This Week in Photography: Year of the Beast

 

 

 

My dog just got trolled by two coyotes.

 

 

Haley on the road, 2021

 

 

 

I was sitting in my writing chair, wondering where to take today’s column, as Haley was lazing in the sun, just outside the sliding glass door.

All of a sudden, she leapt up and started barking.

(The full-throated, “I mean business” kind of bark.)

And this is one of the quietest creatures you’ll ever meet.

She can go all day without making a sound, unless she drops a little whine outside the front door when she wants to come in.

Barking, for her, is serious.

So I got right up, to see what was going on.

 

 

 

 

 

Just yesterday, (when she was away on a walk with my wife,) a massive coyote came strolling through the yard, practically prancing through Haley’s territory.

I called out to the kids, (who are home Zoom-schooling, b/c of Omicron,) and we all watched the gorgeous coyote for a good two minutes.

My son even captured a video, and I’ll post it here, if he’s up for sharing.

 

 

So today, my first thought was not psychopathic burglar, when the dog went ape-shit, but that it was probably the coyote coming back.

I was close, as this time, it was two.

Now, I’ve seen Haley tear off at full speed, determined to chase off her wild relatives, and maybe catch them if she can.

She must be a bit older and wiser, because despite her ferocious jaws, (she’s half-pit-bull,) Haley would be no match for two full-grown coyotes.

This time, she ran about ten paces, and then stopped, content to scream at them in dog-language.

I imagine she was saying something like, “Hey, assholes, get the fuck out of here! This is my turf! What’s your fucking problem? You don’t belong here! I’m in charge, not you! Leave! Now!”

I stood at the window, watching her body quake, giggling at the subtext of her unhappy barking, and then I decided to watch the coyotes.

They looked at her, only for a second, and then just pretended she wasn’t there.

It was an epic troll job.

They stood their ground, and went back to sniffing around, without the tiniest hint of hurry, or bother.

Then, and I swear this is true, one at at time, each had a leisurely poop, and then kicked at the dirt around the excrement with their hind legs.

You can’t make this up!

 

 

 

 

 

Living in a horse pasture in the heart of the American West, I admit life can be lonely, and almost boring, if you can’t take pleasure in watching the birds, the deer, the aspen leaves shaking in the breeze.

(And sometimes, the isolation does drive me crazy, especially since Covid began.)

But just now, in the last few minutes, I felt like the natural world was putting on a play, just for me.

In the end, the coyotes loped off, slowly, in their own good time.

They mocked Haley with their indifference, daring her to charge them.

Thankfully, she understood simple math.

2 coyotes, 1 dog.

Not a fair fight.

 

 

 

 

 

I bring this up, partly because it just happened before my eyes, as I sat with my computer on my lap, wondering what to write.

But also, (you know me well,) because I had a book in mind to review for today, and the coincidence is just uncanny.

Tara Wray published a photo-book a few years ago, “Too Tired For Sunshine,” which I reviewed favorably, though in my experiential fashion, I had no idea it was really a treatise on using photography to combat depression.

Remembering what I wrote, I did wonder about the title?

Why would someone be too tired for sunshine?

And I was impressed by the search for rich, deep color, and powerful moments, as it seemed to have a hidden drive behind it.

The book became the basis for a movement, both on Instagram and IRL, with a series of group photo exhibitions around the world by other artists who also suffered from depression.

The phenomenon culminated in the formation of a non-profit organization, the Too Tired Project.

 

 

(Pretty badass, if you ask me.)

 

 

 

 

In early 2021, Tara kindly send me a copy of her new book, “Year of the Beast,” which was made during the first pandemic year.

(Hence the title.)

This one was published by her own imprint, Too Tired Press.

The artist lives in the mountains of Vermont, in an isolated, rural existence, much as I do. (Though I’d kill to be able to get to Boston or NYC in half a day, instead of Albuquerque.)

I found this set of images to be a bit looser, perhaps not as locked-in as the previous work, but still, it’s a compelling project.

We see her children, in various guises, and lots and lots of animals.

Frankly, it was that connection with the natural world which I couldn’t shake from my brain, after the coyotes walked away.

There are only a few clear, symbolic references to the pandemic, like the fully stocked pantry image, and I dig the subtlety.

Other than Bo Burnham’s genius Netflix special “Inside,” which I’ve shouted out before, I don’t think I’ve seen much art directly ABOUT the pandemic that had enough nuance not to feel “too soon.”

So I appreciate this book is not didactic.

I was fortunate to interview Tara for the PhotoNOLA Virtual Book Fair, about both books, the way she uses art to battle depression, and the movement that popped up in her wake.

You can check it out here, if you’d like.

 

 

 

The images in “Year of the Beast” are displayed in the order in which they were shot, so the narrative plays out in real time.

It’s a tactic many of us consider with our documentary style photo series, but so often we opt for sequencing with intentional rhythm, creating runs of images based upon color, symbolism, texture, or emotion.

As 2022 has just begun, now the third year of this public health crisis, I thought it appropriate to kick off the column with a book that shows us one artist’s vision of 2020.

The Year of the Beast indeed.

 

To learn more about “Year of the Beast” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Family Ties

 

 

 

Here we are.

The end of the year.

 

And 2021 has been one to remember.

(That’s a fucking understatement!)

 

Courtesy of The Times of India

 

 

 

Despite the cynicism I’ve developed the last few years, like a well-earned callus, I’m still hoping for the best.

Hoping we sort out the growing climate catastrophe.

Hoping we heal the political wounds tearing our nation asunder.

Hoping I’ll stay healthy enough to be there for my wife and children as they grow.

(It’s a lot to hope for, I know.)

 

 

 

 

 

To be honest, I’m totally cooked.

(Who doesn’t feel like burger meat in the week between Xmas and New Year’s?)

Plus, we’re leaving for a family vacation tomorrow; the first in several years.

And I still need to pack.

Beyond that, the book I just spent an hour reading, and perusing, hits close to home in ways I’d rather not excavate today.

But I promised the book’s author/artist I’d get it reviewed this week, and I’m a man of my word.

So it’s possible I’ll be less honest, or at least less open, about my own experience than I might if I were writing in a couple of months.

When my own wounds are more fully healed.

Compromise, though, is a highly undervalued concept, and I’m all for it.

We’ll review the book, then, to honor my commitment, and for once, I might keep some of my family business to myself.

(There’s a first time for everything, right?)

 

 

 

 

 

One of my publishing clients told me, a few months ago, that I should check out Gillian Laub’s new Aperture book, “Family Matters.”

With the East-Coast-Jewish-family-culture it mines, and the naked honesty on display, it was suggested I’d love this book.

And I’d likely want to review it.

(Sounds great, right?)

The problem, though, is that, Aperture, the publisher, has never sent me a book, nor seemed to take this column seriously.

All good, as far as I’m concerned, because we can’t be friends with everyone, but I feared I might have trouble getting a copy of “Family Matters.”

Predictably, the Aperture PR person ignored several requests, including when I responded to a press email that THEY sent ME.

(Stay classy, Aperture!)

Normally, I would have let it go, but a few weeks later, I randomly realized I was “friends” with Gillian Laub on Facebook, as I am with some other industry types I don’t actually know.

(I favorably reviewed some of her work in a gallery show in Santa Monica, back in 2013, so maybe we connected after that?)

I’ve never done this before, DM’ing an artist to see if they might send their book directly, after being stymied by the publisher, but I figured, “What do I have to lose?”

Full disclosure: I was flattered when Ms. Laub wrote back quickly, assured me she’d sort things out, and ask Aperture to send me a book straight away.

She made it happen, in a flash, so when she asked me to review the book while her solo show at the ICP Museum in NYC was still on display, I was happy to honor the request.

The exhibition is up through January 10th, and as I’ll be taking my customary Winter week off next Friday, today had to be the day.

(Brain fry be damned!)

 

 

 

 

It is a terrific book, for sure, and one I’m not likely to criticize.

I admit, at first, when I realized I’d have to read text with each picture, I almost backed out.

I thought about being a punk, for once, and not “doing the right thing,” but I came to my senses.

In fairness, the writing is engaging, and well-edited, so it wasn’t a struggle to make it through the book.

I was riveted, and made to feel uncomfortable by the similarities to my upbringing and family, and also the drastic differences.

That said, I don’t think you have to be a Jewish Gen-X’er to appreciate this one.

It offers what we ask of an excellent photo-book: vulnerability, empathy, wisdom, and character development.

 

 

 

 

“Family Matters” is written in the first person, and follows more than two decades of growth and change in Gillian Laub’s extended family, up to the present.

From the jump, we learn the family of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, (who arrived from Europe when my family did, at the turn of the 20th Century,) became extremely wealthy as real estate developers.

 

My paternal grandparents’ gravestones, 2021. Both were born here before WWI. Courtesy of Richard Blaustein

 

Now that I think about it, there’s solid foreshadowing for where we end up later, but I’ll build to that.

Gillian shares an anecdote of being an ICP student in 1999, chatting with colleagues outside the (then) Upper East Side institution, when some garish older ladies walk by, in full-fur coats, as her companion makes a joke at their expense.

Only for Gillian to realize it’s her family, out on the town, going to see art.

That vein of self-awareness, and airing the dirty laundry, stays with us throughout the book.

And I love it.

 

 

 

 

 

Pure coincidence, but I’ve been re-watching “The Sopranos” this week, having only seen it, bit by bit, when it was released in 1999.

 

Photo by Anthony Neste/ Getty Images, courtesy of GQ

 

I probably binged it on HBO a few episodes at time, whenever I’d come back to Taos to visit my parents, (and my wife’s parents,) as I was never able to afford HBO myself.

I grew up in a town filled with New Jersey, suburban mafiosi families, and have therefore always related to the show.

(Plus, Italian food feeds my soul, rather than Jewish deli. Honestly, I’d take pizza and chicken parm over pastrami and smoked fish every single time.)

This book reminds me of the seminal, David Chase saga, as the sense of legacy, privilege, and family values pervades the narrative.

Just as Tony Soprano’s life was determined by having a thug dad, and his kids never had the chance to be “normal,” Gillian Laub is pretty clear that her personal privilege dominates much of her life, despite her artistic tendencies and liberal politics.

(Though the New Yorkers in the book might blanch at the comparison to Jersey.)

 

 

 

 

That immigrant, nouveau-riche, American-dream narrative is cultivated throughout, as Gillian Laub’s clan “made it,” moving to the ritzy, Westchester town that seduced the social-climbing Clintons.

Chappaqua.

 

Hillary in Chappaqua in 1999. Photo by Steve Chernin/AP, courtesy of The Guardian

 

Beyond money, though, we continually read of close relationships.

Gillian feels truly loved by her parents.

She is seen, emotionally supported, and understood for who she is, from what I gather.

However, it’s just that sense of deep, rich love that leads to the conflict in “Family Matters.”

The big reveal, (spoiler alert,) is that Gillian’s parents, and some of her extended family, come out as serious Trumpers in 2016, and it nearly breaks their bonds forever.

That they are so connected makes the political betrayal deeper on both sides, as neither can relate to the other anymore.

Enmity replaces joy.

Anger trumps positivity.

All seems lost.

 

 

 

 

 

Still, proper rupture never happens, and I applaud the artist’s introspection, admitting while she maintained her progressive political leanings, she still accepted her parents’ money to pay for private school for her children.

(As one who’s spent 10 years sharing my personal life with you, my readers, I found the honesty refreshing.)

Of course, I should have mentioned the pictures by now, and they’re great.

Lots of humor, (sometimes at the subjects’ expense,) but also respect, solid compositions, and razor-sharp exposures.

When I saw the photo of the wedding planner, Harriette Rose Katz, I was teleported to that gallery in Santa Monica, 2013, back when Bergamot Station was still going strong, and I was reminded why I liked this work so much the first time I saw it.

 

 

 

 

In the end, Gillian’s family reconciles, after Joe Biden is inaugurated, but as I said before, it’s not like they ever formally broke.

They still showed up for the family functions.

Celebrated the birthdays.

Offered up the backyard for a Mary J Blige photo shoot.

(OK, probably none of us can relate to that last one, but I did wait on her and her then-husband, at Bobby Flay’s restaurant in 2003, and the way MJB’s man made us stay open late, and ordered off the menu, I knew he was a prick. If she had only asked me, I could have saved her a lot of heart-ache.)

This book is one for the collection, and if you live in the Tri-State area, I’d suggest you go see the show at ICP, Downtown, before it closes.

Their museum and school have moved many times, since Gillian was a student on the Upper East Side. (I saw my first-ever photo show there, and then engaged in naughty behavior with my wife in a new, mid-town location several years later.)

Like the photo world in general, ICP changes with the times.

But they stick around, because photography is as relevant now as it’s ever been.

To wrap this up, (so I can go back to packing for my trip,) thank you all for reading, and supporting this column in 2021.

May you and your loved ones have a safe, healthy, and invigorating 2022.

See you in two weeks!

 

To purchase “Family Matters” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Old Friends

 

 

Big day today.

 

 

 

It’s the anniversary of the first time I met my wife.

December 23rd, 1997.

(I’m writing on Thursday, as usual.)

 

 

 

Without exaggeration, that was the most important day of my life.

We were young, only 23, and have been together ever since.

(More than half our lives.)

We met as kids, really, and have grown up together all these years.

Through the easy times, the hardships, and the magic of raising a family, Jessie and I forged a steel bond, and I’m lucky to have a soulmate who’s helped me become a better, stronger person.

 

The two of us, circa 2002. Jessie looks amazing. Me, not so much… courtesy of Keith Karstadt.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday was a big day as well.

Our daughter packed up her desk, leaving her current elementary school for good.

(She’s switching from the Charter school to the public one in our part of town after break.)

Amelie had an awful experience with Zoom school the prior two years in 2nd and 3rd grade. The same teacher, who mailed it in, simultaneously undermined her confidence at every turn.

When a teacher repeatedly implies a child is dumb, (because of undiagnosed dyslexia,) it eats away at her self-esteem, day by day.

I’m glad Amelie is moving to a healthier environment, (she’s amazing,) but it wasn’t just the education.

She’d known most of her classmates since pre-school; navigating the same social environment since before she could speak. These girls knew how to push each others’ buttons; they knew all the weak spots.

(Is that a mixed metaphor?)

 

 

 

 

Sometimes, we need a fresh group of friends, because the bonds we make when we’re young aren’t really based on who we are.

Or at least, they’re not based on who we’ll become.

Every now and again, you do run across people who are still besties with their childhood mates.

Some of my female friends from school remain a tight-knit group, supporting each other through all of life’s twists and turns. (Shout out to Chrissy, Michelle, Brooke, Mandi and Caroline!)

Occasionally, our teen-aged, angst-ridden, poetry-writing phase lines up with our friends’ trajectories, and we walk life’s path together.

It does happen.

 

 

 

 

If you think my musings were random today, you’re wrong.

Sometimes, the rant takes off on at a frozen airstrip in Antarctica, and lands in the sunny, moist jungle outside Cancun.

But not today.

I just finished looking at “Between Girls,” by Karen Marshall, published this year by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, and as you’ll soon see, my intro was on-point.

The book is very well-produced, to give it props, as it interweaves black and white documentary imagery from NYC in the 80’s, with diaristic text, video stills, contemporary imagery, and QR codes, while also switching paper stock several times, when the text rolls around.

Cool cover too.

Design-wise, I’d give this book an A+.

As to the narrative, I found it flawed, or at least, more about style than substance.

 

 

 

 

The story, at first, follows some NYC hipster high school kids, and they bop around the Upper West and East sides.

They describe hanging out downtown.

They talk about boys.

We read bad poetry, (no offense,) but then again, if I ever shared my High School poems with you, you’d laugh longer than the Covid testing lines in NYC, late December 2021.

(Too soon?)

The documentary photos are good, for sure, and after a few images, we can tell Molly from Leslie, but I’m still not sure if there was one Jen, or two?

This is the part of a book where traditionally I’d like to feel a connection develop with the protagonists, as I build empathy and connection as a viewer, but that didn’t really happen.

Soon, (spoiler alert,) we learn that Molly has died, but we don’t find how how or why until the end. (Car crash on vacation in Cape Cod at 17.)

Given the age, and emotional fragility of that life phase, I’d assumed she committed suicide.

 

 

 

 

Later, cool-looking text blocks tell us several of the women have backyard chickens.

The girls have grown up to become mothers.

They go to work.

They live their lives.

 

 

 

I can’t fault the visual structure, nor the quality of the photographs.

They’re good.

But I found myself wanting to care more.

I wanted to be moved.

To have my soul touched.

(In the words of “Succession’s” Cousin Greg, “Boo Souls!”)

 

Courtesy of The Ringer

 

 

 

 

To me, a book like this screams out for vulnerable, honest, first-person text from the jump.

(Instead, the opening prose was intentionally inscrutable.)

I want to hear from the artist, right away, to tell me what I’ll be looking at.

If I know Molly soon dies, as I’m perusing those first few pictures, it’s so much more poignant.

And then I want my heartstrings pulled by the surviving friends, to push it even further.

Hell, I might have cried.

(It’s happened before, in books about loss.)

But it’s still a job well done for the artist and the production team.

I’m just a tough critic.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Between Girls” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Visiting NOLA, Part 1

 

 

Short column today.

I’ve teased easy-breezy-reads before, only to drop 1800 words on you.

But not today.

(I swear.)

 

 

 

 

It’s Thursday morning, (as usual,) but the last week-and-a-half has been anything but typical.

 

 

 

 

It began a week ago Tuesday, when I left at 8:30am for ABQ, to catch 2 planes to New Orleans for an evening arrival.

That’s not unusual, a trip taking nearly 12 hours door-to-door, but sure enough, my plane was delayed in Houston, and then cancelled, as they shut the NOLA airport due to fog.

It took two days to get there, and I spent the rest of the week schmoozing, eating, drinking, reviewing portfolios, walking around the city, seeing exhibitions, drinking some more, and having a lot of fun.

I got home Sunday evening, after waking at 3:30am for an early flight, and while I was regenerating brain cells, yesterday morning, we had a wind and ice storm knock out the power and internet for 26 hours.

Right now, I’m barely functional.

I’m asking for a tiny bit of empathy, (as it’s not like we had tornados,) so let’s get the show on the road.

 

 

 

 

 

This was my first IRL festival since the world shut in March, 2020, and man was it fun.

I spent much of 2021 on PhotoNOLA’s advisory council, and made my feelings clear, from the jump, that getting people together in-person, (safely,) creates a positive energy impossible to replicate online.

Having cool, creative, hard-working artists in the same room builds camaraderie, and the possibility of new opportunities, which form the backbone of the fine art photo world in the US.

Certainly, I laughed harder than I have in years, drank more booze in a weekend than I do in 6 months of lock-down-life, and was palpably reminded what an amazing group of people we are, as a community.

Kudos to the New Orleans Photo Alliance, and PhotoNOLA, for making this happen!

As usual, I saw a ton of great work, and will write about the best portfolios I saw in a future article.

 

 

 

 

 

I caught a killer photo installation of wet plate collodion work, in the Houston airport, by Keliy Anderson-Staley, which I’ll share with you here.

 

“In Passing,” by Keliy Anderson-Staley

 

Normally, airport art is forgettable, but I also saw some wonderful paintings in the NOLA airport by Richard C. Thomas on the way home, so let’s drop them into the narrative as well.

 

Paintings by Richard C Thomas

 

When I first arrived in New Orleans, hungry as a mistreated dog, I walked the two short blocks from the International House Hotel, (which is gorgeous,) to the French Quarter, looking for some cheap, tasty street food.

 

Hotel lobby

 

I found the aptly named Istanbul Cafe, where I got an excellent chicken shawarma wrap, which fit the bill, and I went back on Saturday night, to get some dinner that would also serve as breakfast for my early morning.

 

Istanbul Cafe in the French Quarter

Chicken Shawarma platter. So good!

 

Next, I headed to Walgreens, for a bottle of room-booze, (Bulleit Bourbon,) and a four-pack of blue Gatorade, because once you hit 47, you don’t want to be drinking heavily without a plan.

When bars charge $15 per shot, getting a full bottle of good whiskey for $24 means you can hit the streets with a nice buzz, hook up your friends for happy hour, and generally manage the hair-of-the-dog situation.

The Gatorade is great for preventing/managing hangovers, as is my nightly ritual of 2 Advil and 1 Benadryl before sleep.

The greasy follow-up breakfast is also key, and I hit the really great Majoria’s Commerce Restaurant each morning, which was literally across the street from the hotel.

Day one, bacon egg and cheese on a homemade biscuit.

So good!

Day two, (the breakfasts got bigger each day, as the hangovers stacked up,) I had their loaded hash-browns, which had cheese, jalapeños and sautéed peppers atop the potatoes, with 2 eggs, a side biscuit, and an extra side of smoked sausage. (A local speciality.)

 

Commerce. Legit.
Loaded hash-browns with smoked sausage
I don’t normally eat like this…

 

Day three, all that, plus a side of grits. (Each day, I grazed on the food, a bit at a time, to combat the encroaching hangovers.)

If you’re going to abuse your body for a few days at a time, in a party city like New Orleans, I’m telling you, a solid plan is required.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday, during the blackout, the kids and I played hangman, and laughed for a solid hour. (When your 14-year-old uses “puta” in-game, you can assume fun was had.)

I shared the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention,” as we lived all day without electricity or internet, and found new ways to amuse ourselves.

I’m glad the power is back, but honestly, that kind of out-of-routine experience is what makes memories.

It’s a lot like traveling, and I’ll remember this NOLA adventure for a long time.

Beyond the hilarious trip on a school bus, (where I was named bus captain, reporting to the driver, Ms. Jackie,) the wonderful parties, and a great visit to the Bayou Beer Garden, I also had dinner with a few friends at the über-trendy, insanely delicious Italian restaurant Sofia.

(Brilliant fresh pasta, fantastic pizzas, great meatballs, and a house-made ricotta, radish and flat bread appetizer that was so much better than it sounds.)

 

Sofia, the next morning
Enjoying a great meal with my buddy Frances

 

Art installation on the wall of Sofia

 

As we walked the streets, a group of 5 revelers, including 4 photographers, we stepped directly over a highly mutilated pigeon, and I was the only one to even notice.

I grabbed a photo for you, (trigger warning, it’s gross,) because that’s a part of the fun of seeing new things.

 

Extremely dead pigeon

 

Across the street, a white cathedral glowed in the artificial light.

 

St Patrick’s Church, 1833

 

Quite the NOLA juxtaposition.

 

 

 

In a world in which many of us stayed home for a year, not-too-long-ago, I’m here to remind you that travel really does make us smarter, happier, and richer-in-experience.

So get out there, as soon as you can…

I’ll be back next week, and will share more about NOLA when I feature photographic portfolios in early 2022.

Hasta luego!

 

 

This Week in Photography: Visiting Chicago Part 2

 

 

I’m writing on a Monday.

(Monday morning, in fact.)

I’m not going to lie.

It kind-of sucks.

 

 

Thankfully, there’s a good reason for the routine-shake-up.

Tomorrow, I’m off to New Orleans to attend the always-fun PhotoNOLA festival.

It will be my first IRL photo-event since the world shut in March 2020, and I can not wait to see friends, review portfolios, eat amazing food, and stroll around the beautiful French/Spanish/Creole/American city.

(Honestly, up until recently, I didn’t know Spain controlled New Orleans for forty years.)

On Wednesday, PhotoNOLA will be releasing six video interviews I did on their behalf, for the Virtual BookFair, and I was fortunate to speak to a really cool collection of artists and publishers.

I’ll include the link, even though it hasn’t happened yet, (for me,) and it’s already happened, when you’ll read this piece.

(Such a 2021 time-warp. Appropriate for a strange fucking year.)

 

 

 

 

Between writing on a Monday, still feeling discombobulated from the crazy book I reviewed on Friday, and needing to get my house in order for a big trip, I don’t have many available brain cells at the moment.

Certainly not enough to read/look at a new photobook, process it, think deeply, then spit out an appropriately-intelligent review, as you’ve come to expect these last 10 years.

Instead, we’re going to pivot.

Before I fill my head with a host of new stimuli down in Louisiana, I thought we’d time-jump back to mid-October, when I went to Chicago to eat, drink, be merry, and see some great art.

Thankfully, that last goal was met at the Art Institute of Chicago.

(If you can’t see amazing things there, you’re not trying hard enough.)

 

 

 

 

I was a bit sad the Hokusai/Hiroshige exhibition closed a few days before my visit, and will openly admit I didn’t do enough homework to know the well-received Barbara Kruger show was happening while I was there.

As a critic, I’ll offer a “my bad,” as I ought to have dialed in the radar, but my goal was to see the André Kertész show, (for you photo geeks,) in particular because my friend Greg was involved in the curation.

So with that as my action plan, I strolled South a couple of miles along Michigan Avenue, and stopped to take a photo for you, where the Chicago River emerges from the massive Lake.

 

 

I caught a cool video art installation in Millennium Park, and have since learned it was called Crown Fountain, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, featuring images of Chicago residents.

 

 

When I got to the museum, I let instinct be my guide, (as I arrived mid-afternoon, and didn’t have much time,) and headed up a floor in the Contemporary wing.

(The Museum is really two buildings connected together, and I’ve been through the historical wing a few times now.)

I found the opportunity to commune with some of the true greats of the 20th Century, including a few of my all-time favorites: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Charles Ray.

As to Pollock and Rothko, there’s not much I can say that hasn’t been written a thousand times.

I’ll admit the work, which is large-scale, and overwhelms the body with emotion, needs to be experienced in person to be understood.

 

Two Pollock paintings

 

Abstract Expressionism leans heavily on both words, and the feelings and energy expressed impose on your soul, (in a good way,) which is why museums are so bloody important.

(Sorry for the English slang. I’ve got an Arsenal game coming on in a few hours.)

Standing in the middle of a room full of Rothkos, none of which I’d seen before, is akin to sitting on the sand, staring at the Pacific Ocean.

 

 

His paintings are the only art that’s ever made me feel that way, and the experience alone was worth schlepping from Taos to Chicago.

However, I also got to be creeped out by an insane, large-scale boy sculpture by Charles Ray, which also needs no explanation.

 

 

Is it Hansel before he gets eaten? The inspiration behind Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit? One of the kids from “The Sound of Music”?

Really, who’s to say?

 

 

 

Beyond that, I loved an installation by the brilliant Kerry James Marshall, the beautiful portrait of Chicago’s Barack Obama by Jordan Casteel, and these two super-textural paintings by Japanese artists Shimamoto Shozo and Shiraga Fujiko.

 

 

 

 

 

This Roy Lichtenstein painting was bonkers good, and held my attention for 5 minutes or so.

 

 

What a joy!

I was also mesmerized by this David Hockney painting, called “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman,) which I stood before for a good 6 minutes.

 

 

It was so seductive, in his SoCal sort of way, but like the Raymond Jonson painting I saw in Albuquerque earlier this Fall, it also felt Anti-Semitic.

When I reviewed that show, it was the first time I’d ever leveled that accusation in my career, but here, I recognized the feeling again.

A clearly unflattering depiction of a wealthy, Jewish art patron.

Is it OK to paint people as unattractive?

Sure, why not?

But when a person within a culture feels a negative emotional reaction to an old trope, (one used to denigrate a people for millennia,) I think it deserves mention.

 

 

 

 

Next up, I’ve got to discuss the issue of the exploitation of the female form by famous, powerful, White artists.

I realize at this point, I’ve been covering this subject throughout the pandemic, and maybe it’s time to let it go.

But I’ll let you be the judge if it’s worth considering today.

Richard Prince, who’s taken heavy fire from the photo-world for years, based upon his appropriation of Sam Abell’s work, and then Patrick Carou, had some pin-up photos of pretty, topless, young women, and I really thought they were tacky.

 

 

But they were joined by cheesy, exploitative work by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

 

(I normally love Warhol’s paintings, as he’s been a huge inspiration to me.)

 

 

As I stood there, in the museum in 2021, I couldn’t help but wonder if the curators were oblivious to the cultural moment?

Really, is this the time to be flaunting such things, when one has an entire basement filled with genius works?

Do we need to see big, bulging breasts painted/sculpted by rich, old (or dead) White guys?

I say no.

And the only female artist of that level of renown in those galleries was Cindy Sherman, whose images both critique and simultaneously reinforce the stereotype of the young, blonde, damsel-in-distress.

 

 

Sure, we all know Cindy was subverting tropes, but the AIC draws plenty of “regular citizens,” and in the context of the Prince, Warhol and Koons work, I suspect Sherman’s subversive photographs are themselves subverted.

 

 

 

 

Lastly, I’ll show some images from the André Kertész exhibit, which focused only on small prints he made during stint living in Paris.

 

 

Normally, that wouldn’t matter, (the size of the photographs,) but after looking at so much big work, reveling in the power of scale, I admit it was hard to get so close to small pictures to absorb the details.

(The one Mondrian painting included, b/c Kertesz had photographed his studio, was a brilliant touch.)

 

 

There were beautiful night scenes in Paris, including images of the Eiffel Tower. (Naturally.)

 

 

And we also saw some well-constructed interior photos. (Including Mondrian’s studio, which explains the original painting on the wall.)

 

 

But wouldn’t you know it, one of Kertesz’s prominent subjects, while living in Paris, was shooting pretty and/or striking young women.

 

 

Like Paul McCartney admitting in a recent New Yorker article that he got into a band to catch birds, (English slang for girls,) I’m not going to hate on Kertész for gravitating his camera towards attractive women.

So many photographers have done it, and it’s not for nothing that Hollywood, (and the entertainment industry in general,) treats gorgeous young women as such prized commodities.

Certainly, these photographs were excellent, and held my attention while my brain cells slowly rebelled against me. (It was nearly 4pm on a day I walked 15 miles.)

But it is a good place to end today’s column.

When we describe “agency” and “power dynamics” in 2021, it’s within the context of a long history of the exploitation of women by men.

Sure, anyone can photograph anything they want these days, as long as the subject is a consenting adult.

I do think each artist who likes to photograph “hot chicks,” in our new times, should have a pretty compelling reason to do so, given our culture of objectification.

That’s all I’ve got.

Lots of reporting from New Orleans up ahead.

See you next week!

 

This Week in Photography: Looking Back

 

 

I just saw a massive hawk.

(Up in a tree.)

 

 

 

They’re around a lot, this time of year, the red-tailed hawks.

The brown, dead grass makes it easy to spot prey, so they sit and wait, before swooping with efficient ferocity.

I’ve noticed, over the years, whenever you get too close, the hawks fly away.

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a threat or not.

Either way, as soon as you reach their discomfort zone, off they go.

(That’s nature for you.)

 

 

 

 

The coyotes are no different.

I’ve seen two this week; their sand-gray coats blending perfectly with the ground color in winter.

(Until the snow comes.)

If you want to appreciate a coyote, and watch the way it moves, you have to stand perfectly still, and if you’re inside, never open the door to get a better look.

They always spook.

Always.

Again, it’s in their nature.

At the merest hint, the faintest whiff of trouble, off they go.

(It’s not for nothing coyotes are such great survivors.)

 

 

 

 

 

This week, in addition to watching hawks and coyotes, I’ve also been following The Beatles massive new documentary, “Get Back,” on Disney+, by the master of lengthy story-telling: Peter Jackson.

(Trying to explain to my kids why “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was such a big deal, in an era of digital-effects-ubiquity, was more difficult than I might have imagined.)

 

Courtesy of IMDb

 

We’re only halfway through Episode 2, but I needn’t bother with spoiler alerts.

We all know how the story ends.

The Beatles break up.

 

 

 

 

 

They go out on top, as their late-stage-music is some of the best ever recorded.

But they also dissolve the group, more-or-less hating each other.

A decade of unhealthy relationship patterns turned the band into a ticking time-bomb, and the only question was when it would go off.

Not if.

There is a phenomenal moment, early in Episode 2, that Sir Paul must have nightmares about, as he correctly predicts in 50 years time, people will shake their heads that The Beatles broke up because Yoko Ono sat on an amp.

(Sidebar: Peter Jackson’s opening disclaimer scrupulously states each person is rendered accurately. If that’s true, Yoko was an inscrutably odd bird.)

Immediately after his prediction, though, the film cuts to a scene in which Paul and John are secretly recorded at lunch. The dynamic duo basically admits they ganged up on poor George all these years, denying him power or agency.

The agree (again, not knowing they were being taped,) that he had a right to be pissed at them.

It gives context to the narrative that George is ready to ride off into the sunset, with his Hare Krishna buddies, who at least show him some GODDAMN RESPECT!

 

 

What The Beatles prove, not-quite-exactly 50 years ago, is that unresolved emotional issues in relationships can doom even the most productive, successful, lucrative “family” the world has ever seen.

If you can’t sort out your business, it’s going to blow.

That’s as much a law of nature as spooking hawks.

 

 

 

 

 

When a person has tried every way to make things better, and failed, eventually that person will tap out.

Or go down in flames.

And this week’s book, “Tulsa, OK,” sent in by Victor d’Allant, a French photographer based in San Francisco, makes that point visually explicit.

Page after page.

This one came in Summer 2021, but I bumped it up the pile, as it represents two anniversaries at once.

“Tulsa, OK” was published this year, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the 50th anniversary of Larry Clark’s seminal book “Tulsa.”

Speaking as an artist, a critic, and a human, the cold-open “Watchmen” recreation of the Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the most disturbing, riveting things I’ve ever seen filmed.

(Up there with the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan.”)

Larry Clark’s “Kids” would also make the short list, as watching poor, young Chloë Sevigny get HIV from her punk boyfriend almost made me vomit. (Should I have said spoiler alert? The movie is 26 years old.)

 

Courtesy of IMDb

 

And Clark’s “Tulsa” was one of the first photo books I was shown in class, at UNM in the late 90’s, and until that moment, I hadn’t realized anyone could make art that way.

 

 

 

 

As the well-written, extensive opening essay in “Tulsa, OK” explains, Larry Clark lived within the world he was documenting, in Oklahoma, and Victor d’Allant did not.

The former was a junkie, making photos of his own world, the latter is a “Visual Anthropologist” with a single-mother-drug-dealer as a fixer, introducing him around the sad, defeated city.

Said fixer, Julie Winter, actually wrote the intricate introduction, in which tells us she knew Victor before she ended up Tulsa, and invited him to come check it out.

Julie refers to this book, (as well as Clark’s,) as “grotesque, terrifyingly awful, full of despair.”

That about sums it up.

The text briefly mentions d’Allant photographs his subjects naked, but I don’t think it really landed in my consciousness when I read it. (At least, not enough to prepare me for what was coming.)

The quote is here:

“Many subjects in both Larry’s and Victor’s books are pretty much naked, as if they both felt their sitters were trying to display some human softness in this awful universe. But in truth, it’s a clever way for the artists to show what would be hidden beneath clothes: cuttings made in desperation, tattoos ordered on some drunken whim, flesh damaged by too many pregnancies…In Tulsa, Victor told me one night as I was trying to fall asleep, ‘nudity shows the fragility of life and the difficulty of survival.'”

 

 

 

 

 

I say this now, because it would be impossible not to discuss the elephant in the room, with respect to this book.

Given how much I’ve written about the male gaze in the last year, and the question of when, if ever, men photographing nude women is OK, (because of power dynamics,) I just couldn’t resolve the tension.

So many of the portraits of down-and-out, attractive young women, topless, or totally nude, struck me as exploitative to the point of obscenity.

Many viewers would likely dismiss this book immediately, and on the final page, even the text editor is credited as anonymous, because he doesn’t want his name associated with the book.

OK.

I said it.

But when a book is admittedly meant to be “terrifyingly awful,” you need to expect some fucked up shit within.

(And I will not be sharing any of the explicit photos below.)

 

 

 

 

 

The book is dynamic in its design, featuring messaging-app-style text bubbles, calendars, and really excellent image placement, with respect to the visual path.

There is a fire-engine red throughout, and as Victor is from Paris, I need to acknowledge in every episode of “House Hunters International” I’ve ever seen filmed there, that color has always been included in home interiors.

Always.

To the point that Jessie and I joke about it.

They’re filming in Paris?

We’re gonna see that red…

I guess it represents passion, or desire.

Maybe both.

But the quality of the production here, and the compelling, first-person stories of violence, addiction, depravity and love, within the context of a culture of poverty, kept me glued to my seat.

Page after page, my jaw would drop.

I never got comfortable with why the women were depicted topless, when confronting the camera directly, but there are some images, done in a documentary style, where the action is not directed by the photographer… and yes, the nudity makes sense there.

Trigger warning: one story describes a woman being fisted while she’s having her period, and I really hoped we wouldn’t see that illustrated, but we do, in full color.

Damn!

For a book trying to reflect on the vision of Larry Clark’s “Tulsa,” and the worst racially-motivated massacre in American history, I get that controversy serves a purpose.

(Which is why I’m reviewing this book, and why I don’t think it should be banned, panned, or denied its existence.)

It’s a seriously fucked up book about a seriously fucked up subject.

I’m guessing Victor d’Allant is an edgy dude, and though it might be cliché, the French supposedly consider Americans to be prudish.

The structure of book implies that all the subjects chose to be photographed, but if you’re high as a kite, can you actually offer consent?

(He even does a ride-along with the cops, which pisses off his new-underworld-buddies.)

So there we are for today.

Most of you will probably hate this book.

Some of you will love it.

As my old basketball coach used to say, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

 

To purchase “Tulsa OK” click here

 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Love and Wisdom

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

(You know I like to write on Thursdays.)

 

 

 

It was Thanksgiving, 2011, when I stumbled upon my signature style, so I’m always thankful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you each week.

Thank you for the motivation, the inspiration, and all the kind words you’ve sent my way, as an audience, over the last decade.

I appreciate it!

The truth is, I have much to be thankful for.

I’m healthy, and have an amazing family, when it comes to my wife, children, and the dog.

(Who knew pandemic pets would be such a thing?)

 

Haley in the yard after dusk

 

My kids are off-the-charts fantastic; beautiful inside and out.

Being their teacher, their life-guide, their friend, their pandemic companion… it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life.

And I’m thrilled to report that after 20 months, my wife’s recovery from clinical depression is going better than ever.

We still have the occasional setback, and have learned it’s a disease like cancer, where you hope for a permanent remission, rather than all-out-victory, but really, Jessie is happier and healthier than she’s been in years.

Surmounting this challenge together has made us stronger as individuals, and as a family unit.

 

Thanksgiving 2021 family selfie, by Amelie Blaustein

 

I love my job, get plenty of recognition for what I do, and have created a network of super-talented, kind, and loving friends around the world, while also getting to travel.

As I said, I have much gratitude, and try to share it on the regular.

With respect to my family of origin, things are rarely rosy, and we had yet another blow-up last night, as our respective value structures do not align.

But no one’s road through human existence is totally smooth, and truly, we grow through challenges.

(Of course, personal evolution requires self-awareness, and the discipline to admit one’s failings in order to self-improve, which many can not do.)

Thankfully, the sky is deep blue at the moment, the sun is pouring in through the window opposite my writing-chair, and my belly is full with leftovers from Tuesday’s dinner party.

Hope you’re having a good morning so far as well!

 

 

 

 

That said, working on a holiday is challenging.

This time of year, the wheels come off the bus, as we all function on an annual cycle, and our energy winds down with the calendar.

So let’s get the show on the road, shall we?

I reached into the book stack this morning, searching for the final 2020 submission. (Need to keep my promises.)

I swear, I assure you, I had no idea it was thus, but the ultimate book from last year is actually an exhibition catalogue sent along by my friend, Richard Bram, called “Richard Bram: Short Stories,” which was published by the Mannheimer Kunstverein, in Germany. (In conjunction with a retrospective he had in Mannheim.)

 

 

 

 

Richard Bram is the best friend I’ve made via social media.

After corresponding on Twitter, we met up at the Photo Plus Expo, in NYC in the Fall of 2010, on the very first assignment Rob gave me for this website.

 

JB in the Fall of 2010, courtesy of Susan Worsham

 

He’s a kind, thoughtful, considerate, smart, literate, intellectual, creative soul, and has turned up as a character in this column many times now.

Once, we shared beers and katsu in a tiny Japanese restaurant in the East Village, after listening to a lecture from a brilliant Belgian video artist. In 2019, we toured Photo London on the day I ran into my NYT nemeses, and on another occasion, we walked through a terrific exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, alongside a Slovenian photographer who’s based in Beijing.

 

 

 

 

In particular, because my family of origin believes in unconditional love, (code for not having to be nice to, or interested in someone, yet still they’re supposed to “love” you,) having friends who share my ethical and moral framework is a big part of how I’ve become a sane, happy person over the years.

So it was quite interesting to see this book, which chronicles my friend’s vision, as he has grown as a human, and a photographer, over time.

Full disclosure: when I opened it up, it contained a note stating the book was a gift, and not intended for review. (Though I told Richard when he sent it, every book that arrives is considered for review.)

I don’t love this one, and find it inferior to his Peanut Press book, “Richard Bram New York,” which I reviewed positively several years go.

 

 

But it is perfect to discuss today, for several reasons.

 

 

 

 

To begin with, Richard, in his many decades as a street photographer, has been fortunate to roam much of known Earth.

As a witness to humanity, he’s done a great job.

Off the top of my head, we see images from New York, Kentucky, (where he also once lived,) England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, Cuba, Cambodia, and Mexico.

(Likely I’m missing a few locales.)

The book is structured with a schism between the early black and white work, and his later shift to color. (Which is the work I know.)

In the B&W section, there is an homage to Elliott Erwitt, one to Cartier-Bresson, and a captured moment of Mohammed Ali that will make you stop and take notice.

The images feel more generic, or derivative, but are still inspirational, because you sense the humanism in the man. And the Occupy Wall Street photographs, depicting a moment lost to time, are also prescient, as the ideas motivating that movement are more relevant now than ever.

{Editors note: when photographing the book just now, I realized perhaps I was a tad harsh about the B&W images. Some really are charming.}

 

 

 

 

When the shift to color comes, I released a breath, because while the essay tells us it was a challenge for him, I’d argue his vision is stronger working this way.

The compositions are more dynamic and strange, (edge to edge,) and some of the colors really pop.

Hot pink on the streets?

Why not.

The color pictures also have a wit that feels particular to the man.

Watching Richard’s work get “better” as he ages also gives a viewer reason to hope.

In the ideal world, with age comes wisdom, and perspective.

With experience comes deeper knowledge.

As I wrote in my 2019 London series, Richard lives in Limehouse, which is a river-front neighborhood in East London.

He has a daily relationship with the Thames, in romantic ways most of us can only dream of.

Watching the light change on the water, and the tides rise and fall.

 

Richard by the Thames, 2019

 

The book ends with his moody photographs of the river, and having seen those views with my own eyes, it made me nostalgic for London, a city in which I feel so comfortable.

Sitting here, on American Thanksgiving, licking the wounds from some pointless family drama, the last few images put me in a positive frame of mind.

If you have proper love in your life, it doesn’t matter who delivers it.

Real love is based upon respect, kindness, compassion, empathy, joy, and genuine interest.

As I’ve grown over the last 11 years writing for you, I’ve tried to share the accrued wisdom.

I’ve tried to cultivate my curiosity, chat with as many people as possible, see new things, eat great food, and live in a way that would entertain and educate you, along for the ride.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that writing this column has made my life so much better.

Thank you!

And I hope you stay safe and healthy this week.

See you next Friday!

 

To purchase “Richard Bram: Short Stories” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Growing Older

 

 

“Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything…”

 

“…it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive…”

 

From “Badlands,” by Bruce Springsteen, written in my hometown of Holmdel, NJ, 1978.

 

 

 

I’m re-watching “Marco Polo” on Netflix.

 

 

Such a brilliant show.

It was the first thing I binged, when we finally got high-speed internet in 2015, thanks to Barack Obama.

He’d given a massive chunk of money to the Kit Carson Electric Co-Operative, here in Taos, to bring fiber-optic cable to every rural home in the County.

The funds were allotted in 2009, as The Great Recession began crushing so many Americans, yet it took 6 years for them to wire up our home.

And we were lucky, as the money ran out soon after, and some people got screwed.

Now it’s 2021, and I wouldn’t have been able to work through the pandemic, without Obama’s largesse.

(Thanks, Barack! We miss you!)

How could I have Zoomed without the good WiFi?

I really don’t know, but hopefully the new Biden infrastructure package will help those left behind without sufficient bandwidth.

(Hopefully.)

 

 

 

 

That said, “Marco Polo” is fascinating.

I was just telling Jessie, it’s the kind of entertainment that helped launch Netflix, paving the way for all the streaming services to follow.

It’s also the kind of content no one is making anymore, as it was far-too-expensive.

(I read Netflix lost $200 million on the production.)

The amount of money spent, to recreate 13th Century China and Mongolia, must been seen to be believed.

The costumes, thousands of extras, the palaces, the horses, the piles of corpses; no expense was spared.

To achieve that degree of verisimilitude alone was a feat, but the acting is also terrific, the story-telling taut, (well, they do drag things out a bit,) and the kung-fu is stupendous. (Shout outs to Tom Wu and Michelle Yeoh.)

Doing a bit of research, I learned the show runner, John Fusco, also created “Young Guns,” “Thunderheart,” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” so the Dude is obviously a unique talent.

 

John Fusco, proud of being 62

 

But massive productions like this rest on the collective skills of hundreds of people, not just one, and that kind of lucre is now only dropped on Marvel movies. (That Benedict Wong, who was genius as the lead, Emperor Kublai Khan, is now a side-player in the MCU is definitely ironic.)

I could shout out so many of the actors, but Olivia Cheng deserves particular mention.

{Caveat: I’d be remiss not to state this was a Weinstein Company co-production, and the heavy nudity included would not be acceptable these days, if such shows were still being made. Which, again, they’re not.}

Olivia Cheng played a concubine/assassin, (a combo she reprised in the underrated “Warrior,”) and she is such a badass.

 

Olivia Cheng in “Warrior,” Courtesy of Elle

 

There is a scene, relatively early in the first season, where to show off her skills, (to the audience,) she fights, and kills, three soldiers intent on raping her.

She does this, it should be said, entirely naked.

It did take me out of the narrative, just a touch, because I empathized with the actress, wondering how vulnerable she must have felt, to be in front of the camera like that, without even the meagerest of fabric defenses?

The scene reminded me of the unbelievably cool fight in the steam room, in “Eastern Promises,” in which a nude Viggo Mortensen takes out a Russian Mafia thug.

 

Courtesy of Flickering Myth

 

But that scrap is brutal, lacking grace, while Olivia Cheng’s triple-murder is filmed as if she barely breaks a sweat.

Girl power, indeed.

 

 

 

 

I mention all of this for a reason, of course.

This morning, I looked at one of two remaining 2020 submissions, a slim, self-produced book of poems and images, by Roxanne Darling, called “I AM: For the Love of Nature.”

It arrived in December 2020, and features a series of self-portraits, in which the artist took her clothes off, in nature, in a feat of self-empowerment, declaring the aging female form should not be ignored.

(She was photographed from ages 63-66.)

As an honest critic, I’ll say these images are not the type I’d typically review, just as art.

There is an audience for every style of photography, for sure, and this is not exactly to my taste.

But I’ve written countless times, books are experiential, not just a collection of successive images.

Pictures do not need to be brilliant for a book to have power, and one like this, in particular, in which an artist is taking control of her own narrative, often gets extra-juice from that context.

 

 

 

 

The opening essay states Ms. Darling has a history of trauma and abuse, and we learn at the end that her first nude-in-nature photo came just after she buried her mother, who died at 92. (We’re also told her partner, Shane Robinson, took the photos, so it’s not a tripod-and-timer photographic system.)

A fit of instinct pushed Roxanne to disrobe, and then she continued to do so, in various landscapes around the American West.

When I watch something like “Marco Polo,” I occasionally feel the naked women are being exploited by the camera.

Yet as we saw recently with Jason Langer’s collaboration with his muse, Erika, that is not always the case.

Certainly, with Roxanne’s book, the message is super-clear: she feels strong, beautiful, at peace, and engaged with the natural world around her.

(And she believes the aging female form should be celebrated, and deemed attractive, not hidden away in shame.)

As the father of a young girl, I’m always aware of the manner in which the media, and her peers, can impact my daughter’s self-esteem.

My wife and I discuss, with some regularity, how to prevent Amelie from getting “body issues.”

So I’ll always have a soft spot for books like this.

For offerings that scream, “Fuck you if you try to marginalize me, or insist women of a certain age no longer matter.”

This one is cool, for sure, and I’m so glad Roxanne sent it my way.

See you next week!

 

To Purchase “I AM: For the Love of Nature” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Visiting Chicago Part 1

 

I don’t smoke weed every day.

(Not anymore, anyway.)

 

 

 

I only consume occasionally now, as it’s better for my body.

Beyond the perpetual munchies, (which make you fat,) marijuana tricks the brain into dumping extra serotonin into the blood-stream, so once you stop, the emotional crash is no fun at all.

Like booze, with its famed “hair of the dog,” weed entices you to stay on the ride, because getting off is a bitch.

Thankfully, I prefer life sober, and only smoke for “special occasions” these days.

As such, the first thing Jessie and I did, once we dropped our bags at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel in Chicago last month, was head to Verilife, the closest dispensary we could find.

Given our stressful day, and that we were sort-of on vacation, it was a lock we’d go buy some reefer, as dealing with the maskless hordes all day was a big-fat-drag.

I’d already scoped out Weedmaps, (which now counts the great Kevin Durant as an investor,) so I knew where to go.

 

 

 

 

Verilife was a slick operation, with lots of digital interactions, a well-organized rope-line, and a succession of people who’d check you in.

The guy who verified our ID’s noticed we were from New Mexico, and asked about Ojo Caliente, the famed hot springs resort on a Native American Pueblo, about an hour from Taos.

(I hated to tell him they had a huge fire last year, which burned down the historical bathhouse, but what can you do?)

When we made it to the front of the line, where you pre-order on an iPad, I asked the helpful bud-tender for a good pre-rolled Indica joint, to chill us out, and he massively up-sold us to an $80 Sixpack of pre-rolled, half-gram joints, which came in a fancy box, replete with matches.

 

 

He was right, of course, as who needs to go right back to the dispensary, and that box kept us good and happy until Sunday morning, when we went back for a pre-rolled Sativa joint to power us through our last day.

 

 

 

 

Just for context, I went to Chicago last month for three reasons:

1. To have a romantic weekend with my wife, by the ocean-esque Lake Michigan, as we hadn’t been away from the kids together in years. (Thanks for the help, Mom and Dad!)

 

Jessie by the lake

 

2. To hang out with some of my photo-world buddies, whom I hadn’t seen since March 2020, in Houston at SPE, the day before the entire world shut.

3. To visit some art museums and galleries to write reviews for you, and just enjoy the city, eating and having fun for a travel article. (The one you’re reading right now.)

Therefore, having some killer, chill, smiley joints to smoke as we walked around the lake, and the city, made everything so much more dramatic.

 

Looking South along the lake

 

I highly recommend it.

Just going to 7-11 for some blue Gatorade, right after we left Verilife and lit up, was great, as you get the woozy feeling, where everything looks hyper-real, but without the lack of control and potential for disaster that comes from getting too drunk.

(Luckily, I didn’t overdo it with alcohol at all, even though I almost always had a drink in my hand when kicking it with my buddies.)

 

 

 

 

The first night, I went to Sparrow with three friends, and it was my first time in an indoor bar or restaurant since April.

The experience was awkward, to say the least, as masks were required to enter, but then everyone took them off the second they got inside.

One of my buddies kept his mask on the entire time, when he wasn’t sipping, and I would put mine on for a few minutes, realize I couldn’t be heard when I spoke, because it was so loud, and then I’d take it off again.

There was no doubt my mask-wearing-system was pointless, but the human brain often needs time to process, in new situations.

And my friends assured me the vaccination rate was so high in Chicago, (higher than I was,) that I should feel comfortable no one would breath Corona-air on me.

(They were right. No Covid the entire trip.)

 

One line for negative

 

 

 

The highlight of the weekend, if I’m being honest, were the long walks Jessie and I took by the lake.

Each day, we spent hours ambling along the concrete shore, staring out at the beautiful blue water, watching the high rise buildings jut up at its edge.

 

 

Walking along, smoking joints, taking in the people-watching, was worth the price of the plane tickets and hotel.

 

 

 

No doubt.

Part of why I chose the Millennium Knickerbocker, (beyond the nostalgia of having been there for 4 Filter Photo Festivals,) was it’s the closest place to the Oak Street Beach, other than the Drake Hotel, which is across the street.

You only have to walk a half block, then a very-short-block, to get to the entrance to the park, and being that close meant we could really utilize the gorgeous Lakeshore.

Additionally, the entrance features a phenomenal mural, by Jeff Zimmermann, which sets the tone each time you head to the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing we noticed is Chicago is a town full of grown-up frat boys. Or, at least, the Magnificent Mile area is full of them.

I cannot tell you how many massive dudes I saw, (like, really big,) and they all wore a similar outfit: hoodie, baseball cap, shorts, and sneakers.

Always, no matter how cold it got, (and it was pretty nice when we were there, if windy,) they wore shorts.

Somewhere, there must be a memo, describing the Chicago-bro uniform, because no one deviated.

Well, almost no one.

We did see one guy walking past us, heading South, and he was so fabulous it’s hard to put into words.

His skin was brown, and it made me think of Persia, not Mexico or India, but who can say?

My man was nearly naked, wearing only a floral-print banana hammock bathing suit, to go along with his brilliant mustache, well-chosen footwear, hairy chest, sunglasses, and mohawk.

Jessie and I tried not to gawk, as he was so compelling, strutting with confidence, and I felt it was too rare a moment to pull out the camera. (I mean iPhone.)

“You only see someone like that once in your life,” I said to Jessie, so we made sure to describe him to each other, to remember details for me to share. (Here. Now.)

Needless to say, we were shocked, thirty minutes later, to see him walking North as we headed South, as I guess the walk-up-and-turn-back thing is pretty common at Lake Michigan.

The second time, I had no reservations about grabbing some photos, so here you go.

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the walking, people-watching, drinking with friends, and art-viewing, (which I’ll cover in a separate article,) we spent a fair bit of time eating.

Some people I know, (yes, I mean you, Louie,) insist on bagging on Chicago deep-dish pizza, calling it a bread bowl, a plate of hot cheese, or something other than pizza.

As a born-and-raised Jersey boy, I still Stan for East Coast pizza, but have no problem opening my mind to other styles of the World’s Best Food.

However, in my 5 previous visits to Chicago, I’d never had brilliant pizza, despite many attempts.

Giordano’s was overrated, and Pizano’s was good, but not great.

I’ve surveyed folks over the years, and heard Lou Malnati’s is everyone’s favorite local chain, so for lunch on Friday, we ordered a monster pie.

(We skipped dinner and breakfast to properly feast.)

The River North Lou Malnati’s is located just off a public plaza, which I’m told is called the Viagra Triangle, as it has a series of high-priced, outdoor restaurants where rich, older guys take their young, pretty girlfriends.

We stopped in and ordered a Deep Dish Malnati’s Chicago Classic, which featured sausage with extra cheese and sauce, and I asked them to add the garlic spinach, and olives, so it would have more of a Mediterranean feel. (Plus, you need get your vegetables where you can when you’re eating pounds of melted cheese.)

While waiting the 30 minutes, we walked down to Walgreens to buy more Gatorade, an umbrella, and some OTC Covid tests, (so I could prove to my buddies we were clean, before attending a small house party.) Then we walked up Rush St to grab the pizza, in full-food-crash-mode, and brought it back to the hotel to eat.

 

 

If I’m a truthful critic, it needed a touch of finishing salt, and some fresh ground pepper, but beyond that, the jazzed up Malnati’s pie was super-delicious.

Totally worth the hype.

The sauce was sweet, but not overly so, (and there was enough of it,) while the spinach cut some of the richness of the sausage.

Lou Malnati’s 
Three and a Half Stars

 

 

 

 

That night, at my friend’s house, we had even more deep dish pizza, this time from the opposite of a chain restaurant.

Instead, Doug ordered from Milly’s Pizza in the Pan, the kind of joint that popped up during the pandemic, where you have to be in the know, call ahead, take what they’re offering that day, show up at the appointed time, and they bring the pizza out to your car from a commercial kitchen.

It’s not remotely a restaurant, and I must say, the bougie food did have more flavor than Sweet Lou’s.

 

Photos courtesy of Doug Fogelson

 

Each pie, (one vegetarian, one with meat,) utilized various colored peppers, which added freshness and balance, plus you could actually taste each ingredient.

The pies were a bit thinner, while still being deep dish, and it was more food to savor than stuff in your face, as you desperately try to get all the fat in your stomach to soak up the booze.

Milly’s Pizza in the Pan
Four Stars

 

 

 

 

 

I know today’s column is long, and I never want to go on forever, but there are three more restaurants to cover.

First off, on Saturday, we did a big takeout meal from Silver Spoon, which is an underground Thai restaurant I discovered in 2015, and continue to visit each time I come back to Chicago.

 

 

It’s literally below street level, and is always full when I go, so I’m not the only person who realizes how good the food is, and reasonably priced as well.

It’s near a Giordano’s, so watching the tourists line up, waiting for an hour to get mediocre pizza, when there is such great Thai food three doors down, always makes me giggle.

We had veggie eggrolls that tasted like they could be from a Jersey Chinese joint, (massive compliment,) vegan summer rolls that were as delicate as Donald Trump’s ego, some dumplings that seemed deep-fried, rather than in a pan, a brilliant Pad Thai, and a Pad See Eiw that was too spicy. (My fault for asking for medium-spicy.)

Silver Spoon
Four Stars

 

 

 

 

 

On Sunday, rather than join my buddies for coffee out West, we wanted to maximize our time downtown, as the hotel allowed us a late checkout. So we went to Tempo Cafe for brunch, a classic diner of the type rapidly disappearing in America.

There was a long wait, but all those schmucks wanted to eat inside, so we grabbed a semi-private outdoor table, on the sidewalk, straight away.

Tempo Cafe has been my go-to hangover breakfast three times now, and it’s always delivered.

Though they brought us coffee super-quickly, and kept re-filling the cups, (thankfully,) we had to wait ten minutes to order, then half an hour for our food, which was a huge bummer.

I distracted myself by looking up, staring at the buildings, and making up stories about the people walking by.

 

Sidewalk views at Tempo Cafe

 

 

Given what I said about getting your veggies when you can during a weekend bender, I ordered an egg skillet with broccoli, spinach and mozzarella cheese, and was excited for it to arrive.

Unfortunately, when the food finally came, they brought me a skillet loaded with sausage, instead of spinach.

My face fell faster than Carl Lewis, (the 1984 version,) and I had a decision to make.

Wait for the server to come back, (5 minutes,) and then for the cooks to make a fresh breakfast, (30 minutes,) or suck it up and dive in.

Jessie and I joked about the short order cook, reading the ticket the server handed in.

“Spinach and Broccoli? Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me? It’s Sunday brunch, and this poor schmo is just orderin’ vegetables? Nah, I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean, Morty?”

“I don’t think this guy ordered right. The dum-dum. He forgot the sausage! I’m sure he meant sausage, not spinach. So we’re gonna fix it for him.”

Thankfully, I’m not a vegetarian, so I trusted Morty, ate most of the plate, and wasn’t hungry again for hours.

Tempo Cafe
Two and a Half Stars

 

 

 

 

Finally, I need to mention our Lyft ride, heading West to a brew-pub on Sunday, for our last visit with my crew before we schlepped to O’Hare again.

Her name was Delisa; she had an electric blue car, and electric blue nails.

Jessie and Delisa got to talking, as both were social workers for years, and though my mind was elsewhere, I kind-of followed along as they talked about helping kids in the system.

Eventually, (no surprise,) we got to talking about pizza, and she was a fan of Uno and Due, (which I’ll try another time,) but also said Parlor Pizza might be her favorite in town.

Sure enough, after we finished day-drinking at The Perch, (which has great beer, and good food, but was not-quite review worthy,) the remaining revelers walked down the street, in Wicker Park, looking for one last bit of sustenance.

There it was, right in front of us, Parlor Pizza Bar, so how could we not trust Delisa?

 

 

Sitting outside in the sun, savoring our last hour in the city, knowing we’d have a subway ride, the airport security line, then the plane flight home, and a 2.5 hour drive from Albuquerque, I hoped Delisa knew her pizza.

This time, it was more bar-pie-style, with a thin crust, and thankfully it was delicious. (Oddly, the menu was QR-code-only, which is apparently a thing now.)

The pizza margarita was amazing, a true gem of a pie. Our friends ordered a specialty number with honey and vegetables, which was also super-good, and I went off script, choosing a make-your-own, with burrata, heirloom tomatoes and meatballs.

In a place like that, with a long list of pre-selected options, the cooks obviously want you to go with their creations, and not do it yourself.

So the JB Special was good, but not THAT good.

 

The JB Special, which wasn’t so special

 

For some reason, they don’t put meatballs on pizza in Chicago.

It’s a sausage town.

And when I said it like the New Yorkers do, (SAUW-szige,) I was told that’s wrong.

In Chicago, it’s SAAAH-sidge.

And they should know.

(When in doubt, just ask Abe Froman.)

Parlor Pizza
Three and a Half Stars

 

 

 

From there, my friend Jeff dropped us off at the “L” train, where we waited in the late afternoon light, (with very full bellies,) hoping we’d make it back to New Mexico in one piece. (We did.)

Thanks, Chicago!

See you next time!

 

Views from the “L” train platform

 

This Week in Photography: Staying Alive

 

 

 

There’s a first time for everything.

(So they say.)

 

They also say things come in threes.

Both of those famous clichés collided for me this week, and as a result, I’m shaking off some serious PTSD.

That kind of stress will melt your brain, so we’re going a bit non-traditional this week.

(It is what it is.)

 

 

 

 

As to the details, I had my first proper Covid test, my first colonoscopy, and was held at gunpoint, by a raving lunatic, who might well have killed me had things gone differently.

(Like I said, it was a crazy week.)

Let’s unpack some of these things, so I can create a functional column, and offer the educational and entertainment value for which I’m known. (Or so I tell myself.)

It would be cruel to keep you in suspense, given the drama bomb I dropped a few sentences ago, so let’s get to it.

And before you ask, no, I’m not exaggerating.

It really happened.

 

 

 

 

On Saturday, I walked up to the basketball court behind the firehouse, to shoot hoops, and burn off some stress.

I’d been dreading the colonoscopy, for obvious reasons, and the fact I had to go into the hospital the day before, to get tested for Covid, was also weighing me down.

Nothing like a bit of exercise to combat the stress.

Right?

Of course I brought my camera, because as I wrote last week, I’m shooting every day now, (or close to it,) and this autumn light will only last so long.

Around here, November brings high clouds, gray skies, windy days, and brown grass.

Once the leaves drop, and until the snow comes, Taos is often dreary, no lie.

But Saturday was beautiful, and the afternoon light was great, so I was excited to shoot hoops, and shoot pictures, but it never occurred to me the verb might pop up in the worst possible way.

 

 

 

 

For the most part, I don’t trespass.

People around here like their privacy, a hallmark of the Wild West, and almost everyone has guns.

But I’m also known around the neighborhood, having lived here for 12.5 years, and my wife’s family has been here half a century, so that carries some weight.

I’ve also been shooting my project for 10 months, so I’m confident the neighbors have seen me around, which gives a sense of protection.

Plus, I’m a trained fighter, and carry a knife.

(Normally, that’s enough.)

 

 

 

 

As I was walking home from the court, I noticed a glowing, wooden, religious statue in a neighbor’s driveway, sitting next to a blue tarp, which was electric in the light.

It was a sure-fire photo, and there were no cars in the neighbor’s driveway, that I could see.

Frankly, I’d shot the trailer a couple of times already, as the place was normally empty, and no one had ever looked at me twice, much less said a word.

 

January, 2021
August, 2021

 

I yelled “Hello,” and began walking the twenty feet or so up the driveway, when I saw a big, white pick-up truck parked there, and the door was open, so I immediately turned around and left.

Didn’t want to intrude.

That said, as soon as I walked another five steps, I saw a group of chickens right in front of me.

 

The chickens

 

They belong to my neighbor, Morris, who lives across the street, and while the light wasn’t hitting them perfectly, of course I pulled out the camera to rip off a few shots.

There I was, crouching along the road, in full view of the trailer, with my camera, doing nothing but make art.

It got my blood pumping, but in a good way. All those creative juices flowing, combatting the stress chemicals I was trying to purge.

I got excited.

And it was totally quiet.
No one around.

So I got cocky, I guess.

And nearly paid with my life.

 

 

 

 

Having the camera out of the bag, watching the chickens literally cross the road, I wanted to keep going.

 

The chickens crossing the road

 

And as I said, it was totally silent.

So I waved at the trailer window, as I could clearly be seen, walked back up the neighbor’s gravel driveway, and took two quick photos of the wooden Santo sculpture, the blue tarp, the driveway detritus, and a part of the white truck with the open door.

 

The Santo and the blue tarp

 

Trying to be respectful, even though it seemed there was no one around, I walked quickly back towards the road.

But before I could get there, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the door of the trailer burst open.

A large, White, bearded man came charging.

Fast.

He had a gun pointed right at me, with his finger on the trigger, was obviously very angry, and started screaming at the top of his lungs.

“GET THE FUCK OFF MY PROPERTY,” he yelled! “Do you hear me? Move! Move the fuck off my property. NOW!”

I put my hands up, started walking backwards, immediately, trying to create distance between me and the insane, armed man implicitly threatening to kill me.

“That’s right, motherfucker. I’m the kind of guy who carries a loaded weapon. You better get the fuck off my property right now,” he threatened, all the while, keeping the gun trained at my head.

“Listen, man,” I stammered, “I’m very sorry I trespassed. I shouldn’t have done that. Very sorry. That wasn’t cool. But I announced myself, waved at your window, and I’ve lived here in the neighborhood a long time. I’m an artist, and was just taking a quick picture. That’s it.”

I continued to walk backwards as I spoke, calculating how quickly I could get to the property line, as he kept coming at me with the gun, enraged.

“I just moved here,” he said. “I don’t know who the fuck you are. And I got robbed last night. So you better get the hell off my property. Now. MOVE!”

I kept my cool, and trained my eyes on the gun.

“Listen, like I said, I’m sorry. I apologize. My bad.”

“GET THE FUCK OFF MY PROPERTY,” he screamed again!

I kept back-tracking, but he stood his ground, instead of charging, or pulling the trigger, thank God.

Finally, when I was in safe range, I went with empathy.

“I’m so sorry you got robbed. That’s awful. I can’t imagine how you feel. Really, there are a lot of nice people in the neighborhood too. I’m sorry you got robbed, and that it’s affected your experience here.”

“Yeah, well,” he replied, “as long as you get the fuck off my property, and never come back, we’ll be good.”

With that, he turned around, walked back into the trailer, and stared at me through the window. The same window, I should add, I waved at a minute before, so anyone might see me approach.

“Listen,” I added loudly, “please, let me bring you a beer, to make it up to you. I shouldn’t have trespassed, and I’d like to make amends.”

“You don’t need to,” he said, “just stay away from my property, and we’re all good.”

But that’s tricky. We walk by there every time we go to the basketball court.

So I headed home, got a beer from the fridge, wrapped it in tinfoil to be discrete, and walked back up the road, my heart pounding quickly.

I stayed by the property line, yelled towards the window, and told him I was back with a beer, as a show of good faith.

“I don’t drink,” he said, more calmly than before.

Are you kidding me? The only truck-driving, gun-wielding, large White guy in America who doesn’t like beer?

 

Courtesy of The Great American Disconnect

 

Just my luck.

But the tone of his voice had changed. I could tell he no longer perceived me as a threat.

“You don’t need to do that,” he said, more calmly still. “We’re good.”

“Listen, man, we’re neighbors. It’s important there be no bad blood. I just wanted to show you I’m a good dude.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re good. You’re peaches and cream.”

“OK,” I replied.

“I’m peaches and cream.”

So I re-wrapped my beer, turned on a dime, and walked home.

 

 

 

 

I’m going write about Chicago soon enough, but one thing was clear to me, traveling through two airports: people in America are ready to blow.

There is a seething anger that is not even below-the-surface anymore.

In both Albuquerque and Chicago, despite the Federal mandate, I saw people without masks, or confidently wearing masks below their noses, and under their chins, constantly scanning the area around them.

 

Woman with a mask under her nose; man with a mask under his chin

 

These people were waiting for someone to step to them, baiting anyone into speaking up, so they could unload.

They wanted to fight; to spew their anger at the world.

It was so unsettling.

You know I’ve been writing about the decline of America for years now, and when I came home from San Francisco in 2019, I did a big article reporting the social fabric in this country was badly frayed.

Clearly, the pandemic pushed things over the cliff.

People are ready to shoot, punch, or stab, and ask questions later.

I’m truly concerned.

When you have to kiss someone’s ass, and beg forgiveness, just so they don’t kill you, we’re in really bad shape.

 

 

 

But there’s one last part to this column, before I jump off and meditate some more. (It’s been helping with the PTSD, for sure.)

Today is Thursday, (as usual,) and this time on Tuesday, I was under anesthesia, having my intestines probed with a digital camera.

The whole thing was humbling, to say the least.

And it all came to pass, because my brother and Uncle both reached out this summer, within a week, to tell me the medical guidelines had changed, and people were supposed to get a colonoscopy at 45 now, instead of 50.

Then, my Uncle and Mom told me my grandfather had died of colon cancer, in his late 50’s, which meant I had a family history of the disease, making it vital I get checked ASAP.

Even typing the word, colonoscopy, I cringe a little, as it’s so much easier to say procedure.

Or surgery.

I really don’t want to evoke any visuals for you, (unlike last week, with the yellow hot-air balloon,) but I promised the surgical staff I’d use my platform to spread the word.

Colon cancer is deadly, and took down Chadwick Boseman last year.

 

Courtesy of Crazy Eddie’s Motie News

 

Black Fucking Panther, dead, in his prime.
(Scary stuff.)

But it is also preventable.

 

 

 

Listen, getting this cancer screening sucks.

I won’t lie.

Having the Covid test, with a Q-tip jammed almost into your brain, then taking all these medicines to clear out your insides, sticking to a liquid diet, following all the rules.

It’s laborious, and given the reality of many people’s work schedules, and insurance situations, I can see why so many put it off, or don’t do it at all.

Truly. I get it.

But having faced down the fear, and gone through the process, (with a clean bill of health, thankfully,) I wanted to at least share what I’ve learned.

There are so many things that can take you down, these days.

From Covid, to cancer, to crazies with guns.

Hell, a young Las Vegas Raider killed a women the other day, by driving drunk, at 156 miles an hour, crashing the back of her Toyota at 127.

She burned to death, trapped inside.

That is a nasty way to go.

But so is colon cancer.

So if you’re over 45 here in America, please consider checking with your primary care physician, if you haven’t had your screening.

It can save your life.

See you next week!

 

This Week in Photography: MOP Denver 2021

 

 

I’ve been making new photographs all year.

(Such a gift to my sanity.)

 

 

 

From 2006-20, I worked in little bursts in the studio, not-shooting for long stretches of time.

Now, though, I’m taking pictures out in the world, all the time, and it’s blowing my mind.

When you shoot constantly, (I now realize,) it locks-in a certain kind of seeing.

Your general awareness heightens, and you begin to feel where the photos might be.

(The Spidey-Sense.)

It’s been in over-drive lately, trying to capture the hyper-saturated Autumn light we’ve had here in New Mexico.

(Or not capture, as you’ll soon see…)

 

 

 

This morning, I was heading North on 522, in-between Taos and our little valley.

(We live 25 minutes away from my kids’s schools, and leave the house to commute before the sun is up, so that’s part-context.)

I was 4/5 of the way back home, after the double-school turn-and-burn, and hadn’t had my morning coffee yet.

But I HAD been to the grocery store, on a two-minute-mad-dash, and was really hungry, already visualizing how I’d make breakfast with the food I just bought.

{ED note: It was delicious.}

 

 

 

There I was, driving, in my head, day-dreaming, listening to The Beatles on Satellite Radio.

All of a sudden, like a jolt of electricity to the mid-section, I saw a flash of yellow to my left.

It snapped me back to reality, like getting hit in the eye with an errant-flying-rubber-band.

What the fuck, I thought?

 

 

 

It was a massive, bright-yellow, candy-colored hot-air balloon, hovering low in the sky to the West.

It had no markings, just that unmistakeable yellow.

The sky looked like Carolina blue had a baby with purple.

(Yes, it was THAT blue.)

I turned my head, and could see only the yellow hot-air balloon, the digital-blue sky, and the ancient, extinct volcanoes that fade in the distance to the Southwest, where they give way to the silhouette of the Jemez Mountains.

 

 

 

I had my camera in the back, and thought, my God, would that make an amazing picture!

The perspective was just right, from where I was driving at that second.

But at 65mph, that perspective was changing, quickly, getting worse and worse.

I was hungry, had no coffee, the groceries needed to be put in the refrigerator, and it’s notoriously dangerous for pedestrians in NM.

That’s what I was thinking.

Do I slow down, make a U-Turn, pull onto the side of the highway, risk getting killed, for a photo of that beautiful, yellow hot-air balloon, against the perfect blue sky, with the insanely gorgeous mesa view that goes for 80 miles?

Do I?

 

 

 

No…I do not, I thought.

Hungry, bleary-eyed, ready to make breakfast, do I trust myself not to lock the keys in the car, or to avoid getting hit by a truck?

To make that photo?

No.

I don’t.

So it will have to live in my memory.

However…

 

 

 

 

However, I finished up a walk later in the day, down at the stream. After washing my face in the water for a minute, I saw a pooling of yellow leaves on the opposite bank.

They were in a little eddy; such a beautiful, different yellow than the puffy hot-air balloon.

Behind me, water flowed over a rock, making the most-amazing-sound.

I grabbed my cell phone and made a short video, so while you’ll never get to see the photo I chickened-out of making, at least I can share a moment of Zen with you now.

 

 

And by evening, while walking the dog, I looked up and saw the warm, just-before-sunset yellow light, illuminating the mustard-yellow leaves on a Cottonwood tree, and sure enough this time, I had the good camera with me.

So here you go.

 

 

While I admittedly Google beach-real-estate every few months, living in the Rocky Mountains is pretty amazing.

We’re blessed.

And speaking of the Rockies…

 

 

 

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Denver is not-too-far away.

It’s actually the biggest city around these parts, by a long stretch, as Phoenix and Dallas are thrice as far, and Albuquerque doesn’t count as a massive metropolis.

(No offense.)

Last March, I attended virtual portfolio reviews for the Month of Photography Denver, and saw a lot of excellent photographic projects.

Today, we’re going to take a peek at some of the work I viewed, as we’re happy to share The Best Work I Saw at the MOP Denver Portfolio Reviews.

As with most virtual events, attendees came from all over the place, but I saw a few Colorado photographers.

Today, it’s time to share their disparate, interesting work with you. As usual, the artists are in no particular order, but maybe we will start with the locals, out of respect.

Thanks to all the photographers!

 

 

 

I first met Susan Goldstein back in the 90’s, in Taos, as we both worked for the Taos Talking Pictures Festival, which eventually went defunct. (RIP.)

We’ve since bumped into each other over the years, and I was very into her Covid-inspired series, as Susan rarely left her home, and lived alone, for the pandemic.

The window-sculptures are whimsical, and also a little sad. She actually told me sometimes she “put things in the window to change the landscape.”

It shows.

 

 

Cypriane Williams is a veteran, had studied in CPAC’s Veterans Workshop Series, and was doing a social justice portraiture series called “3 Questions.” (Which was featured as a billboard in Denver.) For her project, she asked women of color, from the Denver area, three questions, and the answers are written on the women.

The questions were:

1) “Who are you?” 2) “What do you believe?” 3) “Given the chance to say whatever you want to the world, what would you say? What do you believe the world needs to hear from you?”

 

 

 

Julia Vandenoever and I also met years ago, at a photo festival in New Mexico, and she’s been based in Boulder for ages.

Julia showed me a set of images, “Still Breathing,” that she’s publishing as a book with Conveyor. The photos focused on tense little moments within the visual narrative of our family lives.

They’re totally on point.

 

 

I’d first seen multidisciplinary artist Krista Svalbonas’s work at an IRL NYT portfolio review event in 2018, as the laser-cut physical pieces have an impact rather different from 2D paper prints. (She’s represented by Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn.)

Krista told me her relatives were immigrants from Latvia and Lithuania, and as her heritage was important to her, she went over to the former Soviet Republics and took photographs.

This series features actual architectural photos from Lithuania, which have been altered with patterns from local textiles, via the machine tooling of a 21C laser cutter.

 

 

Jim Hill, who’s a retired geologist, brought night-time-alleyway images from Chicago, and they make me cold, just looking at them. (Meaning, I feel physically cold, not that they leave me feeling cold, emotionally.)

These night shots are terrific, and reminded me a bit of Dave Jordano, who also prowls the Upper Midwest.

I recommended to Jim that he ditch his zoom lens for a sharper prime, and he’s since reported he made the switch, and is much happier with his photos as a result.

 

 

André Ramos-Woodward was about to receive their MFA from UNM, when we spoke in March, and they’ve since graduated and moved back to Southeast Texas.

I recognized their work right away, having seen it in Critical Mass in 2020. The series is called “BLACK SNAFU (Situation Niggas: All Fucked Up,) and André reminded me one piece was an animated .gif in its original form.

You can feel the dynamic creativity in these images, which feature drawings mixed with photos.

Given that André wrote powerfully in the first person about this work, I’m going to share two paragraphs from his artist statement:

 

“I’ve been told plenty of times that in order to understand the present, I’ve got to know the history. I find that funny as a Black person born and raised in America. It’s not that I disagree, it’s just that I know that my history on this land—Black history—has been distorted and fucked-up to perpetuate the racist repercussions of European colonialism and white privilege in this godforsaken country.

Anti-Blackness at the hands of racist America seems inescapable no matter what context I place it into; literature, science, government, health, art… look into any “field” and see for yourself. My people have had to cry, scream, and fight for respect throughout all these fields of study for centuries, and we still haven’t gained the respect we deserve. Even in the visual arts, the field I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to, the history of racism against Black bodies runs rampant. In order to move on from this shit, we must acknowledge the many ways that this country has implemented a racial hierarchy since these lands were first colonized and stripped from indigenous peoples, and Black people were stolen from their native land and brought here.”

 




 

Suzanne Revy and I actually met at the virtual portfolio reviews at Photo NOLA, last December, but I made a rare mistake, and forgot to follow up when I wrote the article about the best work I saw there.

I don’t f-ck up often, so when I saw Suzanne in the waiting room for the Denver festival, I reached out and offered to publish her here in instead.

Unlike my Rocky-Mountain-Centric opening, this work is straight out of Massachusetts. So East Coast. It’s a series of triptych landscapes from Emerson and Thoreau country.

Super pastoral, for sure.

 

 

Becky Behar had two projects for me to see, and I preferred the latter, as the former reminded me of a style I was seeing a lot of in the photo world of late.

These images, “Homespun,” were made with her family during lockdown, as her children became interested in knitting. They’re reminiscent of Rennaissance stylings, but in a perfectly modern, it’s Covid and we’re hanging out with our adult children in the basement kind-of-way.

 


 

Last, but I promise you not least, we have Shelby Meyerhoff, a multidisciplinary artist who’s also from Massachusetts. Shelby had some of the strangest work I can recall seeing in quite a while, but it’s definitely perfect for Halloween week.

We chatted about trying avoid veering into full-on-kitch, but her selfies painted as animals and nature are weird-wonderful.

Right?

See you next week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Considering Nudes

 

Sorry, I was wrong.

 

I don’t have one submission left from 2020, but three. (Well, two after today.)

 

 

 

As you know, I review exhibitions, write about photography festivals, and share travel stories throughout the year, so I’m not able to get through my book stack as quickly as I’d like.

We’re fortunate that artists keep sending books in, for my perusal, but it means occasionally a book will linger here, in the stack, and for that I apologize.

Therefore, while I mix in tales from Chicago, (the trip was awesome,) I’ve decided the next books I review will be the ones that came in last year.

(It’s time.)

Today, though, we’ll be looking at a submission I purposely sat on, as I wasn’t ready to write about it until now.

As I got home after Midnight Monday morning, and have been going non-stop ever since, I hope you’ll allow me a more direct, less metaphorical transition.

There’s an English expression I like, where they just say two words: “Needs must.”

So there we are.

 

 

 

I reviewed a book by Portland artist Jason Langer years ago, and we remained in touch. I was enamored of his “timeless” style, as he often makes black and white photographs that appear conjured from the 19th Century.

It’s a “look,” I suppose, and of course removing 21st Century temporal artifacts helps as well.

Sometimes, even when the details are current, (or end of the 20th Century,) they still feel ripped from the space-time continuum, as I vividly recall an image he took of a cowboy at a payphone in a bar in San Francisco, and it stuck in my memory banks.

 

 

Payphones?

Kids today don’t even know what the hell those are. (Just ask Eric Kunsman, he’ll tell you.)

But back in the summer of 2020, I wrote an article discussing male photographers, and the power dynamic imbalance when they photograph naked women, after stumbling upon an almost soft-core-porn Instagram account.

(I’m rarely naive, but really, I had no idea those things are out there.)

Whether it was via email or Facebook, I can’t recall, but Jason, who’s photographed nude men and women for years, reached out, saying he thought it was a far-more-nuanced conversation, and could he send me something that might open my mind a bit?

I said “Sure,” because that’s how I roll.

And here we are.

 

 

 

“Erika,” published by Reflecting Pool Editions, is not a traditional book, by any means, which Jason acknowledged in the letter that was taped to the brown-paper-wrapped offering.

Frankly, it looks like a portfolio of loose images, brought together in a fancy box, and if that’s how you see it, I won’t argue.

But experientially, it’s a book, as the narrative unspools over time, (15 years,) via multiple photo shoots the artist undertook with Erika, his muse.

To begin with, there are only a few “nude” images in the book, but I held off looking at it until today, as I was afraid it would be more graphic than that, and we’ve avoided publishing nudity for many years now. (Rob gave me permission to include a couple of the photos, but really, it’s a small percentage of what’s in the box.)

Erika, who is obviously beautiful, is an actor, writer, director, producer and photographer, who made a career working in experimental theater, both in the US and around the world.

Each photograph includes a piece of her writing, printed on the back, and we learn from Jason’s ending essay the text comes from a series of interviews they conducted in 2019.

These are current reminisces, looking back at New York in the 90’s, her past relationships, and what it meant to become a mother.

Certainly, some of the images fit with Jason’s style of stepping out of time, but to me, that’s not really what this book is about.

Rather, it makes me think of agency, and collaboration, as when I wrote about men exploiting women last year, Jason, and one photographer with whom I traded off-the-record IG DM’s, both said many models love the work, and feel empowered by doing so.

(Foreshadowing here, but I saw some nude art in Chicago that gave me the creeps, as it so clearly fit with my sense of men commodifying women.)

But this doesn’t.

Erika is a performer, and in some images, you can feel her embodying a character.

She knows how to present herself, and there was no part of my viewing experience in which I felt she was an object.

As you read her thoughts, and the stories of working in Europe, having love affairs, living the artist’s life in rapidly gentrifying New York, it’s clear Erika is a powerful, intelligent, talented, confident woman.

She and Jason grew together, over time, which he confirms in his ending statement.

Working with Erika opened up his feminine side, and helped him push his photographic career forward.

 

 

 

At some point, over the last five years or so, commenting on someone’s appearance became verboten.

It’s not PC to call a women beautiful, outside of a very strict set of parameters, but certainly not in any professional setting.

I get it, and have no beef with that at all.

But you can’t look at a book like this without understanding Erika is lovely, she knows it, and as a performer, her face, mind and body are her tools of expression.

I’m still not sure I understand why it’s necessary for her to take her clothes off, but perhaps the prevalence of pornographic imagery in the 21C has skewed our cultural sense that the human form can ever be anything but sexualized.

(Certainly here in America.)

After looking at this book, though, I accept that if two collaborating artists, exploring the world, choose to make art this way, it’s not right for me to dismiss it out-of-hand.

Especially when it results in something I found captivating, enriching, and thought-provoking.

If you choose to disagree, that’s totally cool.

It’s still a free country, after all.

(At least until 2024, when all hell breaks loose.)

 

 

To learn more about Erika, please click here

Please be advised, two of the images below feature nudity. 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Keeping It Local

 

 

I’m beat today.

(Like, for real.)

It’s Wednesday, and I’m writing, which means I’ve got a kink in my schedule.

Please allow me to explain…

 

 

 

I’m leaving for Chicago tomorrow morning; my first air-travel since the bender in Jersey last May.

But it’s not even my first big trip this week, as Monday at 4:30 am, the family poured into our trusty Subaru, and did a 15 hour turn-and-burn to Denver, so the kids could visit the eye doctor.

We’d planned on spending the night, but when my brother told me our dog wasn’t welcome, (he’s a long-time Denverite,) we had to pivot, and spent a full day cruising up and down I-25.

(Thankfully, a little adventure when it was sunny and 70 degrees was invigorating, as it snowed the next day.)

Hitting the road, I was reminded that just going a couple of hundred miles can change everything.

There are no mask mandates in Colorado, (apparently,) so we had to adjust to people strutting around, faces uncovered, knowing it was within their right to do so.

Plus, they have In-N-Out in Denver now, so we reveled in the absolute deliciousness of a perfect burger, (Double-Double, animal style,) while sitting at an outdoor table, overlooking a mall-parking-lot.

 

 

Frankly, feeling the friendly SoCal vibes in Conservative South Denver was enough to make my head spin.

(But the burgers! OMG! I rarely eat beef anymore, and can’t stress enough how phenomenal they were.)

 

 

 

That said, Denver on Monday, Chicago on Thursday, and you can perhaps understand why I’m brain-fried.

(Plus, yesterday was a full-work-day, while also parenting the kids, who are home on Fall Break.)

I’m cooked.
Out of gas.
Running on empty.
(Insert random tired cliché here.)

So let’s cut to the chase.

As I’ll have fresh, Chicago-based-content for you in the near future, we’re going in the opposite direction this week.

We’re keeping it local.

If you can believe it, I’m going to review a terrific exhibition I saw at the Harwood Museum of Art, right here in Taos, New Mexico.

 

The Harwood Museum of Art

 

 

 

Unfortunately, as with the stellar show I saw at the Albuquerque Museum recently, the exhibit I’m about to discuss has just closed.

(I apologize, but as pretty-much-none of you live in Taos, it’s not like you were going to see it anyway.)

Full disclosure, I had a solo show at the Harwood in 2019, and was part of a three-person exhibit there in 2014, so I do have ties to the institution, but both curators with whom I worked have since moved on.

I’ve never met the newish curator, Nicole Dial-Kay, who came to Taos from Colorado not-too-long-ago, so there’s no reason for me to be extra nice.

I’m telling you this, because I want to stress my objectivity, as I thought this show was dynamite.

Fantastic.
Inspiring.
Supremely well-done.
(Insert random compliment here.)

 

 

 

In the exhibition, “Santo Lowride: Norteño  Car Culture and the  Santos Tradition,” the deep roots of Spanish/Hispanic culture in Northern New Mexico, (which go back more than 400 years,) and the Native roots, which are more than 1000 years old, were honored and respected in vast and obvious ways.

Everything came together so well, as the art presented to the public was shiny, flashy, smart, though-provoking, rich and fascinating.

It’s literally a curator’s job to show off artists’ work.

To make it look as good as possible.

To create context, in which ideas, feelings and objects are synthesized, presenting a message in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And boy, did that happen.

 

 

 

There were photographs by Cara Romero and Jack Goldsmith, in the entry hall, that announced the work was by the culture, for the culture.

Religious iconography on low-riders: that set the tone.

 

Three images by Jack Goldsmith

Two images by Cara Romero

 

We cut right after those photos, instead of walking down the long hallway, and wandered through a permanent installation of historical Taos art, before entering the Mandelman-Ribak Gallery, where the bulk of the exhibit was waiting.

I’ve got plenty of photos, because this was art to be experienced, but that’s not possible, so images become the next best thing.

Shiny cars and motorcycles, costumed super-heroes, scary skull heads, Aztec-inspired paintings, all sharing space with a set of Retablos, which were made in the 19th Century as low-tech, hauntingly beautiful advertisements for the Catholic Church.

(I’ll drop the pictures for you now.)


 

 

I covered Cara Romero’s work in my first exhibition review of 2021, when I went to the New Mexico Museum of Art, and published Kate Russell’s work in the same article.

I’d seen her pictures, (of low-riders, ironically,) in a restaurant in Santa Fe, where I ate in April, right after my second vaccine kicked in.

I remember that feeling, where just taking a mask off in public and eating indoors seemed so uncomfortable, so absurd, I might have been in the Upside-down world.

Still, at that moment, I assumed “regular” life was right around the corner.

Instead, Delta hit, and our fellow Americans decided, by the tens of thousands, they’d rather die than give in to the the libs.

So…that’s the world we’re living in.

Straight up.

But Kate Russell’s photos here felt like they were hyper-charged by someone else’s creativity, and I mean that as a compliment. Perhaps it would be better to say she was collaborating with another artist, whose vision was so distinct, so AMAZING, that you’ll leave this article happier than you entered.

Just look at this.

 

The low-rider-hood is displayed on the wall, featuring designs that around here are associated with pottery, from the Santa Clara Pueblo.

(The black on black is common.)

In the photos, Rose B. Simpson presents as a Native American super-hero, like a female, indigenous Zorro, and for all the movie reboots these days, I dare you to find a protagonist you’d rather watch on screen.

This is SO FUCKING BADASS.

From there, we saw more blingy-bikes and creepy skulls, before going upstairs, (past the massive painting of a pin-up model,) to see a new installation of even more Retablo paintings.

 


My friend Ed was with me, (along with the kids,) and he agreed that in all his years visiting the museum, (he’s a long-time patron,) he’d never seen these paintings hung in such a modern, crisp way.

I luxuriated in the work.
Standing there.
Admiring the magnificence.

We all did.

 

 

It was so easy to travel back in time in your mind, to a dark, mud-walled church, two hundred years ago, with flickering candles, Latin-chanting priests, and huddled heads, where every now and again, someone would look at an image of Jesus, or Mary, and find hope.

Or solace.

So that’s where we’ll leave it today.

Art is, and has always been, a huge part of humanity’s salvation.

Art is an act of creation, and represents the best of us, as a species.

So let’s not forget that, in 2021, when so much bad-behavior gets us down.

This Week in Photography: Cars and Copters

 

 

My neighbor built a heliport, about five years ago.

 

 

 

He didn’t have the permits to build in a remote, rural valley, but he’s a wealthy man, so he skirted the rules, and got away with it.

(Like that phrase, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.)

Sure, some people made a fuss, but as he built across the street from the volunteer firehouse, and enlisted some of the firemen to walk around with petitions, there was at least plausible deniability.

(That it was in the public interest.)

Ironically, my neighbor does not own a helicopter, (that I’m aware of,) but he does own a big chunk of land, so it was speculated he was planning to develop ranches for the “copter class.”

Given a hedge-fund billionaire, Louis Bacon, purchased Taos Ski Valley not long before, started his own airline, and expressly began cultivating a super-rich clientele, such conjecture about our misfit heliport seemed just.

But nothing like that has come to pass, and I’ve never even seen the damn place used. It just sits there, jutting out of a cow pasture, and has more No Parking signs than parked cars, much less helicopters.

Until today, that is.

 

 

 

Ten minutes ago, I was perusing today’s book, preparing to write this column for you.

As I sat on the couch, (having only recently had the confidence to leave my bedroom as a workspace,) I heard a shocking roar that split the silence.

My head started throbbing, as a hellacious noise tore though the valley, and I quickly ran outside to see what the fuck was happening.

I looked to the East, and saw nothing, so I ran to the other side of the house, looked West, and there was a massive, military helicopter up in the sky.

It made no sense, as was it landing, or what was it even doing here?

So I threw on some shoes, grabbed my camera, (and a leash for the dog,) and tried to suss out what was up.

I watched the helicopter ascend, right after landing, and then circle the valley again, before coming in to land.

Again.

It lifted off one more time, did yet another circle, but this time, I had the camera ready, and a fast shutter speed chosen, so I could at least get some photos of the random, unsettling phenomenon.

 


 

I might mention our valley ends in a box canyon, which amplifies sounds like mad, so this particular military helicopter made me think of what it must have been like in distant, Afghan valleys, when those war ships showed up over the nearest peak, ready to fuck shit up.

Viscerally, I was afraid, though logically, I knew we weren’t under attack.

The copter did the same maneuver, landing and immediately rising, and then headed off to the South, (perhaps towards Kirtland Air Base in Albuquerque,) leaving the place as abruptly as it arrived.

Just now, my heart rate has dropped back to normal, and I’ve convinced myself it was just a training exercise.

That’s all.

But if my rapacious neighbor had never built that heliport, in the middle of a cow pasture, when there was no actual demand for such a thing, I would be a bit calmer than I am.

The architecture had a purpose in mind, and eventually, people always find a way to use things, once they exist.

 

 

 

Last week’s piece ran nearly 3000 words; likely the longest I’ve written in my 10 years as a columnist.

There was much to discuss, and I leaned in.

Today, as a counter-point, we’ll keep it brief, and relatively obvious.

I’ll introduce today’s book, by Ashok Sinha, which showed up in the mail nearly a year ago. (I swear, we’re almost done with 2020 submissions. Maybe 1 more to go.)

“Gas And Glamour” was published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, and is somewhat straightforward, as is today’s review.

I met Ashok at an NYT event a while back, and we stayed in touch, so when he reached out offering a book about LA architecture, I said sure.

And given the magic of that brief sequence, in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” where Tarantino wrote his love letter to LA neon, and old movie theaters, it seemed like this book would mine similar turf.

 

 

The quick gist is, I found this book flawed, and had questions about its construction throughout, but there were also strong elements to the production, so it felt like one of those “teachable moment” column opportunities.

 

 

 

The project focuses on LA, mid-20th-century architecture, specifically buildings constructed for the burgeoning car culture that has since defined the city.

And the buildings are cool, to be sure, all shot in the gloaming, or at night.

The two intro essays, which set the scene, are printed on paper backed with small polka dots, so the eye begins to swim in space while focusing on the words, which reminded me of those 80’s prints with the hidden image embedded within.

(“Just relax your eyes, man, and you’ll get it.”)

The photos are good, and a few are excellent, but throughout, I found myself craving more formality. As in, I wanted them to look like tripod, 4×5 images, in which the photographer waited as long as possible to get the perfect, insanely-well-composed shot.

I did not get that sense, as these feel more Canon 5D Mark II, and while I’m sure a tripod was involved at times, I didn’t feel it in my gut.

Additionally, the modern cars included in the frames felt like afterthoughts, as they did not add much formally, or to the color-palette, and I kept thinking, “Why didn’t you just wait another 20 minutes until the lot was clear?”

Furthermore, the few images that lacked cars, or light trails, did communicate that more weighted, luxurious viewing experience, which confirmed what I thought and felt were in line.

As to text, there were descriptive, historical captions included in the upper-left-hand-corner of each double-spread, but they were more informative than interesting, (to me,) so I began to skip the reading.

These, I thought, would be perfect for an index at the end, so I could choose to inform myself afterwards, rather than breaking up the flow of images.

“I wish,” I said to myself, “there were more images instead.”

 

 

 

 

So I was quite surprised, at the end, to see an extensive index, featuring additional photos, including ones that showed the car in which Ashok travelled, as well as QR codes to give me the exact location of each building. (Which I would never use, though I’m aware others like the technology.)

“If only,” I uttered in my head, “he’d given us more dynamic images in the body of the book, and saved the textual info for the index, I’d have liked this book a lot more.”

Lately, I find myself telling book clients, and students with whom I meet, that every single part of a book needs to be considered.

All of it.

My design partner Caleb feels the same way, and when I recently interviewed Katherine Longly, she shared the same sentiment.

Think hard about every segment, and stress test those choices.

I don’t doubt that in “Gas And Glamour,” Ashok and his extensive team did think about the details. I guess I just don’t agree with the decisions they made, but it is literally their prerogative to make the book they want to make.

(And it’s cool, just not what I would have done.)

As a critic, though, it is my job to tell you what I think, and how you might avoid such (subtle) pitfalls when you make your own book.

See you next week!

To learn more about “Gas and Glamour” click here

 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Visiting ABQ in 2021

 

 

Identity politics are fascinating.

 

The belief we should be reduced to our race, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, or even nation of origin seems to come back around, every so often, and occupy the intellectual high ground of American culture.

Personally, I think the advent of identity politics, in the 70’s and 80’s, is one of the best things to ever happen to this country. (And if you’d like to extrapolate beyond our borders, feel free.)

From the 2021 vantage, that it was ever acceptable for all the jobs, all the opportunities, all the press coverage, and all the $$$$ to go to “White Christian Men Only” is laughable, tragic, and most definitely hard to comprehend.

(It’s beyond WTF.)

So the people who fought that, and made space for women, people of color, and those of other genders, religions and sexual preferences, they did us all a solid.

We should, and hopefully do, honor their efforts, which most certainly required sacrifice.

But when I matriculated to Pratt for grad school in 2002, those ideas, particularly as structured by the French Post-Modern theorists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, were back en vogue, and dominated much of the campus discourse.

 

Jacques Derrida, courtesy of the Freedom from Religion Foundation
Michel Foucault, courtesy of Brittannica

 

At the time, I’d arrived with a digital project I’d shot in Mexico the previous summer, only to learn there was no existing Digital Photography program at the Graduate level.

Literally nothing.

 

Teotihuacan, Mexico, 2002

 

So I was forced to pull bits of knowledge from a variety of departments, including digital art, undergrad photo, graphic design, computer science, and even printmaking.

There I was, seeing the new digital reality, and none of my fellow photographers wanted to talk about it.

I took an Art History class, with the brilliant Marsha Morton, which had the boring title of “The Beginnings of Abstraction,” and it was so dynamic, I still get chills thinking about it.

She had meticulously reconstructed the personal, cultural, and geo-political history of artists like Picasso, Braque, Malevich, Kandinsky, O’Keefe, and others, and taught us the intellectual backstory that led to such a radical change in art.

 

Kazmir Malevich Suprematist painting, 1915, courtesy of Clemens Toussaint/Heirs of Kazimir Malevich

 

The basic premise was, at the turn of the 20th Century, with the invention of the automobile, airplane, mechanized warfare, the theory of relativity, these changes were so seismic, from 19th Century life, they led to an entirely new world.

I sat in class, at the beginning of the 21st Century, and it was clear such things were happening again.

Just the internet alone, 9/11, and cell-phone-technology, made life almost unrecognizable from the 80’s and 90’s.

So I’d ask, “If life is this different, and our problems are so new, why are we turning to a 30 year old philosophy to explain what the fuck is going on in the world?”

It was less about people battling over race and class, and more the construct that every single sentence anyone says, (or writes,) is so loaded with cultural/identity baggage, that every utterance can be deconstructed, and rendered meaningless.

I wondered what would happen if and when such ideas migrated from the left wing to the right?

(Now we know.)

At one point, in a History of Digital Art class, I proposed a paper theorizing about the impending reality-shift, once images and videos could no longer be trusted, presaging the world of Deep-fakes. (I’d recently read William Gibson’s amazing “Pattern Recognition,” and like many before me, got my big idea from a sci-fi genius.)

The professor couldn’t fathom such a thing happening, nor why it might be important, so she denied my paper idea, and I wrote about Jackson Pollock, Carl Jung, and the Collective Unconscious instead. (Meaning, the part of the human psyche we all share.)

After Marsha’s class, I went around quoting Kandinsky, talking about how art was driven by “Inner Necessity,” and I still use that phrase with my students today.

 

 

 

In 2021, identity politics are of paramount concern again, and over the last month or so, I can not count how many people have wanted to talk to me about it, always confidentially.

(Off-the-record, just-between-us, please don’t quote me, that sort of thing.)

I believe efforts to increase diversity and inclusivity in the arts, in culture, and in our society, are insanely important, and to be commended.

If you’ve been reading this column for 10 years, (or even 5,) you’ll know I’ve always been an “ally,” standing up for disenfranchised people, owning my privilege, reporting on what’s going on out there, learning about and then practicing outreach, and generally trying to be a good dude.

At the onset of the #MeToo movement, I began alternating male and female book artists each week, for a year, and put a submission disclaimer at the end of each book review, soliciting books from artists of color, and female artists, so we could maintain a balanced program.

And still, someone came at me recently, accusing me of having never, not even once, reviewed a book by an artist of color.

It was easily disproven, but still, I responded politely, offered to have dialogue, and respected the other person’s opinion.

(Because in 2021, antagonizing anyone who’s that wound-up never seems to work out well.)

 

 

 

But the reason everyone wants to talk to me about this, (secretly,) is there seems to be a fervor for downgrading or degrading straight White male artists, which feels like it’s bordering on vengeance more than reason.

(Or at least, the idea that such people no longer “deserve” opportunities has become conventional wisdom.)

I’ve compared it to something my people, the Jews, have done, as the Israelis got a country due to 6 million dead in the Holocaust, but then become occupiers and racists of the highest order. (Denying basic human rights to Palestinians, and Israeli citizens of Arab descent.)

Hell, a few years ago, I even tried to re-brand myself as Jewish-American, rather than be known as a White Guy, but it doesn’t seem to have stuck.

As usual, I’m working up to a point, so please bear with me, as this has been on my mind lately, and I always try to find (and share) the nuance in difficult situations.

(While others have their heads hiding behind parapets.)

So allow me to reiterate: it is inherently good that so many people are now going out of their way to cultivate opportunities and support for, to honor and respect BIPOC artists.

All good.

But maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place if we take some advice from Jesus, and the Golden Rule?

Is that such a radical concept?

 

 

I know this article might be controversial.

I get it.

So let’s give it some context.

Just last week, I went to Albuquerque to see two museum exhibitions, and speak to my friend Jim Stone’s Intermediate Photo Class at UNM.

As soon as I got to the city, I headed to the excellent, criminally underrated Albuquerque Museum, (in Old Town,) the site of the exhibition that launched my art career in 2008.

 

The Albuquerque Museum

 

(Though that’s not why I love the place. It’s a genuinely great institution.)

I met up with Adrian Gomez, the arts and culture editor of the Albuquerque Journal, as we’d hit it off when he interviewed me for an article about my work last year.

 

Adrian Gomez at the ABQ Museum

 

Adrian and I come from very different backgrounds, and had never spoken before the interview, yet we vibed immediately, and stayed in touch via IG DM’s, and the occasional text.

Though we’re both of the same gender, and love art, we had little in common, beyond a shared sense of morals/ethics, a believe in respecting others, and perhaps an artsy-hipster-energy that is less common in Northern New Mexico than you might think.

We were there to see “Another World, the Transcendental Painting Group,” a show that has unfortunately since closed, which featured Transcendental Paintings by a NM based art movement in the not-quite-mid 20th Century.

Founded by Raymond Jonson, who was also a leading arts educator at UNM, the group made mostly, (but not entirely) abstract paintings that used color theory, and shapes and forms, to communicate spiritual energy. And the exhibition featured work by Jonson, Emil Bisttram, Agnes Pelton, Lawren Harris, Florence Miller Pierce, Horace Pierce, Robert Gribbroek, William Lumpkins, Dane Rudhyar, Stuart Walker, and Ed Garman.

 

 

 

These paintings, which were heavily influenced by the early abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich, O’Keefe, and Arthur Wesley Dow, (who taught O’Keefe at Pratt,) were about mining the aforementioned Collective Unconscious, and the ineffable, mystical powers that exist all around us, but are never seen.

They tried to use art to tap into a universality of experience, and of the Universe itself, things often undervalued when we reduce people to their differences, at the expense of any sense of a larger shared understanding.

Adrian was knowledgeable about art, obviously, and we, the two critics, walked around the huge galleries slowly, feeling each painting, and discussing what we thought was going on.

(Including a running joke about how much opium some of them must have been smoking.)

It was clear some paintings, done in very consistent color palettes, filled with cool blues, lavenders, and such, were soothing, and made us feel relaxed and good.

 

 

Those tended to have everything line up together, value wise, with respect to color theory.

Then, images that had jarring colors mixed in, or which were based more on oranges, mustards, and ochres, were less pleasing to the eye, less soothing to the body, but they engaged the mind, as the artists were introducing juxtaposition, or dislocation, which makes you think.

There were female artists included, but if I had to guess, all the artists were White.

Adrian shared stories and insights with me, as we walked, and as that is often my job, it felt wonderful to listen and learn, rather than teach and pontificate.

(As I do here each week.)

As soon as we left the gallery, we walked into an education room, which was designed to engage children and citizens, and it was another example of why IRL museums are so vital to our sanity and quality of life.

 

 

We walked around the museum some more, and Adrian dropped knowledge bombs, like the fact that NM was once known as the Sunshine State, on its license plates, before rebranding as the Land of Enchantment, as the richer, more populous Florida took the Sunshine State as its own.

Then, as we left the building, we inevitably walked by the famous bronze sculptural installation of La Jornada, about which I wrote during the riot phase of 2020.

Someone was actually shot in the street, right near this piece of art, because some activists were trying to tear down the statue of Don Juan de Oñate, who violently colonized New Mexico, and a right-wing-psycho gunned a man down. (As a creepy, armed militia stood by.)

The installation is over the top, as the artists Betty Sabo and Sonny Rivera created a full wagon-train, with conquistadors, cows, and colonists, and it is life-like, and educational, as nearby plaques include the family names of those who came from Spain. (Some of whom were hidden Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.)

 

The spot where the Oñate once stood

 

Adrian and I discussed how complicated the situation was, with Spanish New Mexicans traditionally revering their history, and the Native Americans viewing the same events as tragedy and genocide.

As such, after the riot, they hacked out the statue of Oñate, but left the rest of the art piece, and the bronze-man is now locked-away inside the museum. (Though there are apparently still discussions as to whether to remove the entire installation.)

We compared that type of decision with the subsequent removal of Confederate statues that honored men who fought to preserve slavery in the South.

Men who fought to break up America.

The conquistadors, by contrast, were just like the Protestant English Pilgrims.

The English, Dutch, French, and Spanish carved up this country, wreaked havoc, and killed millions of Native Americans. (Or American Indians, to use the term again popular in the NYT.)

It is the shared history of this country, a society built upon blood, yet as Adrian said, “If they hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t exist.”

And neither would I.

If America had not been colonized, my ancestors would still have been in Europe in the mid-20th-Century, and would all have been gassed, shot or burned alive by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.

America has created evil in this world, and I have personally written about the injustice of the American Conquest, and the history of slavery, more times in this column than I can remember.

But as an artist, and a critic, I wasn’t so sure that cleaving off Oñate from the rest of a piece of history was entirely the right move.

I understand why others feel that way.

But people getting shot over art makes me think of the Taliban.

Or the Cultural Revolution in China.

Is that really the best we can do?

 

 

It was time to move on, so I drove through some California-style-gentrification, and the first California-style-sidewalk-tent I’ve seen in Albuquerque, and got to UNM in time to meet Jim Stone for lunch.

There were big, white tents set up on campus, where musicians practiced violin, or students studied outside, as concessions to our current Covid reality.

It was great to be back at my alma mater, (Post-Bac 1997-99,) and after a nice teriyaki chicken lunch outside the Student Union, I chatted up Jim’s class for an hour.

 

Jim Stone, outside the UNM Student Union

 

All five students were either Native American, Hispanic, or female, (or some combination thereof,) and their teacher was a bearded White guy. (Who was named SPE honored educator in 2016.)

We talked about how hard it was for them, having their entire first year online, and they treated me with so much respect, as I did them.

Jim asked me to talk about the festival circuit, and portfolio review industry, as the non-profit organizations that run them offer the opportunity for community, education, and camaraderie after students leave the University nest.

I empathized with the students, and shared my knowledge and passion with kindness, and it felt wonderful to be back in a classroom in 2021.

 

 

I try to find nuance in things, as Jews are reputed to “run the world,” yet we’ve been attacked, killed and discriminated against for Millennia.

Growing up, it was implied we should hide our “Jewishness,” for fear of being persecuted, so I don’t really identify as a “person in power.”

But I grew up with some privilege, as I’ve admitted here before, and have always tried to use my platform to support others.

Which I will continue to do.

And starting with my next book review, I’ll re-institute our call for submissions by artists of color, and female photographers.

Not b/c someone suggested I was racist, (when I identify as Woke,) but because outreach is vital.

And just so we’re clear, I previously removed the submission info because I have nearly a year’s waiting list for review, and it seemed unethical to call for books, knowing I’d have to make people wait so long. (Though I do tell that to any artist who looks me up on his/her/their own.)

 

 

As my time in ABQ wound down, but before I headed to the Asian market for some groceries, I went to the UNM Art Museum, which recently re-opened after being closed for more than a year during the pandemic.

Though it’s known for its brilliant photography collection, begun by former professor Beaumont Newhall, (who founded the photo department at MoMA in New York,) there was a painting exhibition by Raymond Jonson, who as I said was a big deal on campus back in the mid-20th-Century.

 

Raymond Jonson Self-Portrait

 

I saw more of his paintings in one day than I had in my lifetime, yet this exhibition, decontextualized from the larger Transcendental movement, was less satisfying than the one at the ABQ Museum.

Fortunately, while the other exhibition has closed, this show will be up for a while, and the museum is free, so I highly recommend you check it out if you’re passing through NM. (Or if you live here.)

While the vibe at the ABQ Museum was ethereal, this was squarely in the trippy, strange territory. (I called it super-funky to Mary Statzer, who curated the exhibit, and she found that term on-point.)

The bulk of the exhibition was built around triptychs and mini-series, and feels spectral, or like Aliens were just around the corner, and maybe that’s just right for New Mexico in 2021.

 



In an alcove, separate from the rest of the work, were portraits, which were pretty phenomenal, so Raymond Jonson, (of Iowa, having done a stint in Chicago,) was clearly a talented dude.

 

 

But one portrait from 1919, of a prominent actress, Miriam Kiper, rubbed me the wrong way.

 

 

Her name was Jewish, her nose was exaggerated, as were her eyes, and hands. It seemed to be touching on Anti-Semitic tropes, and I felt bad inside.

 

 

(In 10 years of writing this column, I’m pretty sure I’ve never made that accusation before.)

I know such ideas were more acceptable back then, or perhaps Raymond Jonson was not even aware of his “implicit bias.”

Still, it never occurred to me to complain, or protest.

To demand the museum remove the painting.

Or destroy it.

Others are more comfortable with censorship, or the belief that if they get offended, the perpetrator of such offense is bad, or the enemy.

Worthy of punishment.

I understand ideas go in and out of fashion, and you will NEVER find me defending Robert E. Lee, or Donald J. Trump.

But maybe, just maybe, we can all walk back from this current, contentious ledge together?

 

 

America, as we know, is broken.

And perhaps it’s time we stop waiting for someone else to fix it?

Maybe it’s time to pull on our work gloves, cut each other a bit of slack, and do the heavy lifting ourselves?

Together.

 

This Week in Photography: Ten Years!

 

 

Happy Anniversary!

 

It’s officially been ten years since I began this weekly column.

(And so much of the world has changed.)

 

 

 

In September of 2011, my son was four years old, and my daughter was yet to be conceived.

9/11 happened only a decade prior, and the wounds were still so fresh.

Donald Trump was a loud-mouth reality television star, and Barack Hussein Obama the President. Joe Biden was VP, Obama’s wingman, and wasn’t-yet-known for his signature aviator sunglasses. (Or for calling people “Folks.”)

 

 

James Gandolfini was alive, and no one knew he had an odd-looking kid. Joe Biden’s son Beau was also living, as were Tony Bourdain, David Bowie, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

 

Courtesy of the BBC

 

The United States was mired in the after-effects of The Great Recession, which was the biggest thing to happened since 9/11. (The two defining events of GenXers lives, up until the pandemic. Probably Millennials too, now that I think about it.)

Most people weren’t using social media yet, in 2011, so no one had heard of fake news, and anti-vaxxers were a small subset of the population who mostly got grumpy about the measles.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The New York Football Giants, now the laughingstock of the NFL, were about to win the Super Bowl. (Go Eli!)

 

 

 

 

If you had told me in September 2011 that my column would turn into a diaristic, long-running critique of American culture and politics, I would have stared like you had a magical-third-eye in the middle of your forehead.

(Inconceivable!)

 

 

Those first few weeks, in September 2011, I reviewed several books at a time, just a couple of paragraphs each, and my signature style was still to come.

It wasn’t until Thanksgiving, when my mother-in-law banged on our door at night, brandishing a .45 handgun, afraid of intruders, that things fell into place.

I felt compelled to tell that story, and then connect it to a photo book by superstar Taryn Simon, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

 

 

 

These days, my mother-in-law, (who was one of the smartest, fiercest people I’ve ever known,) is in a near-vegetative state, due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

As bad as the pandemic has been for many people, (in particular those who lost loved ones to Covid,) I’ve had my hands full, battling my wife’s clinical depression, and then watching Bonnie’s brain melt, day by day, until there was nothing left.

 

Jessie and Bonnie on May 14th, 2021. The last day she was cognizant.

 

Being Trapped in Paradise, walking in circles, with the beautiful mountains as a backdrop, would have been a nice way to spend a plague year-and-a-half, (in theory,) but I can’t say as I enjoyed it much.

Writing for you each week, having an outlet for my emotions, and a desire to share my experiences with others, (so they might have better lives,) was a big part of what kept me going.

So… thank you.

Thank you very much!

 

 

 

I’m not going to review a book today, as it’s the rare week when I’m writing on a Wednesday, and I thought a 10 year anniversary was enough reason to freestyle, and celebrate the achievement.

Tomorrow, I’m going to Albuquerque for the first time in 18 months.

I came home from the Burque on March 8, 2020, from my trip to Houston, and then never left. (At least until I went to Amarillo a year later, to get my first vaccine shot.)

The plan is to eat my favorite food at The Frontier, visit with my friend Jim Stone, speak to one of his UNM classes, and then see an art exhibit at the UNM Art Museum with a new buddy who writes for the Albuquerque Journal.

It is highly likely I’ll be able to tell you about it next week, if the food and art are any good, but after 18 months, even shitty water tastes delicious when you’re dying of thirst.

 

 

 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a second to thank Rob Haggart, the founder and editor of this website.

These days, I get a lot of compliments for my honesty and vulnerability, as it’s literally become a part of my “personal brand.”

And that stems directly from the advice he gave me, when I first began writing here in 2010. (The weekly column came a year + into my tenure at APE.)

Rob has always given me creative freedom, and let me stretch my wings from a place of trust.

But at the very beginning, he did give me a particular piece of advice.

“Be honest,” he said, “and write what you really think.”

“But Rob,” I replied, “if I’m honest all the time, writing about the industry, won’t I burn bridges? Isn’t that a bad idea, as I’m just trying to make a name for myself?”

“You might burn a bridge or two,” he said, “it’s true. But in my experience, you’ll open many more doors by telling the truth, and those people who don’t want to work with you, those few bridges you burn, they probably weren’t the right people to work with anyway.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

We’ve been going strong each Friday, ever since, and I can say, without exaggeration, that Rob’s unwavering support, and his belief in me, changed my life forever.

Thanks, Dude!

And see you all next week!

 

(ED note: I had a great trip to ABQ, and will write a travel piece with exhibition reviews for next week’s column.)

This Week in Photography: Nothing Makes Sense

 

“I’m just trying to understand it, Mother.”

“What is there to understand? Just read it. There it is in black and white. Who wants you to understand it? If the Lord God wanted you to understand it He’d have given you to understand or He’d have set it down different.”

John Steinbeck, “East of Eden,” 1952.

 

 

 

Have you ever heard of Andy Kaufman?

 

He was a comedian back in the 70’s, and got famous for pissing people off. (And for his weird-ass accent in the TV show “Taxi,” which would certainly be considered offensive in today’s cultural climate.)

I must have seen a few minutes of his stand-up act, back in the day, and then Jim Carrey played him in a movie, but I do have strong recollections of his place in the culture.

Andy Kaufman was such an absurdist, he’d get on stage and say strange, not-particularly-funny shit, just to get a rise out of his audience. Some of it was hilarious, but mostly because he was toying with expectations in a manner that feels very of-the-moment.

 

 

I’m pretty sure he got involved with professional wrestling, and got his ass kicked for real, because he made his living pushing the envelope.

Plus, he did a spot-on-perfect Elvis impersonation. (And got to hang out with Johnny Cash on “Hee Haw,” which melts my brain.)

 

 

These days, we know all about trolls, and gas-lighting, but it seems Andy Kaufman helped pioneer the practice, back when it would have seemed revolutionary.

To me, the point is to grind into the human consciousness that our desire for things to “make sense,” and for us to be able to “understand” the world, much less the Universe, is hubristic and fallacious.

Much like Loki needed to get the shit beat out of him by Hulk, in my kids’ favorite scene in the first “Avengers” film, Andy Kaufman was the canary in the coal-mine for our 21st Century misadventures. (He died young, and didn’t live to see our new-times.)

Poor guy.
At least he had some fun.

 

 

 

But today is not one of those days where I’ll weave together ten strands of American culture into a tapestry of awesomeness. (Sorry if that sounds cocky, but sometimes I get there.)

No.
Not today.

I’ve been immersed in trying to reason with a teenager, who’s been hell bent on self-sabatoge, as were millions of teenagers before him.

Trying to understand the teenaged mindset, from a 47 year old vantage, makes about as much sense as a chicken trying to force its way into a KFC. (A true story I heard on Sirius radio the other day. Dumb fucking chicken.)

 

 

 

Today, I’m going to cut to the chase more quickly than normal, and the connection between the introduction and the book review will be as obvious as a wet-dog-fart.

Today, I spent some time with “Providencia,” a book by Daniel Reuter, published by Skinnerboox, which arrived in the mail nearly a year ago. (Almost done with the 2020 submissions, thankfully.)

Today, as I sit here and write, I can honestly report that I was thinking of Andy Kaufman WHILE I was looking at the book, because I couldn’t make any sense of it at all.

 

 

 

Normally, when I spend time with a book, I look for clues, and figure things out, as slowly the narrative begins to focus. Eventually, I get there. (Almost always.)

But not today.

The title, which means Providence in Spanish, made me think maybe the series was made in Spain. (Such a Euro-centric vision of the world, it’s true.) And early on, there is a publication in Spanish, so that exacerbated my reaction. (As did the inclusion of a palm tree in one photo.)

But as to the theme, or point of the work?

I just couldn’t get there.

We see buildings, walls, hard-scrabble desert scenes, buildings, junk, trees, and occasionally, some people who don’t look at the camera.

Circles form a repeating motif, including a cool image with a hole cut in a wall, and another with a record player sitting before metal tubes that remind me of pipe bombs.

There are no words, until the end, and no context until then either.

Mostly, beyond thinking about Andy Kaufman, I realized the book was not really meant for me, as an American. (I know they sent it my way, but you likely catch my drift.)

It felt loaded with cultural references that I could not access, and the book also felt intentional about it.

As if creating a state of chaos and confusion was part of the book’s mission. Or perhaps it was commenting on a society that experienced those sensations, and the point of the art was to communicate that emotion through visceral means.

Furthermore, the production values are high, and the inclusion of images printed on vellum, as a way of breaking up the visual consistency, was great. (By not half-assing the production, it also lets a viewer know the project is serious, if inscrutable.)

In the end, we get a long essay in Spanish, (of course, as I said, this was not designed for Americans,) and then a translated version.

It’s by Alejandro Zamba, and quickly establishes the book is about Santiago, Chile, not long after the city erupted in protests, violence, and social disorder, not unlike what happened in the US in 2020.

It’s a beautiful short story, almost in the form of a parable, as a stranger lands at an airport, and takes a long taxi ride, during which the driver catches the author, (and we, the viewer,) up on what the book is actually about.

There’s a quote within, which summed up my feelings about our innate human desire for things to make sense: “The feeling of understanding all is useful, hopeful, cocky and false, while the feeling of understanding nothing returns our humility to us…”.

I must say, one of my very favorite things about this job is that I get to learn about faraway places, and share that knowledge and “intel” with you.

The end notes tell us this project was supported by a publisher in Italy, foundations in Luxembourg, in conjunction with Les Rencontres d’Arles in France, but what that has to do with a Dada book about Chile, I cannot say.

Only after I was done did I notice some press materials that likely tried to explain things, including an essay by Adam Bell, but it was pointedly not included in the book. Nor was it an insert.

So I didn’t read it.

I’m not being petty, though.

Rather, I was luxuriating in the not-knowing. In being reminded I’m just a puny human, living for a short time on a spinning rock, hurtling around a star in an ever-expanding Universe.

And so are you.

To purchase Providencia click here

 

 

This Week in Photography: Teaching Children

 

 

I photographed some chickens the other day.

(And some cows.)

 

 

The latter creatures had escaped their pasture up the valley, and were officially on the lam.

I watched the herd descend my father-in-law’s driveway, across the field, and quickly went to investigate with my camera in tow.

The kids were enraptured, far more than I expected, but then again, so much of our lives here the last 18 months have been repetitive.

(A bunch of cattle descending upon us was anything but routine.)

I figured it would be easy to get a great shot, under the circumstances, but that was simply not the case.

Whether due to the overly harsh light, once or twice, (or the family dog finally getting to experience the cattle-herding for which she was bred,) it took me two days and 200 shots to get exactly what I saw in my head.

Certainly, it was worth the trouble, and I had to learn how not to antagonize the massive bull, so he’d forget about me while I skulked around.

But in the end, after many attempts, I got the shot.

Soon, my daughter suggested we stop eating beef, as once we’d all hung out with the cows, and saw their intelligence first-hand, it was hard to imagine them getting slaughtered, methodically, to add protein to the collective food supply.

Rather, we saw the cattle as fugitives, running for their lives, and we secretly hoped they’d stay one step ahead of their owners, who didn’t come searching until Day 3.

 

 

 

 

As to the chickens, they were in the front yard of a neighbor’s house, and I asked for permission first.

The light was perfect, the chickens naturally photogenic, and I made the exact photo I wanted within a minute.

(Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s not.)

At the time, though, my neighbor, whom I’ve gotten to know better over the last few years, insisted that I never take his photo.

Ever.

I said, “Sure, no problem,” and reminded him I’d never so much as raised my camera in his direction.

Still, when I stopped back by, after we’s shot hoops at the basketball court across the street, (behind the firehouse,) I wanted to ask if he knew anything about missing cattle.

As a joke, while I approached, I pretended to take his picture with my finger. There was no camera in my hand, as it was safely zippered up in the bag slung over my back.

Anyone could see I was kidding, but he got offended, thinking I was making fun of him, and he said, angrily, that he hated being photographed, and didn’t like being teased.

I apologized, of course, said I was trying to funny, (and had obviously failed,) so I changed the subject quickly, and that was that.

But you can be sure I’ll never do anything like that again to Morris.

(No sir.)

Being an outsider in an insular, poverty-stricken, mountain community at the edge of the Universe, you learn it’s very hard to be accepted, (takes years really,) and you can blow all that good-will in an instant, if you make the wrong move.

 

 

 

We came back home to New Mexico in 2005, straight from Brooklyn, and I was hired to teach photography to school kids within a month.

In order to circumvent the University bureaucracy, UNM-Taos was able to get me working, straight away, if I’d be willing to teach “college classes” at a high school for at-risk youth.

I had no experience working with that population, and barely any teaching experience at all, aside from one semester as a professor of Beginning Digital Photography at Pratt.

This was a different kettle of fish, teaching black and white, chemical darkroom photography to disturbed teens, in the back room of a falling-apart, old school-house, where we had to worry about getting Hantavirus from all the stray mouse droppings.

 

 

I kept that job for ten years, and over time, the school’s head raised private funding for computers, digital cameras, and Epson printers.

I still remember harping on the need for secure storage, and being told, “Yeah, yeah,” until one of the students in my program “allegedly” broke in with a few buddies and stole it all.

We couldn’t prove it, but he walked around that week with a little twinkle in his eye, and that was enough for me.

After that, they took my opinions a bit more seriously on the subject, and built some massive, sturdy, fire-safe cabinets, where we locked everything up tight.

(Nothing was stolen again.)

But a few years later, a bureaucrat, (who soon washed out of the system, and was most recently seen teaching skiing,) shut the entire school, and it’s still sitting there, empty, rotting in the harsh-mountain-sun.

I shot some photos there a few months ago, and watched the tumbleweeds roll around the dirt parking lot.

Times change, but when you live in the 48th or 49th poorest state in the US, for this long, you begin to understand that cycles of poverty and violence are nearly impossible to break.

 

 

 

That said, I still recall one student, who studied with me for two years.

When we met, she was non-verbal, resting her head on the table the entire class. She made no eye contact, and wouldn’t respond to questioning.

Still, I did my work, starting each class with a check-in, asking about their days, and family lives, as they would only open up and relax, letting their creativity settle in, once they felt safe, and knew I cared about them as people.

By the end of the second year, that same young student was making the best work in class, taking the camera to shoot her family home on the Pueblo, and was regularly conversant.

One day, she told me secrets about what happened in the Kiva, the ancient underground educational system for boys, and it was, without exaggeration, one of proudest moments of my life.

I likely didn’t change many, or any, lives in that decade, but I’m sure I taught the students that art, and creativity, are powerful coping tools for life’s difficulties.

And yes, I miss the work.

 

 

 

As usual, there are reasons when I reminisce.

Something always sets off a thought train, and today, it’s that I just spent an hour and a half reading and looking at “Portraits and Dreams,” a re-issued and updated book by Wendy Ewald, published by MACK in 2020.

Though I admit I hadn’t heard of the project before, it was apparently first published in 1980, and later became a documentary film by Appalshop, a well-known media lab in Appalachia.

I first assumed it was set in West Virigia for some reason, (maybe it’s all the Joe Manchin talk in the mainstream media?) but the project happened in Kentucky, where Wendy Ewald taught photography to extremely poor children in a two-room-school-house, in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

If you’ve ever seen the excellent TV show “Justified,” you might have a sense of the mise-en-scene, and coal-country-issues people live with down there, but that was a fictionalized account, starring the dreamy Timothy Olyphant. (And the phenomenally charismatic Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.)

 

 

This book, though, is straight truth, no fiction.

I admit, I wondered once or twice where the money came from to get this all going, (though the children had to raise $10 to buy their cameras,) and the end notes confirm there was grant funding made available by the NEA, and a couple of other sources.

 

 

 

As to the book, it features images made by the students, and written statements as well, though I do wonder if those were transcribed from audio interviews? (Not that it matters.)

Dead cousins, shot uncles, slaughtered pigs, fathers with black lung, fun times walking in the mountains, it’s all in there.

We see the world through the children’s eyes, and hear their thoughts. I could relate to some of their ideas in ways that seemed impossible, across so much time and space.

One boy, Delbert Shepherd, shocked at watching a chicken killed, actually imagines what it would feel like to be chopped into pieces and served as food. Another, in a pre-Climate Change age, writes that if all the humans disappeared, the Earth would be able to regenerate, after the ravages of human greed.

Powerful stuff, for sure.

At the end, Wendy Ewald shares details about how she got to Kentucky, and then fast-forwards the book to the present day, as she reconnected with her former students in the last decade, and we see images of them, pictures they’ve shot, and read about their current lives.

One woman practices photography, semi-professionally, and others are engineers and educators.

From a two-room school house, up in hollers with no running water, some of these kids actually made it out into the world. (One ended up running factories in China, another went to jail.)

But to a person, all the students remembered their time in Wendy Ewald’s photo program fondly, and it seems their experience as young artists stayed with them always.

Maybe today’s not a bad day to ruminate on that, and cultivate some hope in our dark times?

 

To purchase “Portraits and Dreams” click here