This Week in Photography: A Living Legend

 

 

I took some heat for last week’s column.

(About Grandpa Sam.)

 

 

There was no blowback from the haters. Those anonymous trolls that used do drive me and Rob crazy back in 2011.

No.

This time, the negative feedback came from members of my family, (via social media,) who objected to my depiction of Grandpa Sam.

 

 

They say time heals all wounds, and of course some people find it unseemly to speak ill of the dead, so I’ll be kind and assume that’s what was happening.

(Plus, I’m washing my family’s dirty laundry in public, which can be objectionable as well.)

But I shared only a fraction of Grandpa Sam’s indiscretions, and didn’t even mention that Grandma divorced him, in her 80’s, as there were plenty of stories about him laying hands on her. (And not in a Pentecostal-Christian kind of way.)

Grandpa was so disliked, at the end, I don’t think anyone in my family even knows when or where he died, as once Grandma left him, (and got a new boyfriend named Sy,) we all lost touch with Grandpa Sam.

Now it’s 2021, and even though he was an abusive drunk, ranked his grandchildren by favorites, and bought people off with money and gifts, apparently I’m the asshole, (to some,) for writing about it.

These days, you can’t win.

 

 

These days, everyone has an opinion about everything.

I know I shouted out Bo Burnham’s “Inside” last week, but really, it deserves a bit more exploration here.

The Netflix special has been rightly received as a masterpiece; the kind of work only someone who’s been building a distinctive style, and obsessively working on craft for years, could even hope to achieve.

(It’s that entertaining, smart, touching, and nuanced.)

 

 

One of our favorite parts, (we’ve watched it multiple times as a family,) is his bit about what it’s like living in a world in which every single person seems to think it’s appropriate to share their thoughts about every single subject, all the time.

Like a good, self-aware Zoomer, Bo Burnham makes sure to mock himself as one of the endless opinion-sharers out there, and I’d have to do the same too.

But he’s a professional comedian, so it’s his job to share his thoughts, and I’ve had a biographical opinion column for a decade, so it comes with the territory here as well.

 

 

While some, among the younger generation, are able to understand nuance and gray area, others, perhaps from older generations, are more familiar with the norms and mores of bygone eras.

You know: when the planet wasn’t on fire, there were seemingly “unlimited” resources to plunder, the patriarchy was unquestioned, and proper men never said they were sorry.

I guess my big mistake last week was comparing Grandpa Sam to Donald Trump, because that tied it to partisan politics, though the connection was really about their mutual love of gold, casinos, and acting like a Mafia Kingpin.

 

DJT’S gold apartment

Obviously, I’m being careful not to name the relatives whom I offended last week, but I’m sorry I hurt your feelings!

Grandpa might have been a wife-beating jerk and a nasty drunk, who treated me like shit, but hey, it’s bad form to speak ill of the departed.

Mea Culpa!

 

 

But it wouldn’t be one of my articles if the opening rant was completely divested from the review at the bottom, right?

We have to talk about a book, or photography in some way, and hopefully, it will all make sense.

Right?

 

 

Well, today, I was put in this frame of mind after looking at the amazing photo book “Signs,” by Lee Friedlander, published by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, in conjunction with a 2019 exhibition.

This is one of those books that needs little build-up, or explanation, because the one-word title tells you everything you need to know.

 

 

For the uninitiated, Lee Friedlander is as old school as it gets in American Photography; a living master who has such a distinctive style, it changed the way we all look at street photographs.

Forever.

This dude, with his busy, head-ache compositions, constant curiosity, and wandering, black and white vision, is like Madonna, or Chuck Berry.

 

 

He changed the game so significantly, future imitators who drafted on his vision still did well, such is the joy we all feel at looking at the drama of the street.

We can name drop Walker Evans as a forebear, especially with the signage in this one, and of course Robert Frank was out there in the 50’s too, (and Garry Winogrand,) making work with some crossover.

But Lee Friedlander pictures, in the end, look only like Lee Friedlander pictures, whether it’s the constant inclusion of vertical sign-posts breaking up his compositions, or reflections in the windows, making us see ourselves in his work.

This book is a compilation, in which the editors have included images from the 1950’s through the 2010’s, and that’s why it’s so great.

Because we get to see all these American eras smashed up against each other.

Of course people who came of age in the 1950’s would see America through a vastly different lens than the Zoomers.

And how could irony-loving, ambiguity-friendly, slacker Gen Xers always make sense to Boomers, who were reared in a binary, zero-sum-game world of hip/square, good/bad, and Commie/Patriot?

The book is a literal trip down memory lane, (not that I’ve ever used that cliché phrase before,) and occasionally makes strong points, like having a George Wallace image above one of Trump, while JFK and MLK sit in a vertical diptych on the opposite side.

Everyone will love this book… unless they dismiss it outright, because it was made by a white, cisgender male who was using a camera as a tool of the patriarchy to appropriate other peoples’ cultures without consent.

(See, I can make fun of both sides. And I mock myself here all the time, so you know I’m willing to be the butt of the joke.)

 

 

Anyway, that’s enough for today.

Will I have to eat a new bunch of shit from my relatives for this column?

Probably.

But it’s just, you know, uh, like, my opinion, man.

Take a chill pill.

And see you next week.

To purchase “Signs” click here

 

This Week in Photography: Portfolios from the LACP Review

 

 

My grandfather was a criminal.

(Step-grandfather, actually.)

 

 

Grandpa Sam, (as he liked to be called,) came into our lives when I was about ten, since my actual grandfather died of cancer when I was three.

He was a larger-than-life character, Grandpa Sam, like a mini-Trump, as the dude couldn’t have been taller than 5’3″.

But Grandpa was as stout as he was tall, so there was nothing little about him.

 

 

While I was on the phone with my cousin Jordan the other week, we got to sharing stories about Grandpa Sam, and it occurred to me he’d make an amazing character in a film.

(Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, as we all know.)

As I was on my break from the column, (and all email and social media distraction,) I did a bit of research, and turned up proof that he was actually a crook, and not the wannabe we had assumed.

Grandpa Sam was busted by the Feds, the freaking ATF, back in the early 80’s, for running a scheme to pass French table wine off as high-end Burgundy.

They shut him down and fined him, but he avoided jail time, and given how close this was to when he met Grandma, I’m pretty sure she knew what was up.

The two of them were all about the gold and the diamonds; jetting off to casinos, where he was treated as a whale, or taking cruise ships to far-flung locales.

 

 

We all have our tales, like the time he tried to pick up my wife at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, and actually made Grandma show off her diamond ring, so that Jessie knew for sure how much better he’d treat her than I could. (As a poor, hipster artist.)

But memories are just that, and internet research is an entirely different thing.

I now have proof that he wasn’t lying about being shot down by the Nazis, in World War II, and kept as a POW until the war ended.

I even have the photographs for you: images that show his plane, the ironically named “Lucky 13,” on the ground with Hungarian fighters swarming over the wreckage.

 

 

Then, I found out his partner in the wine-scheme, a Frenchman, was himself accused of being a Nazi collaborator, so Grandpa Sam appears to have gone into the criminal business with someone who stood on the opposite side of the Holocaust.

(Again, you can’t make this shit up.)

And I only discovered it because I let my mind untether from email and social media.

There’s a lesson in that.

 

 

I’ve promised myself not to return to my previously addicted ways, because really, how many times do we need to hear Facebook manipulates its platform to maximize the hours we use it?

Or how many articles do we need to read about the toxicity of email, and how much we all hate it?

I can now see that spending hours a day, cycling between email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, was actually rotting my brain and my soul, from the inside out.

(Addiction is nasty.)

 

 

Creativity, on the other hand, keeps us young and mentally agile. It was the theme of my last couple of columns, before the break, and wouldn’t you know that while I was away, the WaPo published this great article that confirmed almost everything I’ve been telling you over the last ten years.

Vindication!

But that only works if we have the discipline to find the time to stay creative.

To focus, and grow.

(No easy task.)

Will I ever write that screenplay about Grandpa Sam?

I’m not sure.

Even without email and social media, parenting, work, bill paying, caring for elderly relatives, driving back and forth to town, all these things split our day into little chunks, which makes it difficult to find 2-5 hours a day to get the good shit done. (1000 words at a time I can handle.)

Then again, when I visit portfolio review events, (IRL or on Zoom,) I constantly meet artists who are transitioning from another career.

People who’ve taken a leap of faith, later in life, because they learned that living without art, without having that creative spark on the regular, is more trouble than it’s worth.

It’s why I constantly preach inspiration here, because many of you have day jobs, and it’s a struggle to find the juice to make things, when you’re worn out and weary.

When we do, though, it almost always gives more energy than it takes.

(I’ve recently rejoined my martial arts classes, post-vaccination, and even getting beaten and bruised gives more juice than it consumes.)

Now that I’m back from my thirteen days without writing, I can gladly say it feels good to have this sensation again.

Writing in flow.

And while Grandpa Sam may have just been an excuse for a fun opening rant, where we landed was not an accident.

I mentioned portfolio reviews because today, we’re going to jet back in my memory files to January 2021, but not for the reasons you’d expect.

Rather, that’s when I attended the virtual portfolio reviews by the Los Angeles Center of Photography, and while it’s taken longer than I might have liked, today we’ll peek at the best work I saw that day.

As usual, the artists are in no particular order, and I’d like to thank all of them for allowing us to share their creations with you here today.

 

 

Let’s start with Kat Bawden, as she’s one of the photographers I’ve met over the years who returned to show me work again, and totally blew me away.

I first reviewed Kat’s pictures in 2017, and was unimpressed by a social documentary project that didn’t seem specific, or driven by a deep need. I shared my thoughts, and according to Kat, it lit a fire in her to push towards a more authentic style that channeled her inner reality.

I tend to give credit to the artist in such situations, (and not the advice-giver,) but man, did Kat take that motivation and grow at hyper-speed.

This time around, we looked at a set of edgy, disturbing, film-noir-esque, black and white images that were inspired by childhood trauma and repressed memory.

The photographs are phenomenal, and Kat just reported she’s matriculating to get an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so I expect we’ll be seeing much more from her in the future.

 

 

Galina Kurlat and I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where we might have met before, but I couldn’t place it. We were definitely at Pratt Institute at the same time, earlier this Millennium, so maybe that was it.

No matter, as when it came to checking out her new work, I was amazed from the jump.

Like Bo Burnham’s brilliant new Netflix special, “Inside,” this work could not have been made without the intense, miserable pandemic lockdown restrictions, which limited what artists could do, and where they could do it.

Living in New York during the worst of it, Galina had some photo paper, the sunlight coming in through her windows, and the fluids and hair that came out of her body. (It sounds gross when your write it like that, I know.)

The resulting images, in which she used her hair, blood, saliva and urine, along with old bathwater in the photographic process, are quite beautiful, despite the bleak reasons for their creation.

Major wow on this project, for sure.

 

Matthew Welch is based in SoCal, but showed me a series of “Flow” images he made around the world. The process is intricate and simple, in that he stands in one spot, and makes so many images that life’s natural drama is sure to unfold.

According to Matthew, in one instance he took 100,000 images near the waterfront, in Hermosa Beach, and I can’t really imagine what it’s like to do something like that.

It’s a pretty good expression of focus, determination, and drive, to which I alluded at the beginning of the column. Cool stuff.

 

 

Next, we’ve got Natalie Obermaier, who works as a lighting expert in the fashion and commercial photography community in LA. She mentioned how hard it is to do that work, and stay creative as a photographer, so her style evolved into something more tactile, and constructive.

Literally, as she makes collages out of strips of images, which critique the fashion industry, while still celebrating a bit of glamour.

 

 

At first, I must admit, I was dubious when I met Jamie Johnson, because I was aware she made photographs of Irish Travelers, the Gypsy/Roma community in Ireland, and that is a subject I’ve seen many times before.

Like Cuba, it’s on the photo-tour-circuit, so I told her I’d expect her more of a reason than just taking a trip with a guide, and she certainly had the right answers.

Jamie has photographed children for years, in various projects, and considers it her area of expertise, so she’s invested a lot of time visiting with the Traveler children, including a copious amount of interviews.

The series became a book, published by Kehrer Verlag, and it’s a compelling offering for sure.

 

 

Jacque Rupp is a photographer who made a later-in-life career change, in Northern California, and became interested in how little she knew about the community of people who grow the food that’s eaten in California, and across the country.

(The Central Valley grows much of the produce for the US.)

She did the deep dive, getting to know people in the farm-worker community, doing the research, creating relationships, and the resulting documentary photos are well worth looking at.

It’s another example of outside-the-community projects that have been frowned upon over the last few years, but I believe that if photographers are earnest, care for the right reasons, and put in the leg work, we should consider what they’ve made with kindness, and an open heart. (Not everyone agrees. I get it.)

 

 

Last, but certainly not least, we have Benjamin Dimmitt, whom I knew from social media, but not IRL. (I guess even these meetings were on Zoom, so Benjamin, hope we can connect in meat-space one of these days!)

Benjamin was a long-time New Yorker who relocated to the South, but he’s originally from Florida, where his project was shot.

Literally every day now, we’re reading stories about how bad Climate Change has become, and how reservoirs are drying up across the West, and sea levels are rising on the coasts.

It’s abstract, in a frog-getting-boiled-alive-in-a-pot-of-water kind of way.

Many of Benjamin’s photos, which were shot in Florida, about 70 miles North of Tampa, show the changes wrought, as they were made with large time gaps. (Between 10 and 34 years, depending on the diptych.)

But from a technical and asethetic perspective, I preferred the single, square images he showed me, which were made more recently.

They’re beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

 

 

That’s it for today, though, so see you next week, and stay cool out there!

This Week in Photography: #2020 Flashbacks

 

 

It’s July 1st, as I write this.

(Which means #2021 is half over.)

How did we get here?

 

 

We’ve lived six months of this year already, but somehow, the horrific events of January 6th still feel fresh.

And the moment when a nice, male nurse first stuck a needle in my arm, in Amarillo, Texas, in early March, seems like it just happened.

 

The Amarillo vaccination clinic parking lot

 

I can taste the tang of the barbecue sauce from Tyler’s, as we slathered it all over a huge tin of baby back ribs, and a pound of slowly-smoked brisket.

The jalapeño creamed corn was amazing, and the bread pudding was even better.

It might have been yesterday, according to my consciousness, but then again, it was four months ago.

 

 

The Pacific Northwest, which is typically rainy and cool, has been trapped under something called a heat dome, and if I read the news correctly, it just killed 500 people in British Columbia.

Here in mountains of Northern New Mexico, where it’s normally hot and dry this time of year, we’ve had ten days of cold rain, with dense, gray skies, and people are starting to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder.

My daughter’s always said she loved gray days, (since it’s sunny all the time here,) and even she changed her mind, claiming she doesn’t want to live in Portland anymore.

She misses the sun, and that’s saying something.

It’s almost enough to remind me of the time, early last September, when a snowstorm hit just after Labor Day Weekend, and birds literally dropped dead, falling from the sky in droves.

End times stuff for sure.

 

 

But then again, isn’t #2021 better than #2020?

I mean, much better?

Aren’t you happier?

Don’t you feel safer?

Have you gotten Donald Trump out of your head yet?

Have you seen “Mare of Easttown?”

 

 

Do you care the Phoenix Suns are going to the NBA Finals? Or that England beat Germany at Euro 2020?

Did you know Euro 2020 was being played in #2021, but they didn’t bother to change the name, likely b/c it would have meant a whole new round of paying the graphic designers and branding experts?

Were you aware the Olympics are about to start in Tokyo, even though vaccination rates in Japan are low, and the whole thing might turn into the biggest super-spreader event of all time?

Do you remember when you’d never heard the term super-spreader before?

Or Covid?

Can you recall #2019, when Corona was just a Mexican beer brand, or the Spanish word for crown?

 

 

The thing about terror is you feel it.

It’s not an intellectual concept.

Terror is visceral.

It’s a physical sensation, (a triggered state, if you will,) when fear is so overwhelming that parts of the body, like the pre-frontal cortex, shut down a bit, and we’re left as half-people.

Shadows.

Terror makes people hunt witches, or choose to die rather than get a little needle in the arm to prevent disease.

That kind of emotional insanity, when we do counter-productive things, and spin brain circles until we’re ready to explode, it’s hard to remember what it feels like, once passed.

Which is the reason Nazis made a comeback last year, because there are so few humans still alive who survived their reign of evil in Germany back in the 1930’s and ’40’s.

These days, tens of millions of Americans have been convinced there are “some very fine people” among the Nazi contingent, and that wasn’t even a #2020 quote.

(Just the 2017 opening act.)

 

 

 

 

#2021 is half over, and while I was desperate for #2020 to arrive, given #2019 left me breathlessly exhausted, I most certainly regretted my foolishness.

So I’m happy we still have another six months in #2021, because I’ve finally begun to feel human again, and safe, and I’m not ready to give that up.

Are you?

 

 

I admit, this column is stream of consciousness, (even for me,) and it might be because it’s the last week before my staycation, and my brain is mostly cooked.

Perhaps.

Or it could be that I just finished looking at “Jesus Fucking 2020,” an absurd little ‘zine that showed up early last November, by the artist and critic Andrew Molitor, and it totally channels the energy from that space in time.

So let’s call that a trigger warning, shall we?

If you’d rather not be reminded how you felt back then, I’d recommend you skip the photos below.

It’s not that they’re disturbing, necessarily, though the deep-black-color-palette references horror films, and there are images of screaming.

Rather, I think it’s just weird and nonsensical enough to give you flashbacks to October #2020, right before the US presidential election, when it seemed the entire fate of the world hinged upon what happened in the subsequent months.

And didn’t it?

 

 

Knowing what we know now, do you understand why I obsessively wrote about DJT for five years?

Why I feared for my children’s future, from the moment I heard him exclaim, “Not a puppet. You’re the puppet.”

It all came to pass, the very worst of it, with millions dead around the world from the pandemic, and chaos in the streets of America.

And yet…

Here we are, in July of #2021.

And for much the US, things are so much better than they were back in the autumn of #2020.

When one might rightly have wondered whether we’d gotten stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, only every day was Halloween.

Which Andrew Molitor speculated, as he created his ‘zine back in October of last year.

 

 

He writes fake scenes in the ‘zine, which is a conceit I’ve played with in the column several times over the years, but not lately.

My favorite part is the repeating joke that Zoom is better than nothing, because how many times did we all say that?

I just decided to take a summer break from my Antidote online educational program, as the system we’d set up for a stay-at-home world, in which people were so very lonely, no longer seemed as relevant.

We’ve moved on, here in the US, (thanks to our abundance of vaccines,) but forgetting how we got here would be a huge mistake.

 

 

 

So please forgive Andrew’s blasphemous title, if you’re particularly religious, as I think he meant no offense.

It was the right combination of words, back in 10/20, to capture the flavor of the moment.

And as he lives in the Pac Northwest, I’m sure he’s currently baking his _______ off, trying to stay cool and not die.

That’s the thing with Climate Change, right?

It’s like that old expression: out of the frying pan, and into the fire.

 

So as Andrew wrote on the back of his ‘zine, “Be good to one another,” and I hope you have a lovely 4th of July weekend, if that’s a holiday you celebrate.

See you in a couple of weeks.

 

To learn more about Andrew Molitor, visit his blog here

 

This Week in Photography: Hunting Witches

 

 

I’d like to talk about creativity today.

 

It’s a big deal, summoning something out of nothing.

To birth an idea or object into the world, where it can exist outside of us, and live on its own.

 

 

This elusive nature of creativity, (and the fact it’s better understood through a metaphysical prism, rather than a practical one,) means most people believe art talent is a gift that some have been given, and others not.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t draw,” “I can’t cook,” or “I became a curator because my art wasn’t good enough?”

 

 

As a long-time educator, I assure you, I’ve heard all these exclamations before. (Many, many times.)

But in addition to being a teacher, I’ve also been writing every week for almost 10 years, which gives me a totally different perspective on creativity.

Weekly deadlines mean that being creative, for me, isn’t a choice.

I’ve got to bring the heat, every week, even when I don’t feel like it.

(When I’m tired, grumpy, or don’t find the world that interesting.)

That’s the aspect of creativity I wanted to focus on today.

The idea that we are not the master of our best impulses. That we do not get to dictate when, where and how the inexplicable elements of our psyches rise up from the depths of our consciousness.

It doesn’t work like that.

 

 

I often tell my students there is no such thing as an art boss.

If you’re an artist, making your own stuff for yourself, no one gets to tell you what to do.

You follow the whims of your instincts, and chase down stories you’re desperate to know more about.

For you.

In all my years doing this work, I’ve discovered that humans are interested in just about everything, so someone out there is going down a rabbit hole you didn’t even know existed.

And they’re likely doing it because they love it.

Because it gives them pleasure, understanding, information, or a fresh perspective on the world.

However, that well-spring, the ineffable part of us that drives our best efforts, also needs a break every now and again.

(Like the body, the mind occasionally needs rest.)

It’s why I’ve taken a couple of weeks off here, the last few years, because even I need those two chances to let my brain stop working. (A week in summer, and one at Xmas.)

 

 

I’m not quite there yet, at vacation time, so I’ve got to review a book eventually.

Before I do, though, I want to land one last point on this subject: stress, misery, unhappiness, and anxiety are really bad for creativity.

I remember how hard it was to make art, and generate any good ideas, when I was chair of the Fine Arts Department at my former college, 5 years ago.

I could feel my best self leaching out through cell walls, with each passing week, and the more I was pickled in cortisol and adrenaline, the less of an artist I became.

At the very worst moment, (and there were many,) an older, mentally unstable student came up to me, and screamed “Booooo,” in my face, like a witch, to unnerve and unsettle me.

(No surprise, it worked.)

It was a spontaneous act, which means she didn’t have any time to plan it, but invoking the vibe of ancient, black magic taps into a fear that has existed deep within humans for centuries. (If not longer.)

Here in America, we’ve all heard about the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th Century, and I even had a witch friend once. (Long story.)

If you haven’t seen the brilliant “The Witch,” which came out in 2015 and launched Anya Taylor-Joy, do yourself a favor and stream it, but I promise, you’ll never look at a goat the same way again.

 

 

Witchcraft holds an outsized role in the imagination of popular culture, mostly because of misogyny.

How hard is it to see that in a male-dominated world, the idea of super-powered women, conspiring by firelight at night, might scare the shit out of those in power, the men, who had no interest in relinquishing their control?

(Shout out to the Power and Control instinct.)

Even in the ubiquitous superhero stories of the 21st Century, witches are treated with suspicion, like Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch character in “The Avengers.”

And it’s a world-wide phenomenon, this belief in, fascination with, and fear of witches.

Which brings me to today’s book.

 

 

We’re taking a brief look at “Elf Dalia,” from Maja Daniels, published by MACK in 2019.

After this one turned up, it somehow ended up on my bookshelf, un-reviewed, rather than staying in the submission pile, so I magically discovered it today, when I was looking for some help from the creativity gods.

(I know I’m creatively limping, and promise to come back full of piss and vinegar after I take my summer break.)

Piss and vinegar don’t chase off witches, though, that I’m aware of, but as Monty Python taught us years ago, it is helpful to check whether they float or not.

 

 

All jokes aside, given the tens of thousands of years of shamanistic history, through the human record, I’m not surprised there are still stories of weird shit going down, far from big population centers.

What’s more human than creepy, little, out-of-the-way-places, in far corners of the globe, that give us things to wonder about?

Like Älvdalen, in northern Sweden, which actually has its own language, Elfdalian, spoken there, and nowhere else in the world.

And they executed 21 people under suspicion of witchcraft in 1668!

In 2012, Maja began exploring the place, because her family had a cabin there, I believe. (The book has very little text for context, but I think I have that detail right.)

Maja also discovered a trove of historical, black and white imagery, by Tenn Lars Persson, that also channels the occult, and those images are interspersed with the color photos, which she shot between 2012-17.

I admit, the portrait of the young woman with the “RETARD” tattoo on her neck made me blink a few times, and the ending images, with the creepy faces drawn on the black and white photos, are likely to give me nightmares tonight.

It’s a fun and creative book, this one, and it reminds me a lot of a “Some Kind of Heavenly Fire,” by Maria Lax, a Finnish offering I reviewed last year, so those Scandinavians must have some really weird shit in their collective mythology, for sure.

(If you doubt me, just watch “Midsommar.”)

So that’s what I’ve got for you today.

Some advice about not taking your creativity for granted, and a book that revels in the weird, strange, and unexplained, because really, there is so much out there we don’t know.

See you next week!

To purchase Elf Dalia, click here

 

This Week in Photography: American Made Machines

 

I almost tried this last week.

 

I mean, I did, but then I chickened out.

I went back to my old edit one more time, put in more labor, then MORE, and finally muscled my way to a column I liked.

But what am I doing?

What’s so new?

I’m writing on Friday morning, just before I post the column.

It’s so daring!

So chic.
So risky.

I feel dangerous.

Like John McClane running around the Nakatomi Tower, just knowing he has the grit to deal with whatever they throw at him, and he’ll be good for a witty one-liner while he’s doing it.

 

 

That’s me right now.

Writing on a Friday morning.

It’s like: have you seen those guys who walk the high-wire between two buildings? With no net?

That’s me right now.

Winging it.

 

 

You know why?

Because it’s summer-time, and IDGAF. (If you don’t know the acronym, look it up.)

The United States is finally emerging from the Trump era, which ended with the worst pandemic in 100 years.

The world has been so fucked up, for so long, that I’m finally starting to get all this Roaring 20’s talk.

If staying in your house for a year isn’t enough to make you want to build back better, and get out into the world and do things, now that you can, then please, let me be the one to light a fire under your ass.

To you Americans, (sorry, world,) our country is now safe to explore again. Your IRL hobbies and social interactions can resume.

Grab your chance like a half-pit-bull with a stuffed animal its jaws!

I teach art all the time, (as you know,) and I swear, this process makes us better. We learn about the planet, ourselves, our craft.

It’s a potentially cathartic outlet.

Most artists do it because of that great phrase Kandinsky uttered all those years ago: inner necessity.

That deeply rooted need to create.
To make things.

 

Right now, I’m thinking of someone in particular.

In early January of this year, as the country was on the verge of exploding, I felt the need to do something different.

Here, in the column.

So when Twitter’s algorithm pointed me in a direction, I followed, and discovered the work of Laidric Stevenson, a Black photographer based in Dallas, who uses a large format camera to document his city.

I reached out to him directly, and within days, we’d published his “My Virus Diary project.”

I’d never done a story in that way before, as I always show photographic portfolios from exhibitions or portfolio reviews.

As thanks, Laidric sent me a ‘zine of another project I admired, “American Made Machines,” and it went into the submission pile nearly six months ago.

We got to know each other after that, Laidric and I, and he joined my Antidote online program for a few months this spring, culminating in a pretty great final critique.

I know this guy works two jobs, and is raising a family in Texas.

Yet somehow, he finds the time, in the margins, to cart around his massive film cameras, fiddle with the tripod, and make his art.

The ‘zine, “American Made Machines,” which I finally opened, is a testament to that. (And I think this one was shot with medium format film.)

The opening statement says back in 2014, with the birth of his first child, he didn’t really have time to make work.

Finally, a few small cracks opened in the schedule in 2015, at night, and he found himself inexorably drawn to these big hulking American cars, vans and trucks.

Metal sculptures from a bygone Era.

Carter.
Reagan.
Bush Sr.

Pax Americana.

The easy times.

Before the internet.

Before the pandemic.

Back when Donald Trump was just a rich, entitled, skinny, good-looking, NYC-shyster-rich-guy.

This ‘zine celebrates that America, late 20th Century America, through its car design, and the people who continue to keep their machines going today. (Which the statement mentions can be a tricky thing to do, older cars being fussy.)

So with Juneteenth and July 4th nearly upon us, I wanted to write a positive, short, summer column, and then be on my way.

See you next week.

 

For more info about “American Made Machines” click here

 

This Week in Photography: Cruise Night

 

 

My cousin Jordan asked me to print a retraction.

From last week’s piece.

 

It was an omission, really, but he’s not wrong.

Jordan and my Uncle both mentioned the same thing: for the sake of brevity, I left out one important food experience in last week’s column.

They’re right, so let’s rectify it.

 

In my first actual travel article in more than a year, I chose not to write about the donuts.

Those special, special donuts.

Duck Donuts, to be exact.

At a Saturday pool party, Jordan’s daughter asked for some dessert, after we’d eaten the Luigi’s pizza, and through the wonder of Door Dash, (which I’d never seen in action,) they found a Donut joint in the app, and a variety pack was dropped on the driveway.

At first, I abstained.

I watched the crowd attack the donuts, like Roman crows to human hair, but stayed on my lounge chair, not wanting to give in to the munchies. (Like I said last week, it was a bender.)

Eventually, Jordan said I had to try them.

They were THAT good.

I relented, and within a minute had devoured small sections from three or four different donuts.

(Who am I kidding? It must have been five or six.)

Each donut was a bigger flavor explosion than the last, and the chocolatey browns and saturated colors made you NEED to eat them, even though you knew better.

Truth: they were the best donuts I’ve ever had.

 

 

Duck Donuts
4 stars out of 4

 

 

I mention my Jersey trip.

It reminded me of one thing: we all need to check in with our tribe, now and again.

Our personal clan, sure, but also the local culture where we’re from.

Most people, almost everywhere, prefer to stick close to their local culture, because it’s the operating system that makes us.

The symbols, rituals, in-jokes, music choice, beloved foods, weekend activities, they’re all specific to a place.

Some photographers love to enter cultural communities, spending so much time taking pictures, and asking questions, that eventually they become embraced by the people they’re observing.

In this case, I’m thinking of Kristin Bedford, a photographer I met at the Medium Festival of Photography, back in 2014.

She sat next to me in the lobby and started chatting me up, (not knowing I was a journalist,) and an hour later, I promised to pitch her work to the NYT Lens Blog, and they greenlit the story, which we published that December. 

We stayed in touch over the years, Kristin and I, and recently chatted on Zoom, for a new interview series I’m kicking off, in conjunction with PhotoNOLA and the New Orleans Photo Alliance.

Starting this month, I’ll be doing interviews every other month for their BookLENS program.

In our inaugural piece, I spoke to Kristin in a video interview about “Cruise Night,” her new Damiani book, which showed up in the mail here not to long ago.

You can see the interview in its entirety here.

 

June 2021 BookLENS: Kristin Bedford from New Orleans Photo Alliance on Vimeo.

 

 

But a chat isn’t a book review.

In a proper book review, the opening rant has nothing to do with the book.

Like those donuts, though, “Cruise Night” is so vibrant, saturated, and alive.

Colors this gorgeous, this bright, communicate a joy, a love, an infatuation with the lowrider culture so dear to the Mexican American community in SoCal.

The book is filled with sharply observed details, which suggest someone paying attention, looking carefully.

I think “Cruise Night” is an excellent book, and worth the praise it’s been getting in the media.

Thankfully, I don’t rank books by stars, (only Duck Donuts gets rated today,) but I have to admit, I might have inadvertently created a monster with this restaurant reviewing thing.

After last week’s column, my cousin Jordan seems to have discovered the thrill of rating things.

He’s texting me, giving stars to everything now.

3 stars for this.
0 stars for that.

I’m actually starting to wonder if he’s after my job?

See you next week.

To Purchase “Cruise Night,” click here

 







 

 

This Week in Photography: Going Home

 

 

I wasn’t on the road long, before I saw the wild horses.

It sounds metaphorical, but it’s true.

 

Wild horses in Southern Colorado

 

 

The entire drive north, I was salivating, excited to buy some tasty indica gummies from one of the many weed dispensaries along the way.

But I waited.

I had fantasies, visions of eating a few tasty-treats in the airport parking-lot, having them hit in woozy-waves, just as I was settling into my seat, ready for a sweet-warm-fuzzy nap, until I woke up in Newark, New Jersey.

 

Newark Airport

 

I raced to Denver so I could buy them, and have a nice meal, before I got on the plane.

Four + hours after I left home, I made it to The Clinic, right off I-25 at Colorado Blvd, and some tow-headed, blonde, chubby, frat-boy walked up to the door two seconds before I did.

Typical.

I watched through the glass as he fumbled for his ID, before comically dropping the entire wallet; his money and credit cards scattering in all directions.

(They actually hit the floor.)

What a schmuck, I thought.

I’m so much cooler than that guy.

When it was my turn, I sauntered up to the counter to present my ID, and the guy smirked, before saying, “Do you by any chance have any un-expired identification?”

“Say what now?” I said. “What are you talking about?”

“Look right there, your ID expired in April. Sorry, man, I can’t let you in.”

“I don’t care about the weed, man. I’m about to go to the airport. If I can’t buy pot, how’re they going to let me on a plane?”

The weed guy was stumped.

I was dejected, and limped to the back of my SUV, where I sat down and sent sad-boy-texts, before calling my Uncle to tell him I wasn’t coming.

I was fucked.

He and my brother, though, on the phone, encouraged me to go to the airport and wing it, bc the pandemic meant they’d loosened up the rules on ID.

There was traffic, of course, so I sped to the airport as quick as I could, after grabbing a bad piece of pizza and even worse burrito at Whole Foods, in a mad dash to eat, as I’d skipped breakfast. (Shame on you, Jeff Bezos.)

Cut to the chase: I made the plane.

But only because the parking-guy magically waved me into the closer, more expensive garage, assuring me I wouldn’t be up-charged. And all the nice-people in the security-line let me cut to the front, frogger-style, as I begged apology, and swore I was about to miss my plane.

Yes, I was THAT GUY, on my first plane trip in nearly 15 months.

I was that guy.

 

 

I made the plane by exactly 1 minute.

I had nice nap, and oh by the way, THE ENTIRE FLIGHT WAS FULL.

Every single seat.

Sure, people were wearing masks.

But any prior concept of social distancing, or enforcing the need for personal space, went out the window.

That was Thursday.

 

 

On Friday morning, my cousin Dylan and I agreed to go the pool store with my Uncle, if Dylan could get some coffee, and I could get some pizza, once it got to be lunch.

(I skipped breakfast, in anticipation.)

On the drive West, my Uncle, who had been a professional photographer in the 70’s, told me he had a little spot we should see, maybe for pictures.

I had no idea what he meant, but we headed even further into farm country, from my hometown of Holmdel, NJ.

We cruised out past Marlboro, almost into Freehold.

Right there off the highway, there was a little road, and then a parking lot, and then a totemic 18th Century building.

Right off the highway.

It was radiating power, this old house.

 

The 18th C Craig House

Ironically, a local, professional photographer had just turned up, to take some portraits of a child, set against the creepy structure.

There was a little kiosk with information and literature, and I learned this was the Craig House, at the edge of the Monmouth Battlefield State Park.

The famed Revolutionary War battlefield!

 

 

At its edge, this, the former residence of a Scottish family, who colonized the area in the 17th Century, and owned slaves!

This was the place where George Washington fought the English, and drove them back in June of 1778.

George Washington!

I’d been here with Jessie nearly 20 years ago, from the main entrance, on the other side of the park, by the visitor center, so I really had no idea where we were.

Such a gorgeous, important place.

And we’d just casually drove up on it, on our way to the pool store, by the side of the highway.

My uncle says it’s normally empty when he goes there.

 

 

I live in a part of America that was founded by the Pueblo Native people.

The history, here, is of long-extinct volcanoes, ancient migration, Spanish colonization, and the Wild West.

Where I’m from, in Central New Jersey, those pastoral suburbs by the Jersey Shore, the history is completely different.

Holmdel, New Jersey, was founded by Dutch Colonists, in the 17th Century, but belonged to the Lenni Lenape Native people before that.

England battled for, and won, colonial territory from the Dutch and the French, to control the East Coast, and then of course America rebelled against England to become its own country.

Out where I live now, (home for most of my adult life,) Spain took the land from the Native Americans, then Mexico became independent from Spain, and finally America took New Mexico from Mexico in the 19th Century.

 

 

The Monmouth Battlefield has miles and miles of walking and hiking trails, across some beautiful country.

 

 

It is free and open to the public, so if you live anywhere in the Tri-State area, or the Mid-Atlantic or New England regions, you might consider a Post-Covid visit.

And the Shore is just up the highway.

This is the landscape that made Bruce Springsteen, these farms that rolled East to the Sea, in Asbury Park.

In addition to miles of beaches, Monmouth County has 18th Century architecture wherever you look, and small downtown main streets in which old churches have been repurposed as real estate joints, or lawyers’ offices.

 

Scary old barn, across the street from Crown Palace

 

 

 

Dylan and I took a few walks through public land.

One was nearly 7 miles.

We needed it because we ate some gut-bomb pizza on the way back from the pool store, after the battlefield.

Dylan was in a food crash, and anxious to check his work email, and I wanted pizza, so the three of us compromised.

We went to Marlboro Pizza, for slices, in a strip mall on the corner of Rt 34 and Rt 79, and I walked in the door assuming any average, Jersey-strip-mall-pizza-joint would be awesome.

 

Marlboro Pizza

 

This was not.

They had so many choices in the window, so many fancy pies to excite the eyes, but they could not deliver on the pretty visuals.

Let that be a lesson.

Maybe stick to a few things, and do them well.

I got suckered by the specialty pies, and strayed from tradition, ordering a vodka sauce w/ fresh mozzarella slice, and a grandma pizza slice.

 

Vodka sauce pizza and Grandma pizza

 

Both were severely under-seasoned, and a bit greasy.

Not special.

Dylan was also underwhelmed by his slices, and my Uncle’s piece left drips of grease on his plate.

On the plus side, we shared 1 slice of chicken-parmesan-pizza, (cut three ways,) and that was pretty great, but I only got a few bites, and it wasn’t enough to overturn the very mediocre review.

Marlboro Pizza
1 star out of 4

 

 

To burn it off, Dylan and I headed into the nature trails in the Ramanessin Brook Greenway, which connects swamp land, creek trails, and beautiful, public meadows & farmland across the entire town of Holmdel.

 

The map to the Holmdel trail network

 

We walked 6.5 miles, all told, and barely scratched the surface, but it gave us plenty of time to talk about life, as Dylan is 26, with a great head on his shoulders, and just got engaged to his high school sweetheart.

(I gave lots of older-cousin-advice, but we’ll keep that between Dylan and me.)

 

Dylan, my wingman for the weekend
Approaching Bell Works
The back of Bell Works
Ramanessin Brook

 

We walked to the back of Bell Works, the super-fancy-redevelopment I wrote about in 2019, and they have restaurants and coffee shops in there now.

And plenty of parking.

You can check out the shops, (Exit 114 on the Garden State Parkway,) leave your car, and enjoy all the nature, for free.

At the far end of Holmdel, the public land connects, across a school, to Cross Farm Park, which has ball fields, walking trails, and an early 19th Century cemetery.

 

19th C Cemetery at Cross Farms Park

 

The massive Thompson Park, where we walked for an hour on Sunday, is across the street, linking further miles of trails.

 

Thompson Park

 

So a trip to the suburbs in Jersey, these days, can be a day-vacation with hours of amazing walking, in the footsteps of Native Americans, Dutch Settlers, and Revolutionary War soldiers.

 

 

The Chinese food we had Friday night from Crown Palace, which has one location in Marlboro, and another on Rt 35 in Middletown, was brilliant, as expected.

It’s been there forever, and has always been great.

My Aunt ordered way too much, sticking to classics, so the table was covered in food.

Inhaling the egg rolls, with the ground pork and cabbage marrying perfectly with the spicy mustard and sweet duck sauce. Gnawing on the chewy, moist pork spare ribs.
Slurping down the lo mein.

 

Interior, Crown Palace in Marlboro, Looking out at the parking lot

 

It was one of the big reasons I schlepped across the country at the end of a pandemic; to taste the flavors, and remember the smells of home.

To see where I come from.

To reconnect with the people who’ve known me my whole life.

Crown Palace
4 stars out of 4

 

On Saturday morning, Dylan took me for a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel at The Bagel Store in Colts Neck, the neighboring town famed for Mafia horse farms, but while at first he claimed he was bringing me to the best bagel sandwich, (to make up for the shitty Marlboro pizza,) he later admitted, under cross examination, that we only went there because his favorite coffee shop, Rook, was next door.

 

 

Still, it was a great sandwich.

The Bagel Store
3 stars out of 4

 

More pizza for lunch on Saturday, this time from Luigi’s Famous Pizza in Lincroft, (one of my traditional favorites,) as my cousin ordered a pizza margherita, and a half-meatball-half-plain, square-pie.

The margherita pizza was low on flavor, and it had cardboard crust. Not special.

 

Luigi’s Pizza Margherita

 

The meatball half was great. But the regular pizza was just OK, and I actually left New Jersey without having eaten great pizza.

 

Luigi’s half-meatball half plain square pie

(Sad but true.)

Lincroft Pizza
2 stars out of 4

 

After a Saturday pool party at my Uncle’s place, I walked the half-a-mile to my friend Mandi’s house, as she was throwing a birthday party/ mini-high school reunion, at my behest.

 

Putting my feet up

 

(It was her birthday, but I suggested the party, as I’m not in town often.)

Everyone thought I was crazy to walk, even though it’s just around the corner.

I was almost there, rounding the bend, really when a shiny, white Tesla rolled by, and like something out of an 80’s movie, it suddenly stopped ahead of me, the tail lights blazing, and slowly backed up.

It could be anyone, behind the wheel, but I was sure it would be good.

The reveal.

Who would it be?

The window rolled down, and it was: Brett Frieman, my childhood-best-friend, who dumped me when I couldn’t attend his wedding, (because of a last-minute scheduling change,) twenty years ago!

We made-up at the official 20th HHS reunion in 2012, but I hadn’t seen him since.

He’s known me since I’m 4 years old.
Since pre-school.

Those bonds are old.

 

 

And so was the house.

From 1750, though it’s been updated since.

Mandi put out a feast, and the crowd was a bit random, (if I’m being honest,) but there was as much booze as there was food, and several people had not socialized indoors yet, post-pandemic, so they let loose.

Mandi’s Mac and Cheese was pretty delicious, and probably better than my version.

 

Mandi’s Mac and Cheese is better than mine
The scary room was behind that door

 

We drank and caught up for two and a half hours, but as I’d been partying for two days straight, despite the nostalgia, it was time to go.

Mandi agreed to walk me out, but I was in the lead.

Immediately, we stepped into an old, wooden, pitch-dark room, right off the modern kitchen, and I got the super-creeps. The heebie-jeebies.

The hairs raised on the back of my neck.

No joke.

“C’mon, Mandi, that’s not fair,” I yelled.

“What,” she replied, “I’m right here with you.”

“Well, turn on the lights,” I said. “You might like getting freaked out in a pitch-dark, haunted, 300 year old house, but I don’t.”

 

 

On Sunday, before another pool party, my Uncle drove me to the beach in Long Branch, at Pier Village, which is 20 minutes away, but we were only there for 10 minutes.

Beggars can’t be choosers, so I put my face and feet in the Atlantic Ocean.

 

 

We walked along the water.

I felt the sun on my skin.

It was perfect, as I hadn’t seen the sea in nearly two years.

 

 

The last restaurant review has no photos, I’m afraid, as it was Sunday afternoon, on the third straight day of my bender.

I was no longer functional enough to get the photos. It’s true.

My Aunt catered the pool party from Livoti’s, and it was perfect Italian-American food.

 

 

Insanely good, so I finally ate too much, forgot to take that one final walk with Dylan, and regretted it later.

Chicken Parmesan, Eggplant Rollatini, Broccoli Rabe, Cavatelli and Broccoli, Penne with Vodka Sauce.

All flawless.

It’s a shame there are no photos, but we still have to rate them.

Livoti’s
4 stars out of 4

 

 

Today, to gather my thoughts, I went on a big walk around the farm.

I listened to the birds.

I washed my face and hands in the stream.

I ran into my father-in-law, as he checked on the horses.

 

My father-in-law, doing the rounds

 

I asked myself, why do we travel?

Why make the effort?

Well, it’s super-fun, and that’s a huge part of it, for sure.

But I think the crucial thing is, travel makes us smarter, and better.

It challenges us, so we can grow at hyper-speed.

Having new experiences, encountering other cultures, getting lost and having to figure it out, it allows us to evolve into wiser, more capable versions of ourselves.

See you next week.

 

This Week in Photography: Leaving the Nest

 

 

Nobody’s perfect.

 

I’m certainly not.

I make a lot of predictions here, and claim to have the proper “hot take” on so many global issues.

But I don’t get everything right, and when I make a mistake, I own up to it.

 

 

I just got back from New Jersey, (on Monday,) and I’m writing on my customary Thursday.

It’s been less than 72 hours since I returned, and the trip itself took 12 hours, (via Denver,) so what I’m mystified about is that travel leaves a resonance.

Most of me is here in New Mexico, but a shade of my soul is lingering in Jersey, for sure.

Back in 2019, and early #2020, I was traveling so much, it was one big blur, and I wasn’t able to differentiate the biochemical, or metaphysical reactions from each individual visit.

But with this large a gap, I recognized the sensation, and it’s real.

It’s like you left a glimmer of yourself, back where you just were, before an airplane whooshed you up into the sky, and deposited you thousands of miles away.

But that’s not what I’m apologizing about.

 

 

Rather, when I was in New Jersey, (and I promise a full write up in the near future, with photos,) it was amazing to see how much life looked like the “Old Normal.”

There were still masks around, in certain indoor public settings, but the general vibe allowed getting in personal space with loved ones indoors, sharing food, full airplanes, and no social distancing.

Things looked A LOT like they did, before the 15 month pause.

I had it wrong.

(I’m speaking here in America, where vaccinations have been available to all who want them. It’s not a global phenomenon, I know.)

 

 

Trees and rocks have souls, (if I understand things correctly,) in the Shinto religion.

My buddy Kyohei explained it to me once, in an outdoor exhibition space at the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Art objects can have souls too, if you think about it.

Photo books embody the energy the artist puts into each picture, and then the momentum developed over the course of the narrative.

I just put down “Strawberry Parfait,” by Jimi Franklin, published by Denton Books in #2020, and it totally captures the way I feel right now. (A little haunted.)

It’s one of those books that seems like a flip-book-animation from a movie.

Like a continuous narrative, broken down into frozen memories.

Food shots.
Hipsters.
Dimly lit scenes.

If you cross the Wong Kar-wai vibe of “In the Mood for Love” with some of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” you might end up somewhere near the story this flip book would unspool.

The ending essay brings up Shinto, as a root element in Japanese culture, and also says the images were made over a decade.

I must say, I think this book is a gem.

With the rhythmic changes in the image rectangle shape, and the tactile paper that makes you WANT to turn the page, this one’s a winner.

Does it make me want to go to Japan?

Hell yes.

But it also makes me want to look at it again, to go on the ride through this vision, which is always the sign of a very cool book.

To learn more about Jimi Franklin, click here

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: As It Was Before

 

 

It’s been raining for two days straight.

That never happens.

It’s so rare, when I asked my wife and daughter if they remembered the last time it rained like this, they said September 2019.

 

Getting a lot of rain in the desert is great, especially as we’re coming out of a historically bad drought.

When the heavens opened yesterday, Jessie suggested the drought might be over, and of course it felt symbolic.

How could it not?

Hearing the incessant patter on our metal roof, watching the freshly green aspen trees bend under the weight of the water, looking at the gray sky, where normally there’s blue, it feels like we’re somewhere else.

 

 

More than anything, it reminds me of spring in New York, where I once lived, and New Jersey, where I’m from.

Forgive me for having home on the brain, but as I wrote last week, I’ll be there, taking a few days of R&R, when this column goes live on Friday. (I’m writing on a Tuesday, which also adds to the sense of dislocation. I never write on Tuesdays!)

 

But here we are.

 

The mountains are hidden in the storm, their snow-topped peaks enmeshed in clouds, so all I see is green grass, green trees, gray skies, and lots of rain.

Which after two days of this, really does remind me of the East Coast.

Of New York.

 

 

Why am I stuck on this subject today?

Well, there’s always an easy answer, when it comes to a photo book review column. Today, I reached into the bottom of the book stack, and found a submission from October 2020, which was 8 months ago, back when our “old” life just about began to feel normal. (But before the awful horribleness of the Covid Winter.)

What was in the box?

I found a nice note, from Paul Matzner, thanking me for some advice I gave him at the Filter Photo Festival a few years ago, and a copy of “Seeing You in New York,” a self-published book, (printed by Edition One,) that came out last year, with a foreword by Aline Smithson.

Full disclosure, Paul also thanked me in the liner notes, at the end of the book, so I guess our conversation made an impression. (I also published some of his arresting street portraits in the blog as well.)

Time for more honesty: I don’t think this is an amazing book. (Sorry, Paul.)

It’s not bad, by any means, and on the right day I’d call it very good.

I like it, but don’t find it super-distinctive, within the genre.

So why am I writing about it?

 

For as long as I’ve had this column, my main criterion for review is whether a book inspires me to write.

That’s it.

If, after looking at a book, a column germinates in my head, and my fingers slide across the keyboard in rhythm, allowing the flow, then that book is worthy of review.

And that happened today.

Why?

 

Because of context.

You simply can’t look at these images, which were shot between 2008-18, and view them as you would have before the pandemic.

It’s not possible.

Paul captured a wide range of New Yorkers, from diverse cultural backgrounds and age groups, going about their previously “normal” lives.

We see skateboarders, lots of dogs, stoop-sitters, side-walk walkers, stroller pushers, subway-riders, it’s all here.

What once would have been a warm-hearted group of street photos, back in 2008-18, now looks like a naive record of humans doing things we all took for granted.

It’s a life we may have again, but as I wrote last week, we’re all different now.

Will anything ever feel “normal” again?

 

I’m getting on a plane on Thursday.

What comes next?

I don’t know, of course, and Paul Matzner’s book wound me up on this rant.

When sweet pictures feel sinister, as if they represent the last people frolicking on the beach before the Tsunami hits, you know I’m going to be curious.

 

Hope you enjoy the book, and see you next week.

To purchase” Seeing you in New York,” click here 

 

This Week in Photography: The 2nd Annual Advice Column

 

I’ve never swung an axe in my life.

(Before today, that is.)

 

 

I suspect it was connected to do the dream I had, as I woke up at 3 am.

I was driving up a steep hill in my old neighborhood, where I grew up in New Jersey, and just as I was about to make a left turn, towards my old street, Shadow Ridge Court, I noticed an impediment.

Right there, in the middle of the road, was the biggest fallen tree I’ve ever seen.

It was massive in circumference, as big as King Kong’s middle finger, and there was simply no way around it.

Luckily for me, my childhood home, (and the cul-de-sac on which it was located,) was accessed from Galloping Hill Circle, which was appropriately named, so I was able to turn right, and go the long way home instead. (Ending up at the same point, but avoiding the road-block.)

 

The tree was right there, blocking my path.

 

I woke up in the morning, (after having fallen back asleep,) certain of what the dream meant: I needed to help my wife circumvent an energy blockage impeding her happiness.

For once, I’ll keep the details to myself, but she had the same feeling when she arose as well, so I was sure the dream was prophetic.

 

 

I’ve been doing a lot of life re-evaluation in the last few weeks, as the world has begun to open, and I suspect you have too.

How could we not?

(And I wrote this just a few hours before the CDC said it was time to ditch our masks.)

Everything we knew about reality was interrupted for 14 months, and we were powerless to do anything but stay home, if we had the luxury.

I’ve found that in May of #2021, I’m a very different person than I was in March of #2020, as are my wife and children.

We’ve changed in profound ways, and it’s impacting our relationships and decision-making, in cool and powerful directions. (I’ve even begun dispensing random advice in Facebook posts, because I want to share some of the things I’ve been learning through this mind-altering-experience.)

Recognizing a blockage, and either removing it, or going around it, is a difficult life-skill, but I believe it can be learned, if we’re aware of our emotional reality, and what’s causing our underlying feelings.

 

 

For example.

I’ve loved watching sports my entire life.

It was the one way I could communicate with my father and brother, as we didn’t have much to talk about, beyond baseball, football, and basketball.

I cannot even begin to estimate how many hours I’ve watched games on television, and in the last ten years, I’ve spent a fair amount of money for all the channels on satellite TV, and then for special streaming services.

All that time.
All that money.

This year, just in the last few months, I’ve lost the taste for it.

The joy is gone.

Ironically, my favorite basketball team, the former-New-Jersey-and-current-Brooklyn Nets, are the new powerhouse in the NBA, as they have three of the top 15 players in the world.

The Nets are likely to win an NBA Championship in the next few years, (if not this July,) yet I’m jumping off the bandwagon, instead of on.

What gives?

Well, the team radically re-invented itself, and invested heavily in some head-case-talent, while clearing its roster several times over, and treating the entire enterprise like a corporate re-brand.

Old-fashioned concepts such as loyalty, leadership, continuity, and respect for the fans, have all gone out the window, for specific reasons I don’t have time to enumerate.

But I’ve taken no pleasure from the Nets’ ascent, so after a bit of griping, I just stop watching.

Similarly, my favorite English soccer team, Arsenal, is run by an American Oligarch, who married Walmart money, and he’s basically run the club into the ground, slowly and steadily, since I became “addicted” to the team ten years ago.

 

Stan and Josh Kroenke, Arsenal’s owners

 

So again, I exercised the only power I have, and turned off the TV.

Stress relieved, problem solved.

At the moment, I despise the system that is delivering sports to me, as it is filled with the type of greed and inequity that I wouldn’t stomach in my real life.

So why would I want to pay to feel shitty with my “entertainment?”

 

 

Last year, a week or two after the Covid-19 lockdown began in earnest here in the US, I wrote an advice column for you.

It had nothing directly to do with photography.

I suggested things would get hairy, and even entering into other peoples’ physical space, their 6 foot window of safety, would likely lead to drama, and perhaps violence.

We all know that prediction came true.

My article, or the points within it, was featured by Michael Abatemarco, in the Santa Fe New Mexican, because that type of direct, let’s-talk-about-what’s-happening rhetoric felt of the moment.

 

Excerpt courtesy of the Santa Fe New Mexican

Today, I decided that America’s re-opening, and how we deal with it, was worthy of an Advice Column Part 2.

So here we are.

 

 

Next week, I’m going home to New Jersey, to my hometown, to visit with my family and high school friends.

It will be the first airline trip I’ve taken in nearly 15 months, and the first travel I’ve done since returning from Houston on the eve of the lockdown in March #2020.

I’m scared and nervous, but also excited and thrilled.

My wife and kids gave me permission to go anywhere, really, as a thanks for how I’ve been a support to them through this trying time, and I wanted to go home.

To see my people.
To eat my favorite pizza.

And visit the sea.

I’m going to write about it for you as a travel piece, and will share how it feels to get so far out of my comfort zone, all so that I can return to the place that made me.

As a new man.

 

 

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Why did I swing an axe today?

What was it all about?

Well, we had an aspen tree stump, and a dead aspen tree, clogging up our front garden.

They were eyesores, abutting our big red fence, and every time we sat outside, or came in from the driveway, they were a symbol of death and decay.

 

The stump
The dead tree

 

All around them, new aspen shoots were coming up, ready to take their place.

Life was trying to start anew, to begin fresh, but the deadwood, (a term they use in English soccer,) was blocking the growth.

And reminding us, visually, of what had come before.

Of what what we had lost.

So today, after having that dream about a fallen tree, and telling my wife I was willing to make some sacrifices to help unblock her Qi, I headed over to my in-laws, looking for a hatchet.

But there was no hatchet.

Only an axe.

 

The axe and the saw

 

Turns out, chopping down trees, and taking out stumps, is hard work.

 

Getting psyched up to swing the axe
Making friends with the tool

 

(Harder than I expected, anyway.)

And it requires a lot of concentration, to ensure the axe doesn’t rebound back and cut off your toes.

I had to shoo the dog away, so she didn’t get hurt, and then use a saw to finish the job.

It was gratifying, and the yard looks much better. (My wife said so, and she knows what’s up.)

In the end, though, as I tried to remove one last little stump, I found the axe and the saw wouldn’t work.

I tried, and tried, but to no avail.

I used my Kung Fu grip, (shout out to Eddie Murphy,) and still, no dice.

Effort upon effort, but no success.

This one little root just wouldn’t let go.

Then I had a new idea.
What about the clippers?

I climbed down the sloping rock wall, grabbed a new tool, and the tree stump came up in no time.

It was instantaneous, really.

 

Sweaty and sore when the job was done

 

So yes, I’m leaning into metaphor today, and if you came looking for a photo book review, I apologize for the disappointment.

But the world is so different from how it used to be, and you’re different too.

We all are.

My best advice is to embrace the change, think carefully about your world, and what you want it to be.

And when you hit a roadblock, go around it, or move it out of the way, gracefully and efficiently.

If you need the clippers, instead of the axe, no worries.

Just grab the tool that’s right for the job.

 

 

This Week in Photography: Time to Party?

 

 

Cultures change.

 

Everything changes, as entropy is the natural state of the Universe.

 

Often, the major drivers of cultural change are technological, biological, or because of human migratory patterns.

The first is obvious, as inventions like the airplane, the automobile, and the internet radically altered the way people engage with society.

 

The second should be beyond-obvious, as the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 upended just about everything, with respect to the way life is experienced on Earth.

The last, though, is least understood, as far as when and why it happens, and is often reduced to terms like gentrification, when it’s on a small scale.

Big things like climate change, or war, can cause massive amounts of humans to move at once, as we saw in Europe a few years back, when people were fleeing places like Syria and Afghanistan, en masse.

On a micro-level, though, it’s often tied to economics, or what people perceive to be the hot, new thing.

I experienced gentrification first hand, back in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2005, yet mostly denied the reality that I had been on the first wave of artsy-hipsters moving into an almost-entirely-Polish neighborhood in 2002.

By the time is was properly trendy, in ’05, I wanted no part of it, because if I’d planned to live around a bunch of people like me, I would have chosen Williamsburg, or the Lower East Side.

 

 

Right now, I’ve noticed the first hints of cultural change here in Taos, as we’ve seen thousands of new people move here, during the pandemic, for the wide open spaces, clean air, and relatively rich culture, for a micro-city. (Though I still insist the restaurants suck.)

I’ve had lots of discussions about this in the last few months, as we could see people had come here, with California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado license plates, altering traffic patterns, but it was hard to know for sure, as almost everyone was locked down.

And the Instagram-nature of life these days, where beauty is seen as a backdrop, with locations appreciated as something to stand in front of for a photo, plus the reality of remote work, meant that many-if-not-all of the new-comers have not assimilated into society yet.

 

 

What will that look like when they do, I’ve mused to anyone would would listen to my ranting?

Won’t the waves of Californians look around, notice Taos lacks a lot of the base-level things they’ve come to appreciate about life, and then decide to leave, or change things?

I’m no Nostradamus, but just yesterday, I saw my first evidence, as my son was invited into a free, youth basketball program, as no such thing existed.

Everywhere else, they have youth sports, but outside of soccer season, Taos was a barren desert.

Sure enough, the coach is from NorCal, and took it upon himself to start something up for the community, because he had a boy in that age-group, and there was no basketball to be had.

Things change, and sometimes for the better.

 

New York City is poised to have a party summer, so says the media, as America’s biggest megalopolis gets sweaty in the hot season, and people have been cooped up for So Damn Long.

Throw in the high rates of vaccination in the blue states, (relative to the red ones,) and it’s shaping up to be a rockin’ good time, with dancing in the streets, block parties galore, beer and weed on the stoops, and diverse people getting to talk to one another again, face to face.

But I’m guessing this will mostly happen in the outer boroughs, as who can afford to live in Manhattan anymore? (Unless the Covid-rent-drops stick around.)

 

Manhattan used to a borough in which people lived, worked, and celebrated, but over the years, it morphed into a culture for the mega-rich to keep investment homes, the worker bees to head to office towers, and the tourists to come in droves to shop.

The changes, in the form of gentrification, came when certain downtown neighborhoods turned from dangerous to chic, (like SoHo and Tribeca,) and the internet began broadcasting the NYC way of life to the rest of Earth.

So obviously it affected the city, with diners giving way to cafes, and night clubs becoming WeWork offices. (OK, so I skipped a step on that last one. But you get the point.)

Back in the day, before the advent of social media, people who wanted to know what was up had to stay up late, drink lots of alcohol, (or do some blow or X,) and then wait behind a velvet rope to get into a club, unless they were rich and/or famous.

That scent of exclusivity was intoxicating for the masses, as they really wanted to get into that room, where they could drink, dance, observe, talk, kiss, grind, look at art, revel in fashion, or perhaps embrace a persona that would be verboten back in Bay Ridge.

So much of that is gone now.

Unless…

 

Unless there were a photo book that captured the purity of that 90’s vibe: the mashup of drag queens, models, actors, wannabes, pretty people, and stylish regular folks.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could see all that, in front of our eyes, hold it in our hands, as if it were still alive today?

(You know where I’m going with this.)

There is such a book, and it arrived in my mailbox back in October, shortly before the Covid surge that killed half a million people, and rocked New York, America, and the world. (Sending lots of love to everyone in India right now.)

It’s called “In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90’s,” by Steve Eichner, edited by Gabriel H. Sanchez, and published by Prestel in 2020.

Not sure why I never made the connection, when I glanced at the press release, but Steve is brothers with Billy Eichner, one of the funniest people alive, and a man whose entire existence would have been altered by the pandemic.

(I mean, have you seen “Billy on the Street,” in which he charges at strangers on the sidewalk, like a drunk bull, and screams absurdist, often genius, questions at them on camera?)

 

 

But we’re talking about Steve today, not Billy, and his book was a trip down memory lane for me, culturally, if not literally. (I did party once at Nell’s on 14th Street, in 1996, when I was working on “The Devil’s Advocate,” but it was a one-time thing.)

The photos show off the vibe, and are colorful and alive. The mise-en-scene is just right, because Steve Eichner was the house photographer for Peter Gatien’s club empire, including the Limelight, the Tunnel, Club USA and more.

Apparently, these slides sat in boxes in storage in Long Beach, Long Island, for decades, before being rescued, to give us a vision of what Party City NYC #2021 might look like, come July.

(But with different fashion, obv.)

So many bold faced names, including De Niro with Chazz Palminteri, Tupac, Madonna, RuPaul, Leo DiCaprio with Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, Kris Kross, the Supermodels, Jim Jarmusch with Joe Strummer!, TLC, Don Knotts???, the Olsen Twins??????, Mickey Rourke, and more.

We get a shot of Mark Wahlberg and his “entourage,” and I swear, if you can’t tell which guy was Turtle, and which was E, you’re really not trying.

 

 

Of course, this being New York, we get a photograph of Donald Trump, with appropriate red-eye and red tie, holding his belt like the gunslinger he’d become 20 years later.

(Seriously. Fuck that guy.)

The introductions tell us that Peter Gatien got busted for tax evasion, like his Studio 54 predecessors, and was deported to Canada, his home country.

The rents got too high, the clubs closed, and that was that.

End of an era.

Like I said, cultures change, for good and for bad.

 

These days, if you want to know what a celebrity is wearing, you hit up Instagram.

 

 

If you want people to be jealous, you photograph yourself in front of a pretty, exclusive, or expensive backdrop.

(If it isn’t photographed, it didn’t happen.)

But in the 90’s, you had to be there, or you had to hope a good nightlife-photographer took your picture, and that at some point down the line, other people would see how fly you looked.

Who’s ready to party!

 

To purchase “In the Limelight” click here

 

 

This Week in Photography: Returning to Normal?

 

 

Transitions are difficult.

 

The time in between what was, and what’s coming.

People crave a sense of security, and fear the unknown, so when things are uncertain, it leaves a resonance in the air.

(Which might explain the timing of the January 6th insurrection.)

But I’m not writing about politics today.

I promise.

Rather, this week marked the beginning of whatever comes next, in my life here in New Mexico, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

 

 

It began on Saturday when The Paseo Project, which hosts a massive outdoor installation and projection festival in the fall, (which was cancelled in #2020,) partnered with the Taos Spring Arts Festival, and put on a mini-shin-dig on the plaza in Taos.

 

Courtesy of The Paseo Project’s website

 

Jessie and I took the kids and the dog, to go out in public for the first time in 14 months.

As soon as we approached the plaza, the first group of people we saw were maskless, and the kids nearly freaked out, as it was so strange to see and feel.

Everyone else we encountered that night wore a mask, so the jarring introduction didn’t represent the will of the crowd, but by the middle of this week, the CDC was saying that behavior was OK now.

While The Paseo is known for bringing “edgy” art to Taos, this event featured projections of the type of antiquated paintings of Cowboys and Native Americans for which we’ve been known for more than a century.

Does projecting an image of a painting of a serious-looking Native American warrior, on the side of a building in public, make it “edgier” than showing the canvas on a white wall?

For that night, anyway, I didn’t feel like an art critic, and was just glad to see other humans out on the streets, without the air of fear that pervaded so much of Earth since March #2020.

 

 

Yesterday, things really got wild, as I headed to Santa Fe for my first official day on the town in seven months, but even in the fall, I was smash and grabbing, getting in and out of the city as fast as a jewelry-store robber on a motorbike.

This was different.

I had a coffee set up with a NM public art official, who’s also a friend, and then a visit to the New Mexico Museum of Art, where another friend, Kate Ware, had curated an exhibition called “Breath Taking.”

Then I was meant to grab a sandwich and walk around the city with yet another friend, and if you think I’m overusing the word friend, it’s simply because I haven’t seen any friends IRL in so long, I almost forgot what the word meant.

 

 

My plans for outdoor dining were dashed, as it was one of the few rainy days of the year, and wouldn’t you know it, but my windshield wipers were in need of replacing, and one popped off as I entered the city limits.

With rain pelting my car, I drove slowly, and then an undercover cop pulled out directly in front of me, with no room to spare as he exited a gas station, on a slick, dangerous road, and he came so close to causing an accident I nearly peed my pants.

How is it that no sooner do I get to write a travel article for you, shit starts going sideways?

Cops!

What he hell was that guy thinking!

 

 

As I parked my car, ready for my first public meet-up in more than a year, I had to go back to the vehicle three times, before I was settled.

At first, I forgot my mask, then my umbrella, and finally my hand sanitizer.

(To go from global traveler to absent-minded-rube-from-the-sticks in a year was quite the transition.)

My friend and I had both been vaccinated, and sat outside despite the rain, but that first moment, when I took the mask off in public, was so strange.

It’s hard to put into words.

It was like staring at the sun, daring it to blind me, but feeling emboldened to risk it all, out of misplaced bravery.

And then, after five minutes, talking to another person, over a coffee in public, began to seem normal again.

(Though I kind of wish the waitress had brought me the coffee I’d asked for. I was too gun-shy to send it back, as who wants to be an asshole these days?)

 

 

From there, I drove to my favorite public parking lot, determined to get free parking rather than pay tourist prices, and headed across downtown Santa Fe to the New Mexico Museum of Art.

I knew the CDC’s declaration by that point, but kept my mask half around my face, and pulled it up anytime I got within 20 feet of another human.

(Old habits are hard to break.)

Right away, I saw so much bad “Santa Fe Tourist” art, including a painting of polar bears, and a sculpture of a mountain lion.

Who buys that crap?

 

 

The museum was another story, though.

By the end of #2019, I wasn’t even going to museums when I visited cities, because I was so over the experience.

I did it in Amsterdam and Houston, in early #2020, but only to write about it for you.

At that point, I didn’t even feel like the art was entering my brain so much. It was more about what I could share. (I was the conduit for you, the audience.)

Not yesterday.

The first exhibition, by the early 20th C painter Will Shuster, was beautiful, and I returned to the paintings again and again.

Sure, I dodged people, and stayed out of their space, but now-vaccinated, I didn’t operate out of fear, but rather respect.

And looking at the paintings, which captured Native American and Spanish Colonial rituals, felt like drinking an ice cold glass of water on a boiling summer day.

 

 

Refreshing, but also life-affirming.

It wasn’t until later, when I saw Will Shuster’s murals in the courtyard, (which I’d never noticed before,) that I realized the early 20th C Tradition of white men painting and glorifying Native Americans, for profit, would be so frowned upon in #2021.

 

 

And then in the alcove, there was a set of photographs by a contemporary Native American photographer, Cara Romero, that emphasized the point.

Most of the images were good, but one, in which a seemingly-topless model aggressively challenged the camera, while sitting on a desert dune, with her hair covering her breasts, felt like the perfect statement for #2021. (Though it was made in 2017, in the Trump Era.)

Right away, I began asking questions.

Is it OK to stare at this image? Does the artist want me to, or does she want me to feel shame?

It’s not appropriate to objectify the subject, but that’s what’s in the photo, and the photo is on the wall.

Do I look, because she’s beautiful, and it’s an excellent piece of art, or do I not look, as a way of honoring the message of the image?

How’s that for a head-trip?

 

 

 

“Breath Taking” was in the contemporary gallery, down a ramp, and I know that space has not typically been reserved for photography exhibitions.

 

 

But the NM Museum of Art has a new director, Mark A. White, who replaced a long-time director early in the pandemic, so I’m guessing things are different now.

Frankly, after I saw the show, I KNOW they’re different, because while many of the exhibitions I’ve seen Kate Ware curate over the years were made up of framed photographs on the wall, taken from the permanent collection, this was anything but that.

There were videos, drawings, sculptures, installations, pottery, and a theme that was conceived before the pandemic, but heavily altered before the museum re-opened.

(Unlike some states, NM closed its public museums for almost all of the last year. And much of the art was clearly borrowed, opening up a far larger prospective pool of options.)

The watercolor paintings of covid particles, by David S Goodsell, were gorgeous and repulsive, the documentary photos of George Floyd protests, by Tony Mobley, were smart additions, and Cynthia Greig’s grid of images of people’s literal breath, captured on a scanner bed, were lovely too.

 

 

 

Linda Alterwitz had photographs that were made by placing cameras on subjects chests, and recording long-exposures of the night sky, while the people laid on their backs and breathed.

 

 

Poetry as text on the wall, charcoal drawings recording breathing patterns, and documentary photos of typical New Mexicans, but wearing masks.

 

By Don J Usner

 

The interplay between the different art styles, and the more spiritual, political, and topical readings of breathing, was just so good.

It may be the best themed exhibition I’ve ever seen in New Mexico.

And I savored the experience like never before.

Leaving the gallery, I even noticed that the wall text lit up and darkened, in a pattern, like inhalation and exhalation.

Wow.
Brilliant.

 

 

 

I left the museum to meet my friend at a nearby sandwich shop, and though I was wearing a rain coat, I also raised my umbrella for the first time in years.

The light was transitional, dark and luminous simultaneously, and after thirty seconds, I looked up, and saw a lighting strike that cut through the entire, enormous sky.

Wait for it, I thought.

Then…. BOOM!!!!!!!!!!!

The entire city shook with the loudest thunder crack I’ve ever heard, and I don’t think I’ve moved so fast in my life.

I closed that umbrella at hyper-speed, as the last thing I needed was to survive a pandemic, only to be struck by lighting on my first day out of my house.

(As things come in threes, so they say, this morning, my car was almost crushed by a cement truck, on the way to drop the kids at school, so I’ve had enough of near death experiences, thanks.)

The rain meant no walking around the city with a meatball parmesan sub, so my friend and I went to a restaurant in the Railyard called Opuntia.

 

 

Indoor dining?

Part of me equates that with a death sentence, but I realized at some point, I’d have to trust my vaccine, and the world would attempt to normalize.

My friend chose well, as the ceilings sloped to 18 feet high, and the tables were very well spread out.

(It was clear the owners had considered peoples’ post-covid fears, and acted accordingly.)

There was an indoor koi pond, because it’s Santa Fe, and a photo exhibition by local artist Kate Russell, featuring low-riders because it’s New Mexico.

 

 

I had a green-chile-bison-cheeseburger and fries, because again, it’s New Mexico, and once the food came, we dropped our masks, talked for an hour or so, and things almost felt like they used to.

Almost.

This Week in Photography Books: Everyone Loves Redwoods

 

“The scarred redwoods are emblems of both natural glory and entitled consumption. They represent the dual nature of the American dream.” (A quote from today’s book.)

 

I’m cooked.

Running on fumes.
Ready for week-long nap.

(Can you imagine, going to sleep for years, like Rip Van Winkle, and waking up to whatever comes next?)

 

Rip Van Winkle

 

President Biden is trying to marshal the nation’s resources to battle climate change, and I hope he’s successful.

Wouldn’t that be great?

But as a guy who titled his book “Extinction Party,” and began warning of the ravages of overconsumption back in 2008, I’m not exactly optimistic.

 

Why am I so tired?

Well, for the last three weeks, I’ve found myself enmeshed in a net, constantly working to re-establish ground rules and boundaries in relationships that were sapping my juice.

It’s easy to go with the status quo, even when things aren’t working, because inertia is a powerful force, and so many people fear change.

(Just so we’re clear, this is not a post about my marriage. Jessie and I are good.)

 

Re-writing rules, and re-setting expectations with others, is exhausting. But it’s the kind of work that pays dividends long into the future, if you’re willing to invest in your sanity.

Right now, we’re just 3 months removed from what was a 4-year-national-nightmare for 80 million people, and the pandemic, which capped off the Trump era, is still going strong.

But after last week’s mega-column, and the column before that, in which I spent a weekend getting updates from my secret-Argentinean source, this week, I wanted to give you a short one.

(Let’s keep it brief, shall we?)

 

Thankfully, I reached to the bottom of my book-stack, and pulled out something from May of 2020. (Thought I’d gotten to the oldest submissions already, but this one eluded my notice.)

Inside, I found one book by Kirk Crippens that I’d already reviewed, having requested it from the press agent, (Sorry, Kirk,) and another book, by Kirk and Gretchen LeMaistre, which was just what the doctor ordered today.

Quick heads up: it’s not a happy book.

Beautiful, yes. Important, sure. But nothing cheery, I’m afraid.

“Live Burls,” was published by Schilt in Amersterdam, back in 2017. Given how long it takes to make a book, this series was likely begun in 2015 or ’16, (I’m guessing,) at the onset of the Trump years.

And it is a masterclass in symbolizing the worst of humanity, in the cleanest of terms.

 

Redwood trees are beautiful, majestic, magical, historical… (insert positive adjective here.)

Like baby humans, or puppy dogs, Redwood trees are creatures that everyone loves.

And yet.

The artists learned of a situation in which poachers invaded a public park-space, and hacked off burls from the Redwoods, which just happen to be the part of the trees responsible for reproduction.

Acccording to the short, but informative text at the beginning of the book, Redwood burls enable the trees to regenerate over thousands of years, and might even allow for a genetic chain going back hundreds of millions of years.

So to think that some our fellow Americans would act like psychopathic Rhino poachers, and attack nature so blatantly, while stealing from the rest of us, (and from Planet Earth,) is mind-boggling to me.

These have to be some of THE WORST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, and I applaud the artists for recording the damage for posterity.

The photos are direct, and blunt, having been well-scanned from gelatin silver prints made from 8×10 negatives.

I applaud the choice of the green cover fabric, and cyan inside papers, as it gives a bit of life to a grayscale set of images, and a dour view of the world.

The book even tells us some of the poachers abandoned a 500 lb chunk of burl, because it was too big to fit in their poacher-mobile. (They’re too dumb to even rob properly.)

My only criticism, small though it may be, is that I would have elided the very short titles on the spread opposite each photo.

I found them distracting, because this book has the feeling of a visual obituary, (even though the trees survived,) and to me, the pure, quiet sadness needed no words.

Anyway, I promised a short column, and aim to deliver.

Glad this one was sent my way, sorry it took so long to review, and hope you all have a safe and happy week, wherever you are.

To purchase a copy of “Live Burls” click here 

 

This Week in Photography: How We Got Here

 

I went to Guatemala in 1999.

 

My girlfriend, (now wife,) thought as a privileged, Jewish-American male, raised in the safety of the suburbs, I needed to see how people in the “Third World” actually lived.

She grew up in New Mexico, surrounded by deep poverty, and also traveled extensively in India and Egypt, (in addition to being educated at hyper-progressive Vassar,) and insisted I get a firmer grasp on reality, if we were going to be together, long-term.

That was 22 years ago.

I was infatuated, and agreed to go, heading to Guatemala to learn Spanish, and embark on a short, photographic project related to the Civil War there, which had recently ended.

I quickly learned that Guatemala was ruled by a racial elite; White descendants of the Spanish colonists, who maintained full power over the predominantly indigenous population.

Everywhere I went, people spoke in hushed tones of “Impunidad,” and how that was the main thing holding the country back from advancement.

Impunity.

 

Courtesy of TV Pacifico

 

The politicians and generals who had ordered the massacres of hundreds of thousands of people never faced accountability for their actions.

Never.

So no one had much hope the society would improve, and from what I’ve heard, it hasn’t in the intervening years.

 

 

Seven years prior, in 1992, while I was still in high school, Los Angeles erupted in riots, which burned chunks of the city, because White police officers, who were caught on video mercilessly beating a motorist, Rodney King, were acquitted of the charges.

Shortly thereafter, Gil Garcetti took over as the District Attorney of LA.

These days, much of the world is waiting, watching, hoping that Derek Chauvin is convicted of murdering George Floyd, (also on video,) because of a fake $20. That event, in the spring of #2020, set off a chain of rioting and political protest that is the largest since what transpired in LA back in ’92.

While the trial has been underway, Daunte Wright was murdered by a White police officer for an expired license plate tag, and yet another video went viral, depicting police officers threatening, pepper spraying, and harassing a Black military motorist, because they couldn’t see the legal, temporary license plate that was properly displayed in his back window.

(And since I wrote my first draft this morning, Chicago police released a video of an officer killing a 13 year old boy.)

So I ask you, how far have we come, really, and how did we get here?

 

 

I’ve been thinking about these things obsessively for years, as you well know, given that I’ve written about American politics and culture in this column for nearly a decade.

But most of the time, the answers are beyond my grasp.

Not today.

For once, I think I can tie a string from the 1970’s to #2021, while featuring an unlikely cast of characters, and an almost unbelievable chain of small world connections.

And it all began on Tuesday evening, not-quite 48 hours ago.

 

 

A few months back, George Nobechi, the Japanese-Canadian photographer and entrepreneur whose work I published in this column recently, added me to the list of attendees for a program he’d developed, featuring Zoom interviews with master photographers.

It is not a free program, but he comped me, and I mostly forgot about it.

After we reconnected, George suggested I tune in for a presentation by Afghan-born, Cambodian-based photographer Zalmaï, and at that point, I noticed there was an upcoming lecture by Pete Souza, President Obama’s official photographer.

That’s not to be missed, I thought, and it was scheduled for Tuesday night, this week.

Earlier on Tuesday, my wife and I were trying to catch a few minutes of down time, and turned on Top Chef Season 5, on Peacock, which was filmed on the cusp of The Great Recession in 2008.

A young chef from Long Island, with the thickest accent you’ve ever heard, when asked to guess who the important surprise guest might be that week, speculated, “I’m thinking Donald Trump, him being the most richest and powerfulest man in New York.”

 

 

Setting aside the humor of his mangled English, and perfect Long Island charm, Jessie and I paused the stream, and looked at each other, aghast.

In 2008, four years after “The Apprentice” debuted on NBC, Trump had already conned “regular people” into thinking he was the biggest, baddest dude on the block.

Mike Bloomberg, the fucking Mayor of the New York, who was worth significantly more money than Trump, and ran the biggest city in America, was an afterthought, compared to the growing legend of DJT.

Back in 2008, Trump was on his way up, just as people were about to suffer through the worst economy since The Great Depression.

That is a huge piece of the puzzle.

 

 

Tuesday evening, I logged into the Zoom, and mostly paid attention to Pete Souza’s presentation, though I cut away from time to time to check on my kids, make a photo for Instagram, and shoot images for my ongoing series about Taos in #2021.

 

My Instagram shot from Tuesday evening

 

Pete Souza was great, and remarked that he thought being 54 years of age, when he took on the job as Presidential photographer, was too old for the role, because of how physically and mentally draining it was, but also gave him a huge advantage.

Being “seasoned” and wise, he knew how to manage people and situations in ways that allowed him to achieve his personal goal of making the best and most important Presidential photographic archive in the history of the United States.

And there he was, right on my computer screen, telling stories about Barack Obama, one of my personal idols; a man still admired by Billions of people.

 

 

At one point, while surfing through the other participants names and images, I noticed something strange.

There was a man on screen, wearing a demonstrably fashionable scarf, named Gil Garcetti.

No, I thought.
It couldn’t be.

Could it?

 

 

In 1994, two years into Gil Garcetti’s job as LA DA, OJ Simpson’s wife Nicole Brown, and her Jewish-American “friend” Ron Goldman, were brutally murdered.

The crime took over the imagination and airwaves of all of America, and if I’m guessing, much of the known world.

There had been nothing like the phenomenon, prior to that, and right now, I’d argue it was the inflection point that put us on our current trajectory. (Is it still the Darkest Timeline, now that Joe Biden is in charge?)

OJ Simpson was famous for being really good at football, but hyper-famous for being a smiling, happy, non-threatening Black man on TV and in the Movies.

Everyone knew his 70’s rental car commercials, dashing through the airport, jumping over things.

 

 

And many people knew him as Nordberg from 1988’s “The Naked Gun,” where he was “comically” maimed, in more and more absurdist ways, until he ended up in a hospital bed, seemingly begging Leslie Neilsen for heroin.

OJ was a Black man with whom White people felt comfortable. He was very good-looking and charismatic.

But it was all a con.

 

 

The OJ story and subsequent trial, as a symbol of American mass culture, made “Game of Thrones” look like a subreddit about NFT’s.

Everything froze, and I remember being a waiter in a restaurant at the Jersey Shore, stopping what I was doing to go to the bar TV and watch the slow-speed White Bronco chase.

Eventually, we had the moment of all moments, where they asked OJ to try on the bloody gloves, and his cartoon-ishly bad acting, pretending that he JUST COULDN’T GET THE GLOVES TO FIT was American history in the making.

 

 

Then, somehow, he got off.

Acquitted by a mostly Black jury.

A man that White people once loved, and then hated, was set free, because Black people in Los Angeles could very easily believe he had been framed by racist cops.

Did they think he was actually innocent, or was it an act of protest, taking what little power they had to shine attention on a real thing that no one seemed to care about?

Racist, violent police were given impunity.

Impunidad!

Those cops faced no consequences for their actions, so why was it so hard to believe they would frame OJ?

If you looked at it sideways, wouldn’t his acceptance by White America be a reason for racist cops to hate him?

Looking back, can we really argue with the logic?

Marcia Clark, Christoper Darden, Gil Garcetti, the entire team had egg on their faces.

Gil Garcetti gave this speech, in which he looks like he’s choking down vomit, fighting back tears, and tried to highlight the dangers of domestic violence.

 

 

Johnny Cochrane, he of “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” became a celebrity, satirized on 90’s mega-hit Seinfeld, and OJ friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian went on to lead what is now America’s Most Famous family, (after the Trumps,) another clan renown for image over substance, wealth over talent, and plastic surgery that knows no bounds.

 

Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld

(Maybe we’ll throw in part-time family member Caitlyn Jenner here too, an athlete previously as famous as OJ in the 70’s and 80’s. Then-Bruce-Jenner was on the Wheaties box. Do they still make Wheaties?)

 

 

 

But the thing is, OJ did do it, according to a subsequent civil trial, in which a majority White jury found him guilty based upon the preponderance of the evidence. (As opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt.)

According to that jury, and the American public consciousness, OJ murdered Nicole and Ron, and his smiling visage was just a facade that hid a type of rage and violence that could not be contained.

As far as karma goes, fast forward to 2008, and OJ Simpson was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery, after leading a brazen raid on a hotel room in (where else) Las Vegas, where he and some hired thugs terrorized some (likely) shady memorabilia dealers, holding them at gunpoint.

In this audio clip, you can hear OJ drop his makes-White-people-feel-safe voice, screaming “Don’t let nobody out this room. Motherfuckers! Think you can steal my shit and sell it?”

 

 

He was busted that time around, and served 9 years in jail, before he sat before a parole board, which was (again) televised.

Watch the video.

All along, OJ maintains his composure, winding a tale too convoluted to actually follow, with side-streets and confusing details.

He’s sitting there, a psychotic narcissist convinced of his innocence, trying to explain how the government got it all wrong.

Until just before minute 9, when a White parole board member questions him on a detail. (That the State gave him back his property, which means he couldn’t have stolen something that was his all along.)

Watch him flash with anger.
His vocal tone and body language change.

 

 

Even though the parole board has “power and control” over his future, he can’t hide his true self, but they let him out anyway.

In 2017.
While Donald Trump was President.

The year White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, confirming yet again that some White people would even don Nazi garb and white hoods, carrying flaming torches, to protect their power and privilege.

 

 

Like Freud speculated about the Death Instinct, and we all know about the Survival Instinct, I’m hereby coining the Power and Control Instinct. It means people equate power with control, and given how little control we humans actually have in the Wide Universe, certain types will do whatever is necessary to maintain that Power and Control, once they achieve it.

It explains a lot, if you think about it.

 

 

In #2020, Donald Trump broke the world, and in #2021, his minions stormed the US Capitol, desperate to overturn a free and fair election, so their autocratic, racist, con artist, Fugazi-strong-man of a President could stay in charge.

I recently read the one thing that most closely tied the insurrectionists together was the statistical decline in the percentage of White People, as a proportion of the population, in the counties in which they resided.

It doesn’t get more Anti-Democratic than that. Fighting to maintain Power and Control, even if it means killing off America’s beloved democratic system.

And now we’ve seen insane, anti-voting laws pop up like Whack-a-moles.

The covert racism of Lee Atwater, honed through the years by guys like Karl Rove, and then screamed proudly by assholes like Rush Limbaugh, has morphed into Tucker Carlson championing the Great Replacement theory on a TV channel run by an Australian oligarch.

Which brings us to this week.

Now we’re caught up.

 

What was Gil Garcetti doing on that Zoom call, I wondered? Isn’t his son now the Mayor of LA, in charge of the very police force that employed pricks like Mark Fuhrman?

I hit up Google, and discovered that Gil Garcetti’s second act, his retirement career, was to be a fine art photographer.

Say what now?

Even stranger, Gil Garcetti did a photo book on the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, thereby pulling two more bold-faced names into this mind-fuck of a column.

My head was spinning, because right now, this very week, I just started working on a book about Frank Gehry’s new building in LA, The Grand LA, which is across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, because my friend and client, Weldon Brewster, is the official photographer documenting the build.

Weldon’s got some amazing photos of the Disney Concert Hall, shot from The Grand LA’s construction site, and agreed to let me show a few to you here, now.

 

Images courtesy of Weldon Brewster

 

 

Finally, though, let’s get back to where we started. That Zoom call George organized, and to which he kindly invited me.

For the Q&A section, people were reminded to ask questions in the chat, and I checked them out. There, in the queue, was a question posted by George, on behalf of Gil Garcetti, who had mistakenly written to George in a private message.

I thought to myself, this is going to happen.

I can feel it coming.

I got my iPhone 8 ready, and opened the camera app. (I’ve had it since I went to Portland in 2019 for Photolucida, where I first met Weldon.)

When the time came, I pressed the record button, and listened as Gil Garcetti, a seminal figure in the HISTORY OF AMERICA, asked Pete Souza, a seminal figure in the HISTORY OF AMERICA, a question about whether he ever wanted back in the game.

Pete said no, he didn’t want to do this job for Joe Biden, even though he knows him so well, that he’s just too tired. He’d said earlier he mostly photographs his granddaughter these days, and if he was seasoned at 54, now he said he was too worn out for that kind of work.

 

 

But then, in a split second, Pete pivoted to politics.

He told us how, at the very end of the Obama administration, when the transition was underway, he had a countdown clock, waiting to be done with the job.

He was so beat.

But Pete also realized something monumental.

Something that indeed came to pass, when the World’s Biggest Superpower, after defeating the (actual) Nazis, and outlasting the Soviet Empire, succumbed to a Queens con man with a thick accent, and a lot of faux swagger.

According to Pete Souza, (talking to Gil Garcetti,) in the beginning of 2017, a few months before OJ Simpson was released from prison, Pete said he came to a realization.

“We’re fucked, as a country,” he said.

And that’s how we got here.

The end.

 

This Week in Photography: Guille and Belinda

 

 

I’ve been trapped on a farm for 13 months.

(Strange times.)

 

Given the state of the world, it’s not a bad place to ride out a plague year.

Most people would consider it paradise.

While so many others have to dodge people in cities, wondering whether the asshole jogger up ahead just spewed deadly virus-air in their jet stream, I’ve had no such issues.

While so many others chafe at the masks they must wear all day, I’ve spent each day with my face uncovered; not out of political belief, (you all know where I stand on that,) but rather because there are no other people around.

Living on a horse farm, at the edge of a box canyon, near the base of the Rocky Mountains, I never see people at all.

At least, no one beyond my family.

 

It’s been something of a fairy tale, as we’ve lived each day, our little clan, with the horses, dogs, cats, magpies, ravens, red-tailed hawks, rainbow trout, coyotes, gophers, deer, bear, and mountain lions. (I saw both mega-predators within a few days of each other, back in the fall.)

Yesterday, we had our first proper guest since September, as a photographer I met during the Denver reviews stopped by on his way home, and we went for a socially distanced walk.

It’s hard to believe I went half a year without seeing anyone but my family here, but this pandemic reality is anything but normal.

Living like this, while preferable to getting Covid in a Brooklyn bakery, (which happened to a dear friend of mine,) has been a bit of a mind-fuck, for sure.

It’s made things that might normally be ordinary seem symbolic, and the oddity of the local culture, which was built by Spanish colonists centuries ago, seem all the more evident.

Such is life.

But today, I looked at a photo book that reflected my experience back to me, as if through a window into Bizarro reality, where things seemed the same but terribly different. (While I’m a total Marvel movie-head, I was a sucker for the Superfriends cartoons on TV back in the early 80’s.)

 

Bizarro Superman

 

I opened up “The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Illusion of an Everlasting Summer,” by Alessandra Sanguinetti, sent to me in September by the fine folks at MACK in London, and am glad I did, as it put my life in the context of so many other rural-dwellers, populating backwater outposts of the former Spanish Empire, here in the 21C.

I requested this book a while back, in #2020, and then forgot I did, as my brain has turned to mush, and fortunately, so many books have come in since then.

But when I saw the date-stamp on the box, I had a feeling what might be inside, and got excited, as I saw the first part of this project ages ago, when I began exploring the photo blogosphere in early 2009.

Not to skip too far ahead, but that thought went though my mind, as I was looking at the book.

I thought, “I remember loving some of this work in 2009.”

Then, I turned the page, and the photo had a calendar on the wall that said 2009.

These days, it’s easy to find kismet in the tiniest of details. (And I had the same experience, feeling like the editors read my mind, while looking at Mark Ruwedel’s excellent MACK book a couple of months ago.)

 

To get back to the beginning, this book features a lengthy series the artist made about two children, daughters of worker’s on her family’s estate in the back country of Argentina. Her subjects later became her friends, and we learn in the introduction that the land has since been sold. (ED note: this section of the article has been corrected, and further details will be available at the end of the piece.)

They managed to grow up in one of the few enclaves of the former Spanish Empire that might be more remote than the one on which my wife was raised, and we’re rearing our kids.

But the horses, chickens, big skies, broken fences, I recognized it all.

(Though I should admit our home and family farm are decidedly more First World. I don’t want to exaggerate.)

Irrigation ditches, kids playing pretend, roaming the country side, staying busy through their imaginations, it’s all there.

And in the opening essay, Ms. Sanguinetti writes of her subject’s desire to be singer, and or work with animals, and my daughter went though both of those phases as well. (Instead of a Youtube star, now she wants to be a dog trainer.)

This book undercuts much of the advice I often write, about having a book vary images sizes, or styles. It doesn’t break up the narrative, intersperse text, or really offer any bells and whistles at all.

Rather, because the narrative time-jumps, and the young girls become mothers, and all the images are great, and the printing quality is so high, the book holds your attention anyway.

(Rules are meant to be broken, and some books can keep you turning the pages without using new-style design tricks, so I guess it’s important to keep that in mind.)

 

The world, as I’ve written recently, is in the process of re-opening.

Our little bubble has been popped, as my children returned to school this week, and getting to play with other kids, to socialize in packs, to dunk on 8 foot basketball hoops, and re-engage muscles on the monkey bars, has made them happier than they’ve been in a long time.

Conversely, my daughter made a toast at dinner on Sunday night, (our last in official lockdown,) and thanked the three of us for giving her the best year of her life.

Our little fantasy-land might have been stultifying, but it also felt like there was magical fairy-dust in the air, giving us our own marooned life, in a sea of Trumpian chaos.

And her speech was a moment I hope to remember forever.

This book has that feeling, like we’re getting a window into a fantasy world that was existing right there, hidden in plain sight, in a quiet, remote corner of Planet Earth.

I’m sure you’ll love it.

I know I did.

To purchase “The Adventures of Guille and Belinda…” click here 

 

(ED Note from JB: I have amended this article, after a reader in Argentina brought additional details to my attention. Over the years, I somehow assumed that Ms. Sanguinetti was related to her subjects, and the book’s intro does not mention how they are connected. My Argentine source alerted me that Ms. Sanguinetti’s father actually owned a large “estancia,” which is the equivalent to an estate, fancy ranch, or hacienda in Argentina. Her subjects were daughters of poor farm workers who were in Alberto Sanguinetti’s employ, meaning there was a significant class difference between them, and an inherent power dynamic imbalance in the relationship. This video, which MACK posted to Youtube, indicates that the class difference was vast enough that when they first met, one of the girls assumed Alessandra was from a different country, even though she was raised in Argentina since the age of 2. They also use the term “estancia” to speak of the main house, where Ms. Sanguinetti lived. None of this means we should dismiss the value of the work, or that the photos are less excellent, but it is very different from my incorrect belief that the women were all related, and of equal status.)

 

This Week in Photography: Love in Wartime

 

“I am fighting this bureaucracy like a lion! I check every resource, I try every door, I talk to everybody I know. You will see, my darling, that I will succeed! It is only a matter of time, and time works to our advantage and it wants to unite us. Only us. Together.” Julek, January 12, 1946

“It seems sometimes that humanity is doomed. This is just a nightmare. And even a nightmare has its end.” Julek, June 30, 1947

“Americans are just big children and they are cruel; they don’t understand anything. Sometimes if feels that they are worse than the Gestapo and the SS. It pains me to write to you like this but don’t think, my love, that you are in paradise. This is not a land of democracy and freedom. No other country in this world has such cruel regulations. People have some empathy, heart, and feelings, but America is blind and just follows the rules.” Julek, July 15, 1948

“I feel more and more hatred toward this apparently ‘good’ America- everybody praises this country but it’s so far behind Europe in so many aspects of life.” Franusia, July 26, 1948

“I am full of suspicion against the Americans. They talk about this great freedom and they don’t let people in. They talk about all people being equal and they hang black men and kick out the Jews from colleges and elegant hotels. What is that?… I just heard that some white people just shot and killed a black man in your area and they were declared not guilty and released without any sentence. Such are examples of America’s democracy…Sometime soon it may be an embarrassment to be a US citizen, you will see!” Julek, January 28, 1949

“Today is Pesach and I am very sad- I miss you so much…When we will be together we will have real holidays. Here they just make a nice dinner. My uncle doesn’t believe in all this and my aunt has no idea what to do and how to behave. She just sits in front of the mirror and goes to the hairdresser and for massages to keep her waist line slim. I don’t understand how anyone can live like that. It’s an empty, vain life.” Franusia, April 21, 1949

“I am finally free. After all these years of suffering and obstacles, I am allowed to be with you and stay with you for the rest of our lives. I just want to take you in my arms now and press you to my heart, with no words- just us together in that embrace.” Julek, June 1, 1949

 

Some of my ancestors come from Poland, but I’m not sure where.

As an American Jew, I’m something of a rarity, as all my grandparents and one of my great-grandparents were born here. So I have no direct relatives who were killed in the Holocaust.

Rather, all my people, Blausteins from Poland, and Karstadts from Germany, were here in the early 20th Century.

These days, survivors are more and more rare, yet their stories are as important as ever.

 

I went to Poland once, on my first trip to Europe in 1997, but only to change planes in the Warsaw airport. I had plans for a longer stopover, but they fell through, and that was that.

The next year I went back to Europe, planning to stay for 6 weeks, but was so lovesick for my new girlfriend, (now wife,) that I lasted only 10 days in Italy.

My parents helped me change my ticket, so I could get back to America ASAP and visit Jessie, who was studying for the summer at Smith College, getting her Masters Degree in Social Work.

I remember seeing her come up the escalator, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, because reuniting with her was literally the only thing I could think about, even while I was roaming through gorgeous Italy, taking pictures with a Minolta SLR that I left on the train heading to the airport.

Love can cloud the mind, but also create a power that is difficult to defeat.

 

I’m writing this column during Passover, the Jewish holiday that honors my ancestors’ escape from Egypt, when ancient Jews were kept as slaves by the Pharaoh.

My kids are growing up in a part of New Mexico that actually looks a bit like Israel, the land of my people, even though New Jersey is my homeland, and one of their grandmothers is actually descended from French-Canadians, with an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.

We Americans are the world’s mutts, and many of us are proud of this fact.

Others, however, despise immigrants, or people who look or sound different.

Some of my fellow countrymen burn crosses, paint Swastikas, and or kneel on Black men’s necks until they’re dead.

As a society, we have at times embraced immigration, as we did during our Ellis Island phase, or restricted it, as when Chinese people were excluded for decades.

Like every society, our history is complex and bloody, but few others are as dualistic in their character, I’d suggest.

And these days, some of my countrymen are beating up old Asian ladies, kicking them in the street, as if such behavior is anything but the worst evil.

Welcome to #2021.

 

I’m going to keep it short today, as I opened with a series of quotes, which is something I’ve never done before. (Not to this extent, anyway.)

The come from a terrific, and very moving book that arrived in my mailbox more than six months ago: “Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime,” by Max Hirshfeld, published by Damiani in 2019.

It kept me reading for hours, and is riveting, though not a photo book in the traditional sense. Normally, such a publication would be built around the photography, but here, a series of letters between the artist’s deceased parents, Julek and Franusia, dominates, and rightly so.

There are also essays, and a set of images made on a trip the photographer took with his mother, back to Poland, in 1993.

But really, the letters steal the show.

During Passover, (which I don’t observe in the way I did when I was young,) we celebrate what is essentially an immigration tale.

All the Jews ran out of Egypt so quickly their bread didn’t rise, and then spent 40 years in the desert, before they found Israel, which Moses was forbidden from entering.

Heavy stuff.

In predominantly Christian America, that the Last Supper was a Seder, and Jesus lived and died as a Jew, is not widely discussed.

Yet every day, we hear stories of desperate Mexican and Central American children, alone, scared, running for their lives, who are met with nothing but scorn, and jail cells, at the Southern Border.

But there are also tales of brave people who hide bottles of water in the desert, or secretly offer housing and succor to those who risk baking to death in the sun, for a better life in America.

The letters in this book, written by two people who survived the Nazi Death Camps, reek of misery and desperation, as the lovers suffered further from a cruel, inhumane immigration system that might well have been tilted by anti-Semitism.

As with every good Hollywood story, this book has a happy ending, as Julek and Franusia were eventually reunited, had Max, and raised him in Alabama. (Too late for this advice, but if it were me, I’d have moved to New York. Dealing with Southern racists, after fleeing the Nazis, seems a bit too masochistic.)

You’ll read, in the quotes I published, a scathing take on America, back in the 1940’s, that feels like it could have been written today.

The Trump years, and the pandemic, have killed hope for so many.

But perhaps brighter days are ahead?

I’m no sooth-sayer, but I do think each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves, if Max’s parents could persevere, and ultimately reunite to love each other, and raise a family, perhaps we can re-open our hearts again too?

Just a thought.

See you next week.

 

This Week in Photography: Supporting Women

 

My daughter felt like shit this morning.

 

It’s been 12.5 months since she was in school with her friends, so that’s totally understandable.

But it’s rare, as throughout the plague year, her cheerful, positive, loving, considerate mood has rarely wavered.

(Unless she’s in a food crash, but again, that’s also understandable. Don’t we all get grumpy when the blood sugar drops?)

I spent a couple of hours helping her feel better, as that’s what parents do. But also because I owe her, as she always tried to help me this year, whenever I got down.

So we screamed out the door, into the field, cursing coronavirus.

 

courtesy of WebMD

 

Then I made her breakfast, and we commiserated.

She said it felt like rock bottom, (as they’re due to re-enter school in early April,) so I assured her it was normal to feel like it’s all too much, after such a long and unfair disruption.

We got through it, and once her brother and the dog woke up, (teenagers sleep late,) she didn’t feel so lonely either.

Honestly, I can’t believe what the world has expected of its children, as they’ve had to deal with the worst ramifications of collective behavior they played no part in.

We grownups made this mess.

That said, once moods turned for the better, she got excited to do an assignment I’d given her, writing a short story about what superhero she’d be, if she had the chance. (There was no school-work this week, as the teachers prepare for re-entry, thereby making parents full-time teachers again, like last spring.)

Amelie said rather than an existing super-hero, she’d want to be an Avatar, (From “Avatar the Last Airbender,”) named Amelie, who was from the water tribe, but she’d want to be able to fly without the assistance of a flying-staff. (Which Avatar Aang needed.)

 

Avatar Aang (courtesy of Nickelodeon)

 

We quickly switched to the topic of Korra, the female Avatar from the sequel series, “The Legend of Korra,” but Amelie said she would not want to be like her at all, and preferred to pretend that Korra didn’t exist.

Because unlike Aang, Korra always need help to defeat the big villains, as she wasn’t capable of doing it on her own. Also, Amelie described her as “selfish, self-absorbed and rude.”

 

Avatar Korra (courtesy of Nickelodeon)

 

Her brother joined the conversation, and both children suggested it was sexist, as the male Avatar was stronger than his female counterpart, and women could be powerful without being bitches. (Their word, not mine.)

So it came to be that my children, during Women’s History Month, critiqued Hollywood for its inherent sexism, even when attempting to be PC by making a female hero.

Hard to argue.

The truth is, I’ve been a feminist for decades, as my wife schooled me up when we met at 23. (I’m now 47.)

That it’s #2021, and women still face such violence, like the nightmare Sarah Everard had to endure, is beyond my comprehension.

Just yesterday, I saw a tweet from a female artist in Germany, bemoaning the fact that she wanted to learn to sail, but was too afraid to join a strange man on his boat, alone, for obvious reasons. (I immediately thought of Kim Wall, the Swedish journalist who was murdered on a psycho’s submarine a few years ago.)

Seriously, people, What the Fuck!

How are we living in a world where men, who claim to love their mothers, daughters and wives, so consistently subject women to sexual assault, harassment, or worse?

It simply makes no sense, and even though my daughter is tough, physically strong, and knows how to fight, I am constantly aware of how far she goes when she walks the dog alone, or who might be lurking in the shadows.

Can’t we do better, as a species?

I didn’t mean to start this column off on a negative, but am glad to say that today, we’re doing something a little different, and will publish a series of portfolios by some extremely talented female photographers, thanks to a heads up by my friend and colleague Jon Feinstein, of whom I’ve previously written.

Jon reached out a couple of weeks ago to point me in the direction of The Luupe’s print sale, in honor of Women’s History Month, and I was immediately intrigued.

 

 

The Luupe, founded by Keren Sachs, is a platform that connects female photographers with brands, and the sale was meant to support the artists, who also work commercially and/or editorially.

When I asked if some of the women might be willing to share their personal work with us here, five very talented photographers agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We’re thrilled to publish these projects for you, and appreciate that the artists were generous in this regard, as I’m sure you’ll dig the work.

(The photographers are in no particular order, and if you’d like to support them by buying a print, all the better.)

Maria Louceiro is from Portugal, based in Berlin, and specializes in music photography. The images are dreamy, and I love her consistent, pastel color palette. Maria constructed her style by combining film and digital aesthetics, she wrote, in order to create an “ethereal/ otherworldly” vibe, which helps separate her from the crowd.

 

 

Penny De Los Santos, in contrast, was born in Germany, (from a military family,) but raised in Texas. She tends to photograph food, and we’re showing her series “Agave Spirit,” which documents families who work in the production of mescal in Central Mexico.

Her use of high-contrast black and white imagery amps up the tension, and if there is a better T-shirt out there than “Donald Eres Un Pendejo,” I’d like to see it. In our correspondence, Penny said “I have always been drawn to the cultural and spiritual connection people have with food. I’ve been lucky to spend most of my career documenting the way people gather and connect around it.”

We can only hope that by 2022, everyone in the world is able to share food, and congregate around tables again. Lord knows I miss it.

 

Jasmine Durhal is from Michigan, lives in LA, and goes by the name Jass in her commercial practice. She describes her style as being built upon “color theory, physical wellness and clean boldness,” according to her website.

Obviously, I spent a lot of time in my opening intro discussing female strength, and how rarely it is properly honored in popular culture. These images channel power and beauty in a way that just jumps off the screen, and I totally love them.

 

Amanda Lopez is also based in LA, and is sharing her series “Guadalupe.” She wrote a bit about the work for us, and this segment of the text seemed telling: “With the Guadalupe series, I wanted to pay homage to Mexico’s patron saint and capture the ways in which she’s impacted me. I also explore topics such as womanhood, masculinity, and piety. These photos ask, what does it mean to be divine? The project includes portraits of family and friends who share the same affinity to Guadalupe as I do, as well as images of apparitions found in various public places.”

The consistent use of pink and green is kind of amazing here, in particular the photograph with the sharp, painted fingernails contained within the mesh netting.

 

 

Finally, we’re featuring Natalie Jeffcott, who is based in Australia. (How’s that for a global article today?) Her series is called “Childhood Stories,” and I believe it’s the only one of the group that is explicitly related to the Coronavirus-lockdown.

All countries handled things differently, and according to Natalie, she was “limited to a 5km radius from my home.”

The pictures evoke a nostalgia for childhood, and hopefully one day, my children will be able to look back at this time and remember all the hours we spent together, snuggling on the couch watching movies, rather than the fear and anxiety that seemed to take over the world in #2020.

See you next week!

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Projects from PhotoNOLA, Part 2

 

Metro Pictures is going out of business this year.

 

The NYC mega-gallery announced it a couple of weeks ago, and there were plenty of lamentations on Twitter.

Catherine Edelman, the long-time Chicago photo gallerist, closed her space to the public recently as well.

A week or two ago, a colleague wrote in a Facebook post that they didn’t make a lot of money in the arts, and felt like a failure.

These are not unrelated situations.

There is a significant lack of funding for creative fields here in the US, and I suspect even arts-rich places like England, France and Germany will be lucky to keep up their systems in the coming decades.

That’s where we’re at in the 21st Century.

But then again, someone seemingly dropped 69 million crypto-dollars on a massive jpeg, which set the world aflame, but also also begat questions about financial shenanigans rather quickly.

 

I’ve written extensively over the years, (but not in quite some time,) that the high-end-art-world is an unregulated commodities market, with all sorts of machinations, money laundering, and conflicts of interest.

Why am I writing about this, when there are so many other things to discuss?

Well, this is eventually going to be an article about the final batch of artists I reviewed at PhotoNOLA online in December, and as I didn’t go to New Orleans, there are no juicy travel details to share, nor tidbits about the humming sound in the review room, the yummy food at lunch, or the length of the bathroom breaks.

So I had to manufacture an opening rant out of other material.

But the more important reason is that I understand art very well, having devoted my entire adult life to the process, and I’m here to tell you making money off your pictures is not a good reason to be here.

Neither is fame, nor acclaim.

All three goals are elusive, unlikely, and fleeting.

 

Rather, art practice is about self-improvement and self-expression.

And those things are priceless.

I know that sounds cliché, or idealistic, but it is unquestionably legit.

In a world rife with stress, misery, and difficulty, making art on the regular makes us happier, more confident, and potentially more self-aware.

Those of us who commit our full souls to the endeavor, work extremely hard at our craft, and study art history, might occasionally have a moment where we make some real cash, or everyone is talking about us.

But that happens to very few people, and again, even if it does, it never lasts.

(Outside of a handful of photographers in the entire world. Seriously, the odds of becoming the next Cindy Sherman or Andreas Gursky are negligible.)

 

image courtesy of Artnews.com

 

I understand it seems like I’m being negative, or trying to project a “realistic” attitude, but I’m not.

Quite the opposite.

What we do as artists is extremely important, because like being a proper Buddhist monk or nun, it allows us to clean up the energy we put out into the world, and make the human collective healthier, even if it’s in small amounts.

That’s the big news.

Having shows, selling prints, publishing books, being written or talked about, getting compliments, they are all nice accomplishments, and fortunately I can speak from experience.

But beyond a year or two when I sold a lot of art, I don’t make a lot of money either.

In the real world, businesspeople would laugh at my annual income, and I’m cool with that.

Because Capitalism is an imperfect system, and just because something doesn’t have a high financial value doesn’t mean it’s not extremely valuable in other ways. (Karmically, for example.)

I say all this because the world is in the process of slowly re-opening, and only now are people beginning to realize that 2019 might not be the best model to shoot for.

I traveled so much in 2019 that I grew sick of it, and ungrateful.

The things I took for granted now seem like platinum-and-gold-plated diamonds, but all the same, being on the road that much was not healthy.

(Not for my carbon footprint, my children’s mental health, or my hangovers.)

I’ve been preaching for years that endless growth is not only unattainable, and unsustainable, but unachievable.

Efficiency of resources, and energy, is a far more important goal.

And if you push yourself in your art practice, the difference it will make in your self-confidence and self-esteem will give you back so much energy you would otherwise waste on anxiety.

That’s the truth.

So today, we’ll look at work from six artists I met during the online reviews at PhotoNOLA, and tomorrow I’ll meet a whole new batch of photographers at the online reviews for the Month of Photography Denver.

That said, let’s pivot to sharing the second batch of my favorite portfolios with you, and honor the hard work these women and men put in to get their projects in front of my Zoom screen.

(As usual, the artists are in no particular order.)

We’ll start with George Nobechi, whom I met at PhotoNOLA in 2017, and published his work after that festival as well. George is a perfect example of what I’m talking about today, as he switched careers to commit to his photography, and studied in workshops with people like Sam Abell to learn his craft.

As a half-Japanese guy who moved back to his ancestral homeland in 2017, after living away for many years, he has a complicated relationship with Japan, and its history. So he poured himself into a project to understand the country, and himself better.

I’ve written many times of my love for Japanese literature and the 19th Century woodblock printers Hokusai and Hiroshige, and these photos channel some of that genius. Not saying they’re at the same level of brilliance, but there are commonalities in the vibe, and energy the work projects.

I’m sure you’ll love these photographs.

 

When I met Eric Kunsman, I had a bit of a laugh, as I’d heard of him obliquely only a few weeks earlier, in one of my Antidote online classes.

A student was experimenting with the idea of photographing pay phones, and after a polite amount of time, someone cleared their throat, and announced there was an artist out there who had committed to the subject so well that it was kind-of off limits to others at the moment.

And that artist, who remained unnamed that night, was Eric Kunsman, a professor and master printer in Rochester, NY. Eric told me he’d moved into a lower-income neighborhood, and in order to get to know his community and surroundings, he looked very hard, and noticed that pay phones were broken down relics in plain sight, as not everyone can afford a cell phone, or the attendant bill.

So he became a legit expert in the social and community dynamics behind pay phones, both in Rochester, and then around the US. The images themselves are both bleak and beautiful, which is a style I always appreciate when it’s done well, as it is here.

 

Ruth Lauer Manenti is another artist I’d met previously, and I published her work after the Filter Photo Festival back in 2019. She’d been trained as a painter, and I loved the delicate and gorgeous sensibility she created with objects, though at the time, I recall re-editing her work on the review table, as I thought there were essentially two groups in one.

Ironically, I did it again this time, (virtually,) as Ruth had moved outside with her camera, in pandemic reality, and photographed poetic, artful landscapes in her surroundings in upstate New York. I was most enamored of the photographs that seemed to step out of time, and will share them with you here.

 

Fernanda de Icaza joined me from Mexico, but I fell in love with a series she made while living in Japan. Frankly, Fernanda had two series from Japan, with her primary project being in a monastery where she lived for some time, in silence.

Those pictures were cool, for sure, but during a short break from that monastic life, Fernanda went to Tokyo to party her face off at dance clubs, and the wild, colorful, chaotic energy she captured was dynamite.

I suspect she appreciated this world all the more, for living most days with the quiet, but we’ll let you decide for yourself.

 

Stephen Starkman, from Canada, is an example of an artist whose work grew on me over the course of our 20 minutes. At first, the images seemed disjointed, as they were not “about” a subject or concept, per se.

But as you look at them, there is a consistency of vision, and a sense of beauty, that I really came to enjoy. I think you’ll dig them too.

 

Last, but not least, we have Rosalie Rosenthal, who makes photographs with her teen-aged daughter that consider mid-life.

There are Dutch vanitas-style still lives, and quiet portraits, which were quiet and thoughtful.

So to wrap it up, I’d like to thank Rosalie, and all the artists, for allowing us to share their hard work with you, wherever you are.