Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week in Photography: China and New York in the 80’s

 

Everyone wants to be down-to-earth?

Right?

It seems like one of those compliments that is universally understood to be a good thing.

It means relatable.

Grounded.

Empathetic to others’ experience.
Humble.
Polite.
Thoughtful.
Respectful.

For some people though, (yes, they’re often rich,) the lure of being fake, affected and pretentious is just too strong.

In this case, I’m thinking about Gwyneth Paltrow, the occasional actress, full-time GOOP lifestyle guru/ magnate, likely vegan, and occasional television guest.

Last year, on Jon Favreau’s Netflix show, she denied, or “forgot,” multiple times, that she had acted in a Spiderman movie with the aforementioned Favreau.

To his face, on camera.

“Nope, nope. Not me. I wasn’t in Spiderman.”

It became a thing on the internet, of course, because how could it not, but she steadfastly went with the whole attitude of “I’m so rich and busy, and these silly comic superhero movies are kind of beneath me, so I refuse to lay down any memories of what I’ve done.”

“I’d rather be selling high end bath salts for $250 per gram, thank you very much.

I will simply pretend Pepper Potts, with her gauche auburn wig, simply does. not. exist.

Tony Stark can fuck off, for all I care.

I’m glad he’s dead.”

There was a time, though, early in her career as an actor, when she was properly talented, even garnering an Oscar for the admittedly mediocre “Shakespeare in Love.”

And she totally carried “Sliding Doors,” a seminal film, back when cinema still had a larger place in the grand cultural pantheon, in 1998.

There were two simultaneous timelines, and both played out during the course of the movie. Young Gwyneth Paltrow discovers her partner is cheating in one timeline, or she doesn’t in another, and the final consequences are dire.

Basically, she dies in one of the plot lines, and it’s terribly sad. The other ends with a glimmer of hope, after GP kicks her cheating man to the curb.

But my point, (as I always try to have one,) is that there were two simultaneous narratives going on.

Two timelines. And I’m on about parallel realities today for a reason.

I promise.

That’s because I went into my book pile today and found “The Door Opened: 1980’s China,” by Adrian Bradshaw, (published by Impress,) an exceedingly well-produced object, in a black fabric box.

I did a heavy, deep-dive, historical column about China not-too-long-ago, and my frivolous opening about Gwyneth Paltrow should have hinted that we’ll keep it (mostly) light today.

This book, and its representation of China, is mesmerizing from the jump. The opening text, alternately in English and Mandarin, has hot graphic design, red and black.

You learn what you need to, though an opening essay and Q and A with the artist, and then you’re off, with the book being broken down into sections that each have short amounts of text. (Children, Country Life, etc.)

Over the course of the book, we learn Adrian Bradshaw has lived in China most of his adult life, and seems to have married a Chinese woman, raising a family there. For years, in particular in the vital decade of the 1980’s, he photographed prolifically in black and white with a series of Leica cameras. (There’s mention of a million photographs.)

We see Deng Xiaoping, working a cigarette HARD, as he’s the leader associated with China’s opening, in the 80’s, when the first taste of Western life and Capitalism were allowed in, after the deep deprivation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Adrian Bradshaw was on the ground, photographing amazing change, and the book contrasts the still-ancient-looking China of rural society, (and at times the urban working class,) with the rapidly modernizing sub-culture in the cities, Shanghai and Beijing, where fashion was taking root.

People were no longer forced to dress in military navy, gray or green. Prints were available in department stores, where people waited forever for disinterested state workers to help them.

And there were suddenly hipsters in China.

Hipsters!

These pictures are so good, and the ones that are blown up large or full-bleed are dynamite.

For the breadth of Chinese life we see here, and it is a significant range, there is noticeably nothing political.

No police, no protests, or military are present, unless they’re photos of painted propaganda posters, or soldiers in period garb for a Bertolucci film.

With one glaring exception.

There is a photo of soldiers carrying a flag in Tiananmen Square, with a portrait of Mao looming in the background, (from 1986,) and I thought to myself, well, how many years until the quashed uprising/protest/mini-rebellion there?

3 years later, in 1989.

Beyond that wicked bit of foreshadowing, whether intentional or not, the content mostly adheres to what would be acceptable to censors.

Markets. Street life.
Villages.

People.

I love this book, yet all morning, even though I was on deadline, I couldn’t quite get to write the review.

It’s like I was waiting for something.

 

So there I was, stretching out my shoulder in my living room with a weighted ball, and I craned my neck to the side in an unnatural position, to try to un-do a little knot.

Right in my line of sight, on the book case, was the Ai Weiwei book “Interlacing,” and I remembered it had a series of images that the Chinese artist made in New York City, in the 1980’s, when he lived there as a young man.

In a flash, I knew how I could write about the first book, because how could this not work?

Parallel timelines?

Right?

I’m not going to review the entire second book, because I can’t do 2500-word-mega-columns each week, but these photographs clearly depict the vision of a creative young man who was exercising freedoms he did not have back home.

Ai Weiwei and his hipster, artist buddies.

Hanging out with American art and culture luminaries like Allen Ginsburg.

So cool.

But beyond the gallery shows and art experiments, there is hard journalism here too.

He’s made images of police arresting people, political protest, and a still-chunky-Reverend-Al-Sharpton during his regrettable Tawana Brawley phase.

Even crazier, the book features a few photographs from the Tomkins Square Riots in 1988.

If you don’t remember what they were, you’re not alone, as I was 14 years old at the time, living about fifty miles away, and I never heard of it.

The short version is, the NYC Police either instigated, or participated in a full riot in an East Village park that was being used as a homeless encampment, and loitering place for squatter types.

One of the rallying cries was “Gentrification is Class Warfare.”

Sound familiar? (Everything old is new again.)

The cops, it was later proven, went buck wild, and severely beat protestors and innocent bystanders, with clubs, hands and feet.

They covered their badge numbers, or didn’t wear badges at all, and supposedly the whole thing was like something out of a movie.

Nasty business.

And Ai Weiwei was there in the middle of it, shooting documentary photographs.

From just a few images in “Interlacing,” we see a Chinese citizen freely photographing government violence, in America, while had he done so in China a year later, he would have been locked up forever.

(And of course he was famously jailed for a few months in 2011.)

Meanwhile, with Adrian Bradshaw’s photos, the 6’2″ Englishman gives us the outsider/permanent resident’s perspective of China just as it’s starting to grow and change, irrevocably, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, all wanting their televisions, washing machines, and fancy home computers.

How bizarre.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, well-made document of China in the 80’s, just as it’s beginning to rise

To purchase: “The Door Opened: 1980’s China” click here 

 

 

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

The Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival: Part 4

 

Hark!

What’s that I see up ahead?

Do you see it?

Why, I daresay it’s light up there, far away, at the end of that tunnel yonder.

I’m sure I see it.

Do you?

It was 46 degrees F yesterday, with a deep blue sky and lots of sunshine.

At the hottest point of the day, in the sun, that feels like 56F, which means there was an illusion of Spring yesterday, for the first time this year.

Spring, I say.
Spring!

At one point, I was only wearing a T-shirt, it was so warm.

A T-shirt!

Now, beyond that, (not that I need more ammunition,) my father-in-law has lived here for nearly 50 years, on this piece of land, and when we moved back to town, almost 15 years ago, he gave me a good piece of advice.

He doesn’t say much, most of the time, my father-in-law.

With the grizzled look of a cowboy, country doctor, you can get him going on certain subjects, like the health care system, or local politics.

Mostly, though, he likes to grunt.

So imagine him thusly, back in 2005.

SCENE:

Grunt.

“Hey Jon. December 15th to January 15th. Coldest time a year. Every year.”

Grunt.

END SCENE:

So, as I write this, it’s January 15th, and yesterday felt like Spring, for heaven’s sake.

How can you not feel just a bit better?

How can you not revel in silliness, as I am now?

Did you not read my column last week, in which I postulated it was rational to laugh at a terrifying world? Did that not give you permission?

What’s wrong with you?

War with Iran, you say?

Pish tosh, I say.

Impeachment?

Poppycock!

And just to prove it, to sit down in the muck of my own good humor, today, we’re going to look at the final group of photographers I met at the Filter Photo Festival last September.

It so happens that I like to mix up the column these days, between travel stories, book reviews, and portfolio review articles.

It’s a feel thing, in which I assume if I’m ready to shake it up, writing wise, you’ll be ready for something different as a reader.

These following artists, therefore, represent the last batch of The Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago.

And normally, almost always, I’d say that the artists are in no particular order. That they’re seemingly disconnected, because I don’t really plan which photographer ends up in which piece.

Sure, that’s still the case. But when I looked through the last group of portfolios, I kept thinking the same thing.

Sad pictures.
More sad pictures.

Then, even when the pictures weren’t overtly sad, because of the other pictures, contextually, they still felt sad.

It was like the sad energy from Deep Winter was trying to creep back into my psyche, here, one day into the far-less-daunting Mid-Winter.

Do you see what I did there?

I bait-and-switched you.

Silly opening, depressing photos.

Here we go.

First up, we’ve got Bernadette Fox, who was visiting from Minnesota. She told me she was a filmmaker before she was a photographer, and that her career had taken many twists and turns.

We looked at one group of photos she shot in Morocco, of an arranged wedding, and they were really cool, for sure.

But I was perhaps a bit more interested in her next group of photos, a long-term project shot on film, and we jumped right into editing mode.

Yes to this, no to that: we separated the prints into two groups.

In the best of theses photographs, (which were edited down in the ensuing months,) the energy, the sweet vibe of loss, comes through via color and light palette, as much as anything.

The ever-so-slight color shifts that come with time.

It’s the good kind of pain, like pulling out a splinter with a sharp pair of tweezers.

 

Next, we’ve got William Davis, an artist I met at the portfolio walk. I have to admit, I was multi-tasking, as I’d just come back from dinner with a student, was doing a tour of the room with another student, while simultaneously trying to scout projects for you guys.

But I noticed William’s night-time pictures out of the corner of my eye, and made a move straight to them, knowing almost from the glowing glance that I’d like them.

(Is it OK to have developed the 6th sense, after so many festivals?)

He said the project was all about documenting light pollution, on multiple continents. From Cusco, Peru to Kalamazoo.

They’re super-cool, even if the subject is (literally) dark.

 

Next up is Kari Laine, and maybe this work was meant for today?

These tabletop constructions, and multi-image panels, feature dolls, little plastic tigers, but also dead creatures? They’re sad, bleak, macabre tableaux, but also, maybe a little funny too?

I was on the fence for a minute, but then I decided I like them.

Weird should always be good.

 

Moving along, we’ve got Sarah Malakoff, and her project was strange as well.

Sarah photographs interior spaces that are designed around cultural or historical themes. If ever there were a project to embrace kitsch, this would be the one.

We ended up having a technical conversation, Sarah and I, as her prints were super-glossy, way too glossy, and it created a reflectivity bomb that was hard to get past.

I told her that as I publish digitally, I was sure her jpegs would be good enough to show, and so they are.

Really strong portraits of people, through their personal spaces.

I have a tiki lounge, therefore I am?

Subsequently, one of my students, visiting the festival, also saw the prints and had the same problem with the gloss, so I was glad when Sarah told me she was experimenting with a different paper.

I can’t stress enough, these subtle choices make a huge difference in how our work is received, IRL.

anns 003

 

Finally, we’ve got a series of pictures by Daniel J. McInnis, and I admit I did hold these last for a reason. Because they’re not overtly sad, (my theme today,) so I wanted to set them up after all the other projects.

Daniel accompanied his wife on a business trip to Japan, and used a digital camera for the first time, after a long time working with analog materials. (We’d previously published some of his portraits of artists, after a prior Filter, and he was using a large format camera at the time.)

Maybe it’s the color palette, or the dry, formal sensibility, (in a formal country,) but I think the cool remove makes these photos a little lonely.

A little cold.

And after I wrote my first draft of this column, wouldn’t you know, but a night-time blizzard rolled into town.

Last night.

So everything is covered in powdery white.

See you next week.

This Week in Photography: Laughing at a Scary World

 

Part 1. The Intro

Believe it or not, I used to be funny.

And this column was often absurd.

For years, I made fun of Donald Trump, before he ran for President. Even after he won, I still joked about him all the time.

For a while, anyway.

It was never my intention to become serious, though 6 years working for the New York Times certainly discouraged my sillier impulses. (If you can find a less light-hearted group of colleagues, I’ll be very surprised.)

The strange thing is, I never set out to be funny.

In my extended family, back in Jersey, I had some properly hilarious cousins. One even became a stand-up comedian, yet, (behind his back,) everyone always says he’s not even the funniest one in his family. (Sorry, Ken.)

So, just as I never planned to write an absurdist, rambling, continuous, personal narrative each week, where I joked about poopy diapers, overweight, narcissistic, rich-boy real estate developers, or the insanity of the modern condition, I also never planned to get serious.

That’s just the way it worked out.

The other day, for example, I had a group of college students from Dallas in my home for a 2 hour private lecture.

I told them about how, back in 2013, before I was hired by the NYT, I mostly saw myself as a pretend-journalist who said fuck and shit a lot, and then wrote about a photo book.

Fuck.
Shit.
Asshole.

(See, I can still do it.)

For a while, at the Times, I tried to inject my trademark parenthetic references, and Easter egg jokes into my Lens stories, but ultimately, my humorless, condescending editor ground it out of me, and by the end of my run, my stories became rather formulaic, I’ll admit.

I’m not blaming those guys for making me serious here, though.

Rather, I think that has more to do with the state of the world. The relentless nature of the bad news we’ve all been ingesting, daily, eventually wore me down.

It’s hard to find the world funny these days.

Right?

 

Part 2. Will he ever get to the point?

During my talk to the SMU students, I was asked why, even though I live in one of the most gorgeous places on Earth, I choose to make socially critical, conceptual photographs in the studio?

Why not take pictures of the pretty mountains outside my door?

After a long pause, I dove into a mini-rant on the nature of a photographer’s evolution. I told them how I was essentially kidnapped by photography, back in 1996, as I went from never making art, to devoting my life to the medium, over the course of a 5-day, solo, cross-country road trip.

We discussed the way an artist grows, over 24 years, and how at the beginning, I was just like everyone else.

Photographing abandoned buildings, pretty landscapes, junk piles, and, of course, graveyards.

Who doesn’t love a good graveyard?

All that powerful juju leaking out of the ground. All that creepy energy, just waiting to be photographed. (And yes, I shot a headstone or two on that original journey, including some eerie, forgotten spots in North Texas.)

Eventually, though, if we continue our artistic journey, we want to do things differently.

To innovate, and experiment.

To learn new skills, and change things up to ensure growth.

I had to pivot pretty quickly, as they were beginners, and I promised it was more than OK for them to make photographs of the Rio Grande Gorge, the Pueblo, or Taos Mountain.

To revel in the beauty of flowers or snow-covered aspen trees, if that was what gave them joy.

We discussed how beginners might love photographing sunsets, but professional artists, like Penelope Umbrico, would rather make a wall of appropriated sunsets from Flickr than just point a camera at the real thing.

I think I did a good job explaining it all, as the group left inspired, but it’s not like I was doing a comedy routine or anything.

It was a serious discussion, and then they were gone.

In the aftermath, I’ve been wondering, am I still funny?

I mean, really?

Am I funny?

How am I funny?

Am I here to amuse you?

Tell me, how am I funny!

(Goodfellas never gets old.)

The truth is, no matter how smart you are, or charming, no matter how hilarious you may be, or good-looking, there’s always someone out there who’s got more sauce than you do.

Just when you think Jon Stewart is the funniest guy in the world, along comes John Oliver.

If you’re positive that Jerry Seinfeld was the proper genius behind his show, you watch Larry David, and all of a sudden, your begin to wonder.

Or maybe you’re Joe Montana, confident you’ll always be the GOAT, (and the most handsome quarterback ever,) and along comes Tom Fucking Brady, the robotic asshole with the perfect cleft chin, and he goes and takes your throne.

Frankly, I remember the moment I knew I’d been bested.

It was 2015, and I was partying with some new friends at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. A long night became longer, and eventually I found myself in a private room in a Japanese sake bar, doing Karaoke properly for the first time.

It was more fun than I’d had in years, and I was feeling my oats.

I called for a Michael Jackson song, for some reason, but when I realized I didn’t know the words, I started free-styling, making up lyrics about the dead singer’s “accused” history of abusing children.

Not a funny subject matter, by any means, but at the time, I still found myself reveling in absurdity. (As my buddy Pappy used to say, if you don’t laugh, you cry.)

All of a sudden, a guy got up to sing, and I was barely paying attention. Frankly, no one was, because between the endless high-end sake, the fact it was 2am, and the periodic trips outside to get stoned, most people were sloshed and wobbly.

But this guy, Jeff Phillips, started a freestyle song about the Rapture.

The end times.

Before I knew it, he was singing about Armageddon, Jews killing Jesus, and all sorts of perfectly Un-PC things, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

It was raw, honest, offensive, and definitely the funniest thing I’d heard in person. (Including the time my parents were insulted by Andrew Dice Clay, because we made the mistake of sitting in the front row of his performance in the late 80’s.)

I went from feeling like the King, to feeling like the headless King, in a matter of moments.

Jeff has since become a good friend, and though when I first met him, I knew him as a Filter board member with a day job as a business consultant, eventually I learned he was also an artist, who made silly, ridiculous projects on a regular basis.

Eventually, we reached the end of #2019, and a blue envelope showed up in the mail, featuring his new self-published zine, “I Laugh Because it Hides the Tears: Volume 1.”

 

Part 3. Sad clowns

You knew I’d get to a book review eventually, right?

I don’t think Jeff sent the zine hoping for a review, but was just offering a gift to a buddy.

(That’s my take, anyway.)

But when I opened it up this morning, and read it through twice in quick succession, it codified so many things I’ve been thinking about lately.

How do we laugh at a world that no longer seems funny?

I mean, on Tuesday, noted funny-man Patton Oswalt tweeted out a video of Donald Trump badly mispronouncing the word accomplishments, and while I giggled, really, it made me sad.

Meanwhile, Sacha Baron Cohen keeps attacking Mark Zuckerberg with facts, as himself, rather than with jokes as Borat or Ali G!

How has it come to this?

Thankfully, this zine seems to have found the perfect middle ground that has eluded me for the last year or two. (As does Bill Hader’s brilliant “Barry” on HBO. Highly recommended!)

As the zine is short, I’ll photograph its entirety, because it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle made out of unicorn sweat and crocodile tears.

We see cellphone cameras with sunsets, a picture in a graveyard that goes directly at the trope, and off-camera, we learn that Jeff likes to wear Sponge Bob boxer shorts, because of a peeping-tom-window-washer.

There’s an (offensive) joke about Chinese restaurants serving cats, (though it’s subtle,) a busker wearing a zebra mask, more cellphones showing the Mona Lisa, and the perfect joke about French people.

DJT is there in spirit, (and reference,) because he looms over the whole world right now, but it’s just the right amount of reality, mixed with sorrow and joy.

Our Instagram-Selfie obsessed culture comes in for a roasting, as does environmental-electrical-pollution, but my favorite photo in the zine is actually straight.

And I had to look at for a minute before I figured it out.

There is an RV parked in a lot, and I’m guessing it’s Nevada or Arizona. (Where Jeff was raised.)

The caption is: “Because 100 people just passed by, and no one even saw it”

What, I wondered?

What did they miss?

What am I missing?

And then it clicked into place, like a lego block you just can’t seem to make fit.

The horizon!

The painting of the fake mountains on the rented RV matched up perfectly with the real thing, right there in front of us. (Or really, in front of the photographer who stood there IRL.)

The virtual and the real, seamlessly locked in a dance of confusion.

How could I have not seen it?

How did those 100 people miss it too?

And that, my dear readers, is why the world needs art, and artists.

Some of us try to do this for a living, exclusively, and our side-hustles have side-hustles.

Others, like Jeff, have demanding day jobs, using their art as an outlet, and when they advance enough, get to have second careers as successful as the first.

And as for the middle-aged columnists out there, the ones like me that forgot how to be funny, sometimes, all we need is a reminder that it’s OK to laugh at our crazy world.

Even if we feel like crying.

Bottom Line: Insightful, funny and poignant look at contemporary America

To purchase “I Laugh Because it Hides the Tears Volume 1,” click here 

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

This Week in Photography: “The Unwanted”

 

Happy New Year, everybody!

Welcome to 2020.

(You’ll notice I’m not hashtagging it yet, as I did for the tumultuous, endless, and now departed #2019.)

It’s freezing outside, and my kids are still off from school, so I’m holed up in my bedroom with a fan on for white noise, and blankets huddled over my legs and feet, as the good heater is in the other room.

When I say freezing here, I don’t mean it simply as an adjective, in the descriptive sense.

I mean below 32 degrees F or 0 degrees C. (And as I’ve mentioned many times that I can’t do the conversion, we’ll stick to F for another year.)

Each year, in Deep Winter, it gets down to 0 F or below, with the wind chill.

When I woke up this morning, it was -5 F.

(And that level of cold will typically kill a person, so we don’t have a big homeless population here in Taos half the year.)

As I had last week off from the column, and finally got a chance to rest, I took advantage of a week of free HBO to catch up on “Succession,” which I’d heard was an important new show.

A friend who recommended it knows about the mega-rich, so I figured it would have authenticity. And the Uber-wealthy-megalomaniacal family it follows is clearly inspired by the Rupert Murdoch clan, with his conservative news empire.

The picture of sad, insecure narcissists, constantly fighting and betraying one another for proximity to wealth and power does feel relevant for our current era, which skews towards Oligarchy in much of the world. (All of the world?)

The acting is superb across the board, and I’ll bet that Jeremy Strong, who plays sad-boy son Kendall Roy, was using a fake American accent, so I’ll take a rare Google break.

Be right back.

Nope. He’s American, from Boston. (I guess that partially explains the nasally speech.)

Like most HBO shows I’ve seen since “The Sopranos” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Succession” is less proper art than intelligent, guilty pleasure, and the comps to Showtime’s “Billions” are rather obvious.

As the series writer, Jesse Armstrong, is English, and there are large set pieces in European castles and schlosses, there is a sense of insider-aristocrat-old-money-and-power vibe that adds to the glamour.

The differing, WASP, Massachusetts-liberal values of a rival media family, the Pierces, allow yet another window into the world of the .001%

And what of it?
What’s the takeaway?

Well, it echoes something a friend told me at a recent dinner party. He is super-successful, and mentioned that he’d recently heard about a study that super-rich and super-poor people were often equally unhappy.

He said he could believe it, from what he’d seen.

And we all know about the stereotypes of addiction, suicide and self-sabotage attributed to really rich kids as well.

Unhappy they may be, but EVERYTHING the Oligarchs experience in life is “better,” as depicted in “Succession.”

Better cars, (driven by others,) better food, (which is ever-present in every room,) prettier rooms, bigger spaces, private planes, visits to castles, private yachts, well-dressed servants, omnipresent helicopters, all of it.

What does it mean?

That the rulers of the world want as much physical space, and personal resources, as possible. They want transportation options that allow them to EXIST separately from the hoi polloi, and their money (almost) always protects them from accountability.

We see that people of unimaginable power, raised in the hothouse of extreme wealth, will often do and say anything to retain or increase that power and wealth.

Wait a second…

“Succession” is definitely about Donald Trump, in as much as it’s a metaphor for how that degree of wealth can warp a person, as we see with our President.

And in an age of extreme income inequality, maybe it’s important for history to have a document that shows this lifestyle for posterity? (Even if it’s fiction.)

There are many ways to present a narrative, though, and it’s equally important to understand the other side: the emergent street class in America.

In this column, we’ve discussed California shanty towns long before some in the mainstream media, and I’ve previously shown books by Anthony Hernandez, Joshua Dudley Greer, and Scot Sothern that depict elements of Post-Great-Recession American street living.

Last year, we also published Cecilia Borgenstam’s pictures of the artifacts of homeless life from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

But in the photo world, (as I’ve also written,) the subject has been contentious recently, with some suggesting that no one should ever photograph the homeless, without themselves being homeless.

I can see how it’s an endpoint philosophically, and certainly with the help of non-profit organizations, some homeless people can undoubtedly take pictures, and be supported to have them printed or exhibited.

To show the world, from the inside.

But honestly, if you’re living on the street, survival is your primary concern, not documenting your condition for history.

And from my art training at Pratt, I’ve never believed in the insider-only rule. Outside of the vilest racism, or child pornography, I think that artists should be allowed to explore anything they want, and then have the resulting work judged on merit.

I think male novelists should be allowed to write deep female characters, and African-American film-makers can direct Asian-American actors.

So after all that build-up, (a lot, I know,) for our first column of 2020, we’re going to look at “The Unwanted” an impressive book by Thilde Jensen, by LENA Publications, which turned up in the mail last year.

While I’ll admit that Ms. Jensen did give me a heads up about the subject matter when we corresponded, with my crazy #2019, I forgot what the book was about by the time I opened it.

So I was able to create an experience without preconceptions.

The thick cover, in yellow and purple, with a cut-out featuring a person sleeping in the street, with red pants, is jarring. As are the opening images of an underpass, and of a bearded white man sleeping on cardboard palettes, with his head propped against a brown, brick wall.

Truth moment: these pictures are bleak. And there are many, many of them.

In my mind, when I first connected the book’s size to its contents, I realized this was going to be a long, unpleasant ride, even if it was to be graceful.

Given Ms. Jensen’s artistry, the work is compelling, and I did continue to turn the pages without skipping. I wanted to take my medicine, so to speak, as the book feels like it was meant for posterity.

The locations change, though all relevant text is reserved for the end, so there’s some guessing at first. There was East Coast landscape, for sure, and I thought I recognized Las Vegas, and then New Mexico. (The end notes confirmed it was Gallup, which we saw last year in Cable Hoover’s project, “From Gallup.”)

There are pictures of so many broken people, living day to day. But unlike our fictional billionaires, these humans have as close to nothing as possible.

We’re not told where we are until the end, when the notes confirm NM and NV, and that the pictures were also made in Syracuse and New Orleans.

The notes also suggest that Ms Jensen received both Light Work and Guggenheim fellowships, which would mean this project has been blessed by the heights of the art world too.

In Gerry Badger’s essay, we learn that Thilde Jensen, (who herself writes of having suffered deeply,) was afflicted with an Environmental Illness, highly allergic, and was forced to live in a tent in the woods for two years, on a respirator.

She photographed that culture as an insider in a previous project, and brought that capacity for empathy to her coverage of America’s homeless, who often suffer from mental illness and/or addiction.

We also read, at the close, that 20% of the book’s profits will be given to charity.

As I once reported here long ago, the Library of Congress collects photography around themes. If I were in charge there, (which I’m not,) I’d be acquiring this project, along with some of the others I mentioned earlier, because I think this period in American history will need to be faced, down the line.

The last time income inequality was this bad, it led to the Progressive era, and the breakup of big monopolies. President Teddy Roosevelt, (admittedly Upper Class and racist,) became the trust-buster extraordinaire.

This time around, we’ve got Trump.

So who the hell knows what’s going to happen?

Bottom Line: Powerful, scathing look at homelessness in America

To purchase “The Unwanted,” click here

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

This Week in Photography: A Secret Chapel Under London

- - From The Field

 

Part 1: Words of Wisdom

Man plans, God laughs.

It’s an old saying, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

I’m 45 now, and that qualifies as middle-aged. (Which means I’ve accrued enough life experience to know a thing or two about human nature, and its foibles.)

Furthermore, without ever intending to, I’ve become an opinion columnist, a political pundit, and a travel writer, in addition to being deeply versed in photography and art.

As I’ve been writing weekly here for so long, in a way, I’ve grown into a more mature, wiser, successful person during the course of this continuing narrative.

I’ve learned so much about the world, through the photographs I’ve viewed at festivals, the books people have sent along, and the trips I’ve taken to most of the great cities in America.

And yet, despite all that, some mistakes, I continue to make.

In particular, I still haven’t accepted that setting a deadline in life when things will get calmer, or easier, or better, never seems to work out well.

That idea, that we can externalize the process of getting that extra bit happier, or more rested, that we can outsource it to some future magical time, is a fool’s errand.

(Which makes me a fool, I know. So much for our reliable, omniscient narrator.)

This year, #2019, has been the most exciting, challenging and exhausting year of my professional life. I ping-ponged around the US, (and even the globe,) and you went along for the ride.

Thanks to my awesome, open-minded editor Rob, we took this column to new places, including straight travel reporting, restaurant reviews, and even film criticism.

Then I produced our Antidote retreats, had a huge museum show, co-designed my book, and ran my first crowd-funding campaign, all while full-time parenting, being a good husband, and volunteering at my children’s’ school.

So I should have known better than to say things like, “As soon as that Kickstarter campaign is over, I’ll get a chance to rest. Once we get to December 7th, things will be easier. I’ll finally have that mythical chance to recharge.”

(Like I said, that kind of thinking never seems to work out the way we’d hope.)

In this case, my daughter got super-sick, so we ended up at the hospital, and she had to be connected to an oxygen tank for nearly a week, because she couldn’t breathe properly.

I became her full-time caretaker during the day, and between that experience, the extra trips to the doctors, and the added medical expenses, my stress level shot through the roof.

All during the week I’d “planned” to chill out.

To be clear, most of the things I poured myself into this year were great, and I’m not trying to complain.

Rather, I want to do you a solid, and suggest that in the coming year, (with all the guaranteed political strife,) you invest in yourself a bit, in particular with self-care.

I know it can seem like a bougie concept, or perhaps New Age, but the truth is, if you don’t take care of yourself, who will? Exercise, classes, new hobbies, travel, walking, cooking, getting together with friends, making art, building community, all these things make us healthier on an on-going basis.

Just this morning, when I almost lost my shit after one extra unexpected stressor, I made a drawing, and called my best friends.

(And I’m writing, so of course my mood has improved.)

Even now, I’ve closed my eyes, and am imagining the calmest place I can think of.

I’m typing with my fucking eyes closed, all so I can conjure visions of the secret chapel at the far end of the crypt.

Say what now?

 

Part 2: Meet me at the London

Back in the day, I used to have a year-end column about the best work I saw that I hadn’t already written about yet. (I did it for years.)

Instead, I’m going to tell you about the best place I visited this year that I haven’t already written about yet.

After 5 London articles this summer, I hit the wall, and never got around to telling you about St. Brides of Fleet Street, the journalist’s church in London.

On my last day in town, my friend Richard Bram, after a brilliant fish and chips lunch in Limehouse, told me that if I wanted to see the oldest part of the city, (so much had been destroyed,) that Fleet Street was the place to go.

 

And while it was unintentional that I found it, after a long wander past St Paul’s cathedral, where I heard the bells tolling like a mad hatter, I soon realized I was in the vicinity of Richard’s recommendation.

 

Just a touch more wandering, and I found St, Brides. (What American isn’t a sucker for an old church, right?)

When I saw stairs heading down, I followed them.

Down into the crypt.
Down into the bowels of the city.

Down into the heart of European history.

(There was signage all around, explaining why the place was famous, and properly ancient, so you can read a bit about it in the photos.)

I walked past head stones, a coffin, and walls built in different centuries. It was quiet, and obviously creepy, but still, I followed the path, deeper underground.

 

Deeper and deeper.

What would I find?

I’d be lying if I told you I thought such a place existed.

The tiny chapel, when I found it, seemed like a modernist art installation, or the private altar of a stylish Billionaire in Miami Beach.

Anything but what it was; properly Christian, hidden behind ghosts and spirits, buried under one of the oldest cities in the world.

The white walls, the glowing green, the sound of silence.

 

I sat down on a cushioned bench, and didn’t move.

Transfixed.

If teleportation existed, I’d go there right now. (No doubt.)

I prayed for the journalists out there, for the truth tellers, risking their lives to report on power. And I meditated, reveling in my favorite-new-secret-place.

So listen up, people.

If you can, go there.
If you go, you will thank me.

(I guarantee it.)

Even now, just thinking about it, I feel warm and fuzzy.

So as these will be my last words to you in this crazy #2019, (I’ll be off next week,) I wanted to say thank you for reading along this year.

For following my journey, and for all the kind words so many of you have passed along this year too.

We appreciate you!

Hope you have a lovely Holiday season!

The Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival: Part 3

 

Part 1: The Intro

Hi there, everybody.

How are you?

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, and Christmas will be here before you know it, most people are ready to wind down a bit.

To slow the pace, bitch about the weather, fantasize about being on a warm beach somewhere, and then begin to plan for 2020.

(You know it’s true.)

Honestly, my ass would have been in coasting mode weeks ago, if it hadn’t been for the (now successful) Kickstarter campaign for my upcoming book, “Extinction Party.”

As for the cold and the gray, I spent the better part of Saturday plotting and planning to drive to a clean, beautiful beach, where we could swim in the warm water, and feel free.

I searched and searched, finally settling on South Padre Island in Texas, on the Gulf Coast next to Mexico, before realizing that a 16 hour drive each way would wash off any bliss imparted by the serene salt water.

(Staycation #2019 instead.)

As for the planning, I think right around now, people begin to look at the calendar in earnest, visualizing the trips they might take in 2020.

One year ends, the next begins.

I know it’s a big lede, but I was building to a point, which is that people often ask me which photo festival they should attend, or which ones are the best?

It happened twice in the past week, and once was a public query on Twitter.

Thomas Patterson, a photographer and writer for PDN, asked me and a few others the following:

 

As I’m currently in the middle of my series on the Best Work I saw at the Filter Photo Festival, and have said many times that Filter does it right, it seemed like a great way to answer the questions for you ahead of time, in case it helps you book out next year.

So let’s get to it.

 

Part 2: Which Festival is Best?

I’m going to cut to the chase, and let you down, simultaneously.

There is no “best” festival, though of course I might have a personal favorite.

There are now so many options, in almost every major city, that I think a photographer can base his or her decision on a number of factors. And I will say this, there are several annual festivals that I think are at the top of the heap, and I name-check them all the time.

Filter Photo Festival in Chicago.
PhotoNOLA in New Orleans.
Medium Photo Festival in San Diego.

All three have different strengths, but few weaknesses, and all share some common strategies, with respect to wraparound programming.

I’ve already written that I know the staff at each place, and think they’re amazing people. The three cities are beautiful tourist destinations, with superb leisure activities and incredible food.

Each of the three features lectures, exhibitions, parties, keynote speakers, partnerships with important local museums, and are run by artist-driven non-profit organizations.

They’ve had stability in leadership and staff, and take place in excellent venues, where they remain each year.

(Cohesion and teamwork are important.)

Basically, I’d vouch for all three festivals, strongly. They’re different of course, as Filter has the massive-city-blue-collar vibe, New Orleans is a party-forward city, and Medium is a bit smaller and homier, set in a poolside, SoCal hipster hotel.

I’ve been on gallery tours in both Chicago and New Orleans before, and Medium now does one in Tijuana.

You will get your money’s worth in each place, and that money is going to support a non-profit that gives back massively to its local community.

As to the biennial festivals, I had a good experience at Photolucida in Portland, which I chronicled here this year, and it too has great relationships with its local city. (And amazing food, music, and legal reefer.)

FotoFest, which is coming up this March, is the oldest American portfolio review festival, and I made two of my best friends in the world while attending. (In 2012 and 2016.)

Ironically, though, I think it’s the least social of the festivals I’ve gone to. I love Houston, but the downtown business district, (where FotoFest is held,) is not super-lively in the evenings, and while it’s a great city in which to have a car, parking downtown is expensive.

FotoFest a place to get business done, as you’ll have approximately 20 portfolio reviews, and I know colleagues who go for two sessions each year, as they always make enough money to justify it.

So there’s my two cents.

And just to reiterate, in my copious experience, it’s the partying, the social experiences, the eating and drinking, that really brings people together.

(It’s not an accident, as human beings like working with people they know and like.)

If you get out there, invest the time in broadening your network and making new friends, it will have a positive impact on your life in so many ways.

And with that, we’ll move on to the final piece of today’s puzzle: more of the Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival in September.

As usual, the artists are in no particular order.

 

Part 3: The Photographers

Sometimes, a project just jumps off the table at you, often due to technical prowess. And as a teacher and a critic, I typically recommend artists make work about what they’re expert in, or something they’re so curious about that the art practice itself makes them an expert.

With Christoper Barrett, it was an interesting confluence, as he works as a professional architectural photographer in Chicago, and chose an art project that allowed him to put those skills to use.

He began taking walks around his neighborhood, photographing the mishmash of local architectural styles. At the same time, he created a tense, boxed in, claustrophobic view of emo Americana.

The series feels like a snapshot of an empire in Decline, devoid of color. And the formal constructions, super sharpness, and solid tonal range make for a powerful group of pictures.


Speaking of expertise, Colleen Woolpert must have found it strange to tell me her story, given the massive coincidence we shared. She described a rare eye condition called strabismus, in which vision and depth perception can be severely impaired.

Colleen is a twin, and her sister has it, but she does not. (The coincidence is my son has strabismus, and after nearly 10 years of treatment, one surgery, and some strong eye-glasses, he sees really well.)

Apparently, Colleen wanted to help her sister, (as the impairment was believed to be permanent if not fixed in childhood, ) so she built a stereoscopic device to help her sister improve her vision, and it worked!

Then she patented it, and now it’s in pubic use.

You can’t make this shit up!

Her art project uses the stereoscope to depict images of Colleen and her sister, where they blend together into one person. Radical stuff!

Next, we have Mitch Eckert, who’s a professor at Louisville University in Kentucky. I always ask photographers about their background, and then dispense advice accordingly.

Mitch told me he was trained up, and that he thought his work was ready to go, so I was prepared to be a tough critic. Thankfully, I found his work to be cool and a bit exciting.

Normally, I think zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and museums are too easy as subjects, but Mitch brought a hyper-real compression of space to the game.

His plants, trapped behind glass, sweating, breathing, pushing up against the see-through constraints, feel very compelling as environmental pieces in #2019.

Ruth Adams and I had an editing session, as we discussed how to create solid through-lines, or connection points, via subject matter and style.

Ruth had been shooting in Berlin, and what she first described as being about Jewish cemeteries quickly expanded to include other religions as well, and other cities.

I zeroed in on the images that felt most connected to each other, and encouraged her to keep things tight and make more work. As with Christoper’s project, the tonal range here really is impressive.

Anastasia Davis, in from Pittsburgh, let me know she had studied with good people, and was connected in her community. She also said that she used her work to cope with, or process, her history of panic disorder and depression, which is of course one of art’s highest and best uses.

Anastasia showed me two groups of photographs, both of which were meant to conjure a different emotional experience. And as the images are made separately, and then edited together, it does share much with poetry, vibe-wise.

Really lovely stuff.

 

Last, but not least, we have James Kuan, whose work caught my eye at the portfolio walk at Filter.

I always make sure to do a quick visit at a festival’s portfolio walk, (always,) because I ALWAYS find cool stuff to show you from people I would not otherwise meet.

In this case, I learned that James is a surgeon based in Seattle, and has studied at PCNW.

This project, about identity, is all about cutting and pasting. Slicing and replacing.

Cool stuff, and I’m sure you’ll like it.

See you next week!

This Week in Photography: A Review of “newflesh”

 

Recently, my cousin Mike referred to my wife and me as “the last adults.”

(I think he meant it as a compliment.)

He’s 31, and has described in detail the problems that many Millennials face as 2020 approaches.

Between the travesty that is the student loan mess they’re all in, or a job market that went full freelance-independent-contractor-side-hustle when they got out of college, to the fact that certain segments of the economy never recovered after The Great Recession.

My other cousin, who grew up in the same town as I did, (and who’s also about 31,) had 15 (or so) high school friends die from overdoses related to pain killers or heroin.

That’s insane!

Kids who went to the same High School I did, and came from the same background (NYC-suburbs-American-ethnic-professional,) and they died by the thousands.

Because they had access to the pills in their parents’ medicine cabinets, and then later, to the cheap Mexican smack that flooded the country at just the wrong time. (For those kids.)

Add in the Climate Change catastrophe we’re all in, the fact our divided country is about to impeach a President, and that the robots are taking over, and it’s easy to see why some people might be pessimistic about the future.

Millennials in particular.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, is it?

As a father, one who is pre-disposed to look for signs of the positive out there, (Wall-E’s green shoots,) I have some ideas.

Some things are better than they used to be.

This, I know.

Off the top of my head, and as a middle-aged-heterosexual man, (does that make me cis-gender?,) I can point to the drastic improvement in the rights of the LGBTQ community here in America, and in its depictions in popular culture as well.

Before you tell me there is still a long way to go, let’s stipulate that. But at my age, I can remember growing up, and there were really no gay characters on TV at all, and most of mainstream gay America was closeted.

What few instances there were on TV were always unflattering. (Was Don Knott’s “Three’s Company” character, Mr. Furley, secretly gay I wonder?)

When “Will & Grace” came along in 1998, and I saw gay characters on TV who were depicted in positive ways, it was revelatory.

And I’m just speaking as an artist, and a person.

To have representation like that within the community, for the first time, must have been a big deal.

These days, classic LGBTQ shows like “Will & Grace” and “The L-word” are back, rebooted, because things have catapulted so far in twenty years. (Gay marriage, etc.)

Things have come SO far, in fact, that I recently binge-watched the excellent, underworld show “Animal Kingdom” on Amazon Prime, (originally broadcast on TNT,) and was barely surprised to see a plot line about a criminal, gay, SoCal surfer.

Including sex scenes.

When the character Deran Cody, who grew up in a family gang, finally gets ready to come out, (as he was super-conflicted,) his soft-hearted, surfer-bro, thug brothers embrace his sexuality easily.

As does his gangster Mom.

Even better, there’s a scene where one brother looks at some bikini-clad women, nods to Deran and says, “You’re really not into that?”

In reply, he looks at a half-naked-surfer-dude, nods to his brother, and says, “You’re really not into that?”

To me, that was proof that some things in the world are simply better, more open, more accepting, than they used to be.

But isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

Reach into the Zeitgeist, shake things up inside the Collective Unconscious, and come out with something fresh? Something relevant?

A Frankenstein’s monster of answers, wrapped up in the enigma of form and content.

I ask you, having just put down “newflesh,” a recent exhibition catalogue just published by Gnomic Book, curated and edited by Efrem Zelony-Mindell.

This book challenged me, and I want to admit that up front. I admire it, and like it in many ways.

I also have some problems with it.
But that makes sense.

This book represents art of the now.
Made by young people.

(In New York City in particular, but not exclusively.)

I kicked in a bit to the Kickstarter for this book, when I first saw it, because it seemed like a cool project.

And so it is.

When I was offered the chance to review it, I said sure, because I was certain it had to be interesting.

It’s a group show of what’s happening now.

How could that not be interesting?

So, what IS happening?

If the work in this book is to be believed, nothing and no one is ever to be “believed” again. Silly humans, using concepts like “truth,” “believe,” and “freedom.”

We robot cyborg overlords have no use for feelings. Flesh is weak, and we use it only to harvest the BRAINS we need to run our cyborg bodies.

Sorry.
Got off track there.

What I meant is, all this work is constructed, in one way or another. (Physically, digitally, or both.)

Some of them are a bit subtle for my taste, symbol-wise, but everything is cut and pasted, chopped and changed.

I loved the erased twin towers, silicon body parts, melting faces, plastic food, apples wearing orange skins, and intertwined bodies.

Taken together, the message is unmissable: in Trump’s America, one of dueling narratives, rather than objective reality, everything is built, even our identity.

That I haven’t mentioned yet that the book is intended to be about Queer identity is probably a strength, because it’s designed to be about rebellion, and challenging the status quo. About that energy that people of a certain age once called “Punk Rock.”

(As an adjective, not a noun.)

Mr. Zelony-Mindell’s writing alludes to identity as fluid, changing, among the young artists of today.

“These works…have many things in common; homosexuality is not one of them. And yet they are totally queer…They allow for imperfections and unfamiliarity. There’s a cleansing ability of clarity in that uncertainty.”

We hear a lot about that in media as well, with respect to Millennials and Gen Z.

Here in the art, we can see it with a lot of literal shrouding, and the layering of objects behind other objects.

Of silhouette and shadow.

My issue, such as it is, is that so much of the work does look alike. And has common roots.

From my pasture here in New Mexico, I can see the network connections between artists studying in the same art schools in New York. Columbia definitely, SVA I’d say, and probably Pratt. (Which now has a photo program built by a Columbia grad, Stephen Frailey, whose work features in the book too.)

I see Yale, I’d venture, and definitely the Charlotte Cotton, “Photography is Magic” school of art.

Moment of truth: I was definitely NOT surprised when she popped up with a letter, mid-way through the book, which used a lot of words to not say very much.

My other biggest takeaway, honestly, is the bleak vibe I got turning the pages.

It’s not a criticism. Let’s be clear.

Rather, it brings us back to where we started today.

If we see this book as a generational mood-ring, as a barometer of the vibe out there, I’d say it’s pessimistic for sure.

Lots of this art was abstracted, which means I have to go on feeling, rather than idea.

By suggestion, rather than direction.

And if the American Empire is indeed on the decline, (of course it is,) and if this generation of Americans will have a lower standard of living than their parents, (seems likely,) and if the planet is rebelling against us at the current moment, (somewhat obvious,) then this is the kind of art young people would make.

Isn’t it?

Where’s Obama with his Hope and Change when you need him?

Bottom Line: An excellent, queer, hyper-current exhibition catalogue from New York

To purchase “newflesh” click here 

 

 

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

This Week in Photography: Understanding China

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Consider yourself warned.

We’re going deep today.

I’m writing on Thanksgiving, you’re reading on Black Friday, and these are highly-loaded days in America.

In their honor, today, we’re doing a proper examination of these perilous, political times in the United States and China, Earth’s dueling super-powers.

For my American analysis, you already know I’ve got the goods, as I’ve been spewing on about American politics since Rob gave me this platform. (Or, more accurately, since Thanksgiving 2011.)

With respect to China, I’ve got a BA in History from Duke, I studied Chinese art history at the undergrad and graduate levels, taught elements of its art history at the college level, watched more Hong Kong action films than I could ever count, learned bits about Buddhism, and studied Chinese martial arts as well.

(Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and I’m familiar with Qi Gong.)

Finally, on the subject of my Chinese street cred, I wrote an article here in 2011, after artist Ai Weiwei was unjustly kidnapped and imprisoned by the Chinese government, that was highly critical of China’s rulers.

(I called them assholes.)

After we published, I battled Chinese government trolls in the comment section for a few hours, which Rob and I still talk about. (And we wondered, will they return today?)

This time, though, I’m going to sit down in the nuance.

This will NOT be a story in which I only call the Chinese government to task, condescending in my moral superiority, confident I know better.

Not today.

Rather, we’re going to look at the bigger picture.

Because China in #2019 is as impossible to ignore, (and as good at generating headlines,) as Donald J. Trump.

And that’s saying something!

In preparation for this article, I read almost everything I could the last two weeks, and encountered some excellent journalism in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and this amazing piece by the ICIJ that focuses on the second major leak coming out of China in the past month.

But even more impressive, (I think,) is that we’re also going to offer you some actual, unpublished, hot-off-the-presses documentary photography, straight from the front lines in Hong Kong, which has been roiled by massive protests this year.

My Antidote student, Hillary Johnson, has strong ties to the martial arts community in Hong Kong, and has spent a significant amount of time there over many years.

She recently put together a small Go Fund me campaign to raise money to get to Hong Kong to document the protest movement, and just got back.

These photographs are current, is what I’m saying.

And she both knows the city, and has deep ties there.

The Hong Kong protests are only part of what I want to discuss, but it’s exciting to be able to share Hillary’s work while it’s all happening.

Photo from the 7th floor of the Eaton Hotel that sits right at the intersection where the battle took place at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. Flowing in and out of the intersection like a murmuration of birds, throughout the day and night of fighting with the police, the protesters worked together tirelessly and with great courage to keep the police at bay. It seemed clear they had studied military history and tactics, particularly Roman battle techniques. They made a phalanx at the barrier and inched towards the police under cover of umbrellas which protected them from the tear gas. They were finally driven out by police around 3 or 4 am.

On November 18th protesters used anything they could find to make barricades during the battle that went on for more than 24 hours at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. They pulled bricks from sidewalks and broke them in half, bamboo from scaffolding, street signs, anything they could get their hands on was immediately transformed into a weapon, shield or barrier. The sound of things being dismantled was a relentless, unearthly tapping of brick against brick, metal against metal.

 

Part 2. Understanding China

 

When I wrote the Ai Weiwei article, I rememberer mentioning the movie “Hero,” and how it had chilled me to hear the phrase “Our Land,” and then see Jet Li’s character (spoiler alert) give up his life to allow an Emperor to rule a united China.

I thought it meant they were coming for us, (which they kind of are, but more on that later,) but in the ensuing years, I’ve come to see the film differently.

What I now know of Chinese history is that, as long as it is, the periods of Chinese unity led to prosperity and relative peace.

But when smaller powers were jostling within, in a country as big as China, with a historically huge population, wars broke out, and tens of millions of people died.

(This happened a lot.)

In the late 19th Century, most recently, the Taiping Rebellion killed an estimated 60-70 million people.

And that was an uprising against the Qing Dynasty, a weak power that conquered “China” from Manchuria, in the Far North.

There was also the time when the Mongols defeated China and ruled in the Southern Song Dynasty, in the 13th Century.

The pride of the dominant Han was damaged then too.

Fast forward again, and China in the Qing Dynasty was so underpowered that England carved it up, during the Opium wars, imposing the drug on the country, and taking territory, like Hong Kong.

When the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed, just before World War I, the Japanese came in as conquerors, and from then though World War II, (featuring things like the Rape of Nanjing,) China was humiliated by a neighbor, and again millions of people died.

Next, there was the violence during the Communist Revolution, when Mao Zedong took over, which led to the partition of China and Taiwan. (Which China does not recognize.)

And millions more starved when Mao did as he pleased with the Centralized economy.

(Even in a united China, under Mao, lots of people died, back in the day.)

So here we are in #2019, and China is now united, but with the resources of a mega-power, due to its embrace of Western Capitalism.

The leadership under the unapologetic dictatorship, (more on that later,) consistently stresses the value of a united, powerful China, and its citizens, many of whom have left poverty for the middle class, (or outright wealth,) appreciate the stability.

Xi Jinping, China’s power-hungry ruler, stepped in at this time of unprecedented prosperity, and decided China was ready to embrace its role as a Superpower, rather than cloak it, as had been the case since Deng Xiaoping.

So now Xi has an axe to grind with the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans.

(Russia, with whom it shares a border, is a natural rival as well, but certainly they have things in common too.)

Xi also lived through watching his father get taken down, and reeducated, so he has a chip on his shoulder there as well.

Given all I’ve written so far, are we really surprised that a guy who had the rules re-written so he can be dictator-for-life would claim some rocks in the South China Sea, engage in a huge trade war with a super-power, lock up and torture 1 million Muslim minorities in concentration camps, or try to take Hong Kong’s (partial) democracy in plain view of the world?

 

Part 3: The War on Terror

 

After 9/11, the United States of America started two ground wars, one in Afghanistan, and the other in Iraq.

(One is still ongoing, and the other wrapped up under President Obama, but we sent troops back in country this Fall.)

After the attacks that killed 2000+ Americans, and cost untold billions, travel in airports changed forever. Privacy laws changed, (remember the Patriot Act?,) and though George W. Bush admirably argued against it, Anti-Muslim sentiment in this country increased.

Overall, the US spent TRILLIONS of dollars on those Middle-Eastern wars, killed tens of thousands of people, and locked some up indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay too.

Today, in #2019, we are currently running our own detention (or concentration) camps for illegal immigrants, depending on your preferred term.

Children get sexually abused there, or taken from their parents forever.

They sleep on cold concrete floors, and are denied hygiene and occasionally health care.

(The US Government actually defended the lack of hygiene in a video clip that went viral.)

We also incarcerate millions of Americans for a drug war that is destroying our neighbor, Mexico, and a massive percentage of our overcrowded prison population is comprised of people of color.

Plus, our police, (at least in Dallas,) now shoot African-American people in their homes, while they’re playing video games, or eating ice cream.

You really can’t make this shit up, but doesn’t make it any less tragic.

Honestly, the only thing I like about Vladimir Putin is that he’s always calling us out for our hypocrisy.

We’ve taken territory.
We’ve removed governments.
We’ve meddled in elections.

On this, he’s not wrong.

Can we really look at what China is doing with the (mostly) Uighur population in Xinjiang and say we’re that much better than they are at the moment?

The Uighurs were killing Han Chinese, in terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2014, and then Xi Jinping said make it stop.

He said, use the power of the Dictatorship to make it stop.

And so they did.

They built camps from scratch, increased facial recognition surveillance, locked up 1 million people, torturing them, threatening their free relatives to stay quiet, and went about brainwashing the Islam and Uighur out of them.

All since 2017!!!

And again, I ask, in this age of Trump, with our camps, and our history of locking up the Japanese in World War II, slavery, and the genocide of Native America, are we so sure we’re superior? .

We did lots of torture in those CIA black sites during the War on Terror, in addition to waterboarding, sound and light torture, sleep deprivation, and many other goodies.

No wonder we’re all getting headaches from the complexity of #2019.

 

Part 4: Defending Democracy

 

I take my freedom of speech very seriously. (As you know.)

I’m thankful to Rob Haggart, my amazing editor, for supporting those rights for the last 9.5 years, and for paying me to share my opinion with you.

He has never censored or edited me, in all these years.

Not once.

And when I suggested this column, he said go for it!

Because I’ve been thinking a lot about China’s threat to our free speech lately.

As Xi flexes his muscles, (and all these countries become interdependent,) like with anything else, might makes right. It’s why Pakistan and other Muslim countries stay silent as China jails and tortures other Muslims in Xinjiang.

They’re addicted to Chinese money, and the customer, (and boss) is always right.

So I was immediately concerned the second I read that China had come down so hard on Houston Rockets GM Darryl Morey’s Pro-Hong-Kong-protestor tweet back in October.

Mr. Morey had only retweeted a generic message of support from his personal account, and it literally turned into an international incident overnight.

I cannot overstate how big a deal it became, both to China, the NBA, and US-Chinese relations.

Joe Tsai, an Alibaba founder, and new owner of my beloved Brooklyn Nets, wrote a long, open letter on Facebook echoing some of the history I mentioned in Part 1, and calling the protestors separatists. (Ironically, he’s Taiwanese, and was educated in the US.)

Chinese power has come into America, and apparently pressed for Mr. Morey to be fired.

Several times in the aftermath, China made clear in writing that it believes free speech does NOT include criticizing its government, and that it also now feels that practice should not be limited within its national borders.

People outside China, workers within the American Capitalist system, should have their freedom of expression limited, says the People’s Republic of China.

If you’re not a little concerned by that, I think you should be.

And I told all of that to Hillary Johnson, my intrepid student, before she left to support the Hong Kong democracy movement this month.

I told her Xi Jinping was willing to do anything to win.

That these protestors did not stand a chance.

That it would be dangerous.

She said she knew all these things, and was determined to go anyway. She wanted to be there with David, against Goliath.

I told her I admired the hell out of her bravery, and that I’d support her as I could.

The photographs Hillary made, over the course of a week+ in Hong Kong in November 2019, are her vision of a community she, (and I) desperately appreciate. (Or a part of her vision. She had hardrive drama, so this is only a small sample of what she shot.)

China came along earlier this year, and wanted to expand its power to extradite anyone from Hong Kong to the mainland judicial system.

Hong Kong’s citizens, especially the young, realized this was not a power-grab, but a complete takeover.

If it had succeeded, if Carrie Lam, (the puppet) had gotten her way, then any freedom would have evaporated.

You say the wrong thing, and you can all-of-a-sudden end up locked up forever in a Chinese political prison.

It would be the same implicit threat hanging over folks in Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. (Because the mainland Chinese made a devil’s bargain, of wealth and security for human rights and freedom.)

Here in the United States, we have, for most of our history, preferenced the latter at all costs.

Do we still?

Trump wants to be President for life.

He jokes about it all the time.

The dictators Putin, Xi, and Erdogan are his friends.

And now he’s about to face an impeachment trial, with an election coming up next year.

Where does it all end?

I have no idea.

But the Hong Kong protestors forced China to back down on the extradition law, and just supported the pro-democracy movement in local elections.

What happens next?

Again, I have no idea.

Happy Black Friday!

A nurse who must remain anonymous, photographed on November 18th during a battle between protesters and police for the intersection of Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd in the Jordan neighborhood in Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR. She volunteered to care for protesters overcome by teargas or suffering from other injuries. The police shot a mix of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets as well as live rounds directly at protesters.

The mother of the young protester who both must remain anonymous pose for a portrait holding a copy of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy magazine. This page features a heroic painting of the protesters by @harcourtromanticist. They are a rare example of a family stronger together now than before. Many parents have disowned their children for being involved in the protests.

Anonymous young woman. She is a college student and her boyfriend is a front line protester. She said, “I am not as brave as him but I want to help so I am learning first aid, so I can help them when they go to the front line.” She was inside the Prince Edward MTR station when the police locked the station down, trapping riders and innocent people for over an hour while triad thugs, dressed in all black so they could look like protesters, came in and beat ordinary people, (who were not protesters,) indiscriminately with blunt instruments and batons.

A family of a front line protester. He is just 21 and lives with his mother and grandmother. His mother worked at Police headquarters for 11 years. In the beginning of the movement, she and her mother didn’t believe the stories about police brutality and were against the son protesting. It almost split the family apart. They finally came to see the stories were true and though she worries about him every time he goes out she supports the movement and feels that in her job she can keep an eye on things and know what is really going on.

This woman so fears the police that this is the only we she could be photographed for publication. Because of her work, so many people know her, some of them police, it was completely unsafe to show her face or photograph her any recognizable place that could be identified. Her husband could not be photographed at all for fear of reprisals.

These three gentlemen are part of a confederation of labor unions representing different industries. The two wearing masks have been deeply involved in the movement. To show their faces would put them at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Thousands of people have already been arrested and there are reports of intense police brutality including beatings, arrest and rape. Of the election, one from the Cross Sector Resistance said, “It showed that the people will not submit to pandering or terrorism, but recognize that human rights are non-negotiable.”

This man is an organizer and labor leader in Hong Kong. He said, “The Chinese government has already seen my face, so I’m already dead! Let’s do one photo facing away from the camera anyway.” The five raised fingers stands for 5 demands and not one less. He sees labor issues as being inextricably tied to fundamental concepts of freedoms embodied in the five demands and the pro-democracy movement.

The Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival: Part 2

 

I never have a hard time writing.

It’s true.

It must be muscle memory, as words normally flow from my brain to my fingers, like wet snow dropping from a gray sky.

Then, we get to this time of year, when the days are shorter, the light is less intense, and the column gets more difficult.

Especially as I’m spent, having just finished a run of 8 big trips in 8 months.

It ended a few days ago, when we returned from a family Bar Mitzvah in Boulder. (Partying with the same extended family for the third time this year.)

It was both exhausting and perfunctory, which is an odd combination.

(And if my cousins are reading this, apologies, you threw a great shindig.)

Rather, the joy and surprise of such family reunion-type-events lie in the typical time-gap between them: people change, and have new stories to tell.

By the third get-together in a year, it’s only natural that people have run through their prime “life-story” material, and the conversations get a bit stale.

What I found, though, is that it’s not always the big, dramatic moments that burn their way into memory. Or that are even the most pleasurable, necessarily.

I told my kids about, and then actively noticed, the random, seemingly-meaningless-in-between moments that can come to feel important in a family bonding narrative.

Like the time we were sprinting though an underground parking garage, the four of us, desperate not to be late for (always boring) Temple, and I heard our shoes clicking on the concrete as I looked at my daughter and smiled.

Or the four of us huddled over a few plates of Thai noodles, sucking up the city-food-goodness, while the mountains and shopping malls of Boulder looked on beyond the fifth floor, hotel windows.

It’s not always the glamour, I’ve found, that pulls us out of our respective reveries, and helps us revel in the moment.

Right now, I’m actually thinking of a perfect moment in Chicago, back in September, when I visited for the Filter Photo Festival.

If you’ve been reading this year, you know I used food, architecture, and travel as methods of inspiration, rather than just photographs, paintings and sculptures.

As an artist, I’ve done more writing, drawing and installation work lately than I have photography.

(Each step in our creative journey is different, and things change over time.)

But rather than repeating my old patterns in Chicago, (as I discussed last week,) I went to Pilsen to have a Kung Fu lesson with a great teacher in town.

It took two subway trains and a bus to get there, and wouldn’t you know, but that’s where one of those little moments managed to find me.

On the bus heading North.

I was late, (again,) but this time, I’d texted Sifu to give him a heads up, and I was assured it was no drama. (So I settled in for the ride.)

By the time I got to that bus, though, I was ready to be there.

It wasn’t a long journey, only a mile, and I’d normally walk, but again, I was late, and didn’t know where I was going.

So after the third or fourth bus stop in a row, I was properly impatient, and must have had a sour look on my face.

Then the fifth stop was the doozy.

An elderly Latino man got on the bus, walking very slowly. He had on a dapper hat, (not a fedora, more short and peaked,) a sharp outfit, and these glittery, oversized sunglasses.

(If Elton John had ever looked as good in his sunglasses as this guy did, I’d be surprised.)

I noticed him immediately, and then time stopped.

Literally.

Because the man had his bus ticket in his wallet, in his back pocket, but he couldn’t get it out to save his life.

I watched as his hand slowly tried to work the wallet back and forth, bit by bit hoping it would slide out from its overstuffed home.

He stood there, motionless, but for the little bit his arm and hand moved, as they fruitlessly tried to access his bus pass.

30 seconds went by.

Then a minute.

I was transfixed.

90 seconds, and finally he had progress.

The last bit was easier than you might think, he paid his fare, then came and sat down near me.

It was like I was in the presence of a proper showman, a rock star from a previous era, and I’d watched him in a mini-life movie, right there on the bus in Chicago.

I tell you this story, today, while I’m fighting off the winter blues, because as much as I’m thrilled to be facing a 4 month travel break, to recharge and restore…sometimes we do need to get out of our own little worlds to realize how big it is out there.

In the best case, art can help us do that too.

It’s the reason people like these portfolio review articles, I think, because it allows you to see so many different viewpoints and perspectives in each piece.

And at every festival I go to, the range of photographic work I see is as broad as Lake Michigan.

So here were are, speak of the devil, in Part 2 of “The Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival.”

As usual, the artists are in no particular order.

We’ll begin today with one of my favorite Chicago photographers, Yvette Marie Dostatni. We met at a festival a few years ago, and I loved her quirky, funny, and definitely absurd series, “The Conventioneers,” which I wrote about at the time.

Yvette and I stayed in touch, and I admit I’m a big fan of her work. But when I saw her at Photolucida this past Spring, I didn’t love some of what she showed me, and gave her a tough critique.

In the follow up, Yvette told me about a project she’d done visiting Indiana, where her family comes from, which she thought I might like.

(Boy, did I.)

As I didn’t get to feature Yvette in my Portland series, and she’s both Chicago through-and-through, and a former Filter participant, I thought it would be perfect to include her in this series.

I admired Thomas Brasch’s intention in his work immediately, as he described his desire to make healing, positive work out of terrorism against humanity.

Not an easy goal, to be sure.

He described an intensive digital process through which photographs taken at or near the scene of mass shootings were digitally manipulated into mandala-like creations.

I liked some more than others, but as I got to look at them consecutively, I got a sense of the good juju coming off of them. I’m actually showing a large selection below, because it creates a pretty cool sensation.

Thomas and I had a great chat about how such restrictions, (on process and form/shape,) which originally inspire us, eventually can be constraining, so it’s good to stay fluid.

Like Margaret LeJeune last week, I had one of “those” chats with Nina Riggio. The one where I explain why I think one project falls short, only to have the artist show me, with the next series in the box, that they had it all sorted already.

In Nina’s case, she had a documentary photo project about some Venus flytrap poachers in North Carolina that felt very “parachute journalism” to me, despite her passion.

I asked about things more personal, or connected to her life experience, and she brought out these images of Tesla factory workers who live in their vehicles.

As Nina had already told me she is based in a van, the intersection was powerful. I’ve written a lot about the West Coast, (and perhaps American) homelessness epidemic, and this is a really intriguing, poignant and visceral way to convey a part of the story.

Next, we’ve got Ruth Lauer Manenti, from the Catskills in NY, whom I met early on the first day of the festival. Ruth is a great example of what I wrote earlier, as she told me she was trained in painting and drawing, but had come to photography when she inherited an old large format camera.

Much as I’m currently using my photo skills to learn how to draw, (seeing is seeing,) Ruth figured out her own way of communicating photographically.

It’s spare, Zen, and very, very beautiful.

Love it!


Sam Scoggins is back in the column, as likely the first person to be featured twice, with different work, from two different festivals in the same year.

(Quite the achievement, if you think about it.)

After Photolucida, I published Sam’s black and white documentary photographs of Upstate NY night time party creatures. Then, he went on to have success with a artificial, digital landscape project.

But in Chicago, I noted him toting around a huge box of prints, but couldn’t see what they were. During the portfolio walk on Saturday night, based on their size and the edges that stuck out, I found that Sam had also been working on a cyanotype series as well.

Talk about prolific!

There are two groups, featuring endangered native species toned in oil, and then an invasive species bunch as well, all from near his home.

What a talented guy.

Native species plants

 

Invasive plants


Finally, we have Sarah Pfohl, who is a photo professor in Indianapolis.

Sara told me that she was working on a very a personal documentary series on her family’s property in Upstate New York, as she did not expect to ever inherit it.

For her, the place represented home, but Sara felt there was limited amount of time that she’d be able to access it, and those feelings.

So her work amounted to memory-creation and capture, but also a quiet elegy to the death of her childhood, in a way. It’s a sad place to leave you, today, but then again, it’s November, with all the sad light.

See you next week!

The Best Work I Saw at the Filter Photo Festival: Part 1

 

I was doing some math last week.

Adding up the number of days I’ve spent in Chicago over the last four years.

I was talking to my son about it, and realized that 5 trips at 5-6 days each equates to almost a month.

A month!
In a city I barely knew.

I’ve gone from not knowing where I was going, to almost remembering the landmarks but getting a little turned around, to kind-of-remembering and mostly going in the right direction, to knowing where I was and walking with a military march in my step.

What can I tell you?

Chicago is a beautiful city, and the large downtown area, filled with gorgeous skyscrapers, is set up against a blue lake as big as an ocean. There are green waterways criss-crossing the city as well, things you’ve seen in movies, with building reflections shimmering in the water below bridge-crossings.

People are friendly, and though it bears a resemblance to Manhattan, with the 20th Century, period nature of a lot of the buildings, it’s much cleaner.

An Über driver from Morocco told me he thinks Chicago is still much cheaper, and therefore more livable, than its East and West Coast mega-city competition.

But this September, at the 2019 Filter Photo Festival, I couldn’t help thinking it was strange how quickly something can go from new and fascinating to comfortable and nostalgic.

Here’s an example.

On Thursday night, after a long first day of reviewing portfolios, there was a little gap in the schedule before a reception at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, where Teju Cole’s fantastic, curated exhibition “Go Down Moses” was on display.

Rather than Übering or Lyfting, cabbing, bussing, or taking the subway, I chose to walk, alone, to gather my thoughts.

It’s about two miles, and I’ve done it before, so I know the way.

And I was also hoping I’d bump into someone.

Sure enough, on a street corner opposite Millennium Park, (before you get to the Art Institute,) I saw blues singer/guitar player/drummer Brian Doroba, in the same spot he was a couple of years before, when I stumbled upon his act, awestruck.

I had left early enough to be able to stop and listen, (just in case,) and got a ten minute concert of some genuinely killer street blues.

I dropped a couple of bucks in the hat, made a video to remember the moment, and sunk into the music, bopping my head as I leaned back against the side of a building.

Other people stopped, breaking their routines to engage with the blues, right there amid the theater of the street.

It was pretty excellent, as far as moments go.

And it felt symbolic of my view towards the Filter festival: I have incredibly high expectations, and they’re consistently met, even if I can’t be surprised, like I was when everything was new.

At this point, the Filter crew has their mission dialed in, and the festival is hyper-well run.

Their systems work, their venue is great, and the members of their team complement each other well. (Which I wrote about in last week’s team-building column.)

Filter has lectures, workshops, exhibitions and parties, along with four days of reviews.

Things just work so well.

People arrive at your table on time, never late, and leave when they’re supposed to. The breaks come at just the right time. The food is amazing, and the vibe in the reviewing room is positive.

To establish this level of excellence, in the heart of a world-class city, is to be commended.

But we all know I went to Filter to look at portfolios to publish here. I scouted some great stuff, and am thrilled to be able to share it with you now.

That’s right: we’re officially opening the series, “The Best Work I saw at the Filter Photo Festival,” and this is only part one.

As usual, the artists are in no particular order.

Let’s get to it!

I totally loved Adam Frint’s work, and can even say it inspired me.

Adam showed me a series called “Smoke Break,” in which he’d skulked around Chicago, watching people on their aforementioned alone time. And then he photographed them.

The concept is simple, but the pictures are dynamic and mysterious.

Then he showed me a different idea, which he had worked out as drawings. (He’s trained as a designer, and works in various media.)

Loved them too.

I’ve had a drawing project in mind for a while, and recently started, and I’d like to think Adam’s work triggered my confidence.

There was a lot of strong photography at Filter, so you may find me throwing compliments around. But I was really struck by Crystal Tursich’s work, and thought they were some of the best matte paper prints I’d ever seen.

I caught one or two out of the corner of my eye at the portfolio walk, the night before I had a review with her, so they looked amazing at a distance, and up close.

At these meetings, I often critique matte prints that are flat, or oversaturated. Most everyone presents prints that limit the illusion of 3 dimensional space.

But not Crystal. Her prints were extraordinary.

She seemed to appreciate the compliments, and let me know it was no accident, but that she worked hard at her craft.

As for the subject matter, the images are personal, and inspired by a miscarriage. They were super-impressive in person, but show well digitally too.


Whitney Bradshaw was another Chicago artist, and had a project that was getting buzz and attention, and had been exhibited a lot lately too. (Hopefully with more opportunities ahead.)

The project, “Outcry,”  is based on meet-ups that Whitney organizes, predominantly at her own home, where different women from various backgrounds come together to scream; communing around their own personal experience, or broader experience, with sexual violence. (Meaning most, but not all women are survivors.)

Whitney, who was a social worker, and has an MFA from Columbia College, then photographs the women when they’re screaming.

It’s intense, and apparently cathartic. I think it’s phenomenal as social practice work, and large format photographic installation.

I’ve seen Jim Ferguson’s work before, because we have a mutual friend in common. I even remembered the premise, which is the he doesn’t have proper depth perception in his vision.

So he makes work that visually communicates the way he sees. (Here were are with the flattened picture plane again.)

While I liked his previous black and white work, these color pictures were very cool. I told Jim about my critique of “headache” art at Photolucida, but his pictures make you see differently, without the need for ibuprofen.

I’m very curious to see what he comes up with next.

Margaret LeJeune had my favorite story of the festival. Or, rather, the story of our encounter was most memorable.

She told me, straight off, that she’d lived on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean for 14 months, sailing around the seas, making art.

I was hooked.

And she also let me know she’d been trained at the Visual Studies Workshop, so I expected high level technical skills.

I was crestfallen when the first thing she showed me were OK, documentary photo-style images, done with a not-special camera, shot around coast lines, and they didn’t give me any specificity.

Honestly, I didn’t understand how she didn’t do something more original, given what she seemed capable of.

She got a smile on her face, which is always a good sign, and told me about her other project, harvesting bioluminescent creatures from the sea, raising them back home in a studio lab, and using them in her photographs.

Say what now?

They are genius, and maybe for once I’m not exaggerating by using that word.

Last but not least, we have Vaune Trachtman.

I’ve written before that it’s important to judge the right time to approach someone at a festival, if you don’t have a review with them.

Well, I got into an elevator with Vaune, and she was super nice about letting me know she’d hoped to show me her work, but hadn’t had the chance.

Nothing pushy, totally genuine, and it allowed me to be a nice guy, which is always my preference.

So I gave her my card, and told her I’d look at her website if she dropped me a line. She did follow up, with an email and a thank you note, and once I got a proper set of jpegs, I knew they would look great here.

These images are trippy, suggesting a November, nocturnal voyage. They have a gravitas, and a sense of purpose that I really like. Normally, I think light trails are kitschy, but here they work.

Hope you enjoy them, and I’ll have more for you next week!

This Week in Photography: Building Your Team

 

Part 1. Team-building

 

Two of four covers for “Extinction Party”

 

I spoke to some students the other week, as they came to my museum exhibition.

I tend to lecture the way I write, (off the cuff, spontaneous,) and soon found myself pointing to one of the photographs on the wall.

“People think artists work by themselves, as individuals,” I said. “They envision the lone wolf, quiet in the studio, but that’s not the way it works.”

“Just to get this print on the wall,” I continued, “takes an entire team of people. It requires tons of help.

No one does it alone.”

Now, you know this column is getting strange when I start quoting myself, (be forewarned,) but the message is important, and I’m going to lean into it today for a few reasons.

The biggest of them, (and the one driving today’s column,) is that I just launched a Kickstarter campaign for “Extinction Party,” my very first photo book, which will be published by Yoffy Press in Atlanta.

(Assuming we raise the needed funds.)

You, our audience, come here each week to see photographs, and read my musings about art, politics, food, travel, pop culture, sports, or whatever else is on my mind at a given time.

(Again with the stream of consciousness.)

So I’m here to ask you, directly, if you’d please be willing to help support me, (and my team,) as we’re hoping make an important book that symbolizes how human behavior is leading to planetary destruction.

For the hundreds of columns I’ve written here, this will be my first book, and I’d like to think all the practice critiquing will make it special.

(We also have an original essay by “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan, an expert on over-consumption.)

The project required so much work from other people, including my publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, who edited and proposed the book when she came to ski in Taos last February.

People often wonder how a book gets made, or what to search for in a publisher, and I recommend working with someone you respect and trust. So many people want that first book, it can lead to ethical or financial compromises, and I encourage people to look out for that.

I’ve known Jennifer a long while, and she mentioned several times over the preceding year that she was open to publishing my work, once I had the right idea.

While many artists want a book for each project, I waited 10 years, deciding, (after some great advice from Dewi Lewis,) that I should not make a book until I felt compelled.

Until the idea was strong enough to build the proper motivation.

When Jennifer first came here, I told her I had the raw material for a book, but was too close to make the edit, as there were too many connections for me to focus.

So when she asked to take a stab at editing for me after dinner, (but before we’d agreed to work together,) I said “Yes, please.”

I can’t stress enough, we all need colleagues, friends and collaborators who get what we’re doing. (The age of begging powerful people to take pity on you is over.)

It’s DIY, these days, and having learned a thing or two about team-building, with Antidote, I am starting to get the hang of things.

Work with people you like, appreciate and respect, of course, but don’t forget to look for complementary skill sets.

Can your teammates do things for you that you can’t do yourself?

In my case, my publisher is a master-marketer, a great editor, and has experience executing her vision, so it’s a good fit.

As for my designer, it was my best friend Caleb Cain Marcus, who’s also helped me develop and build our Antidote programming.

Oddly, we met less than 4 years ago, (at a photography festival,) but I’ve found that many of my closest friends are not my oldest friends.

The more we get know ourselves, the better our judgement can be, with respect to choosing friends and colleagues wisely.

In order to make a book, you need help with the making, and these days, with the funding.

As much as I feared having to ask the global photo community for help, (as I’m doing now,) I always tell you that getting out of your comfort zone makes you stronger.

And this about as far out of my zone as I can get, at the end of #2019, the busiest year of my career.

If you’d please be willing to help with our pre-sale and buy a book, a print, or just make a small donation, I’d be very grateful.

 

Part 2: The Perfect Partner

 

I’ve mentioned Caleb here many times, and at first, I reviewed his books without knowing him at all.

(He’s super-talented as an artist, digital guru, master-printer, book designer, and editor.)

Eventually, once we became good friends, I reviewed another of his books here, but then, I added a disclaimer.

So I found it amusing last week, when I was raiding my book pile, (which I wrote about in the column,) and came across a package, from early 2019, sent by a PR agent who normally submits good stuff.

I tore open the envelope, and wouldn’t you know it, but Caleb’s recent Damiani book, “A Line in the Sky” slipped out, along with a note asking me to consider another review.

Though we’re super-close, Caleb never mentioned the book had been sent, nor did he ask for a write-up.

He never even checked in to see what I thought.

And then, looking at it, I wondered how to review it, since I’d need to be open about our friendship, but also, I wasn’t sure the book was entirely necessary.

Unlike me, Caleb has made a book for each project, (more or less,) which means he’s many books into his publishing career, and doesn’t have to use crowdfunding to publish them.

Eventually, most established publishers will provide funding, when they’ve worked with an artist multiple times, and have a proven track record of selling the books.

I also helped Caleb a bit on this one, provoking him to think about how to approach the writing.

Looking through the book, nearly a year later, I was struck by the raw, tranquil beauty of the images. A rift in blue, a set of skies torn asunder by gold leaf.

Though there is a nice dance among the rectangles, from page to page, the repetition of form, and the very-slight subtlety, made me think the work would be more powerful as an exhibition.

I could see myself surrounded by the images, like in the Agnes Martin gallery at the Harwood Museum here in town. (It’s octagonal, and all her paintings are slight variations on a theme.)

He opens the book with a lovely poem, which is cool, as he studied poetry years ago, but wasn’t using that skill set lately.

And in the end, a brief, super-clear statement of intent, discussing the sundering of America in the Trump era.

As a metaphor, I love it.

But then, I know Caleb and his life.

I’m aware that only a few months after this quiet, personal book came out, his own life was ripped in two, when someone in his family developed a serious illness.

Context is key, as I always say, and I found it creepy that I could only understand the book, now, as the calm before the storm.

Even if it was meant to represent the chaos.

(Life was easy for him, when this book came out, compared to now.)

“A Line in the Sky” is certainly worth showing here, as it’s a beautiful, sad little object, and also demonstrates the range of Caleb’s talents.

I’m lucky to have him as a friend, and a charter member of my “art” team.

 

Part 3: Supporting your community

 

It wouldn’t be my column if I only made it about me and my buddy.

Having to blatantly self-promote is so hard, given that I try to collaborate, and help out my photo community whenever possible.

It’s the reason I made Antidote a group teaching endeavor, rather than naming it after me, and trying to do it all myself. (Again, doesn’t work.)

So last night, even though I was launching the Kickstarter today, and was tired to the bone, I went to a fundraiser at the UNM Art Museum in Albuquerque.

I even gave them some money, even though I need raise so much myself.

It was important to squeeze it in, as the museum’s new Director, Arif Khan, wrote me a personal email, asking if I’d come support the institution.

Not only that, but the event was on behalf of the new Diversity and Equity fund, which he recently launched with curator Mary Statzer, and the first recipient was photographer Jess Dugan, who was in town for the night.

The UNM Art Museum has been exhibiting her major traveling exhibition, “To Survive on this Shore,” which was done in collaboration with her partner, Vanessa Fabbre, who’s trained as a social worker. (Like my wife.)

They interviewed and photographed 88 (if I remember right,) older transgender or gender nonconforming people, in particular many who identify as Trans.

In order to be down with the proper nomenclature, I asked Jess how she identified, and she told me “non-binary” or “queer,” and that she did not primarily use the pronouns they/them.

But one of the images being acquired, from a separate series, heavily implied that Jess has had gender-related chest reconstruction surgery, so the entire subject is personal for her, as well as political.

Arif gave a lecture in which he projected certain statistics about the paucity of women, and people of color, who are represented in museum collections.

The numbers were stark.

 

Then he asked people to support the fund, and put up a goal that was only slightly higher than we need to make our book.

I felt a pang of guilt for asking people to support my work right now, as a Jewish-American man, given my demographic is the one that’s supposed to have all the opportunities already.

I quickly shook off that line of thinking, though, as I work hard each week to support other people, and my photographs, with their strong environmental commentary, bear messages that also need to be disseminated.

But hearing from students and faculty, and listening to flamenco guitar played by one of Jess’s trans photo subjects, everyone was so proud to be a part of an endeavor that was righting an obvious wrong.

The energy in the room was deeply positive, and made me glad to have driven five hours to spend two at a museum fundraiser.

As I told someone last night, Northern New Mexico is one big community, from Taos to ABQ. Hell, our Colorado cousins come down a lot too, so maybe it’s one big Rocky Mountain happy place.

The truth is, I need other people for guidance, and conversation. For inspiration, and challenge.

We all do.

So if you don’t want to support my Kickstarter, I’ll certainly understand.

Hopefully, though, you’ll go out of your way to help someone this week, and then they might help you back.

(Karma!)

This Week in Photography: A Halloween Tribute

 

It’s been a strange Halloween so far.

I sat in the back of an SUV outside a weed shop across the Colorado State line, listening to a plot synopsis of the original Rambo movie while a very cool bud-tender smoked a joint.

I saw a huge, black cow walking along the side of the road, by itself, and then a little later, a white dog the size of a bear trotted along the highway in the opposite direction. (Also alone.)

I perused an article about the world’s scariest haunted house.

Deer, ravens, hawks, and horses appeared.

Deer on the road

 

My daughter kept changing her mind, unsure whether her costume was too scary, or not scary enough.

A colleague told me she knew a person who might have become a serial killer, under different circumstances.

One of my best friends called, (as a surprise,) and since we only talk once or twice a year, and he’s famously hard to get a hold of, I’ve nicknamed him “the Ghost.”

Struggling, I looked through four books and pondered numerous anecdotes in my mind, trying to decide what to write for you.

To get in the mood, I put on “Garvey’s Ghost,” by Burning Spear, and only after a minute or two did I make the connection to the holiday.

BOO! (Did I scare you?)

The truth is, there’s something about the quality of light this time of year that lends itself to getting the willies.

The creeps.

The heebie-jeebies.

(I could do this all day.)

On Sunday, I was on the Eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, in the village of Chacon, where there were so many abandoned adobe structures, (including multi-story homes, which I had not seen before,) that I thought some zombies were going to pop up and eat my face off.

While I was in Colorado today, on the Western side of the mountains, I stopped at a little lake park that is so small and local it doesn’t have a sign.

Mile marker only.

 

Mile marker 12

 

There were geese and gulls sitting atop the rapidly freezing lake, as it was barely above 10 degrees F.

 

West

North

South

West

 

One year dying so a new one can be born.

I drove by ghost structures on the way home, hollowed out dreams from someone’s Wild West adventure.

 

Ghost house

 

Like I said before, it’s been a strange Halloween, and I haven’t even gotten to the book.

Searching for inspiration, I went to the bookshelf, looking for gifts from over the years that I never thought to write about.

One caught my eye, as I had no idea what it was from the spine, which is called, “Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged,” published by the Getty Museum, (Getty Publications) in 2015.

If you know how much I love California, (and this museum in particular,) it gives me no pleasure to have to wish them well with the fire that takes its name from the amazing, hilltop institution on the north side of LA, just above the 405.

I’ve visited many times, and know some excellent people who work there.

Today’s column, therefore, is in their honor.

The subtitle for this book, (and the Getty Research Institute show on which it was based,) is “Artists in World War I,” another historical period in which great technological upheaval led to massive global disturbance.

One hundred years ago, we got a big fat lesson on what can happen when violent forces are unleashed that get so big, like these fires, that they can no longer be controlled. Given the chess pieces moving around the board now, and the hyper-cunning, (Putin,) intractability, (Xi,) and instability (Trump) of the players, we can only hope the world averts the worst this time around.

But for all the deep-dive articles I’ve done over the last six months, all the intricate travel tales and hardcore analysis, I kind of feel like this book just doesn’t need it.

If you can’t figure out why it’s right for a Halloween and Dia de los Muertos week, then go watch “Coco,” and come back to me. We’ll talk about whether you cried or not, and if you have a soul.

Night night.

Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

Bottom Line: Creepy-cool academic publication about art from World War I

To purchase “Nothing But the Word Unchanged” click here 

 

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

This Week in Photography: Two Books from Holland

 

Part 1: Slowing Time

My daughter tied her own shoelaces this morning.

(A first.)

I gave her applause, enjoying her pride, as the rainbow soles perfectly matched the colors in her bedroom.

She’s seven now, and I remember telling you about changing her diaper, back in 2012. How uncomfortable I was, looking at her little body, as our son was born earlier, and his anatomy was far more natural for me.

My children are at the age where it feels like time is speeding up, and given how crazy #2019 has been, I’m trying to figure out how to slow it down.

So I pay more attention as I sing her to sleep at night. I make sure to notice when her hair catches the sun just so, and it glows like a messianic halo, absolutely perfect.

Though I no longer visit my therapist on a regular basis, I did see him on Monday, for the first time in a year, and he encouraged me to do whatever it took to appreciate what I’ve got. (Like most people, I’m constantly looking forward to what I want to achieve, have, or make.)

“This is the best it’s ever going to get,” he said, but he meant it in a good way.

I live in a safe place, have my material needs covered, and am surrounded by loving family in a beautiful environment, so I understood his message.

We also discussed how hard it is, under the cultural/political/macroeconomic conditions in #2019, to keep perspective.

It’s a part of DJT’s genius, the ability to sow confusion and anxiety on a daily basis, whether he’s denigrating the history of lynching, ignoring the existence of the US Constitution, or insulting people directly on Twitter.

What’s a person to do?

 

Part 2: Idyllic Austria

Learning how to see past the noise, and develop a deeper appreciation for one’s blessings, is not easy. Frankly, I don’t have it figured out just yet.

But I’m certain that giving thanks, expressing that appreciation openly, and working hard to live in the present are methods that will help get me there.

(For example, I can thank you all for reading each week. Thanks so much!)

We also turn to art for inspiration, as things that actively engage our minds, (rather than helping shut them down, like so much popular entertainment,) allow us to think and learn.

If you suspect this is all leading up to a photo book review, you’re mostly right, as we’re going to look at 2 books again today.

I’ll say right here, though, that it won’t be a weekly occurrence. I am trying to stay out of my comfort zone, as a writer, and keep this column fresh, but this is not a new format, doing two books at a time.

(Just an opportunity to discuss connections.)

In this case, two books were shipped in from Schilt Publishing in Holland late last year, and it doesn’t take much creativity to see how they work together.

The first is called “I Am Waldviertel,” and we’ll start here because I looked at it first.

The Dutch artist, Carla Kogelman, began spending time in a pastoral, mountain setting outside Vienna, Austria, in 2012. It started, as many projects do, somewhat randomly, but as she was embraced by the locals in the village of Merkenbrechts, it became a long-term investigation.

Especially after one family invited her to stay with them, and their daughters became main characters in the narrative Ms. Kogelman was building. The story, not surprisingly, is based around following the neighborhood children over the years, (and some summer visitors,) as they frolic and play.

It is meant to be a representation of the idyllic nature of childhood in nature, and as one who grew up in the woods, and is raising my children on a horse farm, there was much I could relate to.

The insides of the front and back covers are in color, and feature flower imagery, but the rest of the book is in black and white, and I must say, I found it a bit of a miss. The world is so colorful, and color communicates joy, and other emotions, so there were several places where I felt color would have helped. (Especially as the book is too long, though I make that comment on the regular.)

I was also a little disconcerted by some of the photos of young girls, topless, as the #MeToo era has made me, (and all of us, frankly,) much more aware of how the camera objectifies the female form.

I’m not going to photograph those images for you, as it doesn’t feel right, though to be clear there is nothing inherently sexual about them. These are art portraits, so the penetrating gaze we often see, which seems informed by fashion photography, allows even the young people to appear older and wiser than they likely were.

From the jump, I didn’t love this work, but as the book evolved, I became aware that the passage of time, so important to its conceit, was starting to influence my emotions. And by the time one of the family’s daughters is getting ready for prom, and the young women are wearing bikinis instead of going without shirts, I had definitely begun thinking of how quickly my children were growing.

Finally, I put the book down, and went back into my daughter’s room to raise her blinds. (We use the sun for heat as much as possible.)

I looked up, and saw photographs of her on the wall, at 2 and 3 years old.

I stopped dead in my tracks, froze for a minute, looking deeply, and promised myself I’d work even harder to appreciate every moment I have with my children while they’re here in my daily life.

We talk about college enough as it is.

Time to slam on the emergency brake, before it’s too late.

 

Part 3: The Other Side of the Coin

 

I’m not sure I’ve quoted my therapist in this column before, but today I’m going to do it twice.

I had told him it was important to me to slow down, and learn to see past the normal stresses, (taxes, credit card debt, traffic,) so I could revel in my good fortune, and try not to lose my cool over little things.

How could I do it?

He mentioned that the desire to seek guidance was really another way of describing prayer. (Like many a Post-Enlightenment intellectual, I believe in a spiritual world, but am uncomfortable with direct religious concepts like prayer.)

“There are two types of prayer,” he said. “Asking for help, and giving thanks. That’s it.”

It was a fairly seismic pronouncement, because it broke the world down in such a binary, yet respectful and powerful way.

And then he reminded me of all the refugees in the world, living under the most precarious of circumstances.

So of course, the other book today, “136 – I Am Rohingya,” by Saiful Huq Omi, could not be more appropriate for such a conversation.

(These two books were meant to be paired.)

One offers an idealized vision of what children’s lives are “supposed” to be like, frolicking in water, playing games, living in a stable society, while the other dives directly into the WORST CASE SCENARIO.

The artist is from Bangladesh, and spent ten years immersed in the plight of the Rohingya, an Islamic minority group primarily based in nearby Myanmar, where they have been the subject of genocidal persecution.

This book, which follows their diaspora, is not for the faint of heart, as between the imagery, and the explicit captions at the end, all of the worst human behaviors are discussed openly.

Gang rape, mutilation, torture, murder, and death from poverty and medical neglect.

Even things that seem innocuous, visually, like a few wooden boats on the water, we later learn represent people were lost to sea, almost immediately after the photograph was taken.

There are other images complemented by captions saying this person was raped the day before, died the next day, or simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Photographically, I found this book far more compelling than the first, and I did not bemoan the lack of color here. The contrasty, textured photos are visceral, and I believe the photographer made the right choice, stylistically.

The pairings are smart too, and many resonated, like the diptych of the man with water beads on his back, next to the man who’s spine is so evident, from illness and/or malnutrition, that it’s no surprise to read he died shortly thereafter.

An artist statement at the back suggests Mr. Omi suffered through this process, as he was threatened with extreme violence, and nearly died, as a result of the danger of sharing stories that powerful people would prefer be suppressed.

And then, I wondered, does documentary work like this make a difference in a world of unlimited, mind-numbing content?

When the Trumps, Putins, Erdogans, and Xis of the world are so intent on using propaganda, confusion, and secrecy to keep us in the dark, hiding realities of life inside Uighur concentration camps, or Kurdish extermination operations, I guess it’s a silly question to ask.

Especially as developing empathy with those less fortunate, and hopefully doing what we can to alleviate their suffering, helps make us healthier and happier as well.

 

Bottom Line: Two books, from one publisher, that explore extremes of the human condition

To purchase “I am Waldviertel” click here

To purchase “136- I am Rohingya” click here 

 

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

This Week in Photography: The early 70’s

 

Part 1: The Intro

It’s tempting to glorify the past.

(Mighty tempting.)

I wrote recently, in my eulogy to Robert Frank, that MAGA is really one more expression of the desire to return to the 1950’s.

It’s easy to mock that desire, (and I did,) because it so easily connects to a whiter, more racist and sexist America.

If we were to try to understand it on less nefarious terms, we might agree people associate the 50’s with American dominance, and a more naive, safer, more small-town version of ourselves.

(Before Walmart and the Malls killed small-town shopping districts. Oh wait, I said I’d stay positive.)

Last week, I wrote about #1983, and it came about in the most fascinating, subconscious way.

But the more I thought about it this week, the more the connection made sense. 1983 was a year before a presidential election, with a Republican president who’d begun a massive rightward shift for this country.

As the fall of the Berlin Wall was still years away, the end-of-the-world fear of pending nuclear war, after decades of Cold War, was real.

The Apocalypse was in, as “War Games” came out around then, and then “The Terminator.” (1983 and ’84, respectively.)

 

My point is that it’s easy to pick a time, as perhaps some people are now doing with the 90’s, and think that life was easier then.

If we were to peg each decade that was once held up as the ur-decade, (like the 60’s) we’d see there was plenty of drama, strife and difficulty too.

 

Part 2: West Coast Style

I write about photography here each week, (or most weeks these days,) and sometimes I admit to getting bored of it. In my current work, I’ve begun to experiment with sculpture as a way of extending my creativity in other directions.

But in order to keep up a column that is about photography these many years, I find it fun to create mini-themes, and let them play out naturally.

(It always happens best that way.)

So the last three weeks, we’ve had Robert Frank’s photographs from the 1950’s, Hugh Mangum’s images from the early 20th Century, all that 19th Century work from last week, and now…

1972-74.

That’s right: the early 70’s.

If we’re looking for parallels to now, there are none better.

The Nixon years.

I was born in 1974, so technically I was alive when Nixon stepped down, but it’s not in my frame-of-reference. I remember TV and pop culture from about 1977 on. (Close Encounters was ’77, I just checked.)

But this mini-era came just after the raging 60’s, and represents the heart of the Vietnam War.

It was chaotic to the extreme.

Dudes wore beards. (Sound familiar?)

A criminal president got busted, and it was so egregious that his own party finally broke, so he resigned, living in ignominy for a few decades, before being re-embraced shortly before he died.

Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was the big thing going, Charles Bronson terrorized the bad guys, and Steve McQueen was still on the scene too.

A rough-and-tumble America was fighting the Cold War, pointed straight towards a political catastrophe of epic proportions.

Yeah, I think we can all agree it’s a relevant phase to contemplate, RIGHT NOW.

How convenient that when I looked at my bookshelf, I noticed “Boardwalk Minus 40,” by Mike Mandel, published as a part of Subscription Series #5 by TBW Books in Oakland. It happened to be filed a foot or so away from “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink” by Bill Yates, published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta. (Which Bill gave me when he came through Taos this summer.)

I grabbed Mike Mandel’s book first, and recognized some of the images from a show I’d seen of his work at SFMOMA in Spring 2017. (And I later realized I’d reviewed the Subscription series as well.)

The pictures were made around the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1974, and it’s kind of dry, compared to some of the other work from that show. The pictures are mostly in black and white, but there are two color images that really pop, early on.

Including one featuring a perfect, vintage Pepsi can.

I once spent a long while contemplating William Eggleston’s Coca-Cola red in a show at Pier 24, but Pepsi is a totally different reference.

Pepsi?

We’re Number 2, not Number 1!

The depiction of a place-in-time feels generic, and outside the palm trees, I’m not sure what places me in California.

Is that the point?
That California was generic?

The pictures feel a little like they’re leering, and it’s something I see more clearly now, in #2019, with my 12 year old son calling out sexism on TV and media with regularity.

(They see it so easily, the young, and yet the ideals were so hard won.)

Then it gets a step beyond, as a young woman leans over to show off her breasts, and we see her nipples. Then more, as two images shows men performing or simulating cunnilingus.

It’s important to remember the artist was young at the time, and even today, people photograph sex and nudity. But it’s hard not to see this book through today’s “woke” lens as well.

As to the pictures, they owe a debt to Garry Winogrand, and Henry Wessel, (RIP,) and it makes a lot of sense. In the end text, Mike Mandel admits that as he made conceptual work at SFAI with visiting professor Robert Heinecken, his main professors, Linda Connor and the aforementioned Wessel, would not graduate him with his MFA in 1974.

So he went to Santa Cruz, leaned into a “for fun” project he’d been messing around with, and shot this series of pictures on the boardwalk, seemingly with a 35mm camera.

It was done as an “I’ll show you,” or a spite project, and it worked, because they gave him his degree. I can see why the sex photos, in that era, would have given the work an extra-edgy feel, as “Deep Throat” and “Debbie Does Dallas” came out in ’72 and ’78 respectively.

Mike Mandel’s end-notes close with a Larry David joke, (if you can believe it,) but to me, pulling these photos out, 40 years later, does justice to the aging process, rather than their inherent strengths.

 

Part 3: Florida Kids

With “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink,” though, we have an equally compelling backstory. Bill Yates had just graduated from University of Southern Florida, after a stint in the Navy, and was soon headed to RISD for an MFA, to study with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind.

He’s roaming around Florida in 1972, looking for something to photograph, and stumbles upon the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in a rural spot outside Orlando. He asks to photograph the place, and the owner invites him back at night, when things are hopping.

Thus began a 7-month-deep-dive into 1973 for Bill, where he came back again and again. Everything was shot with a super-crisp medium format set-up, and I think that repeated engagement, plus the extra photo juice from the bigger negative, makes these pictures more memorable.

That the two books were so close on the book shelf was coincidental, but they have so much in common. The West Coast and East Coast versions of sleepy communities about to be eaten by much larger capitalist forces.

(Silicon Valley and Disney World.)

As to the photographs, like Mike Mandel’s antecedents were clear, here the imprint of Diane Arbus is ever-present, nowhere more so than the photo, on page 76 of the wall-eyed young woman and her less-than-intelligent-looking boyfriend.

 

But that’s a time-jump, so let’s take a step back.

The book opens with a very 50’s feel to it. Some greaser hair, the old signage, and there’s that Pepsi logo.

Pepsi binding the two books together?

So strange.

It’s only bit-by-bit that the 70’s-era-hair and clothing make an impression, versus the more Southern, rural feel we get out of the locals.

These pictures are awesome, and make me think of some working class images from Northern England.

The kids smoking.

The world-weariness in the eyes.

The book also has a bit more flesh-ogling than I think you’d see today. However, there’s a photo: a guy, kissing a girl, mad-dogs the crap out of the photographer, so it’s almost like he gets his comeuppance.

Though he trained with some amazing people, (as did Mike Mandel, who’s had a long career as an artist and academic,) Bill Yates went into a career as a commercial photographer.

He more or less pulled these pictures out of a box, 40 years later, and quickly ended up with this book, and a big solo show at the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans.

It’s a killer project, and it comes out favorably in comparison “Boardwalk Minus 40.”

But comparing and contrasting, saying which is better, is such a 20th Century concept, man.

Now is the age of win-win, and collaboration, so I’ll just say these two books make quite the pairing, and help give us visual reminders that America, and the world, have lived through tough times before.

Photography stops time and saves it for future generations.

So I suppose these last few columns have been my attempt, (subconsciously,) to remind myself, and all of you, that the arc of history is long.

Bottom Line: two cool books showing two Americas in the early 70s

Bottom Line: two cool books showing two Americas in the early 70s

 

This Week in Photography: East of the Mississippi

 

Part 1: The Intro

I was wondering what to write about this morning.

No strong pull in any direction. (Which is rare.)

So I dropped into a kneeling-Japanese-meditation-pose I learned in Aikido.

I calmed my mind, focused on my breathing, and at first, tried to figure out what my psyche was interested in. The last few stories from London? A new book from the pile? Anything about Chicago?

But I quieted those thoughts, because why else meditate?

After a few minutes, I opened my eyes, and the first thing I saw was a book I’d considered for review twice before.

Each time, it didn’t connect.

So of course I picked it up, and fell in love, as it’s perfect for today. (But we’ll get to that.)

 

Part 2: The Album

A month ago or so, I wrote about synchronicity, so of course that was the first thing I thought after re-discovering today’s book.

Synchronicity.

My mind jumped to “Synchronicity,” the album by The Police from somewhere around 1984. (Summer ’83, apparently.)

It was their biggest pop culture breakthrough, and as a kid, (I would have been 9,) I remember it as melodic, with a big anthem song.

Which was it?
(“Every Breath You Take.”)

So I go to Spotify and put on the album. (Or its digital playlist equivalent.)

What did all of America go gaga for in 1983, I asked myself?
What’s the story here?

Right away, it was clear the lyrics and energy in the music were dystopic. Some songs were downright dissonant, which goes against the band’s traditionally excellent harmonics.

And really, that title.

Synchronicity.

It implies synthesis, like connections are a good thing. But the songs were disturbing, and really, I couldn’t connect the dots at all.

It made no sense.
None.

WTF?

So I picked up my phone, and sure enough, the Spotify was stuck on Shuffle Play.

I couldn’t turn it off.

The AI broke, so I wasn’t getting the flow the band intended. Even so, the songs were almost universally creepy, disturbing or violent, even though the melodies were often pleasant.

This was the biggest album in America in #1983, and made The Police briefly the biggest band in the world? (Before they walked away on top.)

What does that all mean?

I decided to go down a rabbit hole for you.

I did some digging, found a lyrics website, hit up Wikipedia and Youtube, some other places, and got info from The Police’s official website as well.

I also listened to the album again, in sequence, manually advancing the titles so I could get the intention, while reading the lyrics.

“Synchronicity I,” the first song, speaks directly to the Jungian principles by which the album was inspired. Carl Jung wrote a book called “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” and Sting read it. He was also into “The Roots of Coincidence” by Arthur Koestler, as The Police named their previous album, “Ghost in the Machine” after one of his novels as well.

Synchronicity was Jung’s theory that events otherwise deemed coincidental might in fact have meaningful connections.

So the album opens by referencing those ideas directly, in a song called “Synchronicity I.”

“A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectable
Nothing is invincible”

We feel you, Sting.

The next song, “Walking in Your Footsteps,” is about dinosaurs, and our relationship to extinction.

“Hey there mighty brontosaurus
Don’t you have a lesson for us
You thought your rule would always last
There were no lessons in your past”

Extinction talk.

In 1983!
Ahead of its time!

Oh, and I should mention the album cover was shot by Duane Michals, (who gave the best lecture I’ve ever seen at the Medium Photo Festival in 2014,) in which Sting posed with dinosaur bones.

 

The “coincidences” mount.

In “Oh My God,” Sting writes,

“Everyone I know is lonely
And God is so far away
And my heart belongs to no one
So now sometimes I pray

Take the space between us
And fill it up some way
Take the space between us
And fill it up”

Totally prescient, as far as our empty digital connections supplanting IRL experience in #2019.

In ‘Mother,’ maybe the less said the better, as Andy Summers screeches about a Mother like he’s Norman Bates.

(Freaky AF, as the kids say.)

Then in Miss Gradenko, Sting wails,

“Is anybody alive in here?
Is anybody alive in here?
Is anybody at all in here?
Nobody but us in here
Nobody but us!”

This is one messed-up piece of art, that somehow got packaged as pop music for the masses.

I need to take a break.

The #1983 vibe is feeling a bit too much like our current moment. They were living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, due to the Cold War, and we’ve got Trump and climate change.

So.
Let’s talk about the backstory.

Sting, according to Wikipedia, only became a musician due to “happenstance.” He grew up near the shipyards in Northeast England in Northumberland, (and was headed towards that career,) but once saw the queen, who waved at him, and that gave him the courage to turn his back on convention and become a creative person.

He worked his way up, and got married before he was famous, as the three man band laid down hits in their first four albums. (“Zenyatta Mondatta” was always my favorite.)

But by the time The Police made “Synchronicity,” their their final album, Sting was going through a nasty divorce, as he’d taken up with Trudie Styler.

Also, the band supposedly HATED each other.

While “Synchronicity” was made on the island of Montserrat, the three musicians, Sting, Andy Summers and Stuart Copeland, were literally recording in separate rooms.

Separate rooms!

And fistfights were reported as well.

On The Police’s official website, for heavens sake, Stuart Copeland admitted “The whole album was recorded in an unbelievably bad atmosphere.”

In the music video (for MTV,) the three band members are almost always 10-20 feet apart, lip-synching on radically different platforms, and Sting looks like a dead ringer for Billy Idol.

Synchronicity indeed.

Just to add another layer of meaning, Sting wrote some of “Synchronicity” in Jamaica, in a house called Goldeneye, sitting at the same desk where Ian Fleming wrote James Bond.

After Miss Gradenko comes “Synchronicity II,” a song about a tired worn-out-sap who’s about to snap from family, factory work and traffic, all juxtaposed by the rising of an actual monster in a Scottish loch.

Next comes “Every Breath You Take,” which is the most obvious stalker song to ever become a mainstream hit.

“Every breath you take ,and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you,”

And it only gets more specific from there. Lots of watching you, and you belong to me.

How was this song ever considered pop music material?

Sting himself later said, “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.”

Then in order we have “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” (we get it,) and “Tea in the Sahara,” which ends with women burning in the desert with cups of sand.

Finally, there’s “Murder By Numbers,” which is about becoming a serial killer.

Dark, dark, dark stuff.
Horrifying, really.

And the only reason I’m writing any of this is because I saw a book when I opened my eyes from meditation, and took it as a “sign,” which led to a creative rabbit hole, which led to this column.

 

Part 3: The Book

It was a trove of photographs from the 19th Century that captured my attention today, in “East of the Mississippi,’ an amazing photobook that turned up in the mail a couple of years ago.

It was published by Yale University Press, for an exhibition mounted by the National Galley of Art, that I eventually saw at the New Orleans Museum of Art at Photo Nola in 2017.

Why didn’t I like this book before?
Why didn’t I write about the show?

What changed?

Well, I changed.

And the day, the year, the light, the circumstance.

Perhaps I’d grown so accustomed to the Western landscape, living in the heart of the American West this last decade and a half.

Big vistas, big mountains.

GRANDIOSITY!!!

East of the Mississippi, they’ve got small mountains and clustered landscapes.

Claustrophobic spaces.
Hollers.

Not nearly as dramatic, or dynamic.

Much more subtle.

Perhaps the equivalent of a cool Bordeaux, in lieu of a bold Ribera del Duero?

There is also a lot in this book that feels historical, or at least done by “lesser” photographers. Men (because let’s be clear, it’s nearly if not all men,) made work that was preserved for us, and on this viewing, I found it all interesting, historically.

(If not brilliant.)

And just as I found myself mentally comparing to Roger Fenton and Gustave LeGray and Carleton Watkins, as opposed to the more regular-guy-work in the book, I’d turn a page and something would jump, done by a clear talent.

George Barnard, one of my favorites, emerged. Or the Bierstadt Brothers. Timothy O’Sullivan, Arthur Dow, Steichen and Stieglitz.

The more talented photographers, or at least the images that had the most gravitas, would elevate the experience. It got me excited, as a viewer, waiting for the killer stuff within the edit.

(In this way, I was introduced to Isaac Bonsall, and Thomas Johnson, whom I didn’t know.)

But the landscape is varied, too, from the Deep South through the Midwest and New England.

So many lovely ones, amid the plenty.

There are train tracks and bridges, steam ships and water falls.

Men of industry, and beasts of burden.

All dead.

It really is the perfect book for today, as it reminds us that time marches on, and no one knows what’s coming.

The people in these albumen prints could no more imagine #1983 or #2019 than we can the 2050’s.

And as for synchronicity?

Taos is finally a trendy tourist destination again; really popular, with its Instagram-ready landscape, and non-American charm.

How did I know we hit the big time again?

Sting played here over Labor Day weekend.

I heard it was off the hook.

Bottom line: Exquisite exhibition catalogue documenting half of the past of America

To purchase “East of the Mississippi” click here

 

This Week in Photography: The Archive of Hugh Mangum

 

“They said I’m the most presidential except for possibly Abe Lincoln when he wore the hat–that was tough to beat. Honest Abe, when he wore that hat, that was tough to beat. But I can’t do that, that hat wouldn’t work for me. But I can’t do that…Yeah, I have better hair than he did. But honest Abe was tough to beat.”

President Donald Trump, the other day, #2019

 

I remember in the height of the Great Recession, when I just couldn’t wait for 2009 to end. “Come on, January. Let’s go 2010! Bring, it,” I thought.

Now, I don’t need to get into the particulars, but 2010 kicked my ass too. Maybe even harder than ’09.

Afterwards, I thought that “Be careful what you wish for” clichĂŠ might have something to it.

I bring this up, because honestly, who knows where all this is headed?

Donald Trump was caught red-handed, doing the one thing the entire Mueller investigation was trying to prove, under the assumption that such behavior was a priori impeachable, but they never found the smoking gun.

This time, Trump and his minions were caught together, plus a cover-up-secret-server? And then, just hours after I initially wrote this, he goes on TV to invite the Chinese government to investigate the Bidens too?

I’ve done this column for 8 years solid now, (Happy Anniversary, yay!) and I truly don’t know where this story lands anymore.

But I began the column with Trump essentially doing stand-up-comedy.

Right? He’s doing a bit?

Like Rodney Dangerfield (RIP) in “Caddyshack,” or Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas?”

That hat, it’s tough to beat. Tough to beat. Honest Abe was tough to beat in that hat.

Good Ol’ Abe.

How is that not funny, and yet with the fate of the free world hinging on this man’s behavior, (Did you read about his idea for alligator and snake moats?) maybe we all just need to laugh, or at least catch our breath for a second?

Break a pattern?

In my case, I remember when Rob set me free to do the travel and cultural criticism pieces I’ve since written over the last six months.

It was liberating.

I’d done book reviews for a few years solid, and wanted to see what would happen if I went out there for you, to eat and drink and look and investigate.

Sitting on the couch flipping through books had gotten stale, but then, after six months of pinging around the world, (East Coast, West Coast, Europe, West Coast, East Coast, Mid-West) my head is more fried than my daughter’s skin this summer when she went to the pool with a friend who didn’t have her re-apply her sunscreen properly.

(Very, very fried.)

So today, while trying to process a president doing stand-up-comedy about the millinery choices of Abe Lincoln, I thought, man, it sure would be nice to pick up a book here in my house.

To do something different.

Instead of crunching my previous experiences into an article, I’d rather read and engage with an existing story in book form.

To look at someone else’s narrative, and see what I can learn.

“Photos: Day or Night, The Archive of Hugh Mangum,” edited by Sarah Stacke, was published last year by Red Hook Editions. It seems straightforward enough, as the book exists to present the digitized, preserved history of a notable Southern photographer who died too young in 1922. (44, RIP)

Sarah Stacke edited the book, wrote one essay, and interviewed Mr. Mangum’s granddaughter, Martha Sumler, at the end of the volume as well. (And shot her portrait.)

During his lifetime, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Hugh Mangum had a darkroom in an old tobacco barn at his family’s country property outside Durham, North Carolina. He also spent time in the city-home as a youth, in Durham, and according to one of the essays, the block was fairly integrated.

Whatever the reason, Hugh Mangum defied the mores of the South in which he was raised by photographing African American and white people, and his interracial practice would have been rare for the time.

Plus, the photographs in here are badass. I mean, like totally good. In some cases, showing me things I still can’t make sense of.

Really, when was the last time I saw something photographic that defied reality in the way Trump’s opening quote does?

(See, I always bring it back around in a book review.)

Mangum sold his prints cheaply, so that his regular-people-clients could afford them. He kept costs down by splitting glass plates into multiple exposures.

Let’s jump to page 38.

There are 15 narratives on one plate.

We’re interested in the middle row.

A woman stares at the camera, severe, in a white high-neck-top and a stylish hat that cascades dark flowers. In the background, below her, to her right, a man, who looks like a Peaky Blinder minus the trademark hat, is staring daggers through the camera.

In the second frame, she looks down and away in a new hat, and he’s in the same spot, eyes just off the camera’s center.

Then, frame three, BOOM, he’s up front, looking right through us, and she’s just off his left shoulder, her face in her left hand, the two of them looking like they just robbed a train and were about to go have sex and then spend a few dollars at the casino afterwards.

Then, he’s next to her, and in an instant, in frame five, he’s receded into the background again, and she owns the frame.

This time, no hat.

If it were a fashion shoot for W magazine, you’d think it was progressive. Or film stills from a German avant garde movie that inspired the guy who inspired the guy who inspired Wim Wenders.

My point is, these photographs exist, and they’re amazing, but they don’t make sense in any way.

Who were they, and what the hell were they doing in that studio?

They’re phantoms out of time.
Like us.

(#2019 feels like it’s ten or fifteen years mashed up into one.)

There are many other such pictures here, images that would captivate, by themselves. Together, they make for the kind of book that will reward upon multiple viewings.

But then, in the end, things get really interesting.

In the closing essay, Martha Sumler admits that as a youth, she and her friends used to throw Hugh Mangum’s glass plates at trees, smashing them to bits.

“I believe all of us regret destroying them,” she said.

Totally caught me off guard.

And then, just when I got over that one, Sarah Stacke asks Ms. Sumler about the rumor that Hugh Mangum had shot naked photographs of local wealthy women?

Say what now?

(Out of nowhere, like it’s the most natural way to end a book.)

“SS: There is this rumor that Hugh made nude images of prominent women in Durham. What do you know about that?

MS: The information came to me from my mother. She told me there were nude pictures of prominent women in Durham… Some of the relatives still had pictures, and that was fine, but she didn’t want the glass plate negatives to get out, so she destroyed them…

SS: So much mystery.

MS: There is. And a lot of things we will never know.”

I’m not sure I can adequately explain how little I expected to read those things in a book like this. One that presents a bit of history, and recontextualizes a fine, almost awkwardly good group of pictures.

This book was made in 2018, and I believe it took six years or so to make. A true labor of love.

No matter.
It’s #2019 through and through.

Bottom Line: Weird, super-interesting book of historical photos from the South

To purchase “Photos: Day or Night” click here

 

This Week in Photography Books: Robert Frank

- - Photo Books

 

My wife told me an awful story last night.

(Prepare yourself, it’s a tough one.)

Apparently, one of the kids in my daughter’s 2nd grade class gave a note to two of her best friends that read: I’m going to kill you.

They told the teacher, as you might expect, but it turns out the boy’s mom is co-workers with one of the victim’s mother.

So the perpetrator’s parent approached the victim’s mother at work, called her a “Snitch,” and started a physical altercation.

Now, the aggrieved mother told my wife, when the little boy, (who wasn’t suspended,) walks by the girls he threatened, he also whispers “Snitch” each time.

In 2nd grade.

In a charter school constantly ranked one of the best in the New Mexico.

Welcome to America in #2019!

This morning, trying to unwind from an overwhelmingly busy trip to Chicago, (a string of 18 hour days with zero downtime,) I put on “Next of Kin,” a silly-looking, late-80’s action film set in the same city.

It starred Patrick Swayze, (RIP,) rocking a mullet-ponytail, (of course,) and a thick Appalachian accent. It also featured Bill Paxton (RIP) and Liam Neeson playing “Hillbillies,” and a very young Ben Stiller as an Italian mobster.

Say what now?

Honestly, it’s no surprise we all miss the “seeming” innocence of the 80’s and 90’s.

I’m not done with the movie yet, as I took a break to write for you, but the Italian Mafia plays a central role, and we can thank them for the culture of “OmertĂ ” that evolved into the 21st Century’s “No Snitchin’.”

How on Earth did “tattletale” become the worst thing a person can be? Worse than rapist, or killer, or thief? I mean, sure, we learn in kindergarten that “no one likes a tattletale,” but how many parents out there say “Go tell the teacher?”

I know I do.

Another word for “Snitch” or “tattletale” is “whistleblower.”

Right?

And sure enough, our pathological narcissist of a President may have finally managed to kick off an impeachment trial, because someone came forward to share that he, like the Mafia Don he appears to be, leaned on a foreign government to get dirt on Ol’ Joe Biden.

No one likes to hear “I told you so,” but honestly, I called him a Mafia-like-thug in this column so many years ago I don’t even remember when I first said it.

How did we get here?

And where is here?

2019 is so fucking confusing that sometimes I don’t even know what month it is, as I feel like I was just in London, (4 months ago,) or California, (2 months ago,) but if you told me it was December right now, I might not argue with you.

The NYT, my former employer, published an op-ed this week that confirmed this sense of perpetual confusion plays right into Trump’s hands, as the more unsettled people feel, the more likely they are to vote conservatively.

Which means there’s a strong chance that DJT is courting all this chaos ON PURPOSE.

All because 40% of the American population, nearly entirely white, wishes we could just go back to the 1950’s. That mythical time when non-ethnic, hat-wearing, square-jawed White Guys went out into the world each day to their office or factory job, and came home to a cooked dinner, served by their subservient, non-working wives, who kept their mouths shut, and did what they were told.

“Alice, why I oughta!”

That’s right.
The 50’s.

Sock hops and drive ins and juke boxes. Greasers and varsity jackets and pork chops and Coca Cola.

Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas.
Be like Ike.

This is what Trump means about Make America Great Again.

Let’s build a fucking time machine, out of a DeLorean big enough to fit 40% of America, and let’s all go back to a time when you didn’t have to acknowledge or respect other cultures.

When Thai Food was only in Thailand.

When 16 year old Swedish girls stayed in Sweden, and did what they were told.

When date rape was acceptable, and rampant pollution had not yet ruined America’s environment enough to draw regulatory blowback.

Make America Great Again?

No thanks.

Things may be royally insane these days, with our incels and our AR-15s and our Brexit and our Kardashians.

But I’d take it over a repressive, patriarchal monoculture each and every time.

You know who else was critical of the 50’s, while still managing to capture the best it had to offer?

That’s right.

Robert Frank. (RIP.)

Given the title of the column, you probably knew I was going to get here eventually. But still, in honor of Jack Kerouac, who wrote the introduction to the never-famous-enough-to-be-too-famous masterpiece, “The Americans,” I thought I’d push my stream of consciousness skills as far as they can go.

(Hey Andy Adams, still think Blake Andrews is the most brilliant photo blogger out there?)

As anyone reading this likely knows, Robert Frank, that once-a-century-genius, passed away recently. And though I’ve had the honor to meet and interview many of photography’s legends in my 10 years as a journalist, I never met or spoke to the man.

Hell, I don’t think I was ever within a few miles of him at any given time, though friends and colleagues did know him, and I send them my condolences.

But really, Robert Frank, Swiss Jew turned proper American, and his seminal book named after all of us, belonged to everyone.

Show me a trained photographer who never saw the book, or never cared for it. I dare you! Because we all know, no such person exists.

Each and every human being who ever picked up a camera in earnest, and then devoted him or herself to the craft, found this book to be an inspiration.

And rightly so.

Robert Frank, in the middle of the middle decade of the 20th Century, that decade now considered our heyday, came across the Atlantic Ocean and showed us who we were.

He used a camera, instead of a pen, to create a rambling visual poem, (as Kerouac correctly nailed,) that wove together a story about a newborn Superpower, one that used symbols in such a specific way that it took years for anyone else to have the guts to take back the American Flag, the crucifix, and the jukebox.

Because he owned them.
He made them his, and he made them sing.

Power brokers and fat cats.
Lonely workers and nobodies.
Trans people and cowboys.
African-American nursemaids and their lilly-white charges.

It was all in there.

TV screens and shotgun shacks.
Dancehalls and Drive-ins.

Death and despair.
Life and love.

It’s all there.

As a student, nothing impacted me more, as my final project for Photo 1 at UNM, called “Ten Hours to Vegas,” aped his style so strongly that I’m lucky I got out alive.

As a professor, I used the book to teach sequencing, as the transition from covered car to covered body, and rich banker in an office full of chairs followed by a worker squeezing his ass onto a narrow curb, will never be improved upon.

Those combinations are perfect, and help anyone and everyone understand how photographs can work together to strengthen each other.

I would not be the person I am today, nor the artist, had I not encountered it back in the 90’s, that decade the Millennials and Gen Z’ers are looking to as a model of a different kind of American Ideal.

Friends and Nirvana.
Pulp Fiction and Biggie Smalls.
Michael Jordan and Beavis and Butthead.

Yeah, I guess things weren’t so bad back then. But no matter what, unless you stumble on a wormhole, or a souped-up DeLorean, there’s no returning to the past.

Onward we go, instead.

So in honor of Robert Frank’s passing, I hope we all have the chance to do something important, like he did, because Lord knows the world needs all the help it can get.

Bottom Line: The best of the best, in honor of America

 

The Best Work I Saw at Photolucida: Part 6

 

I didn’t sleep well last night.

Not at all.

I woke up, imagining it was nearly 6, and waited for the alarm to go off.

When it didn’t, I finally looked at the clock, and it was 3:15 in the morning.

Ouch.
Oof.
Barf.

All told, I was up from 2:45-4:45am, which is atypical for me. I even found myself doing Qi Gong exercises by the light of the moon, at 4am, trying to will myself to get tired again.

It didn’t work.

Why am I telling you this? (Silly question. I get personal each week.)

Well, I’m trying to establish my right to keep the intro short and sweet today. As it stands, I’ve got to be up at 5am tomorrow to drive to Albuquerque and fly out to Chicago for the Filter Photo Festival. (One of my favorite cities, and festivals, anywhere.)

This means I’ll have a whole new set of portfolios to show you in the coming months, as I’ll be reviewing work for a few days in Chicago. (And partying my face off. Man, do they know how to have a good time there.)

But it also means that we’ve got to end our series on Photolucida, the stellar festival I attended back in April, up in the Pac Northwest in Portland.

When I began this series, “The Best Work I Saw at Photolucida,” I told you there was so much good work, I’d be writing about it for months.

And so I have.

Never have I ever done a 7 part series on a festival before, but between 5 portfolio articles, and two stories about books I picked up, it’s exactly what’s happened.

And while it’s never taken me this long to wrap up a series before, there’s a first time for everything.

Kudos to the Photolucida team for bringing together so many talented photographers. But Chicago beckons, so it’s time to put this baby to bed. (And hopefully I’ll follow. Damn do I need a nap.)

As always, the artists are in no particular order, and I hope you enjoy the work below.

Let’s begin with Alexis Pike, if only because her work is fun, and as I’m both grumpy and nauseated from exhaustion, fun sounds good to me.

Alexis showed me her project, (also a book by Ain’t Bad,) featuring work about the cult of Evil Knievel. That name might not mean anything to all the millennials out there, (truth,) but the now-dead daredevil was the biggest thing going back in the 70’s. (Yes, I feel old today.)

Alexis is from Idaho, and teaches in Montana, where Evil’s demographic still runs deep. Killer stuff. (No pun intended.)

Now things are going to get a little gloomy. First, let’s look at the work of Hillary Clements Atiyeh, who showed me a very heavy project. Apparently, her (now) ex-husband was in a small plane crash, and and suffered serious injuries.

She helped nurse him back to health, before they divorced, and these photographs document their difficult journey. One imagines the art also served as a major stress release valve for Hillary, as we all know that art is among the best ways to express our emotions in a healthy, controlled way.

Super-poignant stuff.

And let’s get the other super-heavy project out of the way now too. Joe Wallace and I had a review together, and he brought along a project about people suffering from Alzheimer’s.

It’s a disease that affects so many people, but I don’t think it gets the same recognition in media as cancer does now, or perhaps AIDS did back in the 80’s and 90’s. But with the baby boomer generation rapidly aging, caring for the (potentially) millions of dementia sufferers will soon be a nationwide problem.

Powerful art, for sure.

On a political, but also weighty note, we’ll move on to Rich Frishman, whom I first met at Photo NOLA back in 2017. While Rich then showed me a series of Americana-themed images that have since gone on to success, this time, he dove into the belly of racism in America.

He photographed places that are seminal in the racist history of America, (how’s that for a not-proud subject,) and along with Jeanine Michna-Bales’ photos about the Underground Railroad, (which we’ve published a couple of times before,) they serve as a good example of the way visual history can supplement the written word, when it comes to proper preservation.

An official Texas Historic Landmark, the Goliad Hanging Tree is a symbol of justice, Texas-style.

The newly freed African Americans of the Shiloh Community established a school for their children shortly after the Civil War. The one-room building was demolished in the late 1800’s and classes were held at the Shiloh Baptist Church.

The United States government has recently begun fortifying the border between the US and Mexico. This new gate actually separates American farmers from their croplands just to the south, still in the United States.

Built in 1930, Hamtramck Stadium was home to the Negro National League Detroit Stars in 1930-1931 and again in 1933. The field was also home to the Detroit Wolves of the Negro East-West League in 1932, and to the Negro American League Detroit Stars in 1937.

Houston Negro Hospital School of Nursing, built in 1931, now stands abandoned along with the hospital with which it once was associated.

Palimpsest of bricks closing the former entrance for “Colored People” at the Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The first Mississippi state field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Medgar Evers was shot in the back in the carport of his humble home in Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963. He died less than a hour later at a nearby hospital.

During the Freedom Summer of 1964 three civil rights activists were jailed briefly in the small Neshoba County jail on trumped up charges. When Mickey Shwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were released that night, they were followed by Ku Klux Klan members tipped off by the sheriff’s office. They were forced off the road en route to their office in Meridian, taken to this remote backroads location and bludgeoned to death. Their bodies were later found in an earthen dam.

During the first half of the 20th century, the small community of Idlewild was known as “The Black Eden.” It was one of the few resorts in the country where African-Americans were allowed to vacation and purchase property, before discrimination was outlawed in 1964 through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Richard Andrew Sharum, from Dallas, had some photographs of Cuba, and hoped that they might distinguish themselves from all the other projects shot in Cuba. (One of our Antidote students this summer also tried to claim a “different” version of Cuba, but I’m not sure it’s possible at the moment.)

As he’s a photojournalist who covers a variety of stories, Richard asked if I’d agree to look at more work online, to see if something else was appropriate for this article, and I agreed.

He sent me this very powerful project about homeless school children in Texas, and I gave him an immediate yes. (Not hard to see why, right?)

I may have my professional writer’s card taken away for using the word “Americana” twice in the same article, but since the first instance referred to an article from nearly 2 years ago, I’m going to risk it.

It’s the best way I can think of to describe Lisa Guerrero’s excellent little group of pictures, given that I’m down 10 or 15 IQ points at the moment. (Even with the coffee. There is not enough coffee in the world to make me feel better right now.)

But these pictures did put a smile on my face. It’s not that they’re glib, or overly lighthearted, but a few weeks ago I admitted that I still try hard to love this country, and pictures like this seem to channel the absurdist-yet-earnest take on the USA that I try to share, in my better moods.

Finally, we’ll finish with Rebecca Hackemann, who is English, but is a professor in Kansas. (Bet she has a hard time getting a proper fish and chips there. Hope she likes barbecue.)

As to the work, it was conceptual, and 3D/sculptural, including a stereoscopic project, and these tintype photograms featuring antiquated technology. At first, I didn’t think it would reproduce well here, but once I saw her jpegs, I realized they were well worth showing. Hope you enjoy them, and see you next week.