APE contributor Jonathan Blaustein told me about acquisitions of his work by the State of New Mexico and Library of Congress. I wanted him to write about it, because like me I’m sure many of you are curious how this whole process works. He was reluctant to write about it and be too self-congratulatory on the blog (he is paid to write for APE), so I asked him a few questions instead.

APE: Tell me what the acquisitions were?

JB: The State of New Mexico recently purchased a unique portfolio of the entire “Value of a Dollar” project for the State’s permanent Public Art collection, at market value. The Library of Congress purchased a portfolio of the project as well, from the 16×20 edition,  which will reside in its permanent archive, and be accessible to the public online and in person, I believe.  I’ll be delivering the work to them in the next month or so, so it’s not in their database yet.

APE: Can you give me a brief background on how you got into fine art photography? What was your path to get where you are now?

JB: I picked up a camera for no particular reason back in 1996. I was moving back to New Mexico from New York, and bought some black & white film before I took a solo cross country drive through the South. I was hooked immediately, and decided to go back to school to study photography at UNM, since I was a state resident, and it was cheap. The program was fine art based, and I studied with Tom Barrow and Patrick Nagatani, who were both steeped in conceptualism. So from the beginning, I used photography as a means of creative expression. After Albuquerque, I lived in San Francisco and started showing my work in local galleries and art spaces. From there, I moved back to New York to get an MFA at Pratt, which totally rocks, and then came back to New Mexico in 2005. I’ve been fortunate that we have a great collection of talent, resources and photographic institutions out here.

APE: I know nothing about acquisitions, so tell me how important they are to fine art photographers?

JB: I think most artists would like to have their work collected by museums and institutions.  It offers credibility, and the opportunity for the public to actually interact with your work.  Also, it’s tough to sell work nowadays, so public acquisitions can be a great source of income. In this case, the size of the two acquisitions was equivalent any of the biggest grants or fellowships around, so now I’ll be able to pay the bills, and catch my breath for the first time in a long while.


APE: What is the process like, how do you get on someone’s radar for an acquisition? Walk me through what happened to you in these cases?

JB: Well, as I wrote last year, I attended the Review Santa Fe portfolio review in 2009 and 2010.  The first year, people really liked “The Value of a Dollar,” but nothing popped.  Last year, there seemed to be a bit more buzz around the project. I had a twenty minute review with Josh Haner, an editor for the New York Times Lens Blog, and he said he’d like to publish the work on the spot. I also had a review with Verna Curtis, a curator from the Library of Congress, who was really taken with the series.  She said she’d like to figure out a way to acquire it for the collection, but that it would take a while to sort out the logistics. So I followed her instructions as to how to stay in touch, and it played out over the course of six or seven months.

The State of New Mexico purchase came out of a great program that we have here that’s run by an organization called New Mexico Arts. Each year, they buy work from New Mexico artists through the Art in Public Places acquisition program. They put out an online call for entries, and I submitted some work. A friend who’d been funded before suggested that I email some of the staff directly to introduce myself and get some advice, so I did. As a result, the director of the program ended up on my email list.

Last fall, the New York Times followed through and published “The Value of a Dollar” on the Lens Blog. The story went viral immediately, and I had 500,000 hits to my website within a week. It was unexpected, and totally insane. I sent out an email blast about the Lens Blog publication and the viral mania, and the AIPP program manager responded to my email, saying he’d like to talk about acquiring a portfolio of the work.  It took 5 months of patient follow up, and then I got the meeting in February of this year.  We negotiated and shook hands on a deal that day, and it was all wrapped up within a couple of months.

APE: What’s next? Obviously, like with commercial and editorial photography, success begets success so how do you capitalize on this?

JB: It’s a good question. I’m hoping the momentum continues, but it’s tough out there. Like everyone else, I’d really like to get the photographs on the wall in New York.  It’s the center of the Art world, obviously, as well as the rest of the photo industry.  But lately, my primary focus has been on making new work. I’ve been busting it out in the studio since January on a follow up project so I can take advantage of the publicity, and the fact that people will probably pay attention to what comes next.  It seemed important to come up with a new idea that would be as good or better than the last, so that I don’t end being the Dollar guy like some early 80’s one hit wonder. I’d also like to establish a solid relationship with a dealer in one of the prime art markets, like New York, LA, London or Berlin.

Really, I think that many art photographers are trying to re-evaluate what success even means in 2011 (See Aline Smithson’s recent post on Lenscratch).  This photo series connected with countless people across the planet through the Internet, and the ideas have continued to resonate.  So I’m also asking myself if my goals should extend beyond the gallery and museum wall, into a more active role within the politics of food.

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  1. Congratulations Jonathan!!

    That is really great, your work is wonderful and this is well deserved.

    While I’m at it, I also really like your contributions to this blog and appreciate, unlike myself, your ability to keep a level head and moderate response to sometimes controversial threads.

    Thanks Rob, for this blog, and for letting your contributors have a long leash.



    • @Victor John Penner,
      That’s very kind of you to say, Victor. I appreciate it. The APE audience is one of the most intelligent, passionate group of photographers and industry professionals around. I’m grateful to be able to make a contribution. My thanks to Rob as well.

  2. Fantastic Jonathan!
    Your content and delivery are always ace.
    Apparently in your photography too.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Congratulations, Jonathan. I appreciate your information about the process itself, since I think that’s what probably confuses people the most. I think it gives all photographers perspective as to how long it takes to get the recognition and to sell a body of work. And it also shows that if you have a project with value, it can take a while for the world to find it, but it can be done.
    I look forward to your next project. I think the politics of food is a topic that needs much more public exploration.

    • @Stella Kramer,
      Thanks, Stella. Very kind of you to say. I’m a fan of your blog, and hope we get a chance to meet in NYC at some point.

  4. Two winners in one place is hard to beat, Jonathan congratulations, persistence pays off and you achievement gives me some hope for my future. Besides who would want to work with and for Rob. I am looking forward to more.

  5. This is a great piece about a totally mysterious process. SO many artists have “in the collection of” on their resumes and I am always like how did they get in there? Some people (I am told) donate their work just so they can say they are in there, which is a novel idea.

    I notice you shelled not once but three times to the SF portfolio review – this relatively recent practice of portfolio review is super heinous but I guess you gotta do it- it’s always the same people on the juries too – it seems like their job should be to look for new work rather than have to pay them to look at it. I recently noticed one gallery in NYC that said they were not looking for new artists, but you could pay them to review your portfolio – presumably to tell you what is wrong with it. It’s pretty tacky if you ask me. Anyway – thank you for answering some of the timeless mystery questions about the fine art world for me – one thing I did not understand, or wd. like to ask you to clarify – did you present the Value Of A Dollar series each time you went back to Review Santa Fe? Like – you didn’t like it last year, you didn’t like it the year before last, but you like it this year? Cos that is so crazy!

    • @John Eder,
      Hi John, Thanks for chiming in here. I thought your article on Photo LA was pretty funny.

      I’d like to address your comments, mostly because I think you’ve got some faulty assumptions. To begin with, I didn’t “shill” for Review Santa Fe here. Rob asked me how this came about, and I answered him. The RSF experience was the direct catalyst for these acquisitions.

      Secondly, I take issue with your description of portfolio reviews as “heinous.” If you go back and read my article from last year, you’ll see that like you, I was dubious about the system as well. But these non-profit organizations are creating opportunities for photographers to get their work seen. The fees pay for the event, and if a photographer spent money to visit the very same industry folks in each of their respective cities, (assuming one could get the appointments) it would cost many thousands of dollars. So my impressions changed dramatically once I attended RSF and saw for myself. You can of course continue to hate on the system, but in this case, it paid concrete dividends for me. In addition, I now know dozens of talented, smart photographers across the planet.

      Finally, to address your direct question, I brought 2 bodies of work to RSF both years, but each year “The Value of a Dollar” stood out to the reviewers and my fellow photographers. And as the interview attests, it’s taken me 15 years of hard work and commitment to create these outcomes. These things don’t happen overnight, despite the Internet allowing everyone to see everything all the time. Of course, I’d like to think that the quality of my work had something to do with it, but as art is subjective, feel free to disagree.

      • @Jonathan Blaustein, Whoa, you’ve got me all wrong here, I said “shell” for Review SF, as in “shell out” your hard-earned dollars to go there. Not “shill”, as in pimping for Review SF, I wasn’t accusing you of that in any way.

        I totally get the concept of the Review system and it’s value, tho I am still really skeptical about it.Also – I live in L.A. and am often in NYC, so travelling to meet these people is not that big a problem for me as I am there anyway. In fact, it’s more of a hassle and more expensive to go some place like Santa Fe. The bigger problem for me is the institutionalization of a “pay to play” mentality, where it’s totally OK, indeed, expected for gatekeepers to charge for their time. Theoretically, I could just drive across town and meet with some of these people for free, so it rankles that I have to pop $75 just for them to consider letting me pay $$$ more to actually meet them in some town where neither of us live.

        • @John Eder,

          Reviewers are not paid to look at work. They do these reviews for the convenience of looking at lots of work in a concentrated amount of time and for their love of photography and helping photographers.

          • @A Photo Editor, See below – if they love the medium so much you should be able to call them up and show your work without spending money. Esp. if you live in the same town. As for convenience and the busy busy lives of reviewers – also see below – the art director in question was putting out a major magazine pretty much by himself, at least in the art chores, but still found time to set aside to look at new work for free. Your point that the reviewers are not getting paid is irrelevant, money – my money – is leaving my pocket and going to some mysterious place so I can put my work in front of gatekeepers.

            • @John Eder,
              this isn’t the 80’s anymore. get over it.

              • @A Photo Editor, What decade it is is not the point. Again – if reviewers review work out of love for the medium, then they should be accessible to the masses not just to those who can pony up. The argument of they are too busy (convenience) similarly does not hold water to me, they can set aside a finite amount of time to look at new work – for free. As Donnor Pary above mentioned, curators and gallerists in other disciplines do it today – in the not the 80s world. Get over that.

                • @John Eder,
                  again. getting paid does matter. what decade we’re talking about does matter. you saying it doesn’t is irrelevant.

                  everyone looks at work for free. not yours maybe. get over it.

                  • @A Photo Editor, Is this a bad time to ask you to look at my work?

                    • @John Eder,
                      Look John, I think it’s cool that you look back so fondly on the old days. Nothing wrong with that. I take exception, though, to what you’re implying about the ease of access within the “art” gallery world. You and Donnor Party may believe that art galleries that show predominantly painting and sculpture are better about looking at work, but that’s simply untrue.

                      Do some research. Take a look at the websites of most of the hot galleries in LA and New York. Most sites clearly state “No unsolicited submissions accepted.” That means that if you aren’t friends with one of the artists, you didn’t go to prep school with one of the dealers, or aren’t huge enough that they’ve already heard of you, they’ll never, ever look at your work. No possible access from the outside.

                      If you don’t believe me, why not go to Culver City or Chinatown and ask all the girls at the front desk if they want to look at and/or show your work. I know from experience here. Not only have I done it, but one time I spoke with a gallerina at Bellwether in Chelsea, right after they’d moved from Brooklyn. I asked the girl if she’d look at unsolicited submissions. She said “No.” So I followed up and asked her if that meant that they actually throw everything that comes in directly into the trash, without even opening up the envelope. She said “Yes.” What do you make of that?

                      The reality is that the art and photography worlds are among the most competitive and cutthroat fields on the planet. With 10,000 or or more students coming out of art schools in the last decade, to say nothing of all the assistants out there, this industry is far more competitive than Harvard or Yale. Too many DJ’s, not enough mikes.

                      If you want to do something about it, start your own hip little gallery in LA, or start a magazine, or a cool website. Make something awesome by yourself, or with your friends, and get people to pay attention with your force of will and hopefully fantastic work.

                    • @Jonathan Blaustein, I’m afraid I have painted myself with a dinosaur brush here by mentioning the 80s – to be clear: what I meant by bringing that particular AD up is not that I have a great deal of fondness for the old days – photography was just as competitive and cutthroat then as now, as were all the arts, and gallerists were just as exclusionary as now – the only reason I brought up that era was to mention said AD and his once-a-week open door policy, which I thought was nice and that if he could do it, busy as he was, so could all today’s gatekeepers.

                      Meanwhile, I agree with everything else you said. You are preaching to the choir, buddy.

                    • @Jonathan Blaustein, If you are in LA come to this thingie I am showing and speaking at – along with three other artists – it’s called Open Show LA

                      The Forge
                      2636 Huron St.
                      L.A. 90065

                      Wed May 25 7:30- 9:30 PM

        • @John Eder,
          John, I’m not here to convince you to participate in a system that you’d rather avoid. That’s totally up to you. I can only share my experience. I’ve said many of the same things in the past that you’re saying now.

          Any success I’ve experienced in the last couple of years has been as a result of engaging with a larger international photo community. I’ve met countless people at RSF, LOOKbetween, and through traveling, and it’s been the community of photographers (and industry professionals) that have helped support and promote me and my work. I’ve made friends and colleagues who’ve been great sounding boards and offered terrific feedback on my ideas and photographs.

          I’m not writing this to try to change your mind. But I’m well aware that people read these comments, and this is an idea I haven’t stressed enough. “Pay to play” or “the cost of doing business,” it’s important to build a network of talented people who’ll have your back.

          • @Jonathan Blaustein, I agree you need a network and I am (attempting to) participate in the system of portfolio review. FUll disclosure: a lot of my rancour towards said system is I am consistently rejected by these pay to play reviews like SF or Lucie, and it kind of blows my mind since I am, of course, the shit. If that happens – if you can’t even pay these people to look at your work – where are you supposed to go? It’s a bad system.
            In the 80s there was an art director at a major magazine in NYC who made careers by giving lots of people their start. He had an open portfolio review policy in his office, every Wed., for two or three hours. All kinds of weirdos with crap work would show up there, and he would treat them the same as bonafide talents. He would discover said bonafide talents, too. Many of today’s top celeb and fashion photogs got their start because of this policy, esp. a lot of people who were broke and struggling to make it. Today this practice seems somehow quaint. Too bad – if you ask me every magazine and museum and art gallery in the world should do it.
            Heartfelt sigh inserted here – As mentioned, I will continue to submit to the pay to play reviews, because hope springs eternal and also there is little alternative.

    • @John Eder, I think the photo review system and the cottage industry around it is strange. The pay-to-play thing is a little offputting, despite everyone telling me that reviews are valuable and the obvious marketing opportunity presented by the review system. My friends who are fine artists are primarily painters and sculters. They don’t have a review system, it seems to me, but rather gallerists, curators, artists and critics come by the studio to see what they are working on.

      • @Donnor Party, Yes – it’s only in photo world the bizarre and exclusionary pay to play portfolio review system has evolved – again, it seems like part and parcel with, what for me, was a very important piece here on APE, Clint Clemens predictions of the future of photo, that the place to make money in photo world now is to service photo world – with blogs, competitions, contests, workshops, teaching and, of course, portfolio reviews. See http://plain-glass.flywheelsites.com/2010/11/12/clint-clemens-interview/

        While the motives of those running non-profit Santa Fe may be pure, I wonder at those of certain gallerists who are not accepting new artists in their galleries right now, but are more than happy to sit down with you for a fee. Just workin’ that new business model!

  6. Jonathan – Huge congratulations! It was very generous for you to share the back story.

    Also – it was very generous for you to donate 10 prints to the Life-Support Japan auction from your $1 series. Last I checked there were still a few prints left. At $50/print, the auction has raised more than $50,000 for Japan earthquake relief efforts. Art lovers can acquire one of your prints and help the people of Japan! Win/Win!

  7. Kudos to you, Jonathan! Thanks for your valuable insights. Regarding the politics of food, it might be interesting to see you and Jamie Oliver join forces to collaborate.

    • @shea naer,
      Thanks, Shea. Jamie Oliver is a major inspiration. I’d love the chance to bend his ear one of these days…

  8. Jonathan,

    Congratulations on such a wonderful achievement!

    I really enjoyed reading this interview and learning more about the series.

    And, in your honor, just purchased one of the few remaining 8×10 prints of the “$1 Of Panko Bread Crumbs” image you so graciously donated to the Life-Support Japan 2 auction on Wall Space Gallery at http://www.wall-spacegallery.com/displayShow.php?showID=124

    This will be a great addition to the print you also did for charity for collect.give which is now sold-out: http://collectdotgive.org/archives/jonathan-blaustein-2/

    I now forgive you for canceling your Dallas visit and not meeting me for dinner :) Obviously there was a major back-story happening.


    Marla H Bane
    Dallas Arts Salon

    • @Dallas Arts Salon,
      True enough, Marla. It’s been a mad few months. Your new print is sitting right next to me at the moment, and I’ll get it in the mail to wall space soon.

      • No rush. I know Crista left for Seattle & still has a million prints to process. Truly, I thought your print for LS had sold-out until I read one of the earlier posts and now had no excuse not to grab one!

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