Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 2

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Why do people travel?

Why do we go places?

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

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

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

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

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

Not going places.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

(You know I’m right.)

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

Donald Trump.

All of that came Post-Great-Recession.

Wait, I’m getting depressing again.

Sorry.

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

And we’ll be able to travel again.

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

 

Part 2. The asshole

 

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

Me.

So, here’s my answer.

I think we all love a proper adventure.

All of us.

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

We escape into the fantasy of adventure and drama.

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

It is the hero’s journey.

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

(Minus the murder and mayhem, of course.)

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

How could you?

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Part 3. Take my last Euro

 

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

Saturday, February 15.

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

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

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

 

Dubble Trouble

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

 

Hotel Room View

 

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

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

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

Twisting and turning through the canal ring.

There really are few better feelings.

Turn here.
Look there.

Stop in a coffee shop and get stoned.

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

I had 20 Euro left.

Decisions, decisions.

Coffee shop or restaurant?

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

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

Say it fast.
Get it?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at the menu.

 

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

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

The young woman behind the counter shook her head no.

“No?” I said. “I can’t get that.”

She shook her head no.

“No,” she said.

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

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

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

“No,” she said.

I was bummed out, but keeping the faith.

She smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part 4: I have a question

 

Were any of you drunken slobs in college?

I know I was.

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

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

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

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

Long and deep.

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

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

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

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

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

So out the door I went.

For a moment, I stared at the water.

 

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

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

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

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

“That depends,” I replied.

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

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

“Do you love Amsterdam,” I asked?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My kind of guy.

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

Things I listen to at home.

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

Shout out to you, Amsterdam!

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

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

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

 

This Week in Photography: A Vision of Italy

 

It was hard to motivate today.

(That’s the truth.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all KNOW this, on some level.

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

Let me say that again: Art makes it better.

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

My guess?
Never.

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

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

Make art!
Now.

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

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

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

Am I simply speculating?

No.
I’m not.

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

(Yes, we’re going there.)

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

All those poor people in Italy, suffering.

Dying alone.

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

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

Riding scooters, shopping with vigor, doing the passagiatta.

 

Why have I not cried for their loss?

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

And what are they?

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

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

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

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

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

2013.

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

But most of it is empty.
And sad.

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

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

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

“Loneliness affects the people around you.”

How was this book not made 3 days ago?

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

How was this book not made 2 days ago?

There are empty restaurants, empty parks, empty streets.

How was this book not made yesterday?

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Bleak vision of empty Siena 

To purchase “Purtroppo Ti Amo,” click here 

 

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

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 1

 

Part 1: The Intro

Blue New Mexico sky, #2020

 

I was scared shitless to go to Amsterdam last month.

Like, palpably afraid.

I cried, before leaving, I was so terrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duh duh.
Duh duh.
Duh duh duh duh.

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

Nothing at all.
Quite the opposite.

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

 

Part 2. The journey

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, what the hell did I watch?

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

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

Killing Eve promo pic

 

Highly, Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

 

Part 3: The arrival

 

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

Do you have anything else pressing at the moment?

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

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

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

Schiphol Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I tell you this?

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

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

Hotel Mai, looking North

Hotel Mai, Interior Entry

Hotel Mai, Chinese statues in the entryway

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

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

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

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

Except for this once.

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

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

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

 

Hotel room view

Part 4: The coffee shops

 

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

Well, the first thing you do is change money.

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

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

Dam Square, the former palace

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

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

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

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

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

And it wasn’t open yet.

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

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

No weed or hash.

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

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

Good question.

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

(Brand loyalty, if you will.)

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

Pineapple Express pollen hash.

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

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

Disappointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bummer,” I said.

“Yeah, well.”

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

The Jolly Joker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guys

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

Gerrit’s face fell.

“What?” I asked.

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

And there I was bragging!

I felt awful.

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

“Thanks,” he said.

So I stayed, and we talked for another hour.

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

So impossible?

We’re all still trying to comprehend it.

 

This Week in Photography: A Coronavirus PSA

- - Working

 

I’m doing something different today.

(Like proper different.)

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

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

After a near death experience.
In Mexico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geared up for the weather in Amsterdam.

So what am I on about then?

Why no photo book?
Or art exhibition review?

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

Yes.
Yes, I have.

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

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

Is that right?

My terminology?

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

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

San Diego

Cincinnati

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

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

South by Southwest has been cancelled.

Italy is in complete lockdown.

Old people are dying, regularly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it OK to touch you,” I’d ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do what you can to stay calm and mentally grounded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week in Photography: John Baldessari

 

America is hopelessly divided.

Rendered in half.
Torn asunder.

So they say.

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

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

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

Game over.
Let’s all go home.

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

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

(Do you sense a BUT coming?)

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

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

Balanced.

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

What if?

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

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

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

Isn’t it a crazy thought?

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

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

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

Red AND Blue think that.

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

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

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

I benefit from the internet more than most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if I’m commenting on a repetitive loop?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You get the point.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Already done!

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

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

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

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

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

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

He made photographs out of secret handshakes!

He sang songs of Sol LeWitt art instructions.

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

Everywhere we see games and systems.
Lots of play.

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

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

Something that felt like the whole of life itself.

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

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

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

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

Highly, highly recommended.

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

To purchase “Pure Beauty” click here 

 

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

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

 

I tracked Storm Dennis for a week.

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

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

So yeah, I was worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course he was right.

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

Which teaches us two things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the same road.
Highway 1.

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

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

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

And so it did, a few days later.

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

Useless, for around a year.

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

One could hike in, or maybe take a helicopter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one fits the bill.

See you next week!

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

To Purchase “Going South-Big Sur” click here 

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

This Week in Photography: Re-discovering Marcel Sternberger

 

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

-Albert Einstein

 

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

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

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

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

Hitler, Hitler, Hitler.

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

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

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

He started Wars, and destroyed a Continent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, I want to talk about the past.

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

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

Everyone does it.

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

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

Is that such a big deal?

How many of us need that?

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

Even generations.

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

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

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

What then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was never published.

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

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

Until today.

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

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

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

Stories which haven’t happened yet?

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

To purchase “They Psychological Portrait” click here 

 

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

This Week in Photography: Conversations on Conflict Photography

 

I’m keeping it super-short today.

(Like, for real.)

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

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

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

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

Here’s the rub.

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

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

(Top, top people.)

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

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

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

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

It was easier not to engage.

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

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

In reply she asked me to reconsider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be forewarned.

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

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

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

Kudos for the job well done.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, dense resource book on conflict photography

To Purchase “Conversations on Conflict Photography” click here

 

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

This Week in Photography: Reviewing “Next of Kin”

 

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

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

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

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

Guaranteed waterworks.
Do you doubt me?

Consider the opening 2 minutes of “UP.”

How quickly did you cry?

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

(His criteria.)

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

(Rough synopsis.)

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course, we have photographs.

If ever a process were invented to aid memory, it was the one cooked up by the collective geniuses who figured out how to chemically capture light. (Or is it genii?)

Those brilliant 19th Century bastards who gave us the medium we now treasure.

And what a time it is to be a photographer.

Sure, photography was adopted by the masses each time technology allowed it, but the IPhone/smartphone revolution has taken things to new levels.

So much so that the concept of photography as separate and apart from other things is beginning to seem quaint.

So much so that venerable photo institution PDN closed last week, and the Washington Post folded its photography newsletter, almost simultaneously.

The nature of photography has changed, and it’s now a living thing, a visual language, and even temporary, as much as it’s supposed to be a physical, permanent record of what really was.

(Frozen light particles that bounced off of real things in the real world.)

Now, we photograph our parking space at the airport, or the information on a flyer we want to remember for a day, or a selfie because the light was good, but we’re never going to look at it again.

Digital photos, the lingua franca of our time, are not designed to be archived forever, like a contact sheet in 1983.

(Or 1883, for that matter.)

But objects, real physical things in the actual world, do retain resonance.

T-shirts can smell for a while, because of your cousin’s distinctive detergent. Boots and Barbies and Bibles can trigger memories too.

And of course books are also well-suited to capturing the spirt of the dead.

In this case, I’m thinking of “Next of Kin,” a recently published set of photobooks that turned up in the mail in late #2019, from Inbal Abergil, published by Daylight.

The covers, in blue and red, are marked Part I and Part II, and the first book has little text beyond a dedication and section breakers.

From the get-go, we see only one word, (a name,) printed sideways, but after one or two sections, you suspect you’re looking at the artifacts of dead soldiers.

I wasn’t certain until the third section, when we see a full storage unit stuffed with life-remnants, but the second section features some heavy-duty storage objects, so the hints are there quickly.

All the text beyond those soldier names is saved for Part II, which is a decision I understand. It says, this is not one object, but two, conjoined by the elastic band, and therefore, the viewing experience will be guided.

That is seemingly the main purpose of Part II, using words to house stories and memories from Gold Star families, the people who suffered the loss of a loved one.

To keep things intriguing, I think, the book opens with a historical death, from WWII, but of course most of the stories are modern, from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Most of the wounds are fresh.

The pictures are gracefully shot, and unlike that Super Bowl Commercial, are respectful with their handling of emotion. They’re sad, for sure, but not dripping.

(You can’t hear the strings in the score, if you know what I’m saying.)

Perhaps it’s a quibble, but I’d say that four commissioned essays, at the end of Part II, are a bit much. None are too long, and leading with the always-intelligent Fred Ritchin is a good idea, but given how many books I see, I think two contextual essays is plenty, maybe three if you’re being generous.

(Especially with all the other text.)

Early on, I asked myself why the artist was telling these stories, and if she mentioned her ethnicity when she originally reached out, I’d forgotten, as her name suggests she could be from many places.

Turns out, Inbal Abergil is Israeli, was a solder herself, and wanted to understand grief and loss in American culture.

This was a smart, elegiac, thoughtful way to explore the subject matter. And I hope all those families felt a measure of peace, after seeing their fallen warriors memorialized in such a classy way.

Bottom Line: Sad, graceful look at the aftermath of soldier’s deaths

To purchase “Next of Kin” click here 

 

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

Considering the Crucifix in the Wild West

Part 1. The Intro

 

Buckle up.
We’re going for a wild ride today.

(But at my wife’s request, I’m going to keep it moving.)

She liked that last week’s column was info-dense, but also clocked in at 1200 words, rather than the 2500 I was dropping with regularity in #2019.

After all the time I spent hoping that 2020 would finally come, it’s hard to believe the year is already 1/12 done.

And what does 2020 mean, anyway?

Obviously, I know that years are sequential, but who decided to start at 0?

We’re now exactly, or approximately 2020 years after Jesus, a Jewish guy in the Holy Land, was born?

Jesus, a young Jewish preacher, a rebel and an upstart, challenging the status quo in Israel, which was then a vassal of the Roman Empire.

He kicked up shit for the Jews the Romans put in charge, and also for the Romans themselves, and was killed for it in an awful way.

I did a bunch of reading on the subject this morning, readying for the piece, and was not surprised to learn the sad ending of the story, (for the man Jesus, anyway,) was all about money and power.

The Rabbis were charging people to get “clean” enough to pray, making bank, and Jesus called them out for it. (All this I learned from an archived BBC website.)

Later, a massive religion grew up in his name, with billions of people believing he rose from the dead, after being crucified to death, and that he was actually a combination of man, God, and the Son of God.

Judaism, the religion Jesus was born, lived and died believing, claims that no Messiah, no divine being, has yet come back to Earth, but billions of Christians disagree.

Honestly, as Jews, we must see some missed opportunities, with Islam and Christianity sprouting from our religion, becoming the two biggest faith systems on Earth, while we’re a few measly million people in this world.

Why am I on about this today?

Where can this possibly be going?

I know you must be asking yourself that.

Come on.
Admit it.

 

Part 2. Leaving comfort zones

 

The truth is that 2020 has felt different than #2019, and I’m shaking things up accordingly. (For example, no early-morning email check, to keep the cortisol down for a few hours.)

So last Friday, my wife and I decided to do something we never, ever do.

On Friday late-afternoon, after our son has his Hebrew practice, the four of us piled into the car to leave Taos, driving the hour and forty-five minutes to Santa Fe, just beating the dark, so we could attend a public opening at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

I’d been overdue to see an exhibit there, curated by Christian Waguespack, which focuses on the Penitente culture in Northern New Mexico.

It was a 17th through 20th Century local, Spanish Colonial Catholic tradition in which men would pray together, whipping and flagellating themselves, in a small building in each community called a Morada.

They also staged fake crucifixions, and other seemingly extreme Catholic traditions imported from Spain.

By the time we rolled into Santa Fe, the sky was rapidly blackening, and our collective hunger was rising.

The parent in me thought: we’ve got to avoid a collective food crash.

The art critic in me thought, let’s get to the museum first, since it’s on the way, and we’ll get more time there.

(Quick snack at Trader Joe’s it was.)

We arrived at the New Mexico Museum of Art shortly thereafter, after a short walk across the plaza, which featured large trees extravagantly lit in non-harmonious colors.

There were nice snacks in the lobby, and free admission, so my kids each ate a cheese chunk or two, though I was waiting for good restaurant food.

(The Santa Fe food scene is much better than ours in Taos, IMO.)

We headed through a lovely tent, covering the open courtyard of the early 20th Century building, and then into the special exhibition section in the Museum.

Only then did I learn the exhibition, “The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Christ: from Michelangelo to Tiepolo” was all about Jesus, his life, crucifixion, lamentation, and resurrection.

(I’d decided to come trusting it would be cool, not bothering to learn the details ahead of time, if I’m being honest.)

And there were indeed masterpieces on the walls, some of which were drawn, others a wash in a light ochre.

Michelangelo, stood out, as did Filippo Lippi.

Cornelis Cort, The Crucifixion, after Giulio Clovio, 1568, Hand-colored engraving with bodycolor, heightened with gold and white, printed on blue-gray silk.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

School of Andrea Mantegna, The Descent from the Cross, 1470–1500, engraving.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Michelangelo, The Three Crosses, 1521-1524, red chalk.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

My daughter fled quickly, with my wife in tow, and I only briefly heard, “she wants to draw at the kid’s station out there.” (I later learned the pictures freaked her out.)

My son and I flitted about, getting hungrier by the moment, with many of the pictures being properly ogled by the a nice-sized crowd.

All the masterpieces were on loan from the British Museum, so it was an opportunity for New Mexicans to see old-school, proper European art, without having to leave the continent.

Frankly, I felt like the smart move would be to come back, without the crowds, to sink into the details of admiring a 500 year old drawing, without someone waiting their turn.

(Selfish, maybe, but it’s how I felt.)

But you can certainly see how Jesus imprinted on my mind rather fiercely, and off we went to the Penitente show, “Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood.”

Here’s where I tell the truth, because the same curator was responsible for both exhibitions.

The paintings, drawings and photos in the smaller Penitente show, while local and younger, had a creepy, scary, powerful, religious juju that blew me away.

Paul Burlin, The Sacristan of Trampas, 1918, oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase, before 1922 (118.23P) Photo by Blair Clark.

Russell Cheney, New Mexico (Penitente), 1929, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Russell Cheney, 1942 (1181.23P) Photo by Cameron Gay.

I kept saying, “I need to come back. I need to come back.”

(Rather than, “I’d like to come back.”)

Because each object was so tight, and in the smaller rooms, with the lower ceilings, in which the Northern New Mexican architecture so clearly matched the subject matter in the work, everything felt just perfect.

And experiential.

B. J. O. Nordfeldt, Penitentes – The Crucifixion, n.d., etching, 10 1/8 × 12 1/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Emily Abbott Nordfeldt, 1957 ( 597.23G) Photo by Cameron Gay.

Gustave Baumann, Penitente Ceremony, Gustave Baumann, 1922, woodblock print, 7 3/4 x 6 7/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase with funds raised by the School of American Research, 1952 (1752BH.23G) ŠNew Mexico Museum of Art. Photo by Cameron Gay.

Gene Kloss, Penitente Good Friday, 1936, drypoint etching, 14 3/4 x 17 in. On long term loan to the New Mexico Museum of Art from the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration (646.23G) Photo by Cameron Gay.

For all the talk of Meow Wolf, (which in fairness I have yet to visit,) and the Instagramification of the world, with backdrops mattering more than reality, I thought this show was a breath of fresh air.

(Of creepy air, I mean.)

I didn’t have enough time to process each piece, with my stomach rumbling, but the self-flagellations were there and the crucifixes.

Ernest L. Blumenschein, Penitente Procession (Study for Sangre de Cristo Mountains), circa 1925, ink, watercolor, Chinese white on paper mounted on paper, 9 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Helen Greene Blumenschein, 1985 (1985.507.4) Š The E. L. Blumenschein estate. Photo by Blair Clark.

Cady Wells, Head of Santo (Head of Christ), circa 1939, oil and watercolor on paper, 22 3/4 × 15 1/4 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of the Cady Wells Estate, 1982 (1982.16.40) Photo by Blair Clark.

There was one standout, black and white documentary photo by Miguel Gandert, of some 20th Century Northern New Mexican Penitentes, in street clothes, outside the Morada.

Miguel A. Gandert, Hermanos de La Morada, NM, 1992, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, 2016.20.1, Š 1992, Miguel Gandert

So Badass.

You know, week ago, I hadn’t given Jesus much thought.

(Though with American politicians like Mike Pompeo actively awaiting the Rapture, maybe we should all think about Jesus more often?)

But then I saw those two art shows, and the imagery bore down into my consciousness like a dental drill.

 

Part 3. Kick it up a notch

 

After a weekend spent moving washing machines, learning stick fighting, and hanging pictures, we kicked it up a notch on Tuesday, when my wife had the day off from work.

She suggested we cross the border to San Luis, Colorado to visit the Stations of the Cross Shrine that looms above town. (Among other reasons.)

Jessie had always wanted to do it, and again, in 2020 we’re gunning for new things, so I said yes.

I swear, I made no connection to the intense, Catholic work I saw in Santa Fe, nor did I plan to write this column.

We parked the car next to the humble town hall, and were instantly met by a huge old dog, who leaned into me for pets.

He was sweet, and a chunky collar said his name was Bam Bam, the Mayor.

It had snowed the night before, and Bam Bam accompanied us across the street, and a little foot-bridge, where we soon blazed our own trail in the 5 inch snow, as no one had yet gone all the way up the hill.

Bam Bam seemed an apparition, or a spirit guide, there was no way around it, and when he chose to turn back, we waved, and kept on alone.

We broke trail in fresh snow against a perfectly blue sky.

There were no people around.

It was all ours.

Up we went, stopping occasionally to check out the sculptures honoring Jesus’ last ascent, with his cross, to be crucified.

I believe there were 14 bronze sculptures in all, by local artist Huberto Maestas.

(You knew I’d come back around to it, right?)

Jessie and I remembered the Carmel Mission, and how it was similar in its intense combination of beauty and spirituality.

But the setting here, on a mesa-top called the Hill of Piety and Mercy, surrounded by snow-covered, jagged Rocky Mountain peaks in the Wild West, was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

I stopped at the Pieta sculpture, Jesus draped across Mary’s lap, (which I now know is a subset of the Lamentations, thanks to the excellent NM Museum of Art Gallery Guide,) and made this video for you.

 

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a more stunning location for a piece of art, nor at a more perfect moment to view it.

I’ve seen better art, in more famous places, but nothing more perfect than this spot.

Finally, we circled around to try to enter the shrine, which is in a Spanish Colonial style, (in honor of the local ancestors,) but it was obviously locked on a snowy morning.

So down we went, occasionally pausing to take in the Sangre de Cristos to the East, and the Conejos Mountains to the West, with the sun burning happiness into our cheeks.

Listen up.

If you’re coming to Taos, or Santa Fe, or Southern Colorado, I can not suggest this place more highly.

(And I didn’t even get into the Shrine.)

The strangest part, if you ask me, the one that ties this tale together, across the Millennia, is that I would have bet anything the chapel, La Capilla de Todos Los Santos, was built in the 19th Century.

Taos families pushed North into the San Luis Valley in the 1840’s, and the town was officially founded by those Spanish Colonial Catholics in 1851.

But it was a town made of dirt back then, at the edge of nowhere.

With no resources.

(I guess I didn’t think it through.)

So my research turned up that it was built, as an offering of peace and love from the San Luis parish, in 1986!

The 80’s!
Again!

Are you kidding me?

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

 

Everyone wants to be down-to-earth?

Right?

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

It means relatable.

Grounded.

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

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

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

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

To his face, on camera.

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

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

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

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

Tony Stark can fuck off, for all I care.

I’m glad he’s dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I promise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there were suddenly hipsters in China.

Hipsters!

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

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

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

With one glaring exception.

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

3 years later, in 1989.

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

Markets. Street life.
Villages.

People.

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

It’s like I was waiting for something.

 

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

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

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

Parallel timelines?

Right?

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

Ai Weiwei and his hipster, artist buddies.

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

So cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar? (Everything old is new again.)

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

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

Nasty business.

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

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

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

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

How bizarre.

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

Hark!

What’s that I see up ahead?

Do you see it?

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

I’m sure I see it.

Do you?

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

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

Spring, I say.
Spring!

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

A T-shirt!

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

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

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

Mostly, though, he likes to grunt.

So imagine him thusly, back in 2005.

SCENE:

Grunt.

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

Grunt.

END SCENE:

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

How can you not feel just a bit better?

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

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

What’s wrong with you?

War with Iran, you say?

Pish tosh, I say.

Impeachment?

Poppycock!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sad pictures.
More sad pictures.

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

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

Do you see what I did there?

I bait-and-switched you.

Silly opening, depressing photos.

Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Weird should always be good.

 

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

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

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

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

Really strong portraits of people, through their personal spaces.

I have a tiki lounge, therefore I am?

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

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

anns 003

 

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

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

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

A little cold.

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

Last night.

So everything is covered in powdery white.

See you next week.

This Week in Photography: Laughing at a Scary World

 

Part 1. The Intro

Believe it or not, I used to be funny.

And this column was often absurd.

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

For a while, anyway.

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

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

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

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

That’s just the way it worked out.

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

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

Fuck.
Shit.
Asshole.

(See, I can still do it.)

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

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

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

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

Right?

 

Part 2. Will he ever get to the point?

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

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

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

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

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

Who doesn’t love a good graveyard?

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

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

To innovate, and experiment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, really?

Am I funny?

How am I funny?

Am I here to amuse you?

Tell me, how am I funny!

(Goodfellas never gets old.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end times.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part 3. Sad clowns

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

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

(That’s my take, anyway.)

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

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

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

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

How has it come to this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, I wondered?

What did they miss?

What am I missing?

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

The horizon!

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

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

How could I have not seen it?

How did those 100 people miss it too?

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

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

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

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

Even if we feel like crying.

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

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

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

This Week in Photography: “The Unwanted”

 

Happy New Year, everybody!

Welcome to 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be right back.

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

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

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

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

And what of it?
What’s the takeaway?

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean?

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

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

Wait a second…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To show the world, from the inside.

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

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

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

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

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

So I was able to create an experience without preconceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time around, we’ve got Trump.

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

Bottom Line: Powerful, scathing look at homelessness in America

To purchase “The Unwanted,” click here

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

This Week in Photography: A Secret Chapel Under London

- - From The Field

 

Part 1: Words of Wisdom

Man plans, God laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say what now?

 

Part 2: Meet me at the London

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

When I saw stairs heading down, I followed them.

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

Down into the heart of European history.

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

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

 

Deeper and deeper.

What would I find?

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

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

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

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

 

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

Transfixed.

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

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

So listen up, people.

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

(I guarantee it.)

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

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

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

We appreciate you!

Hope you have a lovely Holiday season!

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

 

Part 1: The Intro

Hi there, everybody.

How are you?

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

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

(You know it’s true.)

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

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

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

(Staycation #2019 instead.)

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

One year ends, the next begins.

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

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

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

 

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

So let’s get to it.

 

Part 2: Which Festival is Best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cohesion and teamwork are important.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there’s my two cents.

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

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

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

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

As usual, the artists are in no particular order.

 

Part 3: The Photographers

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

You can’t make this shit up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really lovely stuff.

 

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week!

This Week in Photography: A Review of “newflesh”

 

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

(I think he meant it as a compliment.)

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

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

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

That’s insane!

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

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

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

Millennials in particular.

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

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

Some things are better than they used to be.

This, I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including sex scenes.

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

As does his gangster Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it is.

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

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

How could that not be interesting?

So, what IS happening?

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

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

Sorry.
Got off track there.

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

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

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

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

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

(As an adjective, not a noun.)

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

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

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

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

Of silhouette and shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a criticism. Let’s be clear.

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

If we see this book as a generational mood-ring, as a barometer of the vibe out there, I’d say it’s pessimistic for sure.

Lots of this art was abstracted, which means I have to go on feeling, rather than idea.

By suggestion, rather than direction.

And if the American Empire is indeed on the decline, (of course it is,) and if this generation of Americans will have a lower standard of living than their parents, (seems likely,) and if the planet is rebelling against us at the current moment, (somewhat obvious,) then this is the kind of art young people would make.

Isn’t it?

Where’s Obama with his Hope and Change when you need him?

Bottom Line: An excellent, queer, hyper-current exhibition catalogue from New York

To purchase “newflesh” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: Understanding China

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Consider yourself warned.

We’re going deep today.

I’m writing on Thanksgiving, you’re reading on Black Friday, and these are highly-loaded days in America.

In their honor, today, we’re doing a proper examination of these perilous, political times in the United States and China, Earth’s dueling super-powers.

For my American analysis, you already know I’ve got the goods, as I’ve been spewing on about American politics since Rob gave me this platform. (Or, more accurately, since Thanksgiving 2011.)

With respect to China, I’ve got a BA in History from Duke, I studied Chinese art history at the undergrad and graduate levels, taught elements of its art history at the college level, watched more Hong Kong action films than I could ever count, learned bits about Buddhism, and studied Chinese martial arts as well.

(Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and I’m familiar with Qi Gong.)

Finally, on the subject of my Chinese street cred, I wrote an article here in 2011, after artist Ai Weiwei was unjustly kidnapped and imprisoned by the Chinese government, that was highly critical of China’s rulers.

(I called them assholes.)

After we published, I battled Chinese government trolls in the comment section for a few hours, which Rob and I still talk about. (And we wondered, will they return today?)

This time, though, I’m going to sit down in the nuance.

This will NOT be a story in which I only call the Chinese government to task, condescending in my moral superiority, confident I know better.

Not today.

Rather, we’re going to look at the bigger picture.

Because China in #2019 is as impossible to ignore, (and as good at generating headlines,) as Donald J. Trump.

And that’s saying something!

In preparation for this article, I read almost everything I could the last two weeks, and encountered some excellent journalism in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and this amazing piece by the ICIJ that focuses on the second major leak coming out of China in the past month.

But even more impressive, (I think,) is that we’re also going to offer you some actual, unpublished, hot-off-the-presses documentary photography, straight from the front lines in Hong Kong, which has been roiled by massive protests this year.

My Antidote student, Hillary Johnson, has strong ties to the martial arts community in Hong Kong, and has spent a significant amount of time there over many years.

She recently put together a small Go Fund me campaign to raise money to get to Hong Kong to document the protest movement, and just got back.

These photographs are current, is what I’m saying.

And she both knows the city, and has deep ties there.

The Hong Kong protests are only part of what I want to discuss, but it’s exciting to be able to share Hillary’s work while it’s all happening.

Photo from the 7th floor of the Eaton Hotel that sits right at the intersection where the battle took place at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. Flowing in and out of the intersection like a murmuration of birds, throughout the day and night of fighting with the police, the protesters worked together tirelessly and with great courage to keep the police at bay. It seemed clear they had studied military history and tactics, particularly Roman battle techniques. They made a phalanx at the barrier and inched towards the police under cover of umbrellas which protected them from the tear gas. They were finally driven out by police around 3 or 4 am.

On November 18th protesters used anything they could find to make barricades during the battle that went on for more than 24 hours at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. They pulled bricks from sidewalks and broke them in half, bamboo from scaffolding, street signs, anything they could get their hands on was immediately transformed into a weapon, shield or barrier. The sound of things being dismantled was a relentless, unearthly tapping of brick against brick, metal against metal.

 

Part 2. Understanding China

 

When I wrote the Ai Weiwei article, I rememberer mentioning the movie “Hero,” and how it had chilled me to hear the phrase “Our Land,” and then see Jet Li’s character (spoiler alert) give up his life to allow an Emperor to rule a united China.

I thought it meant they were coming for us, (which they kind of are, but more on that later,) but in the ensuing years, I’ve come to see the film differently.

What I now know of Chinese history is that, as long as it is, the periods of Chinese unity led to prosperity and relative peace.

But when smaller powers were jostling within, in a country as big as China, with a historically huge population, wars broke out, and tens of millions of people died.

(This happened a lot.)

In the late 19th Century, most recently, the Taiping Rebellion killed an estimated 60-70 million people.

And that was an uprising against the Qing Dynasty, a weak power that conquered “China” from Manchuria, in the Far North.

There was also the time when the Mongols defeated China and ruled in the Southern Song Dynasty, in the 13th Century.

The pride of the dominant Han was damaged then too.

Fast forward again, and China in the Qing Dynasty was so underpowered that England carved it up, during the Opium wars, imposing the drug on the country, and taking territory, like Hong Kong.

When the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed, just before World War I, the Japanese came in as conquerors, and from then though World War II, (featuring things like the Rape of Nanjing,) China was humiliated by a neighbor, and again millions of people died.

Next, there was the violence during the Communist Revolution, when Mao Zedong took over, which led to the partition of China and Taiwan. (Which China does not recognize.)

And millions more starved when Mao did as he pleased with the Centralized economy.

(Even in a united China, under Mao, lots of people died, back in the day.)

So here we are in #2019, and China is now united, but with the resources of a mega-power, due to its embrace of Western Capitalism.

The leadership under the unapologetic dictatorship, (more on that later,) consistently stresses the value of a united, powerful China, and its citizens, many of whom have left poverty for the middle class, (or outright wealth,) appreciate the stability.

Xi Jinping, China’s power-hungry ruler, stepped in at this time of unprecedented prosperity, and decided China was ready to embrace its role as a Superpower, rather than cloak it, as had been the case since Deng Xiaoping.

So now Xi has an axe to grind with the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans.

(Russia, with whom it shares a border, is a natural rival as well, but certainly they have things in common too.)

Xi also lived through watching his father get taken down, and reeducated, so he has a chip on his shoulder there as well.

Given all I’ve written so far, are we really surprised that a guy who had the rules re-written so he can be dictator-for-life would claim some rocks in the South China Sea, engage in a huge trade war with a super-power, lock up and torture 1 million Muslim minorities in concentration camps, or try to take Hong Kong’s (partial) democracy in plain view of the world?

 

Part 3: The War on Terror

 

After 9/11, the United States of America started two ground wars, one in Afghanistan, and the other in Iraq.

(One is still ongoing, and the other wrapped up under President Obama, but we sent troops back in country this Fall.)

After the attacks that killed 2000+ Americans, and cost untold billions, travel in airports changed forever. Privacy laws changed, (remember the Patriot Act?,) and though George W. Bush admirably argued against it, Anti-Muslim sentiment in this country increased.

Overall, the US spent TRILLIONS of dollars on those Middle-Eastern wars, killed tens of thousands of people, and locked some up indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay too.

Today, in #2019, we are currently running our own detention (or concentration) camps for illegal immigrants, depending on your preferred term.

Children get sexually abused there, or taken from their parents forever.

They sleep on cold concrete floors, and are denied hygiene and occasionally health care.

(The US Government actually defended the lack of hygiene in a video clip that went viral.)

We also incarcerate millions of Americans for a drug war that is destroying our neighbor, Mexico, and a massive percentage of our overcrowded prison population is comprised of people of color.

Plus, our police, (at least in Dallas,) now shoot African-American people in their homes, while they’re playing video games, or eating ice cream.

You really can’t make this shit up, but doesn’t make it any less tragic.

Honestly, the only thing I like about Vladimir Putin is that he’s always calling us out for our hypocrisy.

We’ve taken territory.
We’ve removed governments.
We’ve meddled in elections.

On this, he’s not wrong.

Can we really look at what China is doing with the (mostly) Uighur population in Xinjiang and say we’re that much better than they are at the moment?

The Uighurs were killing Han Chinese, in terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2014, and then Xi Jinping said make it stop.

He said, use the power of the Dictatorship to make it stop.

And so they did.

They built camps from scratch, increased facial recognition surveillance, locked up 1 million people, torturing them, threatening their free relatives to stay quiet, and went about brainwashing the Islam and Uighur out of them.

All since 2017!!!

And again, I ask, in this age of Trump, with our camps, and our history of locking up the Japanese in World War II, slavery, and the genocide of Native America, are we so sure we’re superior? .

We did lots of torture in those CIA black sites during the War on Terror, in addition to waterboarding, sound and light torture, sleep deprivation, and many other goodies.

No wonder we’re all getting headaches from the complexity of #2019.

 

Part 4: Defending Democracy

 

I take my freedom of speech very seriously. (As you know.)

I’m thankful to Rob Haggart, my amazing editor, for supporting those rights for the last 9.5 years, and for paying me to share my opinion with you.

He has never censored or edited me, in all these years.

Not once.

And when I suggested this column, he said go for it!

Because I’ve been thinking a lot about China’s threat to our free speech lately.

As Xi flexes his muscles, (and all these countries become interdependent,) like with anything else, might makes right. It’s why Pakistan and other Muslim countries stay silent as China jails and tortures other Muslims in Xinjiang.

They’re addicted to Chinese money, and the customer, (and boss) is always right.

So I was immediately concerned the second I read that China had come down so hard on Houston Rockets GM Darryl Morey’s Pro-Hong-Kong-protestor tweet back in October.

Mr. Morey had only retweeted a generic message of support from his personal account, and it literally turned into an international incident overnight.

I cannot overstate how big a deal it became, both to China, the NBA, and US-Chinese relations.

Joe Tsai, an Alibaba founder, and new owner of my beloved Brooklyn Nets, wrote a long, open letter on Facebook echoing some of the history I mentioned in Part 1, and calling the protestors separatists. (Ironically, he’s Taiwanese, and was educated in the US.)

Chinese power has come into America, and apparently pressed for Mr. Morey to be fired.

Several times in the aftermath, China made clear in writing that it believes free speech does NOT include criticizing its government, and that it also now feels that practice should not be limited within its national borders.

People outside China, workers within the American Capitalist system, should have their freedom of expression limited, says the People’s Republic of China.

If you’re not a little concerned by that, I think you should be.

And I told all of that to Hillary Johnson, my intrepid student, before she left to support the Hong Kong democracy movement this month.

I told her Xi Jinping was willing to do anything to win.

That these protestors did not stand a chance.

That it would be dangerous.

She said she knew all these things, and was determined to go anyway. She wanted to be there with David, against Goliath.

I told her I admired the hell out of her bravery, and that I’d support her as I could.

The photographs Hillary made, over the course of a week+ in Hong Kong in November 2019, are her vision of a community she, (and I) desperately appreciate. (Or a part of her vision. She had hardrive drama, so this is only a small sample of what she shot.)

China came along earlier this year, and wanted to expand its power to extradite anyone from Hong Kong to the mainland judicial system.

Hong Kong’s citizens, especially the young, realized this was not a power-grab, but a complete takeover.

If it had succeeded, if Carrie Lam, (the puppet) had gotten her way, then any freedom would have evaporated.

You say the wrong thing, and you can all-of-a-sudden end up locked up forever in a Chinese political prison.

It would be the same implicit threat hanging over folks in Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. (Because the mainland Chinese made a devil’s bargain, of wealth and security for human rights and freedom.)

Here in the United States, we have, for most of our history, preferenced the latter at all costs.

Do we still?

Trump wants to be President for life.

He jokes about it all the time.

The dictators Putin, Xi, and Erdogan are his friends.

And now he’s about to face an impeachment trial, with an election coming up next year.

Where does it all end?

I have no idea.

But the Hong Kong protestors forced China to back down on the extradition law, and just supported the pro-democracy movement in local elections.

What happens next?

Again, I have no idea.

Happy Black Friday!

A nurse who must remain anonymous, photographed on November 18th during a battle between protesters and police for the intersection of Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd in the Jordan neighborhood in Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR. She volunteered to care for protesters overcome by teargas or suffering from other injuries. The police shot a mix of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets as well as live rounds directly at protesters.

The mother of the young protester who both must remain anonymous pose for a portrait holding a copy of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy magazine. This page features a heroic painting of the protesters by @harcourtromanticist. They are a rare example of a family stronger together now than before. Many parents have disowned their children for being involved in the protests.

Anonymous young woman. She is a college student and her boyfriend is a front line protester. She said, “I am not as brave as him but I want to help so I am learning first aid, so I can help them when they go to the front line.” She was inside the Prince Edward MTR station when the police locked the station down, trapping riders and innocent people for over an hour while triad thugs, dressed in all black so they could look like protesters, came in and beat ordinary people, (who were not protesters,) indiscriminately with blunt instruments and batons.

A family of a front line protester. He is just 21 and lives with his mother and grandmother. His mother worked at Police headquarters for 11 years. In the beginning of the movement, she and her mother didn’t believe the stories about police brutality and were against the son protesting. It almost split the family apart. They finally came to see the stories were true and though she worries about him every time he goes out she supports the movement and feels that in her job she can keep an eye on things and know what is really going on.

This woman so fears the police that this is the only we she could be photographed for publication. Because of her work, so many people know her, some of them police, it was completely unsafe to show her face or photograph her any recognizable place that could be identified. Her husband could not be photographed at all for fear of reprisals.

These three gentlemen are part of a confederation of labor unions representing different industries. The two wearing masks have been deeply involved in the movement. To show their faces would put them at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Thousands of people have already been arrested and there are reports of intense police brutality including beatings, arrest and rape. Of the election, one from the Cross Sector Resistance said, “It showed that the people will not submit to pandering or terrorism, but recognize that human rights are non-negotiable.”

This man is an organizer and labor leader in Hong Kong. He said, “The Chinese government has already seen my face, so I’m already dead! Let’s do one photo facing away from the camera anyway.” The five raised fingers stands for 5 demands and not one less. He sees labor issues as being inextricably tied to fundamental concepts of freedoms embodied in the five demands and the pro-democracy movement.