This Week in Photography: Hitting the Beach

 

 

“There is something deeply Universal about this human instinct to rest and rejuvenate by the sea.”

Jonathan Blaustein, January 5, 2022.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never quoted myself to open the column.

(That’s a new one, for sure.)

But there’s a reason, I promise, and we’ll get to it.

 

 

 

 

 

The other day, my daughter asked what I used to do in Summer, when I was her age?

I told her my folks sent my brother and me to sleep-away-camp, beginning when we were 6 and 8 respectively.

We’d go off to rural Pennsylvania, (or later Upstate New York,) for two months at a time, over an 8 year period.

 

JB at Pine Forest Camp, circa 1985. (Can you tell which one is me?)

 

She was surprised, as that is wildly out of her life experience, growing up here in Northern New Mexico.

But, I assured her, though we weren’t packing her off like that, it was pretty common among suburban, Jersey Jewish kids, back in the day.

Before and after we left for camp, though, on nice days we went to the beach.

Down the Shore.

(Jersey in the 80’s was like living in a John Hughes’ film.)

 

Image courtesy of Sebastian Galaviz/ Spotify

 

It was pretty rad, I must say.

In fact, given it’s June 23rd, (as I’m writing,) there’s a good chance I would have been at the beach on this exact date, 40 years ago.

Damn!

I miss it.

Living in the mountains, the nearest, large body of water is 700 miles away, and that’s the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

The Gulf of Mexico in Texas, the Pacific Ocean in SoCal, and the Great Lakes, all are nearly 1000 miles from here.

(It’s enough to make a Jersey-Shore-boy heartsick.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

But wouldn’t you know it?

I had a vicarious trip to the sea in a photo-book today.

(We’ll get there in a minute.)

After looking at the book, and ruminating on that urge to be near the ocean, I laid down on a rug in the living room, imagining the waves crashing and cresting.

Back in Jersey, on the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a particular smell to the water.

(Like sweetly rotting clams.)

I’d love to have that odor in my nose right now.

But that’s 2000 miles away.

(At least California is closer.)

So I started thinking of the big, blue waves of the Pacific.

“Wait a second,” I thought.

I have a solution to this.

We just need to get digital!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I grabbed my phone, and ran to a closet.

Finger-scrolling furiously, I found a video I made on the beach in San Diego, nearly six months ago, and it was as if past-me were speaking to current-me.

(Some legit, time-travel-type shit.)

Check it out.

 

 

OK, I know most of you don’t watch the videos.

Fine.

But context matters, such that (except for the embarrassing fingers-on-the-lens moment,) I was strolling along the oceanfront, narrating for you guys, (and my current-self,) how nice it is to relax by the ocean when you can.

(It’s where the column-opening-quote came from.)

Standing in the closet, remembering how nice the sounds and breezes were, I felt the heartsickness subsiding.

Then I found a video of my last look at the Pacific, seconds before we turned away, to head back East across the Great American West.

It’s so lovely, that one perfect moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, enough of the waxing philosophical.

(I saw a photo-book that put me on this rant. It wasn’t planned.)

My book stack is big, as I’ve said, so I reached in and pulled out a box from Summer 2021, published in 2020, so it’s not exactly ripped from the headlines.

Surely, I had no idea what would be inside.

I found the attention-grabbing “Aquas De Ouro,” from Sandra Cattaneo Adorno, published by Radius Books in Santa Fe.

Straight up, Radius is known for craftsmanship and design, and I mean this cover!

Shimmering Gold!

I don’t speak Portuguese, but as I know some Spanish, Italian and French, I guessed the title meant Waters of Gold, and the coastline in the graphic made me think of Rio de Janeiro, though I’ve never been.

Sure enough, that’s what the book’s about, as it seems the artist was born there, spent a chunk of her life in England, and then returned to make these photos.

(I’m not clear if it was a part-time, or full-time return to make the work in the book.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

No matter.

I write all the time that books are experiences, and this one actually felt like that was the main point.

Creating a real, lived-in experience for the viewer.

All those close-ups!

The movement, in and out of the crowds.

In and out of the water.

I was re-watching “Friday Night Lights” recently, and after looking over my shoulder, my wife said she’d forgotten how the many jump-cuts, and constant change of camera-angle coverage, made her feel like she really was in that small, West Texas town.

That’s what this book did for me.

It brought me to Ipanema Beach for a few minutes.

(Which is pretty cool.)

The print quality is super-high, as I’d expect from Radius, and frankly, I bought some weed in Santa Fe recently that got me super-high, so shout out to the quality that city’s turning out!

Big Ups to Santa Fe!

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the book, though.

The photos are dynamic, as I said, and there are a lot of them.

Probably, if I’d been editing, I’d have chopped it just a tad.

But text bits, in Portuguese and English, are sprinkled throughout, on different paper stock, so that does keep the narrative moving, and alleviates any potential viewer boredom.

(Especially as none of the text is overly-long.)

In keeping with my shorter, breezier, Summer style… this is a very well-made book.

I enjoyed my time with it, both for the art itself, and the fact it sent me back to my own digital archive, to re-live memories of the sea, from past sunny days.

(As I can’t get quite get there at the moment.)

Hope you’re enjoying your Summer so far.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Aguas De Ouro,” click here 

 

 

 

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

 

 

This Week in Photography: Hustle Hard

 

 

 

 

I’m a loyal dude, if you have my back.

 

 

 

Earlier this month, it was my 12th Anniversary writing for this website.

My wife and I have been together nearly 25 years, (married for 18,) and I’ve kept up this weekly column since September 2011.

(I also wrote for the New York Times for 6 years, until they shut our blog.)

If you turn on me though, or treat me badly these days, I’m out the door.

It’s a new development, and I’ve been trying it on for size.

Stress chemicals prematurely age us, make us sick, and can kill us in various ways.

So I’m currently trying to limit my exposure to toxic people.

But I’m only here, at this new point in mid-life, because I made so many mistakes, over and over again.

Failure is the best teacher, if you’re willing to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My son was 2 years old when I began writing for A Photo Editor.

I was 36.

(A youngish, new father to a toddler.)

 

36 years old, covering a portfolio review for APE

 

Now it’s 2022, and I’m the 48-year-old Dad to a teenager, and a soon-to-be tween daughter.

All along, I’ve been sharing my thoughts, and this blog has become interwoven with my life.

That’s quite the run here, and I think it’s because Rob and I share common values and beliefs.

One core tenet: Respect the Hustle.

It’s a hard world out there, and very few of us are ever given anything at all.

(If we are, let’s hope we’re humble and appreciative.)

To become successful in any field takes intelligence, planning, social skills, hard work, grit and determination.

Battling rejection.

Handling the almost moments, when it didn’t happen.

I mean, I once got accepted into a big NYC gallery, less than a year out of graduate school, only to have it fall apart when they didn’t like the color of my picture frames.

(Now that’s a kick in the nuts.)

Perseverance is a valuable trait; one that’s only learned through suffering.

 

 

 

 

 

As always, there’s a point to my musings.

We’re going to talk about a book today; one that waited quite a while for review.

It arrived in May 2021, and sat patiently in its red plastic pouch.

When it’s been that long, I never have any idea what’s inside, and this one was a self-published book by Alex Palombo called “The 20 2020 Project: The Pursuit of a Dream.”

There are two ways to talk about this book, and I aim to investigate both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First off, I respect the hustle this book entails.

The photographer shares, in the opening statement, how tricky it was going to be, to photograph and interview 20 athletes training for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

It was a budget stretch, and Alex meant to stick to the Northeast corridor of the US, from DC to the South to Montreal in the North.

(He lives in New York.)

There is an anecdote about a highway mishap in Upstate NY, which lead to driving 5 hours in the wrong direction towards Buffalo.

Ouch.

(Can’t not share here that my Mom and Dad inadvertently headed West from Vail not-too-long-ago, instead of East towards Denver, and only realized it when they were well into Utah. Must have been some strong-ass reefer.)

 

Image courtesy of Turn the Page

 

Sorry.

Back on topic.

There was a lot of effort funneled into this book, as a passion project, BEFORE Covid hit, and then it became nearly impossible.

But somehow, here it is.

Hard-cover, serious business.

We have athletes, and their stories, which are themselves inspiring.

Each had to sacrifice.

To suffer.

To chase a dream.

In the world of sports, no cliché is ever too big.

All the meta-narratives have been told, (certainly since the US Hockey team won Gold in 1980,) yet they get us every time, such is their power.

{ED note: Just last night, Stephen Curry and his buddies proved the “aging vets who still have one more in the tank” narrative never gets old.}

 

Courtesy of NBC Sports

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m the first person to admit I’ve become more cynical since 2016, and try to push back against those instincts.

Sports help me do that.

Not only do I admire the Grit’N’Grind that saw this book through to creation, self-published, but also how it amplifies that positive message with the powerful stories within.

These moments motivate us to do more.
Be better.
Dig deep.

That is the context through which I prefer to view this book, and one for which I have much admiration.

However…

 

 

 

 

 

The other context.

Do I think the photographs are special?

Is the pacing spot on?

Can I groove with the graphic design?

What about the fonts, image placement, and the balance of text and image?

Weekly, I judge books on those merits, and in many ways this one comes up short.

So I don’t want to wimp out, and not say what I’m thinking.

It’s not a “great” book.

But I don’t want to over-invest in that narrative, as the kids say these days.

The truth is, I review books of all types, intentions, and levels of craftsmanship.

Context matters.

I hope some, or even most of these fencers, wrestlers, sprinters, judokas, boxers, and synchronized swimmers made it to Tokyo in 2021.

And I hope you dig this fun, positive book on a warm summer day.

Wherever you are.

See you next week.

 

To purchase “The 20 2020 Project: The Pursuit of a Dream” click here 

 

 

 

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

This Week in Photography: Revisiting Rambo

 

 

I re-watched Rambo yesterday.

(Technically, it’s called “First Blood,” from 1982, but once it became a hit, everyone just called it Rambo.)

 

 

 

 

 

My buddy Louie made the suggestion, as he swore it was a great film.

I was 8 when it came out, and Sylvester Stallone, as Rambo, became a cultural icon.

These days, it’s hard for youngins to relate to how big a deal someone/something could be, if it got caught in the eye of the monoculture.

ET, Rambo, Top Gun, The Terminator.

 

Courtesy of Terminator Wiki

 

They defined the 80’s, much as Charlie’s Angles, Star Wars, and Archie Bunker repped the 70’s in the Zeitgeist.

I remember Rambo as a roid-head, basically, using his massive muscles as a metaphor for American dominance.

But this movie is SO not that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 7th grade, I had a teacher, Mr. Ferraro, who was the cool guy everyone loved.

He had a “cool” car, which I think was a Camaro, but I’m sure some of my classmates could correct me.

And he was totally into Springsteen. (Again, this was Jersey in the 80’s.)

One day, he broke down “Born in the USA” for us, and explained it had been misappropriated by Reagan, and politicians like him, who used the song un-ironically at their rallies.

 

Courtesy of Billboard.com

 

I say un-ironcally, as the song is actually about a Vietnam Vet who comes back to his small-town factory life, and has a shit time of things.

It’s not a happy song, nor a traditionally patriotic one.

But the politicians only heard the chorus, and no one else was paying attention, I suppose.

Same thing with Rambo.

I mean, the guy was a hippie, for God’s sake!

A long-hair!

This being the 80’s, Stallone had a fluffy, feathery version of long hair, but still, we get the picture.

Wearing an old army jacket with an American flag on the lapel, he catches the attention of a smug, conservative, bigoted Sheriff, (played by 80’s stalwart Brian Dennehy,) while walking along the highway.

 

 

I’m not sure if the setting is ever disclosed, but as they’re obviously in massive, Western mountains, and at one point, we learn Portland is south, I’d say they’re in Washington.

Rambo, of course, is White, but as a hippie, he represents “The Other,” and the Sheriff literally runs him out of town on sight.

He’s done nothing wrong.

He’s just walking-while-hippie, which counts as vagrancy.

And though in the 21st Century, we all say “Thank you for your service,” every time we see a uniform, back then, Vietnam vets were treated poorly, and became one of the first populations of long-term unhoused Americans.

So that’s the premise.

Then, Johnny Rambo ends up hunting the bigoted cops up in the mountains, after they beat and attempt to torture him, and he escapes from jail. (With a pre-NYPD-Blue David Caruso playing the only skeptical cop; the one who thought it was dumb to pick a fight with a former Green Beret.)

Stallone is ripped, for sure, but not massive, so whatever they did to blow him up into a body-builder for the sequels, it came later.

 

 

He’s no bigger than when he played Rocky Balboa, and does a great job in this one too. (His early acting work is criminally underrated.)

Like Rocky, Rambo was an underdog.

But he was fighting against “The Man,” and then in sequels becomes a mass culture symbol for institutional American might.

Often, when symbols are powerful enough, people don’t even know they’re being indoctrinated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was thinking about that, preparing the column in my mind, and went searching in my Photos for some images I want to write about today.

(But not yet.)

Instead, I found a group of pictures I shot in a Santa Fe government building back in February.

The family and I were on a rare downtown walk, and stopped in to use the restroom.

It must have been the Veterans Affairs department, where we discovered a series of photographic installations.

One drew my attention immediately, as I saw grids of dead soldiers from Vietnam.

 

 

From a distance, as a grid, we just notice the volume of people, and outlines of faces.

As soon as I saw it this morning, I flashed to the grid of images of dead children in Uvalde.

 

Courtesy of The Texas Tribune

 

But then I saw the close-up images of the soldiers, (from when I approached the installation,) and immediately you notice the individuals, and realize how many of the men who perished from here were Hispanic and Native American.

Ancient cultures, both of them, and so specific to New Mexico, but bigots would just see a wall of brown faces.

 

 

Like the people killed in that El Paso Walmart a few years ago.

Nasty business, this racism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s get to the real inspiration for this column, shall we?

(Rambo came later.)

The other day, driving my daughter back from her school’s summer camp, she told me she’d changed her mind, and decided she was offended by the kid who’d called her a “Crazy Jew” a month ago.

At first, it hadn’t bothered her, but now it did, so she was going to tell on him.

She said there’d been a discussion in camp that day, as she described anti-Semitism to her friends.

They disagreed with her, and didn’t think there should be a separate word for hating Jews.

It was just racism, they said.

All one big hatred.

I told Amelie that while there was hatred specific to Jews, (and hence a particular word for it,) I actually liked what her friends had to say.

Hatred over skin color, country of origin, religious beliefs, gender identity, sexual preference, it’s all the same thing.

And it’s all awful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It must have been that conversation, because when I went on a walk yesterday, my mind flashed to some art I saw in San Francisco, and it really stuck in my craw.

I’m sure it was a part of my overall-negative-reaction to the city, and while I’m bored of piling on, it happened.

So why not report on it?

The story is, I visited the San Francisco Art Institute when I was in SF in March, and the famed, historically important art school has fallen on hard times.

(It nearly went out of business, and was operating a skeleton program with a skeleton staff, when I was in town.)

Again, I don’t want to add to their woes, but I’d been told there was a famous Diego Rivera mural there, and should check it out.

So I did.

Three times, I had the chance to pop in, and have the gallery to myself.

I was not amused.

The mural, which as with all Rivera work looks great, is an obvious critique of Capitalism, by the famously Communist, Mexican painter.

It shows the means of production, and I later learned it’s called “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.” 

At the literal heart of the story, the bi-laterally symmetrical, center of his composition, is a gross, stereotypical depiction of a Jewish businessman.

“Oh shit,” I thought, when I first saw it. “Now I have to write about anti-Semitic art again. What a bummer.”

And here I am, three months later, doing just that.

 

 

 

 

 

The hooked nose.
The beady, bulging eyes.
The bowler hat and round glasses.
The super-shiny suit.

He’s in the middle of the cabal, this Jew.

 

 

The other “White” guys could be from anywhere.

But not the one in the heart of it all.

(Symbolically.)

The rodent-like, dark-hair/dark-eye Jew, smaller than the other two, with a flashy, pin-striped, double-breasted suit.

Man, it made me mad.

Because as I said earlier, powerful visual symbols often subvert the conscious mind.

They propagate hatred, over generations.

What a crock of shit.

See you next week.

 

 

 

(Editor’s note: While doing some background research, I learned Diego Rivera had some Jewish ancestry, which does not absolve him of exploiting this nasty trope. Furthermore, Google turned up an English kerfuffle ten years ago, where a muralist got in trouble in London, for the same Jewish stereotypes, and was then compared to Rivera, who also had a mural over-painted for its inclusion of Lenin.)

This Week in Photography: Finding Inspiration

 

 

 

Throughout 2022, I’ve been bombarding you with think-pieces.

 

 

Week after week, I’ve delved deep into massive, often depressing subjects.

It was fun when those two stories went viral, (about photo-book publishing and NFT’s,) but as a reader, if you’re here each week, it can be intense.

I get it.

But now it’s Summer.

Things slow down when it’s hot outside.

We seek out the water.
Listen to the leaves quake in the breeze.
Smell the flowers.
Bask in the color of the sky.

Because nature is soothing.
It makes us feel better.

(Thank goodness.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, knowing I wanted to keep it short and sweet, I took a look at the book-submission-pile, but it was too daunting.

And I’ve mined my shelves enough to know that wasn’t going to work either.

(We can only use the same trick so many times.)

No travel stories or portfolio review articles were ready to go.

“What’s a hard-working columnist to do,” I wondered?

At that exact moment, (I swear, no lie,) I looked down and saw two coffee-table-books on the arm of the couch.

They’d clearly been moved there from the cedar-chest-coffee-table, for children’s play, and I hadn’t noticed them before.

Immediately, I recognized a coffee-table-book that used to reside on my mother-in-law’s shelf, one of only four or five art books in their massive library.

(So it was memorable.)

The book is by one of my all-time-favorite artists: Andy Goldsworthy.

Yet somehow, I’d never picked it up before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in graduate school, I had to go into Manhattan one day to catch a film at an indie-cinema-house.

It was assigned: “Rivers and Tides,” about Andy Goldsworthy.

 

 

(I should give it a re-watch, because it’s so damn inspirational.)

The art in the film, and in this book, “Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature,” published by Abrams in 1990,  is among the most remarkable I’ve ever seen.

And I’m not alone.

Just yesterday, after I’d finished this review, my daughter picked up the book, flipped page-by-page, and it was like a blind person restored to sight.

She simply could not believe what she saw, continuously exclaiming, “What! How! How did he do that? Insane! What! How? I don’t even understand! Amazing! What? How did he do that?”

(And I’m not exaggerating. It went on for five minutes.)

To make art in nature, out of nature, that conjures the powerful feelings and emotions that nature engenders?

Simply genius.

 

 

 

 

 

Though he’s super-famous, in case you’re unfamiliar, Andy Goldsworthy uses everything from snow, ice, rocks, trees, leaves, sand, and decaying heron feathers, in locations as far flung as England, Wales, Scotland, Arizona, The North Pole, France and Japan.

He builds sculptures, or nature installations, and many (if not most,) are temporary.

So the photographs become the evidence; the record of art made for the moment, rather than for an audience of humans.

The execution, creativity, patience, and connection to the Zen spirit of the world, are breathtaking.

But the grounded, Down-to-Earth, whimsical magnificence Andy Goldsworthy projects, (in “Rivers and Tides,”) his general likability, adds to the enjoyment as well.

And it always boiled down to one scene for me. (Which became an in-joke with Jessie, when we lived in New York.)

In the film, the camera captures Andy laying on the ground, spread eagle, on the grass outside, along the road, and a kindly neighbor strolls up.

“Hey, Andy. What are you doing there,” the neighbor asks?

A fair question.

“Working,” he replies, with a grin on his face.

In the book, we see how he landed that particular investigation, as the outline of his human form is recorded on the Earth, with powders.

(It doesn’t get much better than that.)

 

 

 

 

 

The past few years, (when I’ve been able to travel,) I mostly lost the taste for hitting up the galleries and museums.

It felt a bit “been-there-done-that,” as if I’d seen so much, over the years, that all the art began to blend together.

I forgot just how powerful it can be to experience the type of greatness that makes you want to strive for more.

(To leave a mark, even if it’s a small one.)

The last 2.5 years have felt like 10, and I don’t want to get old too quickly.

Exhaustion, cynicism, and horrific-world-events can rightly get us down.

But this book, from my Alzheimer’s-ridden mother-in-law, Bonnie, rekindled my passion to see great art again.

(What a gift.)

See you next week!

 

 

This Week in Photography: Say What?

 

 

 

Let’s be real.

 

To keep this weekly column going, for 10.5 years, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.

If I were an actor, the “self” I share would be considered a character, like when Jerry Seinfeld played a “version” of Jerry Seinfeld on his hit 90’s television show, “Seinfeld.”

 

Image courtesy of Seinfeld Memes

 

But I’m not an actor.

I’m a blogger.

So people assume the “me” I’m sharing is authentic, whole, and thoroughly considered.

Really, it’s two out of three, as I present a slightly more daring, absurd, and risky side of myself here, for entertainment purposes.

 

Why am I telling you today?

Good question.

 

 

 

 

 

Last week, I wrote a passionate long-read, taking down all of San Francisco as “uncool,” due to decades of unabated gentrification, rabid capitalism, raging income inequality, and failed public policy.

I held nothing back, and was heavily motivated by the heavenly metaphors embedded in the human shit I kept finding at my feet.

(Not subtle, those metaphor gods, when I was in San Francisco.)

But the “aging hipster calls whole city uncool, as way of reifying his own cool status” narrative…

I get it.

So when I got called out on Twitter by my buddy Matjaz Tancic, who last I checked was in a LITERAL FUCKING LOCKDOWN in Shanghai, I heard what he said.

There is more to every story, and unless you’re running around late at night, seeing what the parties look like, listening to the bands, checking out the underground galleries, it’s not exactly fair to judge.

 

 

I hear you, Matjaz!

So I admitted my “take” was a little reductive.

But I’m claiming the columnist’s privilege:

Sometimes, we see a particular narrative form in our heads, think it over for a bit, and then write it up as it happened, because it makes for such a great story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matjaz was not alone in his critique, though.

Over the many years of this column, one person has kept reading all along, while consistently sticking his neck out to share opinions in the comment section.

(It’s like having a super-fan, but one who cares enough about books, ideas, and photography that he’s willing to add his perspective, making the article better for the extra chunks of wisdom at the end.)

This person is Stan Banos, based in San Francisco, and I’ve certainly given him random shout outs over the years.

In my opinion, Stan is always intelligent, considered, historical, and contextual in his commenting.

I don’t know if I’ve ever disagreed with anything he’s written, in all my years.

His karma is good by me.

So when Stan commented that I need to get out of my SF bubble, even in jest, I felt it was worth hearing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to the book stack this morning.

I found a package from May 2021, and it seemed the one for today.

But just below it was a Blurb book, which must have come in around the same time.

Certainly, it had been here so long I didn’t know what it was, and the post-mark was beyond-smudged.

There was no way to know exactly how old the book was, but it felt right.

So I opened the Blurb book box, (with the smudged postmark,) and would you believe what I found?

A beautiful, little production named “SAY WHAT?” by none other than Stan Banos himself.

Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I treated his work with the same critical eye I would anyone else’s, but it made me think of a theory I just shared with a client the other day.

“Remember,” I said,  “a book is an experience.”

From start to finish.

So as artists, we need to plan every aspect of that viewing experience.

How long does it take to get through?

Where does it lag?

How can we keep the viewer’s attention locked in our story, whatever it may be?

This book, “SAY WHAT?”, totally nailed that for me.

It’s short, poignant, focused, and uses text very well.

Good job, Stan!

 

 

 

 

 

The cover and page 1 show us images of graffiti in an urban environment, and sure enough, that’s the theme.

Page 2 has a concise, direct statement from the artist, (Stan,) theorizing there are declarations of need, cries for help, hidden messages, and occasional wit encoded on the streets and super-structures, if only one would take the time to look.

Again and again, we see images of messages; things I would have walked past.

Things so many of us HAVE walked past.

But not Stan.

 

 

 

 

 

Collecting these photos in one sequence, as a book, is a home run for me.

It’s lovely.

At one point, we see an image of some sort of screed, or manifesto up on a wall, by Zoe Leonard, and after I squinted to read it, realized it was printed right there for me, below.

Page after page, I took time to read each piece of graffiti, and then imagined the photographer, walking slowly around his neglected city.

It made me think about how quickly I rushed up and down the hills.

How quickly I rushed to judgement.

Because this book is cool, and Stan’s cool.

So there must be other great things still going on in San Francisco.

Right?

Mea culpa.

See you next week.

 

To purchase “SAY WHAT?” click here 

 

 

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

 

This Week in Photography: Visiting San Francisco in 2022

 

 

In 1957, Miles Davis released a seminal album, “Birth of the Cool.”

Fair play to him, because by all accounts, Miles Davis was one
cool cat.

 

 

Over the years, plenty of musicians radiated cool, to such an extent, their names are dropped like a club membership.

Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, Debbie Harry, John Coltrane, Patti Smith.

(There are more, to be sure.)

When you read those names, you can conjure not just the person, and their aura, but all the times you heard someone tell you they “liked” said musician, in order to score cool points in your mind.

 

 

 

 

 

A few months ago, I read a scathing review of the new Chuck Klosterman book, “The Nineties,” in the NYT, clearly written by a Millennial with an axe to grind.

Sample quote: “Overall one is left with a shuddering sense of {Gen} X’s insignificance, its preoccupation with what more politically motivated successors deem ‘opulent micro-concerns.'”

The was plenty more snark, and I took the subtext to suggest perhaps Gen X was overly invested in the idea of cool, relative to all the other important values/traits in the world.

(That was my takeaway, in any event. Upon re-reading, it’s hard to pin down, but at the time, my reaction was strong.)

I stopped for a moment, and pondered.

Is it true?

Do today’s middle-aged Americans care more about being cool than making money, or saving the planet?

And what is cool, anyway?

How is a word so crucial to our culture so undefined?

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, I’m asking for a reason, and we’ll get there eventually. (This feels like a long-read.)

If cool can be born, as Miles suggests, can it also die?

How do you kill cool, and what comes next?

My wife and I had this discussion throughout the winter, because our beloved local ski resort, Taos Ski Valley, used to be on the of coolest places on Earth.

A hidden gem in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where you could hang out with your hipster or hippie buddies on a mostly-empty mountain, smoke “illegal” weed on the very-slow-chair-lifts, and ski terrain that was much-more-difficult than your average tourist could handle.

Founded by Austrian Jews, Ernie and Rhoda Blake, in the 1950’s, the place oozed counter-culture, yet much of its tourist base came from North Texas and Oklahoma.

 

Ernie Blake, image courtesy of Adventure Journal, and Taos Ski Valley Archives

 

Now, before you chide me, I admit, those are not typically cool places, but then again, we haven’t defined cool yet, have we?

Folks came to Taos from there because it was the closest ski resort, so they could drive.

They’d pile the family in the pickup, haul ass for 6-10 hours, and wake up in a snow-covered paradise.

As locals, we’d joke about them skiing in blue jeans, or Oakleys with Dallas Cowboy hats, but they were down-to-Earth folks, happy to shoot you a smile, and often they ate picnic style, having brought food to save money.

So while they were not cool in the too-cool-for-school way, (which is not really cool at all,) they were cool in the way that matters to Gen Xers.

They were respectful, down-to-Earth, authentic, unpretentious, and chill.

Maybe that can function as a working definition for today?

 

 

 

 

 

So who killed the cool at Taos Ski Valley?

A hedge-fund billionaire named Louis Bacon bought the resort nine years ago.

He’s an “environmentalist” who famously fought solar electricity infrastructure in Colorado, because he didn’t want new power lines on his land.

A guy who’s best buddies with famous Anti-Vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr, and was once featured in Vanity Fair for an awful, petty beef with his perhaps-even-crazier, rich-guy neighbor on a small, Caribbean island.

Maybe in two paragraphs I’m laying out the case that Louis Bacon is not a cool guy?

At TSV, Bacon made a shrewd real estate play, by setting about to demographically replace the current customer base, and instead import wealthier, more “regular-folks” skiers.

It’s a long story as to how, (including replacing most of the Hispanic lift operators with White guys playing jam-band music, and launching an airline to fly in folks from Austin, Dallas, LA and San Diego,) but rest assured, it was a multi-step process, and as of 2022, I can say it has totally succeeded.

 

A Taos Air billboard above a San Diego sushi spot.

 

In so doing, he’s priced out, or chased away many locals, (who are scruffy, and don’t spend money on $18 burgers,) including me.

He bought almost all the restaurants up there, (or drove them out of business, as when he demolished some to build condos,) and owns a hotel as well as the condo developments, so the dude is practically the King of his own village.

TSV was BUSY AS HELL this winter, and his $1 million, 1 bedroom condos sold, (with private underground parking,) so it looks like his “evil” plan worked just fine.

Consider the cool dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For any other writer, that might be a long way to go to make a point… talking about Taos in an article about San Francisco.

But please bear with me.

When I moved to San Francisco in 1999, it was a hip fucking city.

We were young artists, and lived in the Southern part of the Mission District, an immigrant/hipster neighborhood, teaming with galleries, bars, and coffee shops.

Mexican markets, Guatemalan bodegas, burrito places that gave you free food for life, if you got their logo tattooed on your body.

 

Jimmy the Corn Man tattoo, image courtesy of Joshua Bote/SFGATE

 

Phil, the namesake behind the now-multi-million dollar coffee chain, Philz, used to make me falafel sandwiches in his dingy, little market, on the corner of Folsom and 24th St.

I remember, with a deep, gruff voice, he’d say, “You want the fool?” (For Fool Mdamas.)

“Sure,” I’d say to Phil. “You make it great. Hook me up however you’d like.”

 

 

As the dot-com-boom flourished, (before ultimately tanking,) early-version-tech-bros would take limousines into the neighborhood, standing through the moon-roofs, gawking at the poor immigrants.

On weekends, they’d drive in, and park in the fire lane, by the hundreds, content to pay the fine, rather than look for parking.

(Not cool, my friend. Not cool.)

But with the dot-com-crash, those folks left, artists held on for a bit longer, and the normie-vibe was mostly restricted to the Marina, Nob Hill and Pacific Heights.

The rest of the city was still diverse, and plenty cool.

In 2022, however, I’m sad to report that San Francisco cool is dead and buried.

Replaced, ironically, by a tech-bro-über-capitalist meets progressives-will-let-it-all-burn-before-they-admit-defeat style of un-hipness, and for many, a hell on Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, let’s back up for a second.

I went to San Francisco in March, for a photo festival I won’t name today, because this is a negative article, and they’re a great organization.

(It’s not their fault their city went down the drain.)

As a journalist, I shared these theories with current and former San Franciscans in San Diego earlier this month, and they agreed entirely.

 

 

 

 

 

In 2016, I first reported here about the burgeoning, San Francisco tent cities, and how it seemed a new street class was being entrenched as a permanent way of life.

So many were denied the chance to live safely, because of the ravages of income inequality.

In 2019, I wrote a harrowing story about how bad things had gotten, with people howling in the night-time streets, and I was determined not to repeat myself this time out.

(Been there, done that.)

These days it’s national news, that the Tenderloin has turned into an IRL version of David Simon’s “Hamsterdam” from “The Wire,” so I was hoping to write something more upbeat for you, in 2022.

As such, I limited myself to the “nice” neighborhoods of North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, (where the tourists go,) Pacific Heights, Chinatown, the Bayfront and the Marina.

In three full days, I never left that zone, in the hopes I could just write a nice-travel-story for you, and leave the misery behind for once.

(I swear, that was the plan.)

In the end, though, it caught up to me, because looking away, denying the reality in front of you, never seems to work out well, does it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s take an interlude.

Retrench.

Focus on the positive.

It is still possible to eat well in San Francisco, and you can buy really good weed too.

On my first full morning, I took a rambling, gorgeous walk, on a perfect California day, towards sparc, the closest dispensary that opened early.

I saw an unhoused man, lounging on a couch on the street, (before it was collected as trash,) and he was reading a newspaper.

 

 

He seemed content, so we can include that in the happy part of the article.

The bud-tender who helped me at sparc was cool, (thank God for the little things,) and he sold me a super-strong, horchata flavored indica joint, when I told him my mission.

“I’m about to walk for hours along the waterfront, in the sunshine, and I want to be the happiest guy out there,” I told him.

He obliged, (it was expensive,) and then I bought one more joint, to share, and they gave me a weed drink for free, because I was cool to everyone.

 

 

I’ll cut to the chase and say the pot was great, so I definitely recommend this joint, if you’re in town, or visiting.

After walking back to my hotel, it was time to eat.

So I had a double-double, animal style, from In-N-Out burger for lunch, before my big excursion, and it was excellent, as always.

 

 

You may think I shill for them because of “The Big Lebowski,” but really, it is that good.

(I even turned my Mom onto it, and she was dubious.)

 

 

 

 

 

From there, I walked for miles along the water, before parking myself in the sand at Chrissy Field. (A dog beach at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.)

 


 

It was amazing, (as was the entire walk,) so I imagine tourists can still have a good time in SF, if they ignore the rot, and stay in the sun.

My friend Heather recommended Equator Coffees, in Fort Mason, so on the way back, I got a special turmeric latte, a brilliant almond croissant, and a flavored bubble water.

 

 

(Dehydrate, sugar up, rehydrate.)

I don’t remember exactly what I paid, but it was certainly reasonable.

Let that be today’s traveler’s tip: when in SF, stick to the street food, and you’ll eat well on a budget.

In my regular life, I never walk and eat, but in SF, I mowed down that croissant, a cannoli from  Victoria Pastry for Sunday breakfast, and a couple of slices of excellent pizza.

 

 

Otherwise, it was takeout from an incredible Chinese BBQ spot, a brilliant, bombastically big Chicken Mole burrito from Cilantro SF Taqueria, and the aforementioned In-N-Out.

 

 

I don’t think I spent more than $10 on any of it, and it was all 1000x better than I can get in Taos.

So (in conclusion,) they still have good weed, street food, and nature in San Francisco, but you have to dodge all the shit to enjoy it.

(I’m being literal.)

 

 

 

 

 

I told you I stuck to the “good” part of town.

I even overheard someone refer to Union Square, where the department stores and boutique shopping is located, as, “a bad part of town now.”

(No lie.)

Sure, I saw some unhoused people sleeping in alleys, as I wandered.

But not many, compared to what I’ve reported previously.

And I didn’t see one tent.

Not one!

I made it to Coit Tower for the first time, after hearing they had some amazing murals, which turned out to be true.

(I forgot my mask, and didn’t want to be “that guy,” so I didn’t get up close to the art for very long.)

 

 

It was almost enough to forget what was going on in many other parts of the city.

Keyword, almost.

Because on the last day of the festival, as I was walking up to the location, I saw a huge glop of human feces on the sidewalk.

It was a pretty street, with fancy neighbors, but there was no denying the turd before me.

I had a flashback to my time in the city, and how by 2002, my wife and I were so tired of dodging human poop on the sidewalk, we were ready to go.

But that was in the Mission; a concrete, low-income part of town, with few parks.

Now the shit is LITERALLY everywhere.

Including right in before of me, on the sidewalk.

Unmissable.

I came and went a few times that day, and ultimately someone dropped a tissue on part of the poop, to warn fellow pedestrians.

“That’s OK,” I thought. “I don’t have to write that up. It’s only one turd.”

But then, it got worse.

Much worse.

 

 

 

 

 

On my last day in town, I had coffee at Caffe Greco with two photo peeps I’d only known online.

It was like the pre-times, as we de-masked, drank cappuccinos, and chatted about art and life.

One companion brought up the unhoused-sanitation-issue, complaining the city did not have enough public toilets.

If you live on the street, she went on, and the government doesn’t provide you with adequate places to go, you have to find places to crap every day.

Ultimately, that means public space.

(Most of the time.)

She was empathetic to the plight of the unhoused, rather than bitching about it, but the severity of the situation was not lost on me.

After an hour or so, I excused myself, to go back to the hotel, wash up, and then head out for some more takeout.

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier that morning, as I walked down the hotel stairs, I noticed an metal-grate exterior door to the alleyway.

Someone had left it open, so I closed it, and mentally noted that could be a problem.

On my way back from the cafe, as I ascended the stairs, I could smell something so pungent, it had heat.

I’m not kidding.

The air was warm with stench.

I didn’t see anyone, or anything, and popped into my room for a few minutes.

Being stoned, by the time I walked out ten minutes later, I’d forgotten all about it.

So I was hopping down the stairs at a good clip, and came to a screeching halt, as I saw what appeared to be a pool of urine in front of me on the landing.

Maybe I missed it by a foot.

From there, my eyes traced up, almost in slow-motion, and I saw the biggest human shit I’ve ever encountered.

Right there.
In front of me.
On the floor.

So I high-tailed it in the other direction, and took the elevator.

When I reported it to the front desk, they apologized, and said someone had gotten in, and it was a problem.

By the next day, when I mentioned it upon checkout, they had changed their tune, and lied, saying it had only been a dog.

Yeah fucking right.

The biggest dog on Earth, maybe?

I don’t think so.

 

 

 

 

 

After the encounter with excrement, I walked for an hour, trying to regenerate my appetite.

And I thought about things, over and over.

All I wanted was to have a few days in the city, pretending everything was OK.

I was prepared to avert my eyes, (for once,) so as to avoid having to write Another Critical Article About San Francisco.

(Help me help you, San Francisco.)

 

 

But it was not to be.

San Francisco is no longer cool, and New Mexico is burning.

Some guy bought a house at the edge of the ocean, in North Carolina, and it collapsed into the sea 9 months later.

The world is in a precarious place, my faithful readers, and sticking our heads in the sand will not help.

Not at all.

 

 

This Week in Photography: The Boys

 

 

It’s been a long week.

(A long year, really.)

Fuck. Maybe we should just say a long decade?

But it’s Thursday, and you know what that means.

(As I said in San Diego last Friday, everyone dicks around until the deadline.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was in California on Saturday.

 

Poolside, on a break at the Medium Festival of Photography

 

Sunday was a blur.

And I’ve been tending to sick kids all week, while beating back the self-destructive tendencies of a normally-great teenager.

(Like I said, I’m beat.)

Then again, my teenager reads the column, and we were discussing photo books as we waited at the fire-house-bus-stop this morning.

 

The fire-house-bus-stop

 

(He really liked both books we featured the past two weeks.)

For the first time, I brought my camera along on the morning ritual, as yesterday, I noticed the light was gorgeous at 7am.

Unfortunately, the light wasn’t spot on today, as there were high clouds, which burned off shortly thereafter, returning our hyper-dry, uber-blue-sky days.

I’d had a shot in mind since yesterday, and as I lined it up, the light, which glimmered a second before, flattened out.

I stood there, camera to my eye, and decided to pass on clicking the shutter.

Just then, literally a second after I lowered the camera, I saw a flash of brown to my left.

(Thankfully, not the kind of brown flash that killed a soldier in Alaska recently.)

Rather, it was a deer, bounding across the field, less than 50 feet away.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been shooting here in Taos since late December 2020, and have images of all sorts of animals: dogs, snakes, cows, spiders, horses.

 

Odessa, who died in March of this year

 

But no deer.

I’ve wanted the deer, but really, how often are you standing there, with your camera all dialed in, and a deer wanders into the frame?

Turns out, it was a whole family of deer, hopping along, one at a time, so I got a few shots.

The light wasn’t perfect, but the whole thing was so random.

Right place.
Right time.

 

 

 

 

 

Some artists have an idea in mind, and make the art to fit the vision.

Others shoot whatever they see, over months or years, then build a jigsaw puzzle out of the resulting edit.

Neither way is “better,” but in my copious experience, I’ve come to believe groups of images that are pre-conceived, or made to cohere to a concept or structure, often have a slightly enhanced sense of intent.

(That’s my two cents, anyway.)

And the last two weeks, it seemed like we featured books where the images were shot, and then the story was built after-the-fact.

(Can’t be sure with Stacy’s amazing “The Moon Belongs to Everyone,” but that was the vibe, anyway.)

 

 

Today, we’re going in a completely different direction.

Let’s look at a book that represents a very personal story.

A book that’s about life, death, and friendship.

A book that melds archival imagery, poignant vignettes, intricate design, and well-crafted, large-format, contemporary portraiture.

Let’s look at “The Boys,” by Rick Schatzberg, published in 2020, by powerHouse in Brooklyn.

 

 

 

 

 

Full disclosure, before I say anything else, I worked with Rick during the book’s production process.

I’ve written before that I consult with artists on photo books, and have a policy not to review books I’ve created with my clients.

(I am included in the final credits for “The Boys.”)

However, this time, the maquette was made, most of the text was written, the photos were shot, and in retrospect, my role was quite minimal.

As such, since it’s an excellent book, and he sent it to me with no expectation of review, I decided it was fair game.

Let’s get to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like me, Rick grew up Jewish, in the suburbs of NYC.

Unlike me, Rick is from Long Island, and as he’s 20 years older, he and his friends are really the test-case for suburban living in the United States.

(Total coincidence, but I saw this hilarious tweet this morning, as a Slovakian tried to make sense of America’s suburbs in 2022.)

 

 

“The Boys” is not about me, in any way, but I think all suburban kids can relate to what these guys used to do.

Find some woods behind the neighborhood, before everything was developed, and wander.

Hang out.

Go somewhere, even if it was an empty field, as there really was nowhere else.

But I was a total goody-goody, and Rick and his crew were proto-Jewish hipsters.

Stoners.

Disaffected kids, listening to music, drinking, and scattering when the cops showed up at their favorite hangout: The Pits.

 

 

 

 

 

A few months ago, I reviewed a book by Karen Marshall, in which she followed a group of New York kids, and then reconnected with them when they were grown.

This flips that methodology on its head, as in “The Boys,” Rick gives us photos of his bros, (as we call them today,) with their Jewfros, jean jackets, bandanas, and beers.

We see these guys in various stages of life, including the 80’s power suits, and the vacation photos, from when they went on Boys Trips.

As a pure Pisces, always moving forward, always changing, I don’t hang out with my middle/high school buddies anymore.

I don’t have a frame of reference for the love these men feel for each other.

Nor for what it’s like as they pass away, one by one.

(A group of 14 is now down to 10.)

Tragically, for Rick and The Boys, two men chronicled in the book actually died before final publication.

What a bummer.

 

 

 

 

 

I like almost everything about this book, though I don’t think the insert essay at the back, by Rick Moody, was particularly necessary.

Often, publishers like to see big name writers attached to a project, to make it easier to market.

It’s the done-thing, and I don’t blame Rick for going that route.

Hell, he and I spent time brainstorming which writer would be a good fit, before he networked his way to the other Rick.

But it’s a compliment, what I’m saying. For an untrained writer, Rick S.’s stories pop.

They engage, and present the kind of first-person narrative that reels viewers in, and allows our imaginations to fill in the details.

Strong stuff, for sure.

 

 

 

 

Beyond the personal, though, a case can be made that “The Boys” also explores the reality of the aging, White Baby Boomer.

Those dudes take a lot of shit these days for destroying the world. Maybe rightly so.

(OK Boomer?)

But Rick made the interesting choice to photograph his remaining friends shirtless.

We see the aging flesh, mottled with spots.

We see the scars.

The sagging muscles.

You might disagree, but I think there’s bravery in being vulnerable for the camera like this.

There is a vignette in which Rick describes why he chose to include himself, with the high-end selfies.

And how hard it was to overcome vanity, and not create more flattering portraits for himself than he did for Joelie, Brad, and the crew.

 

 

 

 

 

Just the other week, I wrote about the passing of my friend, Dave.

This week, his sister Monica gifted me Dave’s Aikido gi.

(He switched to Kung Fu about 15 years ago, which we trained together, but he kept his Japanese fighting robe.)

And now it’s mine.

My Sensei suggested I wear it to train, to honor my friend.

I’ve been under the weather since I got it, (the whole family has,) and haven’t had the chance to put it on yet.

But I’m excited to feel that connection to my departed compadre.

Lately, I find myself talking to Dave. Almost daily.

I haven’t lost many people before, so I don’t know if that’s normal. Thinking they’re up there, somewhere.

Listening.

So I’d like to offer Rick my condolences, and also my compliments, for a job well done.

See you next week!

 

To purchase a copy of “The Boys” click here

 

 

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

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: The Moon Belongs to Everyone

 

 

It’s Monday, and the skies are clear.

(Thank goodness.)

 

 

 

Yesterday, the smoke from New Mexico wildfires was unpleasant enough that we stayed inside all day. (Until it filtered out in the evening.)

To have fires here in April and early May is something I simply cannot recall.

Sure, it’s a drought, and La Niña is a bitch.

 

 

 

But early-spring fires?

Never.

(Climate Change is NOT joking around.)

 

 

 

 

 

In art school, we learned that Kant considered the Sublime to contain a degree of the awful, or the terrifying.

(Maybe awe-inspiring is the better term? I graduated in 2004, so it’s a little rusty.)

But as I remember, it’s more than just beauty, the Sublime.

Three quarters of a day with my reality constrained by smoke pollution, and as soon as I got outside again, the world shimmered.

 

Sunday evening, after the smoke blew out
This morning, before the smoke blew in

 

 

Yet billions of people live with pollution every day.

(I consider myself fortunate.)

Frankly, people around the planet live in all sorts of places, and all manner of ways.

It’s a big world out there.

 

 

 

 

 

I bring this up right now, having just put down “The Moon Belongs To Everyone,” a phenomenal photo-book that arrived in the mail last June, by Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, published by GOST.

(Like I said to Shawn Records last week, thanks for your patience, Stacy!)

Really, this book is terrific.

I love it.

Last week, I wrote that because of the clear, Joseph-Campbell-inspired-structure, Shawn’s book didn’t make us think too hard.

This one is the opposite, as its lack of text, and great variety of imagery types and styles, make you guess what the heck is going on, as you turn each page.

No lie, we see frozen waterfalls, jungles, desert, oceans, and rock formations, just off the top of my head.

The paper changes, through the book, which I also loved, including these eerie portraits that seem almost like silver ink on black paper.

(Though I can’t say for sure.)

We see nature, and food, in various forms, including a killer photo of a super-intense-looking pomegranate.

The pomegranate was also featured in a design-trick I thought was clever, in which some images have a color sampled from within, and it’s turned into an entire color-block-page.

This happened a few times.

(Orange, magenta and red, if I recall.)

 

 

 

 

 

Books like this, which use only photos to tell non-linear, abstracted stories, are often called “poetic.”

And sure enough, the only text in the entire book, (beyond the credits,) was a poem by the artist that I read twice, much as I did with the photos.

If I’m being honest, at first I was a bit skeptical, but kept an open mind, (all those slashes,) but by the time I was done with the second pass, I was convinced.

Cool rhythms, repeating motifs, and if you pay attention, the message is there.

Like the imagery, it’s non-linear and abstracted, so it makes for a fitting close.

The poem speaks to immigrants, and emigrants.

To where we begin, where we end up, and who are we anyway?

How does it always come down to the patch of Earth on which you were born, or the spot you choose to put down your roots?

This book definitely qualifies as a work of art, in my opinion.

Sleek and pretty, but with just a hint of menace.

Job well done.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “The Moon Belongs to Everyone” click here 

 

 

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

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: A Real Life Hero

 

 

 

My friend, Dave, died last week.

On Friday.

Of Covid.

(Not long after I posted the column.)

 

 

 

 

It’s been rough.

I’m 48, yet lack significant experience with grief.

(Knock on wood.)

I hadn’t known anyone who suffered horribly from Covid, much less perished.

Man, what a shitty situation.

A million dead, here in the US, and so many friends and loved ones left with holes in their hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was particularly cruel, though, as I’d begged Dave to get a booster shot.

(He’d only had the J&J vaccine, last summer, due to an employer mandate.)

But he said no, despite knowing his lifestyle, weight-lifting at the gym, working security at the local bar, meant he was almost certain to contract the virus at some point.

 

Dave in Kit Carson Park, Taos, September 2021

 

Dave, who was conservative politically, and came from a religious background, wasn’t willing to engage in further vaccination.

We even spoke about what would happen if he got Covid.

That he would end up with unpayable medical bills.

That he might die, due to pre-existing conditions.

And now he’s gone.

(Such a bummer.)

 

 

 

 

 

In my mind, Dave was a hero.

He was kind, selfless, curious, and wise.

He went out of his way to help people, and took his job in security seriously.

(This week, I saw an FB comment that Dave used to walk a woman into work each day, at 4am, during his rounds.)

When we’d train in the public park, (for hours at a time,) unhoused, or very drunk people would stop to talk to us, or watch what we were doing.

Every time, Dave treated the person with so much respect and compassion.

It was amazing to see how polite he was, under the circumstances.

(An inspiration, really.)

When that neighbor pulled a gun on me last year, Dave was the first person I texted for advice.

When I had a beef with my Sifu, Dave pushed me to grow, repeatedly advising me to be humble, apologize, and move forward.

 

 

 

 

 

Dave was an action-movie hero, but in real life.

An experienced Aikidoka, and Wing Chun Kung Fu expert, (in addition to his knowledge of firearms,) Dave should have been the next Danny Trejo.

 

Danny Trejo, Courtesy of Estevan Oriol/Getty and The Daily Beast

 

Dave lived through things, and it showed.

Plus, his deep, gravely voice, (from years of smoking cigarettes,) was a perfect complement to his massive biceps, and calm demeanor.

While training in the park last year, I pitched Dave on the idea of being an action-movie hero, for real.

I suggested we write a film, in which he could star, so we could get him the type of recognition he deserved.

He was dubious, but I developed plot points, and as we punched and kicked at each other, he began to see the possibilities.

But a fucking virus put a stop to that.

 

 

 

 

 

Hero is such a powerful word.

It gets tossed around, willy-nilly, but what does it mean?

Maybe it’s someone who does the right thing, even in difficult circumstances?

A person who rises to the challenge, lives by a code of honor, and tries to improve every day?

Maybe, like Spiderman, a hero believes she/he/they has a responsibility to help, and if blessed with being strong and powerful, uses that to the benefit of others?

(That can serve as a working definition, anyway.)

But as long as there have been humans who could walk and talk, there have been heroes.

The protagonists of our stories.

The leaders we admire.

The guideposts for how to live.

How do I know?

Just ask Joseph Campbell.

 

 

 

 

If you’re reading this, you likely work in a creative field, or are at least creative-adjacent.

So you’ve probably heard of Joseph Campbell.

He was a genius academic, writer, lecturer and researcher who, like Jung, delved deep into the human consciousness.

Predominantly, he did this by researching origin stories, myths, and cultural bedrock tales, from around the world, to look for commonalities.

Like pyramids being built in Egypt and Peru simultaneously, thousands of years ago, with no possibly of crossover, certain creation mythologies popped up again and again, across the world.

One of Campbell’s seminal books, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” breaks down traditional narratives structures, from different cultures through time, in the ancient world.

 

 

It’s fascinating, if you’ve never read it. (I have, in bits and pieces, but never cover-to-cover.)

And trust me, it’s relevant to today’s discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

Because I’m finally reviewing photo-book today!

Feels like it’s been a month, (or more,) since we last did a book review, but today, it’s back to the bread and butter.

And what book did I grab, randomly, from the book pile?

Glad you asked!

It’s “Hero,” by Shawn Records, published by aint bad, which turned up in the mail nearly a year ago.

(Thanks for your patience, Shawn!)

It’s a cool little book, for sure, but not one that needs deep analysis.

(No pun intended.)

Because it presents its structure in an obvious way, then tells the story abstractly, but in a manner that will make many a photo-book lover happy.

In this one, it’s all about the pictures, and many are very good.

(Not brilliant, but they don’t need be.)

 

 

 

 

There is almost no text in the book.

We have the end credits, and a crucial title page, which apes the structure of “The Hero’s Journey.”

Literally.

Each supposed chapter has a page number, and that’s it. (And only those pages are numbered.)

So I looked at it twice.

First, I flipped slowly, taking it in.

There were strong photos, for sure.

Like the dog peeking its head out of a hole in a garage door, and the great monkey shot, (as we saw in Rich-Joseph Facun’s excellent “Black Diamonds,”) makes me wonder if that’s not the new “put a bird on it.”

But surely, I liked the images, because they are very photographic.

Implied narratives, cool compositions, impending drama, dynamic colors, well-captured light.

It’s all there.

As I said about John Hesketh’s work last week, what’s not to like?

 

 

 

 

 

On second viewing, I tracked the chapter titles to specific images, and sure, they are suggested in the photos.

Not screamed, or shouted.

(Perhaps murmured would be a better verb.)

The credits page tells us the images were made between 2006-19, so this strikes me as the product of a photographer who shot for years, and then found the through-line after-the-fact.

Nothing wrong with that methodology, and it likely adds to the ambiguity.

So, to wrap it up, as my brain is tired from grief, (and a long trip to the pediatric dentist in Los Alamos yesterday,) I think this is the kind of book that collectors, and photo lovers, will like a lot.

It’s smart in its allusions, but doesn’t make you think too hard.

You can just look, admire the quality, then move on with your day.

Speaking of which… see you next week.

 

To purchase “Hero” click here 

 

 

 

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

 

 

This Week in Photography: The Best Work from PhotoNOLA, Part 2

 

 

 

“Just as a bow kept strung loses its usefulness, so humans cannot stand continuous tension.”

Koichi Tohei, Japanese Zen/Aikido master (1920-2011)

 

“Laissez les bons temps rouler.”

An old Cajun French saying

 

 

 

 

Last week, I went all Zen on you.

What with the meditation advice and such.

 

 

I know it can seem preachy, sometimes.

So I try to be careful.

(And as I tell all my students and clients, I never give advice I don’t apply in my own life.)

Happiness doesn’t just come from self-care, be it exercise, kung fu, or movement meditation.

Humans are social creatures, and need contact.

Isolation, and even worse, loneliness, make us sick.

But wait, I promise this won’t be a heavy column!

(Nor a long one.)

So let’s move things along, shall we?

 

 

 

 

 

Having fun, hanging out with friends, keeps us emotionally and physically happy.

Even if you don’t drink alcohol in your daily life, or stay out late, tying one on every now and again, hitting the town with your buddies, is a pre-pandemic habit that needs to come back ASAP.

(Or for most of you, maybe it already has.)

I went to my first post-pandemic, IRL photo festival in mid-December, as the Delta wave receded, and just before Omicron hit.

New Orleans draws certain people in, like a dumpling restaurant in the back corner of a forgotten strip-mall.

More invested, knowledgeable people than I have tried to write about New Orleans, and understand it.

I make no pretense.

I’ve been there five times in my life, always in December, and had a shit ton of fun on each occasion.

I feel comfortable in the town.

As different as it is from where I live, here in the high desert, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, there is somehow a connection between the places.

Honestly, it has to be the Spanish and French roots.

 

 

It shows wherever you look.

The 18th and 19th Century architecture is insanely gorgeous, and evokes a historical glamour I haven’t seen elsewhere in America.

 

 

(Though admittedly I haven’t been to Charleston.)

 

 

 

 

 

There’s music on the streets, on the regular, and it transforms any ordinary moment into something truly special.

Like the time I sat on some concrete steps, down at the Mississippi River, and listened to a talented busker behind me belt out “Ring of Fire.”

 

 

It was a moment.

(And yes, I gave him money.)

 

 

 

New Orleans is a city that enchants, and really, do you ever remember me saying anything like that before?

As usual, I stuck to the French Quarter and the CBD, getting bussed around the city a few times, never knowing where I was, because it was evening, the city is a maze, and I’d let loose and drank more than a few.

(So much fun, those few days.)

Let’s cut to the chase.

That’s the moral of the story, today.

Please, loosen up when you can, and have a jolly good time.

Live a little.

We’ve all gone through, or more likely are still going through, a seismic global catastrophe, with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Which is now two and a quarter years old.

No one can stand constant tension, as the great man said at this column’s outset.

We all need to break it, sometimes.

Having fun is a great way to do it.

And I speak from experience.

New Mexico weed stores opened on the first of the month, and April is normally my least favorite month, for a variety of valid reasons.

This year, though?

April’s been pretty, pretty, pretty good.

 

 

 

 

As to the real purpose of my trip to New Orleans?

Beyond eating, drinking, walking, listening, talking, and having a great time, (for the travel article I wrote in December,) my main goal was to look at photographic projects.

I went to PhotoNOLA to review portfolios, offer feedback, and then write about my favorites, here, for you.

Last week, we offered Part 1, and it was a pretty excellent mix of work, if I do say so.

This time out, as before, the artists are in no particular order.

And thanks to all of them for allowing us to share their wonderful work with you!

 

 

 

 

 

To begin with, Laurie Peek had a sad story.

Let’s get that out of the way. (Call it your trigger warning.)

She lost her son, Jackson, during the pandemic, when he tragically drowned.

Like many others, he had no funeral.

So she began making new work, “In Lieu of Flowers,” in mourning, and the pictures are quite beautiful.

Or so I imagine, as I met Laurie while Zooming from a comfortable chair in the IHH event building, during the online portion of the review.

Each image, she told me, represented one person who couldn’t have a funeral, due to the pandemic.

Like I said, super-sad.

But processing that grief through art is a powerful way to go.

(Just ask Marvin Heiferman.)

 




 

 

I met Vikesh Kapoor at a festival in Los Angeles a few years ago, (shout out to Exposure,) and have happily followed his career’s ascent.

He’s had a nice array of exhibitions lately, in Philly and Chicago, with accompanying lectures, and Vikesh had a solo show, with a talk, at the New Orleans Photo Alliance gallery during the festival.

But when we met at the the review table, he showed me something different.

Work from a commission from Leica and the BJP, in which he photographed people who were impacted by Vikesh’s mother, who was the local ob/gyn in a small, rural Pennsylvania town.

There’s a video as well.

Together, they tell a visual story of an immigrant in a far different culture, whose life intertwined with, and impacted so many people in that small world.

(Vikesh told me she delivered 3000 babies in a town of 9000.)

It’s an excellent project, for sure.

 

 

 

 

Pam Connolly and I got along swimmingly, and when I found out she lived in New Jersey, of course it all made sense.

Seriously, though, Pam showed me very-well-executed, sharp, lovely photos of constructed, tin, old doll houses.

They’re not creepy, though, as the bright colors, and seductive use of light, make it more fun and nostalgic, than anything.

(She also includes landscapes that are imaginary views out the widow of the mini-homes. )

Pam’s work made me think of Jane Szabo, who’s created some very cool work by moving miniature houses around the natural environment.

Seriously, someone needs to give these two a show together!

 

 

 

Next, we have Peter Hiatt, whom I ultimately owed an apology.

(Or, at least, I offered one.)

At the review table, Peter showed me a set of images of paint ball courses, near where he lives in Indiana.

They were nice, but not super-distinctive.

I told him I didn’t see a lot of passion there, and wondered why all the people, the crazy culture, were being elided, when that’s where many of the best details likely reside?

I suggested Peter focus on subject matter to which he felt a more intense, personal connection.

And it was a pass for this article.

However…

When I went to the portfolio walk at the Ogden Museum, I saw Peter’s work spread out on tables, with the prints arrayed in a group.

Like bashing a door-handle with your funny-bone, I immediately saw that his handling of color, in a weird, consistent palette, was spot on.

And the repeating use of shapes and compositions eluded me, viewing them one at a time, under less optimal lighting conditions.

So I apologized, and told Peter I’d be happy to publish his work, if he wanted to be included.

He did, and here we are.

Thanks, Peter!

 


 

Last, but not least, we have Sarrah Danziger, whom I briefly met at the aforementioned portfolio walk.

(Friday night of the festival.)

We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, but I thought her environmental portraits about people in the local culture, (she lives in New Orleans,) were really well done.

I offered to publish them on the spot, and again, here we are.

Thanks so much to all the artists, to the crew at PhotoNOLA for having me, and see you all next week.

 

This Week in Photography: The Best Work from PhotoNOLA, Part 1

 

 

 

I just began reading “Ki in Daily Life,” by Koichi Tohei.

Fascinating stuff.

(Tohei Sensei was a Japanese Aikido master, the most skilled in the world, after founder Morihei Ueshiba, and a major proponent of understanding ki, which is synonymous with the Chinese concept of Qi, or Chi.)

 

 

 

Though I’m not finished with the book, right off the bat, Tohei Sensei establishes we all have ki, or life energy, and can choose whether it flows in positive or negative directions.

We develop our ki by the thoughts we make, the breath we take, and the ways in which we move our bodies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In particular, Tohei Sensei guides us to drop our “one point,” or center of gravity, (what the Chinese call the Lower Dantian,) towards the ground, focusing on relaxing it, as well as our posture.

It’s really making a difference in my overall happiness, and I just began experimenting with the practice.

But once again, you’re wondering…why is he telling me this?

Because Chinese martial arts, (the various forms of Kung Fu,) use Qigong, or energy-based, movement meditation exercises, to develop fighting power, and life energy.

Koichi Tohei Sensei, one of the great Japanese martial artists of all time, advocated doing the same thing.

 

 

And he drew acclaim for helping non-martial-arts, just regular people, understand and utilize their ki, by encouraging certain movement mediations and thought-patterns.

He was explicit in teaching the extension of ki though your fingers, out towards the world, to spread the positive energy you cultivate in yourself.

Sample quote:

“Our lives are a part of the universal ki enclosed in the flesh of our bodies,” and “…practice emphasizing the sending forth of ki aims not only at improvement in the martial techniques, but also at facilitating the conflux of our ki with that of the universal. That is an extremely wholesome way to make the maximum of one’s life power.”

That’s some secrets-of-the-Universe type shit right there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only two weeks ago, I published an advice column, suggesting you figure out new ways to chill the fuck out, while the world was going insane around you.

(Buck the trend, as it were.)

So now I’m giving you some concrete suggestions for how to accomplish that lofty goal.

These ancient practices, in which we trust old-school traditions, can help us learn to meditate, calm our minds when we’re stressed, and build up our ki, so life will get better.

(Knowing how to defend oneself is a cool side-benefit, but martial arts are really about developing internal control on a deeper level.)

If you’re not interested in Japanese or Chinese martial arts, things like Yoga, Zen meditation, Tibetan Buddhist meditation, Tai Chi, walking meditation, any of these are worth integrating into your life, to better prepare you for 2022.

I was thinking about all these things this morning, on my walk, right before I wrote this for you.

So I stopped by the stream, to capture a moment of Zen.

Hope you like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you add movement or sitting-based meditation to your self-care regimen, along with exercise, eating well, and making your art, you’ll likely find yourself a bit happier, day by day, than during the darkness of the early pandemic.

(I had to discuss photography eventually, right?)

Making art is still the most powerful self-care arrow in our quiver.

It’s why you’re reading this blog.

Because even in a world with seemingly endless forms of creative expression, so many people still love using the camera to make art.

And I’m fortunate to be able to meet a lot of photographers, view their work, and hear their stories, now that photo festivals are back, IRL.

Today, though, I chose not to do another rant about how great photo festivals are.

(As I’ve sung that song a lot lately.)

But it is finally time to show the first batch of the best work I saw at PhotoNOLA back in December.

I met a host of talented, cool, interesting artists, and am thrilled to share their work with you today.

(We’ll have another group next week.)

As usual, the artists are in no particular order, and we hope you enjoy the portfolios.

 

 

 

 

Ash Margaret is based in Houston, and showed me a bonkers project, for sure. The through-line to the series was a set of old-school gas masks, integrated into staged environments, featuring models as well.

(Talk about creative expression.)

They’re really strange, and I made a radical edit for Ash, in which we divided the images I thought were too kitschy, from the ones that were ambiguous, cool, and foreboding.

Regardless, they seem the perfect example of how to use healthy ways to get your crazy out, so you don’t shine it on others.

 


 

 

Ellen Mitchell is from the Jersey Shore area, (like me,) but unlike me, she still lives there.

While I spied a series about seagulls that I loved, at the portfolio walk, when we met for our official review, Ellen showed me a group of street photos taken on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights.

(A bit South of where I’m from.)

We must have discussed consent, as it was 2021, and considering how we commodify the visual identity of strangers is a tricky topic.

I also suggested she take good care with certain techniques, like light quality and cropping.

Overall, though, the pictures definitely represent something different, (which is hard to achieve,) and I’m glad Ellen allowed us share them with you.

{ED note: I just went through the files Ellen sent, while posting the column, and have to say, upon second viewing, I think these photos are pretty great. It was very hard to edit down even to this large selection.)

 

 

 

Chad Schneider is based in Minnesota, and also has a background making films.

We’re all familiar with the genre of creepy/seductive twilight photographs of homes and buildings.

(I doubt Todd Hido invented it either, but it’s certainly something we know him for.)

However, some tropes are alluring for a reason.

Chad’s illuminated evening shots sucked me in, for sure.

They’re gorgeous in just the right ways, and I love them, even if we’re familiar with the style.

 

 

 

John Hesketh is a cool guy, and certainly knows New Orleans.

(He said an ancestor had been run out of Louisiana, at gunpoint, so he didn’t grow up down there, but had deep roots.)

John showed me multiple-image-composite photos of Mardi Gras revelers.

I would say I liked them; didn’t love them.

I mean, they’re fun.

What’s not to like?

But when John suggested he was done, that surprised me, as he didn’t seem bored or disengaged with the subject.

He agreed he was still excited, and then reconsidered, deciding to return to Mardi Gras 2022 to make more art.

Nothing gives me more pleasure, during an event, than knowing I can help get someone fired up to use their creativity, which is so good for our health.

 

 

 

Last, but not least, we have Diane Meyer, whom I met via Zoom, during the online portion of the reviews.

They happened simultaneously, and each reviewer found a nice spot in the hotel’s events building, (across the street from the International House Hotel,) to connect via WiFi to a photographer elsewhere in the country.

Diane is based in LA, and showed me some really amazing work.

I don’t normally disclose such things, but I voted for her for the PhotoNOLA Review Prize, and others must have too, because she won.

Congrats, Diane!

As to the work, they’re photographs of the location where the former Berlin Wall stood, in which parts of the photos have been sewn over.

Like fabric art had a baby with photography, and I loved it back in December.

That was before the Berlin Wall, and the resurrected Clash of Empires, was so firmly ensconced in everyone’s consciousness, under a resurgent, imperialistic Russia.

It’s just a killer project, technically and symbolically.

 

 

We’ll have more portfolios for you next week.

See you then!

 

 

This Week in Photography: Road Trip to San Diego

 

 

 

I need time after a trip, before I write.

(To let things settle.)

Everyone’s different, of course, but I allow experience to morph into memory, then share the stories.

Occasionally, I’ll rush to judgement, (as I did with the New-Orleans-travel-piece late last year,) but only when I know we’ll be doing more articles down the line.

As it happens, I’m going to break down the best work I saw at PhotoNOLA into two articles, but ironically, this will not be one of them.

 

Owen Murphy, long-time APE fan and Co-founder of the New Orleans Photo Alliance, during the PhotoNOLA portfolio walk, December 2021

 

No.

As I’ve written many times, to encourage the creativity spirits to shine upon me, lo these 10.5 years with a weekly deadline, I’ve learned I am but her/his/their humble servant, and follow the energy where it takes me.

Today wasn’t quite the day for New Orleans.

So I promise we’ll get down to NOLA soon enough, (twice,) but today we’re going in a different direction.

Literally.

Instead of going South-East to the bayou, we’re heading due South, then due West, to drive through Arizona, all the way to the Pacific Ocean in sunny, Southern California.

(San Diego, if we’re being general. South Mission Beach, if we’re getting specific.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truth be told, the first vacation Jessie and I ever took together was a road-trip from Northern New Mexico to North County San Diego.

We stayed in a little, now-defunct, beach motel in Leucadia, on the North side Encinitas.

That was early ’98.

It fit our style, so we’ve been back a dozen times over the years, for vacation, or the Medium Festival of Photography. (Where I’m headed next month.)

 

The kids at Moonlight Beach, Encinitas, 2018

 

In 24 years, and all those visits, I’d never been to Mission Beach before.

Was Sea World over there, maybe?

But I trusted the internet, and found us a screaming-deal on a big condo on Airbnb, just three houses off the sand in South Mission Beach, with a private roof-deck-hot-tub.

 

View from the “shared” roof-deck, but I never saw another person there.

 

(I know that sounds like a lot, but I swear, it was super-reasonably priced.)

The rub was, I booked four of five months in advance, which was early enough, (because the condo was popular,) and we rolled the dice on Winter season, which can be rainy.

Plus, the ocean is cold then, as it is most of the year.

In July and August, the Pacific is beautiful to look at AND warm enough to swim, but it’s super-crowded, and more expensive.

(Just a heads up.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the massive state of Arizona sat between us and the Golden State, on our huge New Year’s Eve adventure.

We booked a hotel in Tucson, (morning of departure,) and for the first time, I can properly recommend one chain as being distinct from the others.

(Though it was a small sample size, so maybe it was just one solid hotel.)

Assuming it’d be close to the Interstate, I went with something near the airport, and found the Home2 Suites by Hilton.

Not sure which marketing firm rigged-up the concept, but consider me their target demo.

The rooms were a bit more expensive than your average joint, maybe in the $160/night range.

 

View from the hotel room, Tucson, the morning after a massive desert storm

 

But you get a very-large-suite, with a sitting room, a kitchen, and a big, two-bed sleeping space. (They separate with a well-designed curtain.)

The place had sleek, “design-y” details, and the room rate included a huge, all-you-can-eat-breakfast-buffet, filled with a surprising variety of options

(Waffles, fruit, muffins, bacon, egg & cheese tarts, fruit, cereal, coffee, you name it.)

If you’re not on a budget for two rooms for the family, (or you’re just spending a few hours to sleep, on a road-trip,) it’s great value to get one huge room, but the kicker is, breakfast for 4 costs $40-$60 at a restaurant, in these inflationary times.

So if you factor in not spending for breakfast, the hotel, (which was also immaculate,) seemed a cost-and-time-efficient option.

My other travel-hack for the two-day drive was to stock up on great New Mexican road food: carne adovada burritos from the Frontier Restaurant in ABQ.

 

 

It’s a not-large amount of shredded, long-stewed, sweet/spicy red chile pork, in a house-made flour tortilla.

Only two ingredients.

But man, the depth of flavor and complexity are insane, and they keep well in the car all day. (The Frontier sells them by the six pack.) We put the left-overs in the hotel fridge, and ate them on the way to San Diego the second day too.

For my New Mexican readers out there, I’m telling you.

This is the way to go.

Frontier Restaurant
4 out of 4 stars

 

 

 

 

 

But we’re not here to write about New Mexico.

(Or even Arizona, really.)

Before we made it to SoCal though, we did pull off the Interstate to see some Saguaro cactus, up close. We were miles from anywhere, in Western Arizona; the desert beauty captivating in every direction.

These Saguaro cactus trees, though, they have gravitas.

 

 

Theo unintentionally modeled his streetwear fashion, among the trees, and I remember telling myself, “Make this a memory.

Make this a memory!”

 

 

Later in the trip, Theo would intentionally model some streetwear, so we could show the photos to the Taos-based fashion designers, whom the kids had befriended in their store near the plaza. (I totally forgot until just this second, but now that it’s back on my radar screen, I’ll see what they think.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reason why I can so firmly recommend this part of San Diego to you, as a little spot to drop out and chill, is it’s easy to live with no cars. (Or at least, minimal exposure.)

South Mission Beach, as a little neighborhood, is actually surrounded by water on three sides.

 

South Mission Beach, a mostly-car-free slice of California Beach Paradise

 

And the residential streets, going East-West, are pedestrian only, with little sidewalks, and nothing else.

Additionally, the Strand, or boardwalk, is also car-free, just for pedestrians, scooters and bikes.

(It runs along the beachfront for miles.)

 

View along the Strand

 

So we parked our car in the garage, when we arrived in South Mission Beach, and didn’t take it out again until we left town.

 

 

 

 

 

While it was winter, we still walked around in T-shirts, shorts and flip flops at the hot point of each day, as the mid-60’s California sun felt like 75.

And having the place to ourselves, (more or less,) in perfect weather felt like the thanks-for-gritting-out-the-pandemic gift to our kids we hoped it would be.

Lucky us.

No, seriously. For real.

Lucky us.

 

 

The week before we got there, there were ferocious rainstorms, and in some places it even snowed!

Like, Climate-Change-level record rains.

That would have sucked.

And then, the weekend after we left, they had a Tsunami warning, and the entire beach had to be evacuated.

But we were lucky.

We had perfect weather, and walked miles each day, along the beach and the bay, to burn off the burgers, pizza, tacos and burritos we ate.

(And boy, did we.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first night there, we went for takeout at the closest possible place.

One guy owns both Capri Pizza and Grill, and Sara’s Mexican Food, which share one building on Mission Blvd.

We tried pizza the first night, and got a good Margherita pizza with meatballs.

I thought it was solid, if unspectacular.

 

 

The next morning, desperate to be a teenager, free and alone in a city, Theo went out to bring back some breakfast.

Not knowing it was the same owners, he ended up at the Mexican place, and got excited, ordering Carne Asada burritos with guacamole. (Something I’d told him was a staple in the local Mexican food culture.)

They were excellent, and along with the accompanying salsas, much better than anything we can get in Taos.

Unfortunately, the third time was not a charm, as we went back to Capri one too many times, and got a kind-of-dry chicken parmesan sub, and an almost-inedible Taco Pizza.

We’d chatted up the counter-guy the previous night, and because he liked us, he gave us extra meat, to be generous. But lacking nearly enough fresh tomato, or chile-heat to cut the richness, it was waaaaaaaay too much for me.

 

Capri Pizza and Grill
2 stars out of 4

Sara’s Mexican Food
3 stars out of 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a killer restaurant corner, on the other side of the Belmont Amusement Park, that was worth writing home about.

My cousin, Daniel, who’d told us about the excellent, if expensive sports bar Guava Beach Bar and Grill, also recommended Mr. Ruriberto’s, which is quite the name.

 

Waiting for fish tacos at Mr. Ruriberto’s

 

Their fish tacos had a bit too much remoulade for my liking, but were otherwise flavorful and excellent.

The Carne Asada burrito was standout too, so I would make friends with Mr. Ruriberto, if he wanted to be my friend.

 

 

Can you imagine?

{“Hello, Jonathan. Como estas?”

“Well, hello, Mr. Ruriberto. I’m fine, thank you, how are you?”

“I too, am well, Jonathan. I have a question for you, Jonathan. Would you like to be my friend?”

“Yes, Mr. Ruriberto, I would. I would like to be your friend.”}

 

Mr. Ruriberto’s Taco Shop
3 stars out of 4

 

As to the NY Style Pizza joint next door, ZoZo’s, that place was legit.

I only felt bad we discovered it at the end of the vacation, as I would have eaten myself sick on their food for sure.

The Margherita pizza was special, alive with flavor, and the slices I spied on their mega-pie were monstrously big.

 

Inside the pizza place

 

It was also more-reasonably-priced than Capri up the street.

 

ZoZo’s Pizza
4 stars out of 4

 

 

 

 

 

I wanted to make memories on our vacation, and so we did.

I remember Jessie telling me, on the first full day there, “The cops must be brutal here, because there are no homeless people.”

She meant it mostly as a joke, but also not, if you know what I mean.

Given what I’ve seen in San Francisco, and read recently about LA, it was true, the lack of a sizable unhoused community was noticeable.

But as San Diego was known to lean conservative politically for a long time, and has a big Navy base one bay to the South, I could see how things landed where they did.

I also noticed many of those cute little side streets, (and accompanying alleyways,) weren’t very-well-lit, so it is likely the cops keep it quiet and “safe,” given how much all those condos are worth these days.

(Daniel asked how much I thought the place we were staying would run, and I guessed, “$2 million?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “that’s about right.”)

 

 

 

 

Daniel lives in a beach bungalow a few miles north, in Pacific Beach, and not only did he steer us right with Guava Beach and Mr. Ruriberto’s, but he also invited us over to his apartment, for grilled monster-burgers, with grilled zucchini sticks and potatoes.

 

Drinking a White Russian with Daniel

 

(He went to culinary school years ago, but doesn’t work in the field.)

After dinner, we took his massive rescue dog, Rudi, down to a nearby beach in the dark of night, so he’d get one last walk before bed.

The moonlight on the black Pacific Ocean made it shimmer and shake, like rustling charcoal.

 

 

Daniel drove us home, as our legs were tired from the walk North, but it’s a great reminder if you go on holiday where you have family or close friends, that can help with the memory-making as well.

(Plus with local’s tips on food, it’s like having your own personal fixer. Daniel also told us about an Ice Cream Sandwich place the kids insisted on trying, and I’m not sure it’s quite as appetizing in the photo as it was in real life.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking along the waterfront makes you feel good.

(Most of us, anyway.)

The entire peninsula is barely more than 2 blocks wide, and the Bay beach has it’s own visual charm, with boats and bridges.

 

 

Walking along one morning, Jessie and I saw a family of cranes, like something out of a Chinese Landscape Painting.

 

Crane in the foreground

 

We stopped and watched for a while in the quiet, and it felt like the California Dream was still alive.

(For a steep price, as long as it doesn’t burn down, fall into the sea during an earthquake, or get subsumed in a Tsunami.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theo and I made a friend, Orrin, while shooting hoops at the public court at the beach.

He had his own portable music, which was a little trend we spotted on the Strand, (especially people on bikes or roller blades,) but it made for a great soundtrack.

I made a quick video of Theo taking in to the rack, just for fun.

 

 

We met up again the next day, and Orrin specifically chose this track for a longer video. (With his friend Brandon shooting as well.)

 

 

(BTW, I’ve finally added audio to the videos, and hope you like the step-up in my content-game.)

Further up the Strand from the basketball court, (and past the countless beach-volleyball-courts,) there’s a mini-amusement park, Belmont Park, with all sorts of games, food options, a huge pool, and rides as well.

On the last day, we decided to try the roller coaster, (a first for both kids,) and they let you buy tickets, by-the-ride, instead of only having to pay a steep entrance-fee, which I thought was pretty cool.

As to the roller coaster itself?

Well, Amelie was so scared, (and preferred to wear her mask,) that I couldn’t help making a quick video.

Listen to the way she reacts, when I say, “Good luck.”

 

 

The meta-commentary: “Good luck? What the fuck do you mean, good luck? This thing should be so safe, we don’t need luck. Asshole!”

She lived through that terror moment, (on camera,) and we were shocked at how they made it super-fast, with legit G-force we felt a few times.

The cars shook you around, with quick changes in speed, so you really felt it in your gut.

Surprisingly great roller coaster, for such a small one.

 

The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster
4 stars out of 4

 

 

 

 

 

Last, but not least, the photography part.

Sometimes I do a travel piece, and photography doesn’t come up.

But not today.

On the last day, just as we were driving East for home, we stopped at my friend scott b. davis’ house, and he showed off his new Radius book, “sonora,” which features his beautiful work, made over many years.

(After we did a quick studio visit. Check out all the old-school chemicals…)

 

 

It’s a gorgeous book, totally austere, and the high degree of craftsmanship was appropriate, given scott is an expert platinum/palladium printer, and meticulous in general.

 

 

Theo showed me that scott, and his wife Chantel, had hung one of my images in their kitchen, and I took a trippy-reflection-portrait of the three of us.

 

 

(Weird, right?)

From there, we drove through the rock mountains, windmills, and sand dunes.

 

 

 

Then on to Tucson, (this time NOT in a huge, dark-of-night rainstorm,) and we had In-N-Out burger for dinner there, as somehow we’d made it in and out of California without eating it.

 

 

(No pun intended.)

After destroying our burgers, (In-N-Out is always 4 stars, every time,) we visited with my friend, photographer Ken Rosenthal, who was recovering from an awful fall he’d taken out in nature last year.

(Wrecked his knee something fierce.)

Jessie and I checked out his studio as well.

This photo of a geyser at night stopped me in my tracks.

 

 

It is just so exquisite.

(Perfectly capturing that mysterious power one feels, in so many parts of the Great American West.)

We drove through more majesty the following day, (hundreds of miles of it,) on our way home.

Elephant Butte Lake in Southern New Mexico looked worthy of a return trip, and nearby Truth or Consequences is set in a killer locale.

 

Elephant Butte Lake, Southern New Mexico

 

On we drove, to the North, through Albuquerque, Santa Fe, then Española, before we got home.

 

 

 

Road-fried, with bellies full of gas-station-burritos.

And all was right with the world.

(See you next week.)

 

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: The 3rd Annual Advice Column

 

 

Happy April Fool’s Day!

(And whatever you do, don’t eat the yellow snow.)

 

Courtesy of keepcalmandposters.com

 

 

 

 

So….today’s column is going to be weird.

After last week’s controversial, explaining-the-NFT-world long-read, my brain is pretty burned out.

(I’m sure you’ll understand.)

It was hard to find the juice to write anything at all today, much less the article I’d planned, which will feature the best work I saw at PhotoNOLA back in December.

That one gets pushed to next week, I’m afraid, as I just don’t have it in me.

So I went for a walk up the hill, (on the only sunny day we’ve had in ages,) and conjured a new idea.

 

Me, brain-fried on a sunny Thursday. (Unfortunately, it’s gray again today.)

 

This week, we’re going to do something unexpected, and deliver what is now the 3rd Annual Advice column.

Hooray!

 

 

 

 

It began on a whim, two years ago, as the global pandemic lockdowns were setting in, and I had a powerful intuition the world was about to go to shit.

(Got that one right, unfortunately.)

With all the news media attention about hoarding, empty toilet paper shelves, and the newfound suggestion that humans should keep 6 feet apart, I had a compulsion to chime in.

My first advice article got quoted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a proper newspaper, so I guess my instincts were solid.

I did it last year as well, so now we’re back again, as the world begins to open in earnest, even though the virus is still alive and kicking.

(Photographer J A Mortram reported to me, this morning, that the UK virus numbers are basically the highest they’ve been, though we’re in a temporary lull here in the US.)

But I don’t want to write about Covid today, nor to “advise” you on how to handle it.

Rather, it’s time to take stock of the world, and consider how to act in a new reality that is much, much crazier than the one that existed in November 2019.

(Before the first reports came out of China. Do you remember how the Chinese doctor who blew the whistle ended up dying of the virus? Poor guy. What a shit way to go.)

 

RIP Li Wenliang. Image courtesy of the BBC.

 

 

 

 

My brain is fried because I haven’t been sleeping well, the last week and a half.

(Since I got back from California.)

We had another horse die while I was away, (of colic,) so I came home to a stressed out 9-year-old daughter, who needed a lot of consoling.

Then I wrote that monster of a column, which was both a weight off my shoulders, and a massive mental burden to accomplish.

But then things got even stranger.

By Friday afternoon, a narcissistic, mean-spirited neighbor accosted me over dog drama, and eventually screamed at Amelie, just as she got off the school bus, for an incident that happened while she was still riding down the hill from school.

It was batshit crazy, but I kept my cool, never raised my voice, and stuck with logic, which kept the conflagration from turning even nastier.

(Or physical. You can’t put your hands on anyone and get away with it, unless you’re a super-famous, rich movie star.)

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, I was so tired I couldn’t even make it past the porch, and just sat on the couch, drooling on myself, watching the excellent Netflix show “Top Boy,” Season 2.

(Shockingly, I haven’t started calling everyone “Fam” yet, or saying “Innit” all the time, but as Curly famously said, the day ain’t over yet.)

 

Courtesy of AllPoetry.com.

 

Finally, by afternoon, I had just enough physical juice to walk the 100 yards down to the stream.

My plan was to listen to the water, rub a bit on the back of my neck, bask in the quiet for a minute or two, then go back to my couch to feel sorry for myself.

(I was staying off Twitter, as the NFT article had gone photo-world-viral, and I knew battling trolls, and/or basking in compliments, would not be good for my soul.)

When I was nearly to the stream-front, I heard voices, which is not rare, as sound travels really far in our box canyon.

But as I got closer, I saw there were two people between me and the water, and they should definitely not be there.

Trespassers.

What the fuck?

 

 

 

 

 

Immediately, though, I recognized two neighborhood kids with whom we sometimes play basketball.

(One used to bully my son in elementary school, but somehow we moved past it.)

They were uncle and nephew to each other, though one is only 17, (and a Dad already,) and he once pelted his 11-year-old nephew with a rock, for no particular reason, opening a huge gash over his eye.

(Like I’ve always said, life in the Wild West is no joke.)

In the past, I’d have lost my shit to see the boys there, especially as they were in the process of destroying a set of tree stumps that surrounds a fire pit, but this time, that’s just not the way it went.

(I credit my return to martial arts training, as oddly, learning to fight makes you much less likely to ever be in one. The mental discipline and emotional control one learns is powerful.)

Rather than yelling at them, or escalating the situation, I began with a simple question:

Did something bad happen to you guys today?

Though they come from a difficult background, they’re both good kids, and we’re kind of friends, so rather than assuming malicious intent, I figured someone dumped on them, and lacking healthy outlets for their anger, they’d ended up on my land, taking it out on my tree stumps.

Turns out, I was correct.

A random drunk guy had shown up on their road, in a big pickup truck, and done donuts in their yard, before throwing beer bottles at their trailer, one of which broke a window.

The boys had been home alone, were scared, angry and freaked out, and ended up at my place, beating on some rotten old wood.

Of course I didn’t call the cops, or threaten them in any way, and by the end of our make-shift, 30 minute therapy session, I’d given them my cell phone number, so they always had someone in the neighborhood to call if a random asshole showed up again.

(I was clear not to include me in family disputes, or dial my digits at 3am. Both conditions were quickly accepted.)

And what is my point in sharing this story, exactly?

 

 

 

 

 

Like I said, this is a stream-of-consciousness advice column.

As I told those boys, I’m here to help.

The last two years have been so stressful, and awful, with Bad Guys like Putin and Trump getting away with all their awful deeds.

People on social media are now claiming that Russians aren’t human, and some Facebook troll actually had the gall to call me a “Grump Old White Man.”

(As Wayne and Garth used to say, “As if!”)

 

 

The homicide rate is up in America, the roads are super-dangerous, and anti-social, narcissistic behavior has been normalized to the point that a super-rich, über-famous actor actually thought he could assault another famous person, on global television, and get away with it!

(Seems his calculations were correct.)

I’ve been warning you since last summer that people were “this” close to snapping, and resorting to violence, and it seems I was right.

(It gives me no pleasure to say that, though.)

So here’s where the “How To Safely Navigate 2022” advice comes in.

Please, people, chill the fuck out!

Remember to belly breathe.

Take more walks.

Appreciate your loved ones.

Watch more funny movies, so you can laugh.

Invest heavily in your self-care.

(And seriously consider studying a martial art. It’s good for self-defense and self-control, obviously, but many of the ancient arts are also rooted in philosophy, be it Zen Buddhism or Taoism, so you might learn a thing or two about the world as well.)

 

Bruce Lee Instagram images courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation.

 

 

 

 

 

As artists, we’re trained to delve into the Zeitgeist, and go against the grain.

So if it seems OK for people to lose their shit these days, try the opposite.

Keep it together.

Be your best self.

And rather than assuming people are out to get you, maybe set your default to giving others the benefit of the doubt. Because 99% of the time, someone is having a really bad day, (due to the crazy, war-torn world,) and they’re just taking it out on you.

Try to be the bigger person, and worry less about your pride.

I know this sounds trite, or easier said than done, but I’m telling you, the combination of patience, compassion, empathy, emotional control and understanding is powerful medicine.

And we can’t just sit around and watch the world burn.

We have to do something about it.

In this case, I’m recommending you work hard to self-improve, as if we all do that, (or some of us, anyway,) the world will literally be a healthier place.

See you next week, when we’ll get back to the photography criticism and whatnot.

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Understanding NFTs?

 

 

 

 

“Pope Paul, Malcom X, British politician sex, JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say…”

Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” 1989

(Lyrics quoted from memory, b/c that horrible fucking song stuck in my head.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaslighting is such a great word.

 

(Perfect for the 2020’s.)

Having fallen prey to the tactic in the past, I empathize with others who do.

If you’re not familiar with the term, (or have heard it, but don’t know exactly what it means,) the gist is, when a person or a group challenges your proper understanding of reality, so deeply, so aggressively, that eventually you begin to question your own sanity.

For example, imagine you are in a blue elevator with three strangers.

All of a sudden, the lights go out, and the car freezes.

You’re stuck.

The group begins to converse, and at some point, one of the other people mentions the elevator is red.

No one disagrees, but you don’t think much of it, and of course the subject quickly changes.

But you’re stuck in there for hours, and over time, it keeps coming up.

The room is red, they all say.

Over and over again.

At first, you’re sure what you saw: the walls were painted Dodger blue.

 

Dodger blue color sample, courtesy of crispedge.com

 

Eventually, as they all agreed, again and again, that you’re actually in a red elevator, your confidence begins to wane.

Are you POSITIVE you’re in a blue elevator?

Since they’re all so sure of themselves, isn’t it possible, at least remotely, that your memory is inaccurate, and the walls are actually Candy-apple red?

Slowly, their bluster begins to erode your knowledge of what you saw.

Like the drip, drip of a leaky faucet, you begin to question yourself, and by the time the lights come back on, you’re actually convinced they were right, and you were wrong.

And so a blue elevator becomes red in your mind, because you have no counter-factual information available, (beyond your own recollections,) and an entire group of people is challenging your conception of reality.

Like I said, what could be more 2020’s than that?

When Putin declares war against a Jewish president, and accuses him of being a Nazi?

 

Courtesy of the Detroit Jewish News

 

Or a guy you went to High School with starts blowing up your phone, promising to make you rich, in what seems like a scam, but he’s just so damn confident, with slick answers to all of your concerns, that eventually, you begin to believe him?

Am I finally writing that long-promised article about NFTs?

You bet I am.

Buckle up.

Like the bonkers, stream-of-consciousness Bill Joel song I quoted at the outset, I’m writing this article in a manner echoing the batshit crazy world of photo NFTs, in which it’s hard to know what to believe, (or whom,) because everyone is so sure they’re right, even though they’re shouting opposite arguments simultaneously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to admit, I’ve been dreading writing this article.

If I could go back in time to September 2021, tell myself to let it all drop, and plug my ears with tissue paper, like Larry David, I would.

(If any of you has a functioning time machine, please email or DM me. I’m happy to pay a hefty sum.)

 

Courtesy of backtothefuture.fandom.com

 

Alas, I don’t think it’s an option.

And as I’ve been teasing this article for months, and promised Rob I’d “land the plane” this week, it’s time to put up or shut up.

But what if I’ve spent this many months reporting, interviewing artists, reading articles, thinking deep thoughts, and still don’t know what the fuck is going on?

Well, I guess I’d have to write it like that, wouldn’t I?

 

 

 

 

 

It must have been the Spring of 2021, (about a year ago,) that I first started noticing some NFT info popping up on my Twitter feed.

I kept seeing the name Justin Aversano, who was making a project about twins, but that was as much as I absorbed.

Then I heard my colleague Kris Graves was getting in on the game, with Justin, and that made an impression.

In May, Noah Kalina, an artist I knew of, but didn’t know, asked to see some work on Twitter, for a potential collaboration with Crytpo.com, so I sent him a link to a project of mine, and while he liked the work, he didn’t end up doing anything with those guys, so the idea dropped.

According to all I’ve since learned, March-May of 2021 was ancient, for the NFT world, the equivalent of a Mesopotamian society.

Those earliest NFTs might as well be Sumerian statues, with the massive mono-brow, given how fast things seem to move within this subculture.

 

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

I guess my attitude was always, I’ll sit on the sidelines until this becomes a thing, and then I’ll check in with my buddies, who’ll catch me up, and get me in the game.

Was that the right mentality?

Hard to say, but I’m reporting it as it happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Fall, I’d begun to hear this was officially a thing, and some photographers were making real money, so I decided to tap up my network.

Strangely, some people I knew well, and with whom I’d collaborated before, (or done favors,) ghosted me, hard.

That never happens, so it made me curious.

Why would people who were normally cool with me all of a sudden tuck their heads?

What were they afraid of?

Or perhaps the better question was, what were they protecting?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stranger still, in that same time-frame, a guy I went to High School with, (and was friends with on Facebook,) with whom I had not spoken in almost 30 years, reached out to see if I was interested in joining the NFT world.

He wanted to “onboard,” me, and began sending me information, via every available digital channel: text, FB, email, IG, and Twitter.

It was the full-court-press, with texts coming in first thing in the morning, late at night, all weekend long, and it was intense, to say the least.

All of my instincts told me things were fishy, that I was not about to make $2 million, and never have to work again.

That simply posting my archive images on an NFT platform would not solve all my problems, and make me rich and famous beyond my wildest dreams.

We all know the old saying: anything that seems too good to be true is too good to be true.

But I kept discussing it with my wife, and we both agreed even a small chance of life-changing money meant I should keep an open mind, and see where it went.

My new NFT cheerleader certainly knew some of the key players, and told me about the large sums of money he was spending, so on the surface it seemed legit, but then again, there were so many articles out there calling this crypto world a scam, a pyramid scheme, a multi-level-marketing program gone global.

Each day, I found myself wondering, WTF?, but kept at it, trying to learn more.

Eventually, this High School colleague and I considered going into business together, to create a platform to sell NFTs, because it seemed like the sales-platforms were where the real money was.

(Obviously, I didn’t go that route in the end.)

Many people have now heard of Quantum, (which recently drew $7.5 million in VC funding,) the trendiest NFT-gallery-company, and I was able to interview founders Justin Aversano and Kris Graves during my reporting phase.

 

 

Assembly is another, and I’m sure there are more out there.

From what I could gather, these money-making-orgs were founded based on a collab between some photo-world players, and crypto-money-people.

That seemed to be the key.

Then I learned how the platforms were interconnected with DAOs, which were (more or less,) unlicensed companies that in some ways, via fractionalized ownership of risky assets, behaved like the collateralized debt obligations and subprime lenders that crashed the global economy during the Great Recession.

(And I’m on record as making that comparison months before NYT columnist Paul Krugman wrote an article on the topic.)

But again, it felt like the more I knew, the less I understood.

That may happen to other people, but it doesn’t happen to me, so I really wondered how it seemed like everyone was gaslighting everyone?

 

 

 

 

 

Before you read any further, I want to state, right here, right now, that I don’t consider this a takedown piece.

I have no beef with the NFT community, which has been kind and generous to me, and certainly don’t feel I side with the haters, who mostly complain about the electricity use, the general sketchiness of cryptocurrency, and likelihood that people will get scammed out of money they can’t afford to lose.

(I’ve wondered for months now, why are electric cars seen as good, and eco, but electric art is automatically bad?)

Over the course of my reporting, I spoke with a group of NFT artists who truly love their new community, and the opportunities it affords.

I learned about artists who were trying to innovate with the blockchain, which, as best as I can describe, seems to be decentralized collection of servers around the world that hosts an official, crypto-protected, transparent, inter-connected, permanent digital ledger that cannot be manipulated, once it’s in place.

(Each “block” of data is connected to the next, and immutable.)

Akosua Viktoria Adu-Sanyah, whom I first discovered on Noah Kalina’s Twitter feed, set out to use NFTs to fund, (and has since succeeded,) an honest-to-goodness expedition, at sea off the southern tip of South America, so she and her scientist colleagues can share open source knowledge about Climate Change with the world.

The photos are beautiful, the project is ambitious, (called “Behold the Ocean,”) and of all the people I’ve interviewed as a journalist over the years, she was about as impressive an artist as I’ve ever “met.” (We spoke on Zoom, as she is based in Switzerland.)

 

All images from “Behold the Ocean”

 

Akosua, who goes by Ava Silvery on Twitter, told me about an artist with the pseudonym Patricia El, who was working on a project, “In This Land,” trying to document and digitally map Bedouin communities in the West Bank that were disappearing, as Israeli settlements continued to expand.

 

 

Again, massively ambitious, political, and fascinating.

It was also far cry from the capitalistic land grab I kept hearing about, where people were getting rich, and only a sucker would stay on the sidelines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spoke with Richard Renaldi, a photo world friend whom I once interviewed here on the blog, the day before he “dropped” his “Touching Strangers” catalogue with Quantum.

It was early days for the platform, but they’d already established a tradition of selling out everything they offered, immediately.

I asked Richard what it felt like, knowing he was about to make massive cash, but his attitude was clearly, I’ll believe it when I see it.

So we spoke again, after his work had indeed quickly sold out, and he was still giving off a whiff of disbelief.

He shared concerns for the people out there who might get suckered, but mostly felt fortunate he’d come out ahead.

As he cashed his Ethereum out immediately, and made a killing, before the crypto-currency market had a crash.

Wait a second, did I really get this deep into the article, (1800+ words,) without mentioning Ethereum before?

Shame on me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read Neal Stephenson’s seminal book, “Cryptonomicon,” years ago, and re-read it last summer.

He’s the genius, sci-fi, futurist writer whose ideas were brought to life by subsequent coders.

 

 

Google Earth, Second Life, the Metaverse… these were ideas plucked by others from his influential book “Snow Crash.”

And “Cryptonomicon,” as its title suggests, more or less invented the concept of cryptocurrency in 1999.

He theorized about “money,” disconnected from governments, or even the tangible world, which could cross borders at the speed of light, never need to be exchanged, and accumulate value, like any other currency.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Bitcoin, but there are many other digital currency offerings, like Solana, and Ethereum, which is the main one used to create NFTs.

When I was first contacted by that trader-dude, 1 Eth was going for $3000ish dollars, and during the months of our conversations, it flew up to around $4800.

I was watching it rise each day, yet couldn’t shake the thought this whole world seemed unsustainable.

(If it were really that great, why were so many people trying that hard to constantly recruit a new batch of players?)

As you may know, the markets took a tumble recently, with Ethereum trading as low as $2411, and as of today, (I’m writing on Thursday,) 1 Eth = $3117.

Given how many people were using the term Crypto Bubble in late 2021, I guess we could say it’s popped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How does one make, or “mint,” an NFT?

Well, it costs Ethereum to do so, so you have to convert your dollars (or Euros, Pesos, or Yen,) into Eth via a digital platform like Crypto.com or Coinbase.

That gets you in the game, like a gambler buying chips at a casino.

But in order to “mint” your work on a site like OpenSea, (which was likened to Ebay to me more than once,) or Foundation, (which is invitation only,) you need to create a digital wallet, with a service like Metamask or Rainbow, which operates as a connection point between your digital currency and the sales platforms.

The platforms take a cut if your work sells, (everyone takes a cut,) but you also have to pay to mint things, which are called “gas fees.”

Those float, and at one point, were as high as $200-ish per NFT minted, which was when I got concerned people would lose money on the venture by minting collections of work that would not sell.

Still, the artists I interviewed were over-the-moon to have discovered the NFT world, even if they weren’t yet selling work.

And the love and joy were genuine, for sure.

Frankly, I didn’t speak to one person who was unhappy with the situation, and only Richard Renaldi expressed any skepticism at all, but he was the one who came out furthest ahead.

(Except for Kris and Justin, who by all accounts have made a shit ton of money.)

 

 

 

 

 

I interviewed, and have since kept up with Danielle Ezzo, Mickey Smith, and Chavi Lujan via Twitter.

(Which quickly became the NFT community’s social media platform of choice, along with Discord.)

 

Danielle Ezzo, From the series and collection, “If Not Here, Then Where?”

 

I hadn’t heard of any of them before I saw their Twitter handles pop up a few times, in relation to the DAOs, so I followed them, requested interviews, and they were gracious.

But when we first spoke, none of them had “gotten rich,” or sold much work at all. (Mickey even reported in November she’d sold the most work to her IRL handyman in New Zealand, as he was about to go into crypto full time.)

Each of them has since had their career advance in cool ways, via the NFT community, and I know Mickey has begun to sell work, though I’m not sure about the other two.

 

LOCO from the Volume collection on Foundation
TIME #1,TIME #2, TIME #3 from the Library of Obsolescence collection on OpenSea

 

The big takeaway from speaking with all three artists was that the NFT world, which had developed around Discord and Twitter, had introduced them to an entirely new group of friends, colleagues, and opportunities.

Danielle now writes and does Twitter Space interviews for a platform, Mickey has been featured on a billboard, and Chavi just co-founded an NFT platform called Nemo, which aims to raise money by selling NFTs of environmental projects, to help support the collapsing coral reefs.

 

BLOOD displayed on a billboard in Los Angeles through The Billboard Creative + Obscura. Exhibition curated by Mona Kuhn and Alejandro Cartagena

 

They were all genuine, honest, cool, hard-working artists, yet for them, greed, and get-rich-quick schemes, had nothing to do with their interest in that world at all.

 

Chavi Lujan photo NFT’s

 

(Chavi and Danielle also told me they’d been interested in crypto for a while, before the NFTs came along, and Mickey was a long-time arts professional in the US, before moving to NZ.)

Still, though, I had at least some concerns.

 

 

 

 

Mickey, for instance, told me she was “working” for free for Obscura DAO, (working was my term, not hers,) but had then been awarded a “commission,” for which the DAO only selected other artists who’d been volunteering for their cause.

That reeked of nepotism to me, and inside baseball, and I said so at the time, so again, this is not necessarily a negative thing.

(Especially as I’m not the only one to express reservations about DAOs.)

Maybe it’s time to dive into that for a second.

 

 

 

 

 

DAO stands for decentralized autonomous organization.

It’s basically an unlicensed LLC, or an unregistered company, and they’re meant to be idealistic, like communes.

People buy in, or are gifted “tokens,” and then they get to vote on how the DAO operates.

RAW DAO was the first to come across my radar screen, as I spoke to Justin Aversano the day after a “party bid” bought one of his NFTs for several million dollars, via fractionalized ownership, and he offered that as seed money for RAW DAO, which would buy more art, to hold, like a mutual fund, and the entire DAO would profit as the NFTs appreciated in value.

Of course, just buying NFTs from the chosen artists should by itself raise the value of their work, much as IRL galleries help “support” museum shows for their artists, so they can increase prices.

I should also mention NFTs are based upon the idea of a “smart contract,” and one of the main selling points is supposed to be that the artist gets 10% royalties on future sales, which is obviously a pro-artist move.

But I kept thinking, only the tiniest fraction of artists ever has a resale market, so how does that help, unless the entire endeavor is meant as a bit of a trading scheme?

Even now, I’m not sure if a collector buys an actual .jpg file with their NFT purchase, or a link to where the file resides on the blockchain, so even after all this time, the process is still obtuse to me.

And I’m not alone.

Just this morning, Rob, who actually bought a few NFTs to see how the system works, and support artists, was Tweeting about the seemingly shady situation surrounding a set of August Sander NFTs, which went to market via Fellowship Trust, despite not being sanctioned by the copyright holder.

 

 

People bought and sold things they did not have a right to own, and then the files were removed from OpenSea.

So all the NFT skeptics, (and there are many,) are having a field day, as it seems to prove their fears of massive scammery going on.

Was it?

Honestly, I don’t know, but my erstwhile colleague, Alejandro Cartagena, who founded Obscura DAO, is in the thick of the controversy, and I’d been wondering about the validity of the DAO business model for months, so I was not surprised to hear this outcome.

Even Kris Graves, one of the official godfathers of the NFT world, expressed concern about them to me, saying in February, on the record,

“Someone asked me to be in a DAO, months ago, right when Quantum was starting, and I was like, it does not make sense for me to put myself in this kind of… even if they don’t consider it a risk, I do. I mean, it’s run by someone who doesn’t live in the country. They’re controlling a bunch of other peoples’ money that was given to them on spec. And then they’re going to have to give pieces to the people that they… the system is a circle. There has to be more rules in place for me to even think about being a part of any those things.”

Really, who knows what the fuck is going on?

 

 

 

 

 

Well, this is the longest article I’ve written in 10.5 years of doing this column.

Am I surprised?

Not in the least.

I’ve been absorbing information for months now, waiting to have a word-baby, and here it is.

(15 lbs, 11 oz.)

But what have I learned, really?

Maybe I should circle back to Noah Kalina, who did an awesome interview with me in December.

He reported he’d sold nearly $120,000 in NFTs in a year, from his series “Lumberland,” yet he did it the old-fashioned way.

Noah worked at it, promoted it hard, put in the effort, tried not to be obnoxious, (the NFT world is famous for overkill,) developed relationships with people at Foundation, b/c he had some old-school digital street cred, and treated it like selling any other form of his art.

 

All images from “Lumberland”

 

Unlike the Quantum platform, which was selling out whomever’s work they offered, sometimes in seconds, Noah did it by pushing the rock up the hill each day, committing to the process, and making it work for him.

He has always created photographs in serial form, and the images make sense to collectors, so they buy them.

And that’s where I landed, in the end.

If people want to offer something for sale, and other people want to buy it, what’s the harm?

Eco-wise, there are so many larger issues to worry about, and carbon offsets are available.

If artists are making friends, rather than money, or building careers, that is awesome.

If younger collectors want digital files, rather than prints, so what?

The world changes.

Always.

And if some things look shady, or nepotistic, they probably are.

Most of the artists I interviewed agreed there would be bad actors in the system.

Scams too.

Because digital life is ultimately just another manifestation of actual life.

And there are plenty of assholes out there.

Right?

 

 

{Ed note: I’d like to thank all the people who shared info with me over the last six months. Much obliged!}

 

 

This Week in Photography: Losing the War

 

 

Today is strange.

Different.

(Not like the other days.)

 

 

 

 

I’m writing on Monday, which is bonkers.

(For me, anyway.)

There’s nothing like building a routine over many years, and smashing it, just to see what happens.

I know that sounds brave, but really, it’s more about scheduling. (Rather than leaping from my comfort zone.)

On Thursday, (when I’d normally be writing,) I’ll be traveling to San Francisco, so I can attend the PhotoAlliance portfolio review, held at the San Francisco Art Institute.

The last time I visited the city, in summer 2019, I was shaken to my core, as evidence of America’s fraying social fabric was on full display.

I wrote about it here, but even the article didn’t capture the fear and discouragement I felt.

In my bones, it was clear things were very wrong, and we were headed down a dark path.

 

Creepy Billboard, San Francisco, July 2019

 

Of course, I had no idea a global-pandemic-catastrophe was around the corner, but there were signs a culture of narcissism had taken root in the United States.

(Egged on by the Big Orange One.)

 

 

 

 

 

Tents had popped up on residential sidewalks, like tragic mushrooms.

Tech bros patrolled the streets; capitalistic sentinels in khakis.

We walked by a bevy of unhoused people on Market St, in the dark of night, and they were screaming and moaning, as if ripped from a horror film.

I used to live in San Francisco, and felt a kinship with the city for many years, so it was one of the most troubling travel experiences I can remember.

However, that was then.

 

San Francisco, July 2019
Man wearing a mask outside City Lights, 8 months before the pandemic

 

For all the bad press the city has gotten since, I relish any opportunity to travel these days, and the PhotoAlliance festival is being run by my friend Heather Snider, who is an amazing person, representing the best of Old School San Francisco.

(Meaning, she has the 90’s punk-rock attitude, has been in the city for decades, and is down with the best progressive values, like empathy and consideration.)

Plus, I’ll be staying super-close to the Bay, an In’N’Out Burger, and all the great food in North Beach and Chinatown, so you know I’ll come back with the goods for a proper travel story.

 

One of my favorite Chinese restaurants from back in the day, down by the waterfront

 

 

 

 

 

But writing on a Monday is not the only thing different about today.

No.

Unfortunately, I got some bad news this morning.

Really bad.

Stephen Starkman, a friend, and one of my Antidote students, has been battling cancer since last summer. (When he first told us about the diagnosis.)

Stephen is Canadian, and what we Jews call a proper mensch.

He’s kind, warm, thoughtful, and just an all-around good guy.

 

Zooming with Stephen on Tuesday. Amelie came to say hello.

 

Though I ended my monthly online classes last July, Stephen and I stayed in touch, and I cheered him on as he did the chemo, trying to beat back his lung cancer.

At some point in late 2021, he got a temporary clean bill of health, and we had a Zoom talk to celebrate.

We also did a teaching session at one point, where we discussed his interest in making a series about battling cancer, to inspire others, much as Tara Wray has done about using photography to grapple with depression.

Stephen got some inklings his cancer had returned recently, but just this morning, he told me he got the worst news of all.

His oncologist has declared his cancer incurable, and expects Stephen only has months to live.

A year if he’s lucky.

Holy Shit.

 

 

 

 

But this being 2022, where our digital lives are intertwined, Stephen also told me he’d read last Friday’s column, which was about how hard it must be to accept death, when the end is nigh.

I wrote speculatively, and philosophically.

(John Divola liked the review, which made me feel as if I’d captured something essential.)

Thinking about a theoretical, though, is just that.

My friend read my musings, knowing he’d reached the point where the end of his life was real.

And coming quickly.

It never occurred to me such a thing might happen.

That my words would be taken literally, by someone I cared about.

What a fucking bummer.

 

 

 

 

This afternoon, though, right after I came back from a walk with Jessie and the dog, I had a flash of inspiration.

Stephen has been making photographs since last summer, documenting his cancer battle in both literal and metaphorical ways.

(And sharing them on Instagram.)

The creative intent changes, though, once a person knows hope is lost.

So while Stephen is still with us, and before the cancer tears his body apart, I would like to share his work with you.

Here.
Now.

It’s a first, in my 10.5 years doing this.

I’ve never been in this position before, (unsurprisingly,) and hope it’s a one-time thing.

Stephen’s project is strong, and honest. (And yes, at times I did chime in as his teacher, encouraging certain directions.)

I like these photographs, but of course, the entire context in which we view them has now changed.

They carry a morbid energy, and I wish it were different.

But it’s not.

Stephen, thank you for allowing us to share your photographs with our audience.

I am so very sorry for what you’re dealing with, and send a lot of love your way.

 

 

This Week in Photography: The End of the Line

 

 

My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s disease.

(I’ve mentioned this before.)

Watching her deteriorate day-by-day, over the course of 2020 and 2021, was one of the most miserable experiences of my life.

Without question.

But the worst is over now.

 

October 3, 2020
October 28, 2020
November 21, 2020
December 4, 2020
March 7, 2021

 

 

 

 

Now that Bonnie has settled into a status quo, in which she can’t really communicate, or move around much, one would imagine that would be rock bottom.

But it’s not, actually.

She’s relatively happy, under the circumstances, and clearly wants to live.

(Her body just outlasted her mind.)

It’s fucked up, though, as prior to her decline, she asked her daughters to kill her, before she completely lost her faculties.

While Bonnie was still mentally competent, she did not want to live like this, but lacking an assisted suicide law in New Mexico, my wife and her sister were unwilling to comply.

Now, here we are, yet she eats up a storm, and chimes into conversations with meaningless babble from time to time.

Every medical practitioner I’ve heard speak on the subject, (as well as Bonnie’s experienced care-givers,) all say the same thing: when a person is ready to die, they stop eating.

They give up, hasten the process, and pass on.

And that’s not happening here.

Bonnie wants to live, so she lives.

She assumed she’d rather die than live like this, (when she could still think clearly,) but her body and spirit have different plans.

How strange.

 

May 14, 2021. (The last photo I took of Bonnie, b/c after this, I no longer felt she could give consent.)

 

 

 

 

 

The phase where every day, Bonnie would be less and less capable, was horrifying.

At first she’d simply forget words, or lose her wallet, but it quickly spiraled into personality changes, (like physically attacking my father-in-law, insisting he was an imposter,) and then truly tragic moments, where she knew what was happening, but was powerless to stop it.

I remember the time she looked at me, smacked her head hard, twice, and said, “my bran is broken.”

Not brain.
Bran.

That was awful.

Here in March 2022, though, she keeps on trucking.

I think about that, as I watch the horror of what’s happening in Ukraine, and keep landing on humankind’s survival instinct.

Staying alive is so deeply ingrained in our psyche.

In our souls.

Because no one knows what comes next.

It’s the great mystery, and almost everyone alive is terrified to find the answer.

(Better to not know, and keep living as long as possible.)

 

 

 

 

 

Truth be told, I wouldn’t be me if the above rant were not inspired by a photo-book.

I had no plans to write any of it.

Rather, I spent a few minutes with the short, sleek, supremely-well-designed “Terminus,” by John Divola, published by Mack in 2021, and came out with a new set of ideas.

Full disclosure, (as they say,) I know John personally, having interviewed him twice for Vice and the NYT, and then we had brunch and lunch together IRL.

 

 

We caught up on Zoom a few months ago, and I’ve written about him here before.

I’ve reviewed many books by people I know, but as John is something of an art-star, with a recent history of controversy, I thought it appropriate to come clean.

Because I wouldn’t want you to read this without context.

Frankly, for a while there, as I was turning the pages, I was more worried about how he’d respond to a negative review.

(Which is where we were trending, until near the book’s end.)

 

 

 

 

 

I know from speaking with John, and from his Instagram and FB feeds, that he’s been working for years at an abandoned Air Force base in Victorville, California.

I also know he’s insanely bright, and has his own ideas about what his work means.

When I interviewed him years ago, convinced he was just being a graffiti punk, back in the 70s, wreaking havoc in abandoned buildings, in the spirit of “The Warriors” era time period, he shot all my theories down.

No, not at all, he said.

He was making marks.
Painting abstraction.

The spaces were there, empty, so he made his paintings in the quiet.

The broken glass, piss on the floors, and general mayhem evidenced in his seminal “Zuma” series, shot in Malibu of all places, was incidental to the process.

Not the point.

These days, I feel more comfortable disagreeing, because of course he knows what his motivations were, but he can’t claim supreme knowledge of what the art is actually “about.”

 

All “Zuma” images courtesy of Divola.com

 

 

 

 

I’ve loved most of what I saw from his new project.

It’s anarchic and cool.

Like a late-career revisiting of “Zuma,” but now he’s transgressing on American Military property.

And there is a nice range of imagery within the larger work.

But not in “Terminus.”

No.

The title, (which means the end of the line,) is foreboding, but still the book reveals itself slowly.

Like the gorgeous black orb on the cover, page after page, we see orb-like black paint, graffiti style, as the end of a hallway.

(Rather, I assume it’s several hallways.)

As I turned the pages, I literally thought to myself, “Damn, the audience is going to hate this one, and hate me for reviewing it.”

They’ll think, “How myopic can you get? One meta-image, over and over again? Why make a book?”

I wondered, in a project with a range of images, why just this one repeating motif?

Over and over again.

The orb in the distance.

But then, something changed.

The orb was no longer looming ahead.

It was getting closer.

And closer.

Until finally, it was close enough to make me feel compressed.
Claustrophobic.

WTF?

Then it was there, so close you could touch it, and after literally breaking through, to see to the other side, what did we get?

More black void.

Right in your face.

I reminded myself to take a few breaths, because my understanding of the book changed so quickly.

So drastically.

This is about death.

The end.

And just when you think you can peek behind, to see what’s there, it’s even bleaker.

More void.

(That’s heavy, dude.)

 

 

 

 

As with many Mack books, this one is lean and spare in its textual offerings.

There is almost no text at all.

But on the last page, the artist writes, “Terminus is a singular work, not a collection of related images.”

(Tell me something I don’t know.)

John Divola can, and might, disagree with my reading.

Perhaps he’ll find it too literal.
Or metaphorical?

If so, I would say he’s wrong.

This book is about as good a symbolic representation of the the human condition as I’ve seen.

We all know we’re going to die, eventually.

But no one wants it to happen, and we all hope to get the longest possible lives.

Because Death is so permanent.

My mother-in-law, Bonnie, is/was one of the fiercest people I’ve ever met.

Strong of body and mind.

Capable of intense love, and a massive maternal instinct.

She thought she’d never want to live in such a compromised state.

But she was wrong.

Because, as I’ve seen with my own eyes, she isn’t ready to die.

And neither, (I suspect,) is John Divola.

Hopefully he’ll keep making provocative art for us, to nourish our minds and our spirits.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Terminus” click here

 

 

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

 

 

This Week in Photography: Festivals Are Back

 

 

It’s my birthday today.

And thankfully, my wish was granted.

Photo festivals are back!

 

Birthday week selfie, mad-dogging the camera

 

From my perspective, they’re the life-blood of the photo world, here in the US.

Few things have the potential to change your career, (and your life,) more than spending time among a group of your talented peers, where you can make new connections, create friendships, receive feedback on your work, see new art for inspiration, listen to lectures that light up your ideas, discover new opportunities, eat different food, and walk around a fresh environment.

It literally builds new neural pathways in your brain.

Photo festivals rock!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our regular readers know I reviewed portfolios at most of the major American photography festivals, in the years leading up to the pandemic.

At one point or another, I attended Medium in San Diego, Filter in Chicago, PhotoNOLA in New Orleans , the NYT review, LACP’s Exposure, the Academy of Art University review in San Francisco, a festival in Santa Fe, and Photolucida in Portland.

Additionally, I was meant to go to the MOP Denver reviews last year, but they were held online, and I’ll be visiting the PhotoAlliance review in San Francisco in two weeks.

 

Courtesy of PhotoAlliance.com

 

For some reason, there has always been push-back against the idea of “pay-to-play,” and I was resistant to attending festivals myself, before a few colleagues talked sense to me in 2009.

I’ve reaped tremendous rewards, both as an artist and writer, and I’m telling you: it’s worth the financial and time investment.

(Plus, your tuition goes to support a non-profit organization, which is putting its energy directly into the community.)

The phrase “it takes money to make money” is correct, but that doesn’t mean it has to take A LOT of money.

Rather, it’s about finding value.

 

 

 

 

 

Good output requires good input.

Just as you wouldn’t expect to be healthy if you ate like Morgan Spurlock, when he filmed “Super Size Me,” it’s hard to make your best work if you’re not learning and growing.

 

Courtesy of MorganSpurlock.com

 

If you can’t see great art IRL, and share energy with people who are like-minded, but also very different from you, you’ll get stuck.

Which is where the festival circuit comes in.

If you attend a local event, you can likely save a lot of money on travel and accommodations.

So that’s a route to take, if your budget is tight.

(Many festivals also offer online components now, which is another value play, though you’ll miss out on most of what I’m hyping.)

 

 

 

 

 

Just off the top of my head, we’re talking about San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Houston, Chicago, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Boston, New York and Atlanta.

Which means most American photographers have a proper festival within a day’s drive.

(I guess the Hawaiians and Alaskans are shit out of luck.)

And the great thing about going to an event, with an open mind, an open heart, and the intention to press the flesh, is you simply don’t know what will come of it.

The combination of learning, wandering, listening, looking, laughing, eating, talking, drinking, thinking, and meeting new people is always worth the cost, because you’re guaranteed to emerge from the weekend a different person.

(Again, if you put yourself out there. Sitting quietly by yourself, and refusing to engage with others, or get out of your comfort zone if you’re an introvert, will undermine the effort, and exceeds the limits of my guarantee.)

 

 

 

 

 

One of the last festivals I attended before the world shut down was Photolucida, in Portland, April 2019.

The memories are so vivid.

I walked for miles, saw scores of photo projects, and ate amazing Thai food.

 

Walking around Portland.

 

I attended my first Hardcore Metal show, and was introduced to an entire subculture I didn’t even know existed.

I interviewed the bouncers there, at Dante’s, and then reported to you about the organized street fights, between different left and right-wing “gangs,” (for lack of a better word,) which was pretty cutting edge info, given what happened in PDX the following year.

(And is still happening, unfortunately.)

 

At Dante’s, where earplugs were a necessity

 

I’d never been to Portland before, and trying to understand an entirely new local culture, walking around the oddly-compressed downtown, (where I struggled to find the perfect vantage point to get my bearings,) smoking weed on the famed river bridges while talking to a great friend, it all made me richer, emotionally.

Smarter.
Happier.
Better.

If I close my eyes now, I can see events play out in my mind’s eye.

These are the types of experiences we all need, to rebuild our psyches, our creativity, and our sense of self, after one of the most brutal two-year stretches in American history.

(As the President himself said, in his State of the Union address the other night.)

And that’s without even mentioning the PTSD people feel this week, watching an unjust war play out in Ukraine, on their device screens, helpless to stop the onslaught of death and misery.

You feel me?

 

 

 

 

 

While I was in Portland, I also met some of the members of the local arts group, the Small Talk Collective.

 

Courtesy of Smalltalkcollective.com

 

Like many artists before them, these women joined forces, to support each other as people, as creators, and to make new opportunities for themselves, and members of the “female-identifying, nonbinary, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+” community.

When positive, supportive people stick together, and pull in the same direction towards a common goal, really good things happen.

And wouldn’t you know it, but today, I pulled a little envelope sleeve from my book stack, (which arrived in June 2021,) and it had a postmark from the Small Talk Collective, featuring a slim publication to publicize a new venture.

According to the letter affixed to the outside of the attached ‘zine, the group started their own gallery, Strange Paradise, in the Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center, which is pretty phenomenal.

(And their text mentioned how important such gestures are, coming out of a period of intense isolation.)

The very simple ‘zine, called “Reverberations: Vol.1,” featured work from the first two solo shows the gallery presented, in May/June/July 2021, by Kelda Van Patten and Marilyn Montufar.

It’s a sleek, cool little offering, for sure.

 

 

 

 

The ‘zine reads more like a promotional piece, than a proper art object in its own right, but so what?

(Not everything can nail the gestalt effect, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.)

Partly, it’s because the writing skews towards artist statement, rather than audience engagement, and because the two included projects are not an obvious fit.

They compliment each other with color palette, and overall image quality, but Kelda Van Patten makes IRL/digital collage work, from still lives, and Marilyn Montufar documented local culture in the hinterlands of Northern Mexico.

(In Chihuahua, where most tourists never, ever go.)

Now, before you assume this is one of those reviews that skews negative, I like this ‘zine a lot.

It’s well-produced and engaging, featuring strong photography within, and all the information you need to figure out its intent.

Furthermore, given most people focused on the high-end production fees I shared, in my recent “Making a Book” column, few seemed to grasp the embedded advice, that a professional-looking publication can impress, on next-to-no money.

This is a great example.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m assuming it was printed with a fine-art inkjet printer, double-sided, on a simple, low-weight rag paper, (or newsprint,) but it’s possible these pages come from a high-quality color copier.

You can imagine the Small Talk Collective members, (Audra Osborne, Jennifer Timmer Trail, Kristy Hruska, and Marico Fayre) patiently folding the 4-printed-pages together, with a straight edge, then carefully jamming two staples into the middle, thereby taking separate papers, and making them into a holistic object.

How much could each copy possibly cost to produce? (Not including postage.)

$1?
$2?
$3?

There’s no way it cost more than that, yet here I am, impressed, writing about it.

I now know who these artists are, (again, a benefit, if you’re promoting their exhibitions,) I know the Small Talk Collective has a gallery, and that they’re making publications.

I like this ‘zine, which means I also now have a positive impression of the Small Talk Collective, whereas yesterday, they were not in my consciousness.

If you think back to the mega-column on publishing, I wrote about combining your budget and your vision, with a sense of value and purpose.

Today’s publication is a perfect example of that.

Don’t spend more than you can afford.

And don’t overcomplicate things, if you don’t have to.

Hope that advice is helpful.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Reverberations: Vol. 1” click here 

 

 

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

 

This Week in Photography: Make America Great Again?

 

 

 

I’m keeping it short today.

(For real this time.)

 

 

 

I’m currently on my 4th coffee, at 11am, because I didn’t sleep well.

My daughter climbed into our bed, in the middle of the night, as she’d had a bad dream.

Right now, she’s sprawled on the rug, just outside my bedroom door, lounging in her pink, Hello Kitty pajamas.

(It’s a snow day. Again.)

It’s disorienting, as if I’ve traveled back to March 2020, when all of us were on top of each other, 24/7.

Remember that time when you didn’t go anywhere for a year?

(I sure do.)

 

 

 

 

If it weren’t for the pandemic, having the kids home today, happy, while snow glimmers on the ground outside, would be the best thing ever.

Who doesn’t feel nostalgia for snow days?

Staying home from school.

Sledding.

Drinking hot chocolate.

Watching bad re-runs on TV.

(The Brady Bunch, The Munsters, ChiPs, Leave it to Beaver, The Addams family, The Andy Griffith show… man, did they some have cheesy programs, back in the day.)

 

Image courtesy of TV Guide

 

But just as 9/11 was the seminal event for Generation X, cleaving reality into the before and after times, the last two years have been exactly that, for much of the world.

A turning point, where everything seems to have changed, and both new and old rules apply.

Look no further than today’s news to know it’s true: Russia just invaded Ukraine, with a goal of occupying and then assimilating a separate country, the first step in re-building the Soviet Empire, under Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

Everyone keeps writing it’s the biggest European invasion since WWII, so the expectation of national sovereignty, which was taken for granted for decades, is no longer realistic.

 

 

Yet conservative Americans, the ones who drove the Red Scare under Joe McCarthy, are now actively siding with Russia, against their own country, because Vlad represents the AlphaChristianWhiteMale, and they all want to be like him.

He’s physically tough, personally ruthless, fabulously rich, answers to no one, hates everyone who’s different, and takes what he wants, when he wants to.

That’s as old school as it gets, and when half of America prefers the dictator model to a democratic republic, we are in deep shit.

(Sorry, guess a lack of sleep has damaged my optimism today.)

 

 

 

 

Or, more likely, it’s that I just looked at a depressing, almost nihilistic photo book. (Though I doubt the artist sees his own work that way.)

“Past Time,” by Paul Shambroom, was published in 2020, by Fall Line Press in Atlanta, and showed up in the mail a year ago.

While it would have made for good viewing then, (with Trump barely out of office,) the fact it marinated on my book pile for a year is beneficial to us all.

Because boy, does it feel relevant today.

 

 

 

 

To be honest, I didn’t “like” the book very much.

It’s well-made, with a strong concept, but wasn’t created to engender happy feelings.

(No sir.)

The book is built around a project in which Paul Shambroom photographed in small towns across America, as metaphors for nostalgia towards our country’s white-bread, MAGA past.

While everyone was talking about what the Trumpers wanted to return to, (a world where they could say and do as they pleased, without worrying about anyone’s feelings; where people of color were a permanent underclass,) Paul went out and documented what those places were actually like.

Make America Great Again?

What was so great, according to the Putin-loving-hordes?

Well, we see a lot of hometowns.

Ronald Reagan.
Andy Griffith.
Walt Disney.
Mark Twain.
Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Norman Rockwell.
Thomas Kinkade.

(It reads like a list of idealized Americans, if your version of ideal is White, Christian and Dead.)

Interspersed with the photographs are historical images, jigsaw puzzles, and even a racist coloring book.

Surprisingly, though Paul Shambroom is a very talented artist, whose work is in the biggest collections, (like MoMA,) and showed in the Whitney Biennial, the image quality here is intentionally scattershot.

Bad light throughout, a lack of high-resolution-sharpness, and a heap of lazy crops.

But with an artist of this caliber, we can’t assume the crops are lazy, but rather the images are designed to be off-putting.

Gursky proved you can take bleak light and make a masterpiece, but I think the anti-aesthetic here is being used on purpose, as a way of showing how low America has sunk.

 

Andreas Gursky, “Schiphol,” courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

How sad are its quaint little towns, the places people wish were still like Mayberry, or Pleasantville?

 

“Pleasantville,” 1998, courtesy of RogerEbert.com

 

There is a well-written essay at the end, by Tim Davis, and an in-depth interview between Paul Shambroom and publisher Bill Boling, and both texts suggest this book is more positive than I gathered.

There is talk of all Americans having the desire for safety, and housing for their children in common, and they mention the book by that dude everyone always references, which states people are safer and better off now than at any point in human history.

I get it.

But looking at this book, I came away feeling like the nostalgia bubble was being popped, because things were crap back then, and they’re still crap.

Not hard to feel that way, after the last two pandemic years, but these images predate that.

They’re more a reaction to pure MAGA, and given how much Trump is cheering on this new wave of territorial aggression, I guess maybe the book has a point.

(I mean, it opens with an image from “Leave it to Beaver,” so it’s not subtle.)

I wanted to review “Past Time” today because not only is it well-built; it has a strong point of view.

It’s an excellent book, even if I don’t “like” it.

It’s bleak, sure, but certainly fits with the 2020’s vibe.

Anyway, sending all the good energy to the folks of Ukraine!

See you next week.

 

To purchase “Past Time” click here

 

 

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