Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography: New Beginnings

 

 

These are difficult times.

The hardest I’ve ever seen.

(It is what it is.)

 

I’m writing on Thursday, as usual, which means yesterday was President Biden’s inauguration, marking the end of one of the darkest periods in American history.

Honestly, I’m so sick of thinking about you-know-who that I’ll try to keep his name out of this column as much as possible, going forward.

It’s like Voldemort, when almost all the wizards in the Wizarding world preferred uttering “he who shall not be named.”

We’ll try that here for now.

Because this week, this moment, should be about new beginnings.

Looking forward.
Rebuilding hope.
Finding solace.

But I’ve seen mentioned with regularity on social media in the last few days, (and I’ve been telling people for weeks now,) much of America is suffering from PTSD.

All the hate, the constantly-aroused feelings, the unexpressed sadness, the repressed rage.

The frustration at our inability to do anything, on an individual level, to stop the Covid death count from going higher.

And higher still.

We’re now past 400,000 dead here in the US, and President Biden is predicting we’ll hit half a million corpses before too long.

How do we even process numbers like that?

Mostly, I feel numb.

The fight has left me for the moment, and I know many people who feel the same.

So this afternoon, after doing seven portfolio reviews in the morning for LACP, (which means I get to share more photo portfolios with you in the future,) I found myself empty.

Bereft.

I tried to look at a book submission to write this review, a book I’ll definitely feature soon, but my brain couldn’t focus on the words. (It required a lot of reading.)

Instead, I utilized my trusty trick of staring at my bookshelf, asking the heavens above for some help.

Would anything jump out at me?

Anything that might make me feel better, or give me the opportunity to share some peace with you?

Because if I’ve realized anything in the last couple of weeks, it’s that a lot of people read this column, and over the years have come to care about me, and what I write here.

Two weeks ago, I admitted I hit an inflection point in my marriage, and my wife and I would figure things out, or we wouldn’t.

No more dicking around.

In the 14 days since, (including 10 seconds ago, when a text just came in from a friend in Rhode Island,) the amount of people who have called or written to offer support, and check on me, has been one of the best things that’s ever happened.

Thank you so much!

Jessie and I decided we would not let all these external stresses from a crazy world break us up, so we’re forging ahead.

Still, the drama comes at us from other places, and just today, one of the people I reviewed went ape-shit, yelling and screaming, as if it were my job to eat the shit.

Please remember, the energy we put into the world affects so many other people. If you feel bad, and dump it on others, that creates a chain reaction.

After 5 years of incessant negativity from you-know-who, amplified 1000 times via Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, and every other form of mass communication, it only makes sense that we’d all be wounded.

Beaten down.

Ready for President Biden, his diverse team of professionals, and that amazing young poet, Amanda Gorman, to give us some positivity juice.

That, however, is only the electric shock needed to restart our hearts.

The real healing will take a while.

So, as luck would have it, I looked at my book shelf and spotted one of my all-time favorite books; “Cultivated Landscapes,” an exhibition catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Shout out to the Met!)

It features work from a show I once saw, of a collection of Chinese landscape paintings, which is a historical genre that has always inspired me.

These ancient paintings and scrolls are some of the most peaceful, meditative, quiet, lovely, magnificent pieces of art you will see.

The calming, Buddhist juju literally jumps off the page.

As bad as I felt when I opened the book, within minutes, I felt a bit better.

Because making art helps us manage our stress, and process our emotions.

It also takes our mind off things, for a little while.

And looking at art can serve the same purpose.

So no, it’s not a photo book today. But it is a gift from me to you. (Sharing something I care about, and love.)

See you next week.

To download a .pdf of “Cultivated Landscapes” click here 

This Week in Photography: The Cycle of History

 

Do you remember 9/11?

 

I sure do.

After the shock, and the inability to look away from the television screen all day, (Thank you Peter Jennings, RIP,) I vividly recall walking around for a couple of weeks in a haze.

 

Image courtesy of the Television Academy

 

What happened was so far outside my frame of reference, it felt like life was a movie, and I just wanted the credits to roll.

“Please,” I thought, “let things go back to normal.”

But they never did.

Sure, after a few years things chilled out a bit, at least until the Great Recession, yet life never returned to the way it was before the Twin Towers came down.

(No more Pax Americana.)

In the aftermath, we heard a lot about how so many young, angry, under-or-unemployed Muslim men around the world had nothing better to do than fume about America, and plot our downfall.

How they couldn’t afford to have girlfriends or wives, and they sat around all day, waiting in coffee shops.

How they had been “radicalized” by information that was essentially brain-washing. How certain clerics spoke directly to them, to their fears and anxieties, and convinced them violence was the only answer.

Though there had been major attacks in the lead-up to September 11th, like the first Twin Towers bombing, or the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, afterwards, there were no similar-level terror events on American soil.

It became much more about changes in airport routines, and the repetitive drone of “If you see something, say something” announcements on the NYC subways. (I lived there from 2002-05, when the city was still shell-shocked.)

Nearly 20 years have passed since that last epoch-shaking event in the US, and now we have ourselves another.

That’s how big a deal the attack on the US Capitol was: whether you call it a riot, a coup attempt, an insurrection, or the opening salvo of a 21st Century revolution.

Needless to say, I can’t think very straight 8 days later, and am surprised to even be writing this column. (Never missed a deadline; not about to start now.)

Thankfully, the photo-book-dieties are friendly to long-time columnists, so as I reached into my thick book stack today, looking for the oldest book there, I found something that came in just about this time last year.

It arrived before the pandemic hit, at a time when Donald Trump, for all his pure-awfulness, did not have the blood of nearly 400,000 Americans on his hands.

(Nor had he tried to destroy Democracy to protect his man-baby, hyper-fragile ego.)

When a year goes by, from submission to perusal, you can be sure I know absolutely nothing about the book in question, and take it on its merits.

Today, we’ll look at “Late Harvest,” by Forest McMullin, published by RIT press in 2019.

Given my limited brain capacity, I’ll tell you from the jump that this is a good book, perfect for the moment, but the photographs are not something at which I’d hurl superlatives.

Despite the fact that the artist’s opening statement makes mention of the brilliant Southern light, which illuminates colors with intensity, and the essay by Nancy McCrary that suggests these are not cliché, Southern-poverty-porn pictures, I disagree on both counts.

The light is often flat, and the portraits really could have used some fill flash. As to the subject matter, I have seen decrepit and abandoned Southern spaces many, many times before.

However…

The artist was a life-long Northerner who moved to the South on the cusp of the Great Recession, to shake up his life. (Along with his wife.)

They ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, (which has been in the news a lot lately,) and subsequently, Forest began a long-term project cruising only the smallest roads of the Deep South, with paper maps. (No GPS.)

I reviewed a book with a similar premise a few years ago, “True Places,” by Jack Carnell, published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta, and found those photos to be superior, technically speaking.

But this book feels like it dug into a vein of truth in the contemporary South, as there are interviews that both give a strong sense of the artist as a down-to-Earth, likable guy, and also one who displayed curiosity, kindness and empathy to the people he met along the way.

There are white people inside, including a small shopkeeper who longs for Trump to make gun silencers legal, and a bar owner who once brained her man with a baseball bat, and claims it’s the only “white bar” in her town.

Racism!

But there are also African-Americans who run makeshift bars, hair salon/sandwich shops, or are Mayors and Preachers simultaneously.

Taken together, the Deep South comes off as the kind of place that opportunity forgot.

A place that is still very rooted in the impact of the Civil War.

A place where you have to leave for the city if you want to have any chance at a decent living, or if you want to meet a partner in mid-life, because you’re tired of being alone. (Actual details from within.)

I guess what I’m saying is I don’t LOVE these photographs, but I find this to be a powerful, anthropological book that gives us a window into the vanquished Confederacy.

I know not all the insurrectionists last week were poor and white, (only most of them,) but they certainly felt like today’s America had let them down.

In fact, just this morning, (Friday, as I’m editing,) I found this quote in WaPo, about the QAnon-Shaman-asshole, from his lawyer:

“He took seriously the countless messages of President Trump. He believed in President Trump,” Watkins said. “Like tens of millions of other Americans, Chansley felt — for the first time in his life — as though his voice was being heard.”

Sure, the Trumpists have had the Presidency for 4 years, the Senate for longer, and just packed the Supreme Court for a generation.

But if your life sucks, you see no hope of improvement, and the President of the United States, your hero, keeps telling you whose fault it is, and then begging you to start breaking shit, can we really be surprised when the statues topple?

Are not Arizona and Florida Southern states, after all? (With AZ’s history as a slave-friendly territory.)

The answer is yes.
Yes they are.

So, how does any of this get better?

If I knew, I’d tell you.

For now, we can only hope.

To purchase “Late Harvest” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Hitting Rock Bottom

 

In all my time writing this column, today is unique.

 

(And we’re at almost 9.5 years of weekly writing, not that anyone’s counting.)

Today, for the first time in my life, I know what rock bottom feels like. As an American, and as a husband.

And let me tell you, folks, it doesn’t feel good at all.

Being “right,” and telling everyone what was coming, and knowing in my heart it was true, and then seeing it all play out in accordance with my worst fears… it’s not a good feeling.

 

Yesterday, January 6, 2021, is a day that I will never, ever forget.

(And you won’t either.)

For starters, some lunatic-right-wing-Nazis tried to take over the government, storming the Capitol to ensure that Donald J Trump, the worst President in American history, remained in power. And he egged them on!

In a Democracy, one that I’ve warned 100 times was in serious danger, some psychopaths, carrying the Confederate flag, marched through the United States Capitol as if they owned the place.

Make no mistake, these fuck-tards are just as “potentially” dangerous as the actual Nazis that wiped out some of my ancestors.

They are just far-more-incompetent, and we only have luck to thank for that.

Basically, America broke yesterday, and only then did some of the cowardly, duplicitous Republican Senators begin to realize that if you wipe out the political class, that includes them too.

How fucking stupid do you have to be to need to see an actual insurrection, in your own office, to believe what the evidence has been saying for years now?

Trump told us, in a debate with Hillary Fucking Clinton, that he was the kind of guy who did not respect the results of elections, if he lost.

In 2016!

Why did so many people assume he was joking, or choose not to care, as long as it was in their naked self-interest?

Did they never even read the DSM 5, to learn about narcissistic personality disorder?

Anyway, you obviously have to hit rock bottom in order to see a way up. (Plus, Haruki Murakami’s characters always learn valuable lessons when they’re stuck in the bottom of a well.)

In my personal life, yesterday was a breaking point too.

Like many a self-sabotager before her, my wife waited until January 1st, the day after I bragged in this column about her recovery, to passive aggressively attack my sanity yet again.

Only after I’d begun to hope, and relax, did her subconscious come after me.

Yesterday, even before I knew the Capitol had been attacked, I broke, and challenged the unhealthy dynamics in my home for the last time.

We reached rock bottom, and either she’ll get her shit together, starting today, or after being with her for half my life, and giving everything I have to support her physical and mental health, we may end up getting divorced.

Honestly, I don’t know which way it will go, and I’m being a bit blithe by omitting so many details, but there is only so much I am willing to share with you.

The gist of it is exactly the same thing that caused the Trumpist rebellion yesterday: some people would rather believe a lie, a fantasy, than confront the difficult aspects of their lives, and their personalities.

Trump proved to us, over and over, that there was nothing he wouldn’t do or say to achieve, and then maintain, power over other people.

He lied, and he lied, but lots of people CHOSE to believe him, rather than any counter-factual information.

Honestly, if I had told you in 2015 that by #2020, a sizable portion of America would support ACTUAL Nazis, would you have believed me?

Probably not.

But there are some Americans who might have nodded a bit, bopped their heads, and said, “Sure, why not? It’s a racist fucking country, after all.”

There are some Americans who know, thanks to copious evidence, that some lives matter more than others in this messed up society.

There are some Americans who, if you told them in 2015 that in #2020, a police officer would murder an African-American man by suffocating him to death, ON CAMERA, would say, “Sure, why is that any worse than all the other murders, the lynchings, the endless denial of our humanity?”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Because yesterday, as so many of us had our eyeballs glued to our Twitter feeds, absorbing news AS IT WAS HAPPENING, I realized that many of our photojournalist readers, and my colleagues, were kind of heroes.

Out there, risking their lives, to share the events with the rest of us.

And I got it in my head to try to include some of the great imagery with you here.

But Capitalism being what it is, (no offense to the photographers,) I tweeted a request that went nowhere, and the few people I asked had their work “embargoed,” so it would not be accessible to us here.

Twitter, though, for all its nonsense, is also a pretty fascinating resource.

Right there in my feed, it “recommended” that I follow a young, African-American photographer in Dallas, of whom I had never heard: Laidric Stevenson.

So I did.

Then I jumped to his website, and discovered the amazing “#AmericanMadeMachines,” and his perfect-for-today “MyVirusDiary,” which he’s shot for obvious reasons. (My own version has taken over my IG feed.)

I don’t know much about Laidric, but I do know he’s a Dad, has a full-time day job in an office, a part-time second job at night, and he uses a large format camera to make his life as a photographer as challenging as possible.

I know that for all the talk of featuring more artists of color here on the blog, it’s always a difficult, because the artists I meet at festivals, or who submit their books, are predominantly White.

And I know that when I saw his photographs of Dallas, so crisp and bleak, they felt like #2020.

But somehow, they were also beautiful.

People sometimes ask me why a photograph made by an African-American is different from the same image made by a White photographer?

Is it always?

Maybe not, depending on context.

But when you see these images, with their graffiti about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, or a guy named David, (or Bug, or Juice,) who was taken before his time, they feel different than if I’d cruised around Dallas, trying to tell this story.

And the large format camera, which forces one to move slowly and methodically, allows us to enter into a fully realized world, rather than just passing by at 65mph.

We see a billboard for masks, and wheat-paste posters about the Census, en Español. There are messages of hope, and landscapes of despair.

Like I said, it’s #2020.

And all that isolation, all the damage caused by the last four years, you can feel that too.

So in the end, Twitter came to the rescue, as we all get to enjoy Laidric Stevenson’s photographs, on this, what I can only hope will be the very first day of a new era.

For my country, for my community, for my family, and for me.

Stay safe out there, and see you next week!

 

This Week in Photography: Welcome to 2021

 

Happy New Year, everybody!

 

I’m back, and writing on Thursday as usual, which makes this the last day of #2020. (Though by the time you read this, the calendar will have turned, giving the world a fresh start.)

What will become of us in 2021?

I wish I could tell you, but honestly, I have no idea.

Even though I just had a week off, my powers of prediction are not as sharp as I might like.

(And nobody could have guessed #2020 would go off the rails to the extent that it did.)

I vaguely remember last January, in which I put the final touches on my first book, the aptly named “Extinction Party.”

And I certainly remember February, in which I traveled to Amsterdam for a week, reveling in the soon-to-disappear pleasure of chatting up random strangers, visiting art museums, and smoking tons of weed and hash in the city’s rightfully-lauded coffee shops.

(Shout out to the Jolly Joker.)

 

 

While roaming Amsterdam, I met two men named Mohammed, and one named Godsend. For the first time in my life, I said “As Salaam Alaikum” to Muslims, and it felt so good to be out of my New Mexican bubble.

Then came early March, and after my brief visit to Houston to launch the book, I got home… and never left.

As awful as some parts of the year were, and I mean horrible in the truest sense, I was also given some unbelievable gifts: namely, after discovering my wife was suffering from clinical depression, by the end of #2020, I can report that she’s happier and healthier than she’s been in years.

 

How can I hate a year that so changed my family’s life for the better?

And once she recovered, my wife suggested we get the kids a dog, with whom they are now totally obsessed.

No #2020, no healthy wife, no dog, no happy kids.

(There is something to be said for the old adage, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.)

But I also wrote a column for you in March, correctly predicting that the virus, with its imposition of “social distance,” would create chaos within our society, as people fought, and ultimately died, to protect personal space, or “individual freedom.”

So much bad, so much good, all in one calendar year, and I’m pretty sure it will take me decades to digest it all.

By May, I did my first online portfolio reviews, for the Los Angles Center of Photography, and at that point, I barely knew how to use Zoom.

Then we had to cancel our Antidote Photo Retreat program, for obvious reasons, (which sucked,) but as a result, it forced me to migrate our community online, and now I have a successful Antidote online educational program.

By September, I was fully-Zoom-literate, and participated in the Filter Photo Festival online, as my favorite week of the year, when I normally get to party with my best friends in Chicago, became a Saturday of sitting at my computer, meeting new people, virtually, and looking at their work from my bedroom.

(Things that would have been LITERALLY unimaginable in #2019 became commonplace by the Fall of #2020, and that’s about the best way I can sum up this cluster-fuck of a year.)

In the Pre-Covid reality, I went to festivals all the time, and reported on cities, restaurants, galleries and museums for you, before writing about the best photographic portfolios I saw.

It was a huge part of our regular content, as you long-time readers know.

But #2020 being #2020, (even though it’s now 2021,) I’m only just getting around to writing about the cool work I saw via the Filter Photo Festival a few months ago.

Thankfully, online festivals are much better than no festivals, and I recently saw work online at Photo NOLA, with online festivals in LA and Denver lined up between now and March.

Meaning, I’ll have lots of interesting work to share with you in the coming months, from artists spread around the world, as one of the obvious benefits to online festivals is that the lower cost, due to lack of travel budgets, means people can “attend” from their bedrooms in Sao Paulo, Mexico City, or Japan. (All places that artists were residing at Photo NOLA.)

So with all that as a background, (and a kind-of-year-in-review,) today, I’ll show you the best work I saw at Filter, back in September #2020, while simultaneously wishing you a happy, healthy, safe, and perhaps much-better year in 2021.

As usual, the artists are in no particular order, and I hope you appreciate their hard work and dedication.

I first met Paula Riff poolside, at an afterparty for a festival in San Diego, back in 2018. But I’d never reviewed her work before, despite seeing her name pop up in gallery announcements from time to time.

Paula showed me a perfect series for #2020, as it involved cutting up leftover prints, and mistakes from the past, and turning them into something entirely new. The images are gorgeous, as you’ll see, and provide inspiration for all of us to make something positive out of the waste in our lives.

 

I reviewed Adam Frint’s work at Filter in 2019, loved it, and shared it with you here in the column. (That project involved snooping on people during their smoke breaks around the city.) So I was excited to see what he would come up with next… and he didn’t disappoint.

Interested in graffiti cover-ups, and riffing on color blocks like an oddball 21st Century Mondrian, Adam set up his wife, and brother-in-law, to hold up color-shapes, as he arranged them against buildings, so the blocks would be in relationship to each other.

Not much more needs to be said, as they’re funny, charming, and visually appealing, all at once.

 

Matthew David Crowther had a very different take for his Chicago-centric series. It was all made in one small nature preserve, set within the city limits, in which he went walking for more than three years.

We discussed how to communicate the urbanity to the viewer, as the images are so poetic and pastoral, but apparently there is some serious urban-scape surrounding the seemingly-rural place. Do you also shoot establishment images outside the park for context? Or use sound recordings of all the noise heard within?

Given the mood of the images, I suggested poetry might also be an option, and just this morning, Matthew sent me a poem he’d written to accompany the project. It’s lovely, so I’ll include it here:

“The bones of one world
are the soil of another
We walk the looping paths
With our children
Lost in the ash borer trails
And receding water lines
Moving with the steady force
Of generation after generation
We hear the birds singing along
With the passing planes
And the jackhammer
Of woodpeckers and road crews
Fall winter spring summer fall
The patterns shift yet remain
Loops within cycles within
Wheels within wheels”

 

Kambua Chema and I met at Filter years ago, and she’s one of those people whose positive energy is simply infectious. (Perhaps not the best adjective for #2020, now that I think about it.)

Stuck at home like the rest of us, Kambua used a telephoto lens to document the Chicagoans who used the parking lot below her apartment as a lockdown-recreational-area. As the idea is so relevant, we spent most of our review discussing the importance of the edit, and making sure the color/contrast palette stood up to the strength of her concept.

 

I spoke with Jane Yudelman, who was in lockdown in her studio in Maine, and she showed me two digital composite projects that I liked, despite the fact that I often have a bias against such strategies. Both were visually arresting, but I’m showing you the one that offered me a proper surprise.

I can’t tell you how many sea/sky images I’ve seen over the years, and I’ve shot my share of them too. (Nothing original, I’m afraid.)

Yet these image are not real horizons. So it’s more Rothko than Sugimoto, and the colors and vibe are just right, IMO.

I had a nice chat with Karen Osdieck, a Midwestern photographer and accountant, who mostly makes work out of her young boys’ lives. We discussed her antecedents, and the mentors she’d developed, as Karen has studied with some excellent female artists in the photo world.

I thought her primary project, which had achieved some success, was lacking in the color and light palette, despite the occasionally taut narratives. But her secondary project, in which she photographed one son in all the outfits he wanted to wear to Zoom school, in the pandemic, was really cool, and so #2020.

 

Last, but not least, we have Sandra Ullmann, who was trained as a psychoanalyst, and showed me a vintage, black and white project from her archive. Apparently, when one of her children had a baby, she had to drive three hours to the hospital multiple times, and discovered these wrapped trees.

There was a Jungian feeling to the project, for sure, and we discussed ways that she could shoot new subjects that might fit together with the older group. I loved them!

See you next week, and hope you all have a safe, healthy, and amazing 2021!

 

This Week in Photography: The End is Nigh?

 

 

I’ve always been an optimist.

 

And if you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you’ll know it’s true.

(Until this year, that is.)

Fucking #2020.
What a bitch.

If I’m being honest, I probably started questioning my faith in positivity a bit earlier in the thankfully-soon-to-be-over Trump presidency.

Because back in my young 30’s, with Barack Obama’s ascent, I was enamored of his theory that the long arch of history bends towards justice.

Hasn’t Hollywood been pumping us full of that happy-ending juice for a Century now? (Until Tom Holland’s Spiderman dies at the end of that Avengers film, that is.)

Haven’t we been primed to believe things will work themselves out eventually?

Because there is ample evidence in human history that corruption, and the lust for power and wealth, can also create super-long periods where “regular” people consistently get the shit end of the stick.

For every Pax Americana, or Athenian Democracy, there has been a counter-balancing Aztec Empire, Nazi Regime, or Enrique Peña Nieto nightmare. (Sorry, Mexico. Didn’t mean to pick on you twice.)

Which makes a week like this one feel so very, perfectly, unbelievably #2020.

The US surpasses 300,000 dead, but we also get the vaccine. The Electoral College does its job and votes for Biden, but certain right-wing figures continue to imply a Civil War is coming.

People are dying, constantly.
But maybe better days are ahead?

It’s hard to make sense of things, in the week before Xmas, and after I confidently slammed the door on #2019, begging for #2020, I’m now cautiously peeking around the corner, hoping 2021 doesn’t kick us in the balls.

I’m not even sure the calendar will turn as it’s supposed to, because this year has felt like 10 years and 10 days simultaneously.

In previous columns, we’ve discussed that time functioned differently during this plague year, but still, my optimism is buried deep enough that even New Year’s Eve seems illusory.

The year has been so long, in fact, that I received a book in late February, just before lockdown, and it’s sat in my submission pile ever since. (That part is understandable, as it often takes me a year to comb though the stack.)

But this book, a small catalogue really, was one I didn’t request, nor did the artist reach out before sending, so when I finally opened it up, I was clueless as to what I’d be seeing.

It’s called “a.non.y.mous,” by Robert George, published by Archer Gallery Press, and the return address was from Saint Louis, so I was really flying blind.

There is a well-written, short statement in the beginning, that veers towards art-speak, but never crosses the line. It intrigued me, in particular this line: “individualism has defined America in the past, but as the world grows larger, we become more and more anonymous.”

Late last year, I wrote a huge article comparing China and America, and questioned whether our over-reliance on individuality, at the expense of any sense of collective responsibility, might soon bite us in the ass?

(And #2020 answered that question, did it not?)

I’m no fan of autocracy, as everyone knows, but I suggested we could do with a slightly stronger sense of social fabric, as Trump was shredding so much of our decency and moral standing.

(And here we are, in a world where people would rather allow others to die than wear a stupid fucking mask.)

Though the book’s introduction suggests it will have a bit of an intellectual, or scholarly bent, we end up with a lovely, short jaunt through a set of cohesive street photos. (Or documentary images, depening on your preference of terms.)

Mostly, we see solitary figures, often children, out in a varied world. (Not exclusively Saint Louis, I’m guessing.) That there are so many subtle symbols of American culture and history, in such a short book, is commendable. (Like Spiderman.)

But here’s the kicker: the book implies it was shot and published in #2020. (Based on the end notes.)

All of it?

But it arrived in my mailbox at the end of February.

So the entire narrative must span the beginning of this year; all of it before lockdown?

The masks.
The loneliness.
The broken heroes.

All of it?

Somehow, a story that feels like it was made for our 9 month ordeal, was created just before it began?

Including the protests?

We also see two carnivals, which are pretty much the perfect examples of what we have lost.

(The fun, freedom, and whimsy.)

I’m properly impressed by this little volume, and do wonder if it would have had the same power if they’d tried to cram in 60 pictures, and built the thing with more a more imposing physical structure?

Instead, it feels more poem than novel. (More Robert Frost than Jonathan Franzen.)

I hope you enjoy it, and as I’ll be off next week for the holiday, I’ll see you again in 2021.

(If Armageddon doesn’t get here first…)

To contact the artist about the book, click here

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: A Year in Review

 

I’m writing on Wednesday this week.

I never write on Wednesdays.

 

It’s weird. Strange.

Odd.

 

By the time this column is posted on Friday morning, I’ll be reviewing portfolios, virtually, for Photo NOLA.

It’s commonplace, by now, that festivals and events have migrated online, and we’ve all adjusted.

Adapted.

Sorted it out.

For whatever reason, the other day, I was thinking of my word of the year, whether I could encapsulate the entire bonkers, tragic, confusing experience of #2020 in just a few syllables.

My choice was adapt.

The verb tense, not the noun. (Adaptation.)

I feel like we’ve all had to adapt, whether we wanted to or not. That word always annoyed me, when used in conjunction with Climate Change, as if we could never surmount our problems, so we’ll simply have to adapt to a new environment.

Now, after seeing our inability to come together as a species to battle corona, I guess I’ve been disabused of my naiveté.

But as we’re almost halfway through December, the last month in this mountaintop of a year, I realized just how little I was able to travel, and experience cool things for you, the readers, in #2020.

I got to Amsterdam and Houston just moments before travel became impossible and lockdowns the norm, in the early part of this year, but ever since, I’ve been out here on my farm.

Looking at books.
Walking in circles.

And, occasionally, reminiscing.

 

On the canal behind my hotel, Amsterdam, 2020

 

But most of the column this year has been generated from reacting to things in my house, holding photo books in hand, and then making judgements.

(So different from wandering the world, and then telling you about it.)

If ever there were two opposite years, lived back to back, it’s #2019 and #2020.

#2019 was the year to celebrate, rather than begrudge, (in retrospect,) because I got to visit so many brilliant cities, smashing up against people from every walk of life.

I was on airplanes constantly, bouncing around America, and then I even got to England.

(What a celebration of all the things we can’t do now.)

In late March, I drove up along the spine of the Rocky Mountains to Denver, to meet my friends Kyohei and Jeff, at the Month of Photography, Denver.

We had really good beer at Union Station, Denver’s downtown train hub that also became a social center, with tons of bars and restaurants. (Remember, all of this is #2019. No masks, and no issues with humans congregating.)

In April, I went to New Jersey and New York, which I wrote about here at length. From this vantage point, crushing against all those people on the High Line, with the skyscrapers behind us, seems downright decadent.

And I recall the beauty of stepping in off the street, into one of my all time favorite restaurants, (Grand Szechuan,) and having a piping hot pot of tea delivered, so quickly, to warm me up.

(What seemed commonplace now seems unimaginable.)

April brought me to Portland, for Photolucida, which has been postponed for 2021, due to the pandemic.

Last year, though, I partied in a heavy metal concert at Dantes, and pressed through a packed Portland Museum of Art, for the festival’s portfolio walk. (At Photo NOLA this year, the portfolio walk will be held in virtual reality.)

Dante’s, in Portland, 2019

 

In May, I went to London for a week, and was in and out of more public spaces than I can even believe.

Galleries, museums, trains, shops, squares, baths, movie theaters…

All of it.

Trafalgar Square, London, 2019

Inside the National Gallery of Art, London, 2019

Sir Antony Gormley sculpture, Tate Modern, London, 2019

Art and Ecology conference, London, 2019

Walking around, London, 2019

If I could teleport, and eat a pizza margherita with mozzarella di bufula, from Zia Lucia, right near Hugo’s house on the Holloway Road, that would be ideal.

Zia Lucia, Holloway Road, London, 2019

 

June was quiet, but then July brought California, bouncing from Oakland to San Francisco to Monterrey to Carmel to Oakland to San Francisco and back to Oakland. (A microcosm of the year.)

Sitting on the steps of the 19th Century City Hall building in Monterey, at twilight, with my wife all dressed up for a wedding that we’d just escaped round the corner, just the two of us, was one of the best moments I can recall.

That week we ate Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Salvadoran, and Mexican food.

(And totally took that for granted.)

Transamerica Tower, San Francisco, 2019

Yee’s Restaurant, Chinatown, San Francisco, 2019

Beef with pan fried noodles, 2019

BBQ Pork with cabbage, 2019

 

In early September, the wife, kids and I flew into Philadelphia, for a family wedding at the Jersey Shore. (Down in South Jersey, near Cape May.)

The wedding on the beach, Avalon, 2019

The last time I saw the ocean, Avalon, 2019

 

The kids and I picked up wedding confetti off the beach, and we ate pizza each day until we were sick of it.

My wife showed her first real symptoms of depression; moments that DEFINITELY got my attention.

(The Geno’s cheesesteak at the Philly airport was the best airport food I’ve ever eaten, fyi.)

In mid-September, I went to Chicago, for the Filter Photo Festival, and even wrote here how such partying and festival hopping had become the norm.

View of the Hancock Tower, from the rooftop bar, Chicago, 2019

 

How will they top what they’ve done before, I wondered?

Entertain me!

I’ve been to so many festivals, in so many cities, that I’m no longer satisfied by good food, music, and friends.

I’ve seen the concerts, and done the karaoke.

I want next-level fun, your hear me!!!

Of course, that attitude seems silly now, nine months into a quarantine that might well last that much longer, depending on when my family gets the vaccine.

It seems out of whack, that I’d take such things for granted. (Or that I’d travel 20,000+ miles and think nothing of it.)

October was Albuquerque, and then Boulder in November.

Airport hotel lawn, where we played football, Albuquerque, 2019

I remember in Colorado, finding a quiet balcony at the Boulder Hilton, with no people around, and Jessie and I would do some stretching, staring at the Flatirons, so close we could touch them.

Though we were above all the shopping centers, all the cars and the activity, up there on that balcony, it felt so peaceful, and private.

View of the Flatirons, Boulder, 2019

 

It felt like we were the only people in the world, with our bird’s eye view, and our mountains right there in the sky.

Just us, all alone.

Now, at the end of #2020, that’s how I feel every day.

Alone.
Quiet.
Hoping I can travel again in 2021.

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Feeling Lucky

 

Here’s a little secret: Donald J. Trump is a fake tough guy.

A fugazi.

 

 

I understand he’s tall, and tall guys have a different path in life, so that must have gone to his head.

But given his obesity and age, many of us could beat the shit out of him, if he didn’t have all that Secret Service protection.

He talks like a tough guy, and squints like a tough guy, but like many a bully before him, it’s all bark, no bite. (Assuming he doesn’t launch a Civil War between now and January 20th.)

 

Now that he’s lost, few things will give me more pleasure than not having to write about him all the time.

Or think about him.
Or talk about him.

With any luck, he’ll fade from the media firmament, allowing the rest of us to focus on more important things, like saving the planet, or discovering the perfect show on Netflix. (The Queen’s Gambit?)

Frankly, I think just like Trump was playing a successful business executive on TV, he’s spent his presidency pretending to be Clint Eastwood, circa the 70’s.

I love Clint Eastwood, sure, and his Spaghetti Westerns are some of the best art of the 20th Century. (Though he owes a lot of that to Sergio Leone, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, and Ennio Morricone.)

As to the “Dirty Harry” films, the ones that obviously inspired Trump, (as did those of Charles Bronson,) they are far more problematic, when seen from a 21st Century vantage.

I like them, (though I saw them ages ago,) but the overt racism, and denigration of the counter culture, make Old Clint look like a white-guy-marauder, swinging his big gun around liberal San Francisco, cleaning up the mess on behalf of respectable society.

Take his most famous clip, for instance.

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”

Everyone over 40 knows that quote, but how many of you have seen the scene?

Big Clint stands over an African-American criminal, (with a nefarious mustache,) and threatens to shoot him, if the prone man reaches for his shotgun.

Clint has his 44 Magnum, of course.

But the big question is whether he has any bullets left, after the broad daylight, while-eating-a-hot-dog, shootout in downtown SF.

Does he?

Did he shoot five, or six shots?

So the African-American criminal is laying there, being threatened with having his head blown clean off, and he has to wonder?

It is worth the risk?

5 or 6?
6 or 5?

One number is lucky, the other means death.

So he decides NOT to take his chances, surrenders, and only then does he get Clint to admit it was a bluff.

The gun was empty.

All talk.

(Sound like anyone we know?)

Was he actually lucky then? By rolling the dice on staying alive, he wins, right?

Or was he unlucky to get shot in the first place?

How do we define luck, given that we all supposedly know what it means?

Just last night, on Twitter, I described #2020 as a kick in the balls, which it certainly has been.

But the early stages of the pandemic, with its attendant lockdown, allowed me to figure out my wife had clinical depression, and now, 9 months later, she’s healthier and happier than she’s been in years?

Was it good “luck” that the world fell apart, so I could save my family?

I really don’t know how to answer that question.

Is luck just chance by another name?

Was I lucky today, when I decided rather than opening a new book box, to stare at my book shelf and see if anything jumped out?

Because I plucked the very yellow “El Libro Supremo De La Suerte,” by Rose Marie Cromwell, published by TIS books in 2018, and it was just right for today.

Why is that luck?

Well, I’ve tried to review this book no less than 4 times before, as I met Rose at a festival in Virginia in 2010, and respect her artistic practice, but each time, I couldn’t sort it out.

The project was shot in Cuba, between 2009-16, and even though Rose is bilingual, and did lots of good work with youth in Panama over the years, it still read like a “Cuba” book to me.

Maybe a bit weirder than the norm, but there is so much “Cuba” out there, and we all know it.

So why today?

What changed, other than my luck?

I guess I figured the book out this time, which I wasn’t able to before.

And as you might have surmised from the book’s title, and my generous-length lede, it’s a book about luck, as the subject is a form of lottery that is played in Havana, called La Charada.

The book explains that in the hand-written-font-opening-statement, but previously, I blew past that and just saw Cuba.

Not this time.

The book is broken into sections, each matching up with a lottery number, and the subject to which it is attached. (Like old whore, or dark sun.)

The book, which is creatively constructed, (in addition to its noticeable cover,) with plenty of half-pages, feels non-linear.

Poetic.

Maybe even just the slightest bit occult, with the chicken feet, dark corners, and sense of ritual. (Like the two men buried in the sand, intertwined.)

Obviously, I got lucky today, as I needed a book to write about, and this presented itself. In the past, I wasn’t up for the challenge of understanding it, so I chose to pass, trusting that only 5 bullets had been discharged.

Thankfully, I got over myself, stood tall, and was able to appreciate this cool project for what it has to offer.

To purchase “El Libro Supremo De La Suerte,” click here 

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

This Week in Photography: Black Friday

 

 

It’s 2pm on Tuesday, so that’s something different.

(I haven’t written a non-Thursday column in ages.)

 

I’ve worked on Thanksgiving for years, never planning ahead enough to write earlier in the week.

This year, though, I got my shit together, having promised my wife I’d take the holiday offline, to get a bit of rest.

#2020 has left me feeling like my Gi used to smell after Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, back when things like martial arts classes existed in the world.

And it seems like most people I speak with feel the same way.

Worn out. Unproductive.
Ready for a break

It’s gotten so bad, my lack of focus, that I spent most of today searching for jackets and coats on the internet.

 

(Normally, I’d be ashamed to admit that, but I don’t remember what the word shame means these days.)

Since I don’t have a proper Winter jacket for our climate, I’ve spent days sifting through killer Black Friday deals, looking for just the right jacket.

Or coat.

Should it be gore-tex, or down?

Maybe wool, and if so, what cut?

Jacket after jacket.
Coat after coat.

Click link.
Absorb details.
Read reviews.
Consider price.

Move on.

Jacket or coat?
Coat or jacket?
Jacket. Jacket.
Coat. Coat.
Coat.

On and on, for hours.

 

I’m not proud; I’ve seen hundreds of jackets over the last week. (And coats.)

 

Onward I shop.

My brain is mush. Clicking links like a trained monkey is all I’m good for. And when I find my perfect, Goldilocks coat, I’ll wear it with pride!

 

Jackets and coats.

I have plenty of them, but not the kind I need, as my previous Winter coat was ruined when I accidentally bumped into a parked bicycle on a narrow street in Amsterdam. (Right before I was almost hit by a bus.)

 

Jackets and coats.

They serve an important purpose.

Keeping us warm.
Occasionally, as fashion, they might even be art.

 

But no matter how much we gussy them up, it’s just sewn fabric to keep our bodies warm, protected from the elements.

So basic.

 

What’s more utilitarian than a coat?

Maybe a cooking fire?
A drinking vessel?

Or a broom?

Some little reeds or twigs tied together, lashed to another stick?

 

You can’t have a clean space, even if it’s a tiny hut 1000 years ago, without a broom, right?

 

Brooms are everywhere, and we need them desperately, but we never pay them any mind.

No one ever says, “Why thank you, Old Broom, as I wish to convey my general appreciation for the service you provide on a regular basis. Cheers and Bully to you, Sir!”

I don’t say that to my broom.

Do you?

 

Brooms are the Rodney Dangerfield of household items: they don’t get any respect.

Until now.

(You knew I was getting there, right?)

My friend and colleague Jason Dibley, an artist and museum professional based in Houston, offered to send me a ‘zine this Fall, so I said thanks, and that was that.

In the small envelope, tucked inside a hilarious plastic bag from Texas institution, H.E.B., I found the Minimalist white Digest sitting atop four annuals, from 2017-2020, of the Broom Zine.

These impeccable, odd, fun little volumes are so perfect for today.

One thing. Over and over again.

Brooms.
Brooms.
Brooms.
(Dustpans are a co-star in the 2018 volume.)

It forces one to think about what we ignore each day, paying no mind as we live in our heads, imagining the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

(RIP David Cassidy.)

 

As cool as the annual ‘zines are, I must say, I love the Digest best.

 

It could not be more pared down.

A graphic, stripped of context, printed and folded, on clean, white paper.

 

Yet the four brooms are more noble, and sculptural for it.

Regal brooms!

 

Happy Black Friday.

For more info on Broom Zine, follow on IG here

 

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

 

This Week in Photography: Skinning Monkeys

 

 

I looked at my daughter.

“You shouldn’t see the monkey face,” I said.

“No?” she replied, questioning the finality of it all?

“No, you shouldn’t see the monkey face,” I repeated, more determined, and that was the end of it.

 

It began, as many meta-stories likely do, with a desire to clear one’s head.

To go for a walk.

It was Thursday morning, getting late, and I had to write this column.

I was dragging, though, so I figured a walk might be just the thing to shake up my thoughts.

Get the blood pumping.

I’d just taken a look at a bonkers book, (one I mentioned picking up last week,) and knew I’d have to write, but sometimes the exercise jars loose a good idea.

I told my daughter I was headed out, (briefly interrupting her Zoom school) and before I knew it, she was joining me, as her class had just ended.

As I may have written before, she likes to talk, my daughter, so there went the chance to quietly develop some ideas in solitude.

I offered her a compromise, where half the time I had quiet to think, and half the time, we chatted about her subject of choice, but she said “No, thanks.”

So I switched tactics. I’d make use of the conversation.

Especially when she gave me an opening.

“You know, normally I’d be in recess, probably, in our old life,” she said.

“Yeah, I replied, “humans are pretty adaptable, even a shift in lifestyle this radical, where we’ve mostly been home for the past 8 months. We just kind of got used to it.

Humans can lead very different lives, sometimes almost unimaginably so. Did you realize?” I asked.

“I guess,” she replied. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said, “what I want to talk about will be the subject of my column, and the things we say, I could include it. This, what we’re saying now, could be the opening of the article. Does that work for you?”

“Sure,” she said.

I told her that people did things differently across the planet, because of habit, wealth, laws, history, environment or opportunity.

And I thought I’d just seen a book that was about as different from our life here in Northern New Mexico as possible.

“I think it would blow your mind,” I said.

She gave me the side eye, clearly underwhelmed. Then she paused a moment, and said, “Go on.”

I told her about “Doomed Paradise,” a photo book by Tomas Wüthrich, published by Scheidegger & Spiess, that arrived in March, not long after lockdown began.

I told her about the Penan people, in the jungles of Borneo, on the other side of the world, and how the photographer spent time with the families in this culture, to observe and photograph their traditions.

Kind of like an anthropologist.

Or a spy.

“I’m listening,” she said.

Apparently, this group of indigenous people still lives in a partial hunter-gatherer society, and they catch and kill a lot of creatures in the wild.

Like, a lot of creatures.

Many of which were included in this book, including the one picture that I am pretty sure I won’t be able to unsee, even if I wanted to.

“We’re nicer to animals than they are,” she said. “We don’t do that.”

“No, maybe not,” I said, “but we buy meat, so we support an industry that kills lots of animals. It’s kind of the same.”

I got the side-eye again.

“And this book I was just looking at was filled with images of dead creatures. I saw the one photo that I know will stick with me. That I don’t think you want in your head. Because it was… a dead monkey… with its face skin torn off!

A skinned monkey face!”

“Dad!” She screamed. “Too intense!”

“Really,” I asked? “Too intense? But now you believe I can surprise you?”

“Yes,” she said.

We laughed. And I thanked her for helping me come up with the opening of this column.

I’ll show you the photo of the monkey face.

Or the other one, with the monkey being disemboweled.

Or the snake wrapped up with its own guts.

In fairness, there is plenty more that’s interesting here, beyond the animal parts.

Road blocks, to keep out logging companies, and creation and other religious mythologies that are shared in text form.

It’s all fascinating, for so many reasons.

Not to mention my oldest rule in book reviewing: can you show us something we haven’t seen before?

That definitely happens here.

Poor little monkey.

To purchase “Doomed Paradise” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: An Alternate Reality

 

It takes a lot to motivate these days.
To get anything done at all.

 

Because everything is just so wrong.

 

It’s hard to be creative or active, beyond writing this column, and shooting some photos on my iPhone as I walk in circles around my neighborhood.

Life has become nothing more than a repetitive routine, for 8 months now.

You know this, and I know this.
(A plague year indeed.)

 

I’d ask “How did we get here,” in a sweeping philosophical interrogative, but I think we already have the answer, and lord knows we’ve covered the symptoms enough in this column.

All the things I predicted about Trump, all the warning signs that were out there, and still, here we are.

With an American president questioning the validity of a free and fair election that he lost.

Or rather, he’s only questioning part of the ballots, because he is fine with accepting those results with respect to the House and Senate races they represent.

It is a new reality, this #2020, one in which some things look as they always have, they appear to be normal, but then all of sudden a trap door opens and you find yourself plunging into the underground cavern from “The Goonies,” and then Sloth starts screaming about candy bars.

(Can I get a WTF?)

#2020 is the year that keeps on giving, and I wish I were more surprised to see Mitch McConnell knowingly smirk at Trump’s audacity, while doing nothing to counter it.

I almost feel like I brought this on the world, by begging #2019 to end so at least we’d have something new in #2020.

(Be careful what you wish for.)

 

I was so ready for #2009 to end, begged for it, really, only to find that #2010 was so much harder on me and my family, in the heart of The Great Recession.

To think that things are so much crazier now, so much less comprehensible than they were then; those times seem almost naive, in their simplicity.

Like I said, it’s all just so wrong, and it seems like each day we all wake up, hoping things will make sense again.

But they don’t.

Even for me, with a near-decade routine of writing this column each Thursday, peeking at a book someone sent, generating smart and/or entertaining thoughts to share with you.

I picked up two new submissions today, and though they are worth writing about, (and I will,) my heart wasn’t in it.

I couldn’t motivate to process new information.

So I wandered around the house, wondering.

And then it caught my eye, on the bottom of one of the book shelves. Hidden away, perhaps so that no unsuspecting child would pick it up, and get scared by the oddity.

What is it, you ask?

“Wrong,” by Asger Carlsen, published by Mörel Books, back in (you guessed it) 2010.

I did a brief nugget-review of it, for another publication back then, and subsequently, we had an in-depth interview with Asger here too, but even that was 2012.

So long ago.

Today, the book deserves a second look, as it needs so little explication, and will allow me to land a short column, because I know how distracted we all are by the Daily-Bad-News.

As Tim Barber wrote in his intro to “Wrong”: “I cannot unsee the alternate reality that Asger has created in these images.”

Alternate reality.

How #2020 is that?

Basically, this book contains a little, cohesive, black and white world in which really good Photoshop work allowed Asger Carlsen to make people with monstrous double-heads, or wooden crutch-legs.

In which non-specific blobs exist in the world, like some CRISPR experiment gone horribly wrong, but then, somehow, people just accept it as real.

There’s a crocodile with an Australopithecus face, a dog with a person’s face, an ostrich with a human ear, and a wolf-man belting a song into a microphone.

Ironically, this being #2020, (and digital stylings having grown so much in the intervening years,) I can see the seams on some of his Photoshop work, just a bit, but now it reads as funny.

I loved this book ten years ago, and somehow, I think I love it even more now.

Because back then, it was “wrong,” but my rebellious spirit appreciated that.

Now, when I flip through the pages, it feels very “right.”

(What a mess, this #2020.)

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

This Week in Photography: Aliens Among Us

 

Do you know the Spanish word for fun?

 

It’s divertido.

 

In English, we use the word diverting, but that’s a far cry from fun.

To divert is to shift one’s attention.
Diversion is distraction.

To me, that’s a totally different concept from pleasure, or joy, both of which I associate with “fun.”

Right now, however, much of the human population of Earth is looking for distraction.

We want to be diverted from the raging pandemic, or the still-unresolved US Presidential election. (As I write this, on Thursday morning.)

{Ed note: Biden has pulled ahead as I post this.}

People want something, anything else to think about, because there is just so much depressing, bad news out there, and in most of the Northern Hemisphere, the leaves have now fallen, and winter will be here before you know it.

(Last Monday, for example, I awoke to 2 feet of snow, which put a serious crimp in my 5 mile a day walking habit.)

Just yesterday, I wrote my monthly Arsenal column for the English blog Le Grove, and my editor published it within two hours of the time I first began to write.

If the shit is readable, slap it up there, so people have something, anything, to focus on, beyond the uncertainty of this unique moment in time.

So please allow me to divert you today, with a really cool photo-book that arrived in the mail in March, just as the initial wave of lockdowns set in. (Always, I go for the hook. You should know that by now, as I’ve been doing this for almost a decade.)

I got a box from Surrey, England, but as usual, I put it in my review pile without knowing what it was.

Today, as it felt like the right package, I opened it up, and found “Some Kind of Heavenly Fire,” by Maria Lax, published by Setanta Books.

I had no idea what it would contain, but was not surprised to find the perfect book for the moment, because that synchronicity has happened literally more times than I can count.

The book has a hunter green, fabric cover, with the ochre word “heavenly” embossed, but not a hint of what lies within.

On the inside cover, a glued-down text page shows photo-copied newspaper articles, with the term “Ufo” present, and the language appears to be Finnish. (I’m guessing, having learned such things from reviewing hundreds of books over the years.)

Staying here, on the interior cover, you can really see the way the book was bound, both the pages to each other, and the interior to the cover, and I liked the touch of handmade.

The opening text, printed in a hand-written-type font, says, “In this town, we have always waited for someone, or something- God, a millionaire or aliens- to come and lift us from this misery.”

Between the cover, and those words, we can now guess that aliens/Ufo’s are the book’s subject in some way.

Next, we discover a set of vintage images mixed with contemporary photographs, and the idea of spectral lights becomes evident.

(The reindeer with glowing white eyes is a big tipoff to locale as well, in addition to being a badass photograph.)

This is the kind of object that reminds me that a photo-book, being experiential, does not need to be a collection of genius, mind-numbingly good pictures.

The art in here is cool, for sure, and some of the photos do stand out on their own.

But mostly, I loved it for the production values, including taped in pictures, and a copy of a newspaper article, which then had hidden images beneath.

The narrative structure and storytelling were standout as well.

In the end, from the final text, we learn it is indeed Finland, and that the artist grew up in a small town with a history of alien activity, even though she only learned of it recently, from the stories told by her grandfather, who has dementia.

Did the lights really follow people around in the 60’s?

Does it matter?

Maria Lax writes that Finland at the time was in crisis, and people needed distractions.

Sound familiar?

For more information from the publisher about “Some Kind of Heavenly Fire” click here 

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

This Week in Photography: Voting Time

 

“Now that I’m home, and the road is behind me, I’d like to thank everyone I met who showed me a good time, and reminded me that we need no Orange King to make us great again.

We’re pretty fucking great already.”

Me, writing in this column, October 28, 2016

 

I never intended to be political.

It wasn’t a plan.
Or a move.

But I was given this amazing opportunity, to write for thousands of smart artists, editors, writers, educators and photographers, and I’ve always taken it seriously

So speaking my mind, with respect to politics, was a natural evolution. Why would I keep such an important part of my world-view to myself, in a long-running weekly opinion column?

With all this freedom, to stay silent on the biggest issues of our times would have been moronic.

So here we are, and Election Day will soon be upon us, #2020 style.

Will any polling places get shot-up with AR-15’s?

Will mask-wearing voters rumble with anti-maskers in the streets of America’s cities?

Would such a sentence have even been comprehensible if it appeared in this column 4 years ago? (Maskers and anti-maskers…WTF!)

If you read the opening quote carefully, you’ll note that I had just been out on the road, as I’d covered Chicago, NYC and LA all within a few months.

Travel, and fresh impressions, were aplenty.

(Now, I walk in circles around the dirt roads of my neighborhood, multiple times a day.)

I also called Trump an Orange King, as I’d been critical of him for years, by that point. (And I was very, very worried he would break the world.)

But I also took a pretty Pro-America, positive stance, which is not something I’d do so easily 4 years later, now that Trump has indeed broken the world.

It’s been much easier to criticize this society, as it’s gone to seed, and Americans have turned on each other to the point that trying to save other people’s lives has become such a contentious political issue.

(You can’t force me to respect other lives! It’s my freedom to do what I want! When I want!)

But here we are.

It’s cold outside. Taos County, where I live, has seen a 50% spike in Covid-cases in under three weeks, and the future of our country, (if not the entire world,) is at stake.

Everyone needs to vote.

It’s that simple.

Please vote.

(If you’re allowed.)

Some felons are stripped of the right, and in other cases, the legal hoops required to register flummox citizens into giving up without trying.

But at least women can vote, right?

I mean, can you imagine if they couldn’t?

It seems like a pretty ridiculous thing to say, but the truth is, (of which most of us are oblivious,) that it was only 100 years ago that women were granted the right to vote in America.

100 years.

In the big picture, that’s nothing.

Within the last 160 years, this country had slavery, fought a war against it, took all the West from the Native Americans, and then slowly allowed certain segments of society to attain rights, but only when they fought for them.

That’s the big point I want to make today.

Just because things are so crazy, so perpetually on fire, we assume the world is irreparably wrong, or America is in a death-spiral, and that’s that.

The cynicism of the Trump era, on top of the mendacity and fear-mongering, has worn us all out.

But as creative people, we have the talent and skills to communicate big ideas and messages. (It’s literally what we do for our living.)

So sometimes, fighting for our rights, demanding things get better, and shouting it from the rooftops, is absolutely the way to go.

It’s what allowed each insane batch of prejudices and morally bankrupt ideas to fall away, a bit at a time.

Like women achieving the right to vote.

I mention all of this for obvious reasons, to get you inspired, but also to give props to two different groups of my colleagues, who are making a difference.

First up, this column was motivated by A Yellow Rose Project, a website/curatorial venture put together by Meg Griffiths and Frances Jakubek, which features the work of 100+ female photographers.

 

Each was given the chance to make work in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, and it features dozens of super-talented women that I’ve met on my festival travels over the years.

So many photographers I’ve written about here, or shared a meal or a coffee with.

It’s an amazing cross-section of our field, and I highly recommend you check out the work on the website, though I’ll feature some images from the homepage below.

Secondly, I wanted to also give a shout out to Andy Adams, of Flak Photo and associated projects, who recently launched a collective online effort to get out the vote.

Along with a host of partners, (including Humble Arts’ Jon Feinstein, another friend of the column,) Andy has launched a #, #PhotographersVote, and an Instagram handle, asking people to share their voting-themed images on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

It is an opportunity for photographers to be creative, try to push others to do the same, and in a non-partisan way, hopes to get more Americans involved in the voting process.

I’ll also include some screen-grabs from the # on IG below, but encourage you to search through the archive. (Editors note: The archive is much less visible than it was yesterday. Not sure why, but it seems Instagram has changed some rules before the election.)

 

I chose to participate, and posted some images from my voting day experience, and you can too.

If we care about the outcome of this election, and want to vote the Orange King out, it’s the least we can do. (Or you can also donate money, write letters, make phone calls, or put on a scary mask and get yourself arrested.)

See you next week.

Hopefully we’ll know the outcome by then, but I doubt it.

This Week in Photography: Creepy in Context

 

The high clouds came in this week.

For the first time in Autumn.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boo!

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

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

And the colors!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You turn the pages and there are no horizons.

No places to breathe.

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

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

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

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

Or a safer tomorrow?

Maybe it has nothing to do with darkness or demons?

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

Happy Halloween.

To learn more about Stellazine click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Enduring Humanity

 

Have you ever heard of Neal Stephenson?

The writer?

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

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

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

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

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

But I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Я плохо говорю по русски.)

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

The resilient will endure.

Think on that.

To purchase “Chukotka,” click here

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

This Week in Photography: The Power of Tradition

 

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

Yukari Chikura, 2020

 

 

I used to work for Bobby Flay.

A long time ago.

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

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

Photo: Getty Images, Carmen Lopez and AJ Wilhelm

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I’m not hating on the USA.

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

Of tradition.

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

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

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

Why am I on about tradition today?

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

I’m glad you asked.

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

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

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

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

 

“one dollar’s worth of Shurfine flour”

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Context delivered.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Great Wave”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better man.

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

To purchase “Zaido” click here 

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

This Week in Photography: The Power of Art

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

 

Hope.

Such a powerful four-letter word.

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

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

How could they not be?

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

 

 

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

Normally, I’d lean into that.

Right?

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

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

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

(No frantic fear today, thankfully.)

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

 

Part 2. The backstory

 

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

It’s literally part of the job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

From there, though, things get perfectly #2020.

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

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

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

 

by Amelie Blaustein

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

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

 

Part 3: The performance

 

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

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

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

Courtesy of Liv Constable-Maxwell

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“No,” I said.

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

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

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

“Both,” she said.

 

Part 4. The Big Ideas

 

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

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

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

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

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

The whole hour was simply riveting.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People don’t give themselves time to.”

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

Yes, things are scary right now.

Yes, we don’t know what comes next.

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

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

The quiet can be a powerful teacher.

This Week in Photography: The Rise of Fascism?

- - Photography Books

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

I was doom-scrolling before bed last night.

(Never a good idea.)

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

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

But this felt different, for sure.

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

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

RED ALERT!

Get your fucking head in the game, people.

Or maybe it isn’t?

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Honestly, I don’t know.

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

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

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

Courtesy of NBC News

 

It was Colby Covington against Tyron Woodley.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

Is this just schtick?

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

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

 

Who the hell knows what’s going on anymore?

 

Part 2. A Tough Week

 

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

That’s right, I said Nazi comedy.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

(We went with it.)

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

A very good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part 3. I Forgot the Trigger Warning

 

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

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

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

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

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

WTF!!!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Lots of workers, and machinery.

And workers working with machinery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And vote like your life depends on it.

Because maybe it does?

This Week in Photography: Objectifying Women

 

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

(Six months, maybe eight.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much less post it on a public platform like Instagram?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could it be, I wondered?

What are the chances?

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

Hallelujah!

Eureka!

Fuck yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which I get.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or more than OK?

Maybe it’s even subversive?

So here we are.

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

Let’s get on with the subversion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Melissa Borman’s book is similar in many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “Little Romances” click here

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

 

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