This Week in Photography: The Chicago Beatdown

 

 

 

 

I love Chicago.

Of the American cities I know well, Chicago might be my favorite.

(Though San Diego and New Orleans are in the conversation.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago offers everything, at a world-class level: beaches, architecture, art, food, music and diversity, in a walkable, clean, urban megalopolis. I’ve said it before, but the buildings are so gorgeous, it’s like walking around a massive, public art installation.

 

 

 

 

That Chicago has always been a little-brother city means it’s had to work extra-hard to distinguish itself.

New visitors are surprised by how big it is, how clean, and how picturesque is the setting, with the ocean-blue lake and serpentine green river.

 

Bikers at the Lake
Jet-skiers on the river

 

The Chicagoans are nice, hard-working, and humble as the day is long. So when I visited last week, (just got home Sunday,) I was expecting a tight-gripped, large-person, bear hug, as Chicago always treats me well.

This was my 7th visit since 2015, and I’ve spent well over a month in the city since.

Honestly, Chicago loves me.

I have great friends, always talk to strangers, eat well, and never have drama.

This time, however, I got a little cocky, (acted too big for my britches,) so I got a proper Chicago-style beatdown.

(Ouch.)

What happened?

Let’s dive in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While my trip was efficient, as I said, it left little time for stopping to buy food.

And as soon as I got to the 21C Museum Hotel, for the Filter Photo Festival, the rest of the reviewers were heading out the door to the welcome party.

(So that added time pressure.)

Trader Joe’s was literally across the street, and I’ve already told you about my room-booze technique, which saves a lot of money at the bar.

Bourbon sounded like the perfect thing to put some pep in my step, so I bought a bottle of Bulleit, but was too tired to think about searching for food, (and too intimidated to roam the TJ aisles.)  So I showered, threw back a few glasses of whiskey, and was out the door for the 1+ mile walk North.

Do I know better than to drink on an empty stomach?

Of course I do!

Then, I didn’t dig the food when I got there, and as I’d jumpstarted my evening with the bourbon, and switched to white wine at the party, I was quickly too inebriated to make good decisions.

So not eating, and mixing drinks.

Two bad calls.

At the bar afterwards, my friend Doug offered me a pint of Guinness, and then someone else gave me a light brown beer.

We stepped outside to smoke a couple of times.

 

At the bar. Don’t entirely remember taking the photo.

 

By midnight, walking home with Caitlin and Grace, I’d put whiskey, white wine, black beer, reefer, and brown beer into an empty stomach.

Because I was so tired from the travel day, and hadn’t bought any food at Trader Joe’s, there was also no late night grub in the room.

(Nor leftovers, as I hadn’t had time for takeout.)

And we weren’t in a part of town where there were restaurants open.

That was mistake 3, adding nothing to the sad stomach, after the fact, to soak up the booze.

Oh man, was it going to be a nasty morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier in the week I’d bragged on a group text, arrogantly saying I never get hangovers.

That I had the perfect remedy, and really, getting too drunk was for suckers.

(I’m no sucker.)

Unfortunately, I got cocky in Chicago, and the city doesn’t cotton to hubris.

No sir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To say I threw up four times before 8:30am is to be factually accurate, but contextually mild.

I wanted to die. I might have cried.

(Hard to be sure.)

I definitely called my wife, begging for empathy, and genuinely wondered if I might have caught a bug in the airports? At first, so sure of my own invulnerability, I couldn’t imagine my pain was self-inflicted.

I’m a dude who knows how to handle himself. It’s a part of my identity.

Yet there I was, curled in a fetal position in the shower, begging my poor body, which I’d just abused, to find enough energy to review 14 portfolios that day.

(Cut to the chase, I did it.)

I’m told I looked like death, with bloodshot eyes, raccoon-bags beneath them, and ashen, waxy skin.

By afternoon I’d rebounded, and by evening, I began my 3-types-of-pizza-in-3-days foray, which we’ll talk about next.

But the big moral of the story was explained to me a few times over the next few days.

If you’re going to be too full of yourself, stay out of Chicago.

If, however, you make an ass of yourself, but then learn your lesson, take your humbling like a pro, and grow from the occasion?

After the beatdown, Chicago picks you up, dusts you off, and gives you a hug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, the pizza.

My friend Louie Palu has railed against Deep Dish as long as I’ve known him, claiming it’s not pizza.

Every. Single. Chicago. Local. I know insists they never eat Deep Dish.

That it’s for tourists.

By now, I’ve tried Pizanos, (good,) Giordano’s, (OK,) and Lou Malnati’s, (very good,) but I’d never tried the OG Deep Dish spots in Chicago: Pizzerias Uno and Due.

They’re a block away from each other, and apparently begat the trend, back in the day.

They’d been recommended to me before, so I was down to try it, but truth is, it was the first food I was going to eat since I was sick, and as Pizzeria Due was on the corner of my block, that’s as far as I was going to order it.

 

 

The place reeked of character, and when I saw a pizza with spinach and broccoli on the menu, I was sold, because I needed a little nutrition to jumpstart my system.

Did I assume I’d be the only person ordering that pizza that night?

Yes.
Yes I did.

So when I got the pizza home, and after I took the picture, I was a little surprised not to see much green inside.

 

 

Still, I thought, the veggies have to be in there.

I cut into a slice, (which looked quite good,) and wouldn’t you know it, I bit into a piece of sausage, but no veggies.

Sausage!
Again!

(For those of you who don’t remember, last year, at Tempo Cafe, they gave me sausage in my eggs, rather than green veggies, in the most Chicago of all flexes, and I ate it, b/c sending it back would have taken forever.)

This time, though it tasted good, I didn’t feel I had an option.

My hung-over body was begging for green vegetables, (just like in Jersey,) so I called Due, the woman apologized and said my pizza was there waiting. I went down the elevator, made the quick walk, and came home with a veggie pizza.

Which was sad, I’m sorry to say, and definitely not as good as the pizza she made me return.

(Seriously, once I’d eaten from it, maybe let me keep it? What else are you going to do with it? It wasn’t my mistake. The sticker on the sausage pizza said spinnocoli.)

As to the pizza, the cornmeal crust was too-thick, and flavorless. The pizza had too little cheese, and the sauce was weak.

Overall, just a bad pizza experience.

(Shame on you, Due!)

Pizzeria Due
1 star out of 4

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, though, I had pizza at Eataly, the Italian food mega-emporium chain that was started by the (since-culturally-defenestrated) superstar chef Mario Batali, and his partners, the Bastianich family.

 

Inside Eataly

 

I’d done the walk-through the day before, and found it to be a well-stocked joint, but a bit confusing to figure out.

On my return visit, having done the proper scope, I knew just where to go: La Pizza & La Pasta.

I ate with a few friends and colleagues, and was clear that I’d only share my pizza once I was done with it, as I was terrified of getting stuck with an unfavorable pizza experience, given the nightmare that was Due.

(Good thing too, when anchovies and mushrooms were suggested as possible toppings. Gross!)

We began with some arugula and parmesan salads that hit just right.

 

 

The pizza was in the Neapolitan style, and I got an eggplant parmesan pie, which was sublime.

The pizza had char, for looks, a firm-yet-chewy, flavorful crust. There was plenty of melty, high-end mozzarella cheese. Overall, the perfect balance of texture and taste.

 

 

The eggplant was not deep-fried, and offered a nice melt-in-your-mouth component.

Frankly, it was pizza bliss.

 

 

Eataly La Pizza & La Pasta
4 stars out of 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last, but not least, I returned to Eataly to buy some Italian cookies for my wife, on Saturday, right before I needed to walk 30 minutes South to the Columbia College Student Center, where the Filter portfolio walk would be held.

(Plus, I needed a snack.)

After giving the store a quick once-over, I spotted a gorgeous $6 hunk of Pizza Margherita, in their Pizza Alla Pala station.

 

 

It’s where they attempt to recreate Roman style, but fail.

Here, there are pre-cut slices of gourmet, rectangular pizza.

In Rome, you walk up, tell them how much you want, and they cut you a rectangular hunk.

(Not the same thing.)

Then, after I waited 7 minutes, I got a little pushback from the pizza worker, just for choosing the piece I wanted.

(“Oh,” she said, “you want the REALLY cheesy one?”)

There was a $14 slice of burrata and fresh tomato pie, that included a full ball of burrata, which looked like art, and would likely have been amazing.

(But my stomach didn’t want to eat a literal ball of cheese.)

When I got back to the hotel with my takeout slice, (one block away,) and opened it up, my heart sank.

The Eataly-pizza-attendant has smushed some wax paper down into the slice, and nearly all the cheese had come up onto the paper.

She ruined it!

Cardinal sin.

I spent a few minutes scraping the cheese, which helped a little, before I ate it in a dejected condition.

And I was not impressed.

The sauce was zingy, at least, and the crust was thick and crunchy, with a bit of olive oil to it, so I could only wonder what might have been?

 

 

Eataly Pizza Alla Pala
2 stars out of four

 

See you next week!

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Wrestling in Queens

 

 

 

When I was growing up, Mike Tyson was the baddest dude around.

(Bar none.)

I watched the Buster Douglas fight live on HBO, and was witness to the dethroning of the king.

At the time, my brain could not fathom Mike Tyson getting his ass kicked, but there it was.

 

 

Courtesy of Boxingnewsonline.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These days, boxing is not nearly as important.

Instead, MMA is the most popular combat sport around.

Everyone loves the UFC, which has great rivalries, amazing athletes, and a warrior-code-of-respect thing going that feels appropriate for the 21st Century.

(True story: a boxing-fan-relative recently told me he doesn’t watch the UFC, because he thinks it’s “gay,” as the fighters hug each other, and behave nicely in the cage, once the fight is over.)

But MMA didn’t even exist 30 years ago, and when it first began, guys from different, traditional martial arts battled it out, with the Gracies, (and their Brazilian Jiu Jitsu,) proving supreme.

These days, every fighter more or less shares the same style of striking and kicking from Muay Thai, grappling from wrestling, and submissions and ground work from BJJ.

(So not only do cultural tastes change, but entire sports can too.)

And while the UFC, and MMA in general, are significantly more popular than boxing, I’m not sure there’s a UFC fighter alive who’d fancy their chances against the current Heavyweight Champ, 6’9″ 265lbs Tyson Fury, the Gypsy King.

 

Tyson Fury, Courtesy of Marca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like boxing, professional wrestling has gone through phases of popularity here in America.

Apparently, it’s huge again, (the WWE,) but I don’t follow it at all.

I know Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena became legit movie stars, and extremely charismatic actors, having started as pro wrestlers.

(And I know The Rock’s daughter is now wrestling, but I learned that from Twitter.)

When I was a kid, in the same 80’s Tyson dominated, Hulk Hogan, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and Andre the Giant were massive cultural stars, with crossover films and the rest.

 

Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Randy “Macho Man” Savage in 1987, courtesy of ESPN and the WWE

 

(You knew I was going to drop a clip of ATG in “The Princess Bride” right here, didn’t you?)

 

That said, back then, I didn’t know much about the previous generation of stars.

Nor had I ever considered attending a match.

For whatever reason, my taste in pro wrestling leaned towards “guilty pleasure” in middle school, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I watched even a minute of it.

So Jonathan Blaustein: not a fan.

Jonathan Panes, however, was a massive fan.

How is that important?

I’ll tell you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last October, Arthur Nager sent me a book, but that’s long enough ago that I was clueless when I opened it up today.

Rarely has a photo book stated its intent more clearly from the cover.

We see:

“Wrestling
Sunnyside Garden Arena
11/27/1971”

I mean, really?

What else could the book be about?

It’s a self-published affair, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but did find myself torn out of the narrative a few times, due to quirks I’ll comment on, and then move forward.

There were too many essays at the jump, so I got impatient, and started skipping ahead to the photos, before coming back.

(I was curious, given the cover’s premise.)

And I’ve been in copy-editing mode lately for a client, (apologies for the typo last week, but I fixed it after the email went out,) so I caught a couple of mistakes in this one, including one sentence that was completely repeated in separate essays by Jonathan Panes.

And the term “Sunnyside Garden Arena” was utilized three times in a row, at one point, which my brain also noticed.

The motivation behind the project was a bit random, in that Jonathan Panes, the wresting fan, invited his older cousin, Arthur Nager, the photographer and art school student, (who couldn’t have cared less about wrestling, but wanted to photograph somewhere interesting,) to the wrestling matches at the (since razed) Sunnyside Garden Arena in Long Island City, Queens.

One day in the fall of 1971.

The fight-hall had been one of a string throughout NYC, we learn, now all gone, as the size was just right for boxing and pro wrestling, but not lucrative enough to survive into the 21st C.

Mike Silver, a boxing expert, (and friend of the photographer,) writes an essay for the book, and when he calls Arthur “Artie,” I could almost hear roar of the crowd and smell the cigars on a day out in Queens:

“Artie, go get me a beer, wouldya? I’ll get ya back the 10 cents next week, I promise! Be a sport, would ya pal?”

 

 

 

 

 

But back to the book.

The photos are fun. For sure.

How could they not be?

I just wrote about this recently, (with the Michael Lesy book,) but we all know that putting negatives in a box and waiting 50 years is a tried and true way to end up with fascinating photographs.

Design-wise, though, I loved it when the second half of the book breaks sections down by wrestling match, featuring stats and info about each wrestler.

So clever.

The less said about the little-people wresting photos the better, but I’m not sure if I’d have included or excluded them, had it been me?

(Is that a cop out? On the one hand, the photos are offensive to modern tastes. On the other, they’re quite compelling, and make sense in context of the era. Tough call.)

But they made the decision to include them, and that’s on them.

Anyway, cool book.

I dig it.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Wrestling: Sunnyside Garden Arena” 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: Jersey Pride

 

 

 

 

Friday night came together perfectly.

(And I didn’t have to plan a thing.)

That was the theme of my trip to New Jersey last week: easy breezy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I drove around a lot, made all the right human and logistical connections, and while the threat of drama is there with all travel these days, for me, for nearly a week, it was all good.

That’s the first point to make.

If you recall, when I traveled in 2021, back to Jersey in May and then to Chicago in October, I reported that people were on edge, ready to blow, and the tension was palpable.

It was no fun at all.

But I’m thrilled to share that in September 2022, it’s gone.

In the security lines, in the airport terminals, on the planes, I noticed nothing but polite, chill behavior.

(Major, major difference.)

Such good news that civility has been restored!

When I mentioned drama, it’s just all these stories of air-travel havoc, with delays and missed/cancelled flights.

I did have one 3 hour delay, but thankfully it didn’t mess with my schedule.

 

 

 

 

 

It was all smooth that Friday, and my cousins invited me to a big-time High School football game, with a local rivalry, major schools, big plot lines, you name it.

My cousin Stefanie had ordered me a ticket, and sent the .pdf to my phone, plus provided directions to the field, so really, all I had to do was show up.

Watchung Hills Regional High School is coached by Rich Seubert, who won a Super Bowl ring as a starting offensive lineman for the NY Giants.

That makes him as close to local royalty as you’re going to get.

(One step below Bruce Springsteen, obviously.)

His team was at home, playing their rivals from Westfield.

When I got there a few minutes late, (needed to download the day’s photo files onto my iPad in the rental car,) Westfield was already up 7-0.

 

View from the home stands

 

As to my family involvement, my cousin’s daughter was cheerleading, her son was on the Freshman team, and my other cousin’s step-daughter was in the marching band, playing clarinet.

It was a competitive game, with a lot of turnovers and penalties, and the home crowd, wearing white, was super-loud.

The whole environment felt like being in a movie, replete with an obnoxious, annoying play-by-play announcer, who made me long for noise-cancelling headphones.

(The dude was screaming into the mic the whole game. Enough already, bro.)

The field was tucked into a forest, because everything in New Jersey is tucked into a forest.

But when I looked more carefully, my cousin acknowledged in one direction, the massive Highway 78 was right behind the stand of trees.

(Such a trippy setting.)

 

 

At one point, I noticed one player who was just bigger, and more solidly built than the rest.

He stood out, like a football aura.

My cousin’s friend, Lydia, who was involved with the team, told me it was Rich Seubert’s older son, Hunter, the center, who was destined for major college ball and the NFL.

The kid had a presence.

(Check out these highlights, and you’ll see what I mean. Hunter Seubert is 6′ 260 lbs, and plays with a nasty streak.)

Anyway, Watchung Hills came back and took control, and was winning 17-7 when I left with a few minutes on the clock, to beat the crowds, and the parking-lot-bedlam.

(Pro tip: If you’re not invested in the outcome of the game, time your exit.)

 

 

 

 

 

The next night, we stayed in at my cousin Jordan’s, drinking box wine, taking dog walks, watching Ohio State-Notre Dame, and eventually having a big Jersey Chinese feast.

It was almost a sushi night, but I delicately engineered a pivot, and lots of grub from Chengdu 1 Palace arrived.

The highs were high, and the lows were average, but overall I was very impressed.

As to the specifics:

The pork lo mein was greasy, as were the egg rolls.

The General Tsao’s Chicken, which was reputed to be so good that two portions were ordered, was probably the best I’ve had.

A 10 out of 10 dish.

The boneless spare ribs were also perfection, and some weird, green, veggie dumplings ended up being amazing, eaten cold later in the evening. (Yes, I had the munchies. Don’t judge.)

 

Chengdu 1 Palace
Green Brook, NJ
3 stars out of 4

 

 

 

 

 

On Monday, after the pool party debauchery at my Aunt and Uncle’s place, I woke up early.

Before anyone, before 7am, and I headed out to do laps around the neighborhood.

(Got to get those steps in, to help digest the previous evening’s beer, rose wine, red wine, weed, vape, mini hot dogs in puff pastry, mac and cheese, shrimp scampi, spinach ravioli, caprese salad with high end mozzarella di buffala, and Italian cookies.)

Two miles of walking before 8, just me and the neighborhood deer, was a must, as was blowing off breakfast.

I game-planned to hit the beach, asking my Aunt, (a Jersey Shore girl, and known perfectionist,) where she would go?

She said Avon.

But I chose Sea Bright, the closest beach to my childhood home.

Growing up, we hung out from Sandy Hook to Long Branch, which are the northern-most coastal beaches.

Sandy Hook and Sea Bright are where the NYC shipping channel harbor opens up, so the water is not nearly as clean.

As I got in the car, though, I called my other cousin, (on the Blaustein side,) as he lives 4 long-blocks from the beach in Belmar.

It was only five minutes extra in the car from where I was staying, and he was around, so I turned the car and changed the plan.

Luckily, Belmar is further South from NYC, so the water is clean and clear.

 

 

(Not blue, though, as it’s the Atlantic.)

Jeff and I chilled out on the 10th Avenue beach, in fold-up-chairs, taking the sun, and I swam twice.

The water was gorgeous and refreshing, and I’d been waiting for that moment for three years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it was Monday, Labor Day, and the direct sun was intermittent, the beach had plenty of people, but was far from mobbed.

 

10th St Beach, Belmar, looking North

 

We walked up to the street and got pizza at J’s, and the slices were massive.

The young woman behind the counter was pretty, and had what sounded like a cool French accent, but by Monday I was punch-drunk, so I couldn’t be sure.

She confirmed she was from Strasbourg, and I dropped a few words of French to be polite.

Which was a huge mistake.

I got distracted, and the slices were just so big, ($7/piece with toppings,) so I did my usual thing of asking her not to warm them up in the oven, which kills the flavor.

(Room-temperature-to-warm is much better than reheated.)

She said they were warm, but trust me, they were not warm. So I spent $15 on cold, chalky pizza, but having skipped breakfast, I ate them anyway.

As to the area itself, North Belmar, (a half mile away from Avon, my Aunt’s preferred spot,) is not only pretty, chill and friendly, but it’s steeped in Jersey history.

My cousin lived in Freehold for decades, where Bruce Springsteen was from, and confirmed that part of Belmar was the closest spot he could reach.

(Due East.)

It’s where Bruce had come, as a youth, before he got into the neighboring Asbury Park scene.

My cousin lives on 10th Avenue, near E Street.

The tour groups show up now, he told me, because the E Street Band, and “10th Avenue Freezeout,” are part of the Legend of Bruce.

So there you have it.

 

J’s Pizza
Belmar, NJ
2 out of 4 stars

Belmar Beach
4 out of 4 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

Later on Monday, I had a precious evening to myself, and a good rental car.

After visiting briefly with my friend Mandi, in her creepy/lovely, ghost-ridden, 1750 farmhouse, it was time to make the most of the luxury.

 

Me and Mandi, outside her house, built 1750

 

Given how much I love the Jersey Shore, I used that free time to go back to the beach again for a stroll.

Sea Bright is the first beach town facing East on the open ocean, (instead of North, along the Bay,) and I used to work in restaurants there when I was in college.

Much of it was leveled by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, so the town beach’s infrastructure was very new, which was a trip.

The sky was gray, after 6pm, and I walked for 15 minutes or so.

Then I approached the ocean.

There was a line of super-tanker ships, launching East towards Europe, and I was glad I’d gone to Belmar to swim earlier.

I took this video for you, as it’s clear how different the ocean vibe is from the Big Blue Pacific I showed you, in San Diego, earlier this year.

 

 

 

It feels like you’re looking across the pond towards Ireland, that rainy green Isle, rather than Asia, a half a world away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I began the column by saying everything went smoothly last week.

Mostly true.

But I did make one additional mistake.

I never should have eaten both of those mega-slices of cold pizza in Belmar.

Such a gut-bomb.

By evening, in Sea Bright, all I wanted was a salad.

But you can’t eat salad on your last night in Jersey, can you?

After Sea Bright, I drove north to Long Branch, feeling the ocean breeze through the open car window, and then doubled back through Sea Bright, Rumson, Fair Haven, Little Silver, Red Bank, and finally Middletown.

Rt 35 was my jam, growing up, the perfect North-South highway, stuffed with forest trees and endless strip malls.

All that good food, and local businesses.

Accountants.

Pool Supplies!

You name it.

I’d settled on going to Crown Palace, (which I’ve featured here before,) a brilliant local Chinese restaurant, because at least I could get string beans and broccoli with garlic sauce.

That was my big plan, to ask them to mix both veggies together.

Green vegetables!

Almost as good as a salad.

But my even bigger plan was to pee as soon as I got in the door.

(I really had to go.)

I was not encouraged when I pulled in and there were no cars, but still, I tried the door.

Locked!

Closed Monday.

There are trees everywhere, as I keep telling you, and in New Mexico, I’d pee behind a tree, no problem.

I walked around to the side parking lot, trying to find a spot to do just that.

Do they have cameras, I wondered?

Is anyone going to come out and harass me?

I saw the edge of the parking lot ahead, and thought I might be in the clear.

Lots of trees.

But then I spotted children’s playground equipment behind the business next door.

A day care center?

Abort!
Abort!

I held my pee, and that was that.

(No use going to jail for indecent exposure. Man up and hold the pee.)

What to do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know that area like the back of my hand, and headed further up the highway to one of the local pizzerias from when I was a kid.

But I didn’t want pizza.

Or a chicken parm sub.

My insides were sad, from all the heavy food.

I wanted a salad.

Fresh vegetables!

And wouldn’t you know it, but I drove by Simply Greek, in the Commons at Holmdel, on my way to Villa Pizza.

It was on the other side of the highway, and had been there for years, so I took the jug handle just up the road, and went back.

(Salad it would be.)

I walked around the parking lot while they made the food, and the dark skies against the electric light was a visual feast.

The staff at Simply Greek were super-nice, and the prices were more-than-fair, by inflationary standards.

So I liked the joint immediately.

I kid you not, the falafel sandwich and a small greek salad, with extra tzatziki, weighed about 5 lbs, and cost $25.

It was easily the best food I had all week.

The summer Jersey tomatoes wanted to sing me a song, they were so happy, and the feta cheese was better than anything that exists in New Mexico.

Magnificent!

 

 

Simply Greek
Holmdel, NJ
4 out of 4 stars

 

 

 

So there you have it.

My first travel piece in ages.

See you next week!

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Embracing Change

 

 

Change is as good as a holiday.

That’s what my old friend Pappy used to say.

(And I happen to agree.)

 

 

 

 

 

Change is most often thrust upon us, as few embrace it willingly.

(Only after the fact, when we reap the spoils, do we begrudgingly admit it was worth the effort.)

That said, change has come to this column, and I’m all for it.

I’ll still be writing for you twice a month here, (which got slightly lost in my announcement last week,) but I went with the hubbub, because the week in, week out endeavor, over the past 11 years, helped define my life.

No lie.

But now it’s time for something new.

I can (occasionally) be as reluctant to change as the next person, but when we enter a new life phase, we see things differently.

Growing older, experiencing more life, and hopefully acquiring (some) wisdom means we’re able to attack the same problems with different solutions.

Or acquire different opinions from what came before.

And that last bit is motivating today’s column.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was talking with a client the other day, and referred to my un-reviewable book.

The one book I’ve picked up, time and again, but put down.

Each time, I shake my head and say, “No, not today. I don’t see how to tell this in a way that’s not offensive.”

And so I’d set the book back on the shelf, only to pick it up six months, or a year later.

Frankly, I’ve grabbed it three times in the last month, but think today, for whatever reason, I’ve finally cracked the code.

 

 

 

 

 

“Upstate,” by Tema Stauffer, published by Daylight in 2018, turned up in the mail three or four years ago.

As you already know, (having reading this far,) up until now, I’ve had a hard time expressing my thoughts about “Upstate.”

I don’t hate this book.

Not at all.

(Not even a little.)

But it is hard to write about, because I don’t like it that much either.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the idea that sometimes the established, expected format of a book, (essay, plates, essay) can do it a disservice.

(If the creative team takes no chances.)

And for me, these cultural landscape images speak to that even-steven, middle of the road, well-established, Alec-Soth-shooting-style we’ve come to know so well over the last 15 years.

Plus, the poverty reminds me of so many Appalachian books I’ve seen before, or just rural poverty porn in general.

(In this case, we’re seeing Hudson, New York.)

Yet I’m certain some of you will like the photographs a lot. Maybe even love the book.

(Art is subjective.)

For me, a book that is conventional, and reminiscent of so many other projects in its design, shooting style, and subject matter becomes, somewhat by definition, average.

Nice.

Fine.

More than acceptable.

Perfectly competent.

But it’s not memorable.

And historically, whether reviewing a book, or writing about portfolios from a festival, I like things to be distinctive.

To stick in my mind.

This book never did, until it finally did, for being something of a cautionary tale.

So there you have it.

Since this is an edgy take, I’m sure some of you will disagree with me.

(No worries.)

See you next week.

 

To purchase “Upstate” please 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 End

 

 

 

 

This weekly column is coming to an end.

 

 

JB, 9:15 am MST, 08.26.22

 

 

 

 

I’ve sat on the news for a while, waiting for the right time to drop it.

(And today is the day.)

I should say, straight off, that I won’t be going away entirely.

You’ll still get to read my rambling, discursive musings every other week, here at APE.

But on October 7th, 11 years after I began writing for you each Friday, the streak will be snapped.

The photo industry is not remotely what it was, when I began the column in 2011, and change is a healthy and natural part of life. (Especially as this blog is supported by neither subscription fees nor ads.)

It is what it is, but I must admit, after living under the yoke of a weekly deadline for this long, I’m excited to see what it’s like without the structure.

So after today, only five (weekly) columns left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It all began when I was on the hustle, during The Great Recession.

In the late spring of 2010, Rob Haggart put out a call for images of the cataclysmic economy on APE, (a colleague was looking for photos for a story,) so I sent him a project I had.

 

Gas station grocery shelf, Antonito, CO, 2009

 

I was psyched Rob replied, liking the pics, so I told him I was about to attend two big photo festivals, back to back, and as a burgeoning blogger, perhaps I could report on them from the field for APE?

He agreed to publish my articles, and liked the work, so he then offered to pay my expenses on a trip to NYC, to cover the PDN Photo Plus Expo for the blog.

(As you might image, I was blown away, and jumped at the chance.)

A guy I knew on Twitter, Richard Bram, told me he’d be there too, so we agreed to meet up in the cavernous Jacob Javits Center on the West side of Manhattan.

We connected, and I found Richard charming, knowledgable, agreeable, and just fun and easy to be around.

In the end, I mentioned Richard in the article, and so began a long and fruitful friendship.

He’s been featured in more articles than anyone else, as off the top of my head, I recall a festival in Houston, museum visits in Brooklyn and London, eating in a little Ramen shop in the East Village, and a fish and chips joint on the Thames in 2019.

 

Fish and Chips, Limehouse, London, 2019

 

And wouldn’t you know it, but for the first time ever, Richard came to visit last Friday, and stayed the night here at our place.

The timing was perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll be in New Jersey next week for my first major photo/writing gig for a big-time, international publication.

(I can’t share details yet.)

As such, I’ve spent weeks checking my gear, ordering new equipment, and building a battle plan to be the mobile, nimble, 21st Century digital journalist on the go.

So of course Richard and I would end up testing equipment, talking endlessly about the intricacies of fill flash, and geeking out as hard as we could.

Richard admitted he’d been in the theater growing up, with parents who acted in local community productions.

He also has a distinguished face, and knows how to use it.

Therefore, Richard modeled while I switched cameras and lenses, tested out my lighting kits, and did a deep dive into a different type of photography.

(Most of the time, I think myself more artist than photographer, but I’ve shot my share of weddings, headshots, passport photos, graduation pics, etc.)

Here are a few of my favorites.

 

Richard was there with me at the beginning, in 2010, and was here at the end too, in 2022.

{Ed note: To reiterate, this is the end of an era, not my time here as a writer. You’ll still get me 2x a month.}

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As gifts, Richard brought a lovely woodblock print he’d made in Oaxaca this winter, and a ‘zine that came out last year.

 

 

Normally, I look at submissions in the order they arrive, but have made exceptions over the years, (including with Nancy Baron’s ‘zine recently,) so we’re going to check it out, but keep it brief.

(Since I dropped some big news on you at the outset, we’ll go short and summery today.)

The ‘zine is called “The Red Cube,” was was published in 2021 by Bump Books.

It features many looks at Isamu Noguchi’s classic sculpture in Lower Manhattan, which was a block away from where Richard and his wife lived during their New York years. (In between stints in London, but in case it’s not clear, Richard is American.)

The ‘zine, too, (with that big red cube in the background,) spans an era, between 2011-2020.

There’s not much to say about this that the photos below won’t show.

It’s a series of street photographs in the Financial District of NYC, and feels like a love letter to the city, now that he’s moved on.

 

 

 

 

 

New York has been featured more times in this column than any other locale.

I’ve covered countless NYC gallery and museum exhibitions over the years, hit the High Line, eaten at the cronut shop, dodged snowflakes the week before Superstorm Sandy, gorged on pizza, and done a 6 year stint at the NYT, all during the time of this weekly column.

 

Me and Jessie on the High Line, 2018

 

I had a daughter, got two dogs, built a career, saved my wife from the ravages of clinical depression, made countless friends, lost some too, was a college Art Department Chair, traveled the US, blogged for The New Yorker, and learned more about the world, my craft, my community, and myself, than I ever could have imagined.

So I hope you enjoy this last 6-week run, (including today,) before I retire the weekly-columnist-mantle.

I appreciate all the time and energy you’ve given us over the years, and the opportunity Rob has provided.

Hope all is well, and catch you next week!

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Breaking Good

 

 

 

“Better Call Saul” ended this week.

{Spoiler Alert.}

 

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in the finale, “Saul Gone,” courtesy of imdb.com

 

 

 

It seems an antiquated concept: a “television program” that “came out” once a week, on a cable channel, with commercials.

(It ran on AMC, the network behind early century masterworks “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”)

“Better Call Saul,” if you’re not familiar, was set in Albuquerque as a prequel to “Breaking Bad.”

The two shows were part of the Vince Gilligan IP Universe that also includes the Netflix movie “El Camino,” and doubtless more to come.

But I digress.

That’s not what I want to talk about.

 

 

 

 

 

What I want to talk about is, “Better Call Saul” was a masterpiece.

10/10
*****
Five Stars
100%

 

I loved “Mad Men,” sure.

Not saying this is necessarily better. (Though it is probably as good, like “The Wire” level excellent.)

And just talking about all these anti-hero shows with straight White male leads gives me the queasies.

 

Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

 

Despite his name being in the title, “Better Call Saul” was about so much more than Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takovic.

Week in, week out, the acting was inspirational. Along with Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler performance was an all time great, as was Jonathan Banks as (for most seasons) co-lead Mike Ehrmentraut.

 

 

 

Among regular players, off the top of my head, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, Tony Dalton, Patrick Fabian, and Michael McKean all put in next-level work.

The legit heartbreak I felt as a viewer, watching Mando’s fan-favorite Nacho Varga sacrifice himself to save his father, earlier in the final season, was “Old Yeller” level sad, and that was just one part of the ride.

Or Tony Dalton swaggering around every scene he’s in as the menacing/charming, near-superhero level badass Lalo Salamanca?

So fucking good.

 

 

 

 

 

No day-player, walk-on ever slouched, either. (Can we give a shout out to “Parks and Rec” legend Jim O’Heir, who killed it in a late season cameo!)

 

 

The writing was mind-blowing, with respect to nuance, symbolism, plot and character development.

New Mexico was more an integrated backdrop than a heavy hitter, but that felt organic to the story too.

The cinematography so often made me think, or hit the pause button, with meticulous framing and camera placements.

Beyond that, I loved the emotional resonance, and non-traditional storytelling styles.

The way they used black and white versus color, as a way of separating timelines, and then weaving in entirely black and white episodes, with Carol Burnett at the end?

We’re talking Kurosawa-level craftsmanship.

 

Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” courtesy of RogerEbert.com

 

 

 

 

 

“Better Call Saul” was a slow-burn tragedy that always had Bob O around for a quick “sad clown” laugh.

And this is an actor talented enough to have won fans for his absurdist “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” in 1995, before morphing into a John-Wick-level badass in the 2021 sleeper action hit “Nobody.”

 

“Nobody,” image courtesy of Allen Fraser/Universal and the NYT

 

 

Who has more range than that?

For six seasons, no matter how many times it looked like Plucky Jimmy McGill might just turn the corner and make good, you’d remember you already knew where the finish line was: he ended up as Slick Saul Goodman, and then Sad-Sack Gene Takovic.

(Time to make the Cinnabons.)

This character would have would have no redemption, until the end.

Facing a mere 7 years in a cushy federal prison, he burned down an agreement with the government, and came clean in open court, in order to win back his self-respect, and the love of the great Kim Wexler.

They gave him 86 years in a freezing Colorado Supermax instead.

What an ending!

 

The penultimate scene in “Saul Gone.”

 

After six seasons spread over 7 years, the BCS creative team stuck the landing with a brilliant extended finale on Monday night, and maybe I’ll leave it there.

I guess you could watch the entire show, in a binge, on AMC+, if you were so inclined.

As an art critic, I’d highly recommend you do so, but hey, what do I know?

See you next week.

 

 

This Week in Photography: In the Mood for Love

 

 

 

Someone was selling firewood.

In a truck.
By the side of the road.

I saw it this morning.

(Winter is coming.)

 

 

 

 

 

It’s August 11th, (high summer some places,) and my kids just went back to school.

My daughter is in 5th grade, and when I began this column, in September of 2011, she wasn’t born yet.

(It’s been a wild ride.)

Over the course of my time here, (week in, week out,) I’ve had the chance to travel to some pretty amazing places, and report back to you.

Beyond Derby, London and Amsterdam, all my city reports have come from here in the good old US of A.

 

Hotel room view, Amsterdam, Feb 2020
Taking a selfie in a room full of people talking selfies in the Eric Gyamfi exhibition, Foam, Amsterdam, Feb 2020

 

 

Off the top of my head, since 2011, I’ve written about Austin, Albuquerque, Carmel, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, LA, Marfa, Monterey, New Jersey, New Orleans, NYC, Portland, Santa Fe, San Diego, San Francisco, Taos, Tucson, and Washington, DC.

I’m a lucky guy.

As of now, I’m supposed to visit NJ, Chicago and New Orleans later this year.

 

Lake Michigan, Chicago, Oct 2021
The French Quarter, New Orleans, Dec 2021

 

So we’ll have plenty more travel content in 2022-3, with the attendant gallery, museum, restaurant reviews, etc.

It’s a far cry from pandemic lockdown, thank goodness, when so many people just stayed home.

(Including me.)

Traveling, visiting new ports of call, seeing new cities, tasting new foods…

Few things are better for our personal (and brain) development.

Doing new things makes new neural pathways in your brain, and every moment in a new travel environment counts as doing something new.

(Yes, that was 4 uses of new in one sentence.)

But getting to truly see the world, put my eyes on China and Japan, Australia and Brazil?

Egypt and India?

I mean, to see all of it?

I can’t even imagine.

Yet that’s the feeling I got, when I put down today’s book.

That I’d just taken a wild, elegant, extremely well-seen and well-crafted journey around world in the 21st Century.

The work felt current, fresh, edgy, and smart, with great technique.

But let me back up a second…

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found two boxes at the bottom of the pile today, from March 2021.

Somehow, they’d been skipped, so of course they’re both vaulted to the top of the pile.

The first of them was called “Ibidem,” by Giovanni Del Brenna; seemingly self-published with a professional team.

But I’ll flip the script, for once, and share a bit of info from the back of the book.

One essay, by Carole Naggar was dated 2011, and I thought, that’s odd?

Why publish an essay written so long ago?

Then the copyright on the next page said 2012.

Yet my initial impressions were the book was super current and of the moment, and it was submitted in 2021?

Strange.

In an excellent footnote section at the end, the artist writes he was born in Genoa, Italy, (but never lived there,) raised in Brazil in a French school, and has lived in many other places.

It seems he comes honestly by his Sofia Coppola/”Lost in Translation,” globetrotting, “In the Mood for Love”/Wong Kar-wai, seen-it-all before, and I know the best noodle shop in 30 cities vibe.

 

“In the Mood for Love,” image courtesy of RogerEbert.com
“In the Mood for Love,” courtesy of The Criterion Collection and the NY Times

 

Saying how all cities are alike in some ways.

I love it.

As I turned the page, page after page, the photographs were standout.

The edit jumps at you, like a bored dog seeking affection.

Lots of dynamic use of color and light, with emotional energy.

Inspiring stuff.

And the design was on point too, with photos bleeding onto subsequent spreads, with smaller spreads mixed within, so you’re changing paper sizes constantly. While each spread connects to the next through fabulous color, and repeating motifs, like flying fish.

The photos challenge our sense of perception, with lots of figure/ground manipulations, use of repeating patterns, and then optical illusions like advertisements or painted buildings.

Just standout.

The design and photographs also wrong-foot us by reclaiming the gutter space, where most artists fear to tread.

(I mean, it’s literally called the gutter.)

Again and again, the gutter creates a symmetrical split, with vital info right there over the seam.

Scandalous!

I found the book to be flawless, right up until the end.

Page after page of nodding my head, saying, “Yes, that’s just right!”

And then towards the back, there was one image, of some guy in a jacket and tie in the light and shadow of a doorway, and it broke the spell.

Like, every single other photo I loved, but then why this guy?

Right afterwards, there were two traditional-type-explanatory-essays, and I felt they, too, were unnecessary.

(The pictures spoke for themselves, meaning-wise.)

 

 

 

 

I recognized photographs being made in Japan and China, Italy and France, but clearly there were many more locations I couldn’t place. The excellent thumb-nail index, at the end, tells us the book records travels from 2002-8, in those places, plus London, New York, Berlin, Hong Kong, and a host of other locations.

(In fairness, I did pick out a sleeping London banker on a train, and could recognize NYC on my second viewing.)

I kept saying to myself, as I looked, “Is that Italy, France, or somewhere else entirely?”

How do these things feel chic and generic, yet universal?

Which gorgeous city are we seeing in this photo?

Does it even matter?

With the index and footnotes, we get just the right bit of context, if we MUST know which city we were seeing, or what his travels were like, where his brother lived, all from the artist’s own perspective.

Ending there, followed by an insert in French and Italian, the book sticks the landing.

And last page credits Del Brenna, Teun van der Heijden, and Fred Ritchin as editors, and Heijdens Karwei for the design, so major kudos on this one.

So glad I found it at the bottom of the pile.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Ibidem” 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 70’s

 

 

 

 

Have you ever heard of Jack Reacher?

 

 

I was (mostly) unaware he existed until this year, when Amazon Prime dropped an easily-bingeable series, called “Reacher.”

At some point, I’d heard Tom Cruise starred in a movie or two called Reacher, and that a global fan base was pissed off about it, given how little he resembled the character.

 

Courtesy of Imdb.com

 

I’m mentioning it today, because a few weeks ago, I noticed a stack of soft-cover Reacher books on a new friend’s shelf.

He lent me one, and after I devoured it, he passed along 5 more.

I’m about to start the final book, so I have a better understanding of how this character, (and the extensive #1 best-selling book series Lee Child wrote based upon him,) could occupy such a powerful spot in the collective imagination of millions of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s easy to see why people rejected Tom Cruise.

(Despite the fact he’s since become an actual super-hero, jumping out of planes and climbing the Burj Khalifa w/o a net.)

Jack Reacher is 6’5″, 250 lbs, and that fact is repeated again and again.

(In one book, they even call him Bigfoot and The Incredible Hulk.)

 

Courtesy of jack-reacher.fandom.com

 

His sheer size makes him attractive, as he’s a true badass, in all the important ways.

(Great at hand-to-hand combat, weapons trained, you name it.)

Beyond that, Reacher is always the smartest guy in the room, and the wisest.

It’s part Sherlock Holmes, (with all the great deductive reasoning,) part Mr. Wolf from “Pulp Fiction,” (able to fix any jam, and dispose of any body,) and part Batman, minus the cape and extreme wealth. (Reacher is basically a vagrant.)

The character just roams the world, (like David Carradine in “Kung Fu,”) helping people, free of charge, based upon a moral code he learned in the US Army. (Where he was a Major as a top-level MP.)

Interestingly, Lee Child is an Englishman, (born in Coventry,) so near as I can tell, he came up with the archetype of a Wild West gunslinger meets UFC champion, and sends him into one, violent, dramatic, insane-but-slightly plausible situation after another.

And people just can’t get enough.

Because they want to be Jack Reacher.

The want to have it all.

Be the biggest, the strongest, the smartest, the wisest, the most honorable, and to always get the girl.

Reacher owns nothing but a tooth-brush, and goes when and where he pleases.

He can take out seven bikers all by himself, and is therefore the embodiment of the type of American power most people see as slipping into the dustbin of history.

So there’s also a wistful nostalgia about the whole thing.

If Dirty Harry captured the American id of the crazy 70’s, Reacher is just right for the 2020’s, as he kicks ass, but also treats people with respect.

(Were you to meet Reacher in real life, you would feel seen, and understood.)

 

 

 

 

 

I mention all this today, having just put down a photo book.

The submission came in a year ago, so I had no idea what was inside the box, and was therefore surprised to see “Snapshots 1971-77” by Michael Lesy, published by Blast Books in New York.

(I reviewed another of his books a few years ago, which also featured images from a historical archive.)

That appears to be his thing, sifting through archives, (as we learn in the opening essay,) so this fits neatly into Michael Lesy’s life obsession.

He confirms this in the essay, but also drops an interesting theory on us:

“Looked at individually, as visual documents, they reveal- or allude to- the hopes, fears, and desires of the people who made them. Sometimes snapshots tell the truth, sometimes they lie, and sometimes they do both.

Looked at in large numbers- in batches of a dozen or a hundred or a thousand- they line up lie bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope and form patterns… patterns of shared belief, patterns of shared meaning.”

I took that to mean if you glance at archives out of the corner of your eye, and digest image after image, you get a sense of a culture.

A place in time.

(And we’ve all heard the clichés about how to make a photograph meaningful: put it in a box for 40 or 50 years.)

The book features a host of snapshots scrounged from garbage dumpster; the outtakes of a San Francisco photo lab in the early-mid 70’s, but there are also some images from a photo lab in Cleveland.

(Not the tidiest premise, mixing them both up, but hey, you get what you get.)

I came away with a few impressions.

First off, Damn!, have Instagram filters, and the ease of cell-phone-camera operation, made regular people better at photography.

We’ve got a lot of bad crops, blurry images, and downright strange compositions overall.

The fashion is great, (as it is in all old pictures,) but mostly we see celebrations, or human gatherings.

Birthdays, weddings, confirmations, funerals, and drinking with one’s buddies.

There are a few images that would have been described as “racy” at the time, and one in which a topless, awkward woman is juxtaposed against a photo of a painting of a clown, which I thought was unnecessarily mean.

Overall, though, the book is fun.

It was a funky, crazy, powerful, illogical time, the 70’s, and I was reminded of “Airplane,” which mocked the whole era.

 

 

 

 

 

Just the other day, I encouraged my daughter to read a book alongside me, and we found “Deenie,” by Judy Blume, on a shelf in a closet.

 

 

It was written in 1973, and I was aghast at how much culture has changed.

Everyone was named Midge.

It was acceptable to insult people based upon appearances.

And there were words used that aren’t even in the dictionary anymore. (Have you ever heard of Klunk?)

I’m not sure I learned too much more about 1970’s America, looking at today’s photo book, but then again, I lived through it.

So maybe it’s important, that books like this explain the past to the future.

All those Gen Z kids need to know what it looked like back then, to understand where the world was, and where it’s going.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Snapshots 1971-77” 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: An Elegy

 

 

 

I published Jim Ferguson’s work in the column a while back.

(Probably five years ago, if I had to guess.)

 

 

 

 

I met Jim at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago, but had already heard of him, as he was buddies with my client Allen.

I always encourage artists to build out their friend and peer network, (especially at festivals,) because no matter how much we cross our fingers and hope the gallerist/curator/publisher/editor across the table will give you your “big break,” as often as not, it’s your friends who hook you up.

(Anyone who’s gone to art school knows this is true, and of course it’s not like I invented the concept.)

Art education is literally built upon the idea that other peoples’ informed opinions help you grow.

Of course, knowing whom to trust is a learning process, and occasionally we all have to tune out the noise and listen to our internal compass.

But 9 times out of 10, if your peer network is telling you the same thing, that means something.

So when Allen said he and Jim did that for each other, and were in critique groups together, I took that as a good sign.

By the time I met Jim, I expected to like his work, and in fact I did.

He showed me a series of urban, abstracted (but not abstract) images he made that reflected his “compromised” vision.

As I recall, Jim had little-to-no depth perception, so his photographs flattened out the picture plane, to the point a viewer could sense how that type of vision might affect a person.

Most of his photos were black and white, and the compositions and tonality were also strong, so it was easy for me to include him in one of my lengthy, rambling articles featuring the best work I saw at Filter that year.

 

Images courtesy of jimfphoto.com

 

I’m pretty sure I bumped into Jim once or twice again in Chicago, but wouldn’t bet my life on it.

Regardless, I was impressed by the man, and his talent, but I meet more than a hundred photographers each year, (due to my regular travels on the festival circuit,) and that was that.

Not-quite-a-year ago, I noticed a book come in the mail, with Jim’s return address, so I chucked it in the submission pile with the rest of the books, and didn’t give it another thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not long thereafter, (probably a month or two,) Allen reached out to tell me Jim had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and was very ill.

The end was imminent, Allen wrote, and then he followed up a day or two later to tell me Jim had passed away.

It caught me off guard, because within a year or so, I’d also learned of the passing of two artists I’d reviewed at festivals: Paula Riff and Nicholas Fedak.

Everyone dies.

I get it.

But I have a near-photographic memory, (for faces as well,) so I remember almost everyone I’ve met in the photo world over the past 13 years.

(Since I attended my first portfolio review in 2009.)

And up until that point, everyone was still around, as far as I knew.

They say things come in threes.

I get it.

This, however, was no fun at all.

And as soon as Allen told me about Jim’s death, I realized eventually, I’d need to open the book package and see what lay inside.

Today is that day.

 

 

 

 

 

Two days ago, here in Taos, the season changed.

It went from high summer to late summer, and it happens every freaking year, right around now.

The light shifts, and if you didn’t live here, (and weren’t a photographer,) you might not notice.

But the temperature changes subtly as well, so you need a long-sleeve shirt and sweat-pants in the mornings, and an extra blanket at night.

My daughter actually grabbed a fleece jacket this morning, when she woke up, and I didn’t blame her.

While much of America basks in pure-summer-frivolity, at the end of July here, I start thinking about winter.

It’s strange, I admit, but then again, my next-door-neighbor still has lights on a Christmas tree, inside his insanely-expensive-but-abandoned barn, so things just work differently in New Mexico.

(I’m not in Jersey anymore, that’s for sure.)

 

 

 

 

 

Frankly, if Jim hadn’t passed away, I’m not sure I’d be reviewing this book.

It’s a self-published, Blurb-book-type offering, called “Deflated Xmas,” and inside it has the subtitle: Ohhh, the plasticity!

The pictures read like point-and-shoot-pics, (more likely from a cell phone,) and given the rigorous craftsmanship of Jim’s previous work, I was taken aback.

This doesn’t seem like a serious art project, but it is fascinating as a cultural artifact, without question.

(Where I live, houses don’t look like this.)

And no one has inflatable Santas.

Nor reindeers, Olafs, or Abominable Snow Men.

But in Chicago, (or perhaps the Greater MidWest,) they’re obviously popular, because Jim was able to fill a small book with images of sad, wilted, nearly-dead Santas.

What stands for celebration, joy, and seasonal good cheer, when they’re inflated, reads as garbage when they’re crumpled on the brown, dead grass.

(Though more than one image featured a verdant lawn, so I guess Sad Santa sat out there for a while.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

True story: I had an inflatable Elmo balloon in my “Party City is the Devil” exhibition at the Harwood Museum of Art, here in Taos, in 2019.

(It closed one month before Covid was discovered in Wuhan.)

One night, a new janitor walked through my show, decided Elmo must be trash, (despite the accompanying placard, and the fact he was tethered to the wall,) so he cut the ribbon and threw it away.

The museum called me the next day, mortified, and they actually went to Santa Fe to get a replacement.

Deflated Elmo was so pathetic, the janitor could not conceive of him as art, so tossed him in the bin.

 

 

And that’s what this book feels like.

It’s a well-observed take on a strange-ass phenomenon, one I definitely have not seen before.

(Which makes it review-worthy.)

I don’t know the circumstances under which this book was made, and I can’t ask Jim Ferguson.

I feel like he’d be psyched to have it reviewed, and perhaps he used this little side-project as a distraction, while his body betrayed him.

I guess we’ll never know.

But this summer has felt like an inflection point, where big changes are afoot, even beyond the calendar ticking from high to late summer.

And no one really knows what’s up ahead, do they?

See you next week, and I hope you’re enjoying some relaxation, or vacation, should you have the chance to take it down a notch.

 

To purchase “Deflated Xmas,” 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: City vs Country

 

 

 

I just had some friends in from Houston.

(Texas clears out in summer.)

As is our custom with visitors, I took them on a big hike around the farm and adjoining neighborhood.

It was a gorgeous, sunny morning, perfect for a nice long walk, and as they’d already acclimated to the altitude, all was good.

Except for Houston. (The dog. And her name is pronounced HOW-ston, like the street in lower Manhattan.)

 

Houston St, NYC. (Image courtesy of Joshua Bright and the NYT.)

 

Houston, from Houston, had the time of her life.

A city-dog, born and raised, she was used to civilized walks around her Texas-urban neighborhood. (Meaning, low-density, car-driving city life, unlike NYC.)

Apparently, Houston has a best friend in Houston named Gracie, and they play together in dog parks.

(Those small patches of land devoted to off-leash dogs; a city-dog salvation.)

Here, however, on a 60 acre spread, with hills, cliffs, a stream, and an acequia, Houston went ape-shit.

For real.

That cute little terrier was sprinting around, smelling everything, rolling in horse dung, splashing through the water, and generally acting like a proper-wild-animal.

Given she resembled a black-and-white version of the famous dog from “Frazier,” it was quite the visual, and definitely entertaining.

Little Houston even snarled at, and backed down, our part-Pit Bull Haley, who is Wild-West-battle-tested.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, but that little city-dog came out to the country, and made it her turf.

Well done, Houston!

 

Houston. (Image courtesy of her parent.)

 

 

 

 

Of course, I had no idea she’d inspire the column.

I hadn’t looked at a book yet, much less grabbed one from the submission stack.

But once I did, everything fell into place.

I happened to pull a package from Wray Sinclair, which arrived in August of 2021, so I was clueless as to what laid within.

I found “Kyanite Miners,” a well-produced, self-published book, which was made in a remote, rare-mineral mine in Central Virginia.

One of my oldest desires as a critic is for a book, (or any work of art, really,) to show me something I haven’t seen before.

To introduce me to a world, a micro-community, or subculture that gives me more insight into existence than I had before.

These days, I review pretty-much every book that comes in, but some obviously are able to open my eyes, (or my mind,) while others leave me wanting more.

Today’s book, “Kyanite Miners,” fits the bill, because I’ve never even heard of Kyanite before.

Much less had I any knowledge of the landscape or culture of Central Virginia, so that’s one point for Wray Sinclair right there.

(Yes, I use the point system IRL, but only brought it to the column last week, for Nancy Baron’s cool ‘Zine.)

The book opens with a contextualizing essay, (as so many do,) but it took a slightly more philosophical approach, specifically referencing the detrimental nature of the Urban/Rural divide in America.

We all know it’s there, and I remember calling out John McCain, in 2008, for his coded Republican Presidential campaign slogan, “Country First,” which is a double-entendre, if you think about it.

 

(Image courtesy of Mary Altaffer/AP, via the NYT.)

 

These days, Country folk love to mock City folk, and vice versa.

Hating the other side has become a force of habit, yet how many people ask themselves whether America can properly function without either crew respecting the other?

Everyone knows that personal interaction can minimize prejudice, but also that Americans have self-segregated into area-bubbles that reinforce their worldview.

(And that’s likely to get worse, once people start choosing their State based upon abortion access, or a lack thereof.)

 

 

 

 

 

So, to get to the point, I like this book.

The portraits are well-made, and show the subjects in a respectful light.

(This is one of those books where the dudes will appreciate the way they’re depicted.)

The flow of portraits, “action” shots, and landscapes is good, especially as it’s a short book, and I love that the proper “establishment shot” is saved for the end.

(Most editors would have started there.)

The closing credits admit that Kyanite Mining was a client here, so we need to keep that in mind.

These images were likely NOT made solely as art, or a personal project, but I don’t think we ought to consider that a black mark on the artist.

(Everyone’s got to eat, after all.)

Wray wrote me a nice note, in which he admitted being a fan of the column, so I’ll return the favor.

Nice job, Wray!

Thanks for sending your book along.

As to the rest of you, see you next week!

 

To purchase “Kyanite Miners” 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: Riders on the Storm

 

 

 

 

I’m binge-watching “Power” at the moment.

(Season 6, the last of the original series, before it begat 3 spinoffs.)

 

Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

 

 

What brought me to this moment, (having now invested countless hours in a televised story,) is a classic case of Capitalism, straight out of one of my Economics textbooks at Duke University, back in the day.

They even have a name for it: the drug-dealer model.

Give someone a free sample of a (potentially) addictive product, and you may have yourself a customer for life.

The tactic is so good, it even works on people who know the potential risk.

In my case, a few weeks ago, I realized a new season of “Outlander” had come and gone, which meant I could probably watch it with a free week of Starz, courtesy of Amazon Prime.

(The world knows no better Capitalist than Future-Emperor Jeffrey Bezos.)

Now, in admitting I like “Outlander,” I’m outing myself as a sucker for high-quality-production values, and solid acting, in an immersive, period show, featuring great-looking leads with cool accents.

OK.
You got me.
It’s true.

But even if you take out the period element, (I majored in History as well as Economics in college,) if a show is truly immersive, and does a deep-dive into a subculture that teaches me about the world, I’ll probably get hooked.

So after I finished “Outlander,” knowing full-well I might risk overstaying my free week, I jumped into “Power” through the backdoor.

I began with a 2022 Spinoff, “Power Book IV: Force,” because I thought Joseph Sikora did a great job in “Ozark,” and his face was on the photo/graphic advertising the show.

 

Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

 

Set in Chicago, it’s only one season, so I was quickly ready for “Power,” Season 1, the NYC-based OG of the Power-Verse, (produced by low-key, mega-mogul 50 Cent,) and it’s been living in my brain ever since.

Do you want to know their trick?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drop the viewer into the middle of an ongoing story.

Whatever semblance of stability might have existed with the main characters, as the series begins, interrupt that status quo with some SERIOUS drama.

Basically…shit goes wrong, right away.

And then… it never stops.

Drama, violence, sex, loyalty, betrayal, shady-backroom-dealing, exploding skulls, slit necks, slip-skirts slipping off in yet another sex scene… just never let it stop.

I’ve since learned that “Power” was one of the most highly watched shows in the history of Pay Cable, (or what used to be Pay Cable,) and I’m not surprised it spawned ongoing storytelling.

Once you have, (against all odds,) created rock-solid, original IP, that shit doesn’t EVER stop making money.

(It’s why we have Harry Potter theme parks.)

And even though “Stranger Things” and “The Boys” haven’t even ended their runs yet, deep down, we know we’ll be absorbing some version of that IP until we die.

Now, where was I?

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I watched “Power,” paying attention to the story-telling tricks, (including taboo-for-shock-value, to keep them hooked,) it made me think of one story-telling, IP-Empire in particular.

I was consistently reminded of “Sons of Anarchy” which I binge-watched on Netflix 4 or 5 years ago.

(Honestly, who can remember?)

 

Courtesy of Imdb.com

 

SoA first taught me the cardinal rule of addictive television: Make crazy shit happen to your characters, ALWAYS, and then amp it up, CONSTANTLY.

If you never give the characters a minute to breathe, and are willing to put outer-edge violence and violation on-screen, with good actors in a fascinating sub-culture, you’re good to go.

“Sons of Anarchy,” created by Jersey Boy Kurt Sutter, was set in an Outlaw biker gang in Southern California.

I knew nothing about that world, but quickly learned some Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs function like Mexican drug cartels. (Who were also featured prominently in the show.)

Bit by bit, SoA shares a fictionalized version of the Biker-Gang-world, complete with its own lingo, and set of rituals.

To be clear, (as far as I know,) not all Motorcycle clubs are gangs, nor criminal organizations.

But some are, which means if you see a certain type of biker, with a certain type of cut, (or leather sleeveless vest,) and he comes up behind your car on his chopper, looking like a movie-bad-guy-henchman, well, you let that guy pass as soon as he wants to.

Which I did.
Yesterday.

As I drove my daughter to her summer camp, where she’d be playing a pirate in a local children’s production.

My daughter asked about the biker on the chopper, and even though she’s 9, it quickly led to a conversation about Capitalism, and the international market for illegal drugs, which is dominated by organized, criminal gangs in every country on Earth.

(I swear, that’s just how it happened.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I told her how to read the Motorcycle club, and local chapter, from the guy’s cut, or sleeveless leather vest.

(Brother’s Keeper, Alamosa, Colorado.)

Then I said, because selling “drugs” was illegal, but people still wanted to buy them, someone always had, and always would, rise up to sell it to them.

(The concepts of Supply and Demand are the core of Economics.)

She asked about which countries had big Mafias, so we discussed Italy, Mexico, Russia, China, and how as far as I knew, the Yakuza mostly stayed in Japan.

All the while, the guy on the chopper was right in front of us, cruising the highway into Taos.

Out of nowhere, the dude had became an official “topic of discussion,” which lead to a chat about the Global Drug Economy, with an inquisitive 9-year-old.

I’m telling you, those bikers have a SERIOUS presence.

 

 

 

 

 

OK, let’s keep it moving.

Photographer Nancy Baron, from Southern California, reached out a couple of weeks ago, and offered to send a little ‘Zine she’d just made.

From what I gathered, it had something to do with bikers on the highway.

In Southern California.

“Riders on the Ten” opens with a backwards orientation, and while I did peek at the accompanying post-card, which told me where to be begin, the other side says “Do Not Enter/ Wrong Way,” so design-wise, it’s a nice clue.

(Score one point for Nancy Baron.)

The title makes me think of “Riders on the Storm,” by The Doors, so then I’ve got Jim Morrison in my head.

And I fucking love that song.

 

 

(Score another point for Nancy Baron.)

From there, after the opening paragraph, informing us it’s the road between LA and Palm Springs, what you see is what you get.

(The front cover is actually a portly guy in a funny-visor helmet, on a Vespa, which is funny, so one more point for Nancy.)

It’s such a cute, little ‘Zine.

None of the dudes is as menacing as the guy we saw here in New Mexico, but just as you’re settling in to the whimsy, we have a run of images where the riders start staring Nancy down.

It’s such a tonal change, you notice right away.

And loved it, as I write here, all the time, how much I enjoy a good change of pace, to help hold a viewer’s attention.

Just when I wondered how far she’d take the stare-down pictures, we get a photo of a cop, giving us the peace sign, and then the ‘Zine is done.

Short and sweet.

Which is more than I can say for this week’s column.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Riders on the Ten” 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: Vanishing Points

 

 

 

Last Friday, I took the day off.

 

 

Normally, I tell you ahead of time, (and plan a proper get-away,) to help rejuvenate my creativity.

It’s a solid trick, and normally works well, but this time was different.

Rather than taking an actual vacation, I used the week-off to deal with some serious life stress.

Just like a mental-health-day isn’t really a “day off,” last week was about crisis management, and I guess the crises were averted.

But I can’t exactly say I feel refreshed.

(C’est la vie.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not mentioning this to complain.

(Though I know it might look like that.)

Rather, at the end of June, I gave a webinar for the Los Angeles Center of Photography, which was all about sharing strategies to maintain and support our creativity, over the long-term.

 

 

I’ve been a working artist for 25 years, so I created a list of 25 ideas that enable our creativity to flourish.

Much of the teaching would be familiar to you, (if you’ve been reading the column for years,) but of course some of it was new.

Somewhere in the middle of the lecture, I discussed the fact that outside forces in our lives, be they relational or geo-political, can have a massive impact on our creativity. (In addition to our happiness.)

Perpetual stress is hard on the body, and while creative practice is a brilliant form of self-care, sometimes it can get overwhelmed, and then diminished.

So today, feeling really bad, deep in my heart, I wondered how I was going to force myself to write the column, when all I wanted to do was put on my headphones and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist?

Denial doesn’t work, though, so I unboxed a book, read/looked at it, and went for a short walk to prep my thoughts. (As I often do.)

Don’t worry, I’m giving you all this context for a reason.

The truth is, I want you to decide for yourself whether the rest of this column, (the actual book review part,) is being colored by a bad mood, or whether I’m able to separate my emotions from my thoughts, on an admittedly difficult day.

Let’s get to it.

 

 

 

 

 

“Vanishing Points,” by Michael Sherwin, published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, showed up in the mail a year ago.

This is one I remember requesting, and I even recalled a bit about its concept, which seemed promising.

So I wasn’t flying blind.

I was excited to receive it, because the book directly challenged the current status quo, with respect to theories about staying in one’s lane.

Near as I can tell, it’s a book by a White, male American, that attempts to tell stories, and gather information, about historical, Indigenous/ Native American sacred sites across the United States.

“Vanishing Points” is the exact book we’ve been hearing, for several years now, should not be made.

It’s the opposite of a project made by an inside member of a culture, and as I believe we should be allowed our creative freedom, I was hoping the book would be awesome, enlightening, fascinating.

(Alas, I’m not loving it, though I really hoped I would.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it because I’m in a bad mood?

I really don’t think so.

“Vanishing Points” begins with a typical writerly essay, and then we get a statement by the artist, providing the backstory.

As I understand it, Michael Sherwin believes Indigenous philosophies might hold the key to a healthier relationship with nature, in a Climate Change era, and of course we’ve heard such things a million times before.

(I am not immune, living as I do in the midst of a historical Indigenous community in Taos, NM. Many gringos have been similarly seduced, through the centuries. And a more holistic relationship with the Earth would absolutely be a good thing.)

Again, I actually believe the roots of Michael Sherwin’s investigation are valid, and should be on-limits, so my problem lies with the execution.

The book is a jumble of actual landscapes, cultural landscapes, obvious tropes, and trash artifacts removed from sacred sites, then photographed in a studio environment.

While there are captions at the end, to give us the specifics, it reads too much like a typical-photo-book template, (replete with a final, academic essay telling us what we just saw,) and the solid, but expected quality of the story-telling, and image-making, left me wanting.

The photographs of earthen-mound-architecture were the stand-outs, and given how little most people know about the grassy structures, (which are so different from Mexico’s pyramids,) I think there could have been a much stronger project, had the artist done a deep-dive there.

With a dearth of general-cultural-knowledge about ancient, large-scale settlements like Cahokia, I believe this could have been something special, as a book.

But just as a Lenni Lenape warrior in 1700, in what is now New Jersey, could not have imagined Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, linking so much of Native America together this way, through the experiences of a wandering, White photographer… I couldn’t make it work, as a critic.

And I wanted to.
Truly.

I sat there, after putting the book down, and asked myself how to write the review?

How to honor the artist’s right to his vision, and applaud the effort that went into crafting it, while still finding fault with the results?

Being a critic can be hard sometimes.

But so can being an artist.

As always, we do the best we can, and take one day at a time.

See you next week.

 

To purchase “Vanishing Points,” 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: 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.