Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography: Creepy in Context

 

The high clouds came in this week.

For the first time in Autumn.

 

It means the November rains and snows are nearly upon us.

As we’re in a drought here in Northern New Mexico, and there is a fire on the other side of the mountains, it’s good that the moisture is finally coming.

It makes much more sense, seasonally, to have the cold and the wet and the brown.

Gray skies, so rare during the year, make sense in November, and as I write this on the back-side of October, (on a Thursday as usual,) bad weather “seems” more right than the extended-Summer we’ve been having all month.

It’s been very climate-changey, all this warm weather and blue skies.

Certain things make sense in our bones, in the deep reptilian part of our brains, because it has always been thus.

I think humans have always been creeped out by the end of October, Halloween, the leaves just dropped, the trees scraggly all of a sudden, and it seems like the ghosts are around the corner.

Boo!

Right?

The Day of the Dead in Mexican culture is at the same time, when the spirit world and the world of the living can almost touch.

So I won’t be surprised if it’s misty and cold on Halloween this year.

The harvest palette, all warm colors, disappearing: the yellows and oranges and ochres.

Because today’s zine makes me think of Halloween, in the best possible way, making it the perfect thing to review.

Stella Kramer wrote not too long ago, offering to send along her zine, “Stellazine,” and I had a gut feeling it was the one to pull off the stack.

Open it up, and in a hand written note, Stella says she wants to “put more eyes on work that I think is singular and worth being seen.”

The cover says “Still Life” by Giovanni Savino, with white on orange, and then a round sticker added to the upper left hand corner reads “STELLAZINE.”

Open it up, and the first page says 001, which reads as page one, but also maybe the first of its kind in a new series of STELLAZINES?

Stella writes, “No coronavirus. No quarantine or isolation. This is timeless; photography that isn’t tied to anything but itself, the photographer and the viewer.”

And the short statement goes on to say we’ll be seeing a mix of two projects that she brought together for this volume.

“I love how everyone’s eyes are closed,” she writes, “as if they are dreaming about what they just read.”

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

Another is that these people look like maybe they’re dead?

And the colors!

(Orange and black, like the permanent marker on the pumpkin near my front door.)

So Halloween that my autumn-craving bones started shaking from within my flesh.

Charlie Brown may have gotten booted off the networks, (only saw the headline, didn’t click the link,) but this can come back off my bookshelf any year at this time.

The second image spread is the weakest, for some reason, so I felt a tiny let-down after the very strong opening, but then the wooden arm, and the next page features a boy with his eyes closed, and a very sharp knife cutting into a book, on the page beside.

And then nails and snakes! And tooth picks and clamps!

The sense of menace becomes overt, and why are everyone’s eyes closed?

Then two young African American girls with big pigtails, on consecutive pages, and I think of photos of victims of church bombings in the 60’s.

Or girls who died of typhoid or something curable, but nobody had the money to buy the medicine.

I’m sure these girls are alive and well, (IRL,) and were likely photographed in contemporary times, but in context with these old books, and torture devices, (and the wooden arm!) the creepy vibe envelops any and all things inside.

(As a thought experiment, I just opened the zine again, and looked at those two images in particular. If you skip the entire narrative, I can see the young women as strong, determined, and alive. But even then, the sense of the images not being contemporary is so strong.)

You turn the pages and there are no horizons.

No places to breathe.

And with no people looking back at you, no respite in friendly eyes, you keep turning the pages until the end, hoping for a break, but it never comes.

The ladies on the last pages look like they were killed many many decades ago, and then we’re only being introduced to their murder file pics now, after they’ve been unearthed by some hungry new cop looking to make a name for himself on cold cases.

Or maybe I just need to look past the orange and black color scheme, and the old-film aesthetic, and the old time styling.

Maybe these are two African-American women, shot in 2020, dreaming of a more equitable society?

Or a safer tomorrow?

Maybe it has nothing to do with darkness or demons?

Context is a funny thing, because as important as it is, it’s also highly subjective.

Happy Halloween.

To learn more about Stellazine click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.Β 

This Week in Photography: Enduring Humanity

 

Have you ever heard of Neal Stephenson?

The writer?

Dude is super-famous in geek culture, for having written a very predictive sci-fi screed called “Snow Crash,” in the early 90’s, which laid out much of what has come since.

Virtual reality, Google Earth, viral information, Evangelical cult religions, actual viruses, the rise of corporations more powerful than governments.

It’s all in there, along with a rip-roaring story, and a bunch of meta-criticism that would make Charlie Kaufman beg for mercy. (Like naming his hero/protagonist Hiro Protagonist.)

I bring this up, because five years ago, he wrote another book that feels like it could end up being predictive one day: “Seveneves.”

The majority of the time I was reading it, I thought the title all-one-word, pronounced seven-eh-vehs, with no long e’s.

But I was wrong.

It was really Seven Eves, with the second word being the name of Earth’s first woman, taken from the rib bones of Earth’s first man, if the Jewish Torah is to be believed. (And then Christianity was built upon that tale as well.)

Spoiler Alert, I bring this up because the book’s premise was that an asteroid broke the Moon, and once some fancy math was done, scientists realized the Moon would soon disintegrate into an endless supply of mini-rocks, which would rain down on Earth, destroying all life as we know it.

(That’s not the spoiler part, because it happens in the beginning of the book.)

No, I’m going to ruin the ending for you.

The entire plot revolves around some humans attempting to re-build life in space, so the world can be repopulated up there, (by seven eves and some artificial insemination,) and then the descendants can come back to Earth many generations later, once it’s safe again.

Against all odds, they succeed, and after a big time-jump in the book’s last section, when human-like creatures do come back to Earth, having evolved in strange ways due to some CRISPR-like genetic manipulation, they find a massive surprise.

Two other groups of humans lasted through the Apocalypse, one by living underwater for millennia, the other by tunneling deep into the Earth.

(Where they created a culture in which some people could breed, and others not, because of the limited air supply in their closed-loop-underground society.)

The book ends with the three strands of now-mutated humans meeting up in some frozen tundra, far from everything.

People standing on ground not fit for human society, but then again, they were no longer human society, as we know it.

My point today, if you haven’t sussed it out yet, is that the survival instinct is deep within us.

We make fun of cockroaches, rats and bats, but we are a similar type of creature, even if we smell better, look prettier, and have the capacity to create and appreciate beauty.

(Seriously, if a rat ever paints the Sistine Chapel, I’ll be the first to give props. Or if Remy from “Ratatouille” ever comes to life, all Patton Oswalt humor and amazing cooking skills, I will eat my hat. Highly Suspect!!!)

 

 

I’m not a self-hating human, but today I’m on my rant for a reason.

I just looked at “Chukotka,” a sleek, slim, excellent new book by Kiliii Yuyan, published by Kris Graves Projects in NYC, and I’m down to discuss.

Kiliii’s work has been featured in the blog before, as I published some of his Arctic documentary photography after a photo festival a few years ago, and then we hung out at a very-fun, late-night party in Portland last year.

(You know, back when people went places, crammed into small hotel suites, and passed vape pens back and forth with impunity. Shout out to Kris for hosting the party.)

As usual, when I share a book from an artist I know personally, it never makes the cut if it’s not good enough.

This one is filled with creepy-uncomfortable-cool photographs, but also succeeds in doing the one thing I love to share with you in a photo book: it shows us something we have never seen before.

Kiliii is an indigenous person, and I swear I had no plan to show his work this week, during a holiday to celebrate his people, now that we no longer genuflect at the genocidal remains of Cristoforo Colombo. (That was his real name: look it up.)

He’s spent a ton of time up in the Arctic before, and knows his way around. And I’ve certainly seen work from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland.

But this book is built upon photographs taken in the Russian region that gives the book its name, as it’s only 3 miles across the Bering Sea. (I guess Sarah Palin wasn’t wrong about everything. Almost everything, but not everything.)

The place is populated by a half Siberian indigenous population, (the ancestors of our Native Americans,) and half ethnic Russians, because like the Han sending citizens to Xinjiang, the Soviets also liked their own to live across their Empire.

There’s not much I can say about the pictures that they won’t say for themselves.

Polar bears, walruses, wolves, puffins, poor people, and lots of bones.

I might not want to go there in person, even in a world in which travel was possible, but the book lets us go there virtually.

(Who needs Oculus when you have a photo books?)

But there is one part of the well-written opening essay that I’d like to share, as it makes my opening even more relevant.

Kiliii tells us the mantra of the Arctic: “The resilient will endure.”

I somehow managed to avoid writing about ACB and the Orange one this week, even with the election getting so close, and the Republicans on the verge of sealing judicial power for a generation.

You know all that is happening, and I’ll be lucky if you stop scrolling through the NYT, WaPo, Reuters, the WSJ, Facebook, and Twitter long enough to read this column.

You’re well aware of the stakes of the 2020 US Election, even if you’re reading this in Moscow.

(Π― ΠΏΠ»ΠΎΡ…ΠΎ Π³ΠΎΠ²ΠΎΡ€ΡŽ ΠΏΠΎ русски.)

So instead of focusing on that, think about the mantra of the people who live tougher lives than we’ll ever really understand.

The resilient will endure.

Think on that.

To purchase “Chukotka,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.Β 

This Week in Photography: The Power of Tradition

 

“Like nightmares appearing one after the other, these new realities bruised my body and soul, leaving me feeling as if I had taken a severe beating.”

Yukari Chikura, 2020

 

 

I used to work for Bobby Flay.

A long time ago.

I waited tables at his now-shuttered restaurant, Bolo, and was hired the day after it received a 3-star review from the NYT. (Even though it had been open for years by that point.)

The positive press turned the joint into a mad-house, with long-time New Yorkers battling each other for reservations, and tourists lining up as well. (Since Chef was already a significant television personality.)

Photo: Getty Images, Carmen Lopez and AJ Wilhelm

 

The restaurant was extremely well-run, and it turned out to be the most important job I ever had, as I learned some valuable life lessons, like humility, and the value of grueling work.

Ironically, during my time there, another television chef, Rocco DiSpirito, opened up a restaurant across the street, as the premise of a reality show called “The Restaurant,” and it went about as well as you might imagine. (Lots of drama, little success, ending with lawsuits and injunctions.)

Even now, I have vivid memories of Rocco leaning suggestively against his Vespa, out on the street, almost begging for Instagram to be invented, (in 2003,) so that people could take his picture and immediately share the images with the world. (#Rocco2003)

I was reminded of that this morning, having watched the opening of a funny episode of “Beat Bobby Flay” on TV last night, right before bed. (It’s become our pre-sleep Quarantine ritual. Thanks, Boss!)

The premise of the show is simple, as two chefs battle each other, cooking with the ingredient of Bobby’s choice, (in 20 minutes,) and the the winner gets to go up against Bobby, with the dish of his or her choice, for 45 minutes.

(No shock: Bobby almost always wins. Dude has skills.)

In this particular episode, a Neapolitan pizza chef, FROM NAPLES, was battling a generic-white-American-accented American, who was also trained in making pizza in the Naples style.

It was a classic set-up, as how on Earth could a milquetoast-sounding American beat a fucking guy from Naples, who was a third generation pizza chef?

Big surprise, the proper Neapolitan won, and the ersatz-version had to go home early.

I’m not bagging on my country, (which I’ve done many times lately,) what with our current President deciding he’d rather be a dictator than allow our democratic tradition to continue, if he can’t win. (And the psychotic, anti-democratic tweets this week by Republican Senator Mike Lee suggest Trump is not alone in this belief.)

No, I’m not hating on the USA.

Rather, I’m suggesting that even though we are a young country, made up of immigrants (and former slaves) from other parts of the world, we can still see the value of history.

Of tradition.

Of passing stories and rituals along, across the generations, so that people dance, sing, fast, or meditate, all because their ancestors did so.

Hell, one of the main reasons I live in Taos is because I was so enraptured by the Taos Pueblo Christmas Eve celebration as a youth, in which bonfires reach to the sky, the Pueblo residents chant and sing, and the entire community comes together for one night.

And the only time I ever visited Israel, as a young person, I felt the lives of my ancient ancestors calling to me from the building stones in the Old City of Jerusalem. (That’s a memory I haven’t conjured in forever.)

Why am I on about tradition today?

What brings about this bout of nostalgia? (Other than it’s fun to mock Rocco DiSpirito?)

I’m glad you asked.

Today, I just put down the exquisite, perfectly built “Zaido,” by Yukari Chikura, recently published by Steidl, and I feel as if I’m in a trance.

(Though that could be because I slept poorly last night, and am hopped-up on three forms of strong caffeine.)

I once met Yukari at a photo festival years ago, and she was very gracious, so you could say I’m a fan.

I’ve also studied Japanese martial arts before, and admitted to a group of students just the other day that two of my seminal images were inspired by Hokusai, so I’ll share them here today.

 

“one dollar’s worth of Shurfine flour”

Perhaps I’m not so different from that American chef, desperate to be an amazing Pizzaiolo?

(I also love elements of Italian, Chinese, Dutch, French, Spanish, Mexican, African-American and English cultures, so I’m an equal opportunity appropriator.)

That said, I think anyone would love this book, and as it’s already generated a lot of press, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

Steidl has proven to me many times that their print quality and craftsmanship are second to none, and that’s certainly the case here. (Even when you open the box, there is a note giving props to the book packer. In this case, a man named Timo.)

Next, you’re met with an insert that features what appears to be a map, and a booklet that tells the folk tale of a young couple who find wealth and fortune when a god smiles upon them, directing they make a home near a spring filled with sake. (Thanks to a helpful dragonfly as well.)

The story ends by telling us a shrine was eventually built there, and a ceremony derived, called Zaido, so we now understand our title.

(Context delivered.)

We move on to these glowing silver end pages, within the book, and then the slow build-up of a snowy, mountain scene on velum paper.

Did I mention that Haruki Murakami is my favorite writer, and I’ve dreamt of visiting Hokkaido, standing stock still in a frozen field, surrounded by a quiet so rich it feels like something from another dimension?

All those emotions pop up quickly, looking at this book, so steeped in tradition and generations of reverence.

The photographic portion of the book progresses as you might imagine, with landscapes interspersed with some portraits, and documents of the rituals.

If I were to give any critical feedback at all, (not to be a hater,) I think I might have trimmed the edit just a touch, so that all the photos packed an equal punch.

At one point, looking at the empty space, I was reminded of the Fukushima exclusionary zone, where no one lives, due to the radiation from the 2011 earthquake, Tsunami and nuclear meltdown. (One of my aforementioned images was also inspired by that event, and I’ll include it here, to honor the dead.)

“The Great Wave”

At one point, a blank, white piece of board is included, and I stopped flipping, during which time I discovered that an image of paper ribbons included a real one, which had been attached to the book-page.

Adding the divider, which forced the pause, was such a thoughtful gesture.

Like I said, this is a book that is impossible not to like.

It makes one appreciate the “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” pursuit of perfection for which Japanese culture is rightly known.

(Even if my Aikido Sensei was an American, as was his.)

As the book faded in with white, so it fades out with black images on a rougher paper, that suggest snow flakes falling from the sky, illuminated by the faintest hint of light.

Then, the artist’s essay, in which we learn she suffered the loss of her father, and then he came to her in a dream, telling her to seek out this festival, which has gone on for more than a millennium.

Finally, some historical art images, again on silver paper, and the thank you page.

Books like this make me want to be a better artist.

A better man.

Because it reminds me that hard work, diligence, and attention to detail never, ever go out of style.

To purchase “Zaido” click hereΒ 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.Β 

This Week in Photography: The Power of Art

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

 

Hope.

Such a powerful four-letter word.

[ED note: I swear I wrote this before Hope Hicks and Donald Trump tested positive for the Coronavirus.]

As a long-time cultural critic, who discusses American politics and global themes, of course things have been a bit dark here lately.

How could they not be?

Given the colossal shit-show that was the Trump-Biden debate on Tuesday night, and the foul mood it put me into when I woke up yesterday, you’d be right to assume that this column, written the next day, would be pessimistic and fraught.

 

 

It would be the obvious move, what with Trump telling the Proud Boys to stand by, like his personal white nationalist army.

Normally, I’d lean into that.

Right?

Well, we all get tired of Doom and Gloom, and frankly, I had the most amazing, life-affirming experience yesterday.

It represented pretty much the best that humanity, and art in particular, has to offer.

So I’m going to write about it for you now.

(No frantic fear today, thankfully.)

We’re going positive, courtesy of some inspiring artists from America, England, France and Germany.

 

Part 2. The backstory

 

As you might imagine, writing about photo books as I do, I get a lot of emails from publishers and press agents.

It’s literally part of the job.

Every now and again, one such person begins to seem like a whole, fully realized human, not just an email signature at the bottom of a piece of business.

In this case, I’m thinking of Liv Constable-Maxwell, who does press for MACK, the highly successful, independent photo-book publisher based in London.

The truth is, I’ve been doing this column long enough that I actually interviewed Michael Mack, the titular publisher, on a trip to London back in 2012.

He gave me some great advice about photo books having the potential to be art objects, (when they’re done right,) and I’ve quoted him on that many times, even though we never spoke again.

(I turned up at the MACK offices sweaty and late, which was not my finest hour. Sprinting around Tottenham Court Road, looking for an office building without knowing where you’re going, will give the stress sweats to anyone.)

But I’m getting off topic with an unnecessary diversion.

The point is, Liv seems proper cool, and in our back and forth communication about the MACK fall offerings, she invited me to a new-school, hybridized, online event that could only exist in Covid-reality. (Though it was intended to be IRL, and some of the planners actually met on the day before the world shut down.)

 

The gist is this: SFMOMA had an exhibition last year, (in San Francisco,) featuring a set of polaroids of a man dressed in drag.

They represented a persona, April Dawn Alison, who was adopted by a Bronx-born, Oakland-based commercial photographer named Alan Schaefer.

Like Vivian Maier, he lived and died unknown as an artist, and when the museum was offered a look at his posthumous archive, which featured more than 9200 prints, they jumped at the chance.

 

The curator, Erin O’Toole, (whom I once interviewed for the NYT,) put together a show built around the multiple mini-series that April shot, and then did a book on the project with MACK as well.

(So far, it makes sense, as museum shows are turned into books all the time.)

From there, though, things get perfectly #2020.

Michael Mack showed the book to Robert Raths, the German-born, London-based head of Erased Tapes, an East London recording label, and he showed it to Douglas Dare, a young, gay singer in his roster. (Who also dresses in drag.)

As a result, Douglas wrote three original songs based on the photographs, and yesterday, MACK and its partners put on a live-streamed concert, including a panel discussion, in which Douglas Dare debuted the music to a global audience following along on Zoom.

Which thankfully included me and my 8 year old daughter, who loves to sing and dance, in addition to play the keyboard, strum the ukulele, paint, draw, take pictures and sculpt.

 

by Amelie Blaustein

(What else is a kid going to do in lockdown?)

Watching the performance, with her on my lap, was one of the best hours I’ve spent this year, and in a world devoid of much creative interaction, (IRL,) this was the next best thing for sure.

 

Part 3: The performance

 

I know that Liv played a big part in producing the event, which she said took a year to pull off, which was also partly led by Claudine Boeglin, a French creative director who was on the panel with Michael Mack and Robert Raths.

The sat together, maskless, while Douglas Dare was off to the left at a piano, and Erin O’Toole Zoomed in from SF.

(Liv later sent me this behind-the-scenes image of everyone masked up beforehand. I imagine the panelists might have had Covid tests?)

Courtesy of Liv Constable-Maxwell

 

I admit I haven’t seen live music in a while, and once wrote of acting like a drunk donkey at a Mississippi Hill Country Blues show in New Orleans, so one might say I was primed for something like this.

But the first song, “April” sent chills down my spine, it was so good.

I hadn’t heard Douglas Dare’s music before, but it was immediately engaging, and, frankly, perfect.

 

I made some quick videos of the screen, which I’ll be able to share with you via Youtube, and by the end of the song, Amelie was singing along, which I also captured. (She launched into “Who Let The Dogs Out” at the end, which I later learned was because she had just seen “Trolls World Tour”.)

 

There were interview segments in between, and Douglas said he tried to only go on what he saw in the pictures, and not to make too many assumptions.

β€œI love writing songs that are stories,” he said. β€œGetting a picture and then writing the songs feeds my creativity completely. Having the restriction allows you to play a lot with it. With April, there’s so little to go on.”

Erin O’Toole picked up on that thought, in her brief comments. There was no set of instructions left behind with the archive, so she had to make her own moral, ethical, and curatorial decisions about “what it means to show pictures that were once private.”

“The consensus was there was so much they offered to people who were living, who could benefit from seeing the pictures,” she said. “They cried out to be seen. What Douglas has done has reinforced that for me. If we hadn’t put these pictures out into the world, he wouldn’t have made these beautiful songs.”

The second song, “Your Face is Her’s,” was equally compelling, and the way the producers interspersed April Dawn Alison’s images with the concert was super-rad.

 

It amped up the emotional connection to both artists, as well as the bond between them, one living and one dead.

“She’s become an angel in my mind…and I wanted to do her justice,” Douglas said.

Speaking of the word bond, as some of the images featured symbols of bondage, my daughter asked, of April, “Did he get arrested?”

“No,” I said.

“Then what’s with the handcuffs” she replied?

Ever attuned to shock value, when I asked her at the end what she thought of the April Dawn Alison project, she said, β€œI thought, stop talking about this guy. So he dresses like a woman. So what? It’s not like he’s nude or anything.”

“Is that what you actually thought, or are you just trying to be funny,” I asked?

“Both,” she said.

 

Part 4. The Big Ideas

 

You know by now that I love linking columns together, and it was only two weeks ago that I discussed the male gaze, and the impact that it has on women, even at a young age.

So the above quote by my 8 year old daughter is telling, as she would have found nudity, by a man dressed as a woman, to be a whole other story entirely.

And the question also came up in the Q&A, when someone asked what the panel thought might have influenced Alan Schaefer the most, when he became April?

Erin O’Toole answered she thought it was “based on the kinds of images of women that Schaefer would have absorbed as person living in the US at that time. Images types you would see in noir films, or advertisements in magazines. He was mimicking visual tropes about women that were in the media.”

That her words were beamed from San Francisco, through London, and back to New Mexico via a vast array of undersea cables and internet routers, was never lost on me.

The whole hour was simply riveting.

Douglas Dare sang a final new song, “Camera” which was also terrific, before he ended with a previously recorded song that reminded me a bit too much of Radiohead.

 

And there was another question in the Q & A that really turned up the inspiration juice, (by asking how Mack and Raths made their creative choices,) as Robert Raths offered up some really great advice about his practice, which I think applies to us all.

 

“I believe in flow,” he said. “I believe in the natural power that guides my hand and my mind. I’m curious. I try to do as little as possible. I try to observe.”

“To not get involved too much, only when it’s needed. I’m really fine with that. But sometimes it’s really hard work to do almost nothing.”

He continued by saying “when I come across a project or idea, IΒ try to make it as approachable as possible for as many minds.”

Michael Mack challenged him, by stating there was nothing “mainstream” about his record label artists.

“I try to guide people to the subject matter in the most effortless way,” Raths elaborated. “I always go with how my mind works. With what gets my attention. How much information do I need to get curious about something?”

When it was Michael Mack’s turn to answer, he said that he was often asked if he wanted to be more commercial, and his answer was, “I have absolutely no interest in that. It’s almost a luxury to maintain a focus that is on the specific things that interest me. Not to choose things for other reasons.”

“It almost sounds selfish. But that’s true. It’s what I think I can contribute to because I think it’s valid.”

Robert Raths concluded by extrapolating out of his own role, to ours, the audience.

“We all have talents,” he said. “There is no difference between the performer and the listener. Listening is a talent.Β Being in the moment and being intuitive is very important.

People don’t give themselves time to.”

So that’s where we’ll end today, in this column I couldn’t have dreamed I’d write when I woke up yesterday.

Yes, things are scary right now.

Yes, we don’t know what comes next.

But as I’ve exhorted you many times during the last 6.5 months of chaos and quarantine, get out there and make things. Share your thoughts with the world through your art.

And don’t forget to make time to listen, watch, and think as well.

The quiet can be a powerful teacher.

This Week in Photography: The Rise of Fascism?

- - Photography Books

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

I was doom-scrolling before bed last night.

(Never a good idea.)

It was hard to look away from the computer screen, with lots of posts and articles about President Trump refusing to state that he’ll honor the results of the election.

In one way, it’s nothing new, as he equivocated in that famous 2016 debate I wrote about, as I watched in what was essentially a party at the Hammer Museum in LA.

But this felt different, for sure.

Here we are, six weeks from the election, and in addition to his attacks on mail-in voting during a pandemic, and insistence on stacking the Supreme Court for a generation, he’s now implying that he won’t leave office if he doesn’t like or trust the result.

This feels like a potential extinction-level event for American Democracy.

RED ALERT!

Get your fucking head in the game, people.

Or maybe it isn’t?

Maybe he’s just trolling all of us, talking shit, trying to distract (again) from the 200,000 dead, and his terrible poll numbers in swing states.

As I was explaining to my daughter last week, this is a man who’s biggest job, before becoming President, was saying “You’re Fired,” in a dramatic Queens accent, for reality television viewers.

 

 

 

He thrives on playing the heel so much, for winding up the educated liberals, the coastal elites, that the line between reality and fantasy is so blurred, even a resolute cultural critic like me is totally confused.

Is he really threatening Civil War, or the dawn of Trumpian dictatorship?

Or is he saying this shit because he knows how much we’re afraid of that, and he likes fucking with our heads?

Honestly, I don’t know.

But it’s caused me to question my relationship to this country, and turned our flag into an object that can send chills down my spine, rather than evoke pride at all times.

(Meaning, as a young child in the 70’s and 80’s, I was happy to see the flag, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I had no irony about it in any way.)

For example, in addition to the scary camerawork at the RNC, (which I wrote about once already,) I was watching an MMA fight on ESPN+ the other day, between a racist, bad-boy Florida-based white guy, and an African-American fighter from Ferguson, MO. (Who’d previously appeared with Sly Stallone in an action film.)

Courtesy of NBC News

 

It was Colby Covington against Tyron Woodley.

I didn’t know much about the backstory, but I’d heard Covington was an asshole, and these guys didn’t like each other very much.

Unfortunately, Woodley, a former champ, is at the end of his career, so he didn’t put up much of a fight.

It ended in the 5th and final round, when Woodley appeared to quit, by tapping when he wasn’t in a submission hold, but apparently he broke his rib, and that was that.

Immediately thereafter, Covington wrapped himself in the American flag, (literally,) thanked the military and first responders, and took a call from Trump, which he put on speakerphone.

 

 

I later learned that they’re friends, (Covington and Trump,) that Eric and Don Jr had been ringside at one of his previous fights, and that Colby had trashed Brazilians, IN BRAZIL, for being “filthy animals.”

 

 

Racism at its finest, people, and that it was so associated with our flag made me feel really bad inside.

Is this just schtick?

Like the Iron Sheik, the pro wrestler back in the 80’s, only now the trolling enemy is an American?

Is he just doing it to get attention, like Conor McGregor, or is a major sports institution actively promoting MAGA, allowing the denigration of their Black fighters in real time? (England’s Leon Edwards certainly seemed to take exception.)

 

Who the hell knows what’s going on anymore?

 

Part 2. A Tough Week

 

It’s been a symbolic week, because I also saw “Jojo Rabbit,” the Nazi comedy directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi.

That’s right, I said Nazi comedy.

I was reluctant to watch it, because I couldn’t imagine such a concept landing, but it was a pretty smart film in many ways.

The casting and acting were spot on, because who doesn’t like Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, and Rebel Wilson?

 

It had cute, vulnerable kids, and Waititi plays Hitler in an over-the-top, absurdist way, as the young lead character’s imaginary best friend.

(So he’s not actually Hitler. He’s PRETEND Hitler.)

The point of the story, (even if the ending is not exactly happy,) is that when we get to know people, when they are humanized, it’s much harder to demonize them and put them in ovens.

Oh, I forgot to mention, I watched it with my kids.

My son is old enough for that sort of thing, but my 8 year old daughter didn’t really know about the Holocaust yet, so this was a strange introduction to the topic.

(We went with it.)

At one point, my son looked at me and asked, “I wonder if our ancestors would be OK with us laughing at Hitler?”

A very good question.

After I finished the film, I hit up Wikipedia, and learned that Waititi is half-Jewish, (or fully Jewish by the rules, as his mother is Jewish,) and his original last name was Cohen.

So this fits in with the contemporary tradition of people telling stories from within their own communities.

Still, a few days later, and I still don’t know what to think.

Is it OK to laugh at that kind of mega-tragedy?

Did the Germans have any idea, when Hitler was just an angry loud-mouth riling up right-wing kids to take to the streets, where things would end up?

Do we, 6 weeks out, know if America will be a functioning democracy in 2021?

 

Part 3. I Forgot the Trigger Warning

 

I should have warned you that today’s column would be heavy, but then again, how could it not be?

I was inspired by a set of photo-books that my friend Reto lent me a couple of weeks ago, as he knows I write about books for you each week. (Or most weeks anyway.)

Reto is from Switzerland, and recently told me he had some vintage German photo books, from the first half of the 20th Century, and they were fascinating for the quality of the reproductions.

That was the sum total of the build-up, and when he offered to drop them by, I said sure.

The next week, I was flipping through quickly, as he was due in 20 minutes to train Thai martial arts by our stream, and I stopped dead in my tracks when I came to the picture of a young Aryan soldier in front of the Nazi flag.

WTF!!!!!!

I kept flipping, and came to a super-scary image of a Zeppelin in the sky, with tall Nazi flags below, and then images of the Fuhrer himself.

At that point, I closed the cover, and saw the book was the annual from 1934.

I re-opened it, and sure enough, Hitler had written the book’s introduction.

The other two volumes were from 1928/29, and 1931, so I realized I’d looked out of order.

I started over, beginning at the beginning, and the first book actually has mostly innocuous, well-made, landscape, nature and people images.

It is the smallest of the three, (even though it covers two years,) and there are a few nudes thrown in as well. (Connecting to last week’s column.)

The graphic design of the camera and film company ads in the back is pretty great too.

 

By 1931, I imagine the series was more popular, as there are far more photos, and we see some images taken outside Germany as well.

Two caught my attention in particular, as they were of a young Saudi Arabian Jewish girl, swarthy, and in profile to exaggerate her nose, and an old Syrian Jewish man in Aleppo.

They are exoticized, for sure, but no Hitler in this book.

Though there are Bauhaus-style abstractions, and some more nudes.

I also noticed a few martial, sports images, as there are Jiu-Jitsu fighters included for the first time.

 

Finally, circling back to 1934, and it’s obvious the tone is now one of propaganda.

Lots of workers, and machinery.

And workers working with machinery.

People look happy, even the farmers, and then once you see the Nazi images, you can’t unsee them. (Plus, the pairing of pigs and women is pretty misogynistic.)

Reto offered to bring me more books from the set, as he said he has a ton of vintage photo books that his Dad collected, and I said sure, but I probably had enough of a view to write this column.

Oddly, in the 1934 book, there was an Alfred Eisenstaedt image taken of young soldiers or athletes training in the Mussolini forum, and I was surprised, because I imagined he was Jewish.

(There were no pictures of Jews in the 1934 edition.)

So I fired up Wikipedia again, and learned that Eisenstaedt was in fact Jewish, and fled to America in 1935.

This more or less represented the end of the line for him in his native country.

You can see how having all this in my head in one week is a bit much.

All we can do is hope for the best, I guess.

And vote like your life depends on it.

Because maybe it does?

This Week in Photography: Objectifying Women

 

I’ve been thinking about this column for a long time now.

(Six months, maybe eight.)

I even wrote it once, but then decided not to publish, as it didn’t feel right at the time.

Thankfully, today is the day, due to some unforeseen coincidence, or divine intervention, depending on your perspective.

It began two days ago, when I was scrolling through Instagram, and came across a photo of a very attractive, naked young woman, getting into a swimming pool. (Or something like that, it was a quick look.)

The image reminded me of something out of Playboy in the 80’s, and I was stupefied for a moment.

Doesn’t Instagram have rules against this sort of thing, I wondered?

I scrolled back to the photo, and clicked on the person’s profile, and lo and behold, there was an entire set of similar images.

Very pretty young women, naked, and shot in color by a white, male photographer who appeared to be in his 30’s or 40’s.

It didn’t conform to the stereotype of the leering, older man shooting black and white photos of nude women standing below big rocks, or leaning on trees suggestively.

No, this was more modern than that, and really, I couldn’t help wonder how this was deemed appropriate in #2020?

For all the media buzz around the shift in power dynamics, and the need to respect the perspectives of women and People of Color, it seemed so out of touch with contemporary reality.

So I did a Facebook post about it, without naming the artist, (as I’m not now, though I did reach out to him for comment, but he declined,) and not surprisingly the feedback was voluminous and fierce.

One artist, who does thoughtful nude work in black and white, suggested there was more nuance than simply deeming the entire practice off-limits, but in general, the tenor of the conversation was one of frustration, shock, not-shocked-at-all-but-angry, and cynicism.

How could any artist working today, one formed by the reality of the 21st Century, think it was OK to shoot pin-up soft-core porn and see it as art?

Much less post it on a public platform like Instagram?

So I went to his website, and there is a section for nudes, and a blog post about the ethics, that was written many years ago.

This was no random experiment, or so it would seem.

And speaking of random, and the potential of chance, part of why I waited so long to re-write this column was that I couldn’t find one of the two books I’m going to feature.

I had it once, decided not to review it, tried to review it with this companion book, and then it disappeared.

(My wife is known in our home for moving things around a few times a year.)

I wanted to write this column, and felt bad about losing the book, but I simply could not find it, no matter how many times I searched for the spine on my book shelves.

And then… on the same day I saw that Instagram image, I found myself looking down at a little Indonesian chest, upon which my wife had set a small pile of novels.

I noticed a book at the bottom, and it had one of those spines in which you can see the book binding, but there was no information at all.

Could it be, I wondered?

What are the chances?

Sure enough, I reached down in hope, and picked up Jordanna Kalman’s “Little Romances,” published by Daylight in 2019.

Hallelujah!

Eureka!

Fuck yeah!

We were in business, because it meant I could bring this column out in the perfect week.

The other book we’ll look at, “A Piece of Dust in the Great Sea of Matter,” was self-published by Melissa Borman in 2019, and both women wrote to me directly last year to see if I’d review their books.

These didn’t just show up in the mail because some PR Agent somewhere hoped I might cover them.

They chose me, and so I gave the books consideration, but each time, it didn’t feel quite right.

In each case, the taste level felt a touch off from what I like.

They were edgy, but not quite enough. Poetic, but in a heavy-handed way.

Imperfect, but not like an intentional extra thread on a Navajo rug.

(I subjected them to my “Goldilocks” standards, and they came up wanting.)

But then, I read an OP-Ed in the NYT by Brit Marling, the writer, director, and actor, (who starred in the Batshit-crazy Netflix series “The OA,”) and it got me thinking.

She discussed the idea that the Hero’s journey, basically the base-level operating code of all storytelling, was totally male-centric.

Which I get.

Thousands of years of men telling stories about men doing manly things.

So I asked myself, is my taste so male-centric, (given that I’m a man,) that I might occasionally have a blind spot to overtly female-centric work?

Even though I’m a feminist, and show female artists all the time?

I wrote this in a column, but as I said above, it wasn’t the right column for the right day, so I set it aside. (And promptly lost Jordanna’s book.)

At the time, I remember thinking the books were sensitive in a way that didn’t resonate with me. And as my parents used that as a pejorative term, to attack me, (“You’re too sensitive,”) I couldn’t get myself to figure out these books.

Eventually, I began to wonder, what if I’m not meant to get them, entirely?

What if by subverting the traditional, male-centric way of telling stories, or creating artistic narratives, there is that 5% that is designed for women?

If that were true, wouldn’t that be OK?

Or more than OK?

Maybe it’s even subversive?

So here we are.

It’s #2020, and white guys are still taking pictures of hot naked chicks, and posting them out and proud on a public platform.

Let’s get on with the subversion.

“Little Romances” features a series of images of nude pictures of the artist, (and her young daughter,) that were made by the artist herself.

Jordanna Kalman is taking back her own right to share her body, in her own way, on her own terms, because she wants to, and because she can.

Due to our long-standing policy against showing work considered NSFW, I’m going to limit how much I show of the full nudes. Even though, as I write this, I’m wondering how many people are even at “work” in the traditional sense?

There are images which are printed, and treated as sculptures, or covered with flowers, and then re-photographed.

They are well made, thoughtful, and dreamy, and I like them, but normally I want to love something.

Between the risk of showing a young naked child, and the hyper-poetic aesthetic, I still see why they’re not quite right, in my opinion.

But in this case, I don’t think my opinion is the ultimate arbiter, and the book has cleared my biggest threshold of making me want to write about it.

 

Melissa Borman’s book is similar in many ways.

She photographs women, in color, in relationship to the landscape. There is no nudity to speak of, but they scream “feminine” like a drum circle filled with Oprah Winfrey, Gwenyth Paltrow, and a class full of women’s studies majors at Smith.

I joke, (which is itself a risk in a column like this,) but the pictures will show you what I mean.

Interspersed are snippets of poetry by Sylvia Plath, and a set of graphic images that suggest the cosmos, (which are also depicted on the cover.)

With respect to empowerment, and creativity, and taking back the narrative, this book is pretty awesome, and of the moment.

I know what I’d do differently, if I were shooting these pictures, but again, the entire point is that I’m not.

These are photographs of women, by a woman, and on some level, it is pretty rad that I’m not the target audience.

They’re certainly accomplished, and smart, and I like the way the book was made.

 

As with Jordanna’s book, this makes me want to write.

It makes me want to punch someone in the nose, if that person thinks the objectification of women in the media is not a problem.

My 8 year old daughter grabs her belly, pressing together any extra fat, every time I tell her she has a beautiful, healthy body.

She’s 8, and already has body issues, because of the world we live in. (Maybe she’s watching too many perfect teens on Netflix?)

Regardless, I’m glad these issues are finally getting addressed, and that some attempt at balancing power is being made in the wider world.

For all the times I’ve written the equivalent of “Can’t we all just get along?,” once in a while, it’s important to also say, when the world isn’t fair, people need to do something about it.

To Purchase “Little Romances” click here

To Purchase “A Piece of Dust in the Great Sea of Matter” click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.Β 

This Week in Photography: Flowers for Donald

- - Photography Books

 

A friend of mine

 

A guy I know

A dude I hung out with in summer camp

A boy I traded baseball cards with in middle school

A human with whom I communicate via Facebook messenger

A person

A bro I liked back in the day

 

He remembers everything.

 

We have a long-running, ongoing chat with another summer camp friend, and we like to talk lots of shit.

About sports, mostly, and the assholes we went to camp with. But there are also memories bandied back and forth from middle school, as that was the last time we were proper friends.

(Like I said, this guy remembers everything, but I don’t.)

As often as not, he’ll bring something up from back then, and I won’t recall, but the other day, he was on about the Central Jersey Bar Mitzvah circuit, in #1987.

(No lie.)

He correctly recalled my 7th grade crush, over whom I made moon eyes all night long at my Bar Mitzvah, back in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on a Saturday night in March of ’87.

Her name was Jill, and she would go on to be the best looking girl in High School, but this was before that.

Before I was an artist.

Before I was a hipster.

Before I thought I was cool.

I’ve since learned that plenty of people wanted to be me, back then, with my athlete friends, good grades, and relative success in sports.

But I was jealous of my younger brother, who was better looking, more popular, and more talented at sports, so I never realized how good I had it.

But this guy, this friend of mine, (for lack of a better word,) has all of it in his mind.

The slights and dramas.
The petty jealousies and broken promises.

It seems as clear to him in #2020 as it was in #1999 or #1987.

Who needs Youtube or Instagram or TikTok or cocaine when you can simply fire up your memories, where everything is as clear as the Mediterranean Sea on a quiet beach on the Costa Brava.

I went there, to Cadaques, for my honeymoon back in 2004, and that I can remember.

I can conjure the taste of the garlic clams I ate, or feel the cool magic of the crystal water on my skin. I can see my wife’s body when she took her top off, sunning on a rock outcropping with no one around.

As to summer camp, or 7th grade, it’s all kind of fuzzy.

I do remember my Bar Mitzvah, though.

And the way Clarence Clemons, the brilliant saxophonist from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, turned up at brunch the next day, and how I gave him a supremely cheesy set of quasi-sunglasses that were designed to be a giveaway at the party.

That I remember.

The Bar Mitzvah circuit was a right of passage; running around in fancy shoes and ill-fitting suits. Chasing girls you’d never get. Hoping to steal a swig of beer from some drunk uncle.

That was #1987 all right.

But now it’s #2020, and my son is turning 13 in a few weeks.

He’s having his Bar Mitzvah too, but his will be in his grandparents’ backyard, due to the pandemic.

There will be no more than 15 people allowed, and everyone will be wearing masks.

No friends will be there, only family, and my Uncle from New Jersey will be flying out with my Aunt, only because it was his idea that Theo get trained in Judaism in the first place.

That, and because the Covid-19 test positivity rate is low enough in New Jersey that he’s actually allowed to visit to New Mexico, while people from most states in the US are forbidden from coming in without a two week quarantine.

Just like I’m not allowed to go to Cadaques, and swim in the Med, even if I could afford it.

We, the Americans, are banned from Europe.

 

Welcome to #2020.

 

Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.

But you knew this already, certainly if you’ve been reading here each week.

/

Or most weeks.

Or every now and again.

I have the pleasure of being one of our President’s earliest critics, and where has that gotten me?

Or us?

Did it stop anything, or make a difference?

Does it matter that by the time my son has his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, outdoors at a social distance, more than 200,000 Americans will have died from this novel new disease?

Did my words matter?

Will they last?

Birds are dropping dead here in my backyard, from the freezing cold that accompanied the earliest snow anyone can recall.

Just now, while typing, I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop in and chase down a pretty little bird, as they’ve been slowed by the freeze.

In California, it actually looks like the Apocalypse.

So I ask you again, did my words matter?

Does art matter, if it can’t change the future?

I don’t know, but I do know this: if museums survive, their job is to preserve what is made now, to represent it to future humans.

Or our Android overlords.

(I’m sorry, XGM876, I didn’t mean to insult your ancestry! Of course being flesh and blood is not desirable, and your ferocious artificial intelligence makes me a bug, compared to your radiance.)

Why did I write such a batshit column today?

I’m glad you asked.

Because I just put down “Flowers for donald and Countries Glorious,” a book by Gregory Eddi Jones, published by his platform, In the In-Between, in late 2018.

And it’s awesome.

Just like Lena Dunham once anointed herself the voice of her generation, I’d nominate Greg, who happens to be a friend.

I published his equally absurd, unsettling, and on the nose 26 Gas stations book after seeing it at Photolucida in 2019, and this one takes things a step further.

To begin with, it’s all about obfuscation, manipulation, digital reality, and distraction.

Pretty colors, painted flowers, and text you can feel but not read.

It goes at Trump directly, but also includes references to Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and such platforms in ways that are as authentic as Jeff Sessions’ Alabama accent.

Do you remember Jeff Sessions?

Mad Dog?

Or Anthony Scaramucci?

Do you remember #2016?

Or that there was a world before the coronavirus?

Before San Francisco skies turned orange?

Do you remember the stock market crash of #1987, when I lost most of my Bar Mitzvah money?

Did you know that my kind-of-friend, the one I mentioned at the beginning of this column, has many residences, including one in Northern California?

Yesterday, he sent a note asking me to help settle his estate, if he burns alive, and make sure a tennis court gets named after him in the local park in our hometown near the Jersey shore.

He was kidding, but maybe also not?

I’ve tried to make sense today, even though I pushed the limits of stream of consciousness, but what do you do when things don’t make sense for so long that you forget how to keep your train of thought for more than 3 minutes at a time?

Maybe you make pictures, instead of write words?

Or you take words and mix them up so they don’t make sense, no matter how hard a reader tries to parse them?

That’s how this book ends, and it’s pretty genius, even if it did make my head hurt.

The final essay is called “Countries Glorious,” and I thought maybe it was written by a bot.

By AI.

Because the words were real, and the context could be intuited, but nothing fit.

Turns out, I learned from the end notes that it was a jumble of Trump’s actual inauguration speech.

Back in #2016.

When his crowd was so much smaller than Obama’s.

Even though he said it wasn’t.

In honor of all the lies, I’ll leave you with one last thought.

Hey Kayleigh McEnany: Fuck off!

To purchase Flowers for Donald, click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.Β 

This Week in Photography: Visiting Houston in #2020

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

I went to Houston six months ago.

Went is the past tense of the verb to go.

In Spanish, it’s ir, and in French, it’s aller.

So I would say Je suis allΓ© a Houston.

Do you remember what it means to go places? To leave your home, or your town, and transport your body somewhere else, to a different city, or state, to a different culture, with a different landscape?

Honestly, I kind of forget what the sensation feels like.

Six months ago, I did something that was, at that point, second nature to me.

As you know, if you’ve been reading regularly, I hopped around America on airplanes from 2013 to early #2020, and wrote about many of my adventures for you.

By my trip to Houston, I was so burned out on travel.

I’d been to Europe two weeks before the Texas trip, and in 2019, I went to California, New York twice, Portland, England, Chicago, and Colorado.

Now, I can barely remember what it’s like to go anywhere, and I would kill for the chance to travel, while the last time I got out of New Mexico, I was barely able to scrape my carcass onto the plane.

I suppose I can thank this truly batshit year, #2020, for reminding me what’s important in life.

 

Part 2. Getting there

 

I was headed to Houston to attend the SPE National Conference, where I’d be debuting my first book, “Extinction Party,” at a Saturday afternoon book signing.

I have some good friends in Houston, and have written about the city here several times, so while normally I would have been fired up to go, my general exhaustion dampened my spirit.

As such, I booked only a two-night-trip, and then packed my itinerary as full as I could, to suck every bit of juice from the experience.

Thank goodness I did, because those vivid memories have been my sustenance, travel-wise, for the last half-year. (Which has of course felt like five years.)

The world has changed so drastically that I got a late start writing today, because I was giving my daughter a pep talk about improving her attitude towards Zoom school and remote learning.

Back in March, on the heels of my 46th birthday, I had never heard of Zoom, and remote learning was for people studying in a different part of the world than their teachers.

Not a different part of town.

But here we are, and I’m sitting in my customary writing spot, having just chugged a cup of my super-caffeinated Jot coffee, and I’m closing my eyes to see the places I visited.

 

Part 3. Being there

 

In retrospect, a lot of the travel writing I did in 2019 pointed out the cracks in the American dam.

There were hints, which I picked up on piecemeal, of an impending crash.

I chronicled NYC becoming so expensive that it was now meant mostly for tourists, with rents no one could afford. And a development project in my hometown in New Jersey that had sat vacant for nearly 15 years, before getting a multi-million dollar infusion.

I chronicled Portland street-gang fighters, and how they mocked Antifa while admitting there were a host of white mini-gangs that liked to stir shit up.

I discussed the decline and fall of San Francisco, where the homeless issue was so bad that the city was in effect a Third World society.

The signs were there.

And when I arrived in Houston, got my rental car, and headed to my friend Ed’s apartment, in East Houston, I soon saw hints of expansion and gentrification that only happen at the very, very end of a long economic boom.

While Ed napped, I got hungry, and walked a few blocks East to a dingy strip mall where he’d once taken me to a great Thai restaurant. (Houston is a driving city, but I needed to stretch my legs.)

At the time we ate in the Thai joint, (2013) I remember Ed telling me his part of town was mostly Latino, and thoroughly un-gentrified.

There was not much around, he said.

But while the Thai restaurant was closed on me, (in between lunch and dinner service,) right next door, I found a hipster cafe, Bohemeos, with great prices for tasty, heaping plates of food, (chicken nachos,) palm trees in the outdoor courtyard, and cool, inexpensive paintings on the walls.

 

Right next door, a street-art gallery, Insomnia, had popped up, with graphic T-shirts for sale, manga and graffiti-style art on the walls, and a young hipster behind the counter who paid me no mind. (Very on brand.)

 

There was a record store next to that, so I was surprised, to say the least.

As we drove around town that weekend, Ed showed me shiny new condos build along the train tracks, (Houston famously has no zoning laws,) which he said went for $450,000, and another new condo building that was literally abutting a highway overpass.

For the uninitiated, Texas real estate is notoriously cheap compared to wealthy mega-states like California and New York, so half a million bucks to live on the train tracks is the equivalent of twice that in a blue state.

I took note, and thought things were out of whack, but even then, in early March, with Covid-19 on cusp of destroying reality as we know it, I had no idea what was coming.

 

Part 4. Get on with it already

 

Honestly, no one did.

Not really.

Because my 48 hours in the city were packed with gallery openings, museum visits, parties, dinners, FotoFest’s grand opening, and lots of hugging my friends.

A few people wanted to elbow bump, but other than that, (and the fact that people were talking about the virus,) life was essentially normal.

What would you give to go back in time and feel normal again?

After I ate my lovely nachos that Friday afternoon, Ed and I went to the Houston Center for Photography, for the opening of their fashion photography show.

It was packed, and my publisher arrived and handed me my first copy of my book, which I promptly handed off to a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for their library collection.

I was jazzed up, and talked to friends for an hour, barely getting to see the art on the walls, but I did return on Sunday, and have some photos for you.

The truth is, I saw two fashion photo exhibitions in Amsterdam two weeks prior, and both were edgy and progressive in their installation, while the HCP show had some new work, and a slew of re-printed reproductions hung in one horizontal line, so I was disappointed for sure.

 

From there, we went to Foto Relevance, a gallery run by HCP supporter Geoffrey Koslov, and it was in a very chic, Chelsea-like concrete structure that screamed of money and a big rent.

The gallery was gorgeous, and the Letitia Huckaby show was nice, but I couldn’t help wondering if this too was a sign of an economic imbalance, as the gentrified-high-rent-Museum-district was so much shinier than I remembered it.

(Houston, or H-town, is known for its keeping-it-real, diverse charm, rather than glitz.)

From there, it was on to a big, art-dinner party, in a lovely Italian restaurant, with some fellow artists, curators and collectors, and I had such great time.

I sat across from Osamu James Nakagawa, and diagonal from Brad Temkin, two super-talented artists who have been embraced by Houston, and the party was in honor of Brad’s show at the Houston Museum for Natural Science.

Needless to say, such gatherings are currently verboten. (And often illegal.)

My broccoli cannelloni was delicious.

 

Part 5. Finishing strong

 

On Saturday, I had brunch with curator friends at Barnaby’s Cafe, a local chain that all the art folks like, and the plate of food they gave me, for a reasonable fee, was 2x as big as I could eat. (Leftovers for sure.)

While perhaps not everything is bigger in Texas, certainly the food portions are.

From there, we went to the MFAH so I could sign a copy of my book, and get a tour of “Through an African Lens: Sub-Saharan Photography from the Museum’s Collection,” which featured some killer work, including a massive Zanele Muholi wheatpaste.

 

MFA,H was among the first museums to re-open in the US, earlier this summer, and they have some major health protocols in place, so maybe it’s time to go visit?

From there, I sped across the city to SPE at the Galleria, the massive mall complex in the Western part of Houston, where thousands of maskless people walked around, shopping obliviously, not knowing that the end of the world would soon be upon us.

My book signing went well, as we sold some copies, and I was always engaged talking to friends, as the photo community is so supportive.

Rather than resting afterwards, I’d set up in impromptu dinner party at Ed’s place, with curator, artist, festival and educator friends, but before that, even, I snuck in a quick trip to Cherryhurst House, a private, alternative exhibition space that was almost like a mini-Pier 24. (The San Francisco non-profit I’ve written about a few times.)

I’d met Barbara Levine, the Cherryhurst House curator, at the HCP opening the night before, and she invited me to an open house to see the space, of which I had not previously heard.

(A second open house event, scheduled for a few days later, was eventually cancelled, as we were all standing on the precipice of the cliff, we just didn’t know it yet.)

There was an exhibition of vintage album covers, presented as art, and the entire place, with its beautiful sofas and modern design, was like an art installation in which you could make yourself comfortable.


There was a photo booth, and Barbara and I crammed in together, new friends for only a day, to take our portraits.

(I haven’t been that close to someone other than my family since.)

There is a second installation on the property, an old house that was carved up into bits by a visiting artist duo, Havel Ruck Projects, in the style of Gordon Matta-Clark, and I found it fascinating and oddly beautiful.

Then I said goodbye to Barbara, and sped back to Ed’s place, late for my own party, but secure in the knowledge that others would turn up even later than I did. (As was the case.)

After a simple and tasty dinner, with friends from Chicago, Atlanta and Albuquerque, I left Ed behind and went to the FotoFest opening party, for their show “African Cosmologies: Photography, Time and the Other,” which was busy, but not packed with people crushed together. (Thankfully.)

To give FotoFest credit, I’ve never been to an art show that had so many African-American people in attendance, and it felt wonderful to be around legitimate diversity.

 

 

But I was very tired by then, and after doing a couple of laps around the massive space, I went home to bed, zipping through the empty highways, amazed that such roads could ever be quiet.

I woke up hungry, and Ed and I went to brunch with our friend Joan at Bistro Menil, after taking a turn around the neighboring park, but before we toured the Menil museum collections.

I had one of the best burgers of my life there, (Spanish-style,) and noticed friends walking across the park, though the window, sent a text, and watched them read it and smile.

Afterwards, we went to the new drawing center, and sat quietly in one of the most Buddhist, calming, invigorating shows I’ve ever encountered, by Brice Marden.

The guards insisted I not take pictures for you, and for that I apologize, as it was the last art show I saw in #2020, and possibly the best.

Will I ever see an art show again?

Will I ever get on an airplane?

I hope so.

But this deep into #2020, I really don’t know.

This Week in Photography: The ICP Online Portfolio Review

 

The sports world went on strike yesterday.

 

(As usual, I’m writing on Thursday.)

It all began when the Milwaukee Bucks, the putative best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, decided at the last minute not to take the court for their impending playoff game against the Orlando Magic.

For those of you unaware, the NBA resumed earlier this summer in a “bubble” at the Disney/ESPN campus outside Orlando, Florida.

The professional basketball league created an artificial community, cut off from the rest of America, with very stringent rules and testing procedures, to allow the players and associated staff to stay safe from Covid-19.

As there are no fans allowed in the games, the entire affair has been arranged for broadcast television, (which is now also done via streaming, for some,) so that the global audience, including millions of Americans, could have “entertainment” to soothe them from this psychotic year.

I’m a fan, and the father of a LeBron James super-fan, so I was glad to see the league resume, and have watched many games.

As the NBA is made up of predominantly Black players, and has a reputation for being the most progressive of the American sports leagues, there were special concessions made for this time of protest and strife.

In particular, the courts are painted with Black Lives Matter, and most of the players wear a slogan on the back of their jerseys, where their names traditionally go, which supports the movement as well.

(For the record, the players were offered a list of pre-approved slogans; they could not just choose whatever they wanted.)

Some players, including union leaders Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley, were concerned that by entertaining America, they were just providing a distraction from the need for social justice, which was more important than a game.

While a few players opted out of the bubble, almost everyone didn’t, but then yesterday, on the heels of the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the subsequent rioting in Kenosha, WI, including the murder of protesters by an unhinged 17 year old with a long-gun, the players went on strike.

And athletes from Major League Baseball, the WNBA, and Major League Soccer followed suit.

I was not surprised, as the day before, I’d read quotes from George Hill, a Bucks player, that expressed anger and exasperation at being in an artificial environment, playing ball instead of being out in the world, making a difference.

As of last night, the NBA players took an impromptu vote as to whether to resume the playoffs, and the LA Lakers and LA Clippers voted to cancel the season, though in an official vote today, the players decided to continue with the playoffs.

On Twitter, (where I learned of the resumption 2 minutes after it was announced,) I saw a tweet from a fellow blogger suggesting that marketers, podcasters, and others in different professions should go on strike as well.

I won’t say I considered it, because I didn’t, as part of having a weekly column for 9 years is that I’m trained to show up for you.

I’ve never missed a deadline, and don’t intend to start now.

However, while I considered writing a super-short column, (a mini-strike, if you will,) that obviously isn’t happening.

(500+ words so far.)

But, (you knew there would be a but, right,) instead, I’m coming at you with a promised column that does the next best thing: it provides direct access to a slate of diverse artists I met on Zoom earlier this summer.

I was reviewing portfolios for the school at the International Center of Photography in New York in early July, and as I wrote shortly thereafter, I saw some terrific and timely photography and art, all of which was made by women and men of color.

You know I’ve written many times, including recently, that I believe all voices in the photography world should be respected. Hell, a few years ago, (in this column) I rebranded myself as a Jewish-American, because I didn’t want to be known as a White Guy. (Ahead of my time, for sure.)

While I advocate against cutting out any particular group, (including my own,) I’ve also spent years championing work by female artists, and artists from a diversity of cultures and races whenever possible, because it’s the right thing to do, and it also affords you, the viewers, the chance to see things you would not otherwise.

A classic win-win.

So today, we’re going with “The Best Work I Saw at the ICP Online Portfolio Review,” and I’m sure you’ll dig these pictures.

Not surprisingly, most of the students I encountered were impacted by the pandemic in some way, including those who were in a 1 year program, but didn’t get to spend much time in NYC, or on campus.

As resourceful artists often do, they came up with elegant solutions, and I’ll share them with you now.

Normally, I say the artists are in no particular order, but today I’ll show them to you in the order I encountered the photographers that day.

We’ll begin with Danny Peralta, and I actually mentioned him in a previous column, as he works with diverse media, and his photographs were not what impressed me the most.

Danny is an educator and community developer from the South Bronx, in addition to being a talented artist, and he showed me a set of watercolor drawings that drew attention to the health effects of environmental pollution.

For whatever reason, eco art is often associated with white hippies, so I hadn’t seen many projects that directly tackled the issue from within a community of color.

Danny drew/painted a series about inhalers, as so many people in his community use them, due to asthma and other breathing issues due to pollution.

(I can’t breathe.)

It’s fantastic stuff, IMO.

 

 

Next, I met Zoe Golden-Johnson, who just finished her junior year of undergrad at ICP, having been in a joint-student program from St John’s University in Queens.

Due to the pandemic, Zoe was quarantining in Upstate New York, in a town near Poughkeepsie named Wappingers Falls.

Like many photographers during this strange time, (including me,) Zoe went on walks around her neighborhood, as her family had recently moved to a different part of the village, and it was all new to her. (And filled with creepy, late 19th C and early 20th C East Coast architecture.)

While at first, I told Zoe that this was not the most innovative of methodologies, a few photographs in, she showed me an image of a shadow puppet on the side of a green, siding-clad house.

It stopped me in my tracks, as it was created, rather than found, and it seemed like it had so much potential as a way of making photos.

“You should do a whole series of these,” I recommended.

Zoe smiled, and then a few images later, showed me an exquisite self-portrait, also in shadow, done in the same location.

I found it to be an exceptional picture, and hoped she’d continue working in that way. I also suggested it was brave, and a little risky, to use a stranger’s house, unless maybe it was her own home?

She confirmed it was, (no creeping necessary,) and I hope she continues working in that vein.

 

Next, I spoke to Madeline Mancini, who was in the exact same situation as Zoe, only 2500 miles away.

Madeline also finished her junior year at ICP, on loan from St. John’s, but was pandemic quarantining at her parents’ home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

(Ever the dorky New Mexican, when she said Las Vegas, I asked, “Nevada or New Mexico?”)

Madeline is into horror and suspense, weird and strange movies, and also looked at her neighborhood, and her immediate environment, trying to find the surreal and spectral in the mundane.

I’m always a sucker for normal-is-odd, so I liked this work immediately.

 

After a short break, I spoke with Violette Franchi, who spent a year at ICP after studying architecture in her native France.

Violette used her time in NYC wisely, as she learned about, and then devoted her time to exploring and photographing in Starrett City, the largest housing project in East New York, Brooklyn, which is one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the city.

While I often find myself suggesting to students that they try to mix up varied approaches to making their photographs, Violette needed no such encouragement.

She had made friends and contacts in the local community on her own, without any fixers, and used big cameras for the landscapes and establishment shots, smaller cameras when appropriate, and also mixed in video and photographs of found imagery and tv screens.

(Including images of junk mail and advertisements she found on the ground of the mail room, and shots of cheesy TV commercials pimping the development back in the 70’s.)

I found it to be a sophisticated and nuanced look at a place in time, (including the future, as she also has images of renderings of impending development,) and was seriously impressed with her drive, work ethic and talent.

A2 tower’s entrance, Starrett City, East New York, 2019. Starrett City is located on the southeast corner of the studied intersection.

View from the balcony of Jerry’s apartment, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Starrett City is the US nation’s largest federally-subsidized apartment complex. Starrett City contains 5,881 apartment units in 46 buildings, ranging from eleven to twenty stories high.

Laron and Bernard filling up their tank at Conoco gas station, East New York, 2020. Laron and Bernard are regular customers and live in East New York.

17th floor entrance doors, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Starrett City towers are all designed identically, with no designated communal spaces above the ground floor.

Archive from a TV Commercial advertising for Starrett City after its construction, 1979. Screenshot with added subtitles, 2020.

Syed, clerk at Conoco gas station, East New York, 2020. He lives with his wife and daughter in a shared house with his older brother Ali. Syed’s family is in the basement and Ali’s is upstairs. Ali and Syed emigrated from Pakistan with their parents in 1996.

Mail left out in one of the towers’ lobby, Starrett City, East New York, 2019. All the 46 towers have the same design and elements for their ground floors: two elevators in the lobby space, postboxes, a shared laundry room, the janitor’s premises and staircases.

Mackenzie, working at Ultimate Auto Parts, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2020. Mackenzie has worked at the used auto parts store for a year and a half. The store stands right by Oasis Motel, and is one of the eight auto-themed businesses within a thousand feet.

Teenage girl, standing in Starrett City’s shared outdoor spaces, East New York, 2020.

Ultimate Auto Parts store, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2020. The store stands right by Oasis Motel, on the northwest corner of the studied intersection, and is one of the eight auto-themed businesses within a thousand feet.

Tamara on her afternoon stroll, East New York, 2020. Tamara resides in a nursing home in front of Starrett City. East New York is a neighborhood with a large Russian elderly community. There are fifteen assisted living facilities and nursing home at a mile around Starrett City.

Margie, standing in her building’s lobby, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Margie is 90 years old, she was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in Starrett City for 15 years. Everybody calls her grandma in her tower.

Our Daily Bread, a given out, collected and scanned cover of a Bible, East New York, 2020.

Found, collected and scanned piece from a commercial brochure, Starrett City, East New York, 2020.

Ernesto, outside his building, Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Ernesto moved in Starrett City in 1996 and said he loved it back then. « It used to be the best place in the universe in the 90’s. Now I’m trying to get out of here. I’m two years sober.Β Β»

An older resident walks back home with groceries, Starrett City, East New York, 2020.

Jarrell’s daughter in a shopping cart at the intersection, East New York, 2020. She wanted a ride to the shop. Jarrell works as an educator and him and his family live in Starrett City.

Shortie, working at Ultimate Auto Parts, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2020. The store stands right by Oasis Motel, and is one of the eight auto-themed businesses within a thousand feet.

Shelter residents looking out the window at Oasis Motel, Flatlands Avenue, East New York, 2019. Oasis Motel is a men’s shelter located on the northwest corner of the studied crossroads. The shelter is facing Starrett City as well as the parking lot of NYC’s biggest Church, the Christian Cultural Center, soon to become a massive residential complex.

Parking lot of NYC’s biggest Church, the Christian Cultural Center, is located, East New York, 2020. The Church’s empty property is only full on Sundays. This lot will soon become the β€œUrban Village”, a massive residential complex that will face the current Oasis Motel shelter on the other side of the street.

Jerry, on his balcony on the 17th and last floor of Starrett City, East New York, 2020. Jerry was the first resident to move in his tower of Starrett City, 45 years ago. Jerry used to work as Starrett City’s postman and is now retired. He is divorced and his kids have left the apartment. Every day, he plays the numbers, resolves puzzles and volunteers at the same post office he has worked at for 20 years.

3D rendering of the future “Urban Village”, soon to be built on the Christian Cultural Center’s site, New York City’s biggest Church, East New York, 2020. The Church is located on the southwest corner of the studied intersection. This promised β€œinnovative urban living” is promoting affordable housing when the units will be unaffordable to almost 4 out of 10 East New York families. The project comes from a partnership between a real-estate developer and the Church’s pastor Rev. AR Bernard. Image made by Β© Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU).

Archive from a TV Commercial advertising for Starrett City after its construction, 1979. Screenshot with added subtitles, 2020.

After Violette, coincidentally, came another young Frenchwoman who made work in Brooklyn: Tina Levy.

Tina, like Madeline, likes the surreal and bizarre, but her work shared far more in common with the Roger Ballen, black and white, aesthetic.

Tina had studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne, and was thrilled when I suggested she consider drawing and painting as well, (like Danny,) as that was where she felt her work was headed.

But I loved these photographs, which were made in her neighborhood and local environment in Brooklyn. (Greenpoint, where I lived back in the day.)

 

After Tina, I met Beverly Logan, who had completed an MFA at ICP, and had a very different process from everyone else.

Beverly had traveled extensively, and taken a lot of pictures in her life, and told me she had an archive of 250,000 images, which she searched for fragments to build collages.

Even in a digital age, these were laborious, as she made prints of the fragments, and then assembled real life pieces, rather than using Photoshop.

They screamed of Americana, and surrealism, but had a snappy, optimistic palette that seemed to contrast with these dark times.

I mentioned Patrick Nagatani’s “Nuclear Enchantment” to her, as her smart work made me think of my late teacher, and in general was super-impressed by what I saw.

 

Finally, (yes, finally) I met with Kechen Song, who was a Chinese national living in New York for his program. (Soon to move to Syracuse U to attend the prestigious MFA program there.)

He had barely left his apartment for months, during the pandemic, and told me he’d been wearing a mask for most of year, as he knew from China’s experience the chaos and death that was headed New York’s way.

Kechen had a few projects, including this mind-numbing and amazing video of taking and recording his temperature, over and over again, until his notebook went black.

The project I want to share, though, featured images he made by hacking, or mis-using his flatbed scanner, with only objects he found on his desk.

So many of these artists had their process, (and education) impacted by the pandemic, and used those constraints to fire up their creativity. This project is the perfect example of that, as everything came off of one desk, including the art-making equipment.

 

So I’ll leave you there, along with the reminder that if the NBA players can use their platforms to send a message, and I can show up to enlighten you on the regular, and all these artists can mine the pandemic for creative fuel, I hope you can do your best work, and make a difference too.

See you next week!

This Week in Photography: Time is Hell

 

My daughter is turning eight next week.

 

Right here, in this space, I wrote about when she was born.

I discussed changing her diapers.

I shared how it felt.

It was 2012, and Barack Obama was about to be re-elected President of the United States.

His opponent, Mitt Romney, represented the Republican Party. Now, he’s one of its foremost critics, from the inside, and President Obama, out of power nearly four years, unloaded on Donald Trump in the digital version of a Democratic Party convention.

My daughter and her brother just got their first pet: a mutt that we rescued from the animal shelter.

This morning, she asked if I’d write about the dog, and so I have. (Her name is Haley, she’s a blue heeler/pit bull mix, and we already love her dearly, after only two weeks.)

#2020 feels like a different century than 2012. A different millennium.

Perhaps a different timeline entirely?

But then again, “Space is paradise, time is hell.”

I read that just now, at the beginning of a super-impressive photobook, “Fordlandia 9,” by JM RamΓ­rez-Suassi, from Madrid, published by NOW Photobooks, which turned up in the mail back in March.

I pulled the book from my stack this morning, knowing nothing about it, and my daughter spied me as I walked through the house with the cardboard box in tow.

She asked what I was going to do with the book, and I told her that I wrote about books for my work, and that sometimes I wrote about travel, but not now.

“Because you can’t travel?” she asked.

“Exactly,” I said.

But of course I can travel, in my mind.

A great photo book allows me, and all of us, to venture to far-flung parts of the world, in our imagination, if everything comes together just right.

Is time hell?

Was the quote correct?

I’m not sure I agree, but I do think time is experiential, and I’ve shared that thought with you before.

These days, people speak of Covid-time, and it’s generally accepted that #2020 feels like 10 years compressed into one.

And Einstein’s theory of relativity proves that time does change, relative to the speed of light, so why can’t it change relative to our perceptions as well?

While looking through this excellent book, time slowed down for me, and I lost track of where I was. Just as I write in flow, and forget where I am for a little while, this photobook took me out of my head, and out of my chair, and that was exactly what I needed today.

Honestly, I’m not sure if the artist is a man or a woman, given the name is comprised of initials, but I’ll check when I’m done writing and add it as a post-script, just so we know.

But I did break my traditional rule of no Googling while reviewing, and I’m glad I did. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

I was impressed from the jump with “Fordlandia 9,” as the cover has a leather spine, and leather corners, which goes a long way towards making it look like a photo album. (At significant expense, I’d imagine.)

It opens with the aforementioned quote, and then unspools a narrative in a slow, luxurious manner.

I was immediately sucked in, because the reproductions are so good. (Immaculate, really.)

There are occasional vellum pages interwoven, which I also liked.

My first thought was this was a non-linear narrative, perhaps a collection of strong images that were not connected, as there is so little to go on.

Bit by bit, though, the story became clear.

First, there are hints of Portuguese, (rather than Spanish,) and a succession of jimmy-rigged objects that imply deep poverty, and the ingenuity that comes from having to make something out of nothing.

A leg-less chair tied and propped, so that it can be used as a seat.

A piece of cardboard fashioned to be sun protection.

Given the gritty texture and implication of humidity and poverty, I imagined it was set in Brazil, but that was only an educated guess, at first.

Then we see portraits, all of which depict serious people, perhaps a bit sad, but haunting in a way that we’ve seen before from images of residents of the “Third World.”

Muddy ground, gnarled trees, cars ensnared by growing vines.

The artist also weaves in just a few black and white images, which is tough to do, but works here as a repeating motif.

I use that term all the time, repeating motif, and then at one point, a subject is repeated, sitting in an old car, the first image in color, the second in black and white, but then there is a second man, a twin or look-alike brother, and it jarred me out of my reverie.

This book is so well thought out, and so well constructed.

Towards the end, we do see the Brazilian flag appear, and that’s the only legitimate tip-off of where we are, until the end notes.

Shortly thereafter, there is another piece of text, only the second after the opening quote, and it says “Matthew 15:13.”

That’s it.

Just a verse name.

So I felt compelled to break my no-Googling rule and look it up.

There are multiple translations, but the gist is this, “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'”

(The He in question being Jesus.)

The text is placed in between one image that might be a person walking into a hole in a giant tree, (or a cave,) and right before a picture of some bent-finger-like tree branches.

Of course I took it to mean that the Amazon is being de-forested at such a rapid rate, we might all fucking die in a decade or two.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

Finally, the end note tells us the photos were shot mainly in the states of Para, Amazonas and Mato Grosso, in 2017 and 2019.

I’m not sure I’ve ever learned so much from a book with so few words.

This one is brilliant, and now that I’m back from Brazil, and back in my comfortable chair, I’m thinking less about American politics, and more about appreciating the life I have.

And hoping the planet is healthy enough that my daughter gets to live to 88.

No promises.

(PS: The artist is male.)

To purchase “Fordlandia 9” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.Β 

This Week in Photography: I Have A Dream

 

—“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone…

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., American hero, August 28th, 1963

 

—“At first I was self-conscious about photographing in these communities. What would the residents think of this white woman with a big camera photographing on their street, telling their story? But the people I met along the way calmed my fears. Although there were some exceptions, once they knew what I was doing, they were excited. The people I met were usually eager to point out things I should photograph and wanted to know when they’d be able to see the pictures.

Even though the residents I met seemed to accept me, I became acutely aware of the things I was choosing to photograph. What do my choices say about me? Am I recording a realistic picture of the communities? At several exhibitions of these photographs, people have been surprised to discover that I’m not African-American. That people don’t feel that these photos were made by an outsider is comforting to me.”

Susan Berger, photographic artist, 2019

 

Fifty-seven years ago this month, in the dog days of August, one of the most famous Americans of all time delivered one of the most famous speeches ever given.

You know it, and I know it as the “I Have AΒ Dream” speech, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read it in its entirety before today.

(Maybe I have and forgot?)

I was a little surprised to realize that it was given only one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln freed America’s slaves, (in legal terms,) via the Emancipation Proclamation.

That’s only the lifetime of a very old person.

Not much at all, when you think about it.

And as a forty-six year old American, I’ve spent many hours wondering what the 60’s were really like?

Protests, drama, riots, assassinations, chaos, near-nuclear annihilation.

The division of my fellow citizens into hippies and squares. Pro-segregation assholes versus others who craved a country where people could at least attempt to live together, or eat together, or sit in the same section of a public bus.

 

Square-jawed 1960’s square, Don Draper

 

I wondered, at the time, did people feel like the world was unraveling? Did they know that the Civil Rights movement would make changes to our broken society, without healing all the wounds caused by slavery and systemic racism?

Did they fear that things might break completely, leaving us two nations instead of one?

Did anyone have confidence that the turmoil would lead to “better” days, or were all Americans sitting on the edge of their seats, unsure if things would ever get “better” again?

Now I no longer wonder.

We’ve passed the threshold of fifty years since the sixties, and one hundred and fifty-five years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and now all Americans know what it feels like to fear whether our country can withstand the fissures that threaten to implode our historical experiment.

China and India, the two burgeoning global super-powers, are both thousands of years old.

Like, five thousand years.

By comparison, the United States of America is an extremely young society, and one that was built upon lofty ideals, but rotten realities.

You may be tired of being reminded that the institution of slavery and the theft of Native American land allowed this nation to thrive, but it is an inescapable history.

Hell, in #2020, jerkoffs like Tom Cotton have the balls to suggest that slavery was a “necessary evil.”

(You can’t make that shit up.)

And I’ve felt the need to write several columns asking you, and all of us, to open our minds to the fact that people of all races and genders “should” be able to appreciate each other, respect each other, and value contributions from those people who don’t look and sound like us.

Yet most of my friends are white.

I try, and have tried, to bridge the cultural and racial divide with friendships, and sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes it hasn’t.

Some may find me naive for thinking that our commonalities should be as important, or occasionally more important, than our differences.

If Kanye West and Jared Kushner can be friends, and plot to take America back to when it was “Great” again, why can’t we?

But enough with the sermonizing.

You come for the photography reviews, and won’t stay if you feel like I’m preaching too much each week.

Perhaps you like it when I’m funny, or say fuck and shit all the time, or maybe you like that I weave politics, cultural criticism and a deep-rooted optimism together with a love of art?

(No matter. It’s time to get on with things.)

This column was inspired by a photo book by a white Jewish lady curious about African-American culture, and I even published some of the photos already, after reviewing them at Photo Nola in 2014.

(Back in the Obama era, when despite the promise of an end of racism, we were met with no such thing.)

This week, Obama’s second-in-command, a white man from Pennsylvania, synonymous with the tiny state of Delaware, offered his second-in-command position to a woman whose parents came from Jamaica and India.

A child of immigrants, reared in that great American melting pot of California, which is supposed to represent the best we have to offer. (In my opinion, anyway, and I’m not alone, which is why nearly 40 million people live there.)

Of course I’m rooting for Joe and Kamala, not just because I respect their politics, but because I genuinely believe that if Trump wins again, America might cease to be a democratic republic by 2024.

Like a person can only take so many whip lashes before dying, America can only handle so many sustained attacks on our democratic institutions before becoming an autocracy.

And while we can hope and dream of better days, no one knows what will happen in November of #2020, one hundred and fifty five years after the end of our Civil War.

Having said all that, today I’m showing photographs from Susan Berger’s book “Life and Soul: American Streets Honoring Martin Luther King,” which was published last year by Dark Spring Press, and turned up in the mail in May of #2020.

It’s a thoughtful and well-crafted book, and one that takes a couple of risks, but it’s perfect to show today.

To begin with, in our current cultural climate, the mere fact that it exists, that it was shot by a non-African-American, would make it uncomfortable to some.

I get that, and so does Susan, which is why she wrote about it head-on in her excellent opening essay. (Accompanied by another strong essay by Frank Gohlke, a photo world legend for being a part of the seminal “New Topographics” show back in the 70s.)

They’re both a part of the tight-knit and talented Arizona photo mafia, and the end notes tell us that Susan worked for Mr. Gohlke back in day.

The end notes also give us a break-down of all the trips that Susan took to photograph MLK streets around the country, between 2009-14, trying to build a representative, (if not categorical,) view of where these streets are located and what they contain.

Apparently, but not surprisingly, they are almost exclusively in urban, African-American neighborhoods, some of which have absorbed Latino populations, and ironically the entire project was inspired by the artist driving by a sign for an MLK street in the middle of rural America.

Of course, it wouldn’t be #2020 if I didn’t point out that the resources required to fly around for one’s art, and the cost of purchasing and providing film for a medium format camera are marks of privilege.

Now it’s been said.

And I do find flaw with the other risk taken here, which is the repeating motif of reprinting close-up crops of images throughout, opposite blank, black pages.

That said, it’s an excellent book, and between the murals, statues, local restaurants, churches, small food markets, bleak vibes, (again, in the Obama era,) and hotels named after Dr. King, it certainly presents a vision of poverty and decline.

I suspect that Dr. King would be disappointed to know that this deep into the 21st Century, things are still as bad as they are.

Access to education and health care is still so uneven.

And among the tens of thousands of dead in this god-awful pandemic, too many are people of color.

But I also suspect that he might not like the manner in which like-minded people of different races distrust each other, and attack each difference, rather than building upon our common values.

Maybe it was always thus?

I’ll end here on a message of hope, just so you don’t feel like overdosing on sleeping pills.

We always have the opportunity to learn from the past, and the future has not yet been written.

Though many Americans have bought into Trump’s politics of hate and division, there are nearly 330 million people living in this Great country of ours, and I believe that a majority, enough to win the next election, (despite the obvious cheating he’ll try to engender,) desire a country in which we we can, indeed, all get along.

(Or at least most of us.)

To purchase “Life and Soul” click hereΒ