This Week in Photography: Guille and Belinda

 

 

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

(Strange times.)

 

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

Most people would consider it paradise.

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

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

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

At least, no one beyond my family.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Such is life.

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

 

Bizarro Superman

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To get back to the beginning, this book features a lengthy series the artist made about her two cousins, who lived on what is now an abandoned farm in the back country of Argentina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sure you’ll love it.

I know I did.

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

 

This Week in Photography: Love in Wartime

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to #2021.

 

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

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

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

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

But really, the letters steal the show.

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

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

Heavy stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But perhaps brighter days are ahead?

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

Just a thought.

See you next week.

 

This Week in Photography: Supporting Women

 

My daughter felt like shit this morning.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

courtesy of WebMD

 

Then I made her breakfast, and we commiserated.

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

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

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

We grownups made this mess.

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

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

 

Avatar Aang (courtesy of Nickelodeon)

 

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

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

 

Avatar Korra (courtesy of Nickelodeon)

 

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

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

Hard to argue.

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

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

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

Seriously, people, What the Fuck!

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

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

Can’t we do better, as a species?

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

See you next week!

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Projects from PhotoNOLA, Part 2

 

Metro Pictures is going out of business this year.

 

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

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

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

These are not unrelated situations.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Neither is fame, nor acclaim.

All three goals are elusive, unlikely, and fleeting.

 

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

And those things are priceless.

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

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

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

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

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

 

image courtesy of Artnews.com

 

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

Quite the opposite.

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

That’s the big news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not for my carbon footprint, my children’s mental health, or my hangovers.)

I’ve been preaching for years that endless growth is not only unattainable, and unsustainable, but unachievable.

Efficiency of resources, and energy, is a far more important goal.

And if you push yourself in your art practice, the difference it will make in your self-confidence and self-esteem will give you back so much energy you would otherwise waste on anxiety.

That’s the truth.

So today, we’ll look at work from six artists I met during the online reviews at PhotoNOLA, and tomorrow I’ll meet a whole new batch of photographers at the online reviews for the Month of Photography Denver.

That said, let’s pivot to sharing the second batch of my favorite portfolios with you, and honor the hard work these women and men put in to get their projects in front of my Zoom screen.

(As usual, the artists are in no particular order.)

We’ll start with George Nobechi, whom I met at PhotoNOLA in 2017, and published his work after that festival as well. George is a perfect example of what I’m talking about today, as he switched careers to commit to his photography, and studied in workshops with people like Sam Abell to learn his craft.

As a half-Japanese guy who moved back to his ancestral homeland in 2017, after living away for many years, he has a complicated relationship with Japan, and its history. So he poured himself into a project to understand the country, and himself better.

I’ve written many times of my love for Japanese literature and the 19th Century woodblock printers Hokusai and Hiroshige, and these photos channel some of that genius. Not saying they’re at the same level of brilliance, but there are commonalities in the vibe, and energy the work projects.

I’m sure you’ll love these photographs.

 

When I met Eric Kunsman, I had a bit of a laugh, as I’d heard of him obliquely only a few weeks earlier, in one of my Antidote online classes.

A student was experimenting with the idea of photographing pay phones, and after a polite amount of time, someone cleared their throat, and announced there was an artist out there who had committed to the subject so well that it was kind-of off limits to others at the moment.

And that artist, who remained unnamed that night, was Eric Kunsman, a professor and master printer in Rochester, NY. Eric told me he’d moved into a lower-income neighborhood, and in order to get to know his community and surroundings, he looked very hard, and noticed that pay phones were broken down relics in plain sight, as not everyone can afford a cell phone, or the attendant bill.

So he became a legit expert in the social and community dynamics behind pay phones, both in Rochester, and then around the US. The images themselves are both bleak and beautiful, which is a style I always appreciate when it’s done well, as it is here.

 

Ruth Lauer Manenti is another artist I’d met previously, and I published her work after the Filter Photo Festival back in 2019. She’d been trained as a painter, and I loved the delicate and gorgeous sensibility she created with objects, though at the time, I recall re-editing her work on the review table, as I thought there were essentially two groups in one.

Ironically, I did it again this time, (virtually,) as Ruth had moved outside with her camera, in pandemic reality, and photographed poetic, artful landscapes in her surroundings in upstate New York. I was most enamored of the photographs that seemed to step out of time, and will share them with you here.

 

Fernanda de Icaza joined me from Mexico, but I fell in love with a series she made while living in Japan. Frankly, Fernanda had two series from Japan, with her primary project being in a monastery where she lived for some time, in silence.

Those pictures were cool, for sure, but during a short break from that monastic life, Fernanda went to Tokyo to party her face off at dance clubs, and the wild, colorful, chaotic energy she captured was dynamite.

I suspect she appreciated this world all the more, for living most days with the quiet, but we’ll let you decide for yourself.

 

Stephen Starkman, from Canada, is an example of an artist whose work grew on me over the course of our 20 minutes. At first, the images seemed disjointed, as they were not “about” a subject or concept, per se.

But as you look at them, there is a consistency of vision, and a sense of beauty, that I really came to enjoy. I think you’ll dig them too.

 

Last, but not least, we have Rosalie Rosenthal, who makes photographs with her teen-aged daughter that consider mid-life.

There are Dutch vanitas-style still lives, and quiet portraits, which were quiet and thoughtful.

So to wrap it up, I’d like to thank Rosalie, and all the artists, for allowing us to share their hard work with you, wherever you are.


This Week in Photography: Projects from PhotoNOLA, Part 1

 

I was just standing outside, with my face in the sun.

 

The season change is always obvious here, in the Rocky Mountains, and it’s most definitely spring outside.

Thankfully, winter is over.
(I swear.)

I stood there, and after a moment, became aware of the musical arrangement of bird calls happening all around me.

(Mostly from the trees near the stream, as it’s no longer frozen.)

The chirp sounds were beautiful, and I noted them, but after another moment, realized they’d been gone all winter.

The bird music.

I hadn’t heard the calls since September or October. And you might not remember, but in the first week of September #2020, we had such an unusual freeze that birds fell dead from the sky.

By the thousands.

#2020 was that kind of year.

Back to the bird calls, though, and the truth is, over this evil-Covid-winter, I’d forgotten such things existed.

When you’re that deep in the hole, (or have lived in a cave for generations, like The Croods,) you begin to forget that light is a reality too, just like darkness.

 

And here we are.

Green grass is growing in our field.
My children are (supposedly) going back to school.
Checks are headed to many mail boxes.

After years of mental torture by you-know-who, capped off by a whopper of a year that gave us house arrest, (for some people solitary confinement,) and a half million dead people, we should all forgive ourselves if things like hope are slow to return.

It will take a while for the collective PTSD to wear off, for those who can shake it.

But spring follows winter.
That’s the way it works.

So what will you do when you emerge from your shell?

In a way, we can all honor the Americans, (and people everywhere, really,) who didn’t make it out of the pandemic alive.

We can love more deeply, cherish new experiences, embrace personal growth, make fresh things.

Because our art is an expression of our personality, our vision, our sense of self.

Even in the worst of winter, (you knew the hook was coming, right?) I was still able to look at photography portfolios, by a talented and diverse group of artists at the PhotoNOLA festival online, back in December, and today, I’m happy to share some of my favorite portfolios with you.

We’ll have a Part 2 as well, and as usual, the artists are in no particular order.

Cathy Cone showed me work that looked good on a computer screen, but is the kind of thing that I’d really love to see in person. Her work involves scanning old tintypes, and then painting directly onto the output prints.

They’re beautiful.

And in the “spring is here” vibe of this column, I can only hope IRL festivals come back this year, so we can all resume the habit of appreciating art in person, with our physical senses activated.

Diana Nicolette Jeon’s work is the perfect follow up, given the tactility, as her prints are mounted to, and exhibited in Altoids tin lids.

I first saw this work at Photolucida in 2019, loved it, and meant to publish it then, but a miscommunication on my part meant it didn’t happen. Fortunately, Diana, who’s based in Hawaii, gave me a second chance.

The images come from film noir, and definitely channel that energy, minus the scary soundtrack.

Elizabeth Clark Libert showed me a set of razor sharp images, shot with a medium format digital camera, of her young boys playing, fighting, and growing together. (The first two being intimately related, when brothers are close in age.)

It’s a meditation on masculinity, as the artist grapples with how to raise her boys in a post-me-too era. There are some nudity issues, which open another set of questions, but as we’re not publishing those, we’ll save that debate for another occasion.


Nathalie Seaver showed me some work that I didn’t necessarily appreciate. But as I’ve written many times, if you have other options to pivot to during a review, it allows the situation to be salvaged. (Proper preparation is key.)

The last project we discussed was quarantine related, as Nathalie made still lives of objects from her home, (since she couldn’t leave,) and they were grouped by color.

They’re kitschy, but also cool, IMO.

Rene Algesheimer shared images of ice caves in Alaska and Iceland, and I suppose they qualify as some of the least-lockdown-pictures I saw last December.

They’re haunting, and need little explication, right?

Last but not least, Suzette Bross will help us land the idea that travel, which was practically impossible in #2020, may rejoin us again in #2021. Exotic countries, or even just the county across the State line, will become more accessible, once things improve.

Suzette’s project was shot in Rwanda, and is a reflection of the grief she felt due to a family loss. Rather than photograph the countryside, Suzette presents hacked-panorama-iPhone-images shot from a moving bus, as she crossed the country.

The resulting photographs are strange and compelling.
Don’t you think?

See you next week!

This Week in Photography: Hernie & Plume

 

It’s my birthday today.

(Meaning, Thursday.)

 

The last few years, I planned to have the day off, but that wasn’t possible in #2021.

(C’est la vie.)

Thankfully, I love writing this column, and appreciate you all so much.

 

If you’re reading this, whether it’s your first time at the blog, or you’ve been here for years, thanks for giving us your attention!

It’s an attention-based-economy, these days, which is why you-know-who was so capable of taking over America.

He is a black hole for our collective attention, and current and future Trumpers are lining up to copy his moves, which he learned from Roy Cohn. (Loved this fact-bomb in “City on a Hill,” an Affleck/Damon-produced, Boston-based, Showtime show that I just saw on Prime.)

 

In an attention-economy, the more we’re aware of how media’s structure and content change our brains, the better we’re able to regulate our own use.

To modulate our consumption, when possible.

How much of our own attention can we give to things, voluntarily, instead of subconsciously? Unlike that phase we just left, in which one human sucked up all the air for 5 years.

Now that the news cycle has finally, blissfully moved on, we can focus more brain space back to our own art projects, or family and friends. We can look at more art, rather than hate-watching our Twitter feeds.

In a pre-pandemic world, some of the best parts of life included getting into other people’s spaces, and faces.

Meeting strangers in odd circumstances.

Hell, we just passed the one year anniversary of my trip to Amsterdam.

I remember sharing a small table with a guy from Munster, Germany, and another from India, in tight quarters, smoking weed in the Jolly Joker.

A year on, that seems unimaginable.
Chatting with strangers, three feet apart, unmasked.

Right?

I was there to print “Extinction Party” at Wilco Art Books, in Amersfoort, which was a short train ride away from Amsterdam, where I was staying.

Here’s a photo of me and Marco Nap, at Wilco.
Don’t we seem naively unaware of what was coming, in just a few weeks?

Marco and Me

 

The world was about to flip upside down, like “Stranger Things,” and we were just grinning like a couple of groomsmen.

On my trip, I made friends while I was there, but didn’t stay in touch.

Meeting strangers, but the keeping them in your lives.
That’s more difficult, right?

I’m asking, because I just finished looking at “Hernie & Plume,” the superb photo book by Katherine Longly, an artist in Belgium, published by the Eriskay Connection.

And it was printed, you guessed it, at Wilco Art Books in Amersfoort, Netherlands.

(So there’s the double shout out.)

Apparently, the artist was trying too photograph Christmas images at what we in the US would call a trailer park, and there is called a trailer camp.

She met Blieke and Nicole, (who were a long-term-couple,) when they popped out of a trailer and asked what she was doing.

Then they invited her in for a beer.

They had matching twist-tie-engagement-rings, may or may not have been married, and seemed to have become romantic partners later in life.

There is a strong narrative here, and it’s why I’m always preaching that people give their books a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Tell a story, like it’s a movie, but with slightly different tools.

Grab the reader’s attention, reel in their curiosity, and then unspool the story in a way that doesn’t leave room to get bored, or check out.

Remember the other week, when I wrote a review about a book that was all-one-format, all the way through, with nothing to break it up?

This book is the opposite of that.

It’s so thoughtfully crafted.

From the colorful-canvas-cover, to the different photo styles and paper choices. (Shiny silver for some interview text.)

I reviewed Katherine’s previous book in the column, and then again for .tiff Magazine, from FOMU in Antwerp.

So I’m a fan; already on record as being impressed by her multi-technique-style, and subject-participation structure.

(Furthermore, I’ve also recommended to several students that they put the camera in their subjects’ hands.)

Seeing it done here, in which Blieke, who was a super-cop, at one point, and Nicole, who drove a tram, get to make photos of their crazy parties, and then the orientation changes to horizontal, and those photos are printed on burgundy-brown paper?

So cool.

The book keeps you engaged, and the sharp, artful images of house backgrounds, cooking ingredients, or the dildo on the kitchen table, it all holds you.

Their love story.
The friendship with Katherine.

The text messages.

In the end, (spoiler alert,) we learn that Blieke is sick; we see the scar on his chest, and learn of heart issues. Then there is a text about being in intensive care at the hospital, and the book implies he’s died.

The end.
It’s sad.

There is a lot of information on the back cover, about this being the product of a workshop by Jan Rosseel and Yumi Goto, at the International Summer School of Photography in Latvia, in 2018.

“Hernie & Plume” came from a time when people could congregate and collaborate, IRL.

The book is intimate and emotional, but also technical and creative, like an attacking midfielder in the Belgian national football team. (Eden Hazard?)

It’s well-thought-out, (and before I forget, Hernie & Plume, spoiler alert, are the parrot and the dog.)

I hope soon enough, we can live like this again, and people can hang out together, free from a scary pandemic.

 

See you next week.

 

To purchase “Hernie & Plume,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: A Family Roadtrip

 

I’m turning 47 next week.

In lockdown.

 

Last year, I went to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, as they let NM residents in for free on your birthday.

But the resort partially burned down in #2020, and even if it hadn’t, sharing collective pools with strangers is about the last thing I’d want to do right now.

image courtesy of Taos Ski Valley

This year, I’m guessing I’ll spend the day with my wife and children, as I have the last 350.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Over the years, I’ve taken amazing birthday trips to the beach in SoCal, or on a bender in Amsterdam. Celebrating via travel was fun, when possible.

Not in #2021, though.

While my freedom of movement has been restricted during the pandemic, (like all of us,) I’ve had the opportunity to grow as a person, in properly deep ways, and my love and connection to my wife and kids is far beyond what it was when we were hopping around the country in 2019.

(Quick update: after bottoming out on the day of the Capitol insurrection, my marriage, and my wife’s health, are both better than they’ve been in years. Thanks again to all the people who expressed concern in early January.)

Where was I?

Some time during my mid-40’s, I realized my relationship with my parents and brother, which had dominated my thoughts since I was young, was far less important than the one with my wife and children.

Perhaps it’s commonplace, but I understood being a husband and father, and how I handled those roles, would matter more to the rest of my life than how I lived as a son and a brother. (Probably 4 years of therapy had something to do with it.)

Still, I meet so many people my age, or older, who think constantly about how they get along with their parents and siblings. Their self-worth is all wrapped up in their family of origin.

Rather than the one they’ve created as adults.

To be clear, I’m not throwing my folks and brother under the bus. They certainly mean well.

I’m more interested in explaining that as I grow older, (and hopefully wiser,) I realize how I raise my kids and support my wife will determine my karma, and how I’m judged by whatever large forces are out there, making the planets move and the tides rise and fall.

(Is that the most mid-life-sentiment I’ve ever written?)

I’m not waxing philosophical today because I’m that much closer to 50.

Not at all.

Rather, I just finished looking at, and reading, “Everything Else in the Universe: A Father-Son Road Trip,” a self-published book sent in late-last-summer by Har-Prakash and Gurudayal Khalsa.

The book is both very-well-titled, and also a tad misleading, because it’s actually a chronicle of two road trips, which included other members of the Khalsa family. (As Canadian Sikhs exploring America during the early part of the Trump era, you’ve got to give them props for having cojones, that’s for sure.)

This is one of those books I love to see come in the mail, because it is so different from the high-end art books I often review.

It’s a testament to the variety of our audience, and the breadth of what photography means, that something this personal, and open-hearted, will show up in the mail, wrapped to the teeth, with a typed letter in lieu of a press release.

I try to treat each submission in context, and rarely open a package I can’t review, but with this book, I’m not going to be critical on the same level as I might with something from MACK or Damiani.

It’s not really meant as a commercial production.

So I could quibble, and say that there are maybe too many photos, but really, what’s the point?

We get to see this merry band of wanderers, clearly in love with each other, as they bounce around in their camper van, or sleep in tents in the Utah desert.

There are text interludes, to break up the monotony, including an anecdote about a fellow camper who slit her wrists, which reminds Har-Prakash of the time he was summoned to India to pick up Gurudayal, who was having a mental health episode.

I’ve been to so many of the places in the book, like Arches, the California Central Coast, San Francisco, and Point Reyes National Sea Shore. (My parents came out to SF for my birthday, around 2000, and we booked a B&B in Point Reyes, only for it to rain the entire weekend, which raised the stress level to 10.)

This is a sweet, lovely book, and while some of the landscape photos are little touristy for my taste, they’re also countered by well-framed images of photos of dead soldiers inside a Walmart, or a relaxed museum patron lounging in a window box at SFMOMA.

It goes without saying that trips like this, and all the random human encounters described within, (including an emphasis on the kindness of strangers,) can’t happen in our current pandemic lifestyle.

So for one of my birthday wishes, (if I get more than one,) I’m hoping that we all have a safer, healthier, more normal world, before I turn 48.

I hope I can take my kids on the road some time this year, and hug them tightly when they crawl into their hotel beds at night. (No camping for me, thanks.)

To purchase “Everything Else in the Universe” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: Exploring Myths

 

Have you ever heard of a duende?

 

That’s OK.
You can say no.
I realize it’s unlikely.

I’d never heard of a duende either, until a group of my students told me all about them, around ten years ago.

It was my first year teaching in a new program at UNM-Taos, in which high-achieving high school students from around Northern New Mexico came to college on Fridays for free classes.

I’d been teaching teens in another program for several years, by that point, (all from Taos,) but with the new group, the conversations often veered to unfamiliar places.

To answer my opening question, duendes are mythical creatures, a cross between dwarves, elves and gnomes, that are meant to haunt and/or populate the mountains here at the edge of the former Spanish Empire in America.

I’m guessing it’s a part of a mythology common to other former Spanish colonies, but duendes were new to me.

Even stranger, all of the students in the class believed they were real.

 

I nodded along, first in curiosity, then in wonder, as the kids told me other ghost stories, and hard-to-fathom myths they all believed were true.

(If it were appropriate at the time, I probably would have said WTF, but it wasn’t, so I didn’t.)

My parents first brought me to Taos when I was 14, and though I lived here for short stretches when I was younger, it’s been nearly 16 years since we moved back in 2005, and I definitely feel like I understand the place.

Sometimes.

Or rather, I understand parts of the culture well, and other elements will likely always remain a mystery.

For example.

In one of my last classes at UNM-Taos, before I left to start Antidote, I encouraged a young student to make a series about her husband, whose job was collecting firewood in the mountains.

He’d go up with a friend, chop trees, and haul the wood down, to sell during firewood season.

Most people have wood stoves here, (for obvious reasons, now that Texans have been without heat for days for lack of electricity,) and many-if-not-most of the local Hispanic and Native American folks harvest their own wood. But among the Anglo culture, many-if-not-most people buy wood, and having a wood guy who’s reliable is wise.

Most wood guys are older, grizzled, and big, but my student’s husband was about 21 at the time, and skinny as a twig, so it made for compelling imagery.

A few years ago, in order to help support their young family, I decided to give my wood business to Andre, who’s unfailingly nice, polite and punctual.

But this being the 21st Century, he’s also a good capitalist, raising his prices each year, and each month in the firewood season, to create artificial pressure to buy early.

Just this morning, on Facebook, (because like I said, it’s the 21st Century,) Andre posted about hunting down a bobcat with his dogs, and killing it in the mountains. There were photographs, of course, and I was shocked to see them.

(And it’s pretty hard to shock me in #2021.)

 

As an environmentalist of sorts, I stared at the photographs, unable to wrap my mind around the motivation for hunting and killing a gorgeous cat, far from humanity, that was likely causing no one any harm.

WTF?

But I also realized that the culture surrounding this action, (as evidenced by the scores of likes on the post,) was still opaque to me, even after all these years.

People hunt because their fathers (or mothers,) teach them to hunt. It’s a bonding experience, and becomes ingrained in the memory as positive and exiting.

(The thrill of the chase, to which the post alludes.)

I don’t get it because I’m not meant to get it. I don’t need to get it. It’s not for me.

At some point, our allegiance to our culture, and our tribe, becomes so enmeshed in us that it perpetuates itself.

The myths, norms, and realities of a society are valued because they always have been.

And our cultural specificity is what creates a sense of place, a sense of differentiation, a sense of identity.

I might not believe in duendes, but that’s OK. Instead, I believe that some Jewish fighters hiding out during a war had magical candle oil that lasted for 8 days, which was a miracle, and now we get presents at Chanukah.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not trashing Andre for bagging that bobcat, though when I saw how gorgeous it was, I very much wished it weren’t dead.

I have a friend, Mike, who once told me he’d killed 8 mountain lions, and I hung on his very word as he described tracking one, so I know it gets the blood pumping. (He’d been hired to do it for a private ranch, so his kills weren’t for fun.)

But sometimes, elements of a culture are so crazy, so bizarre, as to seem made up.

Too strange to be real.

And today, we have the opportunity to see one such story, which was imagined, and then photographed, by the creative team of Carolina Dutca and Valentin Sidorenko in the Transnistria region of Moldova.

At the beginning of the year, I published a series by Laidric Stevenson, which I found online, and that kicked off a new subset of the column, as I’d never before shown work that I hadn’t seen on a wall, in a book, or at a portfolio review.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks later, Carolina reached out to show me this project, “Apă,” and I totally loved it. (How could you not?)

During the covid year, the two artists teamed up with a local woman, Elena Nikolaevna, who made recycled rugs, and together they created the seemingly-real-but-completely-fabricated myth of the ancient Labyrinthodontia buccellatum, a creature living in the now-polluted Dniester River in Moldova.

The rugs look like lily pads, for sure, and the creature slinks through the photographs, including in a made-up historical looking postcard. As they write in their artist statement, “Elena gave the foundling a name – Apă [ah’pə], which means ‘water’ in Moldavian language.”

Wow.

Don’t wish you’d thought of something like this?

I write about America so often that it’s easy to forget the internet allows this blog to be read around the Earth, and today, we all derive benefit from that.

Carolina is from Moldova, and Valentin is from Russia, at the edge of the former Soviet Empire, near Kazakhstan, on the opposite side of the planet.

And we get to see and discuss their work, as the world is so interconnected in the 21C.

I am pretty psyched they reached out to share this brilliant project with us, and I’m sure you’ll agree.

In #2021, I finally started a new photo series, (with my new camera,) trying to understand this culture in which I’ve ensnared myself, yet I know some parts of the story will never be mine to tell.

Hopefully, Carolina and Valentin will inspire you to get out there and make some crazy shit, because what else are you going to do with your life?

 

 

This Week in Photography: The SoCal Trilogy

 

I’ve watched a lot of TV, over the years.

Like, a lot.

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, there was a time when options were limited, and everyone watched more-or-less the same stuff.

I can’t tell you how many re-runs of “The Brady Bunch,” “The Addams Family,” or “The Munsters” I saw back in the day, even though I didn’t particularly love any of those shows.

 

 

There were 3 channels, and you watched what was on.

That was that.

Then came cable, and I still remember the box we had back in Jersey, with these oblong buttons you depressed, to switch among 35 options, which made me feel like a King choosing which outfit to wear, from a closet filled with thousands of fine suits.

“Oh Manfred, please hand me the gray Armani with the super-thin pinstripes. No, you idiot, not THAT gray Armani with the super-thin pinstripes! The other one!”

Later in life, when we were poaching limited cable in Brooklyn, or dealing with 4 channels from a rooftop antenna when we first moved back to New Mexico, Jessie and I occasionally watched awful stuff, as there were so few choices.

At one point, I’m embarassed to admit, we even watched “The Biggest Loser,” NBC’s fat-shaming reality show that I would certainly unsee, if only I could.

 

 

A few years ago, in a life including Dish satellite TV, but before we had any streaming services, I remember checking out the Fox sitcom “The Last Man on Earth,” starring the always brilliant Will Forte. (Dude can be funny without even talking, which is tough.)

I was intrigued from the jump, as the idea of only one person left on the planet, who could then raid all the grocery stores, drink all the vodka, and blow shit up in the middle of the street, was watchable, at first.

Then, Kristin Schaal came along, because apparently, he wasn’t REALLY the only person left alive, after a pandemic virus wiped out nearly all of humanity. (Too soon?)

She is funny as hell, and brilliant, but was definitely playing an annoying character on the show. Then more people popped up, proving the title was a lie, and once January Jones joined the cast, who is easy-on-the-eyes, but not-so-good-at-acting, (outside of her robotic Betty Draper days,) I was done.

It had become an ensemble cast, with all the regular-people-talking-to-other-people problems, and Will Forte was not enough to hold my attention.

I switched the channel, and never looked back.

“Tension creates attention,” is one of my new catch-phrases, and surprises are good, but you also have to want to engage with something, because hate-watching only works for so long.

(I mention this, while currently on a family binge of “Survivor” reruns, because my kids like it, and some days I want to poke my eyes out because the show is so terrible.)

Why am I on about all of this? When did this become a TV criticism column?

Funny you should ask.

I just finished looking at “Riviera: Photographs of Palm Springs,” by John Brian King, which was published by Spurl Editions in #2020.

I’ve told you it takes me forever to get through the book stack these days, and this one arrived last June, so it came in at a time when streets were empty, anger and fear were high, and it felt like Voldemort might really kill us all in the end.

I think John wrote to me, and I almost remember saying the book looked intriguing, and from the jump, I can see why it would have caught my eye.

We’re now in a trilogy of SoCal photo book reviews, and the last is the most flawed, though also the most compelling from a small sample.

The photographs are moody, and soft focus, with a subdued, pastel color palette, and a smattering of images that make me think of UFO’s and aliens, which will always get my attention.

However.

There are so many photos of an empty landscape, with no people, and it really does feel like humanity has been wiped away.

Post-apocalyptic for sure.

But the design features two photographs opposite each other, in the same size, page after page.

And there are a lot of pages.

(In fairness, on second viewing, I noticed that very rarely, they incorporated only one photo per spread, instead of two.)

I work with people on producing photo books these days, and am always discussing the idea that monotony will cause a viewer to lose focus.

Attention will drift, and boredom will creep in, when you come to expect, and then KNOW, what is coming next.

Good design will play with scale, and location on the page. Or mix in tension breakers, and unexpected motifs.

Maybe slip text into the mix, instead of only photos.

It’s important, IMO, to consider a viewer’s attention span, if you want to make a great book, because otherwise people will begin to flip through the pages, and you’ve lost them.

So today, I wanted to write about this book as a teachable moment.

The art is good, and the aesthetic is consistent, but I barely forced myself to make it until the end. (Which is more than I can say for that Will Forte show.)

Some of you might like this book, and that’s cool. I don’t want to be a hater.

But if you’re considering making a book yourself, (or a catalog, or a ‘zine,) please don’t be afraid to mix it up.

Play with your design, or hire someone who knows what they’re doing.

Because being creative doesn’t end when you click the shutter, make your photo edit, or finalize your color correction.

Design is a creative enterprise as well, and is so crucial to the book-making process, even if you think you can do it yourself.

To purchase “Riviera: Photographs of Palm Springs” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: A Very Different LA

 

Everyone loves a good road trip.

(It’s as American as our now-faded dream.)

Over the years, I’ve driven across the West so many times, and remember them all.

These days, which resemble Bill Murray’s tortured existence in Punxsutawney, it’s hard to make memories. Days blend into days, and I find myself saying things in the afternoon like, “Honey, did I give you your gummy vitamins this morning, or was that yesterday?”

 

At first, when I went into lockdown 11 months ago, there was a sense of open-ended uncertainty, but also faith in the system.

I remember telling a friend in April that we’d likely be able to have our retreats in August, because by then, Americans would have access to instant-at-home-tests, so we’d know in a technological moment whether we were infected or not.

(It was obviously mis-placed optimism, which is a trait with which we Americans are often associated.)

It’s much harder to make memories in this new plague-year-lifestyle, and road trips are hard to come by, as where on Earth will one find a “safe” bathroom, if one needs to poop?

But I clearly remember the time my wife and I moved out of California, in 2002, and drove through the LA basin on our way East. (I foolishly diverted down from San Francisco to drop off some art I’d sold on the way out.)

We were stuck in traffic forever, but that’s not what I remember most.

No.

Rather, when we finally made it to the outskirts, in San Bernadino, I was shocked to my core when the mountains appeared out of nowhere.

The smog was so thick, the pollution denser than the QAnon theory, that I almost gasped for breath to realize there had been mountains there all along.

How could they be so hidden from view like that?

The grind of that drive across the megalopolis stayed with me, and the last time I drove across the LA basin, heading home with the family on a road trip in 2016, we woke up at 4:30am, and hit the road by 5, so we could cruise through the place without impediment.

It was so quick the second time around that we got cocky, and stopped for a leisurely breakfast in Victorville, at a 50’s themed diner, and I ate steak in the morning for the first time.

We gave back the hour we’d saved, and ended up in a traffic jam at the Arizona state line that traumatized me deeply.

Road trips!

So when I think of LA, I think of driving, as don’t we all?

Thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time there since the turn of the century, and have a feel for what the place is really like.

Despite the fact that I know the Westside beach communities best, I’ve seen enough to know that the glamour for which the city is known is an illusion.

Or perhaps a pocket.

There is so much endless asphalt.

So many places that don’t get our attention until things blow up, and buildings burn down.

It’s the LA of the immigrant narrative, or stories we know best from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

But it’s not the LA that has been packaged and sold around the world so many times.

It’s not the fame-driven economy that ultimately gave us a reality show President, even if he was from Queens. (Sorry. Now he’s a “Florida man,” as he was always meant to be.)

Last week, I featured a book that was made of and from the LA of the creators. The hipsters. Those that have a method of expression, and an audience ready to look.

And as often happens over the course of a nearly-decade-long book review column, the weeks flow together perfectly, because this morning I opened a box from Mack, in London, and something unexpected popped out.

It was “Seventy Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles,” by Mark Ruwedel, published in #2020.

This, my dear readers, is a book that taps into the monotonous LA reality that is there to be seen, if only one would choose to look.

If only one would step off I-10, hit the surface streets South of the big time, and pay attention to the endlessness of it all.

But apparently it’s not endless.
It’s 72 and one half miles wide.

The book doesn’t have much introductory information, beyond the title, but that alone, plus the manner in which it’s broken into sections, 12 miles a time, is enough to suggest the Eastward migration of the photographer’s camera.

And what do we see?

Shotgun shacks and highway underpasses.
Imperfectly cropped cars and sorry strip malls.

El Dorado, but not the famed village of Gold.
(Nor the fabled town from the Howard Hawks/John Wayne/James Caan western.)

There are few people, because nobody walks.

A divorce abogado charging only $499.
Drive-though burger joints.
And lots of taquerias.

(What I wouldn’t give for some proper California Mexican food right now.)

I’ve always felt that ideas tend to shift from West to East in the United States, and wrote here, with some alarm, as I watched the homelessness and environmental instability grow in California; bellwethers of Climate Change and economic inequality.

No fun.

But it’s an artist’s job to look at and process the culture, landscape, and time in which we’re living.

These pictures are often banal, because the place they were documenting is not that visually appealing.

(It’s anti-aesthetic, not Malibu.)

Then, you turn the page, and a visual masterpiece would pop out; perfect tonality and composition.

All mood; no boring.

That was a pretty cool trick in the editing.

Later on, halfway through, I remembered that I loved Mark Ruwedel’s older work of vanishing 19th century train tracks in the desert.

Sure enough, I turned the page, and there were vanishing train tracks.

I swear, it was as if they’d read my mind, which is also the sign of some great sequencing. (And attention to detail.)

Finally, we make it to smoggy San Bernadino, after some LA river aqueduct scenes that made me think of “Grease,” and we get to the final essays, which provide some context.

Apparently, the book was the brainchild of the writer Nigel Raab, who in fact walked the entire 72 and a half mile route from his home on the Southwest side of the basin, recorded it with a pedometer, and then invited Mark Ruwedel to make photos of his route. (The photographer used a car, wisely.)

The connection to Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is strong, but why not, as that’s one of the seminal pieces in the History of Photography?

And Raab’s essay confirmed my read on the book in general, and the “Grease” reference in my mind, but corrected me, as it’s not the LA river, but the San Gabriel. (My bad.)

Personally, I’m looking forward to the days when I can drive around places like LA, bitching about the traffic. I learned to use the surface streets years ago, mostly to good effect, but I’ve certainly never walked very far there.

Much less 72 and one half miles.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to, because this book does it for us.

A healthy dose of distraction this morning, on another day in quarantine. (But at least the sun is out!)

To purchase “Seventy Two and One Half Miles” click here 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

 

This Week in Photography: A Creative Community

 

I bought a new camera recently.

At the end of #2020.

 

This might not sound like a big deal, but it was my first new system in 15 years.

Like many of you, I’d been sticking to one company, as I had a lot of lenses, but my Panasonic/Olympus equipment was locked in at the 4/3 chip size.

Over the years, (since 2005,) I’d watch as new things came to market, and then full-frame chips became the norm. Some of you love Canon, others prefer Nikon, but I was stuck with the same things I always had, and eventually I got bored.

But I could never afford to switch to a new back, much less buy a great, razor-sharp lens to replace the one I purchased in 2007, and used for all four series I included in my “Extinction Party” book.

At the end of last year, though, I saw some amazing deals on Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras, and even with a top shelf lens, the price was now less than half of what it cost to change systems a few years ago.

(I could swing it, for once.)

Still, it seemed so extravagant, so selfish, to spend money on a new camera system, instead of paying down some credit card debt.

My old system was gathering dust, and my iPhone seemed sufficient, for now.

Plus, I kind-of had an idea for a new project, (sort-of,) but nothing concrete.

Then, I spoke to one of my best friends, Caleb, who’s also a creative partner, and he encouraged me to go for it. Invest in myself. Take the plunge. (As did my wife Jessie, who also pushed me to treat myself.)

It was a tough decision, but Caleb assured me I didn’t need to know what I would do with the Sony. Going for it, doing something risky and scary, and then the natural desire to play with a new “toy” would inevitably result in a fresh creative project.

He promised me that within six months, I’d be going again on something “real,” a new project to move past the studio, conceptual, still life stuff I’d grown tired of.

And it probably wouldn’t even be the idea I was kicking around in my head.

Thankfully, he was right.

I’m not divulging details, but I’m already excited and working again, and it took less than a month with the new machine, before I had my groove.

Why am I mentioning this today?

Because I just finished reading and looking at “Exposure,” a new photo book that Carmen Chan sent me in the autumn of #2020.

It features photographs of and interviews with nine, diverse, young-ish female artists living in Los Angeles, all of whom are working in various ways, but none seem to be using a camera at present.

I mentioned it last week, and didn’t have the brain focus to dig in, but as soon as I did today, I gave it a read in one sitting.

And while each artist had things to say that differed from the others, there were so many common themes, many of which I’ve experienced in my own life. (And some of which recur here in the column as well.)

While a third of the artists had moved from hella Northern locales, likely entranced by the perfect weather, (Canada, Wisconsin and Minnesota,) and a handful were born in CA, all of them made some mention of the value of their creative community.

How their friends and fellow artists helped inspire and support them.

John Donne may have said “No man is an island,” many years ago, but no artist- male, female, or non-binary- is either.

We need each other.

Additionally, many of the women discussed the fact that they had left one medium for another, at some point, or that they openly experimented with multiple media, as different ideas need to be birthed in different forms. (In my own #2020 story, my iPhone resuscitated my interest in photography, but was not enough to help me push on in my practice.)

Finally, there was a lot of discussion of the needs of the spirit, and how art practice allowed the artists to express things inside themselves that were non-verbal, or too difficult to process by using words and direct thoughts.

As Enna Ikuta said in her interview, “Growth doesn’t come from passive stagnancy. Sometimes you have to lift up that rug and acknowledge all the crap that you swept underneath it. Everyone has a different way of doing this, feeling this, and accepting this, but I do believe it is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. I think having personal baggage is a universal experience, yet it’s not something another person can ever force you to think about.”

Beautifully stated.

Some of you have been reading this column for a long time, and know that I often encourage you to make things.

The art process offers each of us a pressure-release valve, so our emotions, and the artifacts of our Shadow, can come out in a controlled, positive way.

(When repressed emotions bubble up in people without expressive options, it leads to violence, addiction and misery.)

Making art is a win-win, because when we let our fears out, and our pain, we become healthier.

Furthermore, our artwork, the end product and the result of the process, allows us to feel pride in ourselves, or a sense of accomplishment, even if no one else sees your piece on a wall, or a pedestal.

Certainly, most-if-not-all of the female artists in this book shared some version of this theory, in their own words.

And my 13 year old, who’s been having such a hard time lately in lockdown life, wrote an amazing story this week, and his entire personality changed thereafter. (His second story followed two days later.)

Ironically, despite how often I teach these ideas, I had tried to push and cajole him to make art, to help himself.

I attempted to “force” him to do it, but of course that effort was doomed to failure.

Because as Ms. Ikuta reminded me, it doesn’t work that way. Not only is change hard, but a person has do decide to do it for him-her-or-theyself.

Hopefully, though, you’ve got friends you trust who’ll give you a nudge every now and again.

(Thanks, Caleb!)

I think you’ll dig this book, and I’ll be back again next week, as usual.

To learn more about “Exposure” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: New Beginnings

 

 

These are difficult times.

The hardest I’ve ever seen.

(It is what it is.)

 

I’m writing on Thursday, as usual, which means yesterday was President Biden’s inauguration, marking the end of one of the darkest periods in American history.

Honestly, I’m so sick of thinking about you-know-who that I’ll try to keep his name out of this column as much as possible, going forward.

It’s like Voldemort, when almost all the wizards in the Wizarding world preferred uttering “he who shall not be named.”

We’ll try that here for now.

Because this week, this moment, should be about new beginnings.

Looking forward.
Rebuilding hope.
Finding solace.

But I’ve seen mentioned with regularity on social media in the last few days, (and I’ve been telling people for weeks now,) much of America is suffering from PTSD.

All the hate, the constantly-aroused feelings, the unexpressed sadness, the repressed rage.

The frustration at our inability to do anything, on an individual level, to stop the Covid death count from going higher.

And higher still.

We’re now past 400,000 dead here in the US, and President Biden is predicting we’ll hit half a million corpses before too long.

How do we even process numbers like that?

Mostly, I feel numb.

The fight has left me for the moment, and I know many people who feel the same.

So this afternoon, after doing seven portfolio reviews in the morning for LACP, (which means I get to share more photo portfolios with you in the future,) I found myself empty.

Bereft.

I tried to look at a book submission to write this review, a book I’ll definitely feature soon, but my brain couldn’t focus on the words. (It required a lot of reading.)

Instead, I utilized my trusty trick of staring at my bookshelf, asking the heavens above for some help.

Would anything jump out at me?

Anything that might make me feel better, or give me the opportunity to share some peace with you?

Because if I’ve realized anything in the last couple of weeks, it’s that a lot of people read this column, and over the years have come to care about me, and what I write here.

Two weeks ago, I admitted I hit an inflection point in my marriage, and my wife and I would figure things out, or we wouldn’t.

No more dicking around.

In the 14 days since, (including 10 seconds ago, when a text just came in from a friend in Rhode Island,) the amount of people who have called or written to offer support, and check on me, has been one of the best things that’s ever happened.

Thank you so much!

Jessie and I decided we would not let all these external stresses from a crazy world break us up, so we’re forging ahead.

Still, the drama comes at us from other places, and just today, one of the people I reviewed went ape-shit, yelling and screaming, as if it were my job to eat the shit.

Please remember, the energy we put into the world affects so many other people. If you feel bad, and dump it on others, that creates a chain reaction.

After 5 years of incessant negativity from you-know-who, amplified 1000 times via Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, and every other form of mass communication, it only makes sense that we’d all be wounded.

Beaten down.

Ready for President Biden, his diverse team of professionals, and that amazing young poet, Amanda Gorman, to give us some positivity juice.

That, however, is only the electric shock needed to restart our hearts.

The real healing will take a while.

So, as luck would have it, I looked at my book shelf and spotted one of my all-time favorite books; “Cultivated Landscapes,” an exhibition catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Shout out to the Met!)

It features work from a show I once saw, of a collection of Chinese landscape paintings, which is a historical genre that has always inspired me.

These ancient paintings and scrolls are some of the most peaceful, meditative, quiet, lovely, magnificent pieces of art you will see.

The calming, Buddhist juju literally jumps off the page.

As bad as I felt when I opened the book, within minutes, I felt a bit better.

Because making art helps us manage our stress, and process our emotions.

It also takes our mind off things, for a little while.

And looking at art can serve the same purpose.

So no, it’s not a photo book today. But it is a gift from me to you. (Sharing something I care about, and love.)

See you next week.

To download a .pdf of “Cultivated Landscapes” click here 

This Week in Photography: The Cycle of History

 

Do you remember 9/11?

 

I sure do.

After the shock, and the inability to look away from the television screen all day, (Thank you Peter Jennings, RIP,) I vividly recall walking around for a couple of weeks in a haze.

 

Image courtesy of the Television Academy

 

What happened was so far outside my frame of reference, it felt like life was a movie, and I just wanted the credits to roll.

“Please,” I thought, “let things go back to normal.”

But they never did.

Sure, after a few years things chilled out a bit, at least until the Great Recession, yet life never returned to the way it was before the Twin Towers came down.

(No more Pax Americana.)

In the aftermath, we heard a lot about how so many young, angry, under-or-unemployed Muslim men around the world had nothing better to do than fume about America, and plot our downfall.

How they couldn’t afford to have girlfriends or wives, and they sat around all day, waiting in coffee shops.

How they had been “radicalized” by information that was essentially brain-washing. How certain clerics spoke directly to them, to their fears and anxieties, and convinced them violence was the only answer.

Though there had been major attacks in the lead-up to September 11th, like the first Twin Towers bombing, or the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, afterwards, there were no similar-level terror events on American soil.

It became much more about changes in airport routines, and the repetitive drone of “If you see something, say something” announcements on the NYC subways. (I lived there from 2002-05, when the city was still shell-shocked.)

Nearly 20 years have passed since that last epoch-shaking event in the US, and now we have ourselves another.

That’s how big a deal the attack on the US Capitol was: whether you call it a riot, a coup attempt, an insurrection, or the opening salvo of a 21st Century revolution.

Needless to say, I can’t think very straight 8 days later, and am surprised to even be writing this column. (Never missed a deadline; not about to start now.)

Thankfully, the photo-book-dieties are friendly to long-time columnists, so as I reached into my thick book stack today, looking for the oldest book there, I found something that came in just about this time last year.

It arrived before the pandemic hit, at a time when Donald Trump, for all his pure-awfulness, did not have the blood of nearly 400,000 Americans on his hands.

(Nor had he tried to destroy Democracy to protect his man-baby, hyper-fragile ego.)

When a year goes by, from submission to perusal, you can be sure I know absolutely nothing about the book in question, and take it on its merits.

Today, we’ll look at “Late Harvest,” by Forest McMullin, published by RIT press in 2019.

Given my limited brain capacity, I’ll tell you from the jump that this is a good book, perfect for the moment, but the photographs are not something at which I’d hurl superlatives.

Despite the fact that the artist’s opening statement makes mention of the brilliant Southern light, which illuminates colors with intensity, and the essay by Nancy McCrary that suggests these are not cliché, Southern-poverty-porn pictures, I disagree on both counts.

The light is often flat, and the portraits really could have used some fill flash. As to the subject matter, I have seen decrepit and abandoned Southern spaces many, many times before.

However…

The artist was a life-long Northerner who moved to the South on the cusp of the Great Recession, to shake up his life. (Along with his wife.)

They ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, (which has been in the news a lot lately,) and subsequently, Forest began a long-term project cruising only the smallest roads of the Deep South, with paper maps. (No GPS.)

I reviewed a book with a similar premise a few years ago, “True Places,” by Jack Carnell, published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta, and found those photos to be superior, technically speaking.

But this book feels like it dug into a vein of truth in the contemporary South, as there are interviews that both give a strong sense of the artist as a down-to-Earth, likable guy, and also one who displayed curiosity, kindness and empathy to the people he met along the way.

There are white people inside, including a small shopkeeper who longs for Trump to make gun silencers legal, and a bar owner who once brained her man with a baseball bat, and claims it’s the only “white bar” in her town.

Racism!

But there are also African-Americans who run makeshift bars, hair salon/sandwich shops, or are Mayors and Preachers simultaneously.

Taken together, the Deep South comes off as the kind of place that opportunity forgot.

A place that is still very rooted in the impact of the Civil War.

A place where you have to leave for the city if you want to have any chance at a decent living, or if you want to meet a partner in mid-life, because you’re tired of being alone. (Actual details from within.)

I guess what I’m saying is I don’t LOVE these photographs, but I find this to be a powerful, anthropological book that gives us a window into the vanquished Confederacy.

I know not all the insurrectionists last week were poor and white, (only most of them,) but they certainly felt like today’s America had let them down.

In fact, just this morning, (Friday, as I’m editing,) I found this quote in WaPo, about the QAnon-Shaman-asshole, from his lawyer:

“He took seriously the countless messages of President Trump. He believed in President Trump,” Watkins said. “Like tens of millions of other Americans, Chansley felt — for the first time in his life — as though his voice was being heard.”

Sure, the Trumpists have had the Presidency for 4 years, the Senate for longer, and just packed the Supreme Court for a generation.

But if your life sucks, you see no hope of improvement, and the President of the United States, your hero, keeps telling you whose fault it is, and then begging you to start breaking shit, can we really be surprised when the statues topple?

Are not Arizona and Florida Southern states, after all? (With AZ’s history as a slave-friendly territory.)

The answer is yes.
Yes they are.

So, how does any of this get better?

If I knew, I’d tell you.

For now, we can only hope.

To purchase “Late Harvest” click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: Hitting Rock Bottom

 

In all my time writing this column, today is unique.

 

(And we’re at almost 9.5 years of weekly writing, not that anyone’s counting.)

Today, for the first time in my life, I know what rock bottom feels like. As an American, and as a husband.

And let me tell you, folks, it doesn’t feel good at all.

Being “right,” and telling everyone what was coming, and knowing in my heart it was true, and then seeing it all play out in accordance with my worst fears… it’s not a good feeling.

 

Yesterday, January 6, 2021, is a day that I will never, ever forget.

(And you won’t either.)

For starters, some lunatic-right-wing-Nazis tried to take over the government, storming the Capitol to ensure that Donald J Trump, the worst President in American history, remained in power. And he egged them on!

In a Democracy, one that I’ve warned 100 times was in serious danger, some psychopaths, carrying the Confederate flag, marched through the United States Capitol as if they owned the place.

Make no mistake, these fuck-tards are just as “potentially” dangerous as the actual Nazis that wiped out some of my ancestors.

They are just far-more-incompetent, and we only have luck to thank for that.

Basically, America broke yesterday, and only then did some of the cowardly, duplicitous Republican Senators begin to realize that if you wipe out the political class, that includes them too.

How fucking stupid do you have to be to need to see an actual insurrection, in your own office, to believe what the evidence has been saying for years now?

Trump told us, in a debate with Hillary Fucking Clinton, that he was the kind of guy who did not respect the results of elections, if he lost.

In 2016!

Why did so many people assume he was joking, or choose not to care, as long as it was in their naked self-interest?

Did they never even read the DSM 5, to learn about narcissistic personality disorder?

Anyway, you obviously have to hit rock bottom in order to see a way up. (Plus, Haruki Murakami’s characters always learn valuable lessons when they’re stuck in the bottom of a well.)

In my personal life, yesterday was a breaking point too.

Like many a self-sabotager before her, my wife waited until January 1st, the day after I bragged in this column about her recovery, to passive aggressively attack my sanity yet again.

Only after I’d begun to hope, and relax, did her subconscious come after me.

Yesterday, even before I knew the Capitol had been attacked, I broke, and challenged the unhealthy dynamics in my home for the last time.

We reached rock bottom, and either she’ll get her shit together, starting today, or after being with her for half my life, and giving everything I have to support her physical and mental health, we may end up getting divorced.

Honestly, I don’t know which way it will go, and I’m being a bit blithe by omitting so many details, but there is only so much I am willing to share with you.

The gist of it is exactly the same thing that caused the Trumpist rebellion yesterday: some people would rather believe a lie, a fantasy, than confront the difficult aspects of their lives, and their personalities.

Trump proved to us, over and over, that there was nothing he wouldn’t do or say to achieve, and then maintain, power over other people.

He lied, and he lied, but lots of people CHOSE to believe him, rather than any counter-factual information.

Honestly, if I had told you in 2015 that by #2020, a sizable portion of America would support ACTUAL Nazis, would you have believed me?

Probably not.

But there are some Americans who might have nodded a bit, bopped their heads, and said, “Sure, why not? It’s a racist fucking country, after all.”

There are some Americans who know, thanks to copious evidence, that some lives matter more than others in this messed up society.

There are some Americans who, if you told them in 2015 that in #2020, a police officer would murder an African-American man by suffocating him to death, ON CAMERA, would say, “Sure, why is that any worse than all the other murders, the lynchings, the endless denial of our humanity?”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Because yesterday, as so many of us had our eyeballs glued to our Twitter feeds, absorbing news AS IT WAS HAPPENING, I realized that many of our photojournalist readers, and my colleagues, were kind of heroes.

Out there, risking their lives, to share the events with the rest of us.

And I got it in my head to try to include some of the great imagery with you here.

But Capitalism being what it is, (no offense to the photographers,) I tweeted a request that went nowhere, and the few people I asked had their work “embargoed,” so it would not be accessible to us here.

Twitter, though, for all its nonsense, is also a pretty fascinating resource.

Right there in my feed, it “recommended” that I follow a young, African-American photographer in Dallas, of whom I had never heard: Laidric Stevenson.

So I did.

Then I jumped to his website, and discovered the amazing “#AmericanMadeMachines,” and his perfect-for-today “MyVirusDiary,” which he’s shot for obvious reasons. (My own version has taken over my IG feed.)

I don’t know much about Laidric, but I do know he’s a Dad, has a full-time day job in an office, a part-time second job at night, and he uses a large format camera to make his life as a photographer as challenging as possible.

I know that for all the talk of featuring more artists of color here on the blog, it’s always a difficult, because the artists I meet at festivals, or who submit their books, are predominantly White.

And I know that when I saw his photographs of Dallas, so crisp and bleak, they felt like #2020.

But somehow, they were also beautiful.

People sometimes ask me why a photograph made by an African-American is different from the same image made by a White photographer?

Is it always?

Maybe not, depending on context.

But when you see these images, with their graffiti about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, or a guy named David, (or Bug, or Juice,) who was taken before his time, they feel different than if I’d cruised around Dallas, trying to tell this story.

And the large format camera, which forces one to move slowly and methodically, allows us to enter into a fully realized world, rather than just passing by at 65mph.

We see a billboard for masks, and wheat-paste posters about the Census, en Español. There are messages of hope, and landscapes of despair.

Like I said, it’s #2020.

And all that isolation, all the damage caused by the last four years, you can feel that too.

So in the end, Twitter came to the rescue, as we all get to enjoy Laidric Stevenson’s photographs, on this, what I can only hope will be the very first day of a new era.

For my country, for my community, for my family, and for me.

Stay safe out there, and see you next week!

 

This Week in Photography: Welcome to 2021

 

Happy New Year, everybody!

 

I’m back, and writing on Thursday as usual, which makes this the last day of #2020. (Though by the time you read this, the calendar will have turned, giving the world a fresh start.)

What will become of us in 2021?

I wish I could tell you, but honestly, I have no idea.

Even though I just had a week off, my powers of prediction are not as sharp as I might like.

(And nobody could have guessed #2020 would go off the rails to the extent that it did.)

I vaguely remember last January, in which I put the final touches on my first book, the aptly named “Extinction Party.”

And I certainly remember February, in which I traveled to Amsterdam for a week, reveling in the soon-to-disappear pleasure of chatting up random strangers, visiting art museums, and smoking tons of weed and hash in the city’s rightfully-lauded coffee shops.

(Shout out to the Jolly Joker.)

 

 

While roaming Amsterdam, I met two men named Mohammed, and one named Godsend. For the first time in my life, I said “As Salaam Alaikum” to Muslims, and it felt so good to be out of my New Mexican bubble.

Then came early March, and after my brief visit to Houston to launch the book, I got home… and never left.

As awful as some parts of the year were, and I mean horrible in the truest sense, I was also given some unbelievable gifts: namely, after discovering my wife was suffering from clinical depression, by the end of #2020, I can report that she’s happier and healthier than she’s been in years.

 

How can I hate a year that so changed my family’s life for the better?

And once she recovered, my wife suggested we get the kids a dog, with whom they are now totally obsessed.

No #2020, no healthy wife, no dog, no happy kids.

(There is something to be said for the old adage, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.)

But I also wrote a column for you in March, correctly predicting that the virus, with its imposition of “social distance,” would create chaos within our society, as people fought, and ultimately died, to protect personal space, or “individual freedom.”

So much bad, so much good, all in one calendar year, and I’m pretty sure it will take me decades to digest it all.

By May, I did my first online portfolio reviews, for the Los Angles Center of Photography, and at that point, I barely knew how to use Zoom.

Then we had to cancel our Antidote Photo Retreat program, for obvious reasons, (which sucked,) but as a result, it forced me to migrate our community online, and now I have a successful Antidote online educational program.

By September, I was fully-Zoom-literate, and participated in the Filter Photo Festival online, as my favorite week of the year, when I normally get to party with my best friends in Chicago, became a Saturday of sitting at my computer, meeting new people, virtually, and looking at their work from my bedroom.

(Things that would have been LITERALLY unimaginable in #2019 became commonplace by the Fall of #2020, and that’s about the best way I can sum up this cluster-fuck of a year.)

In the Pre-Covid reality, I went to festivals all the time, and reported on cities, restaurants, galleries and museums for you, before writing about the best photographic portfolios I saw.

It was a huge part of our regular content, as you long-time readers know.

But #2020 being #2020, (even though it’s now 2021,) I’m only just getting around to writing about the cool work I saw via the Filter Photo Festival a few months ago.

Thankfully, online festivals are much better than no festivals, and I recently saw work online at Photo NOLA, with online festivals in LA and Denver lined up between now and March.

Meaning, I’ll have lots of interesting work to share with you in the coming months, from artists spread around the world, as one of the obvious benefits to online festivals is that the lower cost, due to lack of travel budgets, means people can “attend” from their bedrooms in Sao Paulo, Mexico City, or Japan. (All places that artists were residing at Photo NOLA.)

So with all that as a background, (and a kind-of-year-in-review,) today, I’ll show you the best work I saw at Filter, back in September #2020, while simultaneously wishing you a happy, healthy, safe, and perhaps much-better year in 2021.

As usual, the artists are in no particular order, and I hope you appreciate their hard work and dedication.

I first met Paula Riff poolside, at an afterparty for a festival in San Diego, back in 2018. But I’d never reviewed her work before, despite seeing her name pop up in gallery announcements from time to time.

Paula showed me a perfect series for #2020, as it involved cutting up leftover prints, and mistakes from the past, and turning them into something entirely new. The images are gorgeous, as you’ll see, and provide inspiration for all of us to make something positive out of the waste in our lives.

 

I reviewed Adam Frint’s work at Filter in 2019, loved it, and shared it with you here in the column. (That project involved snooping on people during their smoke breaks around the city.) So I was excited to see what he would come up with next… and he didn’t disappoint.

Interested in graffiti cover-ups, and riffing on color blocks like an oddball 21st Century Mondrian, Adam set up his wife, and brother-in-law, to hold up color-shapes, as he arranged them against buildings, so the blocks would be in relationship to each other.

Not much more needs to be said, as they’re funny, charming, and visually appealing, all at once.

 

Matthew David Crowther had a very different take for his Chicago-centric series. It was all made in one small nature preserve, set within the city limits, in which he went walking for more than three years.

We discussed how to communicate the urbanity to the viewer, as the images are so poetic and pastoral, but apparently there is some serious urban-scape surrounding the seemingly-rural place. Do you also shoot establishment images outside the park for context? Or use sound recordings of all the noise heard within?

Given the mood of the images, I suggested poetry might also be an option, and just this morning, Matthew sent me a poem he’d written to accompany the project. It’s lovely, so I’ll include it here:

“The bones of one world
are the soil of another
We walk the looping paths
With our children
Lost in the ash borer trails
And receding water lines
Moving with the steady force
Of generation after generation
We hear the birds singing along
With the passing planes
And the jackhammer
Of woodpeckers and road crews
Fall winter spring summer fall
The patterns shift yet remain
Loops within cycles within
Wheels within wheels”

 

Kambua Chema and I met at Filter years ago, and she’s one of those people whose positive energy is simply infectious. (Perhaps not the best adjective for #2020, now that I think about it.)

Stuck at home like the rest of us, Kambua used a telephoto lens to document the Chicagoans who used the parking lot below her apartment as a lockdown-recreational-area. As the idea is so relevant, we spent most of our review discussing the importance of the edit, and making sure the color/contrast palette stood up to the strength of her concept.

 

I spoke with Jane Yudelman, who was in lockdown in her studio in Maine, and she showed me two digital composite projects that I liked, despite the fact that I often have a bias against such strategies. Both were visually arresting, but I’m showing you the one that offered me a proper surprise.

I can’t tell you how many sea/sky images I’ve seen over the years, and I’ve shot my share of them too. (Nothing original, I’m afraid.)

Yet these image are not real horizons. So it’s more Rothko than Sugimoto, and the colors and vibe are just right, IMO.

I had a nice chat with Karen Osdieck, a Midwestern photographer and accountant, who mostly makes work out of her young boys’ lives. We discussed her antecedents, and the mentors she’d developed, as Karen has studied with some excellent female artists in the photo world.

I thought her primary project, which had achieved some success, was lacking in the color and light palette, despite the occasionally taut narratives. But her secondary project, in which she photographed one son in all the outfits he wanted to wear to Zoom school, in the pandemic, was really cool, and so #2020.

 

Last, but not least, we have Sandra Ullmann, who was trained as a psychoanalyst, and showed me a vintage, black and white project from her archive. Apparently, when one of her children had a baby, she had to drive three hours to the hospital multiple times, and discovered these wrapped trees.

There was a Jungian feeling to the project, for sure, and we discussed ways that she could shoot new subjects that might fit together with the older group. I loved them!

See you next week, and hope you all have a safe, healthy, and amazing 2021!

 

This Week in Photography: The End is Nigh?

 

 

I’ve always been an optimist.

 

And if you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you’ll know it’s true.

(Until this year, that is.)

Fucking #2020.
What a bitch.

If I’m being honest, I probably started questioning my faith in positivity a bit earlier in the thankfully-soon-to-be-over Trump presidency.

Because back in my young 30’s, with Barack Obama’s ascent, I was enamored of his theory that the long arch of history bends towards justice.

Hasn’t Hollywood been pumping us full of that happy-ending juice for a Century now? (Until Tom Holland’s Spiderman dies at the end of that Avengers film, that is.)

Haven’t we been primed to believe things will work themselves out eventually?

Because there is ample evidence in human history that corruption, and the lust for power and wealth, can also create super-long periods where “regular” people consistently get the shit end of the stick.

For every Pax Americana, or Athenian Democracy, there has been a counter-balancing Aztec Empire, Nazi Regime, or Enrique Peña Nieto nightmare. (Sorry, Mexico. Didn’t mean to pick on you twice.)

Which makes a week like this one feel so very, perfectly, unbelievably #2020.

The US surpasses 300,000 dead, but we also get the vaccine. The Electoral College does its job and votes for Biden, but certain right-wing figures continue to imply a Civil War is coming.

People are dying, constantly.
But maybe better days are ahead?

It’s hard to make sense of things, in the week before Xmas, and after I confidently slammed the door on #2019, begging for #2020, I’m now cautiously peeking around the corner, hoping 2021 doesn’t kick us in the balls.

I’m not even sure the calendar will turn as it’s supposed to, because this year has felt like 10 years and 10 days simultaneously.

In previous columns, we’ve discussed that time functioned differently during this plague year, but still, my optimism is buried deep enough that even New Year’s Eve seems illusory.

The year has been so long, in fact, that I received a book in late February, just before lockdown, and it’s sat in my submission pile ever since. (That part is understandable, as it often takes me a year to comb though the stack.)

But this book, a small catalogue really, was one I didn’t request, nor did the artist reach out before sending, so when I finally opened it up, I was clueless as to what I’d be seeing.

It’s called “a.non.y.mous,” by Robert George, published by Archer Gallery Press, and the return address was from Saint Louis, so I was really flying blind.

There is a well-written, short statement in the beginning, that veers towards art-speak, but never crosses the line. It intrigued me, in particular this line: “individualism has defined America in the past, but as the world grows larger, we become more and more anonymous.”

Late last year, I wrote a huge article comparing China and America, and questioned whether our over-reliance on individuality, at the expense of any sense of collective responsibility, might soon bite us in the ass?

(And #2020 answered that question, did it not?)

I’m no fan of autocracy, as everyone knows, but I suggested we could do with a slightly stronger sense of social fabric, as Trump was shredding so much of our decency and moral standing.

(And here we are, in a world where people would rather allow others to die than wear a stupid fucking mask.)

Though the book’s introduction suggests it will have a bit of an intellectual, or scholarly bent, we end up with a lovely, short jaunt through a set of cohesive street photos. (Or documentary images, depening on your preference of terms.)

Mostly, we see solitary figures, often children, out in a varied world. (Not exclusively Saint Louis, I’m guessing.) That there are so many subtle symbols of American culture and history, in such a short book, is commendable. (Like Spiderman.)

But here’s the kicker: the book implies it was shot and published in #2020. (Based on the end notes.)

All of it?

But it arrived in my mailbox at the end of February.

So the entire narrative must span the beginning of this year; all of it before lockdown?

The masks.
The loneliness.
The broken heroes.

All of it?

Somehow, a story that feels like it was made for our 9 month ordeal, was created just before it began?

Including the protests?

We also see two carnivals, which are pretty much the perfect examples of what we have lost.

(The fun, freedom, and whimsy.)

I’m properly impressed by this little volume, and do wonder if it would have had the same power if they’d tried to cram in 60 pictures, and built the thing with more a more imposing physical structure?

Instead, it feels more poem than novel. (More Robert Frost than Jonathan Franzen.)

I hope you enjoy it, and as I’ll be off next week for the holiday, I’ll see you again in 2021.

(If Armageddon doesn’t get here first…)

To contact the artist about the book, click here

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: A Year in Review

 

I’m writing on Wednesday this week.

I never write on Wednesdays.

 

It’s weird. Strange.

Odd.

 

By the time this column is posted on Friday morning, I’ll be reviewing portfolios, virtually, for Photo NOLA.

It’s commonplace, by now, that festivals and events have migrated online, and we’ve all adjusted.

Adapted.

Sorted it out.

For whatever reason, the other day, I was thinking of my word of the year, whether I could encapsulate the entire bonkers, tragic, confusing experience of #2020 in just a few syllables.

My choice was adapt.

The verb tense, not the noun. (Adaptation.)

I feel like we’ve all had to adapt, whether we wanted to or not. That word always annoyed me, when used in conjunction with Climate Change, as if we could never surmount our problems, so we’ll simply have to adapt to a new environment.

Now, after seeing our inability to come together as a species to battle corona, I guess I’ve been disabused of my naiveté.

But as we’re almost halfway through December, the last month in this mountaintop of a year, I realized just how little I was able to travel, and experience cool things for you, the readers, in #2020.

I got to Amsterdam and Houston just moments before travel became impossible and lockdowns the norm, in the early part of this year, but ever since, I’ve been out here on my farm.

Looking at books.
Walking in circles.

And, occasionally, reminiscing.

 

On the canal behind my hotel, Amsterdam, 2020

 

But most of the column this year has been generated from reacting to things in my house, holding photo books in hand, and then making judgements.

(So different from wandering the world, and then telling you about it.)

If ever there were two opposite years, lived back to back, it’s #2019 and #2020.

#2019 was the year to celebrate, rather than begrudge, (in retrospect,) because I got to visit so many brilliant cities, smashing up against people from every walk of life.

I was on airplanes constantly, bouncing around America, and then I even got to England.

(What a celebration of all the things we can’t do now.)

In late March, I drove up along the spine of the Rocky Mountains to Denver, to meet my friends Kyohei and Jeff, at the Month of Photography, Denver.

We had really good beer at Union Station, Denver’s downtown train hub that also became a social center, with tons of bars and restaurants. (Remember, all of this is #2019. No masks, and no issues with humans congregating.)

In April, I went to New Jersey and New York, which I wrote about here at length. From this vantage point, crushing against all those people on the High Line, with the skyscrapers behind us, seems downright decadent.

And I recall the beauty of stepping in off the street, into one of my all time favorite restaurants, (Grand Szechuan,) and having a piping hot pot of tea delivered, so quickly, to warm me up.

(What seemed commonplace now seems unimaginable.)

April brought me to Portland, for Photolucida, which has been postponed for 2021, due to the pandemic.

Last year, though, I partied in a heavy metal concert at Dantes, and pressed through a packed Portland Museum of Art, for the festival’s portfolio walk. (At Photo NOLA this year, the portfolio walk will be held in virtual reality.)

Dante’s, in Portland, 2019

 

In May, I went to London for a week, and was in and out of more public spaces than I can even believe.

Galleries, museums, trains, shops, squares, baths, movie theaters…

All of it.

Trafalgar Square, London, 2019
Inside the National Gallery of Art, London, 2019
Sir Antony Gormley sculpture, Tate Modern, London, 2019
Art and Ecology conference, London, 2019
Walking around, London, 2019

If I could teleport, and eat a pizza margherita with mozzarella di bufula, from Zia Lucia, right near Hugo’s house on the Holloway Road, that would be ideal.

Zia Lucia, Holloway Road, London, 2019

 

June was quiet, but then July brought California, bouncing from Oakland to San Francisco to Monterrey to Carmel to Oakland to San Francisco and back to Oakland. (A microcosm of the year.)

Sitting on the steps of the 19th Century City Hall building in Monterey, at twilight, with my wife all dressed up for a wedding that we’d just escaped round the corner, just the two of us, was one of the best moments I can recall.

That week we ate Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Salvadoran, and Mexican food.

(And totally took that for granted.)

Transamerica Tower, San Francisco, 2019
Yee’s Restaurant, Chinatown, San Francisco, 2019
Beef with pan fried noodles, 2019
BBQ Pork with cabbage, 2019

 

In early September, the wife, kids and I flew into Philadelphia, for a family wedding at the Jersey Shore. (Down in South Jersey, near Cape May.)

The wedding on the beach, Avalon, 2019
The last time I saw the ocean, Avalon, 2019

 

The kids and I picked up wedding confetti off the beach, and we ate pizza each day until we were sick of it.

My wife showed her first real symptoms of depression; moments that DEFINITELY got my attention.

(The Geno’s cheesesteak at the Philly airport was the best airport food I’ve ever eaten, fyi.)

In mid-September, I went to Chicago, for the Filter Photo Festival, and even wrote here how such partying and festival hopping had become the norm.

View of the Hancock Tower, from the rooftop bar, Chicago, 2019

 

How will they top what they’ve done before, I wondered?

Entertain me!

I’ve been to so many festivals, in so many cities, that I’m no longer satisfied by good food, music, and friends.

I’ve seen the concerts, and done the karaoke.

I want next-level fun, your hear me!!!

Of course, that attitude seems silly now, nine months into a quarantine that might well last that much longer, depending on when my family gets the vaccine.

It seems out of whack, that I’d take such things for granted. (Or that I’d travel 20,000+ miles and think nothing of it.)

October was Albuquerque, and then Boulder in November.

Airport hotel lawn, where we played football, Albuquerque, 2019

I remember in Colorado, finding a quiet balcony at the Boulder Hilton, with no people around, and Jessie and I would do some stretching, staring at the Flatirons, so close we could touch them.

Though we were above all the shopping centers, all the cars and the activity, up there on that balcony, it felt so peaceful, and private.

View of the Flatirons, Boulder, 2019

 

It felt like we were the only people in the world, with our bird’s eye view, and our mountains right there in the sky.

Just us, all alone.

Now, at the end of #2020, that’s how I feel every day.

Alone.
Quiet.
Hoping I can travel again in 2021.

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Feeling Lucky

 

Here’s a little secret: Donald J. Trump is a fake tough guy.

A fugazi.

 

 

I understand he’s tall, and tall guys have a different path in life, so that must have gone to his head.

But given his obesity and age, many of us could beat the shit out of him, if he didn’t have all that Secret Service protection.

He talks like a tough guy, and squints like a tough guy, but like many a bully before him, it’s all bark, no bite. (Assuming he doesn’t launch a Civil War between now and January 20th.)

 

Now that he’s lost, few things will give me more pleasure than not having to write about him all the time.

Or think about him.
Or talk about him.

With any luck, he’ll fade from the media firmament, allowing the rest of us to focus on more important things, like saving the planet, or discovering the perfect show on Netflix. (The Queen’s Gambit?)

Frankly, I think just like Trump was playing a successful business executive on TV, he’s spent his presidency pretending to be Clint Eastwood, circa the 70’s.

I love Clint Eastwood, sure, and his Spaghetti Westerns are some of the best art of the 20th Century. (Though he owes a lot of that to Sergio Leone, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, and Ennio Morricone.)

As to the “Dirty Harry” films, the ones that obviously inspired Trump, (as did those of Charles Bronson,) they are far more problematic, when seen from a 21st Century vantage.

I like them, (though I saw them ages ago,) but the overt racism, and denigration of the counter culture, make Old Clint look like a white-guy-marauder, swinging his big gun around liberal San Francisco, cleaning up the mess on behalf of respectable society.

Take his most famous clip, for instance.

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”

Everyone over 40 knows that quote, but how many of you have seen the scene?

Big Clint stands over an African-American criminal, (with a nefarious mustache,) and threatens to shoot him, if the prone man reaches for his shotgun.

Clint has his 44 Magnum, of course.

But the big question is whether he has any bullets left, after the broad daylight, while-eating-a-hot-dog, shootout in downtown SF.

Does he?

Did he shoot five, or six shots?

So the African-American criminal is laying there, being threatened with having his head blown clean off, and he has to wonder?

It is worth the risk?

5 or 6?
6 or 5?

One number is lucky, the other means death.

So he decides NOT to take his chances, surrenders, and only then does he get Clint to admit it was a bluff.

The gun was empty.

All talk.

(Sound like anyone we know?)

Was he actually lucky then? By rolling the dice on staying alive, he wins, right?

Or was he unlucky to get shot in the first place?

How do we define luck, given that we all supposedly know what it means?

Just last night, on Twitter, I described #2020 as a kick in the balls, which it certainly has been.

But the early stages of the pandemic, with its attendant lockdown, allowed me to figure out my wife had clinical depression, and now, 9 months later, she’s healthier and happier than she’s been in years?

Was it good “luck” that the world fell apart, so I could save my family?

I really don’t know how to answer that question.

Is luck just chance by another name?

Was I lucky today, when I decided rather than opening a new book box, to stare at my book shelf and see if anything jumped out?

Because I plucked the very yellow “El Libro Supremo De La Suerte,” by Rose Marie Cromwell, published by TIS books in 2018, and it was just right for today.

Why is that luck?

Well, I’ve tried to review this book no less than 4 times before, as I met Rose at a festival in Virginia in 2010, and respect her artistic practice, but each time, I couldn’t sort it out.

The project was shot in Cuba, between 2009-16, and even though Rose is bilingual, and did lots of good work with youth in Panama over the years, it still read like a “Cuba” book to me.

Maybe a bit weirder than the norm, but there is so much “Cuba” out there, and we all know it.

So why today?

What changed, other than my luck?

I guess I figured the book out this time, which I wasn’t able to before.

And as you might have surmised from the book’s title, and my generous-length lede, it’s a book about luck, as the subject is a form of lottery that is played in Havana, called La Charada.

The book explains that in the hand-written-font-opening-statement, but previously, I blew past that and just saw Cuba.

Not this time.

The book is broken into sections, each matching up with a lottery number, and the subject to which it is attached. (Like old whore, or dark sun.)

The book, which is creatively constructed, (in addition to its noticeable cover,) with plenty of half-pages, feels non-linear.

Poetic.

Maybe even just the slightest bit occult, with the chicken feet, dark corners, and sense of ritual. (Like the two men buried in the sand, intertwined.)

Obviously, I got lucky today, as I needed a book to write about, and this presented itself. In the past, I wasn’t up for the challenge of understanding it, so I chose to pass, trusting that only 5 bullets had been discharged.

Thankfully, I got over myself, stood tall, and was able to appreciate this cool project for what it has to offer.

To purchase “El Libro Supremo De La Suerte,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.