Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography: Racism and Art

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

I have a question.

 

Do you think everyone is racist?

 

Personally, I don’t. And I wrote as much a few weeks ago, when I claimed I’m not racist.

Given all the supposedly controversial things I write here, I’ve expected someone to come after me, at some point, and pull something out of context.

And it may yet happen.

But I also believe that some people, (frankly a lot of people,) don’t hate and disrespect others based solely on the color of their skin, or their ethnicity.

(And I’ve written about the evils of structural racism many times.)

If you’ve been reading all along, you know I’m happy to admit my failings, and have chronicled my own privileged youth, so I try to keep it real for you each week.

Hell, I even called out the NYT for building a super-diverse room, at their annual portfolio review, but encouraging conditions where each racial/ethnic group stuck to its own.

What’s the point of that?

Maybe it’s because I’m a “bohemian artsy type,” but for me, few things are more pleasurable than hanging out with people from different parts of the world, or different cultures.

As I wrote last week, when we come together, it creates an energy that is as addictive as it is infectious. Of course, the one thing that can get in the way is one’s political philosophy, because while I try to treat each person with respect, that falls apart when we’re talking about people who don’t respect others.

(Like all the Texans and Arizonans who won’t value other people’s health by wearing masks or social distancing in their home states, and then come to New Mexico and disregard our public health ordinances. Fuck those guys!)

I’m on this rant for two reasons, which will hopefully become obvious before this column is done.

First off, I came across a story on Twitter yesterday, where the actress Jenny Slate left a Netflix show, “Big Mouth” because she had been hired and paid to be the voice actress for a character who was half Black, and half Jewish-American.

Truth: I’d never seen the show, and typically find Jenny Slate to be annoying every time I’ve seen her on screen.

I’m literally not a fan.

But her mea culpa letter on Instagram felt like something from a Maoist re-education camp, in which she wrote:

“I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play “Missy” because her mom is Jewish and White- as am I. But “Missy” is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people. I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing “Missy,” I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”

Cultural Revolution propaganda poster

 

Have we gotten to the point where an actress accepting a job a few years ago, in which the character is 50% her ethnicity, means she was complicit in “the erasure of Black people”?

I’m having a hard time with that one, even though it’s obvious now that such jobs need to go to Black people.

Couldn’t she have stepped down gracefully, doing the right thing in letting Black actors voice Black characters, without the massive and awkward public apology?

Especially because I watched an egregious act of racism on Top Chef All Stars this week, yet I found no mention of it anywhere in the media.

My wife and I were bingeing the series, right before the finale, and came upon an episode where the chefs were pitching concepts for a restaurant, with the top 2 chosen for the traditional “Restaurant Wars” episode.

One chef, Eric Adjepong, a Ghanian-American, pitched a restaurant called “Middle Passage,” which was in honor of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Food from Eric Adjepong’s website

 

The judges passed.

Another chef, white-guy Kevin Gillespie, from Georgia, pitched a concept called “Country Captain,” which promised “Plantation” food, and he WAS chosen.

Primarily because his main dish, the eponymous Country Captain, was the first American version of chicken curry, as the necessary spices were brought over in the 19th Century.

If you can believe it, no mention was made that the spice trade was interconnected with the slave trade, which brought SLAVES to those plantations.

WTF!

And it gets worse…

Eric Adjepong was actually the chef who was eliminated that week, and one reason, (beyond his food not being good enough,) was that the judges called his concept confused, because he wanted his restaurant to have both fine dining quality food and causal service.

They could not comprehend such an idea.

One judge, former Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, from Chicago, actually said to him that it sounded like he didn’t want his service to be “uppity.”

UPPITY!

 

 

To recap: Top Chef supported a concept about Plantation food, with spices brought over along with the slave trade, and cut one of only two African-American contestants, while using the word “uppity” while chopping the Black guy, and rewarding a chef who has a restaurant literally called “Gunshow.”

(As in, the only places where Americans can buy guns without background checks.)

 

 

Say what you will about Jenny Slate, but I checked out “Big Mouth” this morning for a minute, to see if she had done the voice acting equivalent of “blackface,” but she had not.

(It was kind of a nerd voice.)

How does one group of actors self-excoriate, when the other act of racism isn’t even in the public consciousness?

Maybe because systemic racism is so systemic that most people don’t know or care that it’s there until mass protest movements form?

(And because legitimate, self-aware artists can sometimes get caught up in a wave of shame.)

Jenny Slate, and Nick Kroll, who created “Big Mouth,” are both Jewish-Americans, and “our” group has been the victim of hatred for Millennia. (Nick Kroll also issued a public apology.)

Frankly, I think it’s time all the rational, cool people unite against our common enemy, Donald J Trump, (and his maskless hordes,) and make sure to vote the asshole out, no matter what!

 

Part 2: The Good Stuff

 

I swear, today, my goal was to write about the amazing art I saw at the Rijksmuseum, back in Amsterdam in February.

I was lucky enough to get press access, in the only free hour I had, and was there for the brilliant, inspirational Caravaggio/Bernini exhibition.

As I’d learned about art in Rome, back in 1997, of course these two are among my favorite artists of all time.

Proper geniuses.

The best of the best.


 

Then, getting to roam through the Rembrandts and the Frans Hals paintings, and the Vermeers as well…

I saw so much great shit.

And I want to show it to you in a nice set of images.

 

But I also remember walking through Amsterdam, and overhearing a tour guide instructing his followers in a bit of the city’s history.

The reason all those great paintings exist is that the Dutch had the Western World’s first middle class, due to their Republic in the 17th Century, because of all their global raiding.

And they took part in the slave trade too!

They colonized like motherfuckers, from Indonesia to South America to my hometown of Holmdel, New Jersey.

The Dutch, these days, are the most progressive, cool, open-minded people out there.

But it’s mostly because their ancestors were a bunch of resource-and-people stealing assholes 400 years ago.

And most of the great art, through the Millenia, was made in service of money and power.

I’ve taught art history, and I’ll tell you, almost all the good old shit is basically religious and/or political propaganda.

The spoils of war are what we worship.

How do we reconcile that?

I’m not sure we can.

But if anyone starts trying the burn down the museums, and the paintings, I’ll pull out my martial arts and try to defend our collective history.

(Or at least, I tell myself I will.)

Because art is about creation, and it’s one of the few things we can hold up against centuries of destruction, and death, and feel good about.

Right?

Then again, if the biggest museums offered equal space, acclaim, and respect to non-Western traditions, maybe we’d have a less racist world?

Maybe if the museums, (at least in America,) which are supported by billionaires and oligarchs, were themselves less a part of the structural racism problem, we’d already be living in a better country?

Like I said, there are no easy answers.

But at least we can ask the right questions.

This Week in Photography: Searching for Hope

- - Fashion

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

America is sick right now.

Like, really sick.

We’ve reached a point in our history where there is no longer any such thing as “our history.”

It’s gone.

How do I know?

Because the statues are coming down, and the guns are going up.

For real.

This week, here in New Mexico, someone got shot at a protest in Albuquerque.

A protest in front of an art museum, where a bunch of protestors were attacking an intricate sculpture that had been dedicated to the colonial history of the Spanish conquistadores.

(Conquerers.)

I stood in front of the art piece, in 2018, filled with awe, because it actually contains an entire wagon train, filled with all sorts of colonists, and pack animals, and also includes the family names of all the Spaniards who crossed the world to take over New Mexico.

 

The protestors were mainly interested in the lead guy, Juan de OΓ±ate, who colonized New Mexico, massacring the indigenous population as a result, including chopping off the feet of many a Native American.

The guy was a monster.

But for centuries, he was revered by the Spanish-descended locals, and despised by the Native Americans.

As I’ve written here before, then the United States came in, took the land from Mexico and the Native Americans, and became the enemy of both.

But at this protest, there were apparently some heavily armed right wing counter-protestors, calling themselves the New Mexico Civil Guard, who menaced the left wingers with the implication of violence.

Which then became actual violence when a right wing Latino shot someone.

And then people asked, where were the police?

Except so many of these protests have been about defunding the police, when they haven’t been about our criminal President, or systematic racism.

Who will protect us from the heavily armed right wingers, if not the heavily armed (often right wing) police forces?

People are shooting in the streets to defend one set of stories against another.

And to be clear, I have no love for OΓ±ate, and think it’s wrong to deify monsters.

I’m just saying, we’re way, way past Rodney King’s cry of “Can’t we all just get along?”

 

Part 2. The Middle Part

 

As I joked in the column two weeks ago, George Washington is now seen as a bad guy, for owning slaves, despite the fact that Americans have revered him for centuries as the father of this country.

I’ve written many, many times that American society was built on the twin evils of slavery, and the genocide of Native America, but that history, (Howard Zinn style,) is now in a war with the one that believes White Christians have always run the show, done what they wanted, and expect to continue with that deal, such as it works for them.

So I ask you, where do we go from here?

Without any sense of a unifying force, how does it get better?

Where is the hope?

That is the question I asked myself today, searching desperately for a column idea, because deadlines are deadlines.

Content must be provided.

And then…

And then…

Inspiration came, from the most unlikely of sources.

Instagram, brought to you by Mark Zuckerberg, a man who loves money and power so much that, even as a Jewish-American, he has no compunction against empowering the kind of right wing psychopaths that would like to see all Jews dead.

Say what now?

I was scrolling through Instagram, literally grasping for any sort of hope, and there it was.

Just waiting for me to notice.

 

Jennique and her family at the KETURA shop

Because, as you don’t know, one of the absolute highlights of my trip to Amsterdam last winter was the time I spent at KETURA, a super-hip streetwear shop, and I came home with this awesome, gender-neutral jacket, that may or may not make me a cultural appropriator every time I put it on.

KETURA jacket, “Navajo Red” fence, blue sky, and Arizona fire smoke

(Yes, I’m wearing it right now.)

 

Part 3. The story

 

I’d heard that there was a ferry to take me to a photo museum in Amsterdam, and I knew it left near the back of Central Station, because I saw the boats on my desperate search for a bathroom. (Previously covered.)

So as I was walking through the station, on a a fact finding mission, my eyes were Shanghaied by the amazing, colorful fabrics I saw in a blur to my right. (I was walking really fast, hence the blur.)

I immediately changed course, and headed right inside the shop. As it happens, there are some amazing streetwear stores in the middle of the train station, including the uber-trendyΒ “Daily Paper,” where I also got to know some of the folks. (Including a cool guy named Godsend.)

But as soon as I entered KETURA, I saw the owner, Jennique and a her children, hanging out.

 

She could not have been more friendly, grounded, and cool if she tried.

I began trying things on, just because, but they were mostly too small for me, as even though they’re unisex, they’re (probably) more intended for women.

As the Instagram post states, Jennique is Surinamese, as the Dutch colonized the South American country years ago. And she actually lives in Antwerp, Belgium, and commutes to Amsterdam, where her twin sister lives.

Her husband is Moroccan, so his North African country was colonized by the French.

The kids speak Dutch/Flemish, I think, or maybe just French, but probably both.

They don’t speak English, so while at first they were suspicious of me, as I kept smiling and being nice, eventually we made friends.

While I was chatting with Jennique, at one point, she got distracted, and then distraught, as a man was “this” close to stealing some of her things, and running, but she stopped him at just the right moment.

That was stressful.

I asked her to hold the one jacket that fit me, as I was headed out on an adventure around the city, and then I came back later to buy it.

Such a great price, like maybe 35 Euros?

She gave me a beautiful orange scarf, as a gift for my wife, and then I went back the next day to buy a big piece of fabric to protect some of the leftover sheets I took back from the printer. (So they wouldn’t get ruined in my luggage.)

 

Scarf and fabric

 

Of course, I’d already dropped the book pages once, in the Utrecht train station, while I was trying to protect them from the rain.

(So I guess I just didn’t want to get them MORE ruined.)

Jennique and her sister were so nice, and positive. Hanging out in the shop, chatting about fashion and art, and making smiley faces at her children, who could not understand a word I said, was an energizing experience.

It was the absolute pure essence of how humans can make each other better, and stronger, when we value difference, and look for connection.

And she assured me the jacket looked good on me, and that I could pull it off. (Also, I told her I’d let my wife wear it sometimes.)

Before this moment, I haven’t worn it once, because there has been nowhere to go, the last few months.

No cities to prowl.
No parties to attend.
No hipsters to impress.

Oddly, all the things I tried on next door at “Daily Paper” didn’t look quite right.

The colors, while stylish, didn’t match my skin tone.

And now that I get all their ads on Instagram and Facebook, and see all their models are Black, I understand the clothes aren’t (really) meant for me.

What about my KETURA jacket though?

Do I pull it off?

While America is clearly not the melting pot we were promised, do we have any hope for a better future?

If so, we need to look not to our politicians, but to our artists.

To our neighbors.

To ourselves.

This Week in Photography: The Cycle of History

 

 

I’m high on fancy coffee at the moment.

 

It’s a slick new kind of brew, invented by an acquaintance, and gifted to me by a friend.

Jot, they call it, and it’s a bougie concentrate that comes in a glass bottle.

I’ve been using it to power up in the mornings lately, as I have taken some time off from my creativity enhancer, to which I often refer, but rarely name directly. (You may think of her as Maria.)

I’m not going too long today, because the world is fucking bonkers, and I’ve written a lot of heavy, intricate articles in the column lately.

Had I not woken up on the serious side of the bed today, I’d likely have tried to write something absurd, but then again, it would have failed.

Other than my comedian cousin, Ken Krantz, who manages to mine even this chaos for laughs, I just don’t have it in me. (Sample joke from his Facebook feed last night: “I picked a bad week to invest all of my money in racist statues.”)

Thankfully, today has provided me with some apt, and unmissable symbolism, so we’re going with the flow, instead of swimming against it.

As you saw at the outset, I’m leading with Trump, because even for him, the tweet was nonsensical.

He is, if I understand correctly, referring to his defense of Confederate statues, and history, in the media this week.

We have come full circle, in American history, to the point where the President of the United States is more proud of the losing side of the Civil War than he is the winners.

He more relates to the vanquished, racist, Southern, secessionist government than he does to the victorious one he leads.

WTF?

I’d say Abe Lincoln is turning over in his grave, but I’m pretty sure he’s actually up in heaven planning an invasion to take back the White House.

Can you imagine, Lincoln and FDR, rallying the troops, while telling George Washington he has to stay home because he was a slave owner? Or was GW denied entry into the happy side of the afterlife because he owned other humans?

Does the good outweigh the bad for Old George?
(It’s not for me to say.)

But in what I’d leave to coincidence, if the world weren’t so laden with symbolism at the moment, today, I opened a letter from one of my dearest friends, Edward Osowski, and I extracted a magazine article from August 1970.

Nearly 50 years old, and he saved it all this time, before gifting it to me.

Why me, and why now?

Because the “Evergreen Review” that month featured an insanely well written article, by John Lahr, about Richard Avedon’s major retrospective, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

 

Minneapolis!

As I’d like to keep it (kind of) short today, I’m going to photograph the entire article, and really hope you’ll take the time to enlarge the photos and read it.

It’s that good, and relevant.

People don’t write like that today, as I’m a well-respected critic, yet I fill these posts with bad words and pop culture references.

Not then.

Sample quote: “In present postwar America, normality has become the nations’s most oppressive fantasy. The bourgeois dream is unheroic: life is organized to eliminate physical and spiritual risk.”

Or this: “Obsession is a way of coping with death, and this spiritual and psychic decay clings to modern America like a bad smell.”

Or this: “Society masks its neurosis with a compulsive misuse of power. The impulse is to eliminate dissent, and, in doing, to allow political fantasy to go unchallenged.”

Eliminate dissent, political fantasy?

How is this not referring to today?

Because what happened 50 years ago has come back around again, with the rage of 1970, due to the dumpster fire America was in the 1960’s, paralleling the shitstorm of #2020, in which the pent up anger of People of Color and Millennials in the 21st Century has combusted for all to see.

The Avedon portraits included in the article are pretty sublime, from the uncertainty in Ike’s eyes, the woe in Bogart’s, to the sad resignation of Marilyn Monroe.

Above them all, though, is the psychotic, hate-filled, evil-confident glare that George Wallace gives to Avedon, the gay (or bisexual) photographer.

Normally, I’d say he’s projecting it into the camera, for the audience, but in this case, I think he goes extra hard, because the man behind the camera was not straight.

Wow, is this a scary photograph.

I look at it, and it makes me feel awful, yet I have a hard time looking away.

And as we all know, back then, a man of Wallace’s racist pedigree was not able to ascend to the highest office in the land, but today, he has.

People compare Trump to Wallace all the time.

And will we let him stay there, or will we vote him out?

And who are we anyway?

Does America still have one “we,” or are we now two totally separate societies?

In the last week and a half, desperate for any sense of social life IRL, I attended an outdoor (safe distance) pizza dinner with my two teaching mentors, and we chatted for 3 hours.

But rather than satisfy my craving, it left me wanting, because it was one of those talks where everyone took their turn, said their bit, and then waited for their next turn.

Nobody but me asked any questions.

And I was accused of “not listening” by someone who was clearly… not listening.

Try as I might, I could not stir curiosity in them, and at one point, when my friend (in his early 70’s,) was so sure that we’d be in a Civil War in a few months, I asked him why he wasn’t planning to move.

He glared at me with anger, which I’d never seen directed my way before, and said, “You don’t know me very well! I’m going to fight. I’m ready to die in this new war that’s coming!”

WTF??

Rather than lick my wounds and admit defeat, I set up another chat with another “wise old head,” and halfway through our outdoor hang-out, at his place, he dropped the “N” word in casual conversation.

Again, I ask you, WTF???

Each of the three guys told me stories about the riots and protests of the 60’s, but two of them could not make the right connections to today, IMO.

And the one who seemed to most “get it,” was the one who used the most racist word in America.

(In case you’re wondering, I let it slide with a clear, disapproving look the first time, and then I called him on it when it came up again.)

How do I land this column?

How do I keep it short?

Well, I’ll tell you, this review by John Lahr, and the photographs by Richard Avedon, inspired me. They gave me the sense that we have been here before, and the protest movement 50 years ago created change.

But then, looking back over the images, I realized something.

Each subject Avedon photographed, from artists to presidents to murderers to priests to daughters of the American Revolution, was white.

All of them.

So when we hear our colleagues, People of Color, screaming that they don’t have enough opportunities to be paid for their work, when they aren’t getting the jobs, we need to listen.

And I’d also argue that we might benefit more from uniting against a common enemy, racism/facism, than we will from fighting amongst ourselves.

Because the final weird thing that happened this week?

Last Friday, after a 4 hour Zoom party with my liberal, city-dwelling Hipster friends, all of whom were white, I joined the end of another party, with my cousin’s crew, and was among the last three men standing.

A mutual friend was also on the call, a 6’4″ African American guy I hadn’t seen in 15 years, and it turned out he was a Black Republican.

He told me how much he appreciated that I didn’t judge him for having his own opinions.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

This Week in Photography: Black Lives Matter

 

“I am more interested in creating bridges across which we can experience realities other than our own, whether it be those of marginalized people or not.” Eric Gyamfi

 

Eric Gyamfi, “Fixing Shadows” at FOAM

 

Part I. The Intro

 

Yes, it’s another one of those articles where I begin with a quote.

For all columns I’ve written over the years, I’ve only done that a handful of times.

Occasionally, it’s the right move.

Like today.

It was hard to know where to go, in a week like this, because it feels like the Earth is shifting under our feet, minute to minute.

Just last Tuesday, I had a Zoom call with a bunch of my Antidote students, and life seemed at least a little normal.

Not NORMAL, obviously, but we were able to focus on life and work.

Coincidentally, there were folks in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Oakland, LA and Brooklyn.

Within a day or two, almost everyone but me was living in a world filled with riots and protests.

Just like when the pandemic dropped, it seemed a new reality had been created, fully formed, and it was not like the one that came before.

Oh, by the way, almost everyone on the call was white.

 

Part 2. What to say?

 

I find myself in the odd position of having already written about almost all of the underlying causes of this new reality, in this column, over the last 8.5 years.

Those of you who have been reading all along know that via photo books, exhibitions, and travel experiences, in my opening rants, I’ve covered systemic racism, class exploitation, Donald Trump, and America’s disgusting history of oppression.

All while trying to maintain a sense of optimism about the future of the country, and the world.

And while I’m obviously a Jewish-American, I’ve done the best I can to empathize with, and humanize, people from around the world.

Gay, straight.
Black, white.
Male, female, and other genders.

I do the best I can to keep it real, and check my bias at the door, but given the privilege with which I grew up, I know there are some experiences I can’t “know.”

As a Caucasian in the suburbs of New Jersey, I had safety, security, and could walk into a store, or down the street, without anyone profiling me.

(With my big nose, I did hear Jewish jokes, but that’s not the same thing.)

It was all pretty chill for me in Jersey until 2003, when I was began my MFA thesis project at Pratt, which required repeated visits to my hometown of Holmdel, NJ.

Given that 9/11 had happened only 2 years prior, and that the suburbs were known for quiet streets, simply walking along, minding my own business, taking pictures with an early version digital camera, I became a target of the police.

Twice, I was stopped, and harassed, because I had a pony tail, a goatee, and a camera in my hand.

 

Dirt road

Garage, circa 1720

Junior High School Gym

Neighborhood watch

 

Eventually, my Aunt, who lived in town, reached out to the Chief of Police, and got me an official letter, claiming I was a former town resident, and had his permission to be there.

That alone is a mark of privilege.

But then, a couple of months before we moved away in 2005, I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle’s home, and when we pulled up in front, Jessie and I were arguing a bit, so we stayed in the car for two minutes to sort out our business, before going inside.

After the two minutes, we looked up and saw a police car.

They pulled up, stopped, got out, and approached the car.

By now, I should mention that I had a black Chevy blazer, in decent shape, and the dented back bumper would have been out of their view anyway.

But we had New York license plates, and it was not a Mercedes. Or a BMW.

Or a Bentley.

That was enough, and when they approached, and started asking questions, we told them who we were, and why we were there.

I grew up in town, and graduated near the top of my class. I attended the elementary school that was only two hundred yards behind us.

No matter.

They profiled us as hippies, undesirables, and told us they would not leave until we were let into the house.

I was scared, even though I’d grown up in Holmdel, and knew my family would open the door.

It was a terrible feeling, and when I complained to my Uncle, he said, “Good, I’m glad they stopped you. People like you don’t live here, so it’s their job to keep an eye out.”

People like you.

This is a true story.

And though I still love my Uncle very much, he is, in fact, a Republican.

 

Part 3. Getting to the point

 

I could tell you that my son has been discriminated against in his school, because he’s white.

He had to defend himself in fights, multiple times, and then got cut from the 6th grade basketball team, because it was Hispanics and Native Americans only.

His friends even admitted it to him, openly, because everyone knows that the white kids play soccer.

I’ve felt plenty of racism here too, over the last 25 years, but at least I know it comes from resentment of American oppression.

It’s more what the color of my skin represents, rather than the skin itself.

It represents power, and the fact that America took this territory from Mexico.

Which is why, despite the anecdotes I just shared, I have no illusions that I know what it’s like to be an African-American man in America.

I don’t.

I try to imagine the feeling, but that’s as far as I’ll get.

Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from writing politically here, for years, nor has it blunted my desire to speak truth to power when I can.

 

Part 4. I thought you were getting to the point

 

I want to write more about Amsterdam for you, to joke about the fun I had, and tell you how I almost died.

But it doesn’t feel right.

Rather, I went back through my photographs, to jog my memory a bit, and thank the art gods, I have just the right thing for today.

The opening quote, which I did my best to illuminate from my own perspective, comes from Eric Gyamfi, a young Ghanian photographer who won the Foam 2019 Paul Huf award.

Part of the prize was a solo show at FOAM in Amsterdam, and I was lucky enough to see it, back in February.

(Before the world changed, and shut.)

The opening gallery, with diaristic photos of various sizes pasted to the wall, was kind of cool.

But it didn’t blow me away.

And even after reading an article about Gyamfi and Queerness, in Aperture, I’m still not sure if the artist identifies that way.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because the next set of galleries represented one of the best photo exhibitions I’ve seen in years, and while it was perfect for the moment, (pre-pandemic,) it’s even more appropriate now. (During the protests and riots.)

As you’ll see in the photos, and video, the walls were covered with thousands of portraits of an African male.

 

(If Gyamfi were from here in the US, I’d say African-American, but he is not.)

They’re cyanotypes, which made the rooms a sea of calming blue, but some of the pictures reminded me of post-lynching portraits.

These were not happy pictures.

Nor were they even images of a real person.

 

In a conceptual hook that is not as interesting to me as the results, the artist made composites of himself, and an experimental music composer, Julius Eastman, so they should all be at least a little different.

Like fingerprints.
Or snowflakes.

There were mirrors in several places, so course a selfie-obsessed populace was taking pictures the entire time.

(Including me.)

I’d make sure to take some time to look at the walls, to “see” the art, and then I’d pull out the camera again, and set myself up in just the right spot.

Of all the other people I saw in the gallery, everyone was so busy shooting pictures of the work, (and themselves,) almost no one was looking at the walls without a camera.

At one point, someone even tried to explain to me where to stand, to get the best angles.

 

I have to imagine the artist expected this reaction.

That he wanted it that way.

Because while art often reflects us back to ourselves, this was showing human behavior at a crass, dehumanizing level.

But then again, the subject of the pictures was not even a real human.

Instead, a computer-generated hybrid.

More a stand in for all African, African-British, African-French, African-American men who are not seen as themselves.

They’re seen for the hoodie, or the stereotype.

courtesy of The Guardian

 

George Floyd, for example, was a massive guy. His friends called him a gentle giant, but Derek Chauvin didn’t see a man.

He saw a creature.
An animal.

And he murdered the man, the human, because he didn’t see him as human.

Nobody would do what he did, on camera no less, kneel on a man’s neck until he’s dead, unless he thought he could get away with it.

(And I say this having been in choke holds before, and having applied them, in martial arts.)

That act, (along with the previous thousands, and the recently publicized murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,) so perfectly represented what it means to be a person of color in the United States.

It means you don’t get justice.

It means the cops can kill you, and people can harass you wherever you go, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The rage builds and builds.
Gets worse and worse.

And finally, when the match is lit, the fire erupts.

We may hate to see images of looting, it may fill us with dread, or maybe it doesn’t?

Either way, we can’t understand it without at least attempting to imagine how it would feel to be powerless against a system of oppression and state-sanctioned violence.

Of limited opportunities, and shitty health care.

Of insane proportions of Covid-19 deaths, compared to other races.

In the last 6 months alone, here in the column, I asked if China’s imprisonment of the Uighurs was any worse than the millions of African-Americans locked up here in the US.

And I wondered whether our culture, which always values the individual over the society, was in a more precarious position than we realized.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I invoked Karl Fucking Marx, to try to make sense of the naked exploitation of the working class.

I’m no Communist, believe me, but there was no other idea set that could explain that evidence.

It suggested we were on the verge of a Revolution, in attitude, if not in reality.

I’m also no Anarchist, and I’m rooting for the USA to figure this shit out.

To care about justice for all.

To do the hard work of humanizing ourselves to each other. And the Other to ourselves.

So I’m trying it here today.

I know that I’m not a racist, and I’m proud that I try hard to relate to, and appreciate, people from other walks of life.

But then again, I had an Aunt who knew the Chief of Police, and he wrote me a letter of protection.

And I took selfies in that blue room, that psychological experiment that Eric Gyamfi created in Amsterdam, which means I’m complicit too.

We all are.

And if we’re going to get out of this mess, we’ll have to find new levels of respect and appreciation for each other, and our differences.

Because while an eruption in the streets is often the result of generations of exploitation, while it draws attention to injustice, it cannot solve the problem alone.

Nor should it.

We need real change, and new laws. We need to see this as the beginning of a Second Civil Rights Movement, not a Second Civil War.

Stay safe and healthy out there, and see you next week.

This Week in Photography: Sitting for a Virtual Portrait

- - Working

 

All ________ people look alike.

We’ve all heard the racist expression before, which has been applied to a host of ethnicities, and is clearly untrue.

So it’s ironic that my doppelgΓ€nger in the photo world doesn’t resemble me at all.

Like, we could not look much more different, while still being similarly sized humans.

To whom am I referring?

Jon Feinstein, my fellow Jewish Jonathan, who’s also a photographer, writer and educator.

We have EXACTLY the same job, though we’ve shown our work in different spaces, and written for different publications. (How he managed to keep a relationship going with the assholes at Vice, I’ll never know.)

Coincidence or not, I met Jon at my very first portfolio review, in Santa Fe in 2009, and we’ve stayed in touch casually ever since.

Me and Jon, Santa Fe, 2009

Last year, he was kind enough to do a story on “Extinction Party” for the Humble Arts Blog, and I think it was the first time we officially worked together. (10 years people. Relationship building is a long-term endeavor.)

Even though we look different from one another, (and I’m the Gen-X’er to his elder Millennial,) there have been multiple times during my career when someone thanked me for curating their work into a show, or publishing it online, but it wasn’t me.

Of course when I tell them that, they always look at me funny, at first, as if I’m fucking with them.

“Sorry,” I’ll say. “That’s Jon Feinstein. My last name is Blaustein. We’re not the same person.”

It’s gotten to the point that Jon and I joke about doing a project together called Jonathan Something-stein, or Jonathan ______stein, because there must be more of us out there.

He even planned a prank where we’d swap tables at Filter Photo last September, and we were all set to do it, but he had to miss the festival due to a death in the family.

Needless to say, I respect and appreciate his taste, so when I got an email from him last month, suggesting I look into a friend’s project, I said sure, and then promptly forgot about it for a month or so.

Jon was recommending Robert Canali, a San Francisco-based, Toronto-born artist who’d started up a pandemic response project, and did it in just the right way. (I now know.)

All details I’ll share, henceforth, I learned yesterday, when I became a portrait sitter for the first time, (maybe ever,) and the process was fascinating enough that I’m writing about it here. (For the record, Manjari Sharma asked me to be a subject for her shower series, back in 2010, but I politely declined, being too insecure about my body at that point.)

So, where were we?

I followed up with Rob a month later, and booked a slot on an efficient digital calendar system, but for what, I was not sure.

I only knew he was using Zoom.

The gist is, a sitter reaches out to Rob, and in many cases, based on the social media buzz he generated, he has no idea who the person will be.

Though I normally do research on everyone I work with, Jon’s vouch, plus my own desire to be creatively curious, meant I knew nothing about him either. (Which surprised him.)

The scheduled 45 minute appointment begins with an introductory chat, and because I’m a curious journalist, (and like trying to entertain people,) our appointment ended up going long.

Straight off, he explained what would transpire, and why he created his anthropological project to begin with.

Like many of us, Rob was trapped in his home early, and was limited to the materials he had on hand. So he got working, (as I’ve encouraged you all to do many times,) and also got out of his comfort zone, as he had not done portraiture previously.

He realized he could use his iPad screen to expose photo paper, (much like Robert Heinecken did on TV screens in the 80’s to mock Reagan,) and then played with the process.

 

by Robert Heinecken

 

By inverting the image on the iPad screen, the resulting print becomes a paper positive, as if he left the image alone, he’d get a paper negative instead. (He called the iPad his enlarger.)

After that, it’s into the fixer, and you’re done.

In order to get the image to render, though, the technology needs a lot of time to soak up the person’s visage, which is being beamed along fiber-optic cables around the country, or the world.

But how do you do this with with complete strangers?

That’s where the interview process comes in.

Writing everything by hand, with a pencil in a notebook, he asks his sitters a few questions to create rapport, and also gather data.

I believe I was his 173rd subject, so at that sort of scale, it allows for a collection of personal information, and stories, that relate directly to our upended lives in #2020, due to the fucking virus who shall not be named. (The Voldemort virus?)

I found Rob to be charming and thoughtful, so the chat was an enjoyable experience as he explained the process to me, prior to the official interview.

Basically, he asks people to sit still, and play a specifically chosen set of music for 15 minutes, so that the image will render, and the environment will be curated.

Music is meant to be shared, he told me, and I said, “So is art.”

Once I knew what I was getting into, he hit me with the questions. (I’m paraphrasing the exact words, but not the meat of his questions.)

1. How has the pandemic changed your life for the worse?

I responded that at 46, I’d spent years building up a self-care regimen to support my mental health. It worked, as I am a relatively healthy, successful person with a loving family.

Martial arts, watching sports on TV, visiting friends at festivals, and having alone time in my house were at the top of my list.

Now I’d lost them all, and finding new ways to stay healthy, while also mourning those I’d lost, was a challenge.

2. Has anything in your life improved?

I admitted that for most of #2019, my wife and I would regularly say, “I wish I could press a pause button on life. I need a break so badly!” Again and again, we wished we could get off the ride, so as to visualize what the next phase in life might be.

And then our dreams became an actual nightmare, as a pause happened under the worst case scenario. (Outside of nuclear war, I suppose.)

Sure enough, after 10 weeks of enforced isolation, we have finally begun to figure out what we wanted next out of life, and how to go about restructuring things once a “new normal” returns.

3. Is there anything about life, when it returns to a “new normal” that you think will be changed permanently?

I told him the truth, which is that no one on Earth knows what comes next, at this point.

I don’t know what will change, and neither do you.

The only thing I’m certain of is that things will be permanently different in ways we can’t visualize yet.

I said, “When the planes hit the Twin towers, who would have thought that everyone would have to take off their shoes and belts at the airport forever?”

After that, I cued up my music, which was the middle portion of Bill Withers’ brilliant debut album, “Just As I Am,” from 1971.

RIP Bill Withers

He told me I could only blink, and not move at all, so I settled into a lotus position in a good chair, with a pillow behind me for lumbar support, and then asked where to look?

I realize that staring at the green light on my webcam would hurt my eyes, so I chose a spot just outside my bedroom window, where some Aspen leaves were shimmering in the breeze.

In Rob’s process, at that point, he turns off his webcam and his speaker.

He disappears, and I was left with my music, my trees, and my stillness.

Obviously, it felt like meditating, and because the songs were both powerful and emotional, a serious tone was set.

It was amazing.

I don’t remember the last time I sat that still, without my mind wandering.

You can only blink.

By the time he came back, and said we were done, I wasn’t cramped, or bored, and probably could have gone longer.

I felt refreshed from the meditation, and energized by being a part of someone else’s creative process.

“This should probably be this week’s column,” I said, and Rob quickly agreed to share his images with us.

My only caveat was, I needed to see the photographs first.

Given the process, they look like ghostly 19th Century pictures, which is a great visual connection to the past, given that photographers also required still sitters then too.

The truth is, the prints are soft and pasty in the best way, I imagine, but the reproductions of the prints are a bit flat for our purposes.

Rob was kind enough to agree to boost the contrast just this once, for us, as it will help you appreciate the project more, in my opinion. (And this is an opinion column, after all.)

I asked if he’d be willing to answer his own questions for us too, and he blushed for a second, admitting no one had asked him to do that yet.

So behold his thoughts on Covid-life, and then we’ll share a set of images too. (Including portraits of Jonathan Feinstein and Jonathan Blaustein, who look nothing alike.)

See you next week!

Rob’s Answers:

1. What is something you’ve lost since shelter in place was mandated and the world went into quarantine?

I’ve lost the sense of urgency with which I used to navigate my life, and have since found the time to slow down and appreciate the subtleties that its made of.

2. What is something you have gained through this experience?

I’ve gained this project and through it a great sense of purpose and countless meaningful connections to people around the world.

3. What is something that you think will never be the same after this?

It’s difficult to say that something will never be the same – forever is a very long time after all. I fear our memories only last so long and perhaps not long enough for us to realize the positive changes that can come of this. The sentiments that have been echoed throughout the making of this project make me hopeful that enough people believe that things will be different. I’m not sure what that different looks but I’m curious to see where we land. It’s just a matter of time.

Jon F

Jonathan B

 

This Week in Photography: The King of Atlantic City

 

I used to have a step-grandpa.

But he’s dead now.

I’m not sure when he died, or how, because my grandmother divorced him when they were in their 80’s.

(And she passed away in 2006.)

Grandpa Sam was a 20th Century character through and through; a miniature powerhouse of a man, completely crazy, but charming.

He was a narcissist and a gambler who loved chunky gold things, and tacky objects that implied they cost a lot of money.

His favorite place in the world was any cruise ship, or whichever casino in Atlantic City gave him the best comp deal at a given time.

Grandpa Sam became my step-grandpa when I was 10 years old, give or take, because my real Grandpa, Sy, had died of cancer when I was three. (Just old enough to have a token memory or two.)

Given my youth, I have no idea how Grandma Flo met Grandpa Sam, but it probably had something to do with cruise ships. And as a self-respecting Jersey Boy, I should mention here that he was the most Long Island guy I ever met. (Tri-State area folks will get the barb.)

I remember at my Bar Mitzvah, (which was held on the Asbury Park boardwalk, 30 years before it properly gentrified,) he got so drunk that he fell asleep on one of the tables, and I found him there at 1am when I was cruising the then-empty hotel with a friend.

Or what about the time he invited me on a walk around the neighborhood, which made me light up with excitement, but was only a ruse to chastise the 15-year-old-me for being a bad grandson.

Talk about a blindside hit!

But there’s no way to understand Grandpa Sam, who was about 5’3″ and wider than he was tall, without understanding Atlantic City.

That was where he felt most at home.

Given that he was no proper whale, he’d never have gotten the VIP treatment in Vegas, and you couldn’t get there by cruise-ship anyway.

But in A.C., as everyone calls it, they treated him like a King.

Free dinners, free hotel rooms, and even better, they’d hook up his family if he ever brought them along.

To be perfectly honest, I forgot about Grandpa Sam for about 10 years, and he only flashed into my memory last month, when my son was asking about his family history, and Grandpa Sam popped back in mind.

I can see his gaudy shirts now, opened three buttons down to show off his gold necklaces and fuzzy chest hair.

How did he die?

Was he alone?

I remember he was estranged from much of his family, because he was nuts, and Grandma divorced him for being abusive. It was considered brave, her willingness to be alone at that age, but then she got sick and died within a year or two, so there was no late-life Renaissance to be found.

They used to tell us Grandpa Sam had been a POW of the Nazis, having been captured in WWII, and that was the reason he was such a prick.

It might have had something to do with it, but I think his type, all macho bravado, bad taste, and shady business dealings was archetypical, as was the pull to a worn-down, once important, seedy place like Atlantic City.

The casinos came rather late, compared to its run as a fancy vacation destination in the early 20th Century, and they never brought the wealth and glory that was promised.

Rather, the entire corrupt system was just a sham for money laundering, luring tour busses full of glassy-eyed day trippers to windowless rooms where they pissed their retirement funds away.

And who was King of Atlantic City in the 80’s and 90’s?

Who plastered his name on the casinos, all of which went bankrupt or out of business eventually?

Who used the place as a platform for publicity, and for siphoning poor people’s cash into his own coffers?

Do you have to ask?

Donald J. Trump.

(Still known as the guy who stiffed everyone, leaving unpaid bills in his wake as he scrambled out of town.)

One day, I’ll get tired of writing about him, but that day is not today, as I went to my book stack this morning, and grabbed what may be the last book left over from the spring of #2019.

What did I find?

“Atlantic City,” by Brian Rose, published by Circa Press in London, and I’m not sure if he and I even corresponded at all.

It may be that the book showed up unannounced, landed in the pile, and was finally LIBERATED today, when it has even more resonance than it might have last year.

It’s perfect for now, what with public beaches finally opening around the country, cramped spaces like casinos being abandoned, and a potential new Depression popping up, promising to hollow out many a small city like A.C.

I’m going to cut to the chase, though, and tell you that I found the book to be flawed in its construction and vision, but the photographs and excellent opening essay by architecture critic Paul Goldberger make it worth showing anyway.

(And it allows for a teachable moment.)

I always talk about the relationship between image and text in a photobook, and how it’s hard to get right.

How much information do you provide, and when and where to place it?

We need to ask those questions when we make or judge a book, and this one gets it wrong, after the opening essay.

There is a text blurb opposite each photograph, and the graphic design sensibility is off. The words float in odd places, and I did not like the pressure to pull my eyes away from the pictures to read every time.

It messed with the flow and detracted from the images, which were strong enough to communicate the book’s thesis.

Added to that, many of the text pages also contained Trump tweets, which were also repeated at times, thereby bashing us over the head with intent.

On the flip side, any photo book that has compelling photos that tell the story by themselves should be commended.

So it’s a muddle.

Trump is everywhere, though he sued to have his name taken off buildings he abandoned years ago, and the pictures also do justice to the feeling of empty facade that speaks to both A.C. and Trump so well.

At one point, we read a Shakespeare quote from Julius Caesar, and then the next photo shows a tacky billboard of the Bard, but that was the only example where the text created an unexpected frisson with the pictures.

I think, if rebuilt, this book would be better chunking up the words into a few sections, thereby letting the viewer get the pleasure of flipping through photos that don’t need words.

Sadly, Atlantic City is one of those places that people always think will “come back,” yet it never does.

Then again, that’s what they said about Asbury Park.

My Bar Mitzvah was held in a hotel that opened in the 80’s, confident they’d lead the wave of gentrification.

A wave, like the fickle Atlantic Ocean it abuts, that didn’t arrive for another generation.

So you can keep waiting, or give up.

Your choice.

Bottom Line: A flawed but intriguing look at a zombie city on the Jersey Shore

To purchase “Atlantic City” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Recipes for Disaster

 

Part 1. The Heads Up

Heads up.

 

I’m coming in hot today.

Last week, I wanted to avoid staring into the darkest parts of reality, but today I have no choice.

I’ve been chatting and texting with my good friend, and erstwhile collaborator, IvΓ‘n. (He was my professor of Globalization Theory in graduate school at Pratt, and has a PhD as well.)

We did some successful modeling of potential Great Recession outcomes at its outset, and then properly predicted the multi-polar world that followed, some years later.

But when we spoke at the beginning of The Troubles, it wasn’t any fun, as he always takes the pessimistic, idealistic side of the argument, and I go for the realist/pragmatist/optimistic angle.

There is not much optimism in our current global affairs, so the chat was grueling, and way too soon for either of us to have made any real observations yet. (Mid-March)

In the last two weeks, though, we’ve talked twice and texted ten times.

Before I get to that, though, I should mention one more thing.

When I met IvΓ‘n, on the first day of class, he claimed he was a Mexican, Marxist Yankee Fan.

I laughed out loud, and challenged him on the spot, saying there could be no such thing.

The Yankees represented the heart of Capitalism, always outspending their way to World Series titles, and Karl Marx invented Communism.

These were antithetical concepts.

(I once compared “Das Kapital” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in an economics paper at Duke, so I am familiar with the material.)

IvΓ‘n said he was a Guatemalan-by-family, Mexican-by-birth, Jewish, long-time New Yorker, and entitled to root for the Yankees, because he lived in Upper Manhattan, a short subway ride from the Stadium.

(I’ve picked that bone with him ever since, in jest.)

But last week, having finally connected the dots, his words from our second phone call still ringing in my head, I called IvΓ‘n.

“Well, hello,” he said. “Nice to hear from you again.”

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t have much time. I need to go on a walk with the family, but I can’t get this one idea out of my head. About what you were saying. About Marx.”

 

“Go ahead,” he said.

“As I understand it, Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force meat-packing plants to stay open, and meat-packing workers to report for work, or lose their jobs.

Because god forbid America goes a week without eating all its cows, chickens and pigs.

But the workers are going to get sick, and they have, and they’re dying too.

 

 

These workers are lower class, and often Mexican or Central American immigrants, who are also demonized in our culture. Given the low status and wages of the jobs, how good will their health care coverage be?

(Or more likely, they won’t have employer health care at all, because surely some of them are part-time or contract workers.)

With the state of the economy, if the workers choose not to work, they might not have food or a home, and if they do work, they might get sick and die.

And because we live in a country without a robust, free public health system, if these people get sick, and don’t have the right insurance, they might go bankrupt.”

“Yes,” Ivan said.

“All so the higher classes can get their meat,” I continued.

“And don’t forget, these plants are also factories of death, assembly lines that kill and dismember live creatures. And the entire industry is also one of the largest drivers of Climate Change.”

“Yes,” he said, “all true.”

“Then I learned in Reuters that China actually owns the largest pork processing company in the US, Smithfield, and that some of the meat processed in the factories, which are being forced open by Donald Trump, is being exported, while American grocery stores are rationing meat.

“That’s Marx,” I told Ivan. “As much as I’ve teased you all these years for calling yourself a Marxist in the 21st Century, what’s happening now is what he described.”

“Exactly,” he said. “The workers must be exploited, surplus value must be derived from them, for the owners to extract profit.”

“It’s a rigged game for the lower classes,” I said. “If they stay home, they don’t eat. If they go to work, they might get sick. If they get sick, they might die. Or if they don’t die, they may go bankrupt.”

“Yes,” said my friend. “That is true, and tragic. And it is what Karl Marx critiqued in the Capitalist system.”

And as to being a Mexican, Marxist Yankee fan…in the end, I apologized for teasing him all these years.

The world is infinitely complex, and one can be a Marxist, and a Yankee fan simultaneously.

(Or an American and an environmentalist.)

 

Part 2. The Book

 

By now, you likely know I published a book called “Extinction Party,” and I’ll be writing about that, in conjunction with the Amsterdam series, soon enough.

Today, though, I was actually inspired by the book I mentioned last week. The one that was really good, but too bleak for my mood.

(It was THAT book, and not my own, that inspired today’s column.)

Like the excellent Sheri Lynn Behr book I reviewed a month ago, this is also self-published, with a similar construction, and a suggestive cover.

The red/white checker pattern, askew, makes me think of restaurant tablecloths, or old recipe books, and the partial circle makes me think of a heat map of the world.

Looking again, now I see the outline of North America.

Open it up, and it’s called “Recipes for Disaster,” by Barbara Ciurej + Lindsay Lochman, an artist team from the Midwest.

Though they haven’t been in the column much before, (if ever,) I’ve been a huge admirer of their work for years.

Barbara and Lindsay do food based, studio, conceptual, still life constructions, using absurd humor, so you can see the connection.

(They showed me a nearly-finished version of this book at Filter Photo in September, so it is definitely not pandemic-response art, despite its timeliness.)

Open it up, andΒ we see, for Chapter 1, what looks like an appropriated graphic poster, which has been partially redacted, of a family around a table. (Black rectangles over the eyes.)

It’s the lead to “Expunge Cake,” which references Trump’s early gambit of removing all Climate Change words, and the like, from government websites.

The cake, though, looks delicious. (Yes, I’m hungry, I’m writing before breakfast.)

Feedlot brownies, with all sorts of statistics about the cost of the cattle industry.

Crust, with a skeleton baked on what looks like desiccated Earth.

Profit Pies, Clearcut Roulade, Rainforest FlambΓ©, all with rigorous statistics.

Can you see why I didn’t want to write about this last week?

It’s so in your face!

Frankly, I feel like some of my favorite work by the team is a bit more subtle, but this is not a subtle moment, is it?

Radioactive Tea Cakes, Extinction Cookies, this goes right for the jugular.

And since we’re all baking these days anyway, now you’ll have this stuck in your head while you’re doing it.

(You’re welcome.)

Bottom Line: Wicked, satirical recipe book about the end of the world

To purchase “Recipes with Disaster” click here

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

This Week in Photography: Now & Then

 

I read a great quote this morning.

By Alison Herman in The Ringer.

“Constant dread and anxiety do not pair well with creativity.”

She was writing about why “Mad Men” was gaining an extra following during the pandemic, as it was good enough art to distract, but not so dark in tone as to make one’s thoughts return to The Troubles.

(Hey Northern Irishfolk: May I please borrow the term temporarily to refer to now?)

As to the quote, I will tell you that it’s true.

But last week, I suggested you make art anyway, because it’s good for your psyche, and will help you feel better. (It will take your mind off The Troubles.)

If you take your camera with you on a walk, (of course you do, it’s your phone,) and then slow your pace a bit, on purpose, it might help you see the details that you miss, walking quickly on your daily route.

Maybe that’s what The Troubles are really about, on a metaphysical level?

At first, I called it The Pause, and maybe I will again.

I hoped that it would allow me the chance to slow down, assess my life, and get my house in order.

And in the last couple of weeks, it finally has. I’m feeling better, and going on lots of walks has really helped. (Shout out to Bryan Formhals.)

If you walk around your world, and slow down, what might you find?

Is it possible you’re living in Asia, and despite the enormous clichΓ© we all imagine of Asian architecture, all you notice is the roots of colonialism?

Much like so many of us fetishize elements of Asian culture, maybe you can’t stop seeing what was left by the West?

Maybe this isn’t a hypothetical exercise?

This morning, needing something to write about, my wife handed me the latest book to come in, as my book stack was in my son’s closet, and he was sleeping.

It felt wrong to skip the line, but I knew the book she gave me was good, as I’d seen a preview.

It is excellent, and I’ll write about it another day, but it was bleak for my mood.

I set it down, and then my son woke up.

Rather than jumping the line, I reached into the stack, and pulled out something from April #2019. (All those #2019 submissions need to see the light of day! Free the books!)

What did I find?

Something from Chris Wong, sent from Asia, and wrapped well and tight.

The text on the cover, “Now & Then,” looked to be Chinese in origin, and I’m sure Chris told me about where he was from a year ago, but I don’t remember.

The Polaroid on the cover is a hint, but the block wall literally “blocks” any visual reference we might have.

Open it up, and we get the artist’s name again, the book’s title, and another Polaroid telling us look left, look right on a red brick wall.

Then, a succession of Polaroids.
One after another, featuring Western style, colonial architecture.

Reveling in the details.

Picture after picture, we see columns and arches.
Fancy corner after repeating motif.

And where are we?

It doesn’t say.

For some reason I think Macau, though it could be Hong Kong. At first, it’s mesmerizing, and the washed out colors make it look old.

Are they old?

When were they shot?

Then we see a tank, and shit gets real for a moment, but that’s the only sign of modernity or violence. (This is not a protest movement book.)

Just as I start to get a bit bored, (though the image sizes do change,) we see cathedrals, and the difference, the references to Christianity, snaps me back into my very-curious-mode.

We finish, and then in the bio page, we learn it is Hong Kong. Not sure why I imagined they were Portuguese buildings at first, having seen English architecture in person, but it proves even a pro like me can get fooled.

I get the sense this book is self published, and we learn that Chris is a commercial photographer in Hong Kong, specializing in Polaroid.

But this work is his personal vision for sure.

The image map at the end proves to be much more valuable than in most cases, as it is reveals the Now & Then concept. We learn what these colonial structures are used for now, (often in cultural capacities,) and what they were used for under the British.

Now and Then.

The world has been through many crazy times before, including plagues, and Alison Herman theorized that people were digging “Mad Men” again because seeing the 60’s onscreen, another batshit time, reminded people we made it through that, and we’ll make it through this too.

See you next week.

Bottom Line: Mesmerizing, British colonial architecture in Hong Kong

To purchase “Now & Then” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Make Art in Difficult Times

 

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t made photographs, as art, in more than two years.

(Well, until the other day, but that was as a favor to my wife, so it doesn’t count.)

I haven’t made art with a camera in more than two years, and those pictures were crap. The tail end of my Party City series, and none of the 2018 images made the final cut.

Which means, as an art photographer, I haven’t engaged my craft for the longest phase of my adult life.

I’ve made editorial images for you, here in the column, but as a conceptual, studio based artist, it’s not the same thing.

How do I reconcile this?

Well, the way I learned about art, (and the way I teach it,) is that all avenues of creative expression are equally valid. It was assumed that most, if not all artists, would have multiple outlets in their creative practice.

So the idea that one was inherently better than another, or more noble, was never ingrained in my mind.

That I made photographs for my first twenty years as an artist does not have to be relevant to what I’m doing now, or next.

In #2019, I made installations in a museum exhibition, and worked on a set of pencil drawings, based upon portrait jpegs I took from the internet.

That was way out of my comfort zone. And I made a book.

Now, in #2020, I’m leaning into this column, because it’s a stable foundation in an unstable world.

Yet the camera has not called to me.

But like I said, photography isn’t the only way to express ideas, it’s only one of many. (I recently surprised someone on FB by proclaiming her banana bread counted as art.)

I’ve been teaching a long time, so much so that there were certain crutches I leaned on, year in year out, when I taught at UNM-Taos for 11 years.

For teaching composition, for explaining the flow of visual information in a rectangle, I always used the same book: Hokusai and Hiroshige.

That’s right: I taught the crucial element of photography by deconstructing Japanese 19th Century woodblock prints.

Year in year out, this book delivered the goods, as it features Hokusai’s famed “Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji,” and Hiroshige’s “Fifty Six Stations on the Tokaido Road.”

If we dated it, I suppose the camera was invented in a couple of spots in Europe, with some overlap to this time period, but on the ground, printmaking was the way visual information was recorded in 19th C Japan.

And its mass production allowed the images to be collected by regular people, much like the 17th C Dutch middle class spawned so many great paintings.

I wanted to share the book with you today, because the serene colors, all sorts of blue, and then the snow scenes, white on white, are a visual gift from the past.

Why do I love them so, beyond the color, and the constant change of perspective?

Beyond the curvilinear water, the slope of Mt Fuji, and the ochre contrasts to all that blue?

It’s because this book represents a place in time so deeply, with the clothing and the postures and the boats and the hats.

This is what we have of then.
As in so many other cases, the art becomes the history.

 

Which brings me back to #2020.
To now.

I may not be making art photographs, (other than the other day as a favor,) and maybe you’re not either.

Maybe you’re drawing, or painting, or bread baking or dancing or gardening or yodeling or playing French horn or practicing your French. (Bonjour, je n’aime pas le yodeling.)

Or maybe you are making photographs?

Maybe you’re pushing yourself?

Maybe you’re making your best work, or are about to? Maybe all the frustration you feel, the anger, the anxiety, is going to spring up as something dynamic and meaningful?

I’m asking, because last night, I saw some new work from my friend, and former student, Andy Richter, during an online critique I set up for the alumni and expected attendees of our Antidote Photo Retreat. (Andy was the 2019 Antidote Fellow, as he came out to run a morning Kundalini yoga program for us, along the acequia.)

During our group crit last summer, I pushed him to go beneath the surface.Β He was showing some aura portraits, with strong colors, were perhaps more style than substance.

As an artist, I thought he had more digging to do, and I told him so.

So that’s the context for understanding why I was so happy for Andy, seeing his new series, currently titled “Walking with Julien,” which received Minnesota public funding for an exhibition in Spring 2021.

All the images were taken on walks with his young son, around his diverse Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, (he’s originally from MN,) and everyone on the Zoom call, including an important museum curator, was blown away by the work.

The portraits, in particular.

Andy confirmed that certain aspects of fatherhood were tough, as it constrained the freedom to which he was accustomed. (This is a guy who photographs hermits deep in caves in India.)

And now, even worse, like the rest of us, he was literally stuck at home. With his neighborhood as his unexpected muse.

He admitted, as many artists have before him, that the combination of inner necessity and logistical constraints has perhaps forced him to see more deeply.

Are these meditation walks?
Does it matter what we call them?

So I wanted to share the story, and some of the pictures, with you here today. And Andy was gracious enough to agree.

Some days, maybe some times every day, things might seem grim.

Certainly, I never thought I’d long for the insanity of #2019, but here we are.

Please remember, art is best at times like these. It helps your psyche, day to day, and it records the moment for the future.

Stay safe, and see you next week.

Visiting London, Part 7

 

Part 1: the Intro

I was watching “Project Runway” with my family last night.

(Well, that’s not exactly true.)

They call it “Making the Cut” now, though it’s still Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum leading a panel of judges on a fashion design competition.

(They rebooted “Project Runway” with younger hosts, and Amazon bought the high-end talent, much like “Top Gear” begat “The Grand Tour.”)

Anyway, (spoiler alert,) on episode 6, the judges were just about to cut an Israeli designer who’d won the previous week. Her victory had gone against the run of play, and then she reverted to her regular poor form.

Despite the ugliness of the clothes she’d made, in gross yellows and blues that were tacky, (and cheap looking,) no less a hardcore critic than Naomi Campbell was defending the woman to the other three judges.

Pleading, really.

Naomi Campbell, the supermodel known for throwing things at people, for tantrums, and whom my kids had called the toughest judge earlier in the series, was being sweet, and compassionate, going to bat for the young Israeli woman.

She gave it all she had, truly.

And then when they asked Heidi, an Italian influencer judge, and Joseph Altuzzara if she’d changed their minds, one at a time they said no.

They made the right call, as the contestant’s awful clothes that week, and tepid efforts earlier, left her as the least talented or capable designer at that point.

I tell you all this, because the best part was watching the look in Naomi Campbell’s eyes as the cold, serious Heidi, and the others said no to her.

It was like someone being told no for the first time in their lives. I could feel her pupils dialing millisecond by millisecond.

 

Sad Naomi Campbell

 

She took it well, god bless her, but it was highly entertaining.

I could read her mind, as she thought, “Rules? There are no rules!”

And like Naomi, I tend to agree, when it comes to creativity. (Give or take.)

There are no rules with this column.

It’s a part of what’s kept it fresh over 8.5 years, each week.

Now, we’re stuck in our homes, and can’t go anywhere.

So I tried to force myself to write about Amsterdam today, but my creativity was letting me know it wasn’t quite ready yet. And I just did two book reviews. No book review today!

Just as I was wracking my brain, the computer beeped from FaceTime, and it took me a second to recognize the ring.

It was my friend Richard Bram, calling from London to check up on me, because I’d tweeted the day before that my mental health was cracking.

I met Richard on Twitter 10 years ago, and he’s been in this column many times before. (He’s Zamir to my Tony.)

But I met two other friends on Twitter as well, and they both live in England.

That’s three IRL friends I made on Twitter.

All in England, and I visited with each last year. Honestly,Β I always had this article in mind, but never got around to it.

So today, we’re going back to London, in May of #2019.

 

Part 2: A Monday in London

Shortly before arriving in England, I changed my plans, and asked Hugo if I could stay in his place for six nights.

It was a big ask, but he’s gracious, and I cooked, cleaned, and was out most days, all day long, to minimize my impact.

Still, I thought it wise to take a day trip out of town.

I was aware of Colin Pantall from Twitter, years ago, and knew he was a great blogger. But we’d never interacted much directly, that I can remember.

8 years of reading someone’s tweets and you get a sense of their taste and character, I guess. So I sent him a DM and told him I was in England, and would he be around London by any chance?

He wrote back pretty quickly, and said I was welcome to come visit him in Bath.

I looked up “Best Day Trips from London,” and sure enough, Bath was near the top of the list.

(Less than an hour and half by train to the West, on the way to Bristol.)

I wrote back sure, and he wrote back let’s do it, and then we made a plan to meet somewhere tangible, at a set time, because as I’ve said many times, my Verizon phone wasn’t working.

Once done, I hit up Brian David Stevens, another photographer with whom I’d been trading jokes and silly links on Twitter for years. I also knew he was a good photographer, having reviewed one of his books years ago, and I kept up with his exhibitions via social media.

He suggested we meet near a train platform in Paddington Station, at the coffee cart, because it would be easy to find. I had a rough idea what he looked like, and I’m sure he had the same, so when he walked up, though we’d never occupied the same continent before, it was as if I knew him.

Because I did know him.
(The digital him.)

And now, in the #2020 pandemic, that stands in as real enough, doesn’t it?

I told him I was in no rush, and could grab a train in a while, as my meeting with Colin was late in the day. (I asked if he knew Colin, and he said he did, digitally.)

We walked out of the station, and he took me around the block a bit. I remember taking some nice photos, so it’s cool I can share them here.

He told me he knew West London well, because most Londoners stuck with the quadrant of the city they lived in when they first moved there. Even if they changed houses, or neighborhoods, they tended to stick to East, West, North or South, depending.

He was a West London guy. Felt comfortable there, though he later admitted he and his wife were leaving the city for a house in the burbs.

I was ready for a coffee and croissant, as I wasn’t eating much those days, and needed a top up. So we cruised a few more blocks, and came to a likely contender.

Up just 50 yards from there corner there was a flashy looking cafe to the left, which caught my eye, and an understated one I barely realized was a cafe to our right.

I was inclined to the first, and Brian said we should go to the latter.

He’s the local, I thought, so of course he’ll know.

Turns out, it was the shop/cafe for ΓΌber-trendy Monocle Magazine. And of course the young guy at the counter was a stone face hipster as well.

 

The coffee was good, and the baked goodies were good too.Β But I can’t say as I remember either a year later, but I could tell you about the pizza at Zia Lucia like it was still in my mouth.

Know what I mean?

Brian told me about a series he was working on, shooting pictures of a musician friend who’d tried to commit suicide.

Now, it’s a year later, and I’ve seen links to the work on Twitter.

We chatted for an hour or so, and then he walked me back to the train station, insisting on escorting me through the ticket office, where I’d get a better deal than the machines.

(You’d think it would be the other way around, but he was a local, I trusted him, and he saved me money.)

We said goodbye at the gate, and I headed down to what became a very comfortable train ride, replete with good wifi.

 

Part 3: The Baths.

When I told Brian I wanted to go to some hot springs in Bath, he told me that as far as he knew, you couldn’t go into the baths.

Meaning the famous Roman baths.

But I meant there was a resort in town, Thermae Bath Spa, with a decent day rate, where you could have a soak. (I saw something about it on the internet.)

I was right, and as I read you didn’t need a reservation, I turned up shortly after arriving in Bath, but unfortunately right after I ate a street sausage. (Bad call.)

I booked a spot in the outdoor communal tub, which was featured by itself, across the street, in its own private ancient courtyard.

No lie.

I turned up at the appropriate time, and waited where they told me to wait.

There was a young man sitting nearby, wearing a fedora, and he was singing to himself and making lots of noise. Rocking back and forth a bit too.

I moved away, but didn’t realize that since he was waiting where I was waiting, he was to be my tub mate, along with two other dudes.

So much for my plan to sit in silence, working out muscle kinks after a week of walking 15 miles a day.

I remember thinking, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” But it’s all true.

 

The tub had seen better days, if I’m being honest, but was more than nice enough. And the water was warm and soothing, if not hot.

It was the setting that was priceless, and I’d go back.
If I could.

But this dude swam around, singing, the entire fucking time.

And I did my best, martial-arts-Zen-monk-on-the-mountain routine to chill out my mind, and tune him out.

There was the sound of water flow, which also helped, and I was pretty happy, except for the one time I opened my eyes and caught him staring right at me.

Once done, I walked across the city, which is so, so beautiful, and met Colin at the outdoor cafe at the stately Holborne Museum.

I watched him approach from a park entrance, opposite from where I’d arrived, and was a bit surprised when he turned up. He was a tall, strapping guy, with graying hair, glasses, and a big, open smile.

(Like a slightly nerdy action hero.)

As with Brian, it was an immediate ease, though we’d never communicated outside Twitter, and we chatted for an hour and a half, easy.

When the cafe closed, he suggested we go for a walk, so I got a guided tour of the small city. I recall him telling me it was so very beautiful because money coming back from the slave trade had been pumped into the local architecture.

He thought it might be a fair English comp to Santa Fe, for its beauty, nature, and artsiness.

Jane Austen was mentioned.

Then the pub was discussed, and so we headed there. But not before stopping at a church, across the street, in the middle of a graveyard, where we met a man prepping an art exhibition for an upcoming Bath festival.

Colin took my picture in the graveyard, and then we went into the pub and had one too many. By the time we realized it was late, and dark, we were both hungry, and the train schedule suddenly got unfriendly.

From leaving every half hour, it appeared I’d need to catch a train getting me in well after 11 pm. (Not the best time to be coming home as a guest.)

We walked down the hill, through a secret staircase that led through a supermarket shortcut, (Waitrose, I think,) and then down to a Chinese restaurant Colin was fond of.

He’d lived and taught in the area for years, and like Brian before him, had an ease of movement through his town.

The place was closing, but they knew Colin, and we ordered two beef noodle bowls immediately. I think these folks came from Hong Kong, and the noodles had a flavor palette that was a bit new for me. (They hit the spot.)

Like Brian before him, (these polite Englishmen!) Colin also escorted me to the train platform, but we saw it was to be delayed.

He offered to wait with me, but drunk, and fed, I told him to head home to his family.

The wait for the train sucked, no lie, and walking through Paddington Station to catch the tube at 12:30 am was no fun either.

Much worse was the feeling, once I got back to Hugo’s, and crawled into bed, that I was going to throw up.

It was 2am by then.

Hugo and his girlfriend were sleeping a floor below, but there were open doors, and sound traveled.

If I woke them up, on my 5th night there, I’d never, ever be be invited back.

What to do?

I crept down the stairs, into the bathroom, and used my entire mind energy to vomit silently.

And it worked!

Can you imagine? Puking without making a sound?

 

Part 4: Meeting Richard

So I slept late the next day, and nearly blew Richard off. (We had longstanding lunch plans, though we’d already done Photo London together.)

He was gracious, and told me we could meet for a later lunch, so after I hit up the Arsenal store at the Emirates Stadium, for some swag, I took a train to a train to a train to see Richard.

If I recall, it required the overground, to get to his neighborhood, Limehouse, but wasn’t a terribly long or difficult trip. (Such great public transport.)

As good as Richard is at looking at art, he’s an equally excellent tour guide, and told me stories about buildings and streets in Limehouse, East London.

But, because I was hung over, I don’t remember the details. I think it used to be warehouses, given the waterfront location, but is now totally chic.

 

We ate in Ian McKellen’s pub, which I chronicled already, and took a stroll around the waterfront.

We went to his apartment, and his studio.

It was beautiful weather, and it felt so wonderful to be in the company of a good friend, IRL. The entire day, it didn’t even occur to me that we met on Twitter.

But yesterday, when my mental health was cracking, he saw my Tweet.

And today, he called to see how I was doing. (I was about to write my column, and rushed him off the phone.)

So I’m going to hang up on you guys now, and call Richard back, because that’s what friends are for.

This Week in Photography: Drowning in Noise

 

May you live in interesting times.

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

Maybe it’s a curse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not enough, I know.)

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

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

Yes. Definitely.

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

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

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

Do you catch my drift?

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

Sorry. Where was I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what people want.

But what they get is a lot of noise.

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

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

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

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

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

(Welcome to #2020.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality wise.

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

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

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

First thought?

Great cover.
No doubt.

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

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

At least, not by my standards.

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

Open it up, and turn the pages.

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

Then landscapes turn digital, and manipulations are obvious.

What is the deal?

There are no words to explain.

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

What does it mean?
What is the connection?

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

This denied me all clues.

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s designed not to make sense.

At least until the end.

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

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

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

This book is the koan for the moment.

The signal and the noise.

So #2020.

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

To purchase “Signal Noise” click hereΒ 

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

This Week in Photography: Surveillance is Everywhere

 

Each week, I write about what’s happening in my life.

And in the wider world around me.

It’s the way of the columnist, and as you know, I’ve been doing it a while. (Is my constant humblebrag about the length of my APE tenure a running joke yet?)

But at times like these, it’s much less fun to write about what transpires outside my moat and gates.

(In case you’re wondering, my moat is stocked with mini-alligators. And they have huge appetites! Stay back, motherfuckers!)

I’m making myself laugh right now, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom, with the fan on for white noise.

Like many work-from-homers, I used to have the run of the place, five days a week, while my wife was at work and the kids at school, but no longer.

We’ve all been together for a month now, and I must say, we’re holding up pretty well, mentally. (Though we do have a lot of space, this being rural New Mexico.)

So I’m sitting here, alone, unobserved. The shades are drawn, and I have total privacy.

Right?

But what about the webcam on my computer, which I have not taped over?

Is it possible someone’s hijacked it, and they’re watching me? (If so, should I put on proper pants?)

Now I’m staring directly into the camera, (and not at the words typed on the screen,) but with autocorrect, I think I’m doing OK.

Could someone be watching me through my own computer?

A hacker?
Facebook?
Amazon?

Am I OK with it, knowing this COULD be happening, even though I know it’s unlikely?

(Pause.)

I don’t know if I’m OK with it, but I would say I accept the machines are watching us, and the algorithms are processing what the machines are watching.

In China, the level of surveillance they’ve created meant the government could threaten to kill you if you inappropriately interrupted medical workings during their quarantine.

In America, we can barely seem to organize a block party at the national level right now, so I don’t think our algorithms are tracking Uncle Wilbur when he takes the family truck out for a joyride in Northwest Nebraska on a fine Spring Sunday afternoon.

And… Scene:

Aunt Martha: Wilbur, what in the hell do you think you’re doing? You know you’re supposed to be staying at home like the rest of us.

Uncle Wilbur: Martha, you stay out of it, you hear.

AM: What do you mean stay out of it? I live with you, you hardheaded boar! How am I supposed to stay out it? Your germs are my germs.

UW: Well, I’m not going to get any germs. I’m just going out for a ride is all. I need to clear my head. What’s it to you, anyway?

AM: You mean you’re not gonna stop anywhere? No talking to people? No getting in anyone’s space? You are 73 years old, and I see this as an unnecessary risk is all.

UW: Well, thank you for speaking your peace, Mother. I’m going to ride for ten miles, no more, and I won’t even roll down the window more than three inches.

You have my word.

And… Scene.

So that’s how Uncle Wilbur ended up out on the highway. Where it was quiet.

And he was unobserved.

As to the rest of us, surveillance is real. Online and in the physical world.

(Someone is always watching.)

I’m thinking on the subject because I’ve just finished looking at Sheri Lynn Behr’s excellent “Be Seeing You,” a self-published book that turned up in the mail in Spring 2019, just after I took a break from writing about photo books.

Thankfully, the art gods have been kind to us again, as I think this is the perfect time to see this book, in current context.

It’s very well thought-out, in terms of pacing, how much information it gives, and when it gives it.

As I’m always recommending you think about such things, when you make your book, I wanted to highlight the strength here.

From the title, cover, and first four images or so, you know what this book is about, (surveillance) and that there will likely be a mix of photographic styles within.

There are text interruptions, with some black graphic accents against stark white, and the first says “The more we see, the less we pay attention.”

Meaning, the more information that floods our brain, the less any one detail is ever likely to pop out. (Small needle, big haystack.)

The next image is from the outside staircase at the Broad building at LACMA, in LA. (It was once new, but now I’m not even sure if it’s still a part of the newest masterplan there? Does anyone know?)

Of course I’ve been there, and never saw the cameras watching me, as I’ve been to certain places from the book like NYC, of course, or Padding Station in London.

I’ve also watched “Luther,” and “The Simpsons,” and both are featured, as one subset of photographs seems to be the representation of surveillance culture on TV screens.

Those pictures are melded with documentary images of cameras out in the culture, and then pictures of real people in the real world as well.

There’s a menace in this book that shows Sheri takes this subject personally, where I guess I’ve been rather lazy about caring before.

Now that there are real news stories about tracking people by their antibodies, of course the world has grown much closer to seeing things Sheri’s way.

I’m using her first name casually, as she and I have met at festivals many times over the years. I’ve published her stuff here before, but also been critical of it at the review table, as she well knows.

I love that this book closes with a description of the various projects, just so people know what they saw. And then an Edward Snowden tweet, and a selfie in a mirror-dome.

This one’s really strong.

But I’m creeped out now, and maybe it’s time to tape over the webcam?

Bottom Line: Killer, self-published gem about 21C surveillance

To purchase “Be Seeing You” click hereΒ 

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

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 2

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Why do people travel?

Why do we go places?

Right now, it’s a good question, because we can’t.
Go places.

(Those of us not headed to “life essential” jobs each day, I mean.)

Speaking of which, two of my former photo students work at the local Smith’s Grocery store. I haven’t been there in three weeks, but I’m assuming they’re still at it, and hope they’re safe.

Big shout outs to Jason and Dylan! And to my father-in-law Mike, and sister-in-law Jemery, who are both Taos doctors.

The rest of us, anyway, are stuck at home.

Not going places.

And even though the uncertainty of it all makes it feel like this pandemic will be permanent, that’s not the way these things go.

Humans hate uncertainty more than anything else, which is what gave rise to monarchs and autocrats and totalitarians in the first place.

In China, for instance, as I have previously written, the depth of the bloodbaths that would occur under disorder caused many people to trade freedom for security, from certain Emperors to Mao on down.

Hitler came to Germany after the shitfuck of WWI and the Great Depression, (Please watch Babylon Berlin on Netflix,) and ancient royalty, from Egypt to England to Guatemala, has claimed to have a relationship with, and blessings from the divine.

 

 

So where we are now, with no clear answer as to how long “this” will all last, humans do lean into the hunker mentality. (Rhymes with bunker.)

But life will go back to some semblance of normal again.

It might be a different normal, like life was never quite the same after the Great Recession.

(You know I’m right.)

The Gig Economy, Uber, the permanent street class.
The first African-American President.

Donald Trump.

All of that came Post-Great-Recession.

Wait, I’m getting depressing again.

Sorry.

What I mean is, this scary phase will end.
It will.

And we’ll be able to travel again.

So, to get back on topic, why do we do it?

 

Part 2. The asshole

 

What kind of asshole writer opens a section with a question, and ends it with the same question, without ever answering the question?

Me.

So, here’s my answer.

I think we all love a proper adventure.

All of us.

It’s why we’re binge-watching all these shows and movies, and reading all these books.

We escape into the fantasy of adventure and drama.

Traveling to other cities, towns and countries, with different languages, foods and landscapes.

It is the hero’s journey.

It is the “actual reality” version of “virtual reality” that so many people like in their stories and video games.

(Minus the murder and mayhem, of course.)

When you’re out there, somewhere new, you never know what’s around the next bend?

How could you?

There is an inherent and proper romance in a great voyage, and somehow, even after the insanity that was #2019, I got to have a perfect, rambling, symbol-laden adventure in Amsterdam in February of #2020.

 

Though I am writing on April Fool’s Day, (just so you know,) I promise all stories told in this series are true.

And to be clear, I’m not saying I was James Bond, nor that it felt like my trip should be made into a movie or anything.

It’s just that it was MY movie.
My story.

And to relive it in my head right now, on lockdown, is kind of fun.

 

Part 3. Take my last Euro

 

When last I left you, I was departing the Jolly Joker, jet-lagged, on my first half-day in Amsterdam.

Saturday, February 15.

As an experienced traveler, I knew I was likely to need a bit of quiet time, and some food, to chill out before I hit the city hard again.

So I popped into a cute looking bakery/cafe, (they’re everywhere,) and got a bresaola, arugula, and fresh mozzarella sandwich, on fresh baked bread, with a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino to go.

(General advice, of the many munchies on offer in the city, including some with silly names, the bakeries and delis seemed to have the most consistent, high-end Euro product, that I observed.)

 

Dubble Trouble

It set me up for the afternoon, looking out the my window on the shimmering canal, watching a spot of local tv, and getting a bit of jet-lag-rest.

 

Hotel Room View

 

Once done, I left the Hotel Mai for my first big walk.

Is it creepy that I could consult my iPhone now and see how long I walked that day? (5 miles. It only went up from there.)

I remember that I cut through Dam Square, headed West a block or two, and then and just let whimsy be my guide.

Twisting and turning through the canal ring.

There really are few better feelings.

Turn here.
Look there.

Stop in a coffee shop and get stoned.

After a couple of hours, it got dark, and I realized I’d need food and another smoke.

I had 20 Euro left.

Decisions, decisions.

Coffee shop or restaurant?

There’s nothing wrong with having a smoke in the street, (except for the constant devil-wind,) so I opted to go with my grinding stomach.

Before me stood a Vietnamese restaurant with a cute name, Pho King.

Say it fast.
Get it?

 

 

It was cash only, which meant my commitment was complete, because I was hungry, it was relatively early, 7 or 8pm, and I wanted to be done purchasing food for the night.

To say the place had a great vibe is not an undersell. It was small, but clean, and my spider-sense tingled that it was going to be good.

I asked for some recommendations, and the smart, young Vietnamese woman behind the counter said the Pho was the best thing.

She was serious in all the right ways, and after I made a few jokes, all the ladies behind the counter liked me.

“OK,” I said. “I’ve got only 20 Euro. You’re the boss, now. I’ll do what you say, and you can use up all the money, including a small tip.”

I looked at the menu.

 

I love BBQ pork bun, and there it was. The meat is served over cold, or room temperature, rice noodles, typically with shredded carrots and cucumber, with crushed peanut, and then you add a cold, sweet fish sauce, nuoc cham.

“I love that,” I said. “It’s my favorite.”

The young woman behind the counter shook her head no.

“No?” I said. “I can’t get that.”

She shook her head no.

“No,” she said.

“But you have my best interests at heart, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “I do. We’re gonna get you a Beef Pho, with all three kinds of beef. It’s what we do best.”

“Great. Fine. But I can’t have the BBQ Pork Bun. It’s my favorite.”

“No,” she said.

I was bummed out, but keeping the faith.

She smiled.

“But look. The fresh spring roll. Look at number 14.”

I looked down, took a second, the marijuana and hash slowing me perceptibly.

I read: BBQ pork, rice noodle, shredded vegetable, peanuts, dipping sauce. Inside the fresh spring roll wrapper!

I looked at the price: about half of what I was badgering her to let me order.

“It’s the same thing,” I said, “but in a spring roll, and cheaper.”

She smiled.

Meaning: I could have the soup, and the spring rolls for my 20 Euro, including a small tip. (But no drink.)

I asked for it to go, and again, she shook her head, No.

“No,” I said? “I can’t take it to go?”

“No,” she said. “You eat the spring rolls now, while they’re fresh, and I’ll pack up the soup for you to go.”

“OK,” I replied. “If you say so. Like I said, I’m in your hands.”

The spring rolls, when they came, were a meal in themselves, and as good as any version I’ve had. The bbq pork was sweet, and succulent, and I didn’t think I’d have room for soup later. (I did.)

Nor that I’d eat BBQ pork this good again that week.
(I did.)

But after I cleaned the plate, I said thanks to my new friend, and headed back out into the night with my goodie bag.

Pho King, 2 locations in Amsterdam, Cheap eats, Highly recommended.

 

Part 4: I have a question

 

Were any of you drunken slobs in college?

I know I was.

(Thank you, Duke University. You trained me so well.)

I used to sleep until 1 or 2 in the afternoon each day, if I could.

Not since then, not since the mid-90’s, have is slept until 1pm.

Until Sunday morning, February 16th, when my jet-lag, weed-hangover, and a properly silent hotel room conspired to let me sleep.

Long and deep.

When I finally woke up, rather than food, I needed some tea, and then a fresh smoke.

The Hotel Mai had opened only a week or two before I got there, so the rooms were properly fresh. With a no-smoking policy.

They had a tea kettle and a Nespresso maker included, with green tea and coffee replacements each day.

Very classy, this hotel. (I hope they make it…)

In addition to the no-smoking policy, the windows were sealed shut. Jimmy at the front desk said it was because the city had too many jumpers, tourists high on magic mushrooms, and made a law sealing the hotel windows up.

So out the door I went.

For a moment, I stared at the water.

 

Then, down to the Jolly Joker I went, and as always it was crowded.

I spotted a seat up top and sat down next to an young Indian guy, wedging myself into the corner of a wooden banquette.

Like Gerrit had the day before, I introduced myself, since there were open seats around.

He asked if he could use my lighter, which I’d bought at the local head shop. It was black plastic, and said I heart Amsterdam.

“That depends,” I replied.

“That depends?” he asked, looking at me like I had a hole in my head.

“Yes,” I said. “It depends upon your answer to a question.”

“It depends upon my answer to a question?” Again, he looked at me like I was a two-year old.”

“Yes,” I said.

“OK,” he said, “what is the question?”

“Do you love Amsterdam,” I asked?

“Do I love Amsterdam?” he said? At that point, he looked at me like I didn’t speak English. What kind of a stranger asks that question, in these circumstances?

“Yes,” I said. “Do you love Amsterdam? If you answer correctly, you can use my lighter.”

“OK,” he said. “OK. OK. Yes, I love Amsterdam. Are you satisfied.?”

I showed him the lighter, he laughed, and then I passed it his way, as he had just rolled a joint with tobacco and marijuana, as was the custom in the city.

(There were little rolling paper dispensers on the bar, like napkin dispensers in a traditional cafe, and most people took them.)

His name was Yogesh, he was from India, on a business trip that took him to Poland, among other places.

He was in Amsterdam to get high and have fun, more or less.

My kind of guy.

The bar man was playing Travis Scott.
Drake.
And lots of trap music.

Things I listen to at home.

And there I was again, chatting up a stranger, listening to brilliant music, out in public, in a crowded, life-affirming, gorgeous, historic, European city.

Shout out to you, Amsterdam!

In the end, after an hour or so of chatting, we made plans to have dinner, but it wasn’t meant to be, as our timing was off.

So my final shout out today is to Yogesh, my erstwhile stoner buddy.

I hope he, and all of you, are safe out there!

 

This Week in Photography: A Vision of Italy

 

It was hard to motivate today.

(That’s the truth.)

I get so much joy from this column, all year long, but there are always one or two dips, per year, when my strategic-creativity-reserve drops precipitously.

I’m not alone, as most of you don’t want to work today either. (I’m writing on Thursday, as deadlines are deadlines.)

We’re living through exceptional times, and it takes so much mental and physical energy just to process it all without going crazy.

Let’s call it 60% of our total energy output?

Throw in parenting, working, home-schooling, cooking, cleaning, and all the rest, and how much energy is left for self-care?

For trying to feel good, rather than not-terrified?

Obviously, the answer is very little. We’re all going about, each day, doing the best we can, and some of us have it easier than others. (Geographically speaking.)

Right now, I think we all need to empathize with each other, more than ever, and expect a lot less from ourselves too. (In terms of our work productivity, anyway.) Hell, I just got up off the floor, (literally,) to write this column for three reasons:

1. Rob pays me, and it’s my job.
2. I have a responsibility to you, the audience.
3. I knew that any and all art practice always makes me feel better.

It’s that last one I want to harp on today. (Yes, I’m going into inspirational-professor-mode.)

When our energy drops and our spirits lag, blowing off exercise, or creative practice, is the easiest thing to do. Laziness can feel like a rational response to our current state of affairs, and I’ve allowed myself a fair bit.

I know a hard-core Yogi who admitted he wasn’t doing his yoga, so I gave him a little nudge, because I know how happy it makes him. (The dude glows.)

I’m certainly preaching to the choir, (to some extent,) as I’ve seen lots of social media posts about people cooking, drawing, or meditating.

We all KNOW this, on some level.

When much of normal life is stripped away, and we have so many emotions to process, (without our usual expressive outlets,) you have to give yourself permission to feel like shit, from time to time, while remembering that art makes it better.

Let me say that again: Art makes it better.

When was the last time you picked up your camera, or a pen, or a paintbrush, made some art, and then said, “Fuck! I totally regret that. What a waste of time! Heavens to Mergatroyd!

My guess?
Never.

I’m lucky, as this column forces me to make art each week. I can’t not be creative, as it’s my job to keep coming back at you.

With the benefit of that rigor, I wanted to share the message with you: Make art.

Make art!
Now.

Simply by making it now, you’ll be recording energy from a historic place in time.

Some of it will necessarily be interesting later on, because it was made now, and it will give a context.

Or then again, maybe a new context will change the work?

Am I simply speculating?

No.
I’m not.

I just got done looking at “Purtroppo Ti Amo,” (Unfortunately, I love you,) a photo-book submitted several years ago, by Federico Pacini in Italy, published by Editrice Quinlan.

(Yes, we’re going there.)

Just now, if I’m being honest, I’ve realized part of my coping mechanism has been to tamp down my heart. To lock away my vulnerability. I’ve put up the chest shield, and protected the emotions, because though I cried before leaving for Amsterdam, I haven’t cried since coming home.

All those poor people in Italy, suffering.

Dying alone.

Losing loved ones, no funerals, all the dread, all the death.

I lived in Rome for a seminal time in my life, and it made me an artist. Then I went back, in 1998, and made street photographs of the elderly culture, as old people were engaged and active in a way I’d never seen before.

Riding scooters, shopping with vigor, doing the passagiatta.

 

Why have I not cried for their loss?

You might get choked up when you see these pictures below, because it’s just too hard not to view them in the new context.

And what are they?

The entire book, near as I can tell, was shot in and around the artist’s hometown of Siena. A place, famed as any for its beauty, in the architecture and surrounding Tuscan countryside.

If most of us wanted to idealize a locale’s beauty, we might go with a place like Tuscany.

But that’s not what we see in this book.

Photograph after photograph of bleak, banal, real places. It is Italy, but not the Italy we’re accustomed to. This is all anti-aesthetic, no pretty.

When people do show up, and it’s rare, they’re often elderly. And when was the book made?

2013.

We see porn DVD’s and old parking lots. Miley Cyrus posters, and suave barbers.

But most of it is empty.
And sad.

About 1/3 of the way through, on the left hand page, we see a low-res image of an old man, looking disconcerted. On the right, an empty room, maybe in a Church basement, community center, or nursing home?

I strain to read one sign, and then translate it. My Italian is rusty, so I turn to Google:

“Le solitudine colpisce le persone che ti circondano,” which means…

“Loneliness affects the people around you.”

How was this book not made 3 days ago?

There is a juxtaposition, not much later on, of a small, 2-door-mini-Euro-car with a door-sign advertising funerals, next to a man, in a yellow, plastic volunteer vest, guarding the entrance to a supermarket.

How was this book not made 2 days ago?

There are empty restaurants, empty parks, empty streets.

How was this book not made yesterday?

I’m not sure there’s is much more for me to say about this one. The photographs below will tell the story better, from here on out.

So let’s all think good thoughts for the poor people in Italy and NYC, or New Orleans, Madrid.

We’ll all get through this eventually, so while you’re in the middle of it, don’t forget to make art.

Bottom Line: Bleak vision of empty SienaΒ 

To purchase “Purtroppo Ti Amo,” click hereΒ 

 

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

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 1

 

Part 1: The Intro

Blue New Mexico sky, #2020

 

I was scared shitless to go to Amsterdam last month.

Like, palpably afraid.

I cried, before leaving, I was so terrified.

My wife and daughter looked at me with deep empathy, and my son, nearly 12.5, had the awkward grin I recognized from my own youth.

A look that said, I’m uncomfortable with your naked display of emotion. Men aren’t supposed to cry. I’m not quite sure what to do here, so I’m going to smile like a paralyzed snow-monkey.

I understood how he felt, as for a moment, I could see myself though his eyes: the bearded, aviator-sunglasses-wearing hipster Dad, always cool.

And there I was, crying like a baby because I had to go to Europe.

We’d all discussed the risks, as there was not yet Coronavirus in Holland, no tourists were leaving China, and it wasn’t thought you could just pick it up in an airport.

So after my best mate and my book’s designer, Caleb Cain Marcus, told me the book could be 10% better if I supervised on press in Holland, he, my wife and kids all pushed me to spend the money and go.

To spend that much, (though I did get a great deal,) and to head out into a world where this new virus was taking root, it triggered some deep fear in me.

From the distance of only a month, (that feels like two years,) I now know why I was so fucking scared.

The wave that was coming was so much bigger than I could have anticipated, but I felt it in my bones.

Walking to my car, with my bags over my shoulders, I swear, I could hear the Jaws theme with each step I took.

Duh duh.
Duh duh.
Duh duh duh duh.

And then, (other than almost dying once,) nothing bad happened.

Nothing at all.
Quite the opposite.

I had a magical week, alone, in a shockingly cool European city.

 

Part 2. The journey

 

I bought a package trip on Orbitz, and the airfare and hotel were together what the plane ticket was supposed to cost. So when we all start traveling again, (which WILL happen,) I’d recommend you consider the tactic.

It meant I was able to leave my home, drive the 2.5 hours to the Albuquerque Airport, and board a flight to Houston, where I’d grab my international leg straight to Schiphol Airport.

In retrospect, the flight to the Netherlands, which I found obnoxious at the time, now seems like something powerful and special that I neglected to appreciate.

There we were, in the middle of the plane: A middle-aged, tall Dutch businessman to my left, an older Afro-Caribbean lady to my right, and a young Indian woman, living in Holland, to her right.

The four of us, crammed in tighter than a miser’s butthole, in a plane full of diverse humans.

Again, that was just over a month ago, as I write this on Wednesday March 18th.

I took two Benadryl to get some sleep on the flight, and it messed with my brain, because I know I watched two movies, but all these weeks later, for the life of me, I can’t remember one of them.

Seriously, what the hell did I watch?

The other movie, “Booksmart,” directed by Olivia Wilde, was a clever, Post-Me-Too update on “Superbad,” and maybe all teen movies like it, by flipping the protagonists to female, and making one gay.

Not that I saw the parallel until this very moment, but after my 4 hour nap, I watched the beginning episodes of “Killing Eve,” which I finished on the flight home. (A proper 10 hour binge watch!)

Killing Eve promo pic

 

Highly, Highly recommended.

Talking about flipping the script? Who needs James Bond, really, when you have female characters this badass, complex, sexy and surprising?

Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh are brilliant, and some of the foreshadowing, in particular in season 1, when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was show-runner, was bone-chilling.

(I won’t do a spoiler alert. I just won’t spoil it.)

In our new world, with plenty of spare time, watch this one and you’ll thank me.

 

Part 3: The arrival

 

If you think I’m teasing this out, well, maybe I am?

Do you have anything else pressing at the moment?

I’m reliving it in my memory, and if I savor every morsel of the now-forbidden-travel-fruit, would you blame me?

But as I said earlier, everything went so smoothly. Me and the other humans, pressed up against each other, and I was through customs in twenty minutes.

The train station is in the airport in Amsterdam, out at Schiphol, so it’s the easiest thing in the world to grab a 5 Euro train ticket into Amsterdam Centraal Station, the rail hub of the country. (Though all the other cities, Den Haag, Rotterdam and Utrecht are close by as well.)

Schiphol Airport

I remember sitting on that train, closing my eyes, and enjoying a moment of quiet, after I’d been traveling for 16 hours or so.

Then, I heard some loud American teenagers, and they wouldn’t shut up.

“Seriously?” I thought. “I travel halfway across the world, and my jet-lag-headache gets lit up by some dumb teenagers on a pleasure trip with their wealthy parents?”

Eventually, I moved, and then they got off at the wrong station, got back on the train on my new end of car, and sat down near me again.

After they kept yapping, I shot the Dad a look, and he quieted them down for me.

It’s an important thing to remember in these new times.

A lot of important information can be communicated through body language. (Nearly all of what we need to tell a stranger, anyway.) So as you approach people, and step into their personal space in the next couple of months, (or whatever,) just think like a martial artist, and read their energy and intent first.

I stumbled off the train, having to take a piss like you wouldn’t believe, and would you know it, but after walking up and down the train station, I found a public toilet, but you had to pay to use it?

I had no European money yet, much less coins, but the nice guy working there let me in, because I was polite, and obviously had to pee.

Why do I tell you this?

Because up and down that city, people were so cool and friendly. I’ve been around the block, and I can’t say enough about the Dutch, and the Amsterdammers in particular.

After leaving, I quickly arrived at the Hotel Mai, which is somehow located in a quiet, chill vortex that is both right up the street from the train station, and right on the cusp of the Red Light District.

Hotel Mai, looking North

Hotel Mai, Interior Entry

Hotel Mai, Chinese statues in the entryway

There is no reason for that spot, on the Geldersekade canal, to be mellow and relaxing, but it was.

I arrived shortly after 10 am, woozy from the jet lag, and met Jimmy, a nice young guy behind the desk, who told me there would be no Hurricane Dennis. (Which I wrote about previously.)

I asked if he’d take my bags, and he said sure, but then I kept asking about when I might be able to check in early?

The entire time I was in Europe during 2019-20, having a Verizon phone, which only works with Wifi, was a big downer.

Except for this once.

Because each time Jimmy said, “I’ll text you when your room is ready,” I could truthfully say, “I won’t get it. My phone doesn’t receive SMS here.”

He pushed some buttons around a few more times, and then said, “You want a king bed, right,” and I said, “Of course.”

“I have a room for you now,” said Jimmy, and then, all of a sudden, at 10:15am, I had a hotel room, a place to clean up, and my goodness, if that wasn’t a gift from the travel gods, and an omen of good things to come, I don’t know what was.

 

Hotel room view

Part 4: The coffee shops

 

So what do you do, standing in your beautiful, brand new hotel room, staring out at the shimmering water of the canal, now that it’s 10:30am, and you’ve washed your face, smacked your cheeks, and talked to yourself in the mirror to get psyched up?

Well, the first thing you do is change money.

I’d been to Amsterdam 4 times before, including one that I wrote about here in the column, so I had a rough mental map of the area. (Now it’s much sharper.)

I cut Southeast to Dam Square, though the tourist throngs, so I figured I could get my Euros there. (Cash only in the coffee shops.)

Dam Square, the former palace

It was easy to find the action, and I went to the money changer in the middle, because the ones on either end grab the first tourists to happen by.

The man behind the counter was friendly, and gay, with big chunky glasses, and we chatted for a few moments. I came back two days later, to get the rest of my money changed, and he told me about one of his favorite places in town.

It’s called “This is Holland” and is a 5D experience in which you get to simulate flying over the country. Though it sounded dope, I never made it. (But when things open again, you might want to try it.)

After I got that first batch of money, though, I hightailed it straight to the Oude Kerk, a beautiful 17th Central cathedral, because my favorite coffee shop was there, the Cafe Oude Kerk.

Though it seems like not much changes in Amsterdam, (until now of course,) the cafe was now called the Old Church, the English equivalent.

And it wasn’t open yet.

I walked around for 10 minutes, killing time, and finally the woman working there came out to talk to me.

Apparently, the “coffee shop” moved to a different part of downtown, and this coffee shop only sold coffee and food.

No weed or hash.

Luckily, they’d printed a map, (for all the idiots like me,) and I walked there in 10 minutes, like she promised.

Why did it have to the be the same place as last time, when there are hundreds of “coffee shops” in Amsterdam?

Good question.

The Old Church had a Cannabis-Cup-winning-hash, from 2004, a blonde hash that was my all-time-favorite.

(Brand loyalty, if you will.)

But the young woman behind the counter sold me something that didn’t seem the same, though it had a similar color, but she was confident.

Pineapple Express pollen hash.

I’d bought a pipe and a lighter at a little convenience store before I walked in, so a gram of hash and a pear Looza juice, (silky, from Belgium,) set me back 17 Euro.

I sat down, smoked a couple of small bowls, and felt a nice buzz, but that was about it.

Disappointing.

I overheard the ladies behind the counter saying “California, California.”

There was scorn in their voices, but also jealousy, so I went up to investigate.

“What’s that about California,” I barged in? “Their stuff is great, no question, but I’ve been thinking of coming to Amsterdam for years. You can’t get this hash back home in the US.”

“Well,” one young woman said “if you look at the menu, all the top strains are now from California. 30 Euro a gram or more.”

“I hear you,” I said. “I can get that back home. It’s great. But what about the hash? This doesn’t seem like what I had before. That won the Cannabis Cup?”

“Ah,” said a deep, smoker-throaty-voiced, blonde women in the corner. Obviously the boss. “You mean the Royal Cream.”

“Yes,” I exclaimed! “Yes. The Royal Cream. That’s what I came back for. That’s the shit you can’t get in the US.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t get it here now either. It doesn’t leave Morocco anymore. They have a new King, and new rules. Plus, most of the old timers are retiring, and their kids don’t want to do the work.”

“Bummer,” I said.

“Yeah, well.”

I left, with my mild buzz, and headed over to The Jolly Joker, a centrally located coffee shop, where I hung out with Hugo in 2013. (I still wear the T-shirt.)

The Jolly Joker

I bought some weed to go with my hash, the Tangerine Haze, for 14 Euro. A lot of the local strains had “haze” in the name, and all of them were pretty average, compared to what I have access to in Colorado.

It’s a blanket statement, but I’ll make it here and now.

The best part of the coffee shop experience was the social interactions, the music, the vibes, the people watching, and the fact that smoking decent weed and hash only made it cooler.

At The Jolly Joker, I sat down at a table for two in the window, and watched the world go by. Within minutes though, a young man approached and asked if he could join me.

As is (or was) the etiquette, I said sure, and as he rolled a joint, I began to ask him questions.

His name was Gerrit, he was a social worker from Munster, Germany, in town for a big guys-night-out.

10 German dudes, meeting up to go out for beers and grilled meat. (But he only knew two of them, and was therefore a little nervous.)

Gerrit made no mention of sex clubs, or anything illicit, and I took him at his word.

10 German guys in a food, booze and weed feast only.

I asked if he’d send me a picture, and eventually he did.

The Guys

I bragged about my luck, getting a hotel room a block away at 10:15 in the morning.

Gerrit’s face fell.

“What?” I asked.

He said he was waiting for his buddies to come to town, and he couldn’t check in to his hotel for 4 more hours. He was tired, dirty, and couldn’t wait to get some private space.

And there I was bragging!

I felt awful.

“The least I can do is help you pass the time then, since I can go shower and lay down whenever I want. My hotel is just up the block.”

“Thanks,” he said.

So I stayed, and we talked for another hour.

That a month later, the simple pleasure of smoking and chatting with a stranger, in a public place teeming with people, in a busy city crawling with humans, would seem so luxurious?

So impossible?

We’re all still trying to comprehend it.

 

This Week in Photography: A Coronavirus PSA

- - Working

 

I’m doing something different today.

(Like proper different.)

It’s an advice-only-column.
Maybe think of this as a public service announcement.

Now that I think about it, in all my years here, I did do this once before.

After a near death experience.
In Mexico.

(No, it had nothing to do with dodging cartel sicarios across the NorteΓ±o desert.)

Rather, my wife and I almost drowned in Playa del Carmen, during a rip current, with our young children back at the apartment with my folks.

We were so desperate to swim in the blue Caribbean, after a week of shit weather, that we ignored any and all warning signs, and swam out deep enough, in a brewing storm, when no one else was around. (“Hint, hint,” the Universe was saying.)

But we thought we knew better, and only through a lot of luck, some fancy swimming, (and not much else,) did we make it back to shore, exhausted, breathing heavy, arms trembling.

Jessie and I made a promise to wise up that day, and I wrote it into an New Year’s advice column for you, as it happened to coincide with the festivities.

I think I did wise up that day, and am proud of it. After a 4 year stint in therapy, a ton of travel around the US, building a new photo retreat program, publishing a book, and getting back to Europe twice now, I’m definitely a more capable, smarter, more nuanced, emotionally intelligent person than I was then.

Yes, I almost died in Amsterdam last month, (I promise to tell the story,) and I’m no “super-genius,” so all I’m really saying is that I try to learn lessons from life, and am happy to admit my fallibility.

Geared up for the weather in Amsterdam.

So what am I on about then?

Why no photo book?
Or art exhibition review?

Haven’t I seen enough in the last month to write ten articles about things on the wall right now?

Yes.
Yes, I have.

But for all the shit I gave #2019, for all its legendary absurdity and insanity, I didn’t feel compelled to do what I’m doing now.

Somehow, (though I’m not hating,) #2020 has managed to earn its hashtag in just over two months. Like I wrote about 2010 reminding me that 2009’s ass-whooping was not done, our new year has seen a full-blown global pandemic begin to arise.

Is that right?

My terminology?

I’m not sure, but what I am certain is that panic behavior has set in, with a major stock market sell off, and humans acted like flock birds by simultaneously voting for the “safe pair of hands” Joe Biden, as if connected telepathically.

I’ve heard stories from a friend of empty food shelves in New York, seen a photo of empty toilet paper shelves at a Target in San Diego, and a tweet about hoarding in Cincinnati.

San Diego

Cincinnati

My favorite soccer team, Arsenal, was supposed to play today, (I’m writing on Wednesday,) and the game was postponed because Arsenal players were exposed to the since-ill-with-the-coronavirus owner of the Olympiakos soccer club 13 days ago.

(ED note: Thursday evening the Arsenal head coach, Mikel Arteta, was diagnosed with the virus.)

South by Southwest has been cancelled.

Italy is in complete lockdown.

Old people are dying, regularly.

And China’s Orwellian, mind-boggling movement restrictions of earlier this year are now being held up as a (kind of) model for perhaps controlling the spread elsewhere.

(Oh yeah, this is probably a good time to mention the virus was likely started because some human beings just can’t seem to stop eating wild-jungle-creatures. Fucking assholes!)

It’s scary and crazy all at once, and as I have been dispensing advice here for years, and doing proper travel writing since last year, I wanted to share my two cents.

First of all, remain calm.
Secondly, remain calm.

Just because other people are buying up everything in sight doesn’t mean you have to.

(I took my kids to the grocery store yesterday, just to demonstrate that we could shop rationally, and ignore the panic instinct.)

Wash your hands well, and often, (I’ve always been a bit OCD in this one way,) but please don’t buy all the soap in your local supermarket.

Or all the TP, tissues, paper towels or hand sanitizer.

This type of hive-mind behavior perpetuates itself, as panic is as contagious as this nasty new virus.

With respect to travel, you all know I went to Amsterdam, and am glad I did. It made my book much better, and that was very important to me.

But I’m not sure how much non-essential travel I’d be doing now. (Ed note on Thursday: Travel from Europe has since been restricted.)

Last weekend, I was in Houston for a major domestic conference, SPE, happening right before a major international one, FotoFest.

I chose to hug and shake hands as normal at my book signing, but the new etiquette was to ask people what their preference was, before getting into personal space.

“Is it OK to touch you,” I’d ask?

Some people preferred fist bumps, or elbow bumps, or nothing at all. Most, though, kept it normal.

That was Saturday, and I’m guessing that at FotoFest, which began this week, far more people will revert to caution.

May I suggest we all culturally appropriate from the Japanese, and simply bow?

You can hug your family, but maybe we can all “honor” each other by staying hands off for a month or two?

I didn’t do it the other day, admittedly, but things change fast with new information, and if I had the signing now, I’d trade bows for hugs.

Also, it’s probably wise to check in on your elderly neighbors. (Assuming you know you’re virus-free.) At times like this, they need more help than ever.

I’m supposed to do a book signing at Paris Photo New York/AIPAD, (they need a more efficient name next year,) but now everyone’s wondering if it will be cancelled?

I’ve already heard rumors as such. (ED note: it was postponed several hours after I wrote this.)

Given all the health data about how helpful social distancing can be, should any of these international conferences go on, in major international cities? (ED note: now they’re not.)

Does the call get made piecemeal, one festival at a time, or all at once, in a wave?

Will this story, written on Wednesday, feel dated by the time I publish it on Friday? (ED note: the answer is yes. The NBA was cancelled later the same day, and the last session of FotoFest was postponed too. Now all sports are on hiatus, and the State of New Mexico closed all schools Thursday night.)

Here’s another piece of advice: do what you have to to keep your stress levels down. Beyond the hand washing, a healthy immune system is the best defense against getting really sick, so amp up your self-care regimen.

Exercise, make art, watch Netflix, cook good food, go for lots of walks.

Do what you can to stay calm and mentally grounded.

Given Capitalism’s efficiency, it’s unlikely, (beyond a guaranteed recession,) that this virus will interrupt global supply chains in a massive way, causing the kind of shortages that panic is currently making appear possible.

The only way that could even possibly happen is if all workers got a nasty case of coronavirus at once, and no one could work.

Erring on the side of caution, therefore, with where and when you travel, again makes a nasty exponential growth curve that much less likely.

So, in conclusion, as one who’s been in many public spaces in the last three weeks, in major international cities and airports, I’m now going to ease off, knowing what I know.

(ED note: as of Friday morning, the NM governor asked all people like me, who were out of state, to self-isolate for 14 calendar days. So I’m now stuck at home…)

Stay safe, stay smart, and please remember to remain calm.

It’s back to normal next week. (I hope.)

This Week in Photography: John Baldessari

 

America is hopelessly divided.

Rendered in half.
Torn asunder.

So they say.

It’s certainly the conventional wisdom, and something I’ve mused about at length here in the blog as well.

Given that old clichΓ©, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” it would lead one to assume the notion is true.

The US is split in two quasi-equal factions, and given they hate each other, as a nation, we’re essentially screwed.

Game over.
Let’s all go home.

That argument, that we’re broken into liberal and conservative camps, or Red and Blue states, or urban and rural enclaves, and it’s a bad thing, is so universal as to be unquestioned.

It’s so universal, in fact, that it was espoused by the very person typing these words.

(Do you sense a BUT coming?)

But…what if everyone is wrong? Even earlier versions of me?

I’ve been wondering lately, as for some reason, I’ve pushed words like split and divided from my brain, (not consciously,) and they’ve been replaced by another, very different word, that means more-or-less the same thing:

Balanced.

What if America is balanced between roughly-equally-sized blocks of people with naturally conservative and naturally liberal tendencies; citizens providing the warp and weft that has woven the nation together for the last 243 years?

What if?

What if it’s not so bad that some people don’t see eye-to-eye, or choose to live separate from one another?

What if we need each other, and that innate tension has kept us tougher these centuries, including after a Civil War that nearly created two separate countries?

Maybe, given our history, (of one half conquering the other,) and the fact that we (more-or-less) sewed it back together, plus the natural differences of country and city life, just maybe, this is our secret sauce as a nation?

Isn’t it a crazy thought?

The fact that Republicans and Democrats, (or Liberals and Conservatives,) continue to hand off the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court to one another, over phases of time, could make us better, as one side checks the other’s wildest instincts over time?

It’s a lot to swallow, given I’ve been such a vocal critic of President Trump. (And was no fan of George W. either, as you well know.)

I feel like most of us assume our side is right, and if we could only grab control of all three levers of power, at once, and have them for a decade or so, we’d fix America for good.

Red AND Blue think that.

But what if we need each other, and have essentially found ourselves endlessly distracted by infighting these last ten years?

What if the internet and social media have allowed powerful entities to chop us up into individual “profiles,” and rig the game to the point that we don’t even know we’re being played anymore?

No, the blogger is not turning Luddite on you, and I’m not saying it’s the robots fault either. (If anyone’s got a raw deal, it’s slave-robots.)

I benefit from the internet more than most.

However, “30 Rock” just came to Amazon, and I’ve been re-watching it, along with my 12 year old, who wasn’t born yet when it first debuted.

The take on race, class, the media, America, sexism, all of it, even the fashion, seemed current.

It was weird, as I’ve seen other TV from NYC, not much earlier, that is very dated. (Hint: “Sex and the City.”)

As much as I admire Tina Fey and her staff, as they barely put a foot wrong, it made me wonder if we’ve been spinning our wheels for most of the time I’ve been doing this job?

(I began here in 2010, for goodness sake.)

And I know that my work has value, commenting regularly on our culture, but what if the culture has been stuck?

What if I’m commenting on a repetitive loop?

What if Trump is the natural evolution, the natural conclusion of a process of getting ALL our attention, of monetizing that attention, as well as our identities.

We’ve given companies like Facebook every piece of information about ourselves that we possibly can.

Whether Facebook gave us Trump, or Trump gave us Facebook, maybe we got suckered into a 10 year void, where we kept pushing the button, and they kept giving us the snack?

(Whatever type of content you want, whenever you want, 24-7, and very likely free.)

If we were lab rats, and they wanted to devise as system to keep us endlessly distracted and squabbling, maybe it would look a lot like the world we’re living in?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting upending the system, nor have I been binge-watching Bernie Sanders campaign videos.

Rather, after a nice walk, and a short meditation, I took a long look at my book shelves, and noticed “Pure Beauty,” by John Baldessari, published in conjunction with a show at the Met in 2010.

Not that any of you would likely remember, (even my wife, or my Dad,) but I wrote about that show here, back then, very early in my APE career.

I’d seen the exhibit, the first time Rob asked me to go to NYC to cover the PDN Expo, and it had floored me.

Rocked my head.
Shook me sideways.
Punched me silly.

(You get the point.)

I liked it so much that I bought the monograph, which I don’t believe I’ve done before or since. (While working.)

I liked it so much that I left my notebook at the cash register, and only by the grace of the writing gods did I remember while I was only a few galleries away, in time to get it back with no hassles.

The exhibition was so good that it reframed the way I understood art, and my own art in particular.

Coming from UNM, which was a conceptual program, I learned from Tom Barrow and Patrick Nagatani. (Who got his MFA at UCLA.)

I was encouraged to think about working with ideas, and using processes which could themselves be symbols. It stuck with me, that way of thinking, and led me to study conceptual art in grad school, along with photography.

I could talk about Warhol, sure, and Marcel Duchamp, but mostly I think I made work that way because it had been implanted in my early-artist-operating-system.

All of a sudden, in that John Baldessari show, it was as if I were seeing every good idea that I had ever had, or was likely to have, on display on the walls before me.

Already done!

It was all there, the playfulness, the experimentation, the use of processes to engender artistic outcomes. The humor, the use of color, and the radical lengths to which the artist would challenge convention.

Like I once wrote about the Mike Kelley show at the Stedelijk Museum, (the time I owned my lack of genius, and was liberated,) the Baldessari show opened my mind the fact that if it came into my head, if I wanted to do it, if it was where my art took me, I should go.

And if, in the end, even with all the love and joy I had, I still felt like life was a bit absurd, well, that was OK too.

He threw red balls in the air to make a straight line, set against the blue sky, and documented it.

He made up games where you point to a carrot or a green bean?

Took selfies waving goodbye to strangers on boats.
Or wearing hats to block his face.

He made photographs out of secret handshakes!

He sang songs of Sol LeWitt art instructions.

Or took pictures of letters he built in the natural environment that spelled out the word “California.”

Everywhere we see games and systems.
Lots of play.

There were mini-movies, told in stills, and color blocks made from car doors.

This guy, John Baldessari, was a machine, just rapid-fire making amazing things, turning humor into pathos, and both balanced life experiences into something deeper.

Something that felt like the whole of life itself.

Looking back, nearly 10 years later, wondering if the last decade was a glitch in the system, I realize how much I learned that day, and how much his work had influenced me until that point. (And since.)

There are paintings, (for which he is rightfully renowned,) in which the artist painted instructions, in words, for how to sell lots of paintings. Or critiqued the process of painting, in words, inside his own paintings.

Everyday citizens have all heard of Warhol, and Picasso, but JB might have been just as influential.

Sadly, John Baldessari passed away in late #2019. (Another data point that year was a bitch and a half.) While we’re all less-well-off without him, and I’m sad I never got to shake his hand, (pre-coronavirus days, obv,) books like this one carry on his legacy.

Highly, highly recommended.

Bottom Line: Monograph from a 20th/21st Century master, #RIP

To purchase “Pure Beauty” click hereΒ