Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography: The King of Atlantic City

 

I used to have a step-grandpa.

But he’s dead now.

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

(And she passed away in 2006.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about a blindside hit!

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

That was where he felt most at home.

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

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

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

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

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

How did he die?

Was he alone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have to ask?

Donald J. Trump.

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

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

What did I find?

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

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

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

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

(And it allows for a teachable moment.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it’s a muddle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you can keep waiting, or give up.

Your choice.

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

To purchase “Atlantic City” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Recipes for Disaster

 

Part 1. The Heads Up

Heads up.

 

I’m coming in hot today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These were antithetical concepts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Go ahead,” he said.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Ivan said.

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

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

“Yes,” he said, “all true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Or an American and an environmentalist.)

 

Part 2. The Book

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so in your face!

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

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

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

(You’re welcome.)

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

To purchase “Recipes with Disaster” click here

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

This Week in Photography: Now & Then

 

I read a great quote this morning.

By Alison Herman in The Ringer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe this isn’t a hypothetical exercise?

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

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

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

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

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

What did I find?

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

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

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

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

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

Reveling in the details.

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

And where are we?

It doesn’t say.

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

Are they old?

When were they shot?

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

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

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

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

But this work is his personal vision for sure.

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

Now and Then.

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

See you next week.

Bottom Line: Mesmerizing, British colonial architecture in Hong Kong

To purchase “Now & Then” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Make Art in Difficult Times

 

I have a confession to make.

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

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

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

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

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

How do I reconcile this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet the camera has not called to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Which brings me back to #2020.
To now.

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

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

Or maybe you are making photographs?

Maybe you’re pushing yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The portraits, in particular.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe, and see you next week.

Visiting London, Part 7

 

Part 1: the Intro

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

(Well, that’s not exactly true.)

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

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

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

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

Pleading, really.

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

She gave it all she had, truly.

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

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

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

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

 

Sad Naomi Campbell

 

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

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

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

There are no rules with this column.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s three IRL friends I made on Twitter.

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

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

 

Part 2: A Monday in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Know what I mean?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part 3: The Baths.

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

Meaning the famous Roman baths.

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

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

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

No lie.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Like a slightly nerdy action hero.)

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

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

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

Jane Austen was mentioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was 2am by then.

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

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

What to do?

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

And it worked!

Can you imagine? Puking without making a sound?

 

Part 4: Meeting Richard

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

We went to his apartment, and his studio.

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

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

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

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

This Week in Photography: Drowning in Noise

 

May you live in interesting times.

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

Maybe it’s a curse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not enough, I know.)

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

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

Yes. Definitely.

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

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

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

Do you catch my drift?

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

Sorry. Where was I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what people want.

But what they get is a lot of noise.

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

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

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

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

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

(Welcome to #2020.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality wise.

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

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

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

First thought?

Great cover.
No doubt.

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

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

At least, not by my standards.

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

Open it up, and turn the pages.

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

Then landscapes turn digital, and manipulations are obvious.

What is the deal?

There are no words to explain.

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

What does it mean?
What is the connection?

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

This denied me all clues.

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s designed not to make sense.

At least until the end.

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

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

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

This book is the koan for the moment.

The signal and the noise.

So #2020.

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

To purchase “Signal Noise” click hereΒ 

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

This Week in Photography: Surveillance is Everywhere

 

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

And in the wider world around me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

Could someone be watching me through my own computer?

A hacker?
Facebook?
Amazon?

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

(Pause.)

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

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

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

And… Scene:

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have my word.

And… Scene.

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

And he was unobserved.

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

(Someone is always watching.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one’s really strong.

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

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

To purchase “Be Seeing You” click hereΒ 

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

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 2

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Why do people travel?

Why do we go places?

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

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

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

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

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

Not going places.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

(You know I’m right.)

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

Donald Trump.

All of that came Post-Great-Recession.

Wait, I’m getting depressing again.

Sorry.

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

And we’ll be able to travel again.

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

 

Part 2. The asshole

 

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

Me.

So, here’s my answer.

I think we all love a proper adventure.

All of us.

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

We escape into the fantasy of adventure and drama.

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

It is the hero’s journey.

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

(Minus the murder and mayhem, of course.)

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

How could you?

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Part 3. Take my last Euro

 

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

Saturday, February 15.

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

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

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

 

Dubble Trouble

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

 

Hotel Room View

 

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

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

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

Twisting and turning through the canal ring.

There really are few better feelings.

Turn here.
Look there.

Stop in a coffee shop and get stoned.

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

I had 20 Euro left.

Decisions, decisions.

Coffee shop or restaurant?

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

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

Say it fast.
Get it?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at the menu.

 

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

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

The young woman behind the counter shook her head no.

“No?” I said. “I can’t get that.”

She shook her head no.

“No,” she said.

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

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

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

“No,” she said.

I was bummed out, but keeping the faith.

She smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part 4: I have a question

 

Were any of you drunken slobs in college?

I know I was.

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

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

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

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

Long and deep.

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

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

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

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

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

So out the door I went.

For a moment, I stared at the water.

 

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

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

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

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

“That depends,” I replied.

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

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

“Do you love Amsterdam,” I asked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My kind of guy.

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

Things I listen to at home.

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

Shout out to you, Amsterdam!

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

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

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

 

This Week in Photography: A Vision of Italy

 

It was hard to motivate today.

(That’s the truth.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all KNOW this, on some level.

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

Let me say that again: Art makes it better.

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

My guess?
Never.

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

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

Make art!
Now.

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

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

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

Am I simply speculating?

No.
I’m not.

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

(Yes, we’re going there.)

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

All those poor people in Italy, suffering.

Dying alone.

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

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

Riding scooters, shopping with vigor, doing the passagiatta.

 

Why have I not cried for their loss?

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

And what are they?

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

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

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

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

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

2013.

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

But most of it is empty.
And sad.

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

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

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

“Loneliness affects the people around you.”

How was this book not made 3 days ago?

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

How was this book not made 2 days ago?

There are empty restaurants, empty parks, empty streets.

How was this book not made yesterday?

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Bleak vision of empty SienaΒ 

To purchase “Purtroppo Ti Amo,” click hereΒ 

 

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

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 1

 

Part 1: The Intro

Blue New Mexico sky, #2020

 

I was scared shitless to go to Amsterdam last month.

Like, palpably afraid.

I cried, before leaving, I was so terrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duh duh.
Duh duh.
Duh duh duh duh.

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

Nothing at all.
Quite the opposite.

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

 

Part 2. The journey

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, what the hell did I watch?

The other movie, “Booksmart,” directed by Olivia Wilde, was a clever, Post-Me-Too update on “Superbad,” and maybe all teen movies like it, by flipping the protagonists to female, and making one gay.

Not that I saw the parallel until this very moment, but after my 4 hour nap, I watched the beginning episodes of “Killing Eve,” which I finished on the flight home. (A proper 10 hour binge watch!)

Killing Eve promo pic

 

Highly, Highly recommended.

Talking about flipping the script? Who needs James Bond, really, when you have female characters this badass, complex, sexy and surprising?

Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh are brilliant, and some of the foreshadowing, in particular in season 1, when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was show-runner, was bone-chilling.

(I won’t do a spoiler alert. I just won’t spoil it.)

In our new world, with plenty of spare time, watch this one and you’ll thank me.

 

Part 3: The arrival

 

If you think I’m teasing this out, well, maybe I am?

Do you have anything else pressing at the moment?

I’m reliving it in my memory, and if I savor every morsel of the now-forbidden-travel-fruit, would you blame me?

But as I said earlier, everything went so smoothly. Me and the other humans, pressed up against each other, and I was through customs in twenty minutes.

The train station is in the airport in Amsterdam, out at Schiphol, so it’s the easiest thing in the world to grab a 5 Euro train ticket into Amsterdam Centraal Station, the rail hub of the country. (Though all the other cities, Den Haag, Rotterdam and Utrecht are close by as well.)

Schiphol Airport

I remember sitting on that train, closing my eyes, and enjoying a moment of quiet, after I’d been traveling for 16 hours or so.

Then, I heard some loud American teenagers, and they wouldn’t shut up.

“Seriously?” I thought. “I travel halfway across the world, and my jet-lag-headache gets lit up by some dumb teenagers on a pleasure trip with their wealthy parents?”

Eventually, I moved, and then they got off at the wrong station, got back on the train on my new end of car, and sat down near me again.

After they kept yapping, I shot the Dad a look, and he quieted them down for me.

It’s an important thing to remember in these new times.

A lot of important information can be communicated through body language. (Nearly all of what we need to tell a stranger, anyway.) So as you approach people, and step into their personal space in the next couple of months, (or whatever,) just think like a martial artist, and read their energy and intent first.

I stumbled off the train, having to take a piss like you wouldn’t believe, and would you know it, but after walking up and down the train station, I found a public toilet, but you had to pay to use it?

I had no European money yet, much less coins, but the nice guy working there let me in, because I was polite, and obviously had to pee.

Why do I tell you this?

Because up and down that city, people were so cool and friendly. I’ve been around the block, and I can’t say enough about the Dutch, and the Amsterdammers in particular.

After leaving, I quickly arrived at the Hotel Mai, which is somehow located in a quiet, chill vortex that is both right up the street from the train station, and right on the cusp of the Red Light District.

Hotel Mai, looking North

Hotel Mai, Interior Entry

Hotel Mai, Chinese statues in the entryway

There is no reason for that spot, on the Geldersekade canal, to be mellow and relaxing, but it was.

I arrived shortly after 10 am, woozy from the jet lag, and met Jimmy, a nice young guy behind the desk, who told me there would be no Hurricane Dennis. (Which I wrote about previously.)

I asked if he’d take my bags, and he said sure, but then I kept asking about when I might be able to check in early?

The entire time I was in Europe during 2019-20, having a Verizon phone, which only works with Wifi, was a big downer.

Except for this once.

Because each time Jimmy said, “I’ll text you when your room is ready,” I could truthfully say, “I won’t get it. My phone doesn’t receive SMS here.”

He pushed some buttons around a few more times, and then said, “You want a king bed, right,” and I said, “Of course.”

“I have a room for you now,” said Jimmy, and then, all of a sudden, at 10:15am, I had a hotel room, a place to clean up, and my goodness, if that wasn’t a gift from the travel gods, and an omen of good things to come, I don’t know what was.

 

Hotel room view

Part 4: The coffee shops

 

So what do you do, standing in your beautiful, brand new hotel room, staring out at the shimmering water of the canal, now that it’s 10:30am, and you’ve washed your face, smacked your cheeks, and talked to yourself in the mirror to get psyched up?

Well, the first thing you do is change money.

I’d been to Amsterdam 4 times before, including one that I wrote about here in the column, so I had a rough mental map of the area. (Now it’s much sharper.)

I cut Southeast to Dam Square, though the tourist throngs, so I figured I could get my Euros there. (Cash only in the coffee shops.)

Dam Square, the former palace

It was easy to find the action, and I went to the money changer in the middle, because the ones on either end grab the first tourists to happen by.

The man behind the counter was friendly, and gay, with big chunky glasses, and we chatted for a few moments. I came back two days later, to get the rest of my money changed, and he told me about one of his favorite places in town.

It’s called “This is Holland” and is a 5D experience in which you get to simulate flying over the country. Though it sounded dope, I never made it. (But when things open again, you might want to try it.)

After I got that first batch of money, though, I hightailed it straight to the Oude Kerk, a beautiful 17th Central cathedral, because my favorite coffee shop was there, the Cafe Oude Kerk.

Though it seems like not much changes in Amsterdam, (until now of course,) the cafe was now called the Old Church, the English equivalent.

And it wasn’t open yet.

I walked around for 10 minutes, killing time, and finally the woman working there came out to talk to me.

Apparently, the “coffee shop” moved to a different part of downtown, and this coffee shop only sold coffee and food.

No weed or hash.

Luckily, they’d printed a map, (for all the idiots like me,) and I walked there in 10 minutes, like she promised.

Why did it have to the be the same place as last time, when there are hundreds of “coffee shops” in Amsterdam?

Good question.

The Old Church had a Cannabis-Cup-winning-hash, from 2004, a blonde hash that was my all-time-favorite.

(Brand loyalty, if you will.)

But the young woman behind the counter sold me something that didn’t seem the same, though it had a similar color, but she was confident.

Pineapple Express pollen hash.

I’d bought a pipe and a lighter at a little convenience store before I walked in, so a gram of hash and a pear Looza juice, (silky, from Belgium,) set me back 17 Euro.

I sat down, smoked a couple of small bowls, and felt a nice buzz, but that was about it.

Disappointing.

I overheard the ladies behind the counter saying “California, California.”

There was scorn in their voices, but also jealousy, so I went up to investigate.

“What’s that about California,” I barged in? “Their stuff is great, no question, but I’ve been thinking of coming to Amsterdam for years. You can’t get this hash back home in the US.”

“Well,” one young woman said “if you look at the menu, all the top strains are now from California. 30 Euro a gram or more.”

“I hear you,” I said. “I can get that back home. It’s great. But what about the hash? This doesn’t seem like what I had before. That won the Cannabis Cup?”

“Ah,” said a deep, smoker-throaty-voiced, blonde women in the corner. Obviously the boss. “You mean the Royal Cream.”

“Yes,” I exclaimed! “Yes. The Royal Cream. That’s what I came back for. That’s the shit you can’t get in the US.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t get it here now either. It doesn’t leave Morocco anymore. They have a new King, and new rules. Plus, most of the old timers are retiring, and their kids don’t want to do the work.”

“Bummer,” I said.

“Yeah, well.”

I left, with my mild buzz, and headed over to The Jolly Joker, a centrally located coffee shop, where I hung out with Hugo in 2013. (I still wear the T-shirt.)

The Jolly Joker

I bought some weed to go with my hash, the Tangerine Haze, for 14 Euro. A lot of the local strains had “haze” in the name, and all of them were pretty average, compared to what I have access to in Colorado.

It’s a blanket statement, but I’ll make it here and now.

The best part of the coffee shop experience was the social interactions, the music, the vibes, the people watching, and the fact that smoking decent weed and hash only made it cooler.

At The Jolly Joker, I sat down at a table for two in the window, and watched the world go by. Within minutes though, a young man approached and asked if he could join me.

As is (or was) the etiquette, I said sure, and as he rolled a joint, I began to ask him questions.

His name was Gerrit, he was a social worker from Munster, Germany, in town for a big guys-night-out.

10 German dudes, meeting up to go out for beers and grilled meat. (But he only knew two of them, and was therefore a little nervous.)

Gerrit made no mention of sex clubs, or anything illicit, and I took him at his word.

10 German guys in a food, booze and weed feast only.

I asked if he’d send me a picture, and eventually he did.

The Guys

I bragged about my luck, getting a hotel room a block away at 10:15 in the morning.

Gerrit’s face fell.

“What?” I asked.

He said he was waiting for his buddies to come to town, and he couldn’t check in to his hotel for 4 more hours. He was tired, dirty, and couldn’t wait to get some private space.

And there I was bragging!

I felt awful.

“The least I can do is help you pass the time then, since I can go shower and lay down whenever I want. My hotel is just up the block.”

“Thanks,” he said.

So I stayed, and we talked for another hour.

That a month later, the simple pleasure of smoking and chatting with a stranger, in a public place teeming with people, in a busy city crawling with humans, would seem so luxurious?

So impossible?

We’re all still trying to comprehend it.

 

This Week in Photography: A Coronavirus PSA

- - Working

 

I’m doing something different today.

(Like proper different.)

It’s an advice-only-column.
Maybe think of this as a public service announcement.

Now that I think about it, in all my years here, I did do this once before.

After a near death experience.
In Mexico.

(No, it had nothing to do with dodging cartel sicarios across the NorteΓ±o desert.)

Rather, my wife and I almost drowned in Playa del Carmen, during a rip current, with our young children back at the apartment with my folks.

We were so desperate to swim in the blue Caribbean, after a week of shit weather, that we ignored any and all warning signs, and swam out deep enough, in a brewing storm, when no one else was around. (“Hint, hint,” the Universe was saying.)

But we thought we knew better, and only through a lot of luck, some fancy swimming, (and not much else,) did we make it back to shore, exhausted, breathing heavy, arms trembling.

Jessie and I made a promise to wise up that day, and I wrote it into an New Year’s advice column for you, as it happened to coincide with the festivities.

I think I did wise up that day, and am proud of it. After a 4 year stint in therapy, a ton of travel around the US, building a new photo retreat program, publishing a book, and getting back to Europe twice now, I’m definitely a more capable, smarter, more nuanced, emotionally intelligent person than I was then.

Yes, I almost died in Amsterdam last month, (I promise to tell the story,) and I’m no “super-genius,” so all I’m really saying is that I try to learn lessons from life, and am happy to admit my fallibility.

Geared up for the weather in Amsterdam.

So what am I on about then?

Why no photo book?
Or art exhibition review?

Haven’t I seen enough in the last month to write ten articles about things on the wall right now?

Yes.
Yes, I have.

But for all the shit I gave #2019, for all its legendary absurdity and insanity, I didn’t feel compelled to do what I’m doing now.

Somehow, (though I’m not hating,) #2020 has managed to earn its hashtag in just over two months. Like I wrote about 2010 reminding me that 2009’s ass-whooping was not done, our new year has seen a full-blown global pandemic begin to arise.

Is that right?

My terminology?

I’m not sure, but what I am certain is that panic behavior has set in, with a major stock market sell off, and humans acted like flock birds by simultaneously voting for the “safe pair of hands” Joe Biden, as if connected telepathically.

I’ve heard stories from a friend of empty food shelves in New York, seen a photo of empty toilet paper shelves at a Target in San Diego, and a tweet about hoarding in Cincinnati.

San Diego

Cincinnati

My favorite soccer team, Arsenal, was supposed to play today, (I’m writing on Wednesday,) and the game was postponed because Arsenal players were exposed to the since-ill-with-the-coronavirus owner of the Olympiakos soccer club 13 days ago.

(ED note: Thursday evening the Arsenal head coach, Mikel Arteta, was diagnosed with the virus.)

South by Southwest has been cancelled.

Italy is in complete lockdown.

Old people are dying, regularly.

And China’s Orwellian, mind-boggling movement restrictions of earlier this year are now being held up as a (kind of) model for perhaps controlling the spread elsewhere.

(Oh yeah, this is probably a good time to mention the virus was likely started because some human beings just can’t seem to stop eating wild-jungle-creatures. Fucking assholes!)

It’s scary and crazy all at once, and as I have been dispensing advice here for years, and doing proper travel writing since last year, I wanted to share my two cents.

First of all, remain calm.
Secondly, remain calm.

Just because other people are buying up everything in sight doesn’t mean you have to.

(I took my kids to the grocery store yesterday, just to demonstrate that we could shop rationally, and ignore the panic instinct.)

Wash your hands well, and often, (I’ve always been a bit OCD in this one way,) but please don’t buy all the soap in your local supermarket.

Or all the TP, tissues, paper towels or hand sanitizer.

This type of hive-mind behavior perpetuates itself, as panic is as contagious as this nasty new virus.

With respect to travel, you all know I went to Amsterdam, and am glad I did. It made my book much better, and that was very important to me.

But I’m not sure how much non-essential travel I’d be doing now. (Ed note on Thursday: Travel from Europe has since been restricted.)

Last weekend, I was in Houston for a major domestic conference, SPE, happening right before a major international one, FotoFest.

I chose to hug and shake hands as normal at my book signing, but the new etiquette was to ask people what their preference was, before getting into personal space.

“Is it OK to touch you,” I’d ask?

Some people preferred fist bumps, or elbow bumps, or nothing at all. Most, though, kept it normal.

That was Saturday, and I’m guessing that at FotoFest, which began this week, far more people will revert to caution.

May I suggest we all culturally appropriate from the Japanese, and simply bow?

You can hug your family, but maybe we can all “honor” each other by staying hands off for a month or two?

I didn’t do it the other day, admittedly, but things change fast with new information, and if I had the signing now, I’d trade bows for hugs.

Also, it’s probably wise to check in on your elderly neighbors. (Assuming you know you’re virus-free.) At times like this, they need more help than ever.

I’m supposed to do a book signing at Paris Photo New York/AIPAD, (they need a more efficient name next year,) but now everyone’s wondering if it will be cancelled?

I’ve already heard rumors as such. (ED note: it was postponed several hours after I wrote this.)

Given all the health data about how helpful social distancing can be, should any of these international conferences go on, in major international cities? (ED note: now they’re not.)

Does the call get made piecemeal, one festival at a time, or all at once, in a wave?

Will this story, written on Wednesday, feel dated by the time I publish it on Friday? (ED note: the answer is yes. The NBA was cancelled later the same day, and the last session of FotoFest was postponed too. Now all sports are on hiatus, and the State of New Mexico closed all schools Thursday night.)

Here’s another piece of advice: do what you have to to keep your stress levels down. Beyond the hand washing, a healthy immune system is the best defense against getting really sick, so amp up your self-care regimen.

Exercise, make art, watch Netflix, cook good food, go for lots of walks.

Do what you can to stay calm and mentally grounded.

Given Capitalism’s efficiency, it’s unlikely, (beyond a guaranteed recession,) that this virus will interrupt global supply chains in a massive way, causing the kind of shortages that panic is currently making appear possible.

The only way that could even possibly happen is if all workers got a nasty case of coronavirus at once, and no one could work.

Erring on the side of caution, therefore, with where and when you travel, again makes a nasty exponential growth curve that much less likely.

So, in conclusion, as one who’s been in many public spaces in the last three weeks, in major international cities and airports, I’m now going to ease off, knowing what I know.

(ED note: as of Friday morning, the NM governor asked all people like me, who were out of state, to self-isolate for 14 calendar days. So I’m now stuck at home…)

Stay safe, stay smart, and please remember to remain calm.

It’s back to normal next week. (I hope.)

This Week in Photography: John Baldessari

 

America is hopelessly divided.

Rendered in half.
Torn asunder.

So they say.

It’s certainly the conventional wisdom, and something I’ve mused about at length here in the blog as well.

Given that old clichΓ©, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” it would lead one to assume the notion is true.

The US is split in two quasi-equal factions, and given they hate each other, as a nation, we’re essentially screwed.

Game over.
Let’s all go home.

That argument, that we’re broken into liberal and conservative camps, or Red and Blue states, or urban and rural enclaves, and it’s a bad thing, is so universal as to be unquestioned.

It’s so universal, in fact, that it was espoused by the very person typing these words.

(Do you sense a BUT coming?)

But…what if everyone is wrong? Even earlier versions of me?

I’ve been wondering lately, as for some reason, I’ve pushed words like split and divided from my brain, (not consciously,) and they’ve been replaced by another, very different word, that means more-or-less the same thing:

Balanced.

What if America is balanced between roughly-equally-sized blocks of people with naturally conservative and naturally liberal tendencies; citizens providing the warp and weft that has woven the nation together for the last 243 years?

What if?

What if it’s not so bad that some people don’t see eye-to-eye, or choose to live separate from one another?

What if we need each other, and that innate tension has kept us tougher these centuries, including after a Civil War that nearly created two separate countries?

Maybe, given our history, (of one half conquering the other,) and the fact that we (more-or-less) sewed it back together, plus the natural differences of country and city life, just maybe, this is our secret sauce as a nation?

Isn’t it a crazy thought?

The fact that Republicans and Democrats, (or Liberals and Conservatives,) continue to hand off the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court to one another, over phases of time, could make us better, as one side checks the other’s wildest instincts over time?

It’s a lot to swallow, given I’ve been such a vocal critic of President Trump. (And was no fan of George W. either, as you well know.)

I feel like most of us assume our side is right, and if we could only grab control of all three levers of power, at once, and have them for a decade or so, we’d fix America for good.

Red AND Blue think that.

But what if we need each other, and have essentially found ourselves endlessly distracted by infighting these last ten years?

What if the internet and social media have allowed powerful entities to chop us up into individual “profiles,” and rig the game to the point that we don’t even know we’re being played anymore?

No, the blogger is not turning Luddite on you, and I’m not saying it’s the robots fault either. (If anyone’s got a raw deal, it’s slave-robots.)

I benefit from the internet more than most.

However, “30 Rock” just came to Amazon, and I’ve been re-watching it, along with my 12 year old, who wasn’t born yet when it first debuted.

The take on race, class, the media, America, sexism, all of it, even the fashion, seemed current.

It was weird, as I’ve seen other TV from NYC, not much earlier, that is very dated. (Hint: “Sex and the City.”)

As much as I admire Tina Fey and her staff, as they barely put a foot wrong, it made me wonder if we’ve been spinning our wheels for most of the time I’ve been doing this job?

(I began here in 2010, for goodness sake.)

And I know that my work has value, commenting regularly on our culture, but what if the culture has been stuck?

What if I’m commenting on a repetitive loop?

What if Trump is the natural evolution, the natural conclusion of a process of getting ALL our attention, of monetizing that attention, as well as our identities.

We’ve given companies like Facebook every piece of information about ourselves that we possibly can.

Whether Facebook gave us Trump, or Trump gave us Facebook, maybe we got suckered into a 10 year void, where we kept pushing the button, and they kept giving us the snack?

(Whatever type of content you want, whenever you want, 24-7, and very likely free.)

If we were lab rats, and they wanted to devise as system to keep us endlessly distracted and squabbling, maybe it would look a lot like the world we’re living in?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting upending the system, nor have I been binge-watching Bernie Sanders campaign videos.

Rather, after a nice walk, and a short meditation, I took a long look at my book shelves, and noticed “Pure Beauty,” by John Baldessari, published in conjunction with a show at the Met in 2010.

Not that any of you would likely remember, (even my wife, or my Dad,) but I wrote about that show here, back then, very early in my APE career.

I’d seen the exhibit, the first time Rob asked me to go to NYC to cover the PDN Expo, and it had floored me.

Rocked my head.
Shook me sideways.
Punched me silly.

(You get the point.)

I liked it so much that I bought the monograph, which I don’t believe I’ve done before or since. (While working.)

I liked it so much that I left my notebook at the cash register, and only by the grace of the writing gods did I remember while I was only a few galleries away, in time to get it back with no hassles.

The exhibition was so good that it reframed the way I understood art, and my own art in particular.

Coming from UNM, which was a conceptual program, I learned from Tom Barrow and Patrick Nagatani. (Who got his MFA at UCLA.)

I was encouraged to think about working with ideas, and using processes which could themselves be symbols. It stuck with me, that way of thinking, and led me to study conceptual art in grad school, along with photography.

I could talk about Warhol, sure, and Marcel Duchamp, but mostly I think I made work that way because it had been implanted in my early-artist-operating-system.

All of a sudden, in that John Baldessari show, it was as if I were seeing every good idea that I had ever had, or was likely to have, on display on the walls before me.

Already done!

It was all there, the playfulness, the experimentation, the use of processes to engender artistic outcomes. The humor, the use of color, and the radical lengths to which the artist would challenge convention.

Like I once wrote about the Mike Kelley show at the Stedelijk Museum, (the time I owned my lack of genius, and was liberated,) the Baldessari show opened my mind the fact that if it came into my head, if I wanted to do it, if it was where my art took me, I should go.

And if, in the end, even with all the love and joy I had, I still felt like life was a bit absurd, well, that was OK too.

He threw red balls in the air to make a straight line, set against the blue sky, and documented it.

He made up games where you point to a carrot or a green bean?

Took selfies waving goodbye to strangers on boats.
Or wearing hats to block his face.

He made photographs out of secret handshakes!

He sang songs of Sol LeWitt art instructions.

Or took pictures of letters he built in the natural environment that spelled out the word “California.”

Everywhere we see games and systems.
Lots of play.

There were mini-movies, told in stills, and color blocks made from car doors.

This guy, John Baldessari, was a machine, just rapid-fire making amazing things, turning humor into pathos, and both balanced life experiences into something deeper.

Something that felt like the whole of life itself.

Looking back, nearly 10 years later, wondering if the last decade was a glitch in the system, I realize how much I learned that day, and how much his work had influenced me until that point. (And since.)

There are paintings, (for which he is rightfully renowned,) in which the artist painted instructions, in words, for how to sell lots of paintings. Or critiqued the process of painting, in words, inside his own paintings.

Everyday citizens have all heard of Warhol, and Picasso, but JB might have been just as influential.

Sadly, John Baldessari passed away in late #2019. (Another data point that year was a bitch and a half.) While we’re all less-well-off without him, and I’m sad I never got to shake his hand, (pre-coronavirus days, obv,) books like this one carry on his legacy.

Highly, highly recommended.

Bottom Line: Monograph from a 20th/21st Century master, #RIP

To purchase “Pure Beauty” click hereΒ 

 

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

This Week in Photography: “Going South-Big Sur”

 

I tracked Storm Dennis for a week.

Chiara had hit the UK and Northern Europe hard, right before I left for Amsterdam, and I was concerned.

Schiphol Airport had been interrupted, with many flights delayed, and there was flooding across England.

So yeah, I was worried.

Throw in the wall-to-wall scare coverage about the coronavirus outbreak, and I was more than worried.

I was crap-my-pants-frightened as I left my house for the big trip.

Fucking Storm Dennis was looming out there, a Bomb Cyclone. The European version of a hurricane.

Yet when I asked people about Dennis, after I’d traversed a third of the globe, actual people on the ground in Amsterdam, they chuckled, and looked at me funny.

“Are you serious,” asked Jimmy, as he checked me in at the brilliant Hotel Mai? (More on the hotel in an upcoming travel piece.)

“Yes, I’m serious,” I said. “I tracked the hurricane online, and it looks bad. Will the power go out? Will the window panes get blown in? Will the restaurants stay open?”

“Don’t worry,” said Jimmy. “We don’t get hurricanes. It won’t be a big deal at all. I promise.”

And of course he was right.

I got caught in one little squall, (which I’ll write about in a future piece,) but beyond that, it was walking weather the entire time I was in the Netherlands.

Which teaches us two things.

One, the shit we read on the internet and social media really does mess with our emotions. I was a wreck leaving town, (which is uncharacteristic,) yet I saw only a few face masks the entire time I was on the road, and no panic.

The streets of Amsterdam were thronged with people, even if the Chinese tourists were on lockdown at home.

Two, is that weather really needs to be felt on the ground, to be understood. You need to live weather, and know it by the way it interacts with your bones.

Growing up in New Jersey, I was trained to believe it would always be crappy out, 3-4 days a week. All year round. (Maybe you’d get a 5/2 split for a month of summer, if you were lucky.)

Here in Taos, I know we’re leaving late-winter and entering early-spring around now, so I should start getting 4-5 nice days a week. (Until April, which is always grumpy.)

When it’s too dry, two warm, or even too cold, after 15 years living here, I know it.

And it all makes me think of the Summer of 2016, when my family and I went on a big California road trip, from Taos up to Big Sur, and then back.

I’m sure I wrote about it then, as this is a long-running blog about my life and times, as much as it’s a weekly critique of a photo book, an art exhibition, or a restaurant somewhere cool.

So, going back in time, there we stood, on a hilltop in Big Sur, looking at the bone-dry-golden-hills.

(Those hills were drier than Donald Trump’s mouth, after he smokes a fat doobie and eats a jar of peanut butter.)

Jessie and I looked at the Big Sur landscape, and then we looked at the one way in, from the North, and the one way out from the South.

It was the same road.
Highway 1.

At that point, one of the most touristed pieces of asphalt anywhere in the world.

“It’s not good,” Jessie said. “One way in and one way out. All that dry grass. It’s like a tinderbox, waiting to go up. Not good.”

“No,” I agreed. “It’s not good. This place is ready to go up.”

And so it did, a few days later.

The fires were so bad that when the rains eventually came that winter, they denuded the hills of mud, and the bridges connecting Big Sur to the outside world were trashed.

Useless, for around a year.

The town was cut off, for all intents and purposes.

One could hike in, or maybe take a helicopter?

Did anyone use boats, as the deeply blue Pacific Ocean is rather hazardous in the area?

My wife’s family, who have a home there, had to abandon their place, taking what they could, as most people left quickly.

I’d say Big Sur was reduced to a ghost town, but given the insane tourist crowds, it probably reverted back to the lush-forest-paradise it was before humans came around to try and tame it anyway.

I always wondered what it looked like, during that pause, before the bridges were fixed, and HBO’s “Big Little Lies” was filmed in the region, making it even more touristy.

Now, we don’t have to wonder, as I just looked through “Going South Big Sur,” a book by Kirk Crippens, published by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam.

It turned up in the mail last fall, and I’m glad I got around to checking it out today.

The truth is, it took me 24 hours to get home, in one stretch of travel, and I only took a couple of short cat-naps the entire time. So that travel-gut-punch, plus the serious jet lag, has put me down for the the past week.

This book, in its quiet elegance, is just right for my addled mind.

It shows a lot of empty places, with the formality that only a big camera can bring. (And having been on press myself last week, which I’ll write about soon, I was ogling these reproductions.)

At first, I admit, I was craving a tad more dynamism.

But as I turned the pages, one at a time, the reserved color/light palette, and the structured pictures began to seduce me with their quiet and their calm.

The portraits are great, and liven up the group overall.

I like the inclusion of selective captions at the end, because I was craving a spot in that cliff-side hot tub, and knowing it was shot at world-famous Esalen makes it that much juicer.

Whenever I’m most spent, the truth is, a photo book with a clear narrative and strong intentions, without too many essays, is always the best way to go.

(It’s one of my tricks, staying weekly for nearly nine years.)

This one fits the bill.

See you next week!

Bottom Line: Eerie, calm, quiet photos of a nearly abandoned Big Sur

To Purchase “Going South-Big Sur” click hereΒ 

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

This Week in Photography: Re-discovering Marcel Sternberger

 

“The very basis for the existence of human society has become corroded with brutality, doubt, cynicism and distortion of truth- and the end is not yet in sight.”

-Albert Einstein

 

I’m the last guy you’d expect to defend Donald Trump, right?

Of all the people you know, (if this counts as knowing me,) you’d never predict that I’d go the mat for old DJT, would you?

Except it happened last week, and I was as shocked as you are.

The conversation wasn’t even about politics, but a like-minded, similar friend, (liberal, artist, Jewish, male, ) kept comparing Trump to Hitler.

Hitler, Hitler, Hitler.

I let it go the first and second time, but at the third mention, I interjected.

“Please, forgive the interruption, and I mean no disrespect about what I’m about to say. You know I love you. And I don’t even feel this is controversial.

Trump is an awful person. I dislike him as much as you do. But Adolf Hitler killed what, 30 million people or something. He killed 6 million of our own.

He started Wars, and destroyed a Continent.

Donald Trump may be a gigantic asshole, but he hasn’t done that. He hasn’t killed 30 million people, or whatever the number was.”

“Right,” he retorted, “but what about the kid jails for immigrants? And barring Muslims from coming into the country?”

“Again,” I said, “awful. But not the same thing as the Holocaust.”

“Ok, fine,” my friend continued, “I’ll give you that. Trump has surprisingly little blood on his hands at this point, for how awful he is. It’s true.”

“That’s all I’m saying,” I said. “If the nicest compliment you can give someone is that at least they’re not a genocidal, Hitler-esque maniac, I don’t think that’s such an endorsement.”

“Then again,” he said, “there are a lot of people who’ll probably die from what Trump’s doing around Climate Change.”

“Ok,” I replied, “I’ll give you that. But we’ll have that conversation another time.”

And that’s where we’re at as I write this, on a Wednesday after Bernie Sanders took the New Hampshire primary. (Who saw Amy Klobuchar coming? Does it count that she’s now the stronger candidate of the 2 NYT picks?)

We’re publishing this a fair bit later, as I’m leaving for Amsterdam this week, in order to supervise production of my impending book, “Extinction Party.” (I’m writing ahead of time, so there will be far-more-current political news between now and then.)

Also, the trip will mean a fresh batch of travel stories, exhibition reviews, restaurant tips, and an inside scoop on what it’s like to go on press for a photo book.

(All that, though, is in the future.)

Today, I want to talk about the past.

I lead this column with an insanely relevant quote from one of the smartest men who ever lived, and then followed up with a discussion of a would-be tyrant, and the proper one to whom he is sometimes compared.

With our times, as with all times, we look to historical precedent to understand what’s happening around us.

Everyone does it.

But the sad (or maybe just realistic) truth is that just a handful of people alive today will make it into the history of the future, should humans stay alive long enough to have one.

Of the Billions walking and talking, so few will make enough of a mark to be woven into future history.

Is that such a big deal?

How many of us need that?

And do we not achieve that, in some small way, if our work makes it into book form? Paper doesn’t last forever, sure, but books on shelves outlast people all the time.

Even generations.

I’m about to make my first book, waited 10 years, and that seemed long.

What if a book is made, long after someone has died, and long after their chosen memory keeper passes on as well?

What if that book ends up on a shelf somewhere, after a book reviewer decides it isn’t his cup of tea, and then his wife rearranges the book shelves, and he takes another look years later, and realizes the book is just what he needs to see on a given day?

What then?

Well, the book would be “The Psychological Portrait: Marcel Sternbergers’s Revelations in Photography,” which showed up several years ago, written and edited by Jacob Loewentheil, published by Rizzoli.

I swear, when I began writing this, I really didn’t consider the connection to the “make people cry” column from a few weeks ago.

Sorry for swinging back to that, but this is a true life story.

Marcel Sternberger and his wife Ilse were European-Jewish refugees of the Holocaust who turned up on America’s shores in the late 30s.

Unlike many refugees, however, Mr Sternberger had originally come at the request of President Roosevelt, to make his portrait.

The husband and wife duo had come from Europe, where he had quickly become the official photographer of the Belgian Royal Family.

Over a twenty year career, (in which she was often a vital part of his practice,) he’d go on to photograph a chunk of people who have made it into the permanent history books:

FDR, Sigmund Freud, Jawarhalal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the aforementioned Albert Einstein.

Quite the line-up, right? (It’s like Peak-Golden-State-Warriors, or the ’27 Yankees.)

Sadly, Marcel Sternbeger’s career was cut short when he was killed in a car crash in 1957, between New York and Mexico City, where the couple had moved.

He was on the verge of publishing a book about his methods, which broke sitters down in detail by personality type, and then described specific, psychological methods for making connection.

In combination with lighting tips, based on minimalistic technique, and a reliance on hand-held Leicas rather than big formal cameras, the book likely would have launched Sternberger to the next level.

But it was never published.

Ilse lived on, and in 1996 bequeathed the archive, hoping someone would make the book one day.

And then that day arrived, and when I saw the book, I chucked it into the maybe pile.

Until today.

Reading FDR’s humility in his own words, or hearing advice from Einstein, and knowing they lived through things far worse than we are, (for real,) made me feel better this morning.

Knowing I could use this platform to help share Marcel and Ilse’s story, all these years later, made me feel pretty good too.

And speaking of Einstein, (and relativity,) by the time you read this, I’ll be home from a trip I haven’t taken yet, and promise to share lots of crazy stories with you then.

Stories which haven’t happened yet?

Bottom Line: A Posthumous book of portraits by a forgotten master

To purchase “They Psychological Portrait” click hereΒ 

 

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

This Week in Photography: Conversations on Conflict Photography

 

I’m keeping it super-short today.

(Like, for real.)

If all goes well, as you read this, I’ll be on my way to Amsterdam to supervise printing of my first book.

I’m a ball of nerves, if I’m being honest, but the upside is, I’ll have lots of new things to write about for you.

Between the global panic over the corona virus outbreak, and the fact that I’m flying into a bomb cyclone hurricane, (Storm Dennis,) I think you’ll allow me a rare quickie.

To balance the brevity, though, we’re going heavy.

Here’s the rub.

In the middle of #2019, well before I began doing book reviews again, NYU Professor Lauren Walsh, whom I’d interviewed for a story before, reached out to see if I’d be interested in seeing her upcoming book about conflict photography.

She long-form interviewed a host of the top names in photojournalism, including photographers like Nina Berman, Ben Lowy, Susan Meiselas and Shahidul Alam, and editors like Santiago Lyon and MaryAnne Golon.

(Top, top people.)

I told her I wasn’t reviewing books for a few months yet, and had almost never reviewed text-dominant books before, outside of a few rare exceptions.

Undaunted, Ms. Walsh sent the book, content to wait six months for a review, and then she followed up several times thereafter.

Finally, I took a look and tried to read it, but it didn’t grab me in the “right” way. I kept getting bogged down, perhaps because I’d interviewed several of the people before, and did these types of interviews myself, here, for years.

And the pictures are so hard to look at, this being a book about conflict journalism.

It was easier not to engage.

(And isn’t that just a metaphor for all of it.)

I wrote to Professor Walsh to apologize, and say, “Sorry, this one’s not for me.”

In reply she asked me to reconsider.

“Perhaps,” I said, “I’ve done it before,” and here we are.

“Conversations on Conflict Photography” by Lauren Walsh, was published last year by Bloomsbury. And when I took another look at it yesterday, I realized it was something worth showing you.

It’s just not what I first expected it to be.

You don’t have to read it cover to cover in one sitting.
It’s not meant for that.

Rather, I began to think of this book as a resource, to be sought out for knowledge for anyone learning the craft; a guidebook into a vital segment of the photo industry.

It’s crammed full of famous pictures, like Eddie Adams shot from Vietnam, the burning Twin Towers from Time Magazine, or Nina Berman’s Marine Wedding photo. (Which we showed here in 2011.)

I just needed to realize that because I’d read and written about these things before, that didn’t meant it wasn’t newsworthy or beneficial for many of you now, in 2020.

Given the subject matter, there will be a lot of photos of violence below. (Or its remnants.)

Be forewarned.

But just as I can reconsider whether a book is worthy of review, I can also wrap up quickly, and let the photos do the talking.

I think we all believe this kind of photography has a social value, bearing witness to suffering, for posterity.

But it also allows us to understand geo-politics on a local, human level.

Kudos for the job well done.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, dense resource book on conflict photography

To Purchase “Conversations on Conflict Photography” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Reviewing “Next of Kin”

 

Quick question.
What’s the fastest way to make someone cry?

Easy answer: encourage them to think about their loved-ones dying.

Either in the present, (which is super-sad,) or deep into the indeterminate future, once they’ve grown old.

Imagine saying goodbye to your life-partner, in your 80’s, after decades together, and then living your final days alone?

Guaranteed waterworks.
Do you doubt me?

Consider the opening 2 minutes of “UP.”

How quickly did you cry?

Or what about that massive Google commercial during last weekend’s Super Bowl? My son and I were mostly skipping the ads on the DVR, briefly stopping at the ones that seemed intriguing, or were worth mocking.

(His criteria.)

We saw the Google ad in question featured an old man, interacting with an AI, which through smart-learning could begin to categorize his memories, via his digital footprint.

(Rough synopsis.)

He recalled his dead wife, in a tragic, breaking voice, and then they showed old photographs of their life together.

Good thing we were skipping quickly, or I would have cried for sure. Theo was of the opinion the ad was emotionally manipulative, and I had to agree with him.

Very often, memories need triggers, in order to dislodge from wherever it is in our deep-brains they reside, so they can flash back to the front of our consciousness. (Like going from the hard drive to RAM.)

We all know that smell can trigger us, or sound.
Who hasn’t gone back in time when they hear a certain song?

(Seriously, if you play “Don’t You Want Me,” by the Human League, I will regress to a 7 year old.)

And, of course, we have photographs.

If ever a process were invented to aid memory, it was the one cooked up by the collective geniuses who figured out how to chemically capture light. (Or is it genii?)

Those brilliant 19th Century bastards who gave us the medium we now treasure.

And what a time it is to be a photographer.

Sure, photography was adopted by the masses each time technology allowed it, but the IPhone/smartphone revolution has taken things to new levels.

So much so that the concept of photography as separate and apart from other things is beginning to seem quaint.

So much so that venerable photo institution PDN closed last week, and the Washington Post folded its photography newsletter, almost simultaneously.

The nature of photography has changed, and it’s now a living thing, a visual language, and even temporary, as much as it’s supposed to be a physical, permanent record of what really was.

(Frozen light particles that bounced off of real things in the real world.)

Now, we photograph our parking space at the airport, or the information on a flyer we want to remember for a day, or a selfie because the light was good, but we’re never going to look at it again.

Digital photos, the lingua franca of our time, are not designed to be archived forever, like a contact sheet in 1983.

(Or 1883, for that matter.)

But objects, real physical things in the actual world, do retain resonance.

T-shirts can smell for a while, because of your cousin’s distinctive detergent. Boots and Barbies and Bibles can trigger memories too.

And of course books are also well-suited to capturing the spirt of the dead.

In this case, I’m thinking of “Next of Kin,” a recently published set of photobooks that turned up in the mail in late #2019, from Inbal Abergil, published by Daylight.

The covers, in blue and red, are marked Part I and Part II, and the first book has little text beyond a dedication and section breakers.

From the get-go, we see only one word, (a name,) printed sideways, but after one or two sections, you suspect you’re looking at the artifacts of dead soldiers.

I wasn’t certain until the third section, when we see a full storage unit stuffed with life-remnants, but the second section features some heavy-duty storage objects, so the hints are there quickly.

All the text beyond those soldier names is saved for Part II, which is a decision I understand. It says, this is not one object, but two, conjoined by the elastic band, and therefore, the viewing experience will be guided.

That is seemingly the main purpose of Part II, using words to house stories and memories from Gold Star families, the people who suffered the loss of a loved one.

To keep things intriguing, I think, the book opens with a historical death, from WWII, but of course most of the stories are modern, from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Most of the wounds are fresh.

The pictures are gracefully shot, and unlike that Super Bowl Commercial, are respectful with their handling of emotion. They’re sad, for sure, but not dripping.

(You can’t hear the strings in the score, if you know what I’m saying.)

Perhaps it’s a quibble, but I’d say that four commissioned essays, at the end of Part II, are a bit much. None are too long, and leading with the always-intelligent Fred Ritchin is a good idea, but given how many books I see, I think two contextual essays is plenty, maybe three if you’re being generous.

(Especially with all the other text.)

Early on, I asked myself why the artist was telling these stories, and if she mentioned her ethnicity when she originally reached out, I’d forgotten, as her name suggests she could be from many places.

Turns out, Inbal Abergil is Israeli, was a solder herself, and wanted to understand grief and loss in American culture.

This was a smart, elegiac, thoughtful way to explore the subject matter. And I hope all those families felt a measure of peace, after seeing their fallen warriors memorialized in such a classy way.

Bottom Line: Sad, graceful look at the aftermath of soldier’s deaths

To purchase “Next of Kin” click hereΒ 

 

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

Considering the Crucifix in the Wild West

Part 1. The Intro

 

Buckle up.
We’re going for a wild ride today.

(But at my wife’s request, I’m going to keep it moving.)

She liked that last week’s column was info-dense, but also clocked in at 1200 words, rather than the 2500 I was dropping with regularity in #2019.

After all the time I spent hoping that 2020 would finally come, it’s hard to believe the year is already 1/12 done.

And what does 2020 mean, anyway?

Obviously, I know that years are sequential, but who decided to start at 0?

We’re now exactly, or approximately 2020 years after Jesus, a Jewish guy in the Holy Land, was born?

Jesus, a young Jewish preacher, a rebel and an upstart, challenging the status quo in Israel, which was then a vassal of the Roman Empire.

He kicked up shit for the Jews the Romans put in charge, and also for the Romans themselves, and was killed for it in an awful way.

I did a bunch of reading on the subject this morning, readying for the piece, and was not surprised to learn the sad ending of the story, (for the man Jesus, anyway,) was all about money and power.

The Rabbis were charging people to get “clean” enough to pray, making bank, and Jesus called them out for it. (All this I learned from an archived BBC website.)

Later, a massive religion grew up in his name, with billions of people believing he rose from the dead, after being crucified to death, and that he was actually a combination of man, God, and the Son of God.

Judaism, the religion Jesus was born, lived and died believing, claims that no Messiah, no divine being, has yet come back to Earth, but billions of Christians disagree.

Honestly, as Jews, we must see some missed opportunities, with Islam and Christianity sprouting from our religion, becoming the two biggest faith systems on Earth, while we’re a few measly million people in this world.

Why am I on about this today?

Where can this possibly be going?

I know you must be asking yourself that.

Come on.
Admit it.

 

Part 2. Leaving comfort zones

 

The truth is that 2020 has felt different than #2019, and I’m shaking things up accordingly. (For example, no early-morning email check, to keep the cortisol down for a few hours.)

So last Friday, my wife and I decided to do something we never, ever do.

On Friday late-afternoon, after our son has his Hebrew practice, the four of us piled into the car to leave Taos, driving the hour and forty-five minutes to Santa Fe, just beating the dark, so we could attend a public opening at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

I’d been overdue to see an exhibit there, curated by Christian Waguespack, which focuses on the Penitente culture in Northern New Mexico.

It was a 17th through 20th Century local, Spanish Colonial Catholic tradition in which men would pray together, whipping and flagellating themselves, in a small building in each community called a Morada.

They also staged fake crucifixions, and other seemingly extreme Catholic traditions imported from Spain.

By the time we rolled into Santa Fe, the sky was rapidly blackening, and our collective hunger was rising.

The parent in me thought: we’ve got to avoid a collective food crash.

The art critic in me thought, let’s get to the museum first, since it’s on the way, and we’ll get more time there.

(Quick snack at Trader Joe’s it was.)

We arrived at the New Mexico Museum of Art shortly thereafter, after a short walk across the plaza, which featured large trees extravagantly lit in non-harmonious colors.

There were nice snacks in the lobby, and free admission, so my kids each ate a cheese chunk or two, though I was waiting for good restaurant food.

(The Santa Fe food scene is much better than ours in Taos, IMO.)

We headed through a lovely tent, covering the open courtyard of the early 20th Century building, and then into the special exhibition section in the Museum.

Only then did I learn the exhibition, “The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Christ: from Michelangelo to Tiepolo” was all about Jesus, his life, crucifixion, lamentation, and resurrection.

(I’d decided to come trusting it would be cool, not bothering to learn the details ahead of time, if I’m being honest.)

And there were indeed masterpieces on the walls, some of which were drawn, others a wash in a light ochre.

Michelangelo, stood out, as did Filippo Lippi.

Cornelis Cort, The Crucifixion, after Giulio Clovio, 1568, Hand-colored engraving with bodycolor, heightened with gold and white, printed on blue-gray silk.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

School of Andrea Mantegna, The Descent from the Cross, 1470–1500, engraving.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Michelangelo, The Three Crosses, 1521-1524, red chalk.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

My daughter fled quickly, with my wife in tow, and I only briefly heard, “she wants to draw at the kid’s station out there.” (I later learned the pictures freaked her out.)

My son and I flitted about, getting hungrier by the moment, with many of the pictures being properly ogled by the a nice-sized crowd.

All the masterpieces were on loan from the British Museum, so it was an opportunity for New Mexicans to see old-school, proper European art, without having to leave the continent.

Frankly, I felt like the smart move would be to come back, without the crowds, to sink into the details of admiring a 500 year old drawing, without someone waiting their turn.

(Selfish, maybe, but it’s how I felt.)

But you can certainly see how Jesus imprinted on my mind rather fiercely, and off we went to the Penitente show, “Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood.”

Here’s where I tell the truth, because the same curator was responsible for both exhibitions.

The paintings, drawings and photos in the smaller Penitente show, while local and younger, had a creepy, scary, powerful, religious juju that blew me away.

Paul Burlin, The Sacristan of Trampas, 1918, oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase, before 1922 (118.23P) Photo by Blair Clark.

Russell Cheney, New Mexico (Penitente), 1929, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Russell Cheney, 1942 (1181.23P) Photo by Cameron Gay.

I kept saying, “I need to come back. I need to come back.”

(Rather than, “I’d like to come back.”)

Because each object was so tight, and in the smaller rooms, with the lower ceilings, in which the Northern New Mexican architecture so clearly matched the subject matter in the work, everything felt just perfect.

And experiential.

B. J. O. Nordfeldt, Penitentes – The Crucifixion, n.d., etching, 10 1/8 Γ— 12 1/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Emily Abbott Nordfeldt, 1957 ( 597.23G) Photo by Cameron Gay.

Gustave Baumann, Penitente Ceremony, Gustave Baumann, 1922, woodblock print, 7 3/4 x 6 7/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase with funds raised by the School of American Research, 1952 (1752BH.23G) Β©New Mexico Museum of Art. Photo by Cameron Gay.

Gene Kloss, Penitente Good Friday, 1936, drypoint etching, 14 3/4 x 17 in. On long term loan to the New Mexico Museum of Art from the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration (646.23G) Photo by Cameron Gay.

For all the talk of Meow Wolf, (which in fairness I have yet to visit,) and the Instagramification of the world, with backdrops mattering more than reality, I thought this show wasΒ a breath of fresh air.

(Of creepy air, I mean.)

I didn’t have enough time to process each piece, with my stomach rumbling, but the self-flagellations were there and the crucifixes.

Ernest L. Blumenschein, Penitente Procession (Study for Sangre de Cristo Mountains), circa 1925, ink, watercolor, Chinese white on paper mounted on paper, 9 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Helen Greene Blumenschein, 1985 (1985.507.4) Β© The E. L. Blumenschein estate. Photo by Blair Clark.

Cady Wells, Head of Santo (Head of Christ), circa 1939, oil and watercolor on paper, 22 3/4 Γ— 15 1/4 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of the Cady Wells Estate, 1982 (1982.16.40) Photo by Blair Clark.

There was one standout, black and white documentary photo by Miguel Gandert, of some 20th Century Northern New Mexican Penitentes, in street clothes, outside the Morada.

Miguel A. Gandert, Hermanos de La Morada, NM, 1992, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, 2016.20.1, Β© 1992, Miguel Gandert

So Badass.

You know, week ago, I hadn’t given Jesus much thought.

(Though with American politicians like Mike Pompeo actively awaiting the Rapture, maybe we should all think about Jesus more often?)

But then I saw those two art shows, and the imagery bore down into my consciousness like a dental drill.

 

Part 3. Kick it up a notch

 

After a weekend spent moving washing machines, learning stick fighting, and hanging pictures, we kicked it up a notch on Tuesday, when my wife had the day off from work.

She suggested we cross the border to San Luis, Colorado to visit the Stations of the Cross ShrineΒ that looms above town.Β (Among other reasons.)

Jessie had always wanted to do it, and again, in 2020 we’re gunning for new things, so I said yes.

I swear, I made no connection to the intense, Catholic work I saw in Santa Fe, nor did I plan to write this column.

We parked the car next to the humble town hall, and were instantly met by a huge old dog, who leaned into me for pets.

He was sweet, and a chunky collar said his name was Bam Bam, the Mayor.

It had snowed the night before, and Bam Bam accompanied us across the street, and a little foot-bridge, where we soon blazed our own trail in the 5 inch snow, as no one had yet gone all the way up the hill.

Bam Bam seemed an apparition, or a spirit guide, there was no way around it, and when he chose to turn back, we waved, and kept on alone.

We broke trail in fresh snow against a perfectly blue sky.

There were no people around.

It was all ours.

Up we went, stopping occasionally to check out the sculptures honoring Jesus’ last ascent, with his cross, to be crucified.

I believe there were 14 bronze sculptures in all, by local artist Huberto Maestas.

(You knew I’d come back around to it, right?)

Jessie and I remembered the Carmel Mission, and how it was similar in its intense combination of beauty and spirituality.

But the setting here, on a mesa-top called the Hill of Piety and Mercy, surrounded by snow-covered, jagged Rocky Mountain peaks in the Wild West, was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

I stopped at the Pieta sculpture, Jesus draped across Mary’s lap, (which I now know is a subset of the Lamentations, thanks to the excellent NM Museum of Art Gallery Guide,) and made this video for you.

 

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a more stunning location for a piece of art, nor at a more perfect moment to view it.

I’ve seen better art, in more famous places, but nothing more perfect than this spot.

Finally, we circled around to try to enter the shrine, which is in a Spanish Colonial style, (in honor of the local ancestors,) but it was obviously locked on a snowy morning.

So down we went, occasionally pausing to take in the Sangre de Cristos to the East, and the Conejos Mountains to the West, with the sun burning happiness into our cheeks.

Listen up.

If you’re coming to Taos, or Santa Fe, or Southern Colorado, I can not suggest this place more highly.

(And I didn’t even get into the Shrine.)

The strangest part, if you ask me, the one that ties this tale together, across the Millennia, is that I would have bet anything the chapel, La Capilla de Todos Los Santos, was built in the 19th Century.

Taos families pushed North into the San Luis Valley in the 1840’s, and the town was officially founded by those Spanish Colonial Catholics in 1851.

But it was a town made of dirt back then, at the edge of nowhere.

With no resources.

(I guess I didn’t think it through.)

So my research turned up that it was built, as an offering of peace and love from the San Luis parish, in 1986!

The 80’s!
Again!

Are you kidding me?

This Week in Photography: China and New York in the 80’s

 

Everyone wants to be down-to-earth?

Right?

It seems like one of those compliments that is universally understood to be a good thing.

It means relatable.

Grounded.

Empathetic to others’ experience.
Humble.
Polite.
Thoughtful.
Respectful.

For some people though, (yes, they’re often rich,) the lure of being fake, affected and pretentious is just too strong.

In this case, I’m thinking about Gwyneth Paltrow, the occasional actress, full-time GOOP lifestyle guru/ magnate, likely vegan, and occasional television guest.

Last year, on Jon Favreau’s Netflix show, she denied, or “forgot,” multiple times, that she had acted in a Spiderman movie with the aforementioned Favreau.

To his face, on camera.

“Nope, nope. Not me. I wasn’t in Spiderman.”

It became a thing on the internet, of course, because how could it not, but she steadfastly went with the whole attitude of “I’m so rich and busy, and these silly comic superhero movies are kind of beneath me, so I refuse to lay down any memories of what I’ve done.”

“I’d rather be selling high end bath salts for $250 per gram, thank you very much.

I will simply pretend Pepper Potts, with her gauche auburn wig, simply does. not. exist.

Tony Stark can fuck off, for all I care.

I’m glad he’s dead.”

There was a time, though, early in her career as an actor, when she was properly talented, even garnering an Oscar for the admittedly mediocre “Shakespeare in Love.”

And she totally carried “Sliding Doors,” a seminal film, back when cinema still had a larger place in the grand cultural pantheon, in 1998.

There were two simultaneous timelines, and both played out during the course of the movie. Young Gwyneth Paltrow discovers her partner is cheating in one timeline, or she doesn’t in another, and the final consequences are dire.

Basically, she dies in one of the plot lines, and it’s terribly sad. The other ends with a glimmer of hope, after GP kicks her cheating man to the curb.

But my point, (as I always try to have one,) is that there were two simultaneous narratives going on.

Two timelines. And I’m on about parallel realities today for a reason.

I promise.

That’s because I went into my book pile today and found “The Door Opened: 1980’s China,” by Adrian Bradshaw, (published by Impress,) an exceedingly well-produced object, in a black fabric box.

I did a heavy, deep-dive, historical column about China not-too-long-ago, and my frivolous opening about Gwyneth Paltrow should have hinted that we’ll keep it (mostly) light today.

This book, and its representation of China, is mesmerizing from the jump. The opening text, alternately in English and Mandarin, has hot graphic design, red and black.

You learn what you need to, though an opening essay and Q and A with the artist, and then you’re off, with the book being broken down into sections that each have short amounts of text. (Children, Country Life, etc.)

Over the course of the book, we learn Adrian Bradshaw has lived in China most of his adult life, and seems to have married a Chinese woman, raising a family there. For years, in particular in the vital decade of the 1980’s, he photographed prolifically in black and white with a series of Leica cameras. (There’s mention of a million photographs.)

We see Deng Xiaoping, working a cigarette HARD, as he’s the leader associated with China’s opening, in the 80’s, when the first taste of Western life and Capitalism were allowed in, after the deep deprivation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Adrian Bradshaw was on the ground, photographing amazing change, and the book contrasts the still-ancient-looking China of rural society, (and at times the urban working class,) with the rapidly modernizing sub-culture in the cities, Shanghai and Beijing, where fashion was taking root.

People were no longer forced to dress in military navy, gray or green. Prints were available in department stores, where people waited forever for disinterested state workers to help them.

And there were suddenly hipsters in China.

Hipsters!

These pictures are so good, and the ones that are blown up large or full-bleed are dynamite.

For the breadth of Chinese life we see here, and it is a significant range, there is noticeably nothing political.

No police, no protests, or military are present, unless they’re photos of painted propaganda posters, or soldiers in period garb for a Bertolucci film.

With one glaring exception.

There is a photo of soldiers carrying a flag in Tiananmen Square, with a portrait of Mao looming in the background, (from 1986,) and I thought to myself, well, how many years until the quashed uprising/protest/mini-rebellion there?

3 years later, in 1989.

Beyond that wicked bit of foreshadowing, whether intentional or not, the content mostly adheres to what would be acceptable to censors.

Markets. Street life.
Villages.

People.

I love this book, yet all morning, even though I was on deadline, I couldn’t quite get to write the review.

It’s like I was waiting for something.

 

So there I was, stretching out my shoulder in my living room with a weighted ball, and I craned my neck to the side in an unnatural position, to try to un-do a little knot.

Right in my line of sight, on the book case, was the Ai Weiwei book “Interlacing,” and I remembered it had a series of images that the Chinese artist made in New York City, in the 1980’s, when he lived there as a young man.

In a flash, I knew how I could write about the first book, because how could this not work?

Parallel timelines?

Right?

I’m not going to review the entire second book, because I can’t do 2500-word-mega-columns each week, but these photographs clearly depict the vision of a creative young man who was exercising freedoms he did not have back home.

Ai Weiwei and his hipster, artist buddies.

Hanging out with American art and culture luminaries like Allen Ginsburg.

So cool.

But beyond the gallery shows and art experiments, there is hard journalism here too.

He’s made images of police arresting people, political protest, and a still-chunky-Reverend-Al-Sharpton during his regrettable Tawana Brawley phase.

Even crazier, the book features a few photographs from the Tomkins Square Riots in 1988.

If you don’t remember what they were, you’re not alone, as I was 14 years old at the time, living about fifty miles away, and I never heard of it.

The short version is, the NYC Police either instigated, or participated in a full riot in an East Village park that was being used as a homeless encampment, and loitering place for squatter types.

One of the rallying cries was “Gentrification is Class Warfare.”

Sound familiar? (Everything old is new again.)

The cops, it was later proven, went buck wild, and severely beat protestors and innocent bystanders, with clubs, hands and feet.

They covered their badge numbers, or didn’t wear badges at all, and supposedly the whole thing was like something out of a movie.

Nasty business.

And Ai Weiwei was there in the middle of it, shooting documentary photographs.

From just a few images in “Interlacing,” we see a Chinese citizen freely photographing government violence, in America, while had he done so in China a year later, he would have been locked up forever.

(And of course he was famously jailed for a few months in 2011.)

Meanwhile, with Adrian Bradshaw’s photos, the 6’2″ Englishman gives us the outsider/permanent resident’s perspective of China just as it’s starting to grow and change, irrevocably, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, all wanting their televisions, washing machines, and fancy home computers.

How bizarre.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, well-made document of China in the 80’s, just as it’s beginning to rise

To purchase: “The Door Opened: 1980’s China” click hereΒ 

 

 

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