And I’ve found that the older I get, the more I like quiet, though give me a few drinks at a party, and I’ll never shut up.
(A party? I wrote the word, but am now having trouble remembering what it might mean. Party? Sounds familiar, but like something from a pre-#2020 reality.)
So I like quiet, which can be hard to come by, and I also like to read my own column.
Occasionally, though, the two strands will overlap, and I’ll come to the point, reading the column back, where I can’t stand the sound of my own voice.
(In my head, as I’m reading it.)
I’m not talking about being crazy, or doing a full “Being John Malkovich” either. Rather, sometimes I write the column, and then it just doesn’t feel right.
On a handful of occasions over the years, I’ll write in flow, (as usual,) and then decide, when I’ve finished, that it’s crap.
I’ll be reading it back to myself and think, “Oh, just get on with it already, you old windbag.”
Or, maybe, “Gosh, could you be any more self-involved? Please, tell us more about yourself, or your kids.”
Now, if I’m being honest, this almost never happens, but it did today.
I wrote 1600 words, (over four parts,) and but it was all wrong.
Luckily, I’d grabbed an envelope from my submission pile before I got sidetracked by a different idea, and once I opened it up, I knew the book-reviewing-deities were smiling on me today.
Because it is literally perfect for the moment, (based upon what I’ve been writing about lately,) but it also allows me to stop talking, and let the pictures in the publication do the work.
Brandon Tauszik reached out to me early in lockdown, asking if he could send me a self-published ‘zine, and as I’d shown a digital project of his a bunch of years ago, so I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to check it out when the time was right.”
And that time is today.
It’s called “Pale Blue Dress,” and features some bright and sharp photographs of Civil War re-enactors in California.
There are so few photographs here, when most people would have wanted to show a book’s worth.
It’s brief, which makes it seem more like a poem than a novel.
We see Abe Lincoln, who’s been featured in the column a couple of times lately, and visions of a 19th Century war that, as I wrote just last week, still dominates the American cultural narrative in the 21st Century.
Photography records history, whether we like it or not, and in this case, it’s a record of people who like to recreate history, visually, for pretend.
It feels lighthearted, (like this column today,) but masks a much darker message.
In an essay at the end of the book, the Stanford historian James T. Campbell, PhD, writes,
“They are generous, even gentle images, devoid of irony or condescension, inviting not ridicule but curiosity about people whose commitments may differ from our own. In this polarized, perilous moment in the history of our democracy, this is an attitude worth cultivating. Societies that lose it sometimes fight civil wars in earnest.”
I often think that part of why history repeats itself is that once an event has receded from living memory, because no one is alive from when it happened, nor their direct descendants, then it becomes more likely to happen again.
No one outside of a few thousand truly insane individuals really wants another Civil War here, so let’s all do our best to put out good energy these next few months, and hope the national mood dials back from “11.”
If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.
“A new era has dawned in our country,
all the Earth is lit by the light of morn,
glory fills our hearts with an aura of greatness,
in the mighty state a happy time has begun.”
(From the state newspaper “Neutral Turkmenistan, “2012)
I’m writing on Thursday morning, (as usual,) July 30, 2020.
It’s the day that many of us have been waiting for, as Donald Trump has officially suggested postponing the presidential election here in America.
The times of our glorious leader are abundant, and let us hope they continue long into the future, when the son of dear leader, the great Barron, will guide is into endless prosperity, safety, and happiness.
Now, the cynics among us might suggest that Trump is baiting people into perseverating about one more distraction.
The quarterly economic numbers came out, and they were abysmal, like the worst EVER, meaning DJT’s plan to open the economy, believing that the coronavirus would simply “disappear” was wrong.
The Big Don doesn’t do “wrong,” so instead, he gave the media a big fat T-bone steak of scary, so that everyone would fret about that, rather than questioning him about the American economic free-fall.
So here we are.
We, as Americans, do a great job of thinking about ourselves, and our country, all the time.
The Trump collapse has even pushed Global Warming fears to the back burner, as who has time to contemplate planetary extinction when there is a fierce political battle going on right here in our own country?
(A colleague reminded me of that a few weeks ago, texting that most of the world lives with fear and difficulty all the time.)
We’ve officially reached the end of the road, with respect to the height of the “American Empire,” and the changes we’re feeling are not only about Trump, but rather a declining power settling down into a lower status.
It’s never easy.
But every great power that has ruled the world has then had to adjust to a time when they were relegated to #2, or #3, or even lower down the table.
(Even my favorite soccer team, Arsenal, is a declining power right now, having just finished 8th in the Premier League.)
Whether or not I start kissing up to China, (O great and wondrous Xi,) no sentient being would think that the US stands much of a chance of balancing their power in the coming decades.
Not if we’re this broken, and we don’t make things anymore, and we can’t seem to move past the divisions of a 19th Century war.
Basically, we’re fucked, and even if Joe Biden wins in November, and Trump is out in January, we’re firmly in the damage control portion of our history.
How can we salvage things, not how can me Make Everything Great Again.
Where did this particular, giving up isn’t so bad rant come from?
I’m glad you asked.
Like the old days, the glorious past which will always be better than the future, I’m writing about a photo book.
Perusing my book shelf this morning, I came across “Promising Waters,” by Mila Teshaieva, which was published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, as a prize winning book in the Critical Mass competition. (Published in 2013.)
I’m sure they sent it to me for judging, but somehow, I never checked it out before today.
Thank goodness, because without it, I might not have written that sad bit of realpolitik above.
(We’re #2! We’re #2!)
This book is excellent, and smart, which are not necessarily the same things.
The photographs are bleak and beautiful, and seem to be set in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, though it’s hard to say which one.
Frankly, this is one of those books I like, which teases out the story, bit by bit, asking you to guess, before giving you all the information you need at the end, which then makes you want to look through it again.
Which I did.
(And you would too.)
So it’s excellent, because it’s well made, but it’s smart, as it considers the viewing experience, and then adjusts accordingly.
For today, I’m going to jump to the end, as is my prerogative as a reviewer.
There are two very well written essays, and the second tells us this was shot in several countries around the Caspian Sea.
Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
And the end notes also have a numerical list of places, with a map and a little description, but I didn’t understand how it functioned until my second viewing.
Each page has a tiny number, which I missed on first viewing, and it corresponds to the list, (and the map,) so that afterwards, you can try to figure out where each picture is taken, and then compare some places to others.
(Like a puzzle.)
So that’s why it’s smart…
As to the pictures, and the intermittent text, it all speaks to a place in the world that is reckoning with life after an Empire’s primacy.
These may have been far-flung outposts of the Great Soviet Empire, but now they’re not even that.
There are references to changed alphabets and languages, and rising, empty cites.
Of oil fields that leak and pollute, and sea borders that are in dispute.
One photo, of an abandoned library, is absolutely heartbreaking, but then you read the caption in the back, and learn it used to be a Jewish synagogue, which was decommissioned by the Soviets, and turned into a library, only to be left to rot, once the Cyrillic books were no longer relevant.
Everywhere, we see painted backdrops, to distract from the surroundings, and the text speaks of shiny facades added to crumbling Soviet buildings, or fancy buildings built for a world of rich people that likely never came. (Or will never come? I’m getting confused by time, and with my tenses, this deep into lockdown.)
There are tiny houses, meant to be destroyed for new construction, and an overwhelming sense of decline.
Still, a young man works out on improvised exercise equipment, a young woman has a fancy pocketbook in a washed-out-looking restaurant, and another young man stands before a computer with the word Democracy visible.
Nothing about this book was made for America in #2020, yet it all feels like a cautionary tale.
On a happier note, it is late-summer now, so at least you can go for a walk in the evening, if you wear your mask.
(Sorry, that’s all the optimism I’ve got for today.)
If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at email@example.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.
Donald Trump has unleashed secret police upon America.
For all my repeated criticism of the man, over many years, that is not a sentence I ever thought I’d write.
But here we are.
They are secret, because their uniforms are unmarked, and they have apparently been pulling people off the street into unmarked vans in Portland.
Now, he’s sending them to cities like Chicago and Albuquerque, because he sees his best shot at re-election dependent upon an uprising of Red State voters, who fear for their lives.
(By implying that urban chaos will soon be coming to their small town or cluster of farms.)
How did we get here?
One of the biggest causes of our national decline over the last 4 years has been the language of dehumanization.
It began during the 2016 Presidential campaign, in which Trump was willing to use name calling, and nasty language, in a way that no “normal” politician ever had.
Whether calling Mexicans rapists, insulting a Muslim Gold Star family, or saying, of Republican war hero John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump’s insult comic schtick was entertaining to a certain type of American, and it propelled him to the White House.
Whether or not a person likes Trump, and supports him politically, I doubt there are many, if any, Americans alive who would suggest he has attempted to unite the United States at any point in the last 4 years.
I’ve written about Divide and Conquer before, but really, it’s not a theory: it’s happening in real time. He has attacked cities, and “Blue” politicians all along, while denigrating minorities, banning Muslims from entering the country, jailing brown children, and defending White Supremacists.
And it’s worked so well that liberals are turning on each other by fighting over racial and/or gender-based lines, often trying to takedown those who don’t conform to a specific set of beliefs. (Making it that much easier to be conquered.)
Years of calling people libtards and fascists, thugs and gestapo, and now we find ourselves in #2020, with one faction of the country aggressively risking the health of others over a belief in science, and people who label themselves as Anti-fascists are being deemed fascists by others.
Everyone keeps calling the other side “they,” and there is serious risk in that, as “us” only refers to “our” side.
And the words that Trump encourages, which make people less than human, (as the Nazis did,) make it that much easier to treat people as less than human.
To risk giving them a deadly disease, because they’re just Blue Staters anyway. (As when conservative Texans come to Northern New Mexico and refuse to obey our laws around face coverings.)
We find ourselves at a crossroads, where protestors believe they can engage in destructive behavior, because it’s justified against Trump’s evil, and then he responds by sending in federal police, (because the military already refused, after the Lafayette Square debacle,) and we all sit here, holding our collective breath, wondering what will happen next?
Part 2: The fighting instinct
I used the phrase “takedown” a few paragraphs ago, but really, how many of you know where it comes from?
It’s a wrestling term, now utilized in BJJ and MMA as well, in which one person attacks the legs and waist of another person, and then either trips or throws them to the ground.
(Including the vicious body slam.)
I have both executed single and double-leg takedowns, and been the recipient of them, and they are violent as hell.
It’s a real thing, and another example of language migrating from the literal to the metaphorical.
I mention it here, though, as I just finished binge-watching “Kingdom” on Netflix, and cannot emphasize enough how good the show was.
It is set in the SoCal world of MMA, (in Venice, where I almost moved in 2001,) and ran on a DirectTV streaming platform from 2014-17, which means that pretty much no one saw it.
I became aware of it in 2017, when I was doing some research on the actor Frank Grillo, but lacking DirectTV, I couldn’t watch it, and promptly forgot about it.
As soon as it came to Netflix this month, I jumped at the chance, and have rarely seen a better example of storytelling and acting fused together.
Because it’s a show about fighting, featuring very talented but not super-famous actors, (Like Grillo, Matt Lauria from “Friday Night Lights,” Kiele Sanchez from “The Purge: Anarchy,” Joanna Going from some 90’s movies, and the brilliant Jonathan Tucker,) I’m pretty sure most people would dismiss it as pulp entertainment without giving it a second thought.
However, like other superlative genre fare before it, (“The Wire,” “The Sopranos,”) Byron Balasco, the creator, managed to tell real, human, empathetic stories in a way that mesmerized, perhaps BECAUSE of the limitations of his genre structure. (To be clear, I’m not saying it’s as good as those TV pantheon shows.)
And I read in an interview that they were pretty much left alone, to do what they wanted, which comes across in the creative freedom they expressed.
Alcohol addiction, sex trafficking, the cycle of familial abuse, homophobia, drug addiction, mental illness, class difference, death, the penal system, and corruption; all are woven together deftly alongside positive values like love, loyalty, and determination.
It was just so good. (Though I’m pretty sure if it were shot in #2020, they would have a more diverse cast.)
One core message that comes through, again and again, is that fighting is a mentality, not just a sport.
Some people are trained to fight, and are often born into families that reinforce it.
(Like Trump, according to the new tell-all by his niece Mary Trump.)
Fighting perpetuates itself, and it requires a tremendous amount of discipline to not fight, when the situation presents itself.
Part 3: For example
For example, I recently came through the most difficult period of my marriage, as we diagnosed my wife with clinical depression in late-March, and were told the recovery would be rocky.
In the beginning of July, my wife went through a rage phase, where all sorts of repressed anger came to the surface, and for a few days, it was all directed at me.
Despite the fact that I was her support system, and she credited me with saving her life, I had said unkind things during the late stages of her illness, and the beginning of her recovery.
I used nasty words, thinking I was justified, because of the hurt her illness caused, and she did not call me on it.
It seemed OK.
But clearly, it was not.
When her anger finally flared, it was palpable, and scared the shit out of me, causing anxiety attacks.
With the help of some very good friends, (you know who you are,) we got through it.
But the key moment was when my amazing friend Ed advised me that the only way to break the cycle was to not bounce the anger back to her.
Not to absorb it into my body, which would make me sick, but to essentially channel it directly into the ground.
To admit what I said, apologize with kindness, and then not aggress back.
We never mentioned Jesus, at any point, but really, it was the theory of turning the other cheek.
And as a martial artist, I’m familiar with the concept of getting power from the ground, so the idea of sending this energy back into the ground, rather than rebounding it, made sense to me.
Thankfully, it worked.
In the weeks since, two readers picked fights with me, in emails responding to my column, and in each case, I used the same strategy.
Rather than perpetuating the anger, and participating in a fight, I refused, and responded with kindness, respect and peace.
It was clear that in each case, the other person was taken aback, and a bit frustrated that I chose not to engage in a disagreement based upon anger, but it defused the situation, and that was that.
On a macro level, that’s essentially what Americans need to do, if we’re going to heal from the misery of the Trump era. (If, god willing, he loses in November and moves on.)
We will somehow need to find the common humanity between political parties, between urban and rural, between cosmopolitan and sequestered.
The alternative is that we eat ourselves, and then eat each other.
Part 4: Another Example
Here’s what it looks like when you respond to anger with anger.
For example, last week, I saw a tweet by my colleague Jörg Colberg, which drew attention to an Instagram spat involving the renown SoCal artist John Divola.
Apparently, William Camargo, a Latinx artist from Orange County, made a post about an image he shot that was a satire of, or homage to, or derivation of a series by John Divola, who’s from just up the way in Venice.
It references a series I’ve written about before, as I was lucky to interview John twice, for VICE and the NYT, and have spent time with him in person as well.
In fact, he gave me a copy of the book, which is named after the series: “As Far As I Could Get.”
Divola is known for conceptual rigor, and humor at times, and constantly wrong-footed me during our interviews, (another fighting term,) because his vision of what his work was about was always different than my expectations.
In this series, he set up his camera in the isolated California desert, set the timer, and then sprinted away from the camera, to see how far he could get before the shutter clicked.
I think it’s funny, as it speaks to a certain futility of the human condition.
Over time, as he aged, he would presumably cover less distance, but it was always a strategy, and done in an empty desert locale.
William Camargo, the artist who satirized him, set up a scenario in which he tried to see how far he could get from the swap meet parking lot to the liquor store, in ten seconds.
Seen by itself, I thought it was a smart update, an excellent photograph, and by re-contextualizing the scenario, was a takeoff on John’s idea, rather than a ripoff.
Kudos, for sure.
But in his caption, he tore into John for the fact that running is a sport of white privilege, and misrepresented the structure of Divola’s project.
William Camargo, who is a part of Diversify Photo, and espouses the language of the current progressive movement, chose to insult John Divola, who is white, in a public forum.
Isn’t it possible to draw attention to the fact that in certain communities, it is not safe to run, (a la Ahmaud Arbery, who’s mentioned,) without the concomitant need to attack someone else?
Especially when Divola’s work was not actually about jogging?
I get that it is fashionable at the moment, to “takedown” old white guys, (I critiqued Martin Parr last year, don’t forget,) but it was not the Instagram post that got John Divola in hot water.
It was his reaction.
He responded with anger, and put words in writing, in public, that looked really, really bad in #2020.
Indubitably, I am not defending what he wrote.
In fact, I just spent a whole bunch of words suggesting that letting anger go by, rather than fighting back, can be transformative.
(Not always: AOC was totally right to defend herself from that Florida man’s awful comments.)
But the glee with which some people then further attacked John Divola, as if it proved that all old white guys are unhinged, was equally unsettling.
And that is my final point for today.
If we on the left refuse to see the value of others like us, creative, passionate, liberal people of all races and genders, than how will we ever help heal these rifts with the rest of America?
Do we expect other people to do it for us?
(And there I go using “us” again. It’s so complicated!)
That’s what George Peppard used to say, as Hannibal Smith, in the cheesy 80’s TV show “The A-Team.”
Then, the character was played by Liam Neeson in a pretty-bad movie version of the TV show, which came out in 2010.
This morning, on Twitter, I stumbled upon a video of the comedian Frank Caliendo doing a Liam Neeson impression, pretending to be his character from “Taken,” (which was shot in France,) in which Caliendo-as-Neeson threatens to give a telemarketer a bad Yelp review.
I also read in the New York Times today that France would soon require all people to wear masks indoors.
(Elsewhere, I read that a French bus driver was beaten to death for asking his riders to mask up.)
In the Washington Post, I saw that the Governor of Georgia would bar all cities and municipalities from requiring people to wear masks, during our American-dumpster-fire-outbreak.
In a normal year, many Americans of means might be taking their European holiday right now, but of course Americans are actually banned from Europe, due to our anti-scientific, highly politicized handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our leader, Donald J Trump, has made such a mess of things that I’ve had to officially apologize to my friend, about whom I wrote in this column early in the year, because Trump now does have mass deaths on his hands, if not nearly as many as Adolph Hitler.
DeSean Jackson, a football player for the Philadelphia Eagles, recently made an Instagram post in which he incorrectly attributed a quote to Hitler, while proudly promoting an Anti-Semitic agenda.
And also this morning, on Facebook, a friend posted that she and her family would be moving to Germany, for the rest of #2020, so their son could attend school, and have a “normal” life.
This same friend belongs to a family that famously fled Nazi Germany and came to New Mexico to found a ski resort, in which certain trails are named after members of a failed coup to take out Hitler.
The coup was featured in a movie starring Tom Cruise, who became mega-famous in “Top Gun,” in which Val Kilmer also became a super-star for playing Iceman, but then Kilmer lost a big part of his New Mexico ranch due to The Great Recession, which was the worst American economy until now.
Are you confused yet?
If so, my plan has indeed come together, because after a week off, I wanted to see if I could open this column in a manner that truly reflected the insanity of the moment.
Things change from second to second these days, and my fellow Americans are acting so irrationally that they’re willing to risk killing each other to prove a political point.
For example, in Red River, New Mexico, a town known at “Little Texas,” (which you can read about in a Reuters article written by my son’s former youth soccer coach,) apparently a man walked into the local health clinic, with Covid symptoms, but not wearing a mask, and he tested positive along with 3 other people, so that now the clinic has been shut for 14 days, and the town no longer has a functioning medical office, despite being in a valley surrounded by mountains, cut off from the rest of the world.
Like I said, welcome to #2020.
Part 2: Making some sense
The American Revolution was really about money, even if Freedom was a part of the mix as well.
Rich guys like George Washington didn’t like paying so many taxes to the King of England, given that the crown didn’t offer too much back in the deal.
We used to worship Old George here in America, but now he’s been cancelled because he was a slave owner.
Donald Trump chose to give a maskless speech on the 4th of July, to a maskless white audience, at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills, on land that was stolen from the Lakota people, despite treaties promising them their ancestral homeland in perpetuity.
(Those treaties were not worth the paper on which they were printed.)
As to the white men enshrined in stone on that mountain?
Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, and in the current moment, are considered assholes. (Rightly so, I guess. We may have idolized them for centuries, but slavery was simply inexcusable.)
Teddy Roosevelt was a racist, and now even Abe Lincoln has been criticized, because he promoted the stealing of Native American land in the MidWest.
This section of the column was titled “Making Some Sense,” but I’m not sure that I have.
Part 3. Follow the money
I was trying, before jumping off the rails, to bring attention to the fact that money and power are, and have always been, intricately connected.
It’s the real reason that the Washington Redskins are finally changing their highly racist, despicable nickname: sponsors like Fedex came after team owner Daniel Snyder’s money, so he folded.
That is literally the only reason he did the right thing.
Money buys power, and historically, power is enmeshed with class.
Here in America, while we’re occasionally willing to discuss race, and are often obsessed with money, class is barely allowed into the cultural conversation.
It’s the hush hush, as nobody wants to be considered lower class, the middle class has been shrinking for decades, and the Upper Class likes to stick to its own, and does a damn good job of keeping everyone else out.
I was reminded of that while reading my friend Kevin Kwan’s new book, “Sex and Vanity,” which both features and skewers the world’s jet-setting .1%, at a fabulous wedding in Capri, on New York’s Upper East Side, and in the Hamptons as well.
Kevin updated E.M. Forster’s acclaimed novel “A Room with a View,” while simultaneously examining entrenched racism in America’s chicest Upper Class apartments and beach clubs.
(It’s a fun read for summer too.)
But it really resonated with me, as I was first introduced to the New York Upper Class as a freshman at Duke, and my clumsy attempt at social climbing pretty much ruined my college experience, and changed the course of my life.
Part 4. The Photobook
Even though I took a week off from writing, and am definitely hopped up on super-high-caffeine coffee, this column is actually building somewhere.
It ties together threads from above, and even from my last column before I took my break, in which I mentioned the students from various ICP programs that I reviewed via Zoom a few weeks ago.
Well, a while back, my former photo professor, Allen Frame, who also teaches at ICP, wrote to see if I’d be interested in potentially reviewing a photo book by his friend, and former ICP student Martine Fougeron, and I said sure.
(She and I were once in a show together in the Bronx, but I wasn’t able to attend, so we’ve never met or been in contact.)
I opened the book today, and was immediately struck by the fact that she chronicles the lives of her two boys, Nicolas and Adrien, as they grow up.
It hit me quickly, as these last few months, my children, Theo and Amelie, have been each others’ best friends, companions, and social networks, as we live mostly quarantined on our farm at the edge of the Wild West.
The boys featured in the book, however, don’t share much in common with my kids, beyond the fact that my daughter has a French name.
“Nicolas & Adrien” was published by Steidl in 2019, which is always the mark of art world insiders. And the cover features scarlet and gold, the colors of Gryffindor house in the Harry Potter novels, and wouldn’t you know, but I’m reading Book 3 to Amelie, but I’m not sure if we should keep it up, now that JK Rowling has come out as an Anti-Trans activist on Twitter.
(I promise, no more off topic rants in this column.)
From the opening statement, in which Ms. Fougeron writes of her sons attending the Lycée Français de New York, and summering at the family home in the South of France, the book gives off whiffs of the Upper Class vibe.
From the chic fashion within, the strong chins, the subtly entitled body language, I was pretty sure the book represented a look inside the 1%, and as it builds, my suspicions were correct.
There is a reference to Le Bal des Debutantes, which also comes up in “Sex and Vanity,” and the end statement discusses the multi-generational wealth in which Ms. Figueron was raised in France.
That doesn’t make the book less interesting, though, as our prurient desires to see behind the velvet rope also drove work by Slim Aarons, and Tina Barney, among others. (Or even my much mentioned buddy Hugo, whose series, “Upper Class,” was his thesis show at Pratt in 2004.)
This book begins in 2005 though, and follows Nicolas and Adrien as they grow up, changing for the camera, smoking weed and frolicking with their good looking friends.
It it summer escapism?
I’m not sure.
Kevin’s book clearly satirizes the people with whom he fraternizes, and when “Nicolas & Adrien” depicts one of the boys in his Occupy Wall Street phase, I wasn’t sure if the irony was intended.
(I almost choked on my tea, which I drank before my coffee.)
Still, I found this book worth writing about, and recommending, as it crosses the threshold of making me think, making me want to write, and it’s also well-made, so that’s how we got here.
To stick my landing, I’d like to mention that the rich have always ruled the world, and likely always will.
Whenever they’ve been taken down, like when heads rolled in France, or when communists took over in Russia, they’ve always been replaced by other people who like to keep the money and power for themselves.
It’s why all those Chinese politicians are billionaires these days, (which Kevin chronicled in “China Rich Girlfriend”) or why the Soviet leaders kept all the good food and pretty dachas for themselves.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t press against that selfish mentality, (because we must,) but based on the history of human civilization, we should at least understand how big a fight we’re facing, to undo millennia of entrenched inequality.
I’ve been writing some intricate columns lately, which have required me to spend a lot of time ingesting media in a toxic environment.
So I’m taking next week off, for my annual summer break, and will do my best to recharge the batteries so I can continue to put my finger on the cultural pulse for you.
I’ll have some more book reviews, travel articles from the winter, and then yesterday, I did online portfolio reviews with students at ICP in New York, and saw so much good photography and art that I’ll be writing a “The Best Work I Saw at…” post for you soon too.
As I’m isolated out here in my field, it was a blessing to have so many fun, cool conversations with a talented and diverse group of artists.
In eight reviews, I spoke with six women, and two men of color, so it felt like the most perfect experience for #2020.
The first artist showed me some incredible water color drawings/paintings, and we discussed the idea that it’s important to find the right medium to express our thoughts in the most appropriate way.
(Some ideas or emotions don’t need to be photographs.)
And just last week, I had another deep, intricate conversation with an African-American friend/colleague, in which we got into all the real issues, in a calm, positive way. (It may lead to an interview, so I’m keeping it cryptic for the moment.)
One thing he said, though, was so relevant, I want to share it here.
He suggested, bluntly, that if you asked 100 photographers to name their top 10 in the History of Photography, there was a strong chance almost no Black photographers would be chosen at all.
The established canon skews super-duper-heavily towards white people. (And men in general.)
It was hard to argue, as I began to think of my “favorite” names, and wasn’t sure I would pick a Black photographer, unless I were trying to front.
Which brings me to today’s book, “The History of Photography in Pen and Ink,” by Charles Woodard, published by A-Jump books in 2009. (Right in the eye tooth of the Great Recession, and given to me by someone who is no longer my friend, it’s been so long.)
I thought of this book, at first, because it is light and funny, and I knew I needed to keep it short today. (I rediscovered the book while searching my shelves a couple of months ago.)
Plus, after the NYT did that deep dive into Robert Frank’s famous image from “The Americans,” I figured you’d all like to see one of his other classics rendered as a simplistic drawing.
But these days, even reaching for a cute-little-production led to deeper thoughts, as I turned the pages, and counted how few women were included.
As I neared the end, my friend’s words echoed in my mind, as I recalled one Japanese photographer within, but no other obvious artists of color.
In #2020, if Charles Woodard decided to do this project from scratch, I expect we’d see the inclusion of some Latin American photographers, like Manuel Alvarez Bravo or Graciela Iturbide.
Maybe Gordon Parks would be in there, or Carrie Mae Weems?
I’d like to think so.
But the book, cute as it is, is evidence that our shared history, the History of Photography, (as it’s traditionally been taught,) does not include enough diversity.
Surely this will change, now, and hopefully it won’t mean the exclusion of some of the great Jewish-American photographers, or all those amazing Germans and French artists.
Maybe, just maybe, we can write bigger books, that include all the great photographic artists in history, from across the world, and show respect for what he, she or they had to say?
Personally, I don’t. And I wrote as much a few weeks ago, when I claimed I’m not racist.
Given all the supposedly controversial things I write here, I’ve expected someone to come after me, at some point, and pull something out of context.
And it may yet happen.
But I also believe that some people, (frankly a lot of people,) don’t hate and disrespect others based solely on the color of their skin, or their ethnicity.
(And I’ve written about the evils of structural racism many times.)
If you’ve been reading all along, you know I’m happy to admit my failings, and have chronicled my own privileged youth, so I try to keep it real for you each week.
Hell, I even called out the NYT for building a super-diverse room, at their annual portfolio review, but encouraging conditions where each racial/ethnic group stuck to its own.
What’s the point of that?
Maybe it’s because I’m a “bohemian artsy type,” but for me, few things are more pleasurable than hanging out with people from different parts of the world, or different cultures.
As I wrote last week, when we come together, it creates an energy that is as addictive as it is infectious. Of course, the one thing that can get in the way is one’s political philosophy, because while I try to treat each person with respect, that falls apart when we’re talking about people who don’t respect others.
(Like all the Texans and Arizonans who won’t value other people’s health by wearing masks or social distancing in their home states, and then come to New Mexico and disregard our public health ordinances. Fuck those guys!)
I’m on this rant for two reasons, which will hopefully become obvious before this column is done.
First off, I came across a story on Twitter yesterday, where the actress Jenny Slate left a Netflix show, “Big Mouth” because she had been hired and paid to be the voice actress for a character who was half Black, and half Jewish-American.
Truth: I’d never seen the show, and typically find Jenny Slate to be annoying every time I’ve seen her on screen.
I’m literally not a fan.
But her mea culpa letter on Instagram felt like something from a Maoist re-education camp, in which she wrote:
“I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play “Missy” because her mom is Jewish and White- as am I. But “Missy” is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people. I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing “Missy,” I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”
Cultural Revolution propaganda poster
Have we gotten to the point where an actress accepting a job a few years ago, in which the character is 50% her ethnicity, means she was complicit in “the erasure of Black people”?
I’m having a hard time with that one, even though it’s obvious now that such jobs need to go to Black people.
Couldn’t she have stepped down gracefully, doing the right thing in letting Black actors voice Black characters, without the massive and awkward public apology?
Especially because I watched an egregious act of racism on Top Chef All Stars this week, yet I found no mention of it anywhere in the media.
My wife and I were bingeing the series, right before the finale, and came upon an episode where the chefs were pitching concepts for a restaurant, with the top 2 chosen for the traditional “Restaurant Wars” episode.
One chef, Eric Adjepong, a Ghanian-American, pitched a restaurant called “Middle Passage,” which was in honor of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Food from Eric Adjepong’s website
The judges passed.
Another chef, white-guy Kevin Gillespie, from Georgia, pitched a concept called “Country Captain,” which promised “Plantation” food, and he WAS chosen.
Primarily because his main dish, the eponymous Country Captain, was the first American version of chicken curry, as the necessary spices were brought over in the 19th Century.
Eric Adjepong was actually the chef who was eliminated that week, and one reason, (beyond his food not being good enough,) was that the judges called his concept confused, because he wanted his restaurant to have both fine dining quality food and causal service.
They could not comprehend such an idea.
One judge, former Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, from Chicago, actually said to him that it sounded like he didn’t want his service to be “uppity.”
To recap: Top Chef supported a concept about Plantation food, with spices brought over along with the slave trade, and cut one of only two African-American contestants, while using the word “uppity” while chopping the Black guy, and rewarding a chef who has a restaurant literally called “Gunshow.”
(As in, the only places where Americans can buy guns without background checks.)
Say what you will about Jenny Slate, but I checked out “Big Mouth” this morning for a minute, to see if she had done the voice acting equivalent of “blackface,” but she had not.
(It was kind of a nerd voice.)
How does one group of actors self-excoriate, when the other act of racism isn’t even in the public consciousness?
Maybe because systemic racism is so systemic that most people don’t know or care that it’s there until mass protest movements form?
(And because legitimate, self-aware artists can sometimes get caught up in a wave of shame.)
Jenny Slate, and Nick Kroll, who created “Big Mouth,” are both Jewish-Americans, and “our” group has been the victim of hatred for Millennia. (Nick Kroll also issued a public apology.)
Frankly, I think it’s time all the rational, cool people unite against our common enemy, Donald J Trump, (and his maskless hordes,) and make sure to vote the asshole out, no matter what!
Part 2: The Good Stuff
I swear, today, my goal was to write about the amazing art I saw at the Rijksmuseum, back in Amsterdam in February.
I was lucky enough to get press access, in the only free hour I had, and was there for the brilliant, inspirational Caravaggio/Bernini exhibition.
As I’d learned about art in Rome, back in 1997, of course these two are among my favorite artists of all time.
The best of the best.
Then, getting to roam through the Rembrandts and the Frans Hals paintings, and the Vermeers as well…
I saw so much great shit.
And I want to show it to you in a nice set of images.
But I also remember walking through Amsterdam, and overhearing a tour guide instructing his followers in a bit of the city’s history.
The reason all those great paintings exist is that the Dutch had the Western World’s first middle class, due to their Republic in the 17th Century, because of all their global raiding.
And they took part in the slave trade too!
They colonized like motherfuckers, from Indonesia to South America to my hometown of Holmdel, New Jersey.
The Dutch, these days, are the most progressive, cool, open-minded people out there.
But it’s mostly because their ancestors were a bunch of resource-and-people stealing assholes 400 years ago.
And most of the great art, through the Millenia, was made in service of money and power.
I’ve taught art history, and I’ll tell you, almost all the good old shit is basically religious and/or political propaganda.
The spoils of war are what we worship.
How do we reconcile that?
I’m not sure we can.
But if anyone starts trying the burn down the museums, and the paintings, I’ll pull out my martial arts and try to defend our collective history.
(Or at least, I tell myself I will.)
Because art is about creation, and it’s one of the few things we can hold up against centuries of destruction, and death, and feel good about.
Maybe if the museums, (at least in America,) which are supported by billionaires and oligarchs, were themselves less a part of the structural racism problem, we’d already be living in a better country?
We’ve reached a point in our history where there is no longer any such thing as “our history.”
How do I know?
Because the statues are coming down, and the guns are going up.
This week, here in New Mexico, someone got shot at a protest in Albuquerque.
A protest in front of an art museum, where a bunch of protestors were attacking an intricate sculpture that had been dedicated to the colonial history of the Spanish conquistadores.
I stood in front of the art piece, in 2018, filled with awe, because it actually contains an entire wagon train, filled with all sorts of colonists, and pack animals, and also includes the family names of all the Spaniards who crossed the world to take over New Mexico.
The protestors were mainly interested in the lead guy, Juan de Oñate, who colonized New Mexico, massacring the indigenous population as a result, including chopping off the feet of many a Native American.
The guy was a monster.
But for centuries, he was revered by the Spanish-descended locals, and despised by the Native Americans.
As I’ve written here before, then the United States came in, took the land from Mexico and the Native Americans, and became the enemy of both.
But at this protest, there were apparently some heavily armed right wing counter-protestors, calling themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard, who menaced the left wingers with the implication of violence.
Which then became actual violence when a right wing Latino shot someone.
And then people asked, where were the police?
Except so many of these protests have been about defunding the police, when they haven’t been about our criminal President, or systematic racism.
Who will protect us from the heavily armed right wingers, if not the heavily armed (often right wing) police forces?
People are shooting in the streets to defend one set of stories against another.
And to be clear, I have no love for Oñate, and think it’s wrong to deify monsters.
I’m just saying, we’re way, way past Rodney King’s cry of “Can’t we all just get along?”
Part 2. The Middle Part
As I joked in the column two weeks ago, George Washington is now seen as a bad guy, for owning slaves, despite the fact that Americans have revered him for centuries as the father of this country.
I’ve written many, many times that American society was built on the twin evils of slavery, and the genocide of Native America, but that history, (Howard Zinn style,) is now in a war with the one that believes White Christians have always run the show, done what they wanted, and expect to continue with that deal, such as it works for them.
So I ask you, where do we go from here?
Without any sense of a unifying force, how does it get better?
Where is the hope?
That is the question I asked myself today, searching desperately for a column idea, because deadlines are deadlines.
Content must be provided.
Inspiration came, from the most unlikely of sources.
Instagram, brought to you by Mark Zuckerberg, a man who loves money and power so much that, even as a Jewish-American, he has no compunction against empowering the kind of right wing psychopaths that would like to see all Jews dead.
Say what now?
I was scrolling through Instagram, literally grasping for any sort of hope, and there it was.
Just waiting for me to notice.
Jennique and her family at the KETURA shop
Because, as you don’t know, one of the absolute highlights of my trip to Amsterdam last winter was the time I spent at KETURA, a super-hip streetwear shop, and I came home with this awesome, gender-neutral jacket, that may or may not make me a cultural appropriator every time I put it on.
KETURA jacket, “Navajo Red” fence, blue sky, and Arizona fire smoke
(Yes, I’m wearing it right now.)
Part 3. The story
I’d heard that there was a ferry to take me to a photo museum in Amsterdam, and I knew it left near the back of Central Station, because I saw the boats on my desperate search for a bathroom. (Previously covered.)
So as I was walking through the station, on a a fact finding mission, my eyes were Shanghaied by the amazing, colorful fabrics I saw in a blur to my right. (I was walking really fast, hence the blur.)
I immediately changed course, and headed right inside the shop. As it happens, there are some amazing streetwear stores in the middle of the train station, including the uber-trendy “Daily Paper,” where I also got to know some of the folks. (Including a cool guy named Godsend.)
But as soon as I entered KETURA, I saw the owner, Jennique and a her children, hanging out.
She could not have been more friendly, grounded, and cool if she tried.
I began trying things on, just because, but they were mostly too small for me, as even though they’re unisex, they’re (probably) more intended for women.
As the Instagram post states, Jennique is Surinamese, as the Dutch colonized the South American country years ago. And she actually lives in Antwerp, Belgium, and commutes to Amsterdam, where her twin sister lives.
Her husband is Moroccan, so his North African country was colonized by the French.
The kids speak Dutch/Flemish, I think, or maybe just French, but probably both.
They don’t speak English, so while at first they were suspicious of me, as I kept smiling and being nice, eventually we made friends.
While I was chatting with Jennique, at one point, she got distracted, and then distraught, as a man was “this” close to stealing some of her things, and running, but she stopped him at just the right moment.
That was stressful.
I asked her to hold the one jacket that fit me, as I was headed out on an adventure around the city, and then I came back later to buy it.
Such a great price, like maybe 35 Euros?
She gave me a beautiful orange scarf, as a gift for my wife, and then I went back the next day to buy a big piece of fabric to protect some of the leftover sheets I took back from the printer. (So they wouldn’t get ruined in my luggage.)
Scarf and fabric
Of course, I’d already dropped the book pages once, in the Utrecht train station, while I was trying to protect them from the rain.
(So I guess I just didn’t want to get them MORE ruined.)
Jennique and her sister were so nice, and positive. Hanging out in the shop, chatting about fashion and art, and making smiley faces at her children, who could not understand a word I said, was an energizing experience.
It was the absolute pure essence of how humans can make each other better, and stronger, when we value difference, and look for connection.
And she assured me the jacket looked good on me, and that I could pull it off. (Also, I told her I’d let my wife wear it sometimes.)
Before this moment, I haven’t worn it once, because there has been nowhere to go, the last few months.
No cities to prowl.
No parties to attend.
No hipsters to impress.
Oddly, all the things I tried on next door at “Daily Paper” didn’t look quite right.
The colors, while stylish, didn’t match my skin tone.
And now that I get all their ads on Instagram and Facebook, and see all their models are Black, I understand the clothes aren’t (really) meant for me.
What about my KETURA jacket though?
Do I pull it off?
While America is clearly not the melting pot we were promised, do we have any hope for a better future?
If so, we need to look not to our politicians, but to our artists.
It’s a slick new kind of brew, invented by an acquaintance, and gifted to me by a friend.
Jot, they call it, and it’s a bougie concentrate that comes in a glass bottle.
I’ve been using it to power up in the mornings lately, as I have taken some time off from my creativity enhancer, to which I often refer, but rarely name directly. (You may think of her as Maria.)
I’m not going too long today, because the world is fucking bonkers, and I’ve written a lot of heavy, intricate articles in the column lately.
Had I not woken up on the serious side of the bed today, I’d likely have tried to write something absurd, but then again, it would have failed.
Other than my comedian cousin, Ken Krantz, who manages to mine even this chaos for laughs, I just don’t have it in me. (Sample joke from his Facebook feed last night: “I picked a bad week to invest all of my money in racist statues.”)
Thankfully, today has provided me with some apt, and unmissable symbolism, so we’re going with the flow, instead of swimming against it.
As you saw at the outset, I’m leading with Trump, because even for him, the tweet was nonsensical.
He is, if I understand correctly, referring to his defense of Confederate statues, and history, in the media this week.
We have come full circle, in American history, to the point where the President of the United States is more proud of the losing side of the Civil War than he is the winners.
He more relates to the vanquished, racist, Southern, secessionist government than he does to the victorious one he leads.
I’d say Abe Lincoln is turning over in his grave, but I’m pretty sure he’s actually up in heaven planning an invasion to take back the White House.
Can you imagine, Lincoln and FDR, rallying the troops, while telling George Washington he has to stay home because he was a slave owner? Or was GW denied entry into the happy side of the afterlife because he owned other humans?
Does the good outweigh the bad for Old George?
(It’s not for me to say.)
But in what I’d leave to coincidence, if the world weren’t so laden with symbolism at the moment, today, I opened a letter from one of my dearest friends, Edward Osowski, and I extracted a magazine article from August 1970.
Nearly 50 years old, and he saved it all this time, before gifting it to me.
Why me, and why now?
Because the “Evergreen Review” that month featured an insanely well written article, by John Lahr, about Richard Avedon’s major retrospective, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
As I’d like to keep it (kind of) short today, I’m going to photograph the entire article, and really hope you’ll take the time to enlarge the photos and read it.
It’s that good, and relevant.
People don’t write like that today, as I’m a well-respected critic, yet I fill these posts with bad words and pop culture references.
Sample quote: “In present postwar America, normality has become the nations’s most oppressive fantasy. The bourgeois dream is unheroic: life is organized to eliminate physical and spiritual risk.”
Or this: “Obsession is a way of coping with death, and this spiritual and psychic decay clings to modern America like a bad smell.”
Or this: “Society masks its neurosis with a compulsive misuse of power. The impulse is to eliminate dissent, and, in doing, to allow political fantasy to go unchallenged.”
Eliminate dissent, political fantasy?
How is this not referring to today?
Because what happened 50 years ago has come back around again, with the rage of 1970, due to the dumpster fire America was in the 1960’s, paralleling the shitstorm of #2020, in which the pent up anger of People of Color and Millennials in the 21st Century has combusted for all to see.
The Avedon portraits included in the article are pretty sublime, from the uncertainty in Ike’s eyes, the woe in Bogart’s, to the sad resignation of Marilyn Monroe.
Normally, I’d say he’s projecting it into the camera, for the audience, but in this case, I think he goes extra hard, because the man behind the camera was not straight.
Wow, is this a scary photograph.
I look at it, and it makes me feel awful, yet I have a hard time looking away.
And as we all know, back then, a man of Wallace’s racist pedigree was not able to ascend to the highest office in the land, but today, he has.
People compare Trump to Wallace all the time.
And will we let him stay there, or will we vote him out?
And who are we anyway?
Does America still have one “we,” or are we now two totally separate societies?
In the last week and a half, desperate for any sense of social life IRL, I attended an outdoor (safe distance) pizza dinner with my two teaching mentors, and we chatted for 3 hours.
But rather than satisfy my craving, it left me wanting, because it was one of those talks where everyone took their turn, said their bit, and then waited for their next turn.
Nobody but me asked any questions.
And I was accused of “not listening” by someone who was clearly… not listening.
Try as I might, I could not stir curiosity in them, and at one point, when my friend (in his early 70’s,) was so sure that we’d be in a Civil War in a few months, I asked him why he wasn’t planning to move.
He glared at me with anger, which I’d never seen directed my way before, and said, “You don’t know me very well! I’m going to fight. I’m ready to die in this new war that’s coming!”
Rather than lick my wounds and admit defeat, I set up another chat with another “wise old head,” and halfway through our outdoor hang-out, at his place, he dropped the “N” word in casual conversation.
Again, I ask you, WTF???
Each of the three guys told me stories about the riots and protests of the 60’s, but two of them could not make the right connections to today, IMO.
And the one who seemed to most “get it,” was the one who used the most racist word in America.
(In case you’re wondering, I let it slide with a clear, disapproving look the first time, and then I called him on it when it came up again.)
How do I land this column?
How do I keep it short?
Well, I’ll tell you, this review by John Lahr, and the photographs by Richard Avedon, inspired me. They gave me the sense that we have been here before, and the protest movement 50 years ago created change.
But then, looking back over the images, I realized something.
Each subject Avedon photographed, from artists to presidents to murderers to priests to daughters of the American Revolution, was white.
All of them.
So when we hear our colleagues, People of Color, screaming that they don’t have enough opportunities to be paid for their work, when they aren’t getting the jobs, we need to listen.
And I’d also argue that we might benefit more from uniting against a common enemy, racism/facism, than we will from fighting amongst ourselves.
Because the final weird thing that happened this week?
Last Friday, after a 4 hour Zoom party with my liberal, city-dwelling Hipster friends, all of whom were white, I joined the end of another party, with my cousin’s crew, and was among the last three men standing.
A mutual friend was also on the call, a 6’4″ African American guy I hadn’t seen in 15 years, and it turned out he was a Black Republican.
He told me how much he appreciated that I didn’t judge him for having his own opinions.
“I am more interested in creating bridges across which we can experience realities other than our own, whether it be those of marginalized people or not.” Eric Gyamfi
Eric Gyamfi, “Fixing Shadows” at FOAM
Part I. The Intro
Yes, it’s another one of those articles where I begin with a quote.
For all columns I’ve written over the years, I’ve only done that a handful of times.
Occasionally, it’s the right move.
It was hard to know where to go, in a week like this, because it feels like the Earth is shifting under our feet, minute to minute.
Just last Tuesday, I had a Zoom call with a bunch of my Antidote students, and life seemed at least a little normal.
Not NORMAL, obviously, but we were able to focus on life and work.
Coincidentally, there were folks in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Oakland, LA and Brooklyn.
Within a day or two, almost everyone but me was living in a world filled with riots and protests.
Just like when the pandemic dropped, it seemed a new reality had been created, fully formed, and it was not like the one that came before.
Oh, by the way, almost everyone on the call was white.
Part 2. What to say?
I find myself in the odd position of having already written about almost all of the underlying causes of this new reality, in this column, over the last 8.5 years.
Those of you who have been reading all along know that via photo books, exhibitions, and travel experiences, in my opening rants, I’ve covered systemic racism, class exploitation, Donald Trump, and America’s disgusting history of oppression.
All while trying to maintain a sense of optimism about the future of the country, and the world.
And while I’m obviously a Jewish-American, I’ve done the best I can to empathize with, and humanize, people from around the world.
Male, female, and other genders.
I do the best I can to keep it real, and check my bias at the door, but given the privilege with which I grew up, I know there are some experiences I can’t “know.”
As a Caucasian in the suburbs of New Jersey, I had safety, security, and could walk into a store, or down the street, without anyone profiling me.
(With my big nose, I did hear Jewish jokes, but that’s not the same thing.)
It was all pretty chill for me in Jersey until 2003, when I was began my MFA thesis project at Pratt, which required repeated visits to my hometown of Holmdel, NJ.
Given that 9/11 had happened only 2 years prior, and that the suburbs were known for quiet streets, simply walking along, minding my own business, taking pictures with an early version digital camera, I became a target of the police.
Twice, I was stopped, and harassed, because I had a pony tail, a goatee, and a camera in my hand.
Garage, circa 1720
Junior High School Gym
Eventually, my Aunt, who lived in town, reached out to the Chief of Police, and got me an official letter, claiming I was a former town resident, and had his permission to be there.
That alone is a mark of privilege.
But then, a couple of months before we moved away in 2005, I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle’s home, and when we pulled up in front, Jessie and I were arguing a bit, so we stayed in the car for two minutes to sort out our business, before going inside.
After the two minutes, we looked up and saw a police car.
They pulled up, stopped, got out, and approached the car.
By now, I should mention that I had a black Chevy blazer, in decent shape, and the dented back bumper would have been out of their view anyway.
But we had New York license plates, and it was not a Mercedes. Or a BMW.
Or a Bentley.
That was enough, and when they approached, and started asking questions, we told them who we were, and why we were there.
I grew up in town, and graduated near the top of my class. I attended the elementary school that was only two hundred yards behind us.
They profiled us as hippies, undesirables, and told us they would not leave until we were let into the house.
I was scared, even though I’d grown up in Holmdel, and knew my family would open the door.
It was a terrible feeling, and when I complained to my Uncle, he said, “Good, I’m glad they stopped you. People like you don’t live here, so it’s their job to keep an eye out.”
People like you.
This is a true story.
And though I still love my Uncle very much, he is, in fact, a Republican.
Part 3. Getting to the point
I could tell you that my son has been discriminated against in his school, because he’s white.
He had to defend himself in fights, multiple times, and then got cut from the 6th grade basketball team, because it was Hispanics and Native Americans only.
His friends even admitted it to him, openly, because everyone knows that the white kids play soccer.
I’ve felt plenty of racism here too, over the last 25 years, but at least I know it comes from resentment of American oppression.
It’s more what the color of my skin represents, rather than the skin itself.
It represents power, and the fact that America took this territory from Mexico.
Which is why, despite the anecdotes I just shared, I have no illusions that I know what it’s like to be an African-American man in America.
I try to imagine the feeling, but that’s as far as I’ll get.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from writing politically here, for years, nor has it blunted my desire to speak truth to power when I can.
Part 4. I thought you were getting to the point
I want to write more about Amsterdam for you, to joke about the fun I had, and tell you how I almost died.
But it doesn’t feel right.
Rather, I went back through my photographs, to jog my memory a bit, and thank the art gods, I have just the right thing for today.
The opening quote, which I did my best to illuminate from my own perspective, comes from Eric Gyamfi, a young Ghanian photographer who won the Foam 2019 Paul Huf award.
Because the next set of galleries represented one of the best photo exhibitions I’ve seen in years, and while it was perfect for the moment, (pre-pandemic,) it’s even more appropriate now. (During the protests and riots.)
As you’ll see in the photos, and video, the walls were covered with thousands of portraits of an African male.
(If Gyamfi were from here in the US, I’d say African-American, but he is not.)
They’re cyanotypes, which made the rooms a sea of calming blue, but some of the pictures reminded me of post-lynching portraits.
These were not happy pictures.
Nor were they even images of a real person.
In a conceptual hook that is not as interesting to me as the results, the artist made composites of himself, and an experimental music composer, Julius Eastman, so they should all be at least a little different.
There were mirrors in several places, so course a selfie-obsessed populace was taking pictures the entire time.
I’d make sure to take some time to look at the walls, to “see” the art, and then I’d pull out the camera again, and set myself up in just the right spot.
Of all the other people I saw in the gallery, everyone was so busy shooting pictures of the work, (and themselves,) almost no one was looking at the walls without a camera.
At one point, someone even tried to explain to me where to stand, to get the best angles.
I have to imagine the artist expected this reaction.
But then again, the subject of the pictures was not even a real human.
Instead, a computer-generated hybrid.
More a stand in for all African, African-British, African-French, African-American men who are not seen as themselves.
They’re seen for the hoodie, or the stereotype.
courtesy of The Guardian
George Floyd, for example, was a massive guy. His friends called him a gentle giant, but Derek Chauvin didn’t see a man.
He saw a creature.
And he murdered the man, the human, because he didn’t see him as human.
Nobody would do what he did, on camera no less, kneel on a man’s neck until he’s dead, unless he thought he could get away with it.
(And I say this having been in choke holds before, and having applied them, in martial arts.)
That act, (along with the previous thousands, and the recently publicized murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,) so perfectly represented what it means to be a person of color in the United States.
It means you don’t get justice.
It means the cops can kill you, and people can harass you wherever you go, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The rage builds and builds.
Gets worse and worse.
And finally, when the match is lit, the fire erupts.
We may hate to see images of looting, it may fill us with dread, or maybe it doesn’t?
Either way, we can’t understand it without at least attempting to imagine how it would feel to be powerless against a system of oppression and state-sanctioned violence.
Of limited opportunities, and shitty health care.
Of insane proportions of Covid-19 deaths, compared to other races.
In the last 6 months alone, here in the column, I asked if China’s imprisonment of the Uighurs was any worse than the millions of African-Americans locked up here in the US.
And I wondered whether our culture, which always values the individual over the society, was in a more precarious position than we realized.
We’ve all heard the racist expression before, which has been applied to a host of ethnicities, and is clearly untrue.
So it’s ironic that my doppelgänger in the photo world doesn’t resemble me at all.
Like, we could not look much more different, while still being similarly sized humans.
To whom am I referring?
Jon Feinstein, my fellow Jewish Jonathan, who’s also a photographer, writer and educator.
We have EXACTLY the same job, though we’ve shown our work in different spaces, and written for different publications. (How he managed to keep a relationship going with the assholes at Vice, I’ll never know.)
Coincidence or not, I met Jon at my very first portfolio review, in Santa Fe in 2009, and we’ve stayed in touch casually ever since.
Even though we look different from one another, (and I’m the Gen-X’er to his elder Millennial,) there have been multiple times during my career when someone thanked me for curating their work into a show, or publishing it online, but it wasn’t me.
Of course when I tell them that, they always look at me funny, at first, as if I’m fucking with them.
“Sorry,” I’ll say. “That’s Jon Feinstein. My last name is Blaustein. We’re not the same person.”
It’s gotten to the point that Jon and I joke about doing a project together called Jonathan Something-stein, or Jonathan ______stein, because there must be more of us out there.
He even planned a prank where we’d swap tables at Filter Photo last September, and we were all set to do it, but he had to miss the festival due to a death in the family.
Needless to say, I respect and appreciate his taste, so when I got an email from him last month, suggesting I look into a friend’s project, I said sure, and then promptly forgot about it for a month or so.
Jon was recommending Robert Canali, a San Francisco-based, Toronto-born artist who’d started up a pandemic response project, and did it in just the right way. (I now know.)
All details I’ll share, henceforth, I learned yesterday, when I became a portrait sitter for the first time, (maybe ever,) and the process was fascinating enough that I’m writing about it here. (For the record, Manjari Sharma asked me to be a subject for her shower series, back in 2010, but I politely declined, being too insecure about my body at that point.)
So, where were we?
I followed up with Rob a month later, and booked a slot on an efficient digital calendar system, but for what, I was not sure.
I only knew he was using Zoom.
The gist is, a sitter reaches out to Rob, and in many cases, based on the social media buzz he generated, he has no idea who the person will be.
Though I normally do research on everyone I work with, Jon’s vouch, plus my own desire to be creatively curious, meant I knew nothing about him either. (Which surprised him.)
The scheduled 45 minute appointment begins with an introductory chat, and because I’m a curious journalist, (and like trying to entertain people,) our appointment ended up going long.
Straight off, he explained what would transpire, and why he created his anthropological project to begin with.
Like many of us, Rob was trapped in his home early, and was limited to the materials he had on hand. So he got working, (as I’ve encouraged you all to do many times,) and also got out of his comfort zone, as he had not done portraiture previously.
He realized he could use his iPad screen to expose photo paper, (much like Robert Heinecken did on TV screens in the 80’s to mock Reagan,) and then played with the process.
by Robert Heinecken
By inverting the image on the iPad screen, the resulting print becomes a paper positive, as if he left the image alone, he’d get a paper negative instead. (He called the iPad his enlarger.)
After that, it’s into the fixer, and you’re done.
In order to get the image to render, though, the technology needs a lot of time to soak up the person’s visage, which is being beamed along fiber-optic cables around the country, or the world.
But how do you do this with with complete strangers?
That’s where the interview process comes in.
Writing everything by hand, with a pencil in a notebook, he asks his sitters a few questions to create rapport, and also gather data.
I believe I was his 173rd subject, so at that sort of scale, it allows for a collection of personal information, and stories, that relate directly to our upended lives in #2020, due to the fucking virus who shall not be named. (The Voldemort virus?)
I found Rob to be charming and thoughtful, so the chat was an enjoyable experience as he explained the process to me, prior to the official interview.
Basically, he asks people to sit still, and play a specifically chosen set of music for 15 minutes, so that the image will render, and the environment will be curated.
Music is meant to be shared, he told me, and I said, “So is art.”
Once I knew what I was getting into, he hit me with the questions. (I’m paraphrasing the exact words, but not the meat of his questions.)
1. How has the pandemic changed your life for the worse?
I responded that at 46, I’d spent years building up a self-care regimen to support my mental health. It worked, as I am a relatively healthy, successful person with a loving family.
Martial arts, watching sports on TV, visiting friends at festivals, and having alone time in my house were at the top of my list.
Now I’d lost them all, and finding new ways to stay healthy, while also mourning those I’d lost, was a challenge.
2. Has anything in your life improved?
I admitted that for most of #2019, my wife and I would regularly say, “I wish I could press a pause button on life. I need a break so badly!” Again and again, we wished we could get off the ride, so as to visualize what the next phase in life might be.
And then our dreams became an actual nightmare, as a pause happened under the worst case scenario. (Outside of nuclear war, I suppose.)
Sure enough, after 10 weeks of enforced isolation, we have finally begun to figure out what we wanted next out of life, and how to go about restructuring things once a “new normal” returns.
3. Is there anything about life, when it returns to a “new normal” that you think will be changed permanently?
I told him the truth, which is that no one on Earth knows what comes next, at this point.
I don’t know what will change, and neither do you.
The only thing I’m certain of is that things will be permanently different in ways we can’t visualize yet.
I said, “When the planes hit the Twin towers, who would have thought that everyone would have to take off their shoes and belts at the airport forever?”
After that, I cued up my music, which was the middle portion of Bill Withers’ brilliant debut album, “Just As I Am,” from 1971.
RIP Bill Withers
He told me I could only blink, and not move at all, so I settled into a lotus position in a good chair, with a pillow behind me for lumbar support, and then asked where to look?
I realize that staring at the green light on my webcam would hurt my eyes, so I chose a spot just outside my bedroom window, where some Aspen leaves were shimmering in the breeze.
In Rob’s process, at that point, he turns off his webcam and his speaker.
He disappears, and I was left with my music, my trees, and my stillness.
Obviously, it felt like meditating, and because the songs were both powerful and emotional, a serious tone was set.
It was amazing.
I don’t remember the last time I sat that still, without my mind wandering.
You can only blink.
By the time he came back, and said we were done, I wasn’t cramped, or bored, and probably could have gone longer.
I felt refreshed from the meditation, and energized by being a part of someone else’s creative process.
“This should probably be this week’s column,” I said, and Rob quickly agreed to share his images with us.
My only caveat was, I needed to see the photographs first.
Given the process, they look like ghostly 19th Century pictures, which is a great visual connection to the past, given that photographers also required still sitters then too.
The truth is, the prints are soft and pasty in the best way, I imagine, but the reproductions of the prints are a bit flat for our purposes.
Rob was kind enough to agree to boost the contrast just this once, for us, as it will help you appreciate the project more, in my opinion. (And this is an opinion column, after all.)
I asked if he’d be willing to answer his own questions for us too, and he blushed for a second, admitting no one had asked him to do that yet.
So behold his thoughts on Covid-life, and then we’ll share a set of images too. (Including portraits of Jonathan Feinstein and Jonathan Blaustein, who look nothing alike.)
See you next week!
1. What is something you’ve lost since shelter in place was mandated and the world went into quarantine?
I’ve lost the sense of urgency with which I used to navigate my life, and have since found the time to slow down and appreciate the subtleties that its made of.
2. What is something you have gained through this experience?
I’ve gained this project and through it a great sense of purpose and countless meaningful connections to people around the world.
3. What is something that you think will never be the same after this?
It’s difficult to say that something will never be the same – forever is a very long time after all. I fear our memories only last so long and perhaps not long enough for us to realize the positive changes that can come of this. The sentiments that have been echoed throughout the making of this project make me hopeful that enough people believe that things will be different. I’m not sure what that different looks but I’m curious to see where we land. It’s just a matter of time.
I’m not sure when he died, or how, because my grandmother divorced him when they were in their 80’s.
(And she passed away in 2006.)
Grandpa Sam was a 20th Century character through and through; a miniature powerhouse of a man, completely crazy, but charming.
He was a narcissist and a gambler who loved chunky gold things, and tacky objects that implied they cost a lot of money.
His favorite place in the world was any cruise ship, or whichever casino in Atlantic City gave him the best comp deal at a given time.
Grandpa Sam became my step-grandpa when I was 10 years old, give or take, because my real Grandpa, Sy, had died of cancer when I was three. (Just old enough to have a token memory or two.)
Given my youth, I have no idea how Grandma Flo met Grandpa Sam, but it probably had something to do with cruise ships. And as a self-respecting Jersey Boy, I should mention here that he was the most Long Island guy I ever met. (Tri-State area folks will get the barb.)
I remember at my Bar Mitzvah, (which was held on the Asbury Park boardwalk, 30 years before it properly gentrified,) he got so drunk that he fell asleep on one of the tables, and I found him there at 1am when I was cruising the then-empty hotel with a friend.
Or what about the time he invited me on a walk around the neighborhood, which made me light up with excitement, but was only a ruse to chastise the 15-year-old-me for being a bad grandson.
Talk about a blindside hit!
But there’s no way to understand Grandpa Sam, who was about 5’3″ and wider than he was tall, without understanding Atlantic City.
That was where he felt most at home.
Given that he was no proper whale, he’d never have gotten the VIP treatment in Vegas, and you couldn’t get there by cruise-ship anyway.
But in A.C., as everyone calls it, they treated him like a King.
Free dinners, free hotel rooms, and even better, they’d hook up his family if he ever brought them along.
To be perfectly honest, I forgot about Grandpa Sam for about 10 years, and he only flashed into my memory last month, when my son was asking about his family history, and Grandpa Sam popped back in mind.
I can see his gaudy shirts now, opened three buttons down to show off his gold necklaces and fuzzy chest hair.
How did he die?
Was he alone?
I remember he was estranged from much of his family, because he was nuts, and Grandma divorced him for being abusive. It was considered brave, her willingness to be alone at that age, but then she got sick and died within a year or two, so there was no late-life Renaissance to be found.
They used to tell us Grandpa Sam had been a POW of the Nazis, having been captured in WWII, and that was the reason he was such a prick.
It might have had something to do with it, but I think his type, all macho bravado, bad taste, and shady business dealings was archetypical, as was the pull to a worn-down, once important, seedy place like Atlantic City.
The casinos came rather late, compared to its run as a fancy vacation destination in the early 20th Century, and they never brought the wealth and glory that was promised.
Rather, the entire corrupt system was just a sham for money laundering, luring tour busses full of glassy-eyed day trippers to windowless rooms where they pissed their retirement funds away.
And who was King of Atlantic City in the 80’s and 90’s?
Who plastered his name on the casinos, all of which went bankrupt or out of business eventually?
Who used the place as a platform for publicity, and for siphoning poor people’s cash into his own coffers?
Do you have to ask?
Donald J. Trump.
(Still known as the guy who stiffed everyone, leaving unpaid bills in his wake as he scrambled out of town.)
One day, I’ll get tired of writing about him, but that day is not today, as I went to my book stack this morning, and grabbed what may be the last book left over from the spring of #2019.
What did I find?
“Atlantic City,” by Brian Rose, published by Circa Press in London, and I’m not sure if he and I even corresponded at all.
It may be that the book showed up unannounced, landed in the pile, and was finally LIBERATED today, when it has even more resonance than it might have last year.
It’s perfect for now, what with public beaches finally opening around the country, cramped spaces like casinos being abandoned, and a potential new Depression popping up, promising to hollow out many a small city like A.C.
I’m going to cut to the chase, though, and tell you that I found the book to be flawed in its construction and vision, but the photographs and excellent opening essay by architecture critic Paul Goldberger make it worth showing anyway.
(And it allows for a teachable moment.)
I always talk about the relationship between image and text in a photobook, and how it’s hard to get right.
How much information do you provide, and when and where to place it?
We need to ask those questions when we make or judge a book, and this one gets it wrong, after the opening essay.
There is a text blurb opposite each photograph, and the graphic design sensibility is off. The words float in odd places, and I did not like the pressure to pull my eyes away from the pictures to read every time.
It messed with the flow and detracted from the images, which were strong enough to communicate the book’s thesis.
Added to that, many of the text pages also contained Trump tweets, which were also repeated at times, thereby bashing us over the head with intent.
On the flip side, any photo book that has compelling photos that tell the story by themselves should be commended.
So it’s a muddle.
Trump is everywhere, though he sued to have his name taken off buildings he abandoned years ago, and the pictures also do justice to the feeling of empty facade that speaks to both A.C. and Trump so well.
At one point, we read a Shakespeare quote from Julius Caesar, and then the next photo shows a tacky billboard of the Bard, but that was the only example where the text created an unexpected frisson with the pictures.
I think, if rebuilt, this book would be better chunking up the words into a few sections, thereby letting the viewer get the pleasure of flipping through photos that don’t need words.
Sadly, Atlantic City is one of those places that people always think will “come back,” yet it never does.
Then again, that’s what they said about Asbury Park.
My Bar Mitzvah was held in a hotel that opened in the 80’s, confident they’d lead the wave of gentrification.
A wave, like the fickle Atlantic Ocean it abuts, that didn’t arrive for another generation.
So you can keep waiting, or give up.
Bottom Line: A flawed but intriguing look at a zombie city on the Jersey Shore
Last week, I wanted to avoid staring into the darkest parts of reality, but today I have no choice.
I’ve been chatting and texting with my good friend, and erstwhile collaborator, Iván. (He was my professor of Globalization Theory in graduate school at Pratt, and has a PhD as well.)
We did some successful modeling of potential Great Recession outcomes at its outset, and then properly predicted the multi-polar world that followed, some years later.
But when we spoke at the beginning of The Troubles, it wasn’t any fun, as he always takes the pessimistic, idealistic side of the argument, and I go for the realist/pragmatist/optimistic angle.
There is not much optimism in our current global affairs, so the chat was grueling, and way too soon for either of us to have made any real observations yet. (Mid-March)
In the last two weeks, though, we’ve talked twice and texted ten times.
Before I get to that, though, I should mention one more thing.
When I met Iván, on the first day of class, he claimed he was a Mexican, Marxist Yankee Fan.
I laughed out loud, and challenged him on the spot, saying there could be no such thing.
The Yankees represented the heart of Capitalism, always outspending their way to World Series titles, and Karl Marx invented Communism.
These were antithetical concepts.
(I once compared “Das Kapital” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in an economics paper at Duke, so I am familiar with the material.)
Iván said he was a Guatemalan-by-family, Mexican-by-birth, Jewish, long-time New Yorker, and entitled to root for the Yankees, because he lived in Upper Manhattan, a short subway ride from the Stadium.
(I’ve picked that bone with him ever since, in jest.)
But last week, having finally connected the dots, his words from our second phone call still ringing in my head, I called Iván.
“Well, hello,” he said. “Nice to hear from you again.”
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t have much time. I need to go on a walk with the family, but I can’t get this one idea out of my head. About what you were saying. About Marx.”
“Go ahead,” he said.
“As I understand it, Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force meat-packing plants to stay open, and meat-packing workers to report for work, or lose their jobs.
Because god forbid America goes a week without eating all its cows, chickens and pigs.
These workers are lower class, and often Mexican or Central American immigrants, who are also demonized in our culture. Given the low status and wages of the jobs, how good will their health care coverage be?
(Or more likely, they won’t have employer health care at all, because surely some of them are part-time or contract workers.)
With the state of the economy, if the workers choose not to work, they might not have food or a home, and if they do work, they might get sick and die.
And because we live in a country without a robust, free public health system, if these people get sick, and don’t have the right insurance, they might go bankrupt.”
“Yes,” Ivan said.
“All so the higher classes can get their meat,” I continued.
“And don’t forget, these plants are also factories of death, assembly lines that kill and dismember live creatures. And the entire industry is also one of the largest drivers of Climate Change.”
“Yes,” he said, “all true.”
“Then I learned in Reuters that China actually owns the largest pork processing company in the US, Smithfield, and that some of the meat processed in the factories, which are being forced open by Donald Trump, is being exported, while American grocery stores are rationing meat.
“That’s Marx,” I told Ivan. “As much as I’ve teased you all these years for calling yourself a Marxist in the 21st Century, what’s happening now is what he described.”
“Exactly,” he said. “The workers must be exploited, surplus value must be derived from them, for the owners to extract profit.”
“It’s a rigged game for the lower classes,” I said. “If they stay home, they don’t eat. If they go to work, they might get sick. If they get sick, they might die. Or if they don’t die, they may go bankrupt.”
“Yes,” said my friend. “That is true, and tragic. And it is what Karl Marx critiqued in the Capitalist system.”
And as to being a Mexican, Marxist Yankee fan…in the end, I apologized for teasing him all these years.
The world is infinitely complex, and one can be a Marxist, and a Yankee fan simultaneously.
(Or an American and an environmentalist.)
Part 2. The Book
By now, you likely know I published a book called “Extinction Party,” and I’ll be writing about that, in conjunction with the Amsterdam series, soon enough.
Today, though, I was actually inspired by the book I mentioned last week. The one that was really good, but too bleak for my mood.
(It was THAT book, and not my own, that inspired today’s column.)
But last week, I suggested you make art anyway, because it’s good for your psyche, and will help you feel better. (It will take your mind off The Troubles.)
If you take your camera with you on a walk, (of course you do, it’s your phone,) and then slow your pace a bit, on purpose, it might help you see the details that you miss, walking quickly on your daily route.
Maybe that’s what The Troubles are really about, on a metaphysical level?
At first, I called it The Pause, and maybe I will again.
I hoped that it would allow me the chance to slow down, assess my life, and get my house in order.
And in the last couple of weeks, it finally has. I’m feeling better, and going on lots of walks has really helped. (Shout out to Bryan Formhals.)
If you walk around your world, and slow down, what might you find?
Is it possible you’re living in Asia, and despite the enormous cliché we all imagine of Asian architecture, all you notice is the roots of colonialism?
This morning, needing something to write about, my wife handed me the latest book to come in, as my book stack was in my son’s closet, and he was sleeping.
It felt wrong to skip the line, but I knew the book she gave me was good, as I’d seen a preview.
It is excellent, and I’ll write about it another day, but it was bleak for my mood.
I set it down, and then my son woke up.
Rather than jumping the line, I reached into the stack, and pulled out something from April #2019. (All those #2019 submissions need to see the light of day! Free the books!)
What did I find?
Something from Chris Wong, sent from Asia, and wrapped well and tight.
The text on the cover, “Now & Then,” looked to be Chinese in origin, and I’m sure Chris told me about where he was from a year ago, but I don’t remember.
The Polaroid on the cover is a hint, but the block wall literally “blocks” any visual reference we might have.
Open it up, and we get the artist’s name again, the book’s title, and another Polaroid telling us look left, look right on a red brick wall.
Then, a succession of Polaroids.
One after another, featuring Western style, colonial architecture.
Reveling in the details.
Picture after picture, we see columns and arches.
Fancy corner after repeating motif.
And where are we?
It doesn’t say.
For some reason I think Macau, though it could be Hong Kong. At first, it’s mesmerizing, and the washed out colors make it look old.
Are they old?
When were they shot?
Then we see a tank, and shit gets real for a moment, but that’s the only sign of modernity or violence. (This is not a protest movement book.)
Just as I start to get a bit bored, (though the image sizes do change,) we see cathedrals, and the difference, the references to Christianity, snaps me back into my very-curious-mode.
We finish, and then in the bio page, we learn it is Hong Kong. Not sure why I imagined they were Portuguese buildings at first, having seen English architecture in person, but it proves even a pro like me can get fooled.
I get the sense this book is self published, and we learn that Chris is a commercial photographer in Hong Kong, specializing in Polaroid.
But this work is his personal vision for sure.
The image map at the end proves to be much more valuable than in most cases, as it is reveals the Now & Then concept. We learn what these colonial structures are used for now, (often in cultural capacities,) and what they were used for under the British.
Now and Then.
The world has been through many crazy times before, including plagues, and Alison Herman theorized that people were digging “Mad Men” again because seeing the 60’s onscreen, another batshit time, reminded people we made it through that, and we’ll make it through this too.
See you next week.
Bottom Line: Mesmerizing, British colonial architecture in Hong Kong
I haven’t made photographs, as art, in more than two years.
(Well, until the other day, but that was as a favor to my wife, so it doesn’t count.)
I haven’t made art with a camera in more than two years, and those pictures were crap. The tail end of my Party City series, and none of the 2018 images made the final cut.
Which means, as an art photographer, I haven’t engaged my craft for the longest phase of my adult life.
I’ve made editorial images for you, here in the column, but as a conceptual, studio based artist, it’s not the same thing.
How do I reconcile this?
Well, the way I learned about art, (and the way I teach it,) is that all avenues of creative expression are equally valid. It was assumed that most, if not all artists, would have multiple outlets in their creative practice.
So the idea that one was inherently better than another, or more noble, was never ingrained in my mind.
That I made photographs for my first twenty years as an artist does not have to be relevant to what I’m doing now, or next.
In #2019, I made installations in a museum exhibition, and worked on a set of pencil drawings, based upon portrait jpegs I took from the internet.
That was way out of my comfort zone. And I made a book.
Now, in #2020, I’m leaning into this column, because it’s a stable foundation in an unstable world.
Yet the camera has not called to me.
But like I said, photography isn’t the only way to express ideas, it’s only one of many. (I recently surprised someone on FB by proclaiming her banana bread counted as art.)
I’ve been teaching a long time, so much so that there were certain crutches I leaned on, year in year out, when I taught at UNM-Taos for 11 years.
For teaching composition, for explaining the flow of visual information in a rectangle, I always used the same book: Hokusai and Hiroshige.
That’s right: I taught the crucial element of photography by deconstructing Japanese 19th Century woodblock prints.
Year in year out, this book delivered the goods, as it features Hokusai’s famed “Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji,” and Hiroshige’s “Fifty Six Stations on the Tokaido Road.”
If we dated it, I suppose the camera was invented in a couple of spots in Europe, with some overlap to this time period, but on the ground, printmaking was the way visual information was recorded in 19th C Japan.
And its mass production allowed the images to be collected by regular people, much like the 17th C Dutch middle class spawned so many great paintings.
I wanted to share the book with you today, because the serene colors, all sorts of blue, and then the snow scenes, white on white, are a visual gift from the past.
Why do I love them so, beyond the color, and the constant change of perspective?
Beyond the curvilinear water, the slope of Mt Fuji, and the ochre contrasts to all that blue?
It’s because this book represents a place in time so deeply, with the clothing and the postures and the boats and the hats.
This is what we have of then.
As in so many other cases, the art becomes the history.
Which brings me back to #2020.
I may not be making art photographs, (other than the other day as a favor,) and maybe you’re not either.
Maybe you’re drawing, or painting, or bread baking or dancing or gardening or yodeling or playing French horn or practicing your French. (Bonjour, je n’aime pas le yodeling.)
Or maybe you are making photographs?
Maybe you’re pushing yourself?
Maybe you’re making your best work, or are about to? Maybe all the frustration you feel, the anger, the anxiety, is going to spring up as something dynamic and meaningful?
I’m asking, because last night, I saw some new work from my friend, and former student, Andy Richter, during an online critique I set up for the alumni and expected attendees of our Antidote Photo Retreat. (Andy was the 2019 Antidote Fellow, as he came out to run a morning Kundalini yoga program for us, along the acequia.)
During our group crit last summer, I pushed him to go beneath the surface. He was showing some aura portraits, with strong colors, were perhaps more style than substance.
As an artist, I thought he had more digging to do, and I told him so.
So that’s the context for understanding why I was so happy for Andy, seeing his new series, currently titled “Walking with Julien,” which received Minnesota public funding for an exhibition in Spring 2021.
All the images were taken on walks with his young son, around his diverse Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, (he’s originally from MN,) and everyone on the Zoom call, including an important museum curator, was blown away by the work.
The portraits, in particular.
Andy confirmed that certain aspects of fatherhood were tough, as it constrained the freedom to which he was accustomed. (This is a guy who photographs hermits deep in caves in India.)
And now, even worse, like the rest of us, he was literally stuck at home. With his neighborhood as his unexpected muse.
He admitted, as many artists have before him, that the combination of inner necessity and logistical constraints has perhaps forced him to see more deeply.
Are these meditation walks?
Does it matter what we call them?
So I wanted to share the story, and some of the pictures, with you here today. And Andy was gracious enough to agree.
Some days, maybe some times every day, things might seem grim.
Certainly, I never thought I’d long for the insanity of #2019, but here we are.
Please remember, art is best at times like these. It helps your psyche, day to day, and it records the moment for the future.
I was watching “Project Runway” with my family last night.
(Well, that’s not exactly true.)
They call it “Making the Cut” now, though it’s still Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum leading a panel of judges on a fashion design competition.
(They rebooted “Project Runway” with younger hosts, and Amazon bought the high-end talent, much like “Top Gear” begat “The Grand Tour.”)
Anyway, (spoiler alert,) on episode 6, the judges were just about to cut an Israeli designer who’d won the previous week. Her victory had gone against the run of play, and then she reverted to her regular poor form.
Despite the ugliness of the clothes she’d made, in gross yellows and blues that were tacky, (and cheap looking,) no less a hardcore critic than Naomi Campbell was defending the woman to the other three judges.
Naomi Campbell, the supermodel known for throwing things at people, for tantrums, and whom my kids had called the toughest judge earlier in the series, was being sweet, and compassionate, going to bat for the young Israeli woman.
She gave it all she had, truly.
And then when they asked Heidi, an Italian influencer judge, and Joseph Altuzzara if she’d changed their minds, one at a time they said no.
They made the right call, as the contestant’s awful clothes that week, and tepid efforts earlier, left her as the least talented or capable designer at that point.
I tell you all this, because the best part was watching the look in Naomi Campbell’s eyes as the cold, serious Heidi, and the others said no to her.
It was like someone being told no for the first time in their lives. I could feel her pupils dialing millisecond by millisecond.
Sad Naomi Campbell
She took it well, god bless her, but it was highly entertaining.
(Less than an hour and half by train to the West, on the way to Bristol.)
I wrote back sure, and he wrote back let’s do it, and then we made a plan to meet somewhere tangible, at a set time, because as I’ve said many times, my Verizon phone wasn’t working.
Once done, I hit up Brian David Stevens, another photographer with whom I’d been trading jokes and silly links on Twitter for years. I also knew he was a good photographer, having reviewed one of his books years ago, and I kept up with his exhibitions via social media.
He suggested we meet near a train platform in Paddington Station, at the coffee cart, because it would be easy to find. I had a rough idea what he looked like, and I’m sure he had the same, so when he walked up, though we’d never occupied the same continent before, it was as if I knew him.
Because I did know him.
(The digital him.)
And now, in the #2020 pandemic, that stands in as real enough, doesn’t it?
I told him I was in no rush, and could grab a train in a while, as my meeting with Colin was late in the day. (I asked if he knew Colin, and he said he did, digitally.)
We walked out of the station, and he took me around the block a bit. I remember taking some nice photos, so it’s cool I can share them here.
He told me he knew West London well, because most Londoners stuck with the quadrant of the city they lived in when they first moved there. Even if they changed houses, or neighborhoods, they tended to stick to East, West, North or South, depending.
He was a West London guy. Felt comfortable there, though he later admitted he and his wife were leaving the city for a house in the burbs.
I was ready for a coffee and croissant, as I wasn’t eating much those days, and needed a top up. So we cruised a few more blocks, and came to a likely contender.
Up just 50 yards from there corner there was a flashy looking cafe to the left, which caught my eye, and an understated one I barely realized was a cafe to our right.
I was inclined to the first, and Brian said we should go to the latter.
He’s the local, I thought, so of course he’ll know.
Turns out, it was the shop/cafe for über-trendy Monocle Magazine. And of course the young guy at the counter was a stone face hipster as well.
The coffee was good, and the baked goodies were good too. But I can’t say as I remember either a year later, but I could tell you about the pizza at Zia Lucia like it was still in my mouth.
Know what I mean?
Brian told me about a series he was working on, shooting pictures of a musician friend who’d tried to commit suicide.
Now, it’s a year later, and I’ve seen links to the work on Twitter.
We chatted for an hour or so, and then he walked me back to the train station, insisting on escorting me through the ticket office, where I’d get a better deal than the machines.
(You’d think it would be the other way around, but he was a local, I trusted him, and he saved me money.)
We said goodbye at the gate, and I headed down to what became a very comfortable train ride, replete with good wifi.
Part 3: The Baths.
When I told Brian I wanted to go to some hot springs in Bath, he told me that as far as he knew, you couldn’t go into the baths.
Meaning the famous Roman baths.
But I meant there was a resort in town, Thermae Bath Spa, with a decent day rate, where you could have a soak. (I saw something about it on the internet.)
I was right, and as I read you didn’t need a reservation, I turned up shortly after arriving in Bath, but unfortunately right after I ate a street sausage. (Bad call.)
I booked a spot in the outdoor communal tub, which was featured by itself, across the street, in its own private ancient courtyard.
I turned up at the appropriate time, and waited where they told me to wait.
There was a young man sitting nearby, wearing a fedora, and he was singing to himself and making lots of noise. Rocking back and forth a bit too.
I moved away, but didn’t realize that since he was waiting where I was waiting, he was to be my tub mate, along with two other dudes.
So much for my plan to sit in silence, working out muscle kinks after a week of walking 15 miles a day.
I remember thinking, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” But it’s all true.
The tub had seen better days, if I’m being honest, but was more than nice enough. And the water was warm and soothing, if not hot.
It was the setting that was priceless, and I’d go back.
If I could.
But this dude swam around, singing, the entire fucking time.
And I did my best, martial-arts-Zen-monk-on-the-mountain routine to chill out my mind, and tune him out.
There was the sound of water flow, which also helped, and I was pretty happy, except for the one time I opened my eyes and caught him staring right at me.
Once done, I walked across the city, which is so, so beautiful, and met Colin at the outdoor cafe at the stately Holborne Museum.
I watched him approach from a park entrance, opposite from where I’d arrived, and was a bit surprised when he turned up. He was a tall, strapping guy, with graying hair, glasses, and a big, open smile.
(Like a slightly nerdy action hero.)
As with Brian, it was an immediate ease, though we’d never communicated outside Twitter, and we chatted for an hour and a half, easy.
When the cafe closed, he suggested we go for a walk, so I got a guided tour of the small city. I recall him telling me it was so very beautiful because money coming back from the slave trade had been pumped into the local architecture.
He thought it might be a fair English comp to Santa Fe, for its beauty, nature, and artsiness.
Jane Austen was mentioned.
Then the pub was discussed, and so we headed there. But not before stopping at a church, across the street, in the middle of a graveyard, where we met a man prepping an art exhibition for an upcoming Bath festival.
Colin took my picture in the graveyard, and then we went into the pub and had one too many. By the time we realized it was late, and dark, we were both hungry, and the train schedule suddenly got unfriendly.
From leaving every half hour, it appeared I’d need to catch a train getting me in well after 11 pm. (Not the best time to be coming home as a guest.)
We walked down the hill, through a secret staircase that led through a supermarket shortcut, (Waitrose, I think,) and then down to a Chinese restaurant Colin was fond of.
He’d lived and taught in the area for years, and like Brian before him, had an ease of movement through his town.
The place was closing, but they knew Colin, and we ordered two beef noodle bowls immediately. I think these folks came from Hong Kong, and the noodles had a flavor palette that was a bit new for me. (They hit the spot.)
Like Brian before him, (these polite Englishmen!) Colin also escorted me to the train platform, but we saw it was to be delayed.
He offered to wait with me, but drunk, and fed, I told him to head home to his family.
The wait for the train sucked, no lie, and walking through Paddington Station to catch the tube at 12:30 am was no fun either.
Much worse was the feeling, once I got back to Hugo’s, and crawled into bed, that I was going to throw up.
It was 2am by then.
Hugo and his girlfriend were sleeping a floor below, but there were open doors, and sound traveled.
If I woke them up, on my 5th night there, I’d never, ever be be invited back.
What to do?
I crept down the stairs, into the bathroom, and used my entire mind energy to vomit silently.
And it worked!
Can you imagine? Puking without making a sound?
Part 4: Meeting Richard
So I slept late the next day, and nearly blew Richard off. (We had longstanding lunch plans, though we’d already done Photo London together.)
He was gracious, and told me we could meet for a later lunch, so after I hit up the Arsenal store at the Emirates Stadium, for some swag, I took a train to a train to a train to see Richard.
If I recall, it required the overground, to get to his neighborhood, Limehouse, but wasn’t a terribly long or difficult trip. (Such great public transport.)
As good as Richard is at looking at art, he’s an equally excellent tour guide, and told me stories about buildings and streets in Limehouse, East London.
But, because I was hung over, I don’t remember the details. I think it used to be warehouses, given the waterfront location, but is now totally chic.
We ate in Ian McKellen’s pub, which I chronicled already, and took a stroll around the waterfront.
We went to his apartment, and his studio.
It was beautiful weather, and it felt so wonderful to be in the company of a good friend, IRL. The entire day, it didn’t even occur to me that we met on Twitter.
But yesterday, when my mental health was cracking, he saw my Tweet.
And today, he called to see how I was doing. (I was about to write my column, and rushed him off the phone.)
So I’m going to hang up on you guys now, and call Richard back, because that’s what friends are for.
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?
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.
(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.
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.
Bottom Line: Well-crafted book of several art projects, confusing in its narrative