Because it’s one more reminder of how great it is to live in a society where people of all faiths, nationalities, genders and sexual orientations are allowed to be themselves. (Insert appropriate Alabama joke here.)

Sure, it’s easy to think things are terrible, with you-know-who in charge, but this book affirms that as a younger gay man, Orestes doesn’t face the same challenges his Uncle did.

And we’re living in a world where books like this get made, and rightly celebrated, by a free press.

So maybe things aren’t all bad in 2017?

Bottom Line: Poignant, well-considered, excellent story about a gay Cuban icon

To purchase “Julio’s House,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Jason Reblando

 

My son is studying American history in 4th grade.

Benjamin Franklin.
The Revolution.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”

His little sister, all of five, misheard Patrick Henry’s quote, and apparently she and her best friend were chanting “Give me America, or give me death,” on the school playground.

(You can’t make this shit up.)

I pointed out to my son, however, that while that was the history I learned in school…

The Stamp Tax.
The Boston Tea Party.
The shot heard round the world.
Washington crossing the Delaware.

…That it was really only one part of American history. There were the Native Americans, of course, but our very own New Mexico had a Spanish Colonial history I was never taught.

New Orleans, where I went last week, came from a French colony that also gave roots to the America we know today. (And a hedonistic set of roots, at that. If you can’t have fun in NOLA, you’re not trying hard enough.)

I’ll have a set of review articles from Photo NOLA for you guys in the coming weeks, but for now, I want to share some advice I often give to people at the review table. (In particular, photojournalists and documentary shooters.)

There are two elements of the “fine art aesthetic” I identify for people who are shooting in a looser, camera-tilted, or just-grabbed sort of style.

First, I talk about formalism, geometric compositions, and balanced image structures that come from a Germanic tradition, like the Bechers. (#RIP) I think a solid structure, (mixed with great light,) allows a viewer to really sink into what you’re visually communicating.

Secondly, sharpness and clarity are the ultimate cheats, in great fine art photography. People use big cameras, and super-sharp lenses, because our eyes inherently read sharpness as pleasing.

And it’s sister, clarity, means that an increase in three dimensionality happens, and images separate well into foreground, mid-ground and background.

Sharpness is our friend, for sure.

So I was happy to open up “New Deal Utopias” today, a new book by Jason Reblando, released this fall by Kehrer Verlag. (Who continue to do a stellar job.)

It stuck in the back of my mind that this book had come in a while ago, and when I saw it was postmarked September, I knew I had to give it a look.

Truly, you could not find a better example of both of the above tenets. Not in one book. These images are razor sharp, and the compositions speak for themselves.

Not only that, “New Deal Utopias” also shows us something we haven’t seen before. (That happens to look like a lot of what we HAVE seen before, tonally, in contemporary America.)

The story is that Jason photographed in three towns which were built along utopian, idealistic, essentially socialistic lines during the Great Depression.

Public money went into building them, people were specifically chosen to live there, and there was green space built-in to offer a higher quality of life.

Fast forward 75 years, and the three towns with Green in their names, in Ohio, Maryland and Wisconsin, look a little worse for wear. (Like the grass coming up through the basketball court.)

I love the pennants, as a repeating motif, as well the excellent blend of interiors, exteriors, and landscapes. (This dude really knows what he’s doing.)

Though each image is titled, and the town is named, I’m more impressed by the overall contemporary-America vibe. It all feels like middle-America, down-on-its-heels-USA.

(It makes me think of an Empire in decline, while the obvious heir, China, flexes her muscles more obviously every day.)

Then again, there is one image of a dental care sign: Drs. McCarl McCarl McCarl & McCarl that made me giggle. A total changeup in tone that I often recommend, and this book contains short text quotes to break up the narrative as well.

Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t see this book a few months ago.

Today was just the right time.

Because it reminds me that America has always been an experiment, and that progress comes whether we want it to, or not. (These days, 10 year olds ask why the founding fathers owned slaves…)

This has always been a messy society, America, cobbled together out of all others, and I guess we’ll just have to see what 2018 brings.

Now won’t we.

Bottom Line: Excellent, precise look at a Middle-American Utopia

To Purchase “New Deal Utopias,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Patrick Nagatani

 

It’s Thanksgiving day, and unfortunately I’m working.

Weekly-column-deadlines being what they are, it was time to sit down and write. But don’t feel too bad for me.

It’s work, yes, but writing for you guys is not exactly like digging ditches. And I should know, as one day a year, I have to hook up with my neighbors to clean our acequia system. (Ditches, that is.)

But once I’m done here, I get to turn my attention to the festivities. There’s gravy to make, Brussels sprouts to wash, nephews to enjoy, football to watch, and plenty of turkey to eat.

Here in America, Thanksgiving is the one day a year that we all agree to eat a giant, dead bird.

(And typically a flavorless one, though my Mom’s brining technique at least keeps it moist.)

It used to be my favorite holiday, growing up in New Jersey. We’d get together at my Aunt Lynda’s house each year, in East Brunswick, and playing football in the yard with my cousins was Just. The. Best.

As a grownup though, (particularly one who has to host the feast, having been anointed by the grandmas a few years back,) I tend to focus more on the obligation of it all.

Each year, I like it less.

And to top it off, I had to be honest with my 10-year-old about the fact that while the Pilgrims and Native Americans might have gotten along at one point, (however briefly,) after that, our ancestors killed them all and took their land.

Yay!
Let’s eat.

But seriously, the holiday is called Thanksgiving. The idea of giving thanks, of sharing appreciation, of taking stock and being grateful for what you have, it’s baked into the title.

If we divest ourselves of any necessary connection to 17th Century Massachusetts, and think about a Holiday just for being thankful, then I can get behind that.

And as it’s just past 8am, and I’m mostly done here, maybe I’ll just find a way to have fun today?

Maybe I’ll thank my parents for helping out with my kids all the time? And thank my wife for working so hard?

I can thank you guys, for being a loyal audience. And thank my teachers, who helped me become the person I am.

Just last week, in fact, I went back to UNM, in Albuquerque, and gave a talk to Jim Stone’s Intermediate Photo class. We sat in a high tech digital lab, painted in sleek dark gray, yet I remembered learning in that same room, 20 years ago, when it had a few tables and chairs, and maybe a blackboard.

I took Photo 1 in that very room, in 1997, and now it’s 2017. You can’t top that: the 20 year anniversary.

Even better, not only did I tell the students about my work, but I also offered them the chance to critique something new I’m working on. Though they were only in their second semester, the students were amazing, and gave me some great ideas that I’ve already put into practice less than a week later.

So thank you, Jim Stone’s UNM students. I really appreciate the help.

I was lucky, back in 1998, to have a class with Patrick Nagatani at UNM. He’d already been there for a while, having studied at UCLA with the great Robert Heinecken. Patrick had been successful as an artist, including a fruitful partnership with Andrée Tracey.

By the time I met him, he was in the prime of life, and was extremely influential in helping me understand how to make art. Not to just click a shutter, but to have an idea in mind. To have a point. And to be willing to push yourself to make things you hadn’t seen before.

Now that I think about it, Patrick also told me to call Bill Hunt, when I was headed to NYC that year, and not only did Bill agree to see me, but he bought a picture out of the box, and helped me get my art career off the ground.

I’ve thanked Bill before, but I don’t know if I ever thanked Patrick.

He died a few weeks ago, after a 10 year bout with cancer.

Patrick Nagatani, a Japanese-American, got himself an obituary in the New York Times, because he mattered as an artist, yet it’s the one “honor” that no one ever knows they’ve received.

I last saw him, 3 or 4 years ago, outside a gallery in Santa Fe. He was being trailed by a Japanese documentary film crew, and kept stepping outside for smoke breaks.

I chatted him up, in the cool breeze, and his positive energy was infectious. The guy was the real deal as an artist too. We’d met in his studio, back in 2009, and he showed me work in which he’d appropriated low-res images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, enlarged and printed them, and then coated them with perfectly constructed strips of colored tape.

It’s hard to describe how lovely they were, and how exacting and tricky they were to make. Zen as shit too. (I doubt that sentence has ever been written before.)

Patrick did one project in which he created an altar ego, Ryoichi, and made models implying there had been previous versions of humanity that had existed, and then become extinct.

Weird stuff.

He was creative, and original, and my favorite work, by far, was “Nuclear Enchantment,” published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 1991.

I’ve never reviewed a book before that wasn’t current, but then again, Thanksgiving is no ordinary day. It’s also the 6th anniversary of the birth of this column: the night my mother-in-law woke us up by rapping a gun outside our bedroom door, and then I wrote about it in a Taryn Simon book review.

I was sad to see that I never had Patrick sign my copy, as I remember that I’d brought it into school once for that purpose. (Had I lost the nerve to ask, at the time?) But after skimming the informative, long essay by Eugenia Parry Janis, I dove right into the plates, and they hold up so well.

These pictures were made before digital reality. They are all old school: painted backdrops, real places, drawings, models, and real people, all overlaid, and shot multiple times on film, when necessary.

I believe he’d established the aesthetic in his work with Andrée Tracey, but damn if these images don’t perfectly anticipate the rise of our all-digital culture. Saturated colors, the real and the unreal intermingled, drawings mashed with photographs, all of it feels so current.

Photoshop was made for this stuff.
It’s so easy now.

But think about how hard it was back then, and how seamless the pictures are. (There are a few clunkers, but almost all are just amazing.)

These days, (as my Dad pointed out at dinner last night,) we’re always told to “stay in your lane.” Write or make art about what you know. Don’t try to interpret a culture that’s not your own.

We’ve been over this many times before, so I’ll spare you.

But Patrick Nagatani, who was born in 1945, and whose family back in Japan lived outside Hiroshima, was coming directly from his own cultural perspective by taking an interest in New Mexico’s nuclear history.

And the history of nuclear power.

So he researched it obsessively, with reams of help, and then titled his pictures in ways that would allow viewers access to crucial information.

Yet he also sampled directly from New Mexico’s Native American Pueblo culture, dropping layers of koshares and kachinas. These days, most people would shy away from that, but in “Nuclear Enchantment,” it’s just right.

Then, we’ve got to throw in the shoutouts to Hiroshige and Hokusai, the master Japanese 19th Century woodblock printmakers, as the dangling fish, and the soaring eagle/hawk, are direct references to their work.

Have you gotten all that yet?
I’ll summarize.

It’s historically accurate, well researched, analog tableaux work, that required teams of people to assist him, including his family, and blended Japanese-American, Japanese, and Native American art historical traditions, all while anticipating the predominant visual aesthetic of the next Century and Millennium.

Wow.

I’d also like to thank Martha Schneider, of the Schneider Gallery in Chicago.

We were chatting at Filter in September, and she told me that Patrick was very close to death. As he’d fought the vicious disease for so long, I was surprised to hear it had finally caught up with him.

She suggested I say my goodbyes while I could.

I wrote him, and we traded a few emails. I sent him blessings for his next journey, and I assure you, that’s not an email I’ve written before.

Patrick also insisted on having UNM send me a copy of his new novel, which I’m planning to read over Xmas break.

Jim Stone called Patrick the strongest man he’s ever known, and said he made it to his own book signing, just five days before he died.

Rest in Peace, Patrick.

And I hope the rest of you have a great holiday weekend. In these trying, Trumpian times, if you have people to be thank, I’d suggest you get on with it.

Bottom Line: An out-of-print masterpiece

To purchase “Nuclear Enchantment” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

 

 

This Week in Photography Books: Kathy Shorr

 

It’s hard to know the future.

To be aware of what’s coming, but unable to stop it from happening.

It’s not a hypothetical situation, though. It is hard, and I speak from experience.

In the United States of America, tomorrow, or maybe next week, there is going to be a shooting rampage that kills a bunch of innocent people.

I know it will happen.
And so do you.

That these tragedies cannot be prevented, even though we’re certain they’re just up ahead, is a special kind of torture. It’s our own national nightmare, and by now, many of us have given up on finding a solution.

Just like subjects from the Aztec empire, slowly ascending the temple steps, waiting to have our hearts ripped out “for the greater good,” we’re all sitting here, paralyzed, unable to believe the problem can ever be solved.

Some weeks I’m funny, and some weeks I’m optimistic, but on this subject, I’m neither.

The scope of the horror is too great, and the reality of each tragedy is too sad to contemplate. Better to embrace denial, like a long-lost friend, and hope the grim reaper raps on another door when it’s time to collect the souls.

These days, you can get shot in the head while you’re praying to God in Church, dancing at a country-music concert, or cowering under your desk at school. A bullet might rip through your car window while you’re waiting at the drive-thru, or maybe your assailant will point a gun in your face, stare coldly into your eyes, and then pull the trigger.

We all want to make it stop, but we simply can’t.

Isn’t there anything anyone can do?

I’m not hopeful, but then again, the world is populated with do-gooders, as well as killers, so there’s always someone out there willing to try.

In this case, I’m thinking of Kathy Shorr, as I recently put down “SHOT: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America,” recently published by powerHouse books.

Frankly, I had to put this one down before I finished it, and then pick it up again a minute later, because the sadness, the tension, was just too much for me.

The book’s premise is an interesting one, because while such stories often focus on the dead, this project interviews people who faced death, and survived. The people who can tell us exactly what it feels like to have their lives destroyed by gun violence.

The pain.
The fear.
The scars.
The aftermath.

The pictures in this book need little explication, as the title is enough to clue us in on what’s going on here. But still, there is an excellent foreward, there are quotes interspersed, and then a photo-based-bio index in the back. (Like last week’s book, I must say I’m a fan of the technique. It makes learning more about the subject easy and engaging.)

I’m not going to drop 1200 words on you today.

I just don’t have it in me.

My cynicism on this subject, and my anger at our inability to stop this wave of violence, has sapped me of my normally-positive-outlook.

Rather, I see our national gun obsession, and the powerful interests that block meaningful change, as twin towers of ignorance.

I want to believe things will get better, but I don’t.

Instead of depressing you further, though, I’m going to show a larger group of photographs from “SHOT.” Because sometimes, we all need to know that even if we’ve given up, others haven’t.

If Kathy Shorr were as hopeless as I am, she never would have made this book. It takes too much time, and too much effort, if you don’t believe it will make a difference.

Creating things, fighting back, pushing for change, making beauty out of heartbreak, these impulses suffuse this project. So I’ll let it speak for itself.

Bottom Line: A brilliant examination of our national disgrace

To purchase “SHOT,” click here

If you would like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Jim Herrington

 

As I sit here, on my Ikea leather couch, there’s a grizzled-old-white-dude staring at me from the cover of a photo book.

I can’t tell you which book yet, as that would break the implicit rule of this column.

You know, I talk about other stuff first, and then review a photobook later on.

It’s a system that works.
Simple.
Clean.

So obviously, I’m trying to stay away from naming the book just yet, but this guy’s creeping me out, drawing my attention away from the computer screen.

(Pause)

OK, I’m back.

Since I wrote my column addressing the various wrongs that men have committed towards women, the monster-slug Harvey Weinstein among them, things have only gotten more out-of-control.

Kevin Spacey, who so believably played a sociopath on the excellent, if soapy, “House of Cards,” has been outed as a serial molester, and peodophile. He’s so toxic, that today it was announced that Ridley Scott would re-shoot EVERY scene featuring Spacey, in a movie that was already complete, and still try to release the thing in 6 weeks.

Countless executives have gone down, at magazines, radio and TV stations, and film studios. And the most bizarre story of them all, which I read today in a reputable publication, is that Charlie Sheen reputedly statutory raped Corey Haim, on the set of “Lucas,” for god’s sake, when they were 19 and 13 respectively.

What the fuck is going on here, people?

Nasty men crave power because it lets them do what they want. If you want to hurt people, if you’re a “bad guy,” the only way to get away with doing what you want, if you’re smart about it, is to make sure your victims don’t talk.

Some monsters kill their prey, to make sure they stay quiet. Others use intimidation, in the form of leverage: over a person’s family, career, or bodily safety.

People like Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, (and now Louis CK,) made themselves successful, I’d venture, so that they could utilize their stations to enact their sick fantasies, but not have to go to jail for it. (A benefit of their talent and intelligence.)

Only now, with every story having at least the POTENTIAL to go viral, it’s not so easy to hide as it was before the ubiquity of social media.

Oh, and one more reason: these guys are also proxies for President Trump. (It pains me to write those two words in succession.)

People are lashing out, and bringing down all these sexual abusers, because so far, our Commander-in-chief has not only gotten away scott-free with his crimes, but seems to have prospered.

And since nobody can touch him, this cascade of takedowns has to suffice.

But lately, we’ve only been talking about the horrible men.
We’re not all like that.

Surely you know this.

Among men, there are millions and millions of kind, open-hearted, helpful people. Brave souls and hard workers. Adventurers and heroes.

It’s true.

And some of use, (myself not included,) are of a hardcore variety that requires death and gravity be defied. That notions of what’s possible get strained, then broken.

Here I’m thinking about the men, and thankfully women, (though only a couple) that I just looked at when I perused “The Climbers,” a new book by Jim Herrington, published by Mountaineers Books.

Now that we’ve made it, (congratulations, it was a wild ride today,) I can tell you that the grimacing guy on the cover is none other than Bradford Washburn, a climbing legend who apparently has a titular museum in Colorado.

He passed away in 2007, I learned, when I flipped through the handy alphabetical-bio-guide that gives us a little info on each subject.

Jim Herringon, it turns out, is a climber as well as a photographer, and what became the book was at first a long-term project to meet and shoot the legends of the golden age of climbing, from the 1920’s through the 70’s.

The time when the biggest mountains on Earth, including the world’s fourteen 8000 meter peaks, were in play for the first time. Who would get to claim the initial ascent?

How did these people get by on such primitive equipment? (Relative to now, of course.) And what kind of person would be strong and crazy enough to physically lift themselves, by the strength of their own muscles, bit by bit up sheer rock, or ice, until they reach the top?

Now, to address my intro, there’s no way to know if all these subjects were “good guys,” so to speak. Some of them might well have been dicks. (And judging from Mr. Herrington’s well-written preface, Warren Harding probably would have been on that list.)

But what they all share, or shared, as people was a compendium of admirable characteristics: Strength. Determination. Bravery. Endurance. Perseverance.

You get my point.

The book gives enough info at the beginning to set you up to understand the people in the plates thereafter. I liked the foreward and Herrington’s preface, and was all set to read the essay, but at 40 large pages, it proved too daunting for me today.

I liked the pictures too, beyond the fact that they were showing us a subculture I barely knew existed. But I found them uneven, as some of the more environmental portraits felt a little loose, and regular, while many of the sharper, tighter portraits conveyed real emotion in the subjects’ eyes, and showed more craft.

I mentioned the cover photo of Mr. Washburn, but there were many more, like Sonia Livanos, who apparently explored the Dolomites in the 50’s and 60’s, or Mark Powell, who made the first ascent of totem pole in Monument Valley.

(Again, I really like that it’s so easy to toggle between the photo and the alphabetical-photo-bio in the back, as I just did it to find more info about the portraits I liked.)

Jeff Lowe, who was photographed in Johnston, Colorado, was depicted in 2016 with an oxygen tube. It’s a sad, textured image, with terrific light, and definitely shows off that elevated aesthetic.

(Turns to Bio section.) Apparently, he’s a climbing legend and festival builder who got the sport into the Winter X games.

I wonder why he’s so sad?
Is he too sick to climb?

Maybe I should skim that super-long essay to find out if there are more details about him, and the picture?

Regardless, this is a smart, well-made book filled with interesting photographs about fascinating people. That is a good recipe to get your book reviewed.

But as it’s a book by a man, made predominately about men, I did have one last thing to say. Our recent outreach effort to get more submissions from female photographers seems to have paid off, as I got a bunch of great books in the mail of late.

Going forward, we’ll be able to have a better balance, so thanks to all of you who helped spread the word.

Bottom Line: A fascinating look at famous mountaineers

To purchase “The Climbers” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Misty Keasler

 

Think back to your earliest memories.

They’re always the same, no?

We have so few memories of our youth, and it’s not like we can make more. There is what there is, and we re-scan them from time to time, like popping your favorite DVD into the machine.

(For those of you under the age of 20, DVDs are round, plastic discs that play movies and music. I know you’ve never heard of them before, but until recently, they were good tech, and Netflix used to send them in the mail.)

The few memories we do retain have an outsized role in representing our childhoods. All my memories, until I went to college, probably tab up to a few seconds of brain time; less than .000000000001% of what actually transpired.

So our memories become the Mt. Rushmore of our childhood.

One of my favorites is about the time my Uncle Keith, (who’s due to visit this weekend from New Jersey) came to pick me up at Oakhurst Day Camp, down the shore.

I must have been 5 or 6.

Our big plan was go to the Haunted House nearby at the Long Branch boardwalk. It was open part of the year, jutting well over the Atlantic Ocean.

We were so fired up.

“Those guys, Uncle Keith, they don’t know what’s coming. I’m not scared of them. No way.”

“That’s right, Buddy,” he replied. “You’re not scared of them.”

We’d talked about doing this for a while, and the day had finally arrived. It was a big thing for him to pick me up, so I was super-psyched.

We got the boardwalk, and my anticipation only grew. He was carrying me on his shoulders, so I could see above the crowd, and it felt safe and secure.

Until we got within 100 feet of our destination, when I saw some scary, made-up Frankenstein’s bride standing in front of the door. Really, we were not that close. There’s no way I could remember what she actually looked like, now, at 43.

But it scared me shitless.

“Stop,” I yelled.
“Uncle Keith, stop!”

He stopped.

“No way,” I said. “I can’t go in there.”
“But you were so confident,” he replied. “So sure of yourself. You said you weren’t scared.”

“I am. I am scared. We can’t get any closer to that place. We have to leave now.”

“Are you sure,” he asked?

“Yes, please. Maybe when I’m older I can take it. But not now. We have to get out of here.”

So he took me for a Stromboli instead, which was delicious, and I never went back. The entire boardwalk burned down, within a year or two, so I never had the chance to confront the fear.

Instead, I grew up to be someone who doesn’t like horror movies, or being scared. (Sci-fi stuff like “Stranger Things” is the limit of what I can handle.)

So maybe that’s why I don’t love Halloween?

Lots of grownups can’t wait to design their costumes. They go all out, dressing up at work, at parties, or when they take their kids trick or treating.

You know the type.
And there are a lot of people like that.

Probably more than there are Halloween grinches like me.

But this time of year, the cultural aesthetic is so specific.

Ghouls and skeletons.
Monsters and witches.
Guts and blood.

Some people eat that shit up. They love to be scared, and watch faux-killers and dastardly demons tear through high school kids like a Ginsu knife through aluminum. They’ll watch every “SAW” movie, in a marathon, and then go hang out in a graveyard at 3am.

Those people might, realistically, open a Haunted House somewhere, because they still exist.

And someone has to be in charge of organizing the rush of the macabre. The feeling of being awake, in a nightmare. What does it look like, when rendered in plastic, makeup and ketchup?

I’m glad you asked.

Because if this isn’t the perfect week to take a look at Misty Keasler’s new book “Haunt,” published by Archon Projects, then I’m a one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-people-eater. (The book accompanies a solo show at the Ft. Worth Modern through November 26)

The first thing this book makes me wonder: what kind of person is Misty?

Does she like to be scared? Was tracking down these places a way to use her art practice to connect with an existing passion?

Did she name her kid after Wes Craven? (To be honest, I met Misty at a brunch in Dallas last year, and don’t think her baby was called Freddy or Jason.)

Or is she really repelled by these places, but wanted to conquer a deep fear, like driving into a hurricane?

(To use a “Stranger Things 2” reference, spoiler alert, I’d ask if she was like Will, taking Sean Astin’s advice to stand tall and confront the Shadow Monster in the upside-down.)

Because the pictures are unsparing. They stare right into this stuff.

Scary clowns. Dead chickens. Oozing viscera.

These are the things we want OUT of our heads, not in them. Looking at the pictures, I fear, is embedding these photographs
in my subconscious, where they might turn up later, in the night.

(Damn, you, Misty!)

But what is it like, for the aficionados? They must relish the fear, the adrenaline drops, the sense of being alive.

Because people pay money for the feeling. And now that I think about it, anyone who buys one of Misty’s prints will be choosing to have it on the wall at all times.

No thank you.

But as art, I have to give her serious credit. The pictures are well made, and let the subject matter do most of the talking.

(Cue scary music.)

(End scene.)

Bottom Line: Methodical, chilling look at the Haunted House industry

To purchase “Haunt,” click here

This Week in Photography Books: Kevin O’Connell

 

I’m going to keep it brief today.

No, really.
It’s true.

After a month of long, intense articles about my experience in Chicago, I kind of need a breather.

Frankly, we all do.

There is an ocean of underlying anxiety that we’re all passing around these days. It’s like a twisted, evil game of hot potato, in which we’re all bouncing our fears off each other. (“I don’t want to feel like shit. Here. You take it.”)

And social media is the perfect vehicle for our existential angst. Just now, I tweeted a Guardian article I’d just read that confirmed what I know in my daily life: there is less and less money flowing through our normal economies, as so much of it has been hoovered up by the Billionaire class.

So not only do we have to worry about working harder for less money, or watching our jobs in the creative industries disappear, but it’s all happening while a heartless, idiot man-child runs around with his finger on the “kill everyone” button at all times.

Everything just feels so… tumultuous.
Chaotic.

Every day, we tap into the swirling current of our collective discontent. (And if you happen to waste your time on Twitter or Facebook, the effect is amplified exponentially.)

But we have so little recourse, beyond just getting on with it all. Stiff upper lip. That sort of thing.

As artists, of course, we can make our work, and allow our emotional reality to become sublimated into the images and objects we create. I’ve always argued, here, that it’s the best possible response.

And I’m not sure if it’s the motivation behind “Inundation,” a new self-published artist book by Kevin O’Connell that turned up in the mail recently, but it’s certainly how I responded to the work.

The entire object, near as I can tell, is made from images of the roiling sea. (As Kevin is based in Denver, I can appreciate the attraction. Being 1000 miles from the ocean can mess with your head.)

But then again, about half-way through my viewing experience, I began to wonder if I weren’t seeing a few aerial shots of snow-covered peaks mixed in?

Is that crashing-wave-froth, or fresh powder deposited on a monumental, jutting rock?

Hard to tell.

The only text is on the back cover; an excerpt from a smart poem, written by the artist, or more likely someone else. But it speaks of the ocean, and makes no mention of mountains, so I still don’t know. (Googling would take all the fun out of the guessing-game.)

Regardless, as so many of the images are visually similar, I came away impressed by that sense of motion. By the churning juice in my stomach, and the way it reminded me of how I feel each day, in this, the first year of the Trump era.

Ironically, I was originally planning to review a little ‘zine given to me by Lindsay Lochman and Barbara Ciurej in Chicago. A small, constructed poke at Trump directly. But as I reached for the keyboard, I felt a wave of exhaustion coming over me.

Do I really have to talk about Trump again?

So instead, I grabbed Kevin’s book off the bottom of the book stack. And still, I thought of Trump. But this time, it was through metaphor, and it came from my own reaction. I’d bet that in Kevin’s mind, this series has nothing to do with politics.

But it’s called “Inundation,” and that’s what we’re all dealing with: the wall of shared anxiety we have to climb each day just to get out of bed, and make breakfast for the kids.

Life is messy, and we’re reminded of that too often. So I’ll end with a positive message: we’re all creators, so create. Make things that help you feel better, and share them with others.

And for God’s sake, lay off the Facebook now and again.

You’ll thank me.

Bottom Line: Cool, experiential book about raging seas

To purchase “Inundation,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Sara J. Winston

 

I just flew in from Chicago, and boy, are my arms…

Tired.

Sorry.
Couldn’t resist.

It might be the worst joke in the 6 year history of this column, but you’ll have to forgive me. I pulled 18 hour days at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago, talking the entire time.

Then, I came home to a full week of cooking, cleaning, driving, parenting, kung fu, and lots and lots of work.

My brain is so mushy, in fact, that I actually tried to get away with a joke so old, it makes the mottled flesh on Donald Trump’s belly look like baby skin.

Moving on, I must say, yet again, how much I like Chicago. I go to a lot of these photo festivals, (as you know,) and it allows me to show you a big slice of what’s going on out there in the American photo community.

But for all the cities I visit, Chicago is just a bit different. It fits me, like my favorite T-shirt, and allows me to feel relaxed, and understood, in a way no other city does.

It’s the little things, really, in particular the general Operating System of the local culture; the way people interact with each other. There is a friendly, grounded, openness that so many embody, and I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

(Insert random cliché about the Midwest here.)

Yeah, I hear you. Everyone says that about the Midwest. The people are just so darn nice.

My goodness!
Gosh!

But that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, it means that random conversations come about, on the subway, on the street, in a museum, that don’t happen other places.

It happens again and again, and I find myself chatting up strangers in ways that are thrilling and comfortable at the same time. I know Chicago has all the problems of other megalopoli, what with the violence and segregation, which is what makes that openness all the more surprising.

It allows for the type of cross-cultural, cross-gender communication that this country, (and the world, I’d argue,) needs more of.

Not less.

For instance, this column is now based almost exclusively on submissions, as you know. (I can request the odd publication from PR folks, but it doesn’t happen often.)

Just the other day, on Twitter, I was discussing with my friend and colleague Patrice Helmar the sad truth that almost all of my submissions come from men. (White dudes in particular.)

We traded 140 character sentiments on why that might be, as the preponderance of people I review at these events are women. Lots of women are making art these days, but the books don’t turn up in the mail in anywhere near a representative sample.

Patrice wondered if it was confidence and/or aggression? I speculated that perhaps female artists still aren’t getting as many publishing opportunities?

What to do?

Well, in this case, I’m mentioning it specifically, in the hope that some of our female readers might send in books, or nudge their friends to submit. It’s really important for all of us to see a broader viewpoint, and I hope this helps get the ball rolling.

Because, like a random conversation with a stranger, while watching the world’s best street blues, (true story,) hearing and seeing things outside our own bubble makes us smarter, healthier, more empathetic, and better at what we do.

Luckily, when I was at Filter, Sara J. Winston gave me a book to take home, called “Homesick,” published by Zatara Press. We had a review together, and she was honest about the fact she’d been diagnosed with MS, and was using her current project to process those emotions.

She admitted to coming from a family with health issues, and how she hoped to escape the curse.

Alas…

The review was only tricky in that she showed me two discrete projects, but they were a bit jumbled in her presentation. Both had become books, so I struggled to differentiate between the two styles, and subject matters, so I could wrap my mind around her art practice.

“Homesick,” which is not directly “about” her illness, is a poetic, very-well-observed take on Sara’s home and family, I believe.

I say “I believe” because this excellent book hints, but does not state. It has a languid, referential style of making connections, in a way that seems… dare I say it… more female than male.

Patrice and I each made guesses about why I get more books from women than men, and neither of us suggested it was because our audience demo skews towards the penis.

Does it?

I don’t know.

But this beautiful, lyrical, slightly abstracted book feels like exactly the sort of thing a man might not make.

The first photograph, with a tub of margarine and a plate of bologna, is just so metaphorical. We get that food will be prominent, and the items she has chosen to represent her story have cultural baggage. (Not exactly bougie.)

Food is a recurring theme, but so is a wilted sort of sadness. A cat with a torn-up ear. Dirty dishes. A large man with electrodes attached to his chest.

Bananas in a bag.
The imprint of sheet on skin.

It ends with a wonderfully written story.
At first, as it uses the first person, I thought, “Damn, she can write too?”

But then it shifts to another perspective.
A lesbian lover from college?
Visiting the family homestead?

It seems so.
But each is written in the first person, so eventually, I had to ask myself, is this even true?

Is it?
True?

There is no direct answer until the final credits, which suggest a writer, Ani Katz, created both characters in the story.

It is made-up?
Or based upon interviews?
Does it matter?

I may well be accused of sexism for calling a book like this feminine. But then, I don’t see that word as pejorative. I’ve previously established my feminist street cred, and therefore I like this book so much BECAUSE it comes from another vantage entirely.

It treats book-viewing, or book-reading, as an experiential process, which is my favorite kind of photo-book. It tells a story, in pictures and words, and for a few brief moments, I couldn’t put it down.

Bottom Line: A lyrical, gorgeous book about going home

To purchase “Homesick” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Ed Eckstein

- - Photography Books

 

My son just saw “Airplane” for the first time. (Thanks, Dad.)

He’s turning 10, so I guess he was ready. I certainly remember watching it as a kid, laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. But that was back when the movie was fresh, and the references made sense.

Not surprisingly, as it’s 2017, Theo felt uncomfortable with the “jive turkey” scenes, as what was acceptable in 1980 is considered highly racist today.

He also didn’t know what to make of the Hare Krishna’s. I mean, how do you explain that to the Internet generation? It’s not like we’ve got bald, dancing hippies at airports anymore.

(Instead, we have bomb-sniffing dogs, and lots of smelly bare feet.)

In a weird way, I miss some elements of the monoculture: the pop references, and films, that everyone got.

Where’s the Beef.
Joe Isuzu.
Eddie Murphy doing Gumby.

The comedic movies from the 70’s and 80’s, in particular, stand out as cultural icons that have not really been replaced. (Well, I guess Alec Baldwin doing Trump comes close.)

If you ask anyone between 30-50 about the funniest movie of all time, the odds are they’re going to say something with Bill Murray in it.

“Caddyshack,” most likely.

The fact it had peak-funny Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield makes it hard to pick anything else. But I could just as easily say that about “Stripes.”

It featured peak-funny Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Candy, with a scary/funny performance by Warren Oates to boot. (How sad is it that three of those guys are dead now?)

“Stripes” gets pushed down the list a bit, for many, because it was really two movies in one. The first part, with all the classic lines, (“You call me Francis, I’ll kill ya,”) was set in basic training.

Show me something funnier than John Candy mud-wrestling.
I dare you.

But the second part, which morphed into an Anti-Soviet action movie, is a bit harder to defend. Completely different tone, and seeing Warren Oates become a good guy was hard for my young brain to process. (Ah, such a simpler time, the 20th Century. Our good guys were good, our bad guys were bad, and it was OK to chant “USA” without irony.)

Seriously, I think my entire understanding of basic training comes from “Stripes,” and I guess that says a lot about me. I don’t have any family members in the military, I never considered joining up, and I was born just after the end of the draft.

For me, “The Draft” means 20 hours of ESPN each Spring, watching heavily-made-up former football players dissecting clips of college footballers whose names they can barely pronounce. (Yet still I watch…)

It’s hard for most people to relate to a world in which the government could force you to fight, and often die, no matter what you thought about the situation. We are so far removed from that time, it’s hard to imagine a world in which that many Americans had skin in the game.

These days, a small minority of American families do the heavy lifting for all of us. And, most of the time, it’s lower income kids, from rural areas lacking job opportunities, that end up dying for our “freedom.” (Yes, I’m putting quotes around the word, b/c with Trump around, it seems like a much shakier proposition.)

Thankfully, (and not unexpectedly, if you know this column,) a photo book turned up in the mail the other day that puts this issue before our eyes, straight outta the early 70’s.

“Grunts: The Last US Draft, 1972” is a new book by Ed Eckstein, published by Schiffer Publishing in Pennsylvania, and it provides a glimpse into the last draft class in American History. (This time I don’t mean the NFL.)

This photo book shows us a set of pictures that Ed Eckstein made in 1972, when he embedded with a group of draftees, and followed them from Philly down to basic training in South Carolina. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get “Stripes” out of my head, when I was looking at this book. (Yes, I’m a weirdo.)

But the thing about a documentary photo project is that it shows us the unvarnished situation, in clean black and white, and eventually, I was able to see these young men as people, rather than stand in’s for John Winger and crew.

While this book gives us something we otherwise wouldn’t get to see, (a surefire way to get reviewed,) I wouldn’t say the pictures are dynamite. They’re good, and in some cases very good, but in general, I don’t think they’re terribly visceral or emotion-grabbing.

Rather, they feel historical to me.
And important, as such.

There are little bits of humor, like the little tags on the uniforms, made “For Soldiers of Distinction.”

How great is that?

Even better is the promotional poster, featuring Richard Nixon, that promises “Equal Employment Opportunity” from the Federal Government.

Let that sink in for a moment.

In one little advertisement, Richard Nixon is presented as less of a racist/sexist than our current President. Nixon, the past poster-child for how to be a terrible President, in retrospect looks like a balanced statesman compared to our current Asshole-in-Chief.

Then we get a signs that says, “When you fire think “BRAS”: Breathe/Relax/Aim/Squeeze.” No f-ing way something like that passes muster in 2017. Misogyny may still be alive and well, but with a now-partially-female military, tacky puns like that would never cut it.

And how about the guy in full karate-chop mode? How much you want to bet he’s making a Bruce Lee-esque karate-chop cry? Hiiiii-yah!

It’s true I’m making light of a situation that demands a bit more respect. It’s likely that some of the guys in this book went on to die in Vietnam.

Nothing funny about that.

But that’s kind of my point. As the military burden shifted from almost-all-of-us to a select demographic in this country, the reality of War, and its costs, has become buffeted, to a dangerous degree.

Which is why I’m glad Ed Eckstein sent this book along to remind us, in this time of “Rocket Man,” that none of this is a laughing matter.

Bottom Line: Vintage, black and white documents of the last draft class

To Purchase “Grunts,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Justin Clifford Rhody

 

The Earth spins once a day.
It circles the Sun once a year.

We are born, we live, and we die.

Everywhere we look, cycles represent the natural world around us. Karma, or God, or whomever, seems to have a preference for circles.

Everything seems to come back around again, or “full circle,” if you will, if there’s only time to allow it.

Yesterday, I got into it with my soon-to-be-10-year-old, because he kept complaining about doing his homework. He rolled his eyes like a professional actor, and sighed demonstrably. Anyone within twenty miles would have known he was unhappy.

I stood there, watching a younger, newer version of myself. Man, the shit I used to get from my folks for giving them dirty looks. For throwing them shade.

Cut to 1984:

Mom: You better cut that out, or you’re going to be in big trouble.

Me: What!

Mom: You know what. Cut it out.

Me: I didn’t say anything!

Mom: You didn’t have to say anything. It’s written all over your face.

Me: How can I get in trouble if I didn’t say anything?

Mom: Dirty looks are just as bad. Cut it out, or you’re going to your room. And your father will not be happy when he gets home from work.

Me: (Dirty Look) Fine!

Cut back to 2017

I stood there, watching him give me the stink-eye, like Avon Barksdale mad-dogging a snitch, and at the same time, I was deeply in my memory, wondering how these life cycles can be so obvious sometimes.

My son kept rushing through his homework, because he wanted to watch TV. He hates homework, and thinks that makes him original. Such pain, having to do 10 minutes of homework, what with Irma heading towards Florida.

Much as I was angry, as a Dad, I was also empathetic, because every kid hates homework. And I was also the omniscient narrator, a small voice in my head appreciating the irony of it all, understanding it was my time to reap what I’d sowed 30+ years ago.

Like I said, everything old is new again, including Fascism in America, apparently.

Seriously, can you believe that some people grew up so badly, and ate so much garbage, that they think Fascism is the way forward? That’s like saying, no thanks, Doc, I’ll pass on the surgery. Gonna get me some leeches instead, ‘cuz I’m sure they’ll cure me right up.

Last week, I wrote about the inside/outside debate, and how the spirit of the “flaneur” is alive and well in 2017. Roaming and wandering. As someone pointed out on FB, without the outsider, there is no “The Americans,” the Bible that made many of us into photographers.

The tradition of the road trip is as old as cars. I’m sure some dude in Detroit grabbed his best bud Cecil, cranked up the Model T, and hit the dirt roads looking at all the places they’d never seen before.

Likewise, certain sub-themes seem to continually re-emerge in photography, each time suffused with the same energy. In this case, I’m thinking of a certain style of anarchy. A vibe, always put out by young-men-in-bands, that they’ve re-invented living dirty. (Or nasty, if you prefer.)

This week, “Married to America” turned up in the mail, a new book by Justin Clifford Rhody, recently published by Hidden Eye. Justin had written to see if I’d be interested in his book, and after a quick peek online, I said sure, send it along.

When I reviewed Jim Jocoy’s “Order of Appearance” a few months ago, we discussed this punk rock spirit. But that book showed some OG punks from the early 80’s. Guys who were puking on their buddies before Justin and his crew were born.

This book reads differently to me.
It makes me feel old.

First of all, I couldn’t help catching some typos in a statement by road trip buddy Carlos Gonzalez. One of our regular readers, the publisher and former Center board member Joanna Hurley, used to ride me about its vs it’s, so now I can’t not see it.

Like a grumpy Dad chastising his son for mistakes he’s made himself, I was angry at my brain for focusing on the silly typos. Let it go, you square, another part of my brain said. Punks don’t care about typos.

The pictures in the book are cool, but not distinctive. They remind me of simulacra of previous road trips, of previous photos, of previous “On The Road” seekers. It was just so hard to find anything fresh here.

But not impossible.

There are two diptychs, (layout wise,) that I thought were really smart. One pits a Wolverine-style-glove against a bronze wall-plated bust of George Washington; a great little visual poem about 21st Century America.

Even better, the still life of the Egyptian hieroglyphic stela comes right before the obligatory shot of a filthy, disgusting, shit-stained toilet. (You can’t have one of these books without that shot. Or the velvet boobs painting.)

But that’s where the meta-level kicked in. When we see Egyptian art, we think about the past. Our collective history. And what we, as artists, leave behind for “future generations.”

So the subsequent toilet shot becomes the answer to the question. Justin Clifford Rhody is gifting that foul-poop-recepticle to the next generation, and the ones that follow, and he’s doing it with his eyes open.

The final statement tells us more about the book. It is indeed a poetic record of a road trip three guys took, playing music in little “underground” venues, and projecting slides of found imagery to boot.

I don’t deny, in any way, that these Millennial fellas are authentically themselves. I get that they lived this experience, had fun, made art, didn’t hurt anybody, and are growing up in their own time. (A much-less-naive era than we Gen-Xers were given.)

I get that certain people will read this like I’m a hater. Like I’m too old to understand the joy, the freedom, of life on the road. No kids to make breakfast for. No trash container to pull up the hill. No responsibility to crush your spirit.

Maybe I am getting old? (Or as Danny Glover famously said, “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.”)

Maybe.

Or maybe there’s something to this cycle of life? Maybe the Universe prefers circles for a reason? And we’re all doing the best we can, right where we need to be.

Bottom Line: Cool, but familiar, tale of rockers on the road

To purchase “Married to America,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

This Week in Photography Books: Gary Isaacs

 

All summer, here in the column, I contrasted projects made by insiders and outsiders.

It wasn’t intentional. We didn’t have a big staff meeting, with a conference table covered with donuts, and brainstorm all the different themes I might develop.

There are no staff meetings.
There is no table.
And donuts are for cops and stoners.

Rather, things seem to evolve in certain directions, when you have a weekly column for 6 years.

Today, though, I want to take the issue head on. No oblique references, or silly puns. This question is core to the history and future of photography, so let’s go there.

The French have a word, “flaneur,” that all of us are taught in art school. It means a wanderer, but not in the sense of some Dude named Cooter who rides the rails, and needs a shower more than America needs a new President.

Rather, in photography terms, a flaneur is one who visits new places, roams the streets with a camera, and is constantly on the lookout for the daily drama of real life.

Many, if not most photographers have been there at some point, and I can personally attest I devoted my life to photography after a certain 5-day-cross-country-road-trip, camera in hand.

It’s a fact that the camera, as a machine, has the power to change human experience. Once you’ve gotten a hold of one, and realize how drastically it alters how you see and feel the world around you, it’s hard to go back to a less-well-lived life.

But if you study photography, go to art school, and try to make a career of it, most of the time, you gravitate towards more structured projects. You’re encouraged, for good reason, to make work about what you already know: to mine your expertise for knowledge-wisdom-nuggets, and render said information in visual form.

It’s advice I’ve received, and have dispensed myself.

These days, most people want to dig deep into their own cultural, gender or class-based experiences. (Not surprising, given the prominence of identity politics in many institutions of higher learning.) You’re encouraged to stay in your lane, essentially, rather than aimlessly explore other viewpoints.

They’re two accepted ways of doing things, (wandering and tunneling,) and I’d argue it’s the middle ground that gets tricky.

We saw evidence of that at Antidote, which I opened up to a few of my former UNM-Taos students, free of charge, so they could get the benefit of the world class teachers I brought to town.

One Antidote student was making work in and about a small, Hispanic community in Northern New Mexico, where he had few ties, and he got feedback pushing him to defend the decision. We probed for actual connection, but he rebuffed us, believing his intellectual interest allowed him to investigate another culture, even though he didn’t officially belong.

More power to him, but it’s a rough road.

Conversely, one of my local students had done work, in my class, about “descansos”: roadside memorials to people who’ve been killed.

It’s a popular subject, as they are visually compelling, and I even reviewed such a project at Photo NOLA a few years ago. That time, the pictures had been made by a white, Jewish lady who came in from out-of-state.

Work like that, done by outsiders who are doing more than just wandering, has come under fire lately, as it’s called “cultural appropriation.” I’ve defended the practice here, and would again, under other circumstances.

But what we saw at Antidote gives me pause.

The Antidote crew was rapt during the descanso critique, because my former student had photographed memorials to her dead friends and family. With each memorial, she told us who had died, and how the tragedy unfolded. There is a lot of death and violence in Taos, so the project becomes a metaphor for a culture few outsiders can possibly understand.

The pictures are well-made, don’t get me wrong, but the fact that they were constructed out of pain, out of heartache, sent a strong energy through the critique. Such information can be conveyed through text or video as well, but I witnessed the vibe coming right from the pictures on screen.

It was hard not to compare the two projects. One came from personal experience, the other because sometimes people need to find a project for school, or assignment, or to keep pushing the rock up the hill.

I’m not saying one way is better than the other, and I’m even contemplating my first major curatorial effort, exploring a “foreign” culture, because that’s where my curiosity is taking me.

Where is this rant coming from?
(You always ask the right questions at the right time.)

I just put down “Chinatown,” a new self-published book that came in the mail the other day, from Gary Isaacs. (Not sure on this, but I’m guessing he’s a member of the tribe too.)

This book, all grainy, moody black and white, stems from an assignment in San Francisco’s North Beach, the introduction tells us. Gary did his work there, but found himself powerfully drawn to that exotic neighborhood right next door. (Having photographed SF Chinatown myself in the past, and cruised its streets earlier this summer, I can attest it’s insanely photogenic.)

Not content with his first efforts, Gary went back a few times, to flesh out his vision, and said he spent 15 full days photographing 30 square blocks. Structurally, it fits somewhere between a straight flaneur story, and something a little deeper.

The neighborhood is vibrant, and obviously different. It looks great, because it represents a historical immigrant culture, with its fascinating visual signifiers, yet is surrounded by a more traditional America. (OK, maybe it’s not wise to brand San Francisco as normal America, but you get my point.)

When you look at this book, there is no sense you’re getting an intellectually supported, politically motivated, culturally nuanced vision of the world. There will be no graduate thesis written about these pictures, nor will anyone start a Twitter Hashtag war, like they did for #IronFistSoWhite.

The sprit of the wanderer, of one who’s addicted to the joy of seeing, permeates the pages. I’d argue this book can be a catalyst for all of us to turn our attention back onto the world around us, and try to see it with fresh eyes.

(And if you insist the pictures represent a white person’s cliché vision of Asian culture, you’re welcome to that opinion.)

I just read a piece in GQ, by a guy I went to summer camp with many years ago, about breaking his Weed-Cherry at 35. He’d been too uptight to smoke marijuana earlier in life, but finally got around to it, just in time for the legalization efforts, when the stigma had gone away.

His final sentences were about the way New York City glowed, with lights reflecting off wet streets, when he walked the city while high. His perceptions became heightened, and his experience of visual pleasure was enhanced.

He felt glad to be alive.

I like Mary Jane as much as the next guy, but when photography does its job, and we get to be our best selves, the camera is all the help we need to be overjoyed by the magic of the world.

Food for thought.

Bottom Line: Cool book, featuring noir photos from San Francisco’s Chinatown

This Week in Photography Books: Larry Sultan

 

America is dominated by Baby Boomers and Millennials.

You know this.

My cohort, Generation X, is small by comparison, and as we’re all slackers, we get lost in those giant shadows. But we’re famous for our sense of irony, and these days, it’s a life-saver.

For instance, the one thing most people want, more than anything, is to have a long life. Nobody wants to die young, except for rock stars, but as Rock-n-Roll is dead, the rock stars are gone anyway.

People want to live as long as possible, even though that best case scenario almost always leads to illness, broken bodies, doctor bills, and some form of misery and pain.

Like I said, without irony, where would we be?

My own parents are aging, as I’m 43, and the last ten years have been a litany of ill health. My Dad had two major back surgeries, including a spinal fusion, interspersed with years of aggressive, debilitating nerve pain.

My Mom had a spinal fusion of her own, and before she’d fully recovered, she tore her achilles tendon in Mexico, and had that godawful injury as a follow up. (Though she reported her experience in the Mexican health care system was excellent, in case you’re thinking of moving to the other side of the Wall…)

It’s a challenge, watching the people you love suffer; a reminder it will be your turn soon enough. If you’re one of the lucky ones, that is, and you don’t get pre-mature cancer, or hit by a car driven into a political protest.

On the plus side, aging is meant to bestow wisdom. While our bodies degrade, no matter how many crossword puzzles we do, or superfood smoothies we imbibe, our understanding of reality often develops nuance and expertise.

Who hasn’t looked back on a younger self, thrown up one’s hands, and exclaimed to the sky, “What the fuck was I thinking?”

I know I have.

Right now, I’m focusing on a particular moment, back when I lived in San Francisco in 2001. I’d recently applied to graduate school at CCAC, (now called CCA,) and the Dean of Admissions had arranged for me to sit in on a class with superstar-photographer-professor Larry Sultan.

I brought my portfolio along, as I’d been assured he’d likely review the work, and discuss how I might fit in at the school, were I to be accepted. (I wasn’t.)

But on the day I arrived, Mr. Sultan said it was a special class, with some guest lecturers, and he wouldn’t have time to meet with me. He warmly welcomed me to stay, assuming I could learn a thing or two.

As I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, I slipped out at the first smoke break without even saying goodbye. If he couldn’t see me, my younger self thought, what was the point of sticking around?

Such a rookie mistake.

The incident played in my mind, over and over, as I walked through the singularly brilliant Larry Sultan solo show at SFMOMA back in May.

It was easily one of the best photo shows I’d seen in years, and at the end, they had a video monitor set up, with a lengthy interview with the artist.

Sadly, he passed away too-young in 2009, so it was much like hearing from a ghost. A ghost, I might add, from whom I had been too proud to learn, in the limited way I’d been offered.

I sat there for 20 minutes, easily, and this from a guy who never, ever has patience for such things. (Never. Ever.)

Thankfully, the folks at SFMOMA are pretty cool, and they’d arranged for me to preview the Mike Mandel exhibition next door, and meet the long-time curator Sandra Phillips. Even better, as I was leaving, they gave me a hot-off-the-presses copy of “Pictures from Home,” the Larry Sultan classic that was recently re-released, (or re-imagined?) by MACK in London.

Needless to say, when I showed the book to people at Pier 24 that afternoon, (after admitting I used it as a sun-shade on the blazing walk along the Embarcadero,) they looked at me like I was the messiah.

“How did you get that,” exclaimed the Assistant Director? “I’m actually thanked in the liner notes,” she said, “and I don’t have a copy yet!”

I blushed, said something about getting lucky, and realized this was a book I needed to sit with properly.

No skimming allowed.

I hope you’ll trust it’s taken 3 months to find such time, and that I busted open the green, hard-cover book as soon as I was able.

Meaning yesterday.

But there is so much text that I lay it down, and came at it today with a couple of hours set aside. Let me be clear, this is a book you need to read, not just look at the sharp photography.

“Pictures from Home” is such a great meditation on aging: of people, of dreams, and of America itself, that I’ll state outright it deserves its masterpiece status.

A more poignant, intelligent book, you are unlikely to find.

It features many of the seminal images shot during that series, made from approximately 1982-92, in addition to stills from Sultan family home movies, text by Larry Sultan, interviews with his Mom and Dad, and ephemera from their lives.

The short version of the story is that Mr. and Mrs. Sultan, Irving and Jean, moved out to Southern California in 1949, right after the War boom, in the midst of a recession. They were East Coast Jews, he from NYC, she from Jersey, and they joined the wagon train of Americans headed West towards a better life.

Eventually, Irving landed a job as a salesman for the Schick Razor company, and made his way up the corporate ladder for 20 years. It is as pure a vision of the American dream as you’re likely to find, as a Jew who briefly went by the pseudonym of John Dutton, to work in an English clothing store, was eventually embraced by the whitest of American corporate culture.

Until he wasn’t.

Turns out, Irving was spit out by Schick at 56, when he refused to move his family back East for a promotion. No matter what, he was only giving up the California sunshine if they pried it from his cold, dead hands. (RIP Irving and Jean, in addition to Larry.)

Irving never held another job, easing restlessly into a golf-strewn retirement, but Jean built a successful real estate career in his stead, allowing a feminist subtext to creep into the book as well.

In last week’s review, I admitted I found Ashley Gilbertson’s writing more compelling than his photographs. (Most of you probably preferred the pictures, but you’re not writing the review.) It certainly made me question when words communicate more effectively than images.

But this book proves how perfectly the two can complement each other, in the right hands. First person histories about scamming girls at the boardwalk, being abandoned to orphanages, taking massive risks, and developing sangfroid in our relationships take center stage, and inform the way we view each subsequent photograph.

Later on, the text begins to allude, and then outright mentions, the fact that Larry Sultan staged these photographs, believing a fictionalized version of reality can often tell more “truth” than a document.

In the fraught photo of Irving, standing in front of a white-board featuring knowledge gleaned from a Dale Carnegie course, we learn that Larry asked Irving to misuse a word, on purpose, to suggest a certain fallibility. (Empathize became empathy)

I could go on and on.
But I won’t.

This is a book best enjoyed by yourself, on your sofa, with a cup of coffee or two. (Or three, as it was with me. No blue sky today, so I needed extra energy-juice.)

The times of the great, white male are either over, or still far-too-prevalent, depending on which media outlet you read. But in this case, the idea of shrinking, until there is nothing left but time for leisure, as your aggregate life slips away, is sad but real.

I hope my parents regain their footing, and enjoy a spate of health and good fortune. But I don’t know it will happen, as aging gets us all in the end. (If we’re lucky enough to land on its doorstep.)

C’est la vie.

Bottom Line: Brilliant, re-issued classic that examines the fading American dream, and the realities of old age

To purchase “Pictures from Home,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com