This Week in Photography: Drowning in Noise

 

May you live in interesting times.

It’s an old adage, a thing people say, or at least it seems that way.

Maybe it’s a curse?

I think the opposite is likely true, and that periods of calm, (in the world beyond my mini-alligator-filled moat,) are relatively rare.

For every brief Pax Americana, (Post WWII,) there are a thousand Hundred Years Wars. And if plagues come around every 100 years, then many (if not most) people will live through one too.

In the early days of our COVID-19 pandemic, someone asked me if I’d ever seen anything quite like this before.

I had to answer honestly, and said “No.”

“However,” I followed up, “I have seen bits of this that add up to Frankenstein’s monster. If you throw in one part 70’s gas lines, add 9/11 with a dash of the Great Recession, and then chuck in the AIDS epidemic and some SARS/Ebola fear.”

Now, I’m the first to admit, that’s one hell of a witches brew, and I’d prefer we had avoided this mess entirely. But we can’t take the pangolin out of the stomach that ate it, any more than we can seal the virus up behind a brick wall and leave it to rot.

(I had no intention of dropping all these horror references today, but as I’ve told you before, the creativity is the boss, and I’m the vessel.)

A month + into the situation, and the comparisons are to The Great Depression, but I’m not sure if that’s how this will go. (Time will tell.)

Businesses didn’t go out of business, en masse, they were closed for a public health emergency. And as awful as some people have it, financially, there are resources being thrown at the problem: unemployment payments, $1200 IRS checks, small business loans, freelancer grants.

(Not enough, I know.)

There exists at least the possibility of this being a recession that ends gradually, (rather than a lengthy depression,) as most businesses re-open.

Will some not re-open? Will some people go out of business because of this virus economy?

Yes. Definitely.

But I went of business, with my commercial digital studio here in Taos in 2010, because of the Great Recession. And it was the best thing that could have happened, (eventually,) as I shifted my intellectual resources to writing and building my art and teaching careers, all of which have paid off.

Would I have predicted how gig economy that would be? 3 side hustles making one creative living?

Of course not. I hadn’t heard of the gig economy in 2010 because it didn’t exist yet.

Do you catch my drift?

People can’t tell you what comes next, not even the great Dr. Fauci, because no one knows. (Speaking of Italian-Americans, I never knew, nor knew of NY sports photographer Anthony Cauci, who passed away from the virus, but it sounds like he was an amazing guy. Here’s a link to the Go Fund Me page for his family.)

Sorry. Where was I?

This is new ground on which we’re walking, yet it has also been trod by other humans in the past, be it Spanish Flu, Bubonic Plague or Trumpsanity. (Yes, I made that last one up.)

Speaking of Trump, I’ve avoided criticizing him the last month or two, waiting to see if there was any chance he miraculously became a different person because of this crisis.

I remember doing that with W Bush too, after 9/11, when he courageously said nice things defending Muslim Americans. But his general incompetence won the day, leading to two wars, and the aforementioned Great Recession.

So I gave Trump the benefit of the doubt, but numbers don’t lie. The United States of America has lead the world in the number of cases, as a significant anti-science cohort holds sway here.

Tens of thousands of vulnerable people, sick and old, people of color in particular, are dying, and at this point, it would be unconscionable not to point the finger at the federal government, for America’s lack of preparedness.

These days, people want the truth more than anything. They want things to make sense. They want to trust that higher authorities know how to handle this, and that a smart, cogent response will allow the world to move forward.

That’s what people want.

But what they get is a lot of noise.

Trump’s still name-calling on Twitter, like he always has, and now angry hordes in MAGA hats are storming the castles?

Some preacher insisted on keeping his church open and then he died?

The virus is caused by 5G poles, or can be prevented by smoking, or it came from a lab in Wuhan, or Facebook let 40 million misleading posts go through, or Ozzy Osborne bit the head off an infected bat at a party in Florida and started the whole thing there. (I made the last one up, but if somehow it could all be Florida’s fault, that would be apropos.)

Just when we want things to make sense the most, they make sense the least.

We want a Hardy Boys novel, with its satisfying conclusion, and instead we get a fucking Zen koan.

(Welcome to #2020.)

So when I went to my book pile today, I reached again for something I knew to be old. It was a bit unfair to people who submitted books in Spring 2019, as I’d been reviewing books each week forever.

But then Rob and I agreed to try the travel writing, and few books were perused until late last year.

Anything I pull from Spring 2019, by its nature, cannot be made directly for this moment. In fact, when this book arrived, I’d barely begun working on my own book, and I put so many things I’ve learned here into making mine.

If all goes well, today, “Extinction Party” is being featured in the Washington Post, in their In Sight blog, and I was asked to write the article myself. (One of the biggest honors of my career, by far.)

I’ll be telling you plenty about the making of my book, as it’s a big part of the Amsterdam travel series, and I want to share the knowledge I accrued.

Foremost in my bookmaking decisions, as you might expect, was when to give contextual information, and how much to give.

I write about that all the time here. Second big move? Making sure there were connections between images, and sets of images. (My editor, Jennifer Yoffy, was brilliant at building the spine that way.)

Essays at the start, not too long, and titles on each page, to give context throughout. It’s ten years of my work, in different projects that we brought together in rhythm, with intention.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I pulled a box from Radius Books, down the way in Santa Fe, as they’re among the best photo book publishers in the world.

Quality wise.

(I also know they have a strong Arizona slant with some of their artists, like Mike Lundgren and David Taylor.)

It was an unsolicited submission, so I had no idea what was inside, but I was hooked by the cover for sure.

It was “Signal Noise,” by Arizona artist Aaron Rothman, published in 2018 by Radius.

First thought?

Great cover.
No doubt.

And for everyone who says “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” I say bullshit. A great cover is a necessity for a great book.

This, despite its great cover, is not a great book.

At least, not by my standards.

(Though I expect the artist, his dealers and collectors, and the publisher probably give it a 10/10.)

Open it up, and turn the pages.

You see straight landscape images, in the harsh Arizona desert sun, and then some are triptychs. It’s like an anti-aesthetic Cezanne, the repetition with slight changes.

Then landscapes turn digital, and manipulations are obvious.

What is the deal?

There are no words to explain.

More digital effects, like solarizing, and things bounce and weave between styles.

What does it mean?
What is the connection?

You know I treat books like a detective, and as a book maker, I gave all the clues.

This denied me all clues.

Then a series of beautiful blue sky shots, like Richard Misrach, one of the biggest inspirations of the Arizona crew.

Overall, I like the colors, and the noise pictures, when they come, look like digital camera noise. (Hence the book’s title.)

I fell and hit my head last week, (I’m OK,) and have had headaches all week. I’ve also written here, before, of headache art.

This is a headache-inducing book, because trying to figure it out is pointless.

I know this, because the text, in the back, admits it’s a jumble of different projects, made over ten years. (Like mine.)

But it’s designed not to make sense.

At least until the end.

They add a visual map at the finish, alluding to exhibition print sizes, making sure people get that these are big pieces seen on the wall.

As a mini catalog raisonne, I think it’s a hit. (That’s why I said earlier the dealers/collectors would love it.)

And I must admit they do clear up the confusion at the end, with an essay and artist interview, which are meant to answer questions that were up-until-then unanswerable.

This book is the koan for the moment.

The signal and the noise.

So #2020.

Bottom Line: Well-crafted book of several art projects, confusing in its narrative

To purchase “Signal Noise” click hereĀ 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

Jonathan Blaustein

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