by Jonathan Blaustein
I visited New York City in early August. It took me 15 1/2 hours to get there. You read that correctly. That’s enough time for a New Yorker to have a cup of coffee from the bodega, catch a cab to La Guardia, and have a dinner of dolamdes in Istanbul. Or for a San Franciscan to wake up to a nice latte, BART down to SFO, and graze on sushi in Tokyo. It’s also enough time to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad, and then cook up a small batch of meth afterwards. In other words, I live in the boonies for real. (I’m actually writing this from a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.)
So this will be the story in which I drop in on the world’s biggest media empire, (My apologies, Herr Murdoch), do a 60 Minutes walk & talk style interview with the photo world’s preeminent Kickstarter expert, and finish up with a visit to the world’s most transgressive art exhibit. If that sounds a bit like a 21st Century Jewish guy’s version of an Odyssey, it certainly felt like one to me. It all began with the aforementioned insanely long travel day from Taos to Washington Heights. (My apologies…Hudson Heights.) I started the day listening to the ravens squawk before sunrise, and ended up in my cousin’s apartment above the GW bridge. Guest rooms being a rare commodity in New York, I crashed on a trundle bed below a bunk bed shared by a four year old and his seven year old brother. No, I’m not making that up. (Big ups to Nathan and Noah Burak. Thanks, guys.)
Regardless, I slept well, and woke up on a Tuesday excited to make my first visit to the New York Times. I understand that there’s an inherent name-dropping quality to these articles, and I do hope you don’t think the less of me for it. But there I was, at 11am on a not-so-opressively-hot early August morning, standing under the big gray lady’s corporate logo, wondering how it all came to pass. (Yes, I did take a photo of myself for my parents. Yes, I do know this makes me a huge dork.) I was there to meet with James Estrin, the photojournalist and editor of the Lens Blog. We’d met earlier in the summer in Santa Fe, and after I thanked him profusely for changing my life, we got to talking about our respective educational initiatives. Mr. Estrin, along with Adriana Teresa of Visura Magazine, recently started the Envision Foundation, which sponsors digital photography programs for teen-agers in locations around the world. (China, Haiti, the Bronx, and Mexico City.) Last year, I created a similar program to work with rural youth from the mountain communities of Taos County at the local UNM branch, so we found we had a lot in common. He invited me to partner my program with his, and there you have it.
I traveled back across the country to meet with Mr. Estrin to chat about photography, and get some of the details squared away. As we agreed to meet in the Times building, I was getting a chance to peek behind a very famous curtain. Of course, given that I always seem to manufacture a mishap on these adventures, I got in the wrong elevator. Turns out, in the fancier buildings of today, some elevators only go to certain floors. Who knew? But I sorted it out without any stress, and soon arrived on the 4th floor of the recently built Renzo Piano skyscraper. First impression: it is a beautiful building. Modern, with lots of steel and glass, but there are huge swaths of red everywhere. Mr. Piano is apparently involved in the interior design as well, and insisted upon the crimson invasion. I love it. One would imagine that a contemporary newsroom would contain oceans of gray, so the enforced color was a welcome touch.
It’s funny, but I’ve been a working artist for fifteen years. My career has been a slow-build, with lots of one step forward two steps back phases. But the last year, as many of you know, has had a bit of a wormhole feeling to it, so walking around the Times was totally surreal. I was aware that they weren’t going to kick me out or anything, but I had this sense of being a kid trailing his dad at take your child to work day. I tried to hide it a bit, but also thought that since it was authentic, I might as well go with it. Mr. Estrin kindly showed me around, and I got to meet and thank Kerri MacDonald, who wrote the Lens story that continues to bounce around the world. Everywhere I went, really smart, witty people were crashing into each other in impromptu meetings, discussing photographs and the state of the world. The place was massive, with the third and fourth floors open to each other, and the sound of fingers tapping away madly on Apple keyboards reminded me of an atonal Phillip Glass symphony. A far cry from the roosters and horses and magpies to which I’m accustomed.
Meetings are meetings, so I’ll spare you any further descriptions about what we were talking about. But I did have a one-of-a-kind-photo-geek moment that I’ve got to share. At some point, Mr. Estrin, who had briefly stepped away, came thundering around a corner and motioned for me to follow. As I emerged from his office, I saw a not large man holding court a few feet away. He was unremarkable, save for the fact that he had some shiny, metallic artificial legs. Joao Silva, in the flesh. When I was 12, I met Joe Montana on an airplane on the way to Superbowl XXI. When I was 19, I met Bruce Springsteen outside a waterfront restaurant where I was working at the Jersey Shore. In both cases, I felt like a bashful fanboy, basking in the glow of grandiosity. This was no different. I’m guessing almost all of you already know, but Mr. Silva is the Times journalist who was blown up by a land mine in Afghanistan, and continued to shoot pictures from the ground, whilst his legs were ripped off his body. So the awe I felt was understandable, but of course I had nothing interesting to say to him. Really, what do you say? “Mr. Silva, it’s a pleasure to meet you. You’re an inspiration,” or something like that, right? You try not to gawk at his legs, and fail. You try to be casual about the whole thing, and fail again. It was clear that he did not want to be ogled for his disability, and his matter-of-factness only made him seem tougher. A friend reminded him to sit, as to make it easier on himself, and he ignored the entreaty. One tough dude.
That was the highlight of my Tuesday, obviously, but I did see three albino triplets riding Razr scooters outside Rockefeller Center, so it wasn’t quite the landslide victory you’d imagine. And I finished the day at an Irish Happy hour joint in Midtown where my friend Adria and I wondered aloud if the bartender had earned her boob job back in tips yet. Adria, ever the cynical New Yorker, voted no. (I believe what she actually said was, “With that face, it’s no surprise she went for the boob job,” but I wouldn’t swear to it.)
My Wednesday was spent in Washington, as was previously chronicled, and I awoke on Thursday with a plan to visit the Ryan Trecartin show at MOMAPS1, followed by Boris Mikhailov at MOMA proper. As I lounged around, slowly packing my back for a trip to Jersey later in the day, I got a call from my friend and fellow photographer Manjari Sharma. We’d made plans to get together previously, but as I hadn’t heard from her yet, I assumed she’d gotten too busy. I told her what my plan was, and by the time we’d hung up the phone, we’d agreed to go see the Alexander McQueen show at the Met instead. (It was about to close, and since has.) Ms. Sharma is among the most persuasive, persistent people I’ve come across, which I find amusing and endearing, and of course she brought me around to her way of thinking. There’s a lot to be said, in this world, for not taking no for an answer.
So off I headed, rolling my newly purchased travel bag, for the trip from Hudson Heights to the Upper East Side. A train to a train to a bus, in case you were wondering. As I crossed Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum in sight, I realized that our plan was likely to change. There must have been a thousand people lined up outside, snaking up and down the block. I’ll say this for New Yorkers, they take “culture” seriously, and I commend them for it. But my day was not playing out according to plan. Does it ever?
Expect the unexpected. It’s the perfect, oxymoronic cliché for New York. Of course it’s impossible to follow the advice, but when I lived in Brooklyn, it was a daily mantra. That, and “It’s always something.” You’re late for a big meeting? Plan on the subway car stopping in a tunnel for no reason. You forgot your umbrella one day, for the first time ever? Well, then, you know a Noreaster is imminent. Have two bucks in your pocket for slice of pizza? Well, of course that’s the day they they raise the price to $2.25. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love New York. It was a bitch for me to live there, but I love the place. I just accept that the city is an entity, like Godzilla, and she’s always in charge.
Back at the Met, I decided that since Manjari texted that she’d be late, I might as well get in line and see what the future would hold. My travel suitcase was new, and just a bit too big to fit in the overhead compartment, but looks a lot like a backpack. So there I was, rolling it two feet at a time, slowly shuffling along with everyone else, starting to get a bit excited to see a show that people were this gaga about. Moving. slowly. moving. slowly. Mind wandering. The sky looks pretty today. Why do those kebab carts always smell great and taste like crap? When’s Manjari going to get here?
After 25 minutes, I was starting to settle in. Getting comfortable with the idea that things would work out. Whammo. An authoritative, blue suit wearing, security guard type guy, who looked like an aristocratic Jason Statham, was walking down the street, towards me, and I happened to notice him. Without breaking stride, he looked at me and said, “We won’t let you in with that suitcase,” and just kept going. That was it. You can’t come in. Too bad. So sad. I was stunned. Where was I supposed to put my bag? They have a coat and bag check, so what’s the problem? My bag was too big, I suppose. I stood there a moment, and then continued to shuffle along with the line. Maybe he was bluffing, I thought. Maybe I can charm my way in.
I was deep in thought, trying to figure out a solution, when someone said, “Hey you, are you trying to cut in line? Where did you come from?” It was loud enough that it shook me from my reverie, and when I looked up, I found that some bald, tight t-shirt wearing dude was talking to me. “Excuse me?” I replied. “Are you trying to cut in line? I didn’t see you here,” he followed. “Listen, jerk,” I said, “I’ve been in this line for 25 minutes. What are you talking about?” “Ok, sorry,” he said. “Don’t take it personal. Calm down.” Just curious, but at any point in human history, has the advice “Calm down,” ever worked? So I started to mutter to myself, and then turned around to give him one more dirty look. “I said, don’t take it personal,” he shouted, and that was enough. It was clear I would not be seeing the Alexander McQueen show on that day.
So I went over to the steps to sit down and wait for Manjari. I started to laugh about the whole expect the unexpected thing, and put my head down to take some notes. Not ninety seconds later, out of nowhere, the sound of a capella, Motown music shocked me out of my thoughts. I looked up, and not five feet in front of me, at eye level, was a five piece band, belting out some great, old school stuff. Right in front of my face. And they weren’t there when I sat down. That’s why I love New York.
Manjari arrived shortly, and it took quite a bit of explaining on my part before she accepted that I would not be getting in to the Met that day. We spoke with several other guards, because as I mentioned, she’s not the type to take no for an answer. One guard even suggested that I take the bag up the street to the Guggenheim, as they might have more lax luggage restrictions. But alas, the Guggenheim is closed on Thursdays. Finally, I convinced Manjari to accompany me to MOMA, where I’d hoped to go anyway, and where we could get some food and catch up before seeing the Boris Mikhailov exhibition.
And that is where I morphed into Steve Kroft, walking and talking my way thirty blocks South, rollerbag in tow, and interviewing Ms. Sharma about her insanely successful Kickstarter project that recently met it’s funding goal. Earlier in the morning, she’d asked me to look at her Kickstarter page, in the hope that we might chat about it. I was blown away. I’ve been preaching to a friend for quite some time about the moment when photographers started to marry their creativity, 5d Mark II cameras, and ubiqutious broadband connections into the proper primordial soup for the birth of easy video. And that time has now come.
Manjari had posted a terrifically slick and approachable promotional video, speaking directly to the Kickstarter audience, explaining what she was trying to achieve as an artist, and why she needed help. You must see it. At the time, she told me it was in the process of going viral, with publicity from CNN, Wired, and NPR. It was easy to understand why. The video includes exposition, footage of Manjari at work in Mumbai, some terrific animation, and even a digital rendering of what her work will look like huge on the wall of a major museum. She discusses her heritage and spirituality candidly, and asks the audience to support her vision of making work. Not to buy the prints once they’re done, as the model has been for so long, but to actually fund the creation of the work beforehand. Of course, grants and fellowships have been around forever too, but this was definitely something new. Kickstarter has funded countless projects by now, but the video was the key difference here. It was just so well done. Ten years ago, I can’t imagine what the budget would have been for a three minute promo piece such as this.
She talked quickly, as we navigated the potholes and construction barriers, and made it clear that she was certain her project would fund. It was still early in the process, but she’d seen a $3000 jump (give or take) in just the previous day or so, as the viral sensation took off. People around the world were spanking their credit cards, through Amazon of course, because they wanted to see what these proposed photographs would look like. (And also for a small reward, depending on the funding level.) Ms. Sharma, who moved to the US for college in Columbus, Ohio, was originally from India. At present, she is trying to recreate important Hindu dieties as large scale photographs based upon live models. The process requires huge crews, and also a hefty travel budget to get back and forth to Mumbai multiple times. So she asked the digi-verse to help her raise $20,000, and I’m happy to report that she succeeded.
As I said before, the video was the key, as was her frank explanation within it. Fortunately, her husband is an illustrator, and another friend did the video editing. So she saved a ton of money on the production that way. I mentioned to her that not everyone would have that luxury, and Manjari pointed out that we all have our own networks and inherent advantages, and we have to work with what we’ve got. So if you don’t know any animators, skip the animation. But the reality is that a 5d Mark II can make as nice a video as anything else out there, and including motion and sound changes the experience of consuming media on the web. (If you don’t belive me, check out the Jörg Colberg video about the death of photography that made the rounds earlier this summer.)
Eventually, we made it to the Museum of Modern Art. While Manjari tried to talk her way into getting an artist membership, (successfully, of course,) I found myself hoping that this museum would take in my tired, weary traveler’s bones. As I approached the coat check, my heart sank at a sign outlawing luggage such as mine. But I decided to take Manjari as an inspiration, and see if I could twist some arms. I walked up to the window of a beautiful, young, smiling African-American coatcheck attendant. She looked down at my bag and frowned. Before she could say no, I begged, “Please, help. I have nowhere to stash my bag, and just walked 30 blocks from the Met because they wouldn’t let me in. Please.” With that, she smiled again. “Really,” she said, “they wouldn’t let you in at the Met?” “Really,” I assured her. ” And that was that. She empathized, bent the rules, and I was a happy man.
We had a nice lunch, but I’ll spare you the details. It’s not a food blog, after all, and I am not Tony Bourdain. (Under no circumstances will I ever eat an animal’s testicles. Ever.) But by then, after the Times, DC, and the debacle uptown, I was pretty tired. So rather than get a whole tour of the museum, I decided to save my remaining brain cells for the Boris Mikhailov show, which I was dying to see.
Let’s be clear from the start. This is probably the most transgressive, offensive group of photographs I’ve ever seen. I can imagine, now, how it must have felt the first time people saw some of Mapplethorpe’s more graphic fisting images on the wall. This collection of photographs eviscerates some of the biggest taboos I can imagine, and I loved it. I was neither offended, nor shocked, and that says a lot about the world in which we’re living. But I’ve got to assume that many people have been and will be offended by these pictures, (and whatever I write about them,) so quit reading here if you’re that type of viewer.
The photographs were made in the Ukraine in 1997-8. Just picture it. Boris Yeltsin was still in power, and was probably chugging 3 quarts of vodka a day by then. Vlad Putin was lurking, probably practicing his “I crush your head” move like that guy from Kids in the Hall. All the assets of the Communist empire were being grabbed, groped and auctioned off to the most connected Oligarchs: a tidal wave of Capitalist greed, organized crime type power, and pent up demand for Western baubles. (If you think I’m kidding, look at how Brooklyn’s favorite Oligarch, Mikhail Prokorov made his wealth. From acid wash jeans to investment banking to owning a secret resource mine in Siberia in no time.) That’s the backdrop in which these photographs were made, in a perfectly bleak little former Soviet town in winter. Seriously, do they even have summer in Russia?
As to the images, let me try to describe the premise. (As usual, I didn’t read the wall text until afterwards, but it’s pretty easy to put it together.) Mr. Mikhailov made the acquaintance and earned the trust of a group of quasi-homeless people in a certain locale. He hung around them as they did their thing, got to know their stories, one would imagine, as they navigated the local park, and whatever divey little shelter anyone could afford. And then he messed around with this sorry group of junkies, drop outs, and lunatics, doing his best to create the most ridiculously offensive poses anyone could fathom. I can’t believe he got these people to do this stuff, without offering up some crack or meth, but let’s suppose it never came to that.
The exhibition consisted of 17 photographs, somewhere in the range of 8 feet tall, pinned naked to the wall. Some were shown individually, some in groups of two, and there was one 5 image panel as well. Together, they tell the story of a group of people living in the bleakest, poorest conditions imaginable, all the while some artsy photographer dude poses them like cranked out rag dolls in a dystopian present. Fat old ladies hold up their shirts and pull down their pants, pimples asses here and there, scars abound, and black eyes too, shirts up pants down everywhere, one crazy dude wields an axe, and everywhere are ugly naked body parts that you never thought you’d want to see. And you don’t want to see it, of course. It’s not pleasant. But it is brilliant, at least in this man’s opinion.
What’s that old saying, in the world of the blind the one-eyed man is king? Something like that, right? Well along those lines, art made about a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent time, made in a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent place cannot be both authentic and soft cuddly beautiful, right? If it’s going to capture the essence of something terrible, it kind of has to sink down into the muck to be relevant, right? Well, if you’ve answered yes to those questions, then go see this show before it closes on September 5th. And you’ll thank me.
If you answered no, but have a strong stomach, you should probably still go see this show. You just might not like it. Is is exploitative? Absolutely. Almost perfectly so. Is it degrading? Hell yes. But how different is it than the milliions of photos of pretty naked Eastern European girls that swim around the cyberweb each day. Not to mention the countless girls from this region that are sold into sexual slavery. And that’s today. These photos were made almost 15 years ago, which in my book makes them prescient.
As I was looking, again, it was easy to see that these photos were not straight documents. The poses were often classical, which does not happen by accident. And the use of color was fantastic. Often in the form of a plastic bag placed just so. Or in the repeating theme of “red eye,” which here brings in color and the reference to the snapshot aesthetic at the same time. Amazing.
Ultimately, what I most appreciated was the gaze of the subjects into the camera. The look that they gave Mikhailov, and by extension, me, the viewer. It was clear, I thought. “What, you want my dignity? Here. Take it. I don’t need it anyway. It’s worthless to me. What, you think you can humiliate me? Impossible. It can’t be done. Because there is a sea of cold infinity at my core, and it’s stronger than your camera, or my purported government, or even the paint thinner that I huffed this morning. Fuck you.”
And that was that. I tried to look at the permanent installation show, but my mind was shot. So I reclaimed my bag from the saint of a girl downstairs, and headed out into the innocent madness of the City. Off to Penn Station, rolling along, and then a train to New Jersey, chugging along, for a nice evening with my nice relatives. Who never, not for a moment, suspected I had such twisted, horrific photographs backstroking through my brain.