Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

The Best Work I Saw at the Denver Portfolio Walk

 

Tick tock, goes the clock.

Tick tock.

It’s counting down the minutes until I need to pull out of my driveway tomorrow.

(Tick tock.)

It’s an early departure to drive 5 hours to Denver, fly to Charlotte, change planes, and then end up in London on Thursday morning.

(If everything goes as it should.)

I’d by lying if I said I was back to normal after the NYC/NJ and Portland double-double.

I’m not normal at all.

But, (and this is a big BUT,) every now and again, being jet-lagged can be a good thing. Like my wife said, right now, for me, it’s the equivalent of hair of the dog.

Since I already feel like that, I should be able to get a lot more accomplished. (If I don’t sleep, so what? I’ll sleep for a week when I get home.)

If I get hungover, so what?

I won’t drink again for months.

London and more await, but first I have to get through SO MANY THINGS on my To-Do list, then pack, and then wake up before dawn too drive over the Rocky Mountains.

The likelihood of the sun being in my eyes as I drive East over La Veta Pass tomorrow? 100%!

All that hustle to get to Denver, because the flights were 1/3 the price of flying out of Albuquerque, which is two hours closer to my house.

$500 vs $1500?

One is doable, the other is not. (Editor’s note: I did pay to upgrade my seats later today, as they were going to put me in the middle, near the toilet, with no overhead bin space.)

So Denver International Airport it was.

The Mile High city.
Home of the Broncos and the Denver Nuggets.

A boom-town for sure, but are they all, these days? The good ones, I mean?

It is one thing I’ve begun to notice, as I’ve traveled around the past year or two. It seems like Denver, San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland and NYC are all booming.

Cranes everywhere.

Perhaps it’s time to extrapolate all those numbers about the rapid urbanization of America? I mean, I can’t speak to Des Moines, or Little Rock, or Baltimore, but I just read that they’re expecting 50% of America living in 8 states in the coming years.

That’s nuts.

People flock to places like Denver because of the confluence of economic opportunity, world class leisure activities, high-end-bougie-lifestyle, like-minded politics, clean air, (for now,) and (at this point) we have to mention legal marijuana too.

Denver just grows and grows. (Higher and Higher.)

Ask anyone who’s been around the Rocky Mountain West the last 25 years, and miles of what were once open prairie or farms, all along the I-25 corridor, have become suburbs to the point that distinct cities have nearly merged.

The Colorado Springs-Denver-Boulder-Ft.Collins metropolitan area is massive, with a serious population, and it’s nearly seamless in 2019.

(Nearly. There are still a few pockets in between, and even in places like Boulder, farms still maintain micro-pockets, like Gunbarrel.)

I was last up in Denver in late March, as you may know, because I wrote about my exploits here. It was a travel piece, sure, but it also set up the premise of today’s article.

In order to visit a few friends, I drove up to Denver to attend the open portfolio night at the Month of Photography 2019, which took place in downtown Denver on a Saturday night.

I parked in a spot that while convenient to the hotel bars, seemed like it would feel sketchy by the end of the night, and sure enough, I was griping my pocket knife like it was a Hattori Hanzu sword.

But that was the end of the night.

I turned up at the space, and after heading up the stairs, I met a very large crowd. The event was definitely well attended, but there was little of the pushing and shoving that you get in other cities. (Maybe none? I’m not sure anyone pushed or shoved at all.)

Almost immediately, after saying hi to a lot of people, I decided to look at the work seriously, and I met Stephanie Burchett, who reminded me we’d hung out at an after party at Medium in San Diego last October.

(For the record, as I learned the other week in Portland, I always remember a person’s name, work, face, or the circumstances under which we met. Sometimes some of the above, but always one.)

Stephanie had recently graduated from an MFA program in Tucson, and was displaying a small fabrication of images on both sides of the border wall.

I asked if it was a mockup, and she seemed surprised, even though she admitted she made large scale installation in grad school.

It was only meant to be what it was, she said. And I kind of like that, as its intent makes it weird and a little sad. Throw in the video-still she showed me from a grad school show, in which she facial recognition tagged white people in lynching photos, and I knew there was material in Denver to publish.

I told Stephanie that if I could find even a few more people to feature, I’d do an article. Then it became a game and a race, because my friends had worked all day, and wanted to leave to party.

Needless to say, there were enough people, or there would be no article.

 

So rather than go in order, which we never do anyway, I’ll tell you about Ellen Friedlander.

Ellen was one of those few people who stick in my mind, because these days, I try to publish as much work as I can. Very rarely, I’ll say no to someone, and then think about it afterwards, because I feel like perhaps I should have given them the benefit of the doubt.

Ellen qualifies, as I met her at Medium in October as well, (small circuit, the portfolio reviews,) and we spent the entire 20 minutes, or most of it, doing critical feedback. I spent so much time telling her how to improve that I didn’t really get to evaluate her work properly.

Well, here Ellen was, and with her daughter and sister to boot! I got to tell all three that I regretted not helping her, and then I offered to publish her work on the spot.

There was a very happy woman before me, it’s true, but she also said that the critique had been very helpful, and that her new work had grown as a result.

A win win for sure. As to the pictures, they’re street photography horizontal composites, as Ellen spent years living in Hong Kong, and traveling the world.

Chris Sessions was a good sport about my smash-and-grab approach. My friend and colleague, Jennifer Murray, the Executive Director of Filter Photo told me I needed to see his stuff, and within ONE photograph, I knew we were good to go.

Chris is doing a long-term personal project on Charros, Mexican horse riders in the greater Denver area. The image of the dude hovering in air may be one of the best individual photographs I’ve ever seen at a review.

A lot of what I saw that night was not to my taste, which is not uncommon in non-juried reviews. The community spirit and vitality are as important as anything. But it does mean that the good work jumps right out.

Especially when the light/color/sky leap off of an indoor table, at night, under artificial lighting conditions.

That’s what happened with Kevin Hoth.

I saw the images, told him who I was, and said I’d like to show them just for how beautiful they were.

Aren’t they?

Speaking of beauty, I thought Angela Faris Belt poetic landscapes were also gorgeous. Exquisite.

But then I learned they depict ancient, endangered Bristlecone Pines, and she photographed with expired Polaroid film.

Normally I’d write more, but sometimes it isn’t necessary.

It’s funny how sometimes you need to travel to see people from back home. (Not far, in this case.) I went up to Philip V. Augustin’s table like a shark, as he’s a Santa Fe guy, and I’ve seen his work many times over the years.

I wanted to look at some of his perfect gelatin silver prints, made of real light shapes in the studio. Coincidentally, I saw a few on the wall, framed, at Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe last Thursday, and they were really sharp.

Last, but not least, (as I often say,) we have Carl Bower, who I met on the portfolio review circuit 9 years ago, and probably hadn’t seen in 6 or 7 years.

I’d known Carl for his work about beauty pageants in Colombia, but this work was very different. The images were presented with text on the white background, as Carl was asking people to discuss their Private Fears, as he used his art to combat the same.

 

NYC in the 21st Century, Part 2

 

Change is hard.

That’s the truth.

As much as change makes us better, though, we rarely seek it out.

People don’t choose it, if left to our own devices. One needs training, which art school often provides, to temper our natural fear of change, and to learn to trust its inherent process.

Most of the time, though, change is thrust upon us.

It drops out of the sky, like an asteroid, ready to lay waste to the dumb dinosaurs below.

That’s far more common, right?

I mentioned this today, (writing on Wednesday,) because by the time you read this, it will likely be public knowledge that the New York Times Lens blog, my erstwhile employer, is shutting down at the end of this month.

Dead.
Done.
Kaput.

You guys know me, and writing as I do here, straight from me to you, is my particular speciality. Yet for 6 years, I learned how to write like a proper journalist.

No fucks, or shits. No first person narrative.

Thanks, NYT, I appreciate it!

But I only wrote a handful of times a year at Lens, by the end, and the money won’t make a difference in my life. (Though, like working with teenagers, I’ll miss the action.)

Rather, I feel for all the photographers who won’t be spot-lit across the globe. That blog had reach, and reach can = impact.

Speaking from experience, having “The Value of a Dollar” go viral from Lens MADE my photo career. That work is on the wall in a museum in Germany now, in 2019, and that never, ever would have happened without Lens.

These days, there are other places to publish such work. Sure. But for the photographers, losing Lens means losing opportunities.

And other places will have to pick up the slack.

Here in my column in APE, I’ll tell you that we intend to do just that.

For the rest of the summer, we’ll have portfolio review articles, exhibition reviews, and adventure pieces from the field. Between Denver, Portland, and wherever the hell I end up in Europe next week, there will be many stories to tell.

And I intend to show you the work of DOZENS of photographers.

There will be much to see, and after years of book reviews, we’re going to chill a bit on that, and bring them back at the end of summer. (Unless I need a brief break from all the action.)

Speaking of action, given the headline on this piece, I should be talking about my take on New York City and New Jersey in the 21st Century.

The Big Apple, and one of its primary suburban arms.
(Two thirds of the Tri-State Area, if you will.)

When last I left you, we’d talked about the development of NYC architecture, specifically Hudson Yards, and how a new NYC was rising in the ashes of the old.

View of Hudson Yards from the South

Global replacing local.

Sure enough, when I spoke with a long-time New Yorker in Portland, and mentioned that I’d written about the Hudson Yards Project, his first comment was to complain about how it impacts locals.

I shit you not.

The first words out of his mouth.

Change is not only scary, but it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Particularly, when people aren’t actively working to embrace change: to learn and grow from it on purpose.

(Or when they perpetually get the crap end of the stick b/c of Capitalism, Racism, etc.)

I’ve had some nasty headaches the last few weeks, and I’m sure it’s because I’ve been pushing myself so hard to have new experiences this past month.

Making new neural pathways makes us smarter and better, but I’ve found that it can nearly cause a migraine. (As did all the Op-Art I saw in Portland, but that’s another story for a different day.)

Whether it’s the New York Times deciding there’s no money in a photojournalism blog, or a proud city regaining it’s mojo in 2019, change is only predictable in its unpredictability.

So while I can laud NYC for its ability to provide the most amazing 14 miles of eating, walking and looking a husband and wife could ask for, and will tell you about it briefly, I get that the “New” New York has more than its share of detractors.

As I’m pretending to be my former mentor Tony Bourdain for the summer, (#RIP Tony,) I’ll first share that Grand Sichuan, on 9th between 24th & 25th, on the edge of the Chelsea galleries, is totally boss.

I love it, have always loved it, and recommend it highly.

As Jessie and I ate our cold spicy noodles and egg rolls, sipping our (complimentary) tea on an extended walking break, she reminded me of the time my cousin Ron took us there for the night with his wife.

Back in the early aughts.

Ron was something of a foodie, had gone to culinary school, and knew to order off the Chinese Only menu. (We had chicken that was killed that afternoon.)

We drank, ate too much, and laughed all night. A few months later, Jessie and I had Christmas dinner at Ron’s house, and decided to move back to New Mexico.

Unfortunately, Ron died a few years later.

He was one of the early victims of the opioid epidemic. A nice Jewish guy from Jersey.

The canary in the coal mine.

(Hard to segue off of this, now that I think about it, so let’s just keep going.)

Jessie and I ate our way across New York, and thank god we were burning the calories.

Concrete architecture at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel

Because as soon as we walked East from the Tribeca waterfront, near the Holland Tunnel this time, we stumbled, quite literally, upon the cronut place.

THE cronut place.

Dominique Ansel Bakery

Dominique Ansel Bakery. We read a sign about the line as we were walking by, but there were only 5 people in it. So we joined up, waited a few minutes, and then had some great coffee and pastries.

The salted caramel eclair was divine, the almond coconut chocolate croissant was really good, and the Nutella milk bread was highly disappointing.

They have a lovely outdoor courtyard that was quiet and spacious, which I highly recommend, and the massive Cafe Au Lait powered me up for the walk back to our hotel in Koreatown.

At the recommendation of Darren Ching, of Brooklyn’s Klompching gallery, we went across the street from our hotel to Madangsui, a Korean BBQ place, and ended up eating everything the next morning as breakfast. (As I told you in Part 1.) The food was brilliant: kimchee pancake, and a stone bowl bulgogi bibimbap that the waitress turned over table-side.

Koreatown

Yes, we ate in New York. The food was so good, and surprisingly affordable. As for the art, Jessie and I visited the Rubin Museum, in Chelsea, and saw some transcendental Tibetan and Buddhist work, including a re-created shrine that gave me goosebumps.

Recreations of Buddhist art depicting Yogic poses.

Five stars for sure.

But anyone can tell you about New York City.

New Jersey, though, requires a deft touch. (Me and David Chase. A short list.)

New Jersey never really changes, I thought. The shore, the nasty refineries along the Turnpike.

Bruce Springsteen, and the Best Pizza in America.
Skee ball and strip malls and Down-to-Earth people.

The world I knew was made of 2nd and 3rd generation Americans, the children and grand-children of immigrants who arrived at and ultimately fled New York City.

Mostly Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Jewish-Americans, with some Central European/Slavic folks thrown in there as well.

In my town, though, we also had a large contingent of Asian-Americans, which was somewhat rare. (Back then, I didn’t distinguish between Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans, as I would now.)

We had all sorts of Asian-Americans growing up in my hometown of Holmdel, NJ, because there was a gargantuan Bell Labs facility in the center of town.

A massive complex, set a half-mile back off the road, with a trippy-ass-space-ship looking tower in the front, which was as strange as it sounds.

For the uninitiated, Bell Labs was an offshoot of Alexander Graham Bell, and for much of the 20th Century was the most important research facility in the world.

In the world?

Sure. Why not.
Along with Livermore and Los Alamos, I guess.

It was right there in the heart of Holmdel, a place where they discovered, invented or refined radio wave technology, lasers, internet stuff, and all sorts of things.

It was a Nobel Prize factory, in the middle of corn fields that had been tended by Dutch colonists since the 17th Century. (Legit 1600’s for sure.)

And then…

Mergers. Breakups. Bankruptcies.

All of a sudden, it was Lucent, and then it was gone.

Out of business.
Permanently.

So an enormous building sat there empty, for years, reeking of the ghosts of America’s past

Until…

Now.
2019.

The present.

An Orthodox Jewish developer came along, called it Bell Works, and turned the entire Saarinen-designed-space into a mixed use development. Hotel, conference center, restaurants, shops, an indoor soccer field.

What?
And indoor soccer field?

Bell Works

Saarinen’s design touch.

The Holmdel Public Library moved in, and they have a museum area dedicated to Bell Labs and its history. Plus, the place backs up on public park land, so it can be accessed on foot as well as by car.

I was flabbergasted.

Jessie and I ate samosas from an Indian-American-run convenience store INSIDE Bell Labs. With tamarind and cilantro chutneys. And it was really good!

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, you could have pizza or Chinese food, burgers in bar joints, or maybe Jewish Deli, and that was about it.

But it’s not the 20th Century anymore.

Not by a long shot.

And New Jersey, like its big brother NYC, also suffered tremendously from Hurricane Sandy as well, which I wrote about here back in 2013 or ’14. (Even I lose track sometimes.)

Sure enough, just like NYC, the Jersey Shore, which had been annihilated by Sandy, is now thriving.

Booming. Exploding!

I read in the Star Ledger that Pier Village, a shore development in Long Branch that DID NOT EXIST when I was in high school, was adding an additional 450 condominium units.

450!

And then I went there, as my buddy Felt moved into an ocean-front apartment last year. (My wife and I helped him decorate the place on a stoner ramble through NYC last April that I didn’t write about…)

Me and Felt, (who’s real name is Matt,) hung out at the Bat Mitzvah in North Jersey that drew me East, where thankfully the Italian-American food was flowing, and I drank Hennessy all day like it was going out of style.

Then I got to visit Felt’s apartment a couple of days later, and walked down a corridor so long that I got scared of “The Shining,” forgot about the reference, and then got scared of “The Shining” again, because the walk was 3 minutes long.

Looking Northeast at Pier Village

Looking Southeast at Pier Village

That’s how big they’re building these things.

And as Sandy destroyed so many buildings, clearing land, new developments were everywhere, trying to peddle chic.

Chic?

“South Beach at Long Branch” is a thing.

It’s not a joke. It’s real.

My theory is that once the Millennials decided Asbury Park was cool, as it gentrified, and they lacked the same biases against Jersey that their parents had, (Hamptons or bust,) it only made sense that these other beach towns, closer and MORE accessible, would start getting hot.

But trendy?
Like Miami?

I don’t buy it.

Rather, I think anyone who hangs out at the Jersey Shore will just end up getting Jersified.

So do ya-self a favuh, eat some great calamari at Rockafellers, ride some waves this summuh, and make sure ta tell ya friends.

You know what I’m sayin’?

My Aunt and kids after dinner at Rockafellers.

 

This Week in Photography Books: Trace

 

Let’s be honest.

The right piece of advice, at just the right time, can make all the difference.

For example, a friend once told me, when the voices in your head get too loud, turn the music up even louder.

(That’s wisdom, people.)

I decided to try it on Tuesday, as I twitched and shook from the collective exhaustion of a full-week on the road in Portland, followed by a 2-day-trip-home, after flight cancellations and delays saw me land in Albuquerque in the middle of the night.

I had one song that I thought might do the trick, once I finally got home, so I ran a hot bath, and turned that shit up as loud as it would go.

What was my magic musical potion, you ask?

The “Old Town Road Remix” by Lil’ Nas X.

Have you heard it yet?

That shit is so hot it makes my eyeballs melt. A genuine 2019 fusion that shakes the rump and boggles the mind.

And given that not ONE but TWO top African-American NFL draft picks ran videos of them riding their horses, last week during the draft telecast, this song is totally of the now.

Straight out of the Dirty South.

Who knows why places have their moment at a given time?

In Hip-Hop, of course there’s the Bronx and Queens for the early days, and the world would be very different if Ice Cube and Dre had never come along out there in California. (You too, EZ.)

But that Atlanta trap sound over the last few years, with artists like Migos, has felt like a true cultural breakthrough in the age of Trump.

And perhaps it actually arose in opposition?

It’s definitely a theme I discovered at Photolucida last week. So many photographers, (including me,) had their stories of a project, or image, that was catalyzed by the campaign/election/inauguration/Trump’s first two years.

Quick synopsis: the trip was genuinely brilliant, and one of the best I’ve ever had.

But I’m far to tired and woozy, (or Bad and Bougie,) to get into the details today.

Especially as Portland will certainly be a 3 or 4 part series in the coming months.

Rather, we’re going to do a short-ish book review, so I can go drool on myself in the corner and try not to operate heavy machinery.

A few months ago, “Trace,” a little, sleek, 3-book-collection turned up in the mail from Yoffy Press in, (you guessed it,) Atlanta, GA.

I’ve reviewed two of their publications before, the experimental “1864,” by Matthew Brandt, and the excellent, photography-to-combat-depression-movement-building “Too Tired For Sunshine,” by Tara Wray.

In a world of true confessions, the publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, is a long time colleague who came out to ski this February, and we’re in discussions to do a book together, which will be my first. (If you can believe it.)

I’ve gone on the record before with these relationships, so you can decide for yourself if I’m showing you good work, or being nepotistic. (Or both.)

But in this case, I’ve supported her program in the column before, and this book arrived before we even decided to work together, so I feel like we’re in the clear. (You may, of course, disagree.)

“Trace” is a compilation of 3 small books, as I said, and it’s not hard to keep them in order, once they come out of the slip, because the title spells itself out across the collection.

Kota Ezawa’s book is first, and it’s a head trip for sure. The truth is, they all are. This book is a literal embodiment of how I feel as a human being right now, and for that, I love it.

For his book, Kota Ezawa presents an image that builds piece by piece, and is clearly not photographic. Only at the end, or nearly the end, do we realize that it’s built upon one of the most iconic images ever made: JFK’s family by his graveside.

The image grows, section by section, and then you know what it is. Of course that last picture, adding in John Jr, tugs at your heart in a surprising way.

Book 2 is by my long-time colleague Tabitha Soren, by now an acclaimed artist, who was once known as a very-young VJ on MTV, in another lifetime.

I saw these pictures, from the project “Surface Tension,” at Euqinom Gallery in San Francisco in 2017, and thought they were incredible. Ironically, she’d once showed me an early version, on a tablet, at a festival, and I didn’t get it.

I was dubious.

But as prints on the wall, and in book form, (and fully finished,) this project is as smart as it is visually arresting. Scary cats, scary Harvey Weinstein, it’s all the same.

Our made marks, and our attentions spun, are all pulsing through our devices these days.

The Matrix has arrived, and we’re all plugging in willingly.

Final shout out to the title page on Tabitha’s book, as they are surprisingly good. I’ll be sure to photograph it for below.

Finally, the package has a book by Penelope Umbrico, an artist I’ve had the pleasure to hear speak twice, and have interviewed for the column as well. (Check out the long read here.)

Penelope is easily one of the smartest artists I’ve encountered, and yet she manages to use visuals well too. (Total package.)

This project features just the digital circles and made marks, the trace lines around defects on used screens being sold on Ebay.

She spends hours and hours, collectively years of her life, pursuing the digital rabbit holes that help us understand the world around us.

Penelope, I salute you.

And now, as I still have to work today, and even tomorrow, (before I get the nap I so dearly deserve,) I will leave you.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, smart, killer little compilation

To purchase “Trace” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We’re particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, and artists of color, so we may maintain a diverse program. 

NYC in the 21st Century, Part 1

 

I’m just back from New York, and am off to Portland tomorrow, where I’ll be when this article drops.

(Yes, I have a headache.)

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and there’s plenty more to come, so today it’s time to tell you what I observed, as a journalist, in New York and New Jersey earlier this month.

It’s important to date it, because in 2019, these places I know so well have finally stood up tall and joined the 21st Century.

Proudly.

They’ve developed, or grown, in ways that feel authentic, and at times exciting. (As someone who grew up and lived there.) It’s a funny word to use, development, because among a certain political class, it’s almost always seen as a bad thing.

Gentrification –> Development = Low-income residents getting pushed out.

That’s normally the equation, and I get it. (My MFA thesis project in 2004 was about corn fields in my suburban hometown getting turned into McMansions.)

Sure, it was a Dutch farming village for 300 years before my parents got there, but I didn’t want those farms to become more suburbs.

No more people like me moving in to spoil it!

I gentrified the Southern end of the Mission District in San Francisco in 1999, and then Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2002, and left both places as they were getting too trendy.

Hell, Jessie and I moved back to Taos in 2005 expecting hordes of Gen Xers to follow us, but instead it’s been the Millennials who’ve gotten in on the action in the last three or four years.

All of which is to say, I’ve been a gentrifier, and one who took pains at each new farm that was plowed under for another house like my own.

In general, over the course of my life, I’d say I tended towards the condemnation of massive real estate developments, and appreciated when things stayed the same, as they did in San Francisco for 10 years after I left.

But now, the San Francisco skyline has been ruined by Salesforce, the local culture is supposedly all about tech bros, and I’d have to think hard about how many people I know who live in the city these days, rather than in the surrounding area.

New York City, though, is something different. (As is New Jersey, which we’ll get to in Part 2.)

Yes, it’s my home turf, and I’m biased. I’ve written before that I grew up able to see the Twin Towers from my hometown, gleaming across the bay.

I took it personally when the towers were destroyed in 2001, but I think something of New York’s soul was taken too. Not that it’s people were cowed, because that will never happen.

(Not in my lifetime, anyway.)

Old New York near Herald Square

Rather, the skyline was ruptured so badly, and then the local politicking, which is always dirty in New York, kept the Freedom tower from getting built FOREVER.

Really, you can look it up.

When did the Freedom Tower open to the public?

(Rare Google break…)

OK. I’m back. 2014.

That’s when the first tenant moved in.

It took New York City 13 years to replace it’s iconic Southern anchor to the skyline.

And even then, the building is just OK.

In the interim, there was a phase where some very average looking, minimalistic residential super-towers were built, which made the city lean wrong, and all that visual weight went towards the super-rich, with their part time crash pads. (I accidentally wrote cash pads, which is a good Freudian slip.)

Looking South from the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel

Nowadays, in 2019, finally, I’m thrilled to report that New York City has grown in exciting and beautiful ways. (Revitalizing growth that sometimes gets a bad rap, I think.)

In my experience, New York City has become a global tourism Mecca. In the sense that, like Paris, it now belongs to everyone.

And sometimes that comes at the expense of the locals.

Certainly, Manhattan, Brooklyn and now probably Queens are not affordable for “regular” people. Not unless you live “all-the-fuck-out-there” by the ocean.

And even where I’m from, in New Jersey, or in other outlying areas like Long Island or Westchester, the cost of living is high across the board. (Food, rent/home prices, transportation…)

Manhattan just adopted congestion pricing for the first time, to charge people for driving in the heart of the city, and the cost of tolls at bridges is nearly $20 as is.

In particular, though, I’d like to discuss Hudson Yards, the new mega-development by Stephen Ross, which recently opened in what used to be called Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s in Midtown’s Far West Side.

Approaching Hudson Yards from the North

It was supposedly built on a $1 Billion platform over a railyard, and I’ve seen that tactic used in public parks in Chicago and Dallas to good effect. (In Dallas it was over highway, but still…)

Hudson Yards has gotten panned, from what I’ve heard, because it really was built for rich people, and tourists. (I guess I’m kind of the latter, these days.)

 

Looking East towards Old New York

Looking West to Hudson Yards

Looking up at the Hudson Yards skyscrapers

There are something like six new blue-glass skyscrapers by Starchitects, and they surround a big public courtyard with the the Shed, a public art space, and the massively expensive “Vessel,” a glowing bronze public art project for which you have to get a free ticket.

The Vessel

Getting the shot for Instagram

View from inside the Vessel

Looking down off the platform


It is literally a stairway that goes nowhere, built to be an Instagram backdrop, and it does that job well. I was little confused by the physical placement within the city skyline, if it’s meant to be iconic, but then I noticed this ad in The New Yorker, which about sums up the demographic.

The Vessel is apparently visible from New Jersey

On the lower levels of one of the buildings is a huge shopping mall and food court featuring very expensive and/or trendy brands. (Muji is not fancy, but it is cool.)

I understand my point may be somewhat controversial, but I’ve been to that part of town, over the years, and it was a bit of a wasteland.

I can also attest, at 45, that New York has always been about money.

It’s the heart of Capitalism, for crying out loud.

So as a former resident, and now regular visitor, I accept that it was always going to become too expensive for people like me to actually live there.

Hell, I don’t want to live there.

The air quality and weather suck, and it’s too busy for every day.

But seeing such beautiful, gleaming buildings in Hudson Yards, it inspired me.

They’re gorgeous.

And everywhere you look, including in odd places like the Lower East Side, there are new-looking skyscrapers that balance the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, and support the Freedom Tower, which was never meant to carry downtown alone.

(Brooklyn has tons of new hi-rise buildings too, so many that when my father-in-law last visited in 2004, there were none, he confirmed.)

Sticking with Manhattan, though, Hudson Yards blends right into the northern end of the High Line through Chelsea, which is itself a phenomenal piece of design and public space.

Whereas in the past, right at the junction between the two, there might have been a locally owned pizza place, now, it’s a restaurant by Jose Andres and the Adria Brothers. That’s a massive change, and I can see how some people might hate it. (I still miss the ubiquity of a great slice.)

Between the architecture that’s grown around the High Line, like the Zaha Hadid masterpiece, to the nature planted within it, the High Line is always popular, and rightly so.

(We went twice, and each time it was wall-to-wall people, speaking countless languages.)

The High Line ends in the new Whitney, which conveniently flows into Hudson River park, which goes south along the waterfront along the city.

Looking North from the beginning of the High Line

Zaha Hadid building along the High Line

It’s fantastic, frankly.

And none of it was there when I moved back to town in 2002.

I haven’t mentioned Hurricane Sandy, yet, which hit in 2012, but that was a real punch in the nose for the Tri-State Area.

Given that New York is a money town, between 9/11, the following market crash, the 2008 crash, and then Sandy, the city was properly down on its knees.

Maybe not like the big bad 70s, but New York looked stale, visually, and I’d argue maybe it was.

As cities like Shanghai and Dubai raced towards the future, New York seemed stuck in the past.

But no longer.

On a Pier looking South towards the Freedom Tower

These days, I think it’s pretty badass that New York has opened itself proudly to the world.

It’s thriving, and looks pretty great too. (Except for the garbage on the streets, because New York is always gonna New York.)

There’s so much more to tell, (including a few anecdotes about AIPAD,) but we’re nearing 1500 words, and I’ve got photos this time!

There’s no need to over-do it, so I’ll run it back with Part 2 next week.

Have a good one.

This Week in Photography Books: Alexa Vachon

 

It’s Passover coming up this weekend.

(Or Easter, depending on your religious affiliation.)

It’s a holy time of year for the Jewish people, as it represents the Israelites escape from Egypt, fleeing slavery. According to the Torah, (or the Old Testament,) the Jews then spent 40 years in the desert before being allowed into the kingdom of Israel.

To Christians, Jesus was killed during Passover, crucified for his beliefs. Then, according to the New Testament, he was resurrected, as Jesus was the son of God.

I know that in Iran, they have a New Year, or renewal celebration in Spring as well.

Maybe it’s called Narwaz?

(Pause…rare Google break…)

Nowruz. (So close.)

Just like pagan mid-winter celebrations became Christmas, and Catholic churches were built atop Aztec religious sites, ancient belief structures are embedded within later ones, and some human behaviors have remained constant.

Chief among them: when groups of people are threatened with death, they flee.

Whether Jews from the Pharaoh, (or the Nazis thousands of years later,) or Syrians and Afghans in the 21st Century, running for your life is nothing new.

And even countries like ours, famed for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis-Island ethos, have also turned backs on immigrant groups in the past, be they Chinese, Jewish, or Mexican.

To me, little in life is more evil than demonizing the very people who are running from killers. Whether threatened by criminal gangs, like MS-13 in El Salvador, or political groups like the Taliban or ISIS, refugees choose between certain death if they stay put, or the hope of a better life if they make way successfully to the US, Germany, or Sweden.

That a nationalistic counter-reaction was also launched is no surprise, given what we know of history. That DARK, DARK past, from the 19-teens through the mid-1940’s is a reminder that we must take nativism very seriously.

Propagating positive narratives, and humanizing refugees is a pretty excellent way to spend one’s time, if you believe any of what I wrote above to be true.

So big shout out to Alexa Vachon, who sent me her new book “Rise” late last year. It arrived from Berlin with a nice note, and the book is in English, German, and several Central Asian languages I didn’t recognize. (Persian, for sure.)

I think it’s self-published, and there is grant funding thanked at the end, so it seems plausible, despite the excellent production values.

Early on, I parsed that the hand-written text, on certain picture pages, was diaristic by the artist. It is in English, and she mentions being an immigrant, so while I’d normally think American, something reminded me that she could be Canadian as well.

The end notes confirm a Canadian Council for the Arts grant, so we can assume that Ms. Vachon is a Canadian artist living in Berlin, and it seems like she’s been around a while.

The narrative, which I’d call super-inspiring, centers upon CHAMPIONS ohne GRENZEN, a Berlin organization that hooks up native Germans with new refugee immigrants, so they can play soccer together.

Many of the young women have not played before, so it’s a way of integrating people and culture simultaneously.

There are a lot of excellent photos, and also various forms of interview text confirming that running for your life from ISIS, or the Taliban is not for the faint of heart.

If I have any criticism, (and I do,) it’s that there is probably too much of everything here. It could do with a trim of images and text, just because it would tighten the impact of both, I’d suggest.

On balance, though, it’s an excellent book, and in particular I like the subsection of dot-grain-type-black-and-white pictures. I always recommend something to break up the narrative, and this is both clever and cool.

The aforementioned thank you page includes some big names, (including oft-thanked-Alec-Soth,) so it’s clear that Ms. Vachon has some good mentors and/or teachers.

No surprise, given the book’s quality.

But since she sent it to me, I’ll stress the lesson that sometimes, or most of the time, really, less is more. Especially when the heart of your story is so compelling.

Overall, though, a great, inspiring book for the season of renewal and rebirth.

See you next week.

Bottom Line: Lovely, heart-warming book about refugee soccer players in Berlin

To purchase “Rise” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We’re particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, and artists of color, so we may maintain a diverse program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Katherine Longly

 

America is a fast food nation.

We know this.

You may not eat at McDonalds, or Wendy’s, or Burger King, but millions of other people do.

Why?

Because it’s fast, cheap, and packed with flavor and fat. (Of course, all cooks know those last two go together.) Sure, chemical companies supply products that boost the food’s tastiness, but most people don’t care what’s in the crap, as long as it fills them up.

This is not news to you, of course, as billions of words have been written about America’s obesity crisis, and whether anything can be done to slim down our collective waist line.

I know how to keep myself fit, these days, mostly because I’ve had phases in life when I put on weight. I was never obese, thankfully, but chubby, fat, heavy, puffy, or rotund would not have been inappropriate adjectives for me at different times. (As a youth, at my wedding, or the summer of 2016, when I had knee tendinitis.)

Eventually, I realized the body weight math is pretty simple. If you burn more calories than you ingest, you won’t get fat. If you eat a lot more than you burn, consistently, you’re screwed.

In my life, times of weight gain tended to track with stress and unhappiness, but were ALWAYS accompanied by a lack of exercise.

If you eat lots of pizza, drink plenty of beer, and don’t exercise, you’re going to gain weight.

It’s just math.

These days, I’ve added exercise into my life in several ways, and it can be as addictive as the bad substances. So keeping fit, and not going too heavy on the sweets has helped me reach an equilibrium.

(But it took 42 years to figure that shit out, which is nothing to brag about.)

People’s relationship to food often determines whether they’ll be able to maintain a healthy weight, but even more, it depends on their relationships with other people. Over-eating and under-eating, both of which can make a person sick, are often coping strategies, or outlets, for people with unresolved emotional issues.

It’s a fact.

Once the pounds are on, of course, they’re much harder to take off. And when it happens to an entire society, as it has here in America, who the fuck knows how to solve the problem?

Today, though, I’m not actually thinking about it as an American issue. Rather, as most of the world knows, the United States has exported many, if not most, of our major fast food franchises.

So other countries, and their citizenries, are now forced to deal with the same issues, even in places that have long had their own, indigenous, healthy cuisines.

How messed up is that? Our corporations actively make some people, in far-flung places, fat and sick.

USA!
USA!
USA!

(Yes, that was an ironic chant.)

Why am I on about this today? Why not write about all the brilliant food I ate in NYC this week? (I’ll get to that in an upcoming travel piece. With photos this time!)

Well, my musings were inspired by “To tell my real intentions, I want to eat only haze like a hermit.”, a small-batch photo-book that turned up in the mail late last year by Belgian artist Katherine Longly.

Man, is this book cool. Honestly, if I can get more edgy, artsy projects like this from you guys, I’m willing to step off my soap-box and stop bitching about how all photo books look alike.

This submission is different than any before, as Ms. Longly reached out, and offered to send the book to me, if I’d sent it back. (She provided return postage.)

When she explained that it was a prototype, one built by hand, with countless hours of exacting labor, I said, “Sure, why not?” and eventually it turned up in the mail.

Apparently, Ms. Longly spent some time doing residencies in Japan, and this amazing little object was the result.

It opens up with a photo in a sleeve, facing backwards, and when you take it out, you see a photo of a chubby young girl. Right away, I assumed it was the artist. (Not sure why.)

Overall, the book does a deep dive into Japan’s relationship to food, as men have seen an uptick in obesity over the years, some of which is directly attributable to a more Americanized diet. (In particular in Okinawa, due to its US Military history.)

Women, though, face the opposite problem. Due to cultural pressures that are, and are not unique to Japan, (media saturation with young, skinny models and actresses,) many young Japanese women are underweight.

In a society of plenty, (as opposed to their Post-WWII scarcity,) Japanese women are seeing higher rates of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

This is not something for which we can blame Trump, (despite his love of fast food,) but it does seem as if the West has made Japan sicker. (Simultaneously, we fell in love with sushi, which we’ve imported over here like crazy, despite the falling rates of fish in the sea.)

The book features some slick, weird photos at the outset, but then switches to a conceptual approach, in which a set of people living in Japan were asked to make disposable-camera-photographs of their food intake, and share stories about their relationship to it.

Some have eating disorders, some battle with childhood fears of being fat, and others long to cook the best food they possibly can. (Even if it means changing up the type of apples in a family cake recipe.)

Throughout, really cool graphics and research documentation are included, so that facts and stats are mixed with the personal narratives.

And then in the end, we get to see another 4×6 photo of the artist, this time as a grown-up, in a plastic sleeve. (A nice connection to the beginning.)

Like last week, this is a book begging to be photographed, so I’ll make sure to include a lot of pictures down below.

Today wasn’t the day to brag about my New York gluttony, but I’ll get to that in the coming weeks. (Thankfully, I walked so many miles in the city that I came home without any extra pounds.)

Rather, I’ll leave you to contemplate this killer book, which somehow manages to be personal, while also exposing the artist, (and by extension, us,) to an alien culture filled with flavored kit kats and fermented bar snacks.

Bon Appetit!

Bottom Line: Fantastic, original maquette about Japanese food culture

To contact the artist about the book, click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We’re particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, and artists of color, so we may maintain a diverse program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Oliver Wasow

 

Last week, I dropped 1800 words on you.

That’s a lot.

I also resuscitated a dormant format here on the blog, by writing what was essentially a straight travel piece. (And only one measly picture at the end?)

This morning, I received an email from a Denver-based reader suggesting that they have quite enough people living there, thank you very much, and perhaps I shouldn’t entice any more.

Point taken.

Before too long, they’ll have a solid line of helicopters flying the rich folks West to the ski areas, while the plebes sit in 7 hour traffic on I-70.

I mention it here today, because it felt good to fire up my creativity and take the column in a new direction. But also… because after asking you to read what was essentially an extra column last week, today, as I strive for balance, I’ll keep it short.

Might it have something to do with the massive to-do list I’ve got to check off before I leave town Thursday morning?

Yes, it might.

But the bigger reason is that I love the week-to-week connections that develop in a platform like this. The way ideas can drop with the last period of a column, and pick up again the next week.

One of the things I’ve been banging on about lately is that so many photo books look alike. Just last week, in an unsuccessful 3-book-run through the book pile before I decided to go off-script, I looked at a book for the second time, and still, couldn’t get to the end, because it looked so much like everything else.

Landscape.
Portrait.
Interior.
Pretty picture.

Landscape.
Landscape.
Portrait.
Interior.
Ugly landscape.

Pick any place, anywhere, and then substitute all the other places that look like it, (or are similar culturally,) and your mind slowly begins to rot from the inside.

I also made a plea for more submissions of the weird, small batch, artsy stuff I used to get from photo-eye, in the years they lent books for the column.

So imagine my surprise when I reached into the same stack, sifted through a box of books, and came out with “Friends Enemies and Strangers,” a photobook by Oliver Wasow, published last year by Saint Lucy Books in Baltimore.

(Speaking of Baltimore, random tangent, but I’m sure you’ve all seen David Simon’s seminal “The Wire” by now. But if you haven’t seen “Treme,” his subsequent, far-less-well-known love letter to New Orleans, check it now for free on Prime Video.)

I gather from reading the stellar essays by Rabih Almeddine and Matthew Weinstein that Oliver Wasow has been around for a while, and is something of an art world darling. Certainly, the essays suggest he was messing around with digital manipulations in the 80’s, and that Photoshop is his jam.

The title, and the structure of the book hint at the concept, as it contains “made” photos of people Mr. Wasow knows, found images that we later learn were sourced from the internet, and then tackily-on-purpose altered renderings of Republican political enemies, as an act of post-2016 rebellion.

Honestly, I wish I’d thought of fucking with pictures of Bannon, Miller, Trump, Don Jr, Eric, Ivanka, Jared, Sarah Sanders, Sean Spicer and the whole lot of them.

You may be surprised that I didn’t write a Trump column after the Mueller report landed, but really, what is there left to say that I haven’t already said?

I promised you a short column, and I aim to deliver.

This book is mental, as the English might say, but I mean that as a compliment. It’s strange, weird, odd, and off-putting in all the right ways. But it also has a heart, as the photos of friends and family against painted backgrounds are cool, and not totally ironic either.

I’ll photograph a few extra pics below, so you can get a proper feel for this one.

Now I’m off to strike another item of my to-do list. (Yes, I wrote it by hand on a yellow legal pad. Old school!)

Bottom Line: Odd, fun, political, cool book of manipulated pictures

To Purchase: “Friends Enemies and Strangers” click here

PS: I normally don’t notice (or mention) these things, but this book is only $30 with free US shipping

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We’re particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, and artists of color, so we may maintain a diverse program. 

Traveling to Denver for the Month of Photography 2019

 

There was a time, years ago, when I wrote travel pieces in the column.

I regaled with tales of cities near and far.

I also reviewed photography exhibitions, and for years I interviewed photo industry types, transcribed them myself, (yes, it was laborious,) and shared lightly-edited-long-reads with you, our loyal audience.

That this column has evolved into mostly book reviews, with a few portfolio review stories sprinkled in is mostly a function of habit, and the fact that I am a much busier person than I was when I began writing here nearly 9 years ago.

But…(there’s always a but,) I do try hard to freshen things up from time to time, because lord knows I don’t want to bore you.

This year, my upcoming travel schedule is immense. Like, I’m not sure how I’m going to make it all work.

It’s a good problem to have, and I promise I won’t complain about it, but I’m hoping to turn it to our advantage.

With Portland upcoming, two trips to NY and California, plus Chicago and possibly Europe, I’m going to eat a lot of great food, meet fascinating people, see interesting things, and hopefully listen to great music.

Most, if not all of the trips will have a photographic context, so I’m hoping to review more exhibitions this year, and write about the cities themselves. (Like the old days.)

I bring this up because last Saturday morning, shortly after breakfast, I hopped into my black SUV and hit the road North to Denver.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with going into Casa Cannabis, the first weed dispensary across the state line, and buying some legal marijuana. That the guys working there know your name when you walk in, and hand you a $4 Willie Nelson joint as soon as you say “I’m heading north to Denver,” makes it all the sweeter.

You’ve likely heard about the fact that legal marijuana has become a more frequent occurrence here in the US, with 10 of 50 states legalizing it. (And more that allow it for medicinal purposes.)

That New Jersey and New Mexico, my OG and adopted homes, both narrowly rejected legalization in the same month was a cruel irony for me.

From San Luis it’s only 15 miles or so up to the feet of Blanca Peak in Ft Garland, and then it was a straight shot over La Veta Pass, crossing the Rocky Mountains at a fairly low point. (Fairly low being only 9.426 feet.)

On the Western side of the pass, you’re in the San Luis Valley, at 8000 feet, and the places smells more like the Wild West than Bill Hickok’s underwear.

Cross over, through last summer’s fire damage, and you find yourself staring at 1000 miles of the Great Plains. The light and colors are different.

(The altitude is lower on the Eastern side, so much so that heading home I lost 20 degrees Fahrenheit in 10 miles.)

After a quick pee stop at a surprisingly crowded gas station in Walsenburg, (an insanely photogenic town, if you’ve never been,) at the junction to I-25, I got on the interstate and made great time, at 80 miles an hour, until I hit the north side of Colorado Springs.

C Springs, as we call it in Taos, or The Springs, as I’ve heard it called elsewhere, is one of the most conservative places in America. The Evangelical preacher James Dobson has his Focus on the Family there, and gobs of churches abound.

The Air Force academy is there as well, and you can add the military to Evangelical Christians as the two most consistently conservative blocks in the US.

It’s a pocket, though, one that sits above the predominantly New-Mexican-derived Southern part of the state. (Pueblo is traditionally considered the dividing line between Northern and Southern Colorado.)

All was well, and I was imagining the food treats I would buy at the outlet mall at Castle Rock, when I ran into a nasty construction-traffic-monster-fuck just outside Monument.

If I were smarter man, I might have gone online to discover such problems. Instead, I drove straight into a 1 hour cluster-bomb, and found myself licking the barbecue flavor off my fingers, after eating every potato chip in my car. (Yes, I’m exaggerating.)

Now, I was about to tell you about my shopping adventures, because I got a great deal on a cheap suit, but realized that was just one step too far. (Even for a travel piece.)

Plus, I want to give Denver some love before this column is over.

Really, it’s about Denver up there in Colorado.

They call it the Mile High City because it sits just above 5000 feet. (These days, Gen Z might get confused and assume it’s because of the Green Rush.)

As you know, I’ve been to most of the major cities in America, and Denver is the biggest boom town I’ve seen in this country over the last ten years.

I had a couple of shows there years ago, but because I have
family in Denver and Boulder, every trip gets eaten up by the kids and cousins.

Every time.

I never carve out a chunk of time to work, so I haven’t been to the galleries or the museums, with few exceptions.

Why was this time different, you ask?

What changed?

Well, the fact is, I give you all so much advice. It became my motivator. I always say, “Get out of your comfort zone. Do things you haven’t done before. Go see people in the real world.”

Right?

Don’t I say that a lot?

When I heard that one of my best friends was invited to be a portfolio reviewer at Denver’s Month of Photography 2019, I told him I’d drive up to say hello and check out their scene.

I admit, it was a first, going to a portfolio walk at a place where I wasn’t invited. (The portfolio walk in downtown Denver, like at most festivals, was free and open to the public.)

There were a few “what are you doing heres?” and a bunch of people who came up to say hello with a bemused look on their face.

When I was asked why I’d come, I told the truth.

I get flown around the US to all these festivals, but I didn’t really know the folks in the Denver scene. So I took it upon myself, on my dime, to go see what things were about.

(And to visit my friends, as another had decided to come hang out as well.)

If you want to meet people, sometimes, it’s better not to wait around and hope.

You just make it happen.

As it turns out, I saw enough cool work that night that I’ll be writing an upcoming article about “The Best Work I saw at the MoP2019 Portfolio Walk.”

The folks at the review told me it had been run for years, (as had the festival,) by Denver’s photo guru Mark Sink, but that CPAC, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, would be taking it over for the 2021 festival. (It’s a biennial.)

My friends and I walked around downtown Denver a bit, which was quiet, and then Ubered it to Union Station. (Thanks, Jeff.) My brother, who’s a Republican and works in commercial real estate, told me its the most exciting development in the State of Colorado.

There were trains right outside that you had to walk around, in the open air, which was kind of cool, and inside are a bunch of food shops and a big restaurant/bar, The Terminal Bar, where we had some drinks and food.

The Apricot beer I drank was pretty badass, if I’m being honest, but the blackened chicken and prosciutto sandwich that the perky, nose-ringed waitress recommended was bland.

The bread was very white, as is the city, in most cases. And it’s hard to feel like there’s a strongly beating soul within.

But maybe I was looking in the wrong place?

Maybe the skyscrapers, grand public spaces and business auditoria are not best to judge the city?

What about a little strip mall, miles from LoDo or the hotel strip?

What about a place, on South Colorado Blvd, just off the I-25 highway interchange, a bit past a big Dave and Busters.

Not much to look at, really.

Kind of a dump.

But what if I told you that this little strip mall contained a Salvadoran restaurant, a Lebanese restaurant, a Middle Eastern market, a Syrian restaurant, and Moroccan joint, all all within 100 yards.

There’s a great recreational dispensary called The Clinic a block away as well.

Is that cool or what?

Does that count as soul, when judging a city?

I’d say so.

The next morning, I met my artist/curator/filmmaker friend Jina for breakfast at the transcendent The Delectable Egg in Lowry. It is officially my favorite breakfast place in America, so that’s something.

The waitress was sassy like out of a sitcom, and I let her steer me gently, as I’d apparently chosen her favorite thing on the menu, a tortilla pie, (like enchiladas but with flour tortillas,) but she said I needed to sub bacon for boring old chicken.

She never rushed us, not for a second, even as the tables turned around us and the line formed outside. (Our conversation was engaging enough, in fairness, that neither of us noticed the crowd.)

But it was that table turnover that I want to mention, specifically.

It’s where I’ll end.

I’m only outing my brother’s politics because he expressly complained that the new Democratic regime, which controls the governorship and legislature, might mess up this mega-boom, which has gone on for so long that they’ve begun lighting the cranes purple at night. (No lie.)

Denver is now so blue that it’s hard to believe it’s changed this fast.

Changed, like that table to my right.

When I first got there, a friendly couple of African-American women were sitting opposite each other to my right. They looked like friends in their late thirties.

The woman on the left said, “Happy Sunday, how are you!”

We had a nice little chat, as we were both excited to be there. Her daughter, who hadn’t been there before, was more dubious. (I would have guessed sisters before mother and daughter.)

They were replaced, after 30 minutes or so, by a heavy-set, middle-aged lesbian couple. One wore a baseball hat, and we never really spoke or made eye contact at all.

Only on the third seating did a nuclear, young, white, (probably,) Christian family sit down next to us.

1 out of 3.

In the recent past, it would have been 3 out of 3.

(That kind of energy, where diversity is burgeoning, is exciting.)

Now, I know that a thriving, wealthy city, with all sorts of undiscovered pockets and cultural resources, is only 4 hours from my house in Taos.

I’m ready to spend more time in Denver.

I’m convinced.

This Week in Photography Books: Ingvar Kenne

 

I’m going back to Jersey next month.

(It’s been a while.)

My cousin’s daughter is having a Bat Mitzvah in early April, and if I told you it took me two months to plan my trip, you’ll have to trust that I mean it.

The amount of phone calls, texts, internet searches, Orbitz fuckovers, and general stress that went into it were enough to give me an ulcer.

Well, that’s not true.
I don’t have an ulcer.

I don’t even really know what that means.

It just sounded good.

You could imagine me shaking my finger at you, raging like a grumpy old man, about how much stress my travel plans caused me.

(It’s all because Mercury is in retrograde, I was recently told.)

Things are mostly locked down now, thankfully, and I can officially report I’ll be visiting AIPAD on Friday April 5th, in the early afternoon, in case you’d like to say hello. (APE audience meet-up?)

It looks like I’ll be taking cars, trains, planes, monorails, cabs, Ubers, boats, and an airport shuttle, all just to ping around the Tri-State area like the pinball that is Donald Trump Jr’s attention span.

“Dad, can I have a puppy? I mean a new go-kart. I mean Richard Pryor. No, I mean a gold fish. No, a football team. Daddy, can you buy me a football team? Buy me a football team, Daddy! But not in the NFL. I want a team in the USFL, Daddy, the USFL!”

The upshot is, I’m going to get drunk at a 13 year old girl’s birthday party.

Now, if you know me, you probably think I’m being ironic here. That I’m making fun of the situation. (Or taking the piss, as the English say.)

But I’d never do that because it would get back to my cousin Stefanie, and she’s so tough she’d cut me.

So I’m definitely not making fun of this party.

Rather, I’m excited.

People go all out back there in Jersey, when it comes to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Great food, booze, entertainment, music, dancing.

Everyone’s in a good mood.

Dancing Grandma’s are always a great visual, and needless to say people always hide out in the parking lot to smoke a ton of @#$#%$#$.

For whatever reason, this ancient Jewish rite of passage, in which 13 signifies being a grown up, (I’m sure it probably all comes from marrying kids off young. Yes, it’s gross. But that’s not the point today,) morphed into a 20th/21st Century tradition of getting dressed up, dropping a ton of cash on the whole experience, and partying like the caviar is running out of the sea.

(Oh wait. Bad example.)

I haven’t been to one of these in a few years, and even that one was in Boulder, which is the Jewish equivalent of Norway, compared to the mother-land of the greater NYC area.

I’m properly fired up.

I mean, it’s not like I’m gearing up for a bachelor party.

That would be inauthentic, as I’ve never been to one. (Not even my own.) I had a bougie weekend with my brother and two friends, eating prosciutto-wrapped, barbecued oysters and drinking expensive wine in Napa, and if I had it to do over again, I’m pretty sure I’d go in a different direction.

My Australian buddy Pappy was there with me, enjoying each and every bit of the gluttony, but secretly, deep down, I think he knew that I was copping out.

Hard.

Those Aussies.

They don’t do partying half-way.
No, sir.

Don’t you wish you could be a fly on the wall for all that insanity, when the Australians really let it go?

I bet you do.

What’s that?
Can I help you?

Why yes, I suppose I can.

I could show you “The Ball,” by Ingvar Kenne, published by Journal, which turned up in the mail early this year. (Can you believe 2019 is already 1/4 over? WTF?)

This book is exactly, perfectly, just what I was looking for today.

(Thank you, party gods.)

I’m being serious, though, as I set down the first book I looked at today, a book I liked. It was perfectly nice, had nice-looking pictures with good light, and great color, but it didn’t have a POV that I could discern.

The pictures were taken all over the world, and I found them pleasing. They were likable, like Beto O’Rourke. But the second I put the book down and tried to write, my fingers wouldn’t move.

I asked myself to remember one image.
Just one.

But I couldn’t do it.

(Even though they were really good.)

Instead, I thought of the negative review I could write. Telling this person to get herself or himself some deeper life experience, if she or he were going to submit these photographs, these “reality fragments,” for our collective viewing.

I always tell my students, the aesthetics are the punch in the face. The thing that gets people’s attention and stops them in their tracks.

Then what?

What do you have to say?

That comes next, once your viewer is paying attention.

With that book I put down, I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything about the world, beyond the fact that the photographer was a good technician, and had a massive travel budget.

But here, with this new book, “The Ball,” I had no worries for lack of opinionated content.

No one, today, needs to worry about a wishy-washy book, nor of seeing things that they’ve seen before. (Unless you’re young and Australian.)

According to some smart-yet-spare end text, (including a written correspondence with Australian writer Tim Winton,) we learn that the Bachelor and Spinster Balls are a part of the culture.

Upon second examination, I realized I still don’t know that that means. Are they bachelor and bachelorette parties rolled into one?

(Pause.)

OK, I’m back.

Took a rare Google break. Looks like they’re just big parties for young people, out in the bush.

So…

The writings discuss ideas like the historical role of initiation rituals, and whether this fits in as a cultural right-of-passage.

Like when the Amish kids go wild.
What do they call that? Rumspringa?

As a photo critic who very recently was complaining of getting tired of the same old thing…

I give you, the Bachelor and Spinster Ball.

Humans doing disgusting things!

Enjoy.

And see you next week.

Bottom Line: Awesome, crazy pictures of Aussie kids behaving badly

To purchase “The Ball” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We’re particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, and artists of color, so we may maintain a diverse program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Peggy Levison Nolan

 

Parenting isn’t glamourous.

That’s for sure.

I always knew I’d have kids, and given how much I relish being a Dad, I guess I had it right.

(I used the word “relish” here, because I don’t know if “enjoy” is quite right.)

I love my children more than anything, and would take a bullet for either of them, as I would for my wife.

No question.

And each of the kids, both 21st creatures through and through, are funny, thoughtful, sweet and smart.

I enjoy them as people, no question. They’re awesome.

Just last night, when I was putting my daughter to bed, I tickled her, she ripped a huge fart as a result, and we laughed so hard my belly hurt. (Or maybe that was the lard-bomb-enchiladas my wife brought home…)

I cherish being a parent.
I value it.
It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Being a parent has made me a smarter, more capable, more compassionate, empathetic, successful person.

But it’s not “fun.” (And I don’t love the parenting, I love the kids.)

It’s way too hard to be fun, generally speaking.

There are parts of the experience that are great, and specific time periods or vacations that, as an exception, might be pure bliss.

But on a macro-level, it is grueling to constantly find the energy to be a full-time professional, and a full-time Dad.

We hear about that all the time, with respect to the impossibility of working Moms having it all, or being perfect in each arena, but we guys have the same problem too!

With each successive generation, new parents learn just how comprehensive it is to give life, and then sustain it.

But with each successive generation, one group of people get to have all the fun, without (almost) any of the responsibility: the grandparents.

Hell, Jessie and I moved back to Taos so that we could raise our children, (then hypothetical,) among two sets of grandparents: for the help, the support, the encouragement, the diapers funds, and all sorts of privileges that come from having built-in help.

It’s likely that I haven’t said thank you often enough, (though it’s a word I bandy about often,) because the grandparents treat the entire experience, (the same one that’s giving me gray beard-hairs,) like it’s a big trip to Six Flags on Ecstasy all day, every day.

Who wants more ice cream?
How about some chocolate sauce on top?

And don’t let me forget to pour the whipped cream directly into your mouth! (Just joking, Dad, you know I think it’s cute.)

Grand-parenting looks like the “fun-do-over” that all parents realize they want, (too late with their own kids,) because they were too stressed and freaked out to enjoy it when their babies were young and adorable.

I mention this now, having just put down “Real Pictures,” a book that arrived last fall from Peggy Levison Nolan, published by Daylight. According to the end text, Ms. Nolan is the mother of 7 children, whom she’s photographed all along, but this book focuses squarely on their lives as adult children, with a slew of grand-kids in tow.

This is one of the books I mentioned recently, as I’d looked at it once and deemed it too similar to “Born,” which I reviewed not too long ago. But it seemed like it was worth re-visiting, as I knew I’d first viewed it in a bad mood, and it was at least intriguing enough to get into the maybe stack.

(In fairness, I missed the page with the subtitle “Tales of a Badass Grandma” the first time around.)

Today, the book’s bright, reddish-orange color caught the sunlight, and I picked it up again with fresh eyes.

Almost immediately, I was attracted to the cheeky insouciance with which these parenting adventures were photographed. There’s a brief opening statement in which the artist shares that she has kids, and honors her oldest daughter, who apparently led her younger siblings on a Western migration.

I was consistently intrigued by this sense of remove, of watching the action from the slightest distance, while still being in the room.

The pictures certainly don’t feel like they’re made of strangers, especially given the intimacy of the several baby butt shots. (Which I won’t photograph below, for obvious reasons.)

The kid in the diaper up the pole is a great image, and it’s paired with the dirty, painted feet standing on a chair. Most of the images use color and light well, (Thanks, California,) while also showing the behind-the-curtain, absurdist mundanity of it all.

The end text shares that Peggy Levison Nolan makes photo albums for each of her children, and the pictures are the same ones in this book. They may look like art, but to her, (and her family,) they are a personal history that we all get to share.

Just before the essays, there’s a short poem about (presumably) the artist waking up to thrift-store-painted portraits on the wall, rather than the sounds of her family.

And the last photo is (presumably) of her aged feet in bed.

It’s a powerful way to bring the story home, and I’m glad I gave this strong book another look.

Bottom Line: Visions from a hip grandma

To Purchase “Real Pictures” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We’re particularly interested in submissions from female photographers, and artists of color, so we may maintain a diverse program. 

This Week in Photography Books: Nick St. Oegger

 

Sometimes, I feel like an armchair Tony Bourdain.

(Minus the depression, thankfully.)

I still have a hard time thinking about Tony, as his death both hit me hard, and exposed the power of his through-the-camera-charm.

When Tony killed himself, there was an outpouring of global grief that I’ve seen very few times.

It was big when Pope John Paul died.
Sure.

And David Bowie.
People got really upset about that one.

But even a President like Ronald Fucking Reagan made barely a blip, when he finally gave up the ghost, while a Jewish-French Jersey boy, a former heroin addict who eventually got hooked on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, managed to shake the world with his passing.

Why?

It’s a fair question to ask, now that it’s been long enough for the emotions to have settled.

Tony lived a huge chunk of his late life on camera, and the guy that emerged for his audience was cool, smart, curious, funny, interested, intellectual, and above all, respectful.

He treated each person he met, in every country, with an innate dignity that made that person like and respect him right back.

Beyond the cool, party-guy, hard-drinking persona, there was the soul of an artist, as well as a cook. (Cooks don’t often call themselves chefs, and vice versa.)

I can’t imagine how a guy with that much to live for could feel so awful as to believe that a noose was his only way out.

He must have felt really, really shitty to do what he did.

But I can imagine how it must have felt, all those years into the job, when he began to truly understand just how alike all the places in the world were.

At some point, (the law of diminishing returns,) it simply must have been impossible to summon the energy to ask one more question, no matter how interesting his counterpart might be.

(I’m not saying I’m burned out, because that’s not true.)

Last week, I went into my own memory to pull out an important book to share with you, because I could. That creative freedom is special, and probably the number one reason why I have avoided boredom or flamed out.

Rather, after 7.5 years of doing this each week, the world has come to me several times over. A few years back, I wrote that I’d reviewed projects from every continent, and now it’s likely been twice.

These days, there are really few places that I haven’t seen, virtually, via photographs.

As such, all the meta-stories become really obvious.

Most people just try to raise their families in a safe environment, get as nice a lifestyle as they can, and live in an area that offers economic opportunity, a clean environment, and lots of social and cultural options.

Good luck finding a magic place like that.

And the ones that do exist, and are well known, have become inaccessibly expensive for most “regular” people. (I’m looking at you New York, San Francisco, and from, what I hear, LA.)

Money and power have always ruled the world, and always will. Those resources congregate in cities, which means that there is deep rural poverty across much of the world.

In those out-of-the-way places, young people flock to cities for the aforementioned reasons. Older people are left to run the vestiges of an agricultural economy, with a dwindling population, and few resources.

The natural resources that sustain these rural communities, (unless they’re in some of the few global countries that have strong, enforceable environmental protections,) will likely be manipulated by larger, governmental and corporate interests.

Those power players often trade environmental degradation for cash, or energy development, at the expense of those poor rural villagers who lack the funds, education, and/or organizing capacity to fight back in any meaningful way.

(Or, just as likely, the country in which that happens lacks the rule of law at all.)

So I was both engaged, and not entirely surprised, to read of the plight of the Vjosa river in Albania.

I was looking at “Kuçedra: Portraits of Life on Europe’s Last Wild River,” by Nick St. Oegger, which was self-published last year. (With funding from Patagonia and several other environmental organizations.)

It showed up from Ireland, though the bio at the end says that Nick was born in California. (So I’m not sure if he’s an American living in Ireland, or an Irishman who was born in America.)

Though it’s far from brilliant, I like this book, and am writing about it, which is always the number one compliment I can give. It inspired my creativity, and made me think about something.

(In this case, Tony Bourdain.)

I’ve never been to Albania, and outside of working for an Albanian guy in a restaurant in the East Village, (he fired me,) I don’t know much about the place.

It occupies that Macedonian region, south of the old Yugoslavia, but North of that whole Greece/Turkey axis.

What’s it like?

An early map shows how much Adriatic coastline it sports, (and it made me think, hmmmm, I bet there are some cool beach towns there,) but the Vjosa only dead ends in the sea, so this is a more inland affair.

(With wandering, ambling, fresh water, in lieu of the endless, salty horizon of the sea. Like I said last week, I need a vacation.)

The Vjosa interlinks ancient rural communities who indeed face the problems I wrote of above.

Dwindling populations, no jobs.

A strong, clear essay at the beginning, by a professor in Slovenia, tells us that women used to marry upriver, and move into their husbands’ communities over the generations.

The metaphor she uses, of upstream representing fresh and new, of young and vibrant, makes sense in an old-school DNA way, as in small villages, if you keep moving in one direction, your cousins will always be behind you. (Meaning, you won’t marry them.)

It keeps the genetics fresh, which is so important in isolated, rural communities. (Remember, I live in one.)

As the federal power structure has begun to dam the river, in search of hydro power, the culture and environment are both at risk, and communities have organized to battle.

But really, in 2019, how many of us think the villagers will win?

The text tells us the EU is trying to strong-arm Albania into behaving better, environmentally, but they’re doing what they want now, in case they do ever join the EU, and give up sovereignty.

I like the pictures, and the light in particular. They’re certainly lovely, in some cases outright beautiful. One concern, though, before I knew whether Nick was Irish or American, was why he was in Albania in the first place?

Where was the intentionality, or deep connection to time and place?

And these did not seem like they were shot over a long duration.

In the portraits, the villagers are often guarded, or look away, which is a tell-tale sign that there is a large chasm between the photographer and the subject.

Last week, I bemoaned the fact that so many of these books look alike these days. (A plea, perhaps, for some edgy submissions?)

This one is not dramatically different in style or content from most books, and I know I’ve equated Albania with many other places, but overall, the book does give us a sense of the smell in the air, I’d say.

And it is undoubtedly the first book I’ve seen from Albania, which is always high on my list of getting a review: showing us perspectives we’ve never seen before.

As I looked at it, I did wonder if its raison d’être might be that it was funded by environmental interests, or a national tourism board.

It’s got something of that feel, and in the end, we learn that’s what transpired. Eco-tourism is one of the few potentially clean economic engines for places like the Vjosa, so I wish those warriors well as they fight the powers that be.

Now I can say I know what rural, agricultural Albania looks like, and so can you.

We’re along for the ride together, and I never forget it.

Bottom Line: An beautiful eco-tale from Albania

To purchase “Kuçedra” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Cristina Garcia Rodero

I’m turning 45 on Monday.

(Halfway to 90.)

As of then, I can say I’ve been an artist for more than half my life, as I picked up the habit at 22, and it hasn’t let go yet.

Lately, though, I find I don’t have quite the thrill for photography that I used to.

It makes sense, as it’s been my primary medium the entire time. (Though one could argue I’ve been writing more than shooting the last few years.)

Still, doing the same thing, over and over again, will make almost anyone bored. (I say almost, because now that I’ve studied Japanese martial arts for 2 months, I already have a better handle on their obsession with repetition.)

Add in the fact that as resident book reviewer here, (400+ posts and counting,) I see a lot of photo projects, and it’s understandable that I’d get a bit jaded from time to time.

(I probably just need a vacation.)

Still, I love to be surprised, to see new things, and to keep it fresh for you, my loyal global audience.

Today, I was loathe to review the first few books I checked out, as they were reminiscent of things I’d reviewed quite recently. So I sat here on my couch, willing myself to be inspired to write.

Got to hit that deadline.

No inspiration, no column.

I closed my eyes, thinking about the feeling of inspiration. The rush of adrenaline as your mind expands in real time. The thrill of looking at things that make you want to create, or travel, or both.

In my imagination, I was back in Albuquerque at UNM, in 1997. I was studying Photo 1 at the time, and at the encouragement of my professor, Jeff Tomlinson, I headed to the Fine Arts library to look at some photo books.

Walking the stacks, creeping around like Inspector Javert, I ran my fingers across the spines in the photo section, cocking my head sideways to read the titles.

I stopped at “España Oculta: Public Celebrations in Spain 1974-89,” by Cristina Garcia Rodero, published by Smithsonian Books, and pulled it from its neighboring tomes.

“What are you,” I asked, curious to know?

15 years is a long time, and as I’m coming up on my 14th anniversary of moving back to New Mexico, I should know. It represents the length of this project, and even then, as a pure beginner, I wondered how anyone could sustain that kind of interest in one subject for that long.

The focus.
The discipline.

These days, I can imagine a Spaniard, around 30 or so, who enjoyed shooting at festivals in her native country, and checked in from time to time over a decade and a half. It doesn’t seem impossible, though at 23, that’s exactly how I viewed it.

The consistent surreality of the scenes won me over, and still does. The disbelief that these were real people, in real situations, and not staged fantasies.

Even then, as young-20-something who’d only been around New Mexico for 10 years, I’d heard stories of local Penitente societies still active, in which believers self-flagellated, and wore hoods.

Here, in the book, were versions of that before me, only exponentially more intricate. The Baroque nature of Spanish Catholicism was on full display, with crucifixion rituals, baby coffins, and midget bull-fighters. (Sorry. Little People.)

I bought the book soon afterwards, at the ICP bookstore in Manhattan, likely 3 or 4 locations back.

And even though it remains my favorite photo-book of all time, somehow, in between all the moves…

I lost it.

Luckily, Ms. Garcia Rodero is a member of Magnum, and they have a digital copy of the entire book on their site, which is a very 21st Century experience. (Even if it’s not the equal of those excellent reproductions on paper.)

The pictures feel relevant to me in a totally new way, on the day when Michael Cohen is testifying about his former-boss-and-buddy Donald J Trump.

Trumpism and Nationalism can be easily mistaken for each other, these days, though I might be generous and declare the latter is at least based on a proper love for the cultures and traditions of a place on Earth.

(Again, if I’m being kind. Trumpism is nothing more than narcissism having an incest baby with geopolitics.)

Here in America, we’re all from somewhere else. All of us. (Even our indigenous folks walked in 15,000 years ago.)

Our culture is polyglot and hybridic by nature. Many Americans, (myself included,) are Europhiles, either because their ancestors came from there, or because the allure of age and aesthetics entice us to stare longingly at rituals that make no sense next to Walmart and McDonalds.

These pictures revel in the “Spanishness” that you read, in think-pieces, is at risk of disappearing. The very specificity of place and time that gets annihilated when beanie-wearing-hipsters FaceTime with each other across national borders, giggling at outmoded concepts like local culture while fiddling with their Apple watches.

The Globalists.

Was that even a word when I first saw this book, back before the internet was even a thing?

Probably not.

But certain ideas represented in “España Oculta” never go out of style. Creative excellence, formal craftsmanship, patience and hard work, and shooting thousands of rolls of film.

After all these years, I’ve never reviewed a book from memory before, but there’s a first time for everything.

If you can find a copy of this one, by all means buy it. (Or probably anything else of hers you can get your hands on.) I once stumbled upon her show, at MoMAPS1, in which she’d made images of Voodoo rituals in Haiti that practically gave me nightmares.

Truth be told, I feel better now than I did before I found her images online, and reconnected with this marvelous narrative.

It’s an example of the best our medium has to offer, IMO, and reminds me why it’s so important to keep pushing that rock up the hill each day.

Bottom Line: A Baroque, Spanish masterpiece


If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Lawrence Schwartzwald

I made a few resolutions last month.

I give myself guidelines, each New Year, for things I’d like to work on. (Ways to better myself.)

This year, at the top of my list, I’m trying hard to talk less shit about other people.

That’s my number one goal.

I lost a few friends a couple of years ago, and am pretty sure that gossip-mongering played a role in it. (Not that I take the blame squarely, just that I own my part in it.)

On one hand, it makes me value my closest friends even more, as I know they’ll keep my confidence, but on a deeper level, I kept reliving the problem until I realized I needed to change.

For some reason, I didn’t understand that talking shit about people always gets back around to them. On steroids. (There’s nothing people love more than passing along a juicy story.)

More than that, though, it really is a karma thing.

Summoning that negative energy, and spreading it further, even if it feels funny, snarky or cathartic in the moment, has the habit of creating ripples of bad juju.

Coincidentally, last week, my Aikido Sensei told the class that he felt he had no enemies in life, and attributed it to the fact that he never talked shit about people.

He even used the same expression I do. (“Talking shit” is an American colloquialism that means speaking ill of people; going out of your way to denigrate them in front of others, at times for tactical purposes.)

Aikido, what I’m learning now, stresses ideas of reconciliation, rather than conflict. Even the fighting part is meant to minimize permanent damage to your opponent.

Wrist, hand and elbow locks can temporarily immobilize someone, but they will walk away unharmed, as long as they cooperate. (The techniques can be used to tear and break joints too.)

The truth is, you really never know when your enemy will become your friend, or your friend your enemy.

But if you keep your karma clean, good things will come your way.

In particular, I’m thinking about the story of Lawrence Schwartzwald, a photographer I met at a portfolio review a few years ago. We chatted briefly, but I didn’t see his work officially, and promised at a dinner party that if he followed up, I’d check out whatever he sent me.

Because it was the end of the festival, and I was drinking a glass of wine, chatting with a friend, I didn’t ask too many questions.

Therefore, I was pretty surprised when Lawrence emailed me in December of 2017 with a link to this Artnet news story about him winning a lawsuit against Gerhard Steidl.

THE Gerhard Steidl.

I was especially surprised, as it was right around the time that gushing New Yorker piece about Steidl came out, (which I referenced here in the column,) and this seemed like a wacky tale.

To synopsize, Lawrence Schwartzwald wanted compensation for a submission portfolio that Steidl lost, and accused the famed publisher of backing out of a deal to publish his book. Steidl responded that books take time, as it’s a creative process, and that the artist was fortunate to be chosen for a book in a highly competitive process.

The end result seemed to be that Steidl now owed him some money, but maintained they’d planned to publish his book all along.

(Awkward.)

So I was even more surprised, truly, genuinely surprised, when the next email I got from Lawrence Schwartzwald was one asking if I’d like a review copy of his upcoming book.

Published by Steidl.

(Cough, cough.) Say what now?

(Crickets.)

I’m rarely speechless.

But I swear, at first, I thought it was a joke. (As I did the other day on the ski lift, when my friend Derek started accosting the stranger sitting to my right, with whom we would be trapped for the next 5 minutes. Never a good time to pick a fight.)

Eventually, I opened the book today, in late February, 2019. So let’s figure out what all the fuss was about, shall we?

“The Art of Reading,” by Lawrence Schwartzwald, published by Steidl, is a book that seems straightforward, as it is mostly a series of documentary/fine art photos of people reading.

(Hence the title.)

But not all of them.

Some are photos of books.
Or photos of people with books who are not reading them.

It opens with a really cool statement by the artist, as he was college-aged in the early 70’s, and discovered photography through Diane Arbus, when he bought her book after she died.

That, and a Kertesz photobook of people reading, inspired him to pursue photography, and he went on to work as a freelance photojournalist for the New York Post for many years.

He also did some celebrity freelance photography, which I take to mean paparazzi pictures. (But I could be wrong.)

As everyone and everything are interconnected, (a theme in the blog so far this year,) I happened to notice a Facebook post Lawrence made the other day, saying that his book was selling well, and he hoped it might be reviewed before it sold out.

It wasn’t a direct appeal to me, and given that I’ve been spending a fraction of the time on social media I used to, (a 2018 resolution,) it was yet another coincidence.

A coincidence, like noticing Amy Winehouse at a diner, with her full bee-hive hairdo kicking, and snapping a quick shot. (Which became the cover and signature image.)

Or spotting Anne Hathaway eating breakfast one morning, or a slightly disheveled Carl Bernstein licking ice cream above a Post headline about the anthrax scare in 2001.

Given the acrimony behind the book’s beginnings, this one does feel a bit disjointed to me. Like it didn’t cohere properly, despite the excellent text-piece-opening, which primed my curiosity.

While there are strong pictures throughout, the image quality is not amazing overall, though of course many of the photographs are sweet, thoughtful, and generally likable.

No, I’m not sure that’s true.

At first, I didn’t like this book, and I put it down.

I walked away.

But with its pretty blue cover, it roped me in again, and this time, I began to think about all photographers, (out in the world,) who watch others.

Look for their stories.
Steal their moments.

Is creeping on a pretty actress THAT different from being out shooting street photography, watching a stranger sit on a stoop, reading quietly?

How many of us have done that before? (I know I have.)

What if it’s one of those classic, incredibly New York stoops in Soho, with just the right amount of stairs, and one of those huge glass window-doors above it.

You know what I’m talking about.

On Prince Street.
Somewhere near there.

You notice her.

She’s so quiet.

She has the Annie Hall hat on. And a man’s shirt. Or maybe it’s a light windbreaker? It’s hard to tell without staring outright.

Her shoes look sensible, and it’s possible she stepped outside her apartment to get some air with her book.

On her stoop.
Maybe she lives there?

But in 2015, when the photo was taken, rents in this neighborhood were already exorbitant. Can she afford it on her salary, with her sensible shoes?

Or was she out for a walk on a beautiful day, taking her book from stoop to park bench to stair railing, all day following the sun from spot to spot like a luxuriant cat.

You turn away, so as not to arouse her suspicion, and look into the store window before you. There’s a beautiful, no-doubt-expensive necklace in the window, but that’s not what draws your attention.

It’s her! There she is again.

In all her reflected glory.

You take your time now, secure in the knowledge no one will even recognize you’re framing up your composition, preparing to make this incredible photograph.

On page 23.

I love this one, because it’s perfect, but also because it evoked a strong memory for me.

I’m standing beside a light-rail stop in San Francisco, and I spot a charcoal-gray pearl necklace in the shop window next to me. I buy it for my girlfriend, wait to give it to her, and then am ultimately crestfallen when she hates it.

I was looking at this book, thinking about why it didn’t work for me, when all of a sudden, I was deep inside a memory.

Which led to another.
And another still.

(Big props to “The Art of Reading” for tunneling into my brain for a few minutes.)

Even now, as I flip back and forth, I notice some really excellent pictures, and some that seem like one-step-above snapshots.

There are a lot of down-on-their-luck folks, a lot of happy people immersed in their stories, and one photograph, (p 57) in which it appears that a tall man is going to murder an older couple with his book, so menacing is his physical stance relative to theirs.

So there you have it.

This book falls somewhere in the middle, for me, as I really like parts of it, and it certainly makes me think, but then, it also feels like it needed a much tighter edit, and a stronger reason for being. (Other than a court order.)

Sorry. That was a mean joke.

Forgive me.

Bottom Line: Street photos of people reading, with a fascinating backstory

To Purchase “The Art of Reading,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Luciana Pampalone

Proper civilizations depend upon the rule of law, in my opinion.

It might not work as a general rule, though, because China is an impressive civilization, for sure. (I guess Russia is too, if for Dostoevsky alone.)

But since the times of Hammurabi’s code, the idea of a system of justice has long been at the heart of most idealistic, successful societies. (I’d include America on that list, though our justice system is heavily imperfect.)

Even when they’re functioning, laws require distinctions to be made, as well as decisions.

This act or behavior is permitted. But that one is not.

Sometimes, though, things get murky.

Even the idea of pornography, sexual imagery that is considered illegal for traditional methods of media distribution, is unclear as a category.

Famously, the US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart declared in Jacobellis vs Ohio that the standard was essentially: “I know it when I see it.”

Which means what?

Penetration is always porn, but boobs alone rarely are? Female frontal nudity is considered more acceptable than male, and why is that?

(Or the amazing “Broad City” girls can talk about pegging, on cable TV, but probably couldn’t use the word fuck.)

Speaking of laws, we’ve almost always kept our content SFW here at my APE book review column. (Safe for work.) Rob asked me to run it that way from the beginning, and then was open-minded as I experimented with showing a bit of nudity and light sexual behavior stuff here, years ago.

But it didn’t feel right for the audience, and we tightened up the restrictions ever since.

(One time, I specifically remember using my finger to tactically cover a hippie-dude’s-johnson in a photograph.)

I don’t mind the restriction.

I don’t think the column would be better if I could show sexually explicit photo books.

I’ve made plenty of “Boobs Sell Books” jokes over the years, but adding intercourse would not make my articles better, in my opinion.

One photographer, Luciana Pampalone, reached out to me recently to see if I’d consider reviewing her exhibition catalog.

She said the pictures were erotic, not porn. And there were enough images for me to present that lacked out-right nudity. (Another photographer sent me a sample recently that was too hardcore, and I had to politely decline.)

The self-published catalog accompanied an exhibition that took place from December 2017 to January 2018 at The White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York.

The pictures were made over a long range, dating back to 1990, so clearly it’s a subject of passion for the photographer.

An opening statement tells us she’s had a long commercial and editorial career, draws inspiration from Helmut Newton and Deborah Turbeville, and that she “depicts women as strong central figures in her work, allowing them to take on the roles of heroine or harlot, captivating onlookers and creating complex black and white compositions.”

Now, I’m not going to photograph the nude shots, as is our policy, but there are more than enough that suggest, but don’t show. As to the ones that are too racy, there are a few that contain women’s breasts, a few that simulate a soft-core orgy, and a whole set showing women’s butts through fishnet stockings.

I’m not sure what I think of these pictures, honestly. They’re not exactly to my taste, but they are well made.

Who is the audience for work like this?

Art that titilates?

And what about the context, that they’re made by a woman instead of a man? Nudity is problematic for men these days, and rightly so in my opinion, but what are the rules that apply to female photographers?

(Kind of like Sofia Coppola can get away with opening “Lost in Translation” with Scarlet Johansson’s butt in see-through panties, but a male director probably wouldn’t make that move these days.)

To be clear, I kind of like this booklet. It’s honest, as the word erotic is on the cover.

It’s in the title of the project, for heaven’s sake.

If you don’t like those sort of things, you won’t look. And as the artist is a woman, the politics align with 2019.

It’s certainly something different, which I try to offer you on a semi-regular basis.

Stay warm out there.

Spring will be here soon enough.

Bottom Line: Cool catalogue of 30 years worth of erotica

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Tony Fouhse

Did you hear about the guy who choked out a mountain lion?

Some Colorado-mountain-runner-guy got attacked by a cougar, from behind, and fought back.

The second I read it, (the story made national news, and you’ve likely already heard about it by now,) I thought, “I bet that guy does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.”

Or martial arts of some sort.

I should know, because last week, within 24 hours, I found myself put in two potentially neck-crushing choke holds, (a rear-naked and a guillotine,) and then a proper sleeper hold, in which I woke up on my knees, facing the mat.

(I hadn’t realized quite how vulnerable our necks are, but there you go.)

We always minimize the risks out there, else how would we leave the house each morning to drive a car, trust the subway, or ski down the hill? (Three people have died at Taos Ski Valley since New Year’s.)

But back to the dude who killed the mountain lion.

Can you just imagine how that scenario played out?

You’re running along, you’re fit, you’re strong, and then you hear something behind you, and it’s the VERY WORST CASE SCENARIO, as it’s a FUCKING MOUNTAIN LION.

It starts biting and scratching you, trying to eat you.

TO EAT YOU.
RED ALERT.
INSTINCTS, KICK INTO OVERDRIVE!

Now, how many of us, even those who go to fighting class on a regular basis, would have the peace of mind to get behind the mountain lion, to take its back, and then crush its windpipe and choke it to death, while practically tasting its fur in your mouth.

Your heart is racing, your mind is thinking, “this can’t be real, this can’t be real.”

But it is real.
You’re choking out a fucking mountain lion, and then it’s dead.

It’s over.

You’ve won. You fought for your life, and he’s dead on the ground.

Now, a story like that is interesting now matter how you tell it. I opened by telling you how it ends, and still we’re fascinated.

I didn’t drag it out, teasing with tension.

Does the mountain lion prevail?

Does our intrepid hippie-mountain-runner-martial-artist-guy get eaten alive, a cougar baby nibbling on his jawbone?

But that’s not how I told it. I lead with the ending…

We all enter the pop-culture-continuum at different times, but I remember when I first saw “Reservoir Dogs,” as an 18-year-old, and was introduced by Quentin Tarantino to non-linear narrative.

Just last week, in this very column, I said that a good book should have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Just last week.

But today, I think it’s important to consider the alternatives, like non-linear, repeating, or reverse narratives.

It’s easy to think of movies, like “Pulp Fiction,” “Memento,” “12 Monkeys,” or “Looper.” (Man, what is it with Bruce Willis and weird-ass narratives?)

Given how many books I see, sometimes it’s fair to wonder, is the artist thinking two ways here?

That’s certainly what I came away pondering, after looking several times at the excellent photobook “After the Fact,” by Tony Fouhse, published by his company, Starlight Press, in Ottawa.

(This is the winter of the Canadians, I guess.)

The cover is a dream-scape in silhouette of black on blue, with ravens and a tree and the sky.

This will be a repeating motif within, birds, and while I was OK with it, maybe it did seem a bit obvious.

Open it up, and there’s a globe. The North Atlantic Sea is prominent, and I think it’s a pretty damn smart way to ground the story.

Then, a disaffected portrait of a tall guy crammed under a short ceiling.

Then bleak, cold, yet undeniably beautiful landscapes of what I take to be Canada in Winter.

We start with a smart quote by Bertolt Brecht about singing in the face of darkness, which I took to mean that we need to make our art, to speak our peace, to sing our songs, in particular when we think things are going to shit.

(And of course many people regard our current situation as a particularly dangerous one, relative to the Post World War II era.)

Then, some redacted text, and then a slew of excellent images.

Like I said, the bird theme is a bit on-the-nose for me, and I normally don’t use that expression. But I’d also like to ask that people stop including pictures of trash on the street or sidewalk. (We had them in last week’s book too.)

What do you say, folks?
A moratorium on garbage in the street pictures?

But other than that, the photography is spot on.

The portrait of the dog in the muzzle?
Amazing.

The yellow brick road, the policeman’s gun, the bloody bed, the sad portraits, the public places, it all adds up to a feeling of dread and impending doom.

Impending doom is the same as maybe-not-yet arrived doom. You can feel it coming, but is there still time to affect the outcome? To hope?

There’s a guy in camouflage unfurling a wire of some sort. Mennonite women, a power-company worker at night, more sad portraits, dead-people feet, power washing a building, and then that little girl looking right at you, from the side, like a young-21st-century-Mona-Lisa.

Towards the end, the book’s title page, “After the Fact.”

Then, another quote, this time from Martin Heidegger, “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”

Idealism before realism, I suppose?

Next, another portrait of a guy looking away, (behind the hoodie,) the birds, and a cold Canadian landscape.

A last credits page, which quotes Joe Strummer, “The future is unwritten,” and states, unequivocally, “This book is a work of fiction. The real people, places and incidents portrayed are used fictitiously.”

The end.

Is it, though?

If you open it in the back, and start here, doesn’t the book make just as much sense?

You get opening quotes for context, and you’re explicitly told to see this as a work of visual fiction.

It opens similarly, motif wise, (birds/landscape/dude portrait,) and this way, it includes the title page in the beginning, where it would normally be.

Plus, it’s just so easy to flip-it back to front, given its design.

There are narrative waves and repeating motifs that work just as well this way, and even better, you can reverse direction whenever you want.

It’s a good reminder, perhaps, that we not get too rigid in our thinking. That books should be made this way. Or that.

Book making is a creative endeavor, and I’d like to hope we can continue to be surprised.

As as the Clash dude said, “The future is unwritten.”

Bottom Line: Smart, bleak Canadian story with a reverse narrative

To purchase “After the Fact” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Lorena Turner

 

I used to know Keanu Reeves.

It’s true.

Back in the 90’s, I worked on a couple of movies in New York, just before moving back to New Mexico. One of them, a major Warner Brother production, was called “The Devil’s Advocate,” and starred Keanu, Charlize Theron and Al Pacino.

I got hired as an office intern, was soon promoted to office PA, and then got a second promotion to location assistant. (Before I was fired in winter so they could hire a much more qualified person for the job.)

Because I answered the phones, made the coffee and took out the trash well before shooting, I was around to hear the gossip, pick up on the undercurrents, and generally make myself a part of the furniture.

Surprisingly, my fellow intern Sarah, who’d just gotten a film degree at NYU, told me she wanted to date Keanu, and then she went ahead and made it happen.

So it wasn’t that odd, in the end, to hang out in Keanu’s trailer and shoot the shit while he smoked, or keep him company while he was waiting for an actress to come in and test opposite.

The strangest thing was, though, that Keanu Reeves was insanely charismatic in person. He would do voices, and crack jokes.

Personally dripped off the guy.

But then, as soon as the cameras started rolling, he’d become stiff and wooden, and his line-readings made me cringe more than once. (Once a day, maybe. He was really bad.)

It was odd to see him behave one way IRL, but then freeze up, or shut down, once it was time to do his job.

At that point, in 1996, he was still known as the cute guy from Bill and Ted’s who couldn’t act for shit. (And I had to admit the reputation seemed appropriate.)

Then, after “The Matrix” came out, all of a sudden, he was a Sci-Fi action superstar, and his subdued on-screen persona made more sense. It’s hard to re-create the feeling of awe many of us had, seeing that film for the first time, but it obviously never would have worked with another actor.

Seemingly, after that, he went into another fallow period, and got super-into martial arts, so much that he directed a film about a Tai Chi fighter, and acted in an awful Japanese sci-fi Samurai film that ended in mass Seppuku. (Mercifully.)

Fast forward to 2019, and the world is eagerly awaiting the third “John Wick” movie, because Keanu managed to reinvent himself yet again, and his laconic, restrained acting is just perfect, when surrounded by the absurd, almost campy, but extremely-well-done action filmmaking.

While we all grow and change in life, (hopefully,) it seems to me like Keanu Reeves just can’t be understood outside of the context in which he’s seen.

Is he really a better actor as John Wick than he was as Neo, or Kevin, the literal son of the Devil?

I’m not so sure.

And what about that amazing personality of his? Does it change one’s perception of his wooden on-screen-persona to know he’s a hoot as a real guy?

I’m not sure of that either.

But my point today, if you haven’t gotten there yet, is that context really does determine most of how we receive our information, and make the judgements that imbue us with individuality.

It’s why you’re more likely to trust the same story published in the NYT over Fox News. (Or vice versa, if you’re conservative.)

Or why some people, who watched “The Apprentice” for many years, came to believe that Trump was a competent, intelligent, corporate titan. (If you haven’t, read the New Yorker piece on Mark Burnett, which offers a pretty fascinating context in which to view our President.)

Photo books, of course, the subject of this long-running column, rely heavily on context. In fact, I find myself telling students that if they don’t consider it properly, they have no shot at making a good book, much less a great one.

The way a photo book releases its information, teases out its narrative, and gives you what you need to know is as important, in my opinion, as the pictures themselves.

It’s what really separates an exhibition, in which you look at the pictures, (most likely big,) and then try to understand them as objects, from a book, which as I’ve written many times is an experience.

In fact, I was just talking with a book-designer-friend about the fact that even the number of pictures included will determine if a viewer looks at a book in one sitting, ingesting the entire message, or flips through a few pages, puts it down, and then picks it up another time and does the same thing.

Think of a photo book as a story, with a beginning, middle and an end, and the whole process makes more sense. (Unless you love non-sensical, non-linear video art, in which case, go crazy and make whatever weird shit you see in your head.)

I mention all of this because today, I spent some time with “A Habit of Self Deceit,” a self published book by Lorena Turner that showed up in the mail, unsolicited, last fall.

It’s important to me that we now show women and men equally here, as it allows us to present a much broader perspective than when I was mostly showing guys, because that’s what showed up in the post. (Let me say it again here folks, outreach is necessary to make change.)

But just as I don’t normally plan the themes that carry over from week to week, I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been a bit critical of some of the books I’ve reviewed by female photographers.

I doubt anyone else has picked up on it, (and my review of Josée Schryer’s book was glowing,) but as this is a column that embraces criticism, I guess it’s fair game.

This book fits the theme, because the individual images, and the style in which they’re shot, are pretty generic for 21st Century fine art photography. Just as I lambasted the Hartford-MFA-style earlier this month, there is a certain type of dry-but-poetic color photography that makes projects indistinguishable from one another, and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Based purely on the pictures, I’m not sure I’d review this book.

But as I said before, just looking at the pictures misses the point.

“A Habit of Self Deceit” is sad, and as soon as you get into the narrative, that context envelopes the experience like a shrink-wrapped house.

It opens with a short statement in which the artist admits to having contemplated suicide, almost calling a hotline for help, before abandoning the idea. (The piece also misspells Diane Arbus’s name, which I took to be intentional, but what is that supposed to imply?)

The writing is immediately followed by a series of bleak-light pictures featuring things hidden, covered, wilting, and alone.

Boom!
Emotional tenor established.

There are more textual interruptions, each very-well-written, which share that the artist was estranged for her adopted mother for years, but now she visits her in a home for the aging and demented, as her mom no longer knows who she is.

We read a story about how her Dad is likely lonely, living on his own in a new home, and how he visits his wife each day. The story tells us that his own mother married her rapist, and that the family history is not happy in general.

The heavy tale weighs down the pictures, throughout, in the best possible way.

And then, at the end, there’s another text piece that discusses the book’s title, which derived from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Obligatory intellectual street cred established.)

Add it all up, and I really enjoyed my time with this book, even though it’s sad, and made me feel glum until I took nice walk in the sun.

If I open it up again, and randomly pick a page, I immediately think, “That picture’s nice, it’s good, but it’s nothing special.”

Really though, so what?

In my personal and professional opinion, I judge the entire book not by it’s cover, but by its gestalt.

And this one is pretty good, all things considered.

Bottom Line: A poignant tale of family and loss

To purchase “A Habit of Self Deceit” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

This Week in Photography Books: Douglas Ljungkvist

 

For whatever reason, I’ve never been to Sweden.

(Though I’m sure it’s a lovely place.)

I’ve been to Copenhagen, though, so the sum total of my knowledge of Scandinavia amounts to smoking insanely good hash in the commune of Christiania, watching my brother annihilate my friend Pappy in several games of backgammon.

(Yes, he beat me too.)

Something tells me, though, there’s more to Scandinavia than hippies and board games.

I may not have been to Sweden, it’s true, but my neighbors down the street growing up, the Kappy’s, were half-Swedish, and proud of it.

This is probably the first time I’ve thought of the Kappy’s in twenty years, but Alma Kappy was 100% Swedish, and her extremely-blonde children carried on the stereotype as well.

I vaguely remember that Ed Kappy bought a Porsche at some point, as he was a successful orthopedic surgeon, but I’m absolutely certain they always had a Volvo in the garage.

Always.

Back before the internet, you learned about a country from International Day at school, (it was a thing,) the Encyclopedia Britannica, or from whatever heritage pride your neighbors exhibited.

(The Su’s across the street were Chinese-American, the Carducci’s to our left were Italian-American, and the Whiteman’s across the street from them were Jews.)

Discovering Volvos (and then Saabs) was a way of understanding that there were other places in the world, far from New Jersey, that made cars with different shapes and features. (The Swedes, apparently, were safety-conscious.)

Our cars may have gone from oversized hunks of metal with no seat belts to computers that do everything while we sit there numbed out on Spotify and Sirius radio, but their main purpose is still the same: to take us places.

Out here in the mountains of New Mexico, a car is pretty much a necessity.

Other places, though, cities with good public transportation and ubiquitous Ubers, can make car ownership seem a bit silly these days. (So say the Millennials.)

When I lived in Brooklyn, early this century, I had my trusty old Chevy Blazer, but almost never used it in daily life.

Good Ol’ Blazer brought me and Jessie to Jersey for the occasional weekend getaway, but other than that, I mostly just moved it across the road on street cleaning days.

Honestly, the whole city-car-ownership thing was less stressful than I’d imagined it would be, but then again, I never drove in the city.

Too damn stressful.

Mostly, Blazer sat there on Diamond St, waiting for me to come say hello.

I guess lots of people in Brooklyn park their cars and forget about them. Forlorn, alone, these pieces of vehicular sculpture await the observant passer-by who might ogle the proper Datsun, GTO, or Camaro.

The kind of passerby who might have a camera, perhaps, (not just a smartphone,) and who might appreciate the inherent beauty of, oh I don’t know, let’s call her Molly.

Molly got waxed and everything, put on her best face, but what does her owner do?

That’s right.

He bought a fuckin’ bike!
The nerve a this guy!

I name my cars, and would be willing to wager that many, if not most of the cars inside Douglas Ljungkvist’s “Urban Cars,” (the fun and cool photobook released last year by Unicorn in London,) are named too.

Orange Crush.
Yellow Betty.
British Blue.
The Undertaker.
Blue Velvet.
Zebra Benz.
Super Bee.

(That last one was real. The rest I made up.)

I’ll cut to the chase on the review here, and just tell you that I really like this book.

They made some great design choices, like the theme of printing a color complimentary to the car’s color on the background page.

Or the regular use of multiple image panels to break up the narrative, in addition to a few short quote pages, including this one by Jonathan Ive: “One person’s car is another person’s scenery.”

There’s an introduction by a guy named Dean Johnson, but they don’t tell you who he is, and I didn’t know. There’s an implication he’s European, (he says so,) and funny enough, Douglas is a Swede himself, so the whole story on Brooklyn cars takes on an international flavor. (When I turned the book over, I discovered a Dean Johnson bio on the back cover.)

Beyond the great design, smart pacing, and well composed photographs, I’m inclined to believe these pictures also serve as something of a time capsule.

Their purpose for being “saved for the future” as a book makes sense, as they lock in likely an 80 year stretch of global car design, and place it firmly in a place in time.

Namely, Brooklyn, New York, USA at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

I know much of it was shot around my old neighborhood, and adjoining Williamsburg, and recognized the place, in particular the Army Navy store on Manhattan Avenue, which is fronted here by a sweet, two-tone cream 80’s Thunderbird.

There’s lots of graffiti art, and other small tags, including the genius “Rent My Mom.”

Now that I think about it, the severe, geometric, modernist compositions are definitely a nod to Scandinavian design, and probably help the book stick the landing.

I love that the car makes and models are listed at the back, and that there’s a multi-image panel of Volvos as a shout out as well. Hell, the one old sports car I couldn’t place was actually a Saab, so the Swedes won the day here for sure.

(Actually, the Chinese own Volvo now, and Saab doesn’t make cars anymore, so maybe we’ll call it a draw.)

Bottom Line: Awesome, fun book of car portraits in Brooklyn

To purchase “Urban Cars” click here 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.

The Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography: Part 2

 

I never set out to be an opinion columnist.

It’s true.

Hell, before 2008, if you’d told me I’d become a professional blogger, much less do the job for nearly 9 years, I’d have taken you for a crazy person.

But everything realigned 10 years ago, in the eye-teeth of The Great Recession, and frankly, I don’t think the world has been the same since.

It’s funny, reading the papers, following the discussions about whether the 10 year bull market has finally turned bear.

Will the stock market’s tumble, or the government shut down, or Trump’s stunning incompetence, finally derail the strong American economy, and lead to a recession?

I find those articles patently absurd, and my guess is, you do too.

I’m glad the stock market has gone its run, sure, but in every other way, it feels like America is still not back to where it was before the mix of horrible home loans, and the toxic derivative instruments built upon them, created a financial bubble that finally burst in September 2008.

By January 2009, of course, the economy was in pure free-fall, and America inaugurated its first African-American President, tasked with putting the pieces back together. (Tough luck, Barack. You needed the crisis to get elected, I’d imagine, but it meant you spent your best years putting out another man’s fires.)

I admit, knowing it was exactly 10 years ago has been on my mind lately. I first approached Rob Haggart, my long-time editor, because he put out a call looking for Great Recession images in early 2010.

(He complimented the ones I emailed him, pictures from Southern Colorado I’ve mostly scrubbed from the internet, which I’m now re-visiting nearly a decade later.)

Since we were corresponding anyway, I pitched Rob on writing a couple of articles for him, gratis, as I was a fan of the blog, and had been writing on a small-time blog with friends for nearly a year by then.

At that point, when I wrote him, it was spring 2010, and my small commercial photography/printing studio in Taos had seen its business evaporate. I mean, I went from having clients to having none, all within a few months.

The tell-tale sign, I discovered, was I was getting hired a lot, near the end, to do Canadian passport photos, because all the Canadians wanted to make sure they could get the hell out of the country.

Pronto.

Going into the Great Recession, I was an unknown artist doing all sorts of photo and printing services to make a living, while also running the studio as a gallery. (I sold next to nothing.)

Afterwards, I was a somewhat-known artist, a professional blogger, and a college professor.

But all these years later, I’m just about making what I made before the career-changes happened.

Truth be told, I love the career exchange, and would make it every time, if I could. I get a lot of satisfaction and pleasure out of the work I do, despite the grind of permanent freelance living.

My wife makes more money now, as she went into private practice as a therapist, (after years of working in a local school,) so that helps for sure.

As I’m said, I’m personally very happy, but in no way do I think that things are “better” in the world than they were before the Crash, and in many ways they seem worse.

Seeing all the income growth go to such a small percentage of Americans wears away social trust, as once people believe a game is rigged, they have much less interest in maintaining said system.

And of course while Obama was left to clean up W. Bush’s mess, the real legacy of The Great Recession was Donald J. Trump.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the now-President here for years, and even I’m stunned to read that the FBI actively investigated whether Trump might be a Russian asset.

(And that he bought a room full of McDonalds and Wendy’s for the Clemson football team.)

This truly unstable world, I believe, was first born in the ashes of the Global Economic Collapse.

All of a sudden, America stumbled.
Hard.

Even worse than in Vietnam.

The extreme elements in our Capitalistic system wiped out extraordinary amounts of wealth, for ordinary people, and in many cases literally kicked them to the curb.

In the end, essentially no bankers went to jail.

Foreclosed Americans were left to pick up their own pieces, and American taxpayers paid the bill for bailouts.

Are we really surprised that so many people, doing so poorly in depressed areas, would fall for Trump’s con, feeling their pain and promising to bring their jobs back?

Or that other major nations, like China and Russia, would see our inherent weakness, and push that much harder to take our mantle of power, geo-politically?

I haven’t written a political column in a while, because I try to balance the style and tenor of these articles. It’s one way that I’ve managed to keep it interesting, given that the format is essentially unchanged all these years.

But as it’s early in 2019, and 10 years since that evil 2009, I felt it was a good time to go in this direction.

This story will ultimately be about the second batch of photographers I saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego last October.

And last week, I wrote my spiel about the city, and gave you all some advice to get out there and hit up the festivals, or travel more this year.

This column is meant to build upon that, if you can believe it.

Because beneath the super-structure of the political critique, (I can’t believe I’m explaining my own meta-level writing,) what I really meant to say was: reinvention is painful.

Change is hard.
And yet it’s always worth it.

One of the cardinal rules of being an artist is that once you realize how deeply you’re embedded in your comfort zone, it’s time to jump out of bed.

Doing these things is much harder than saying them, and pretty much no one chooses to change.

It’s normally forced upon us by life circumstances.

But knowing that you eventually have to shake things up, and then having the guts to make the tough call, these processes lead to growth, as a human and an artist.

I live by my own advice, I swear.

Just the other week, I gave up my beloved Wing Chun Kung Fu, and switched to Aikido, because I knew I needed a new teacher, and a new beginning.

It hurt, but I did it anyway. Because that’s how I was trained at Pratt.

Many of the artists I meet at events like Medium don’t have the MFA degree. They didn’t go to art school, and some haven’t even taken a formal class.

Many of the photographers had a first career. They didn’t follow their passion, initially, but when given the chance later in life, they took workshops, joined critiquing groups, and threw everything they had at their new career as an artist.

Other times, I let my opinions fly, and I might be sitting across from an MFA photographer. Or even better, sometimes, I’ll be critiquing a professor from a really established school.

This visit, a photographer came up to me to re-introduce herself, as I’d been really strong in my advice, during a previous review at Medium. (I insisted that she change her paper type from matte to a photo surface.)

I published her work here, and never thought about it again. But apparently, the woman told me, I’d gotten under her skin, as she resented the advice at first, but then had finally done what I suggested, and found success with the change.

Another person verified that this professor had told the story many times, as I was the “paper guy,” and it had been a big deal in her life.

Honestly, I can’t keep giving beginning-of-the-year-advice-columns much longer. February is right around the corner, and anyway, after today, it will be enough.

The best I can say to you is to try to embrace some change, in 2019, and push yourself hard.

Try a different medium. Go somewhere new. Sign up for a class at a local community college. Switch to black and white. Make a video.

Times of upheaval have a way of re-writing the rules of the game, and why not make yourself stronger, and pick up some new skills, for the decade to come?

Enough said, now we’ll look at the second batch of the Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in October 2018. (As always, they’re in no particular order.)

Victoria Fava was visiting from Monterrey, Mexico. She studied art as well as photography, and we spent much of our chat discussing what the optimal medium would be to express her ideas.

She’s been interested in the fact that astroturf, a chemical product developed by Monsanto, is highly utilized there, and oddly is often featured in wealthy homes. (From an American perspective, it seems downscale.)

I like the photos, but personally thought creating installations, making mock-outdoor-scenes indoors, might be the way to go. (Easy for me to say. That’s much harder to pull off than making a photograph.)

CJ Pressma is one of the types of people I alluded to above, as he’s been involved with photography at a high level since before I was born. CJ was visiting from Louisville, where he ran a residency program for many years.

He’s was also a master printer, doing portfolios for people like Meatyard, and my colleague Brian Clamp even mentioned to me during the festival that he had vintage prints that CJ had made back in the day.

At Medium, CJ showed me a book he’d made pairing (mostly) night photographs with faux dream diary statements he’d asked his friends to contribute. The one image of the frozen truck was probably the best single image I saw that week.

Bil Zelman is one of the few people in the world who make me jealous, as he lives in Encinitas, my favorite beach town in California. (Though all of North County is pretty cool, IMO.)

He’s primarily a commercial and editorial photography who self-financed a personal project looking at elements of the landscape that reflect our anthropocentric times. (Non-Native species, non-native trees, etc.)

Given the high flash at night, they’re super dynamic. And I had to lay it on hard to convince Bil that he shouldn’t lead with 15 tree pictures before showing the alligators and Burmese python.

Never bury the lede!

But Bil told me he mixed it up for later reviews, and received some really great responses.

Justin Nolan is another example of one of the types I mentioned above. He’s a professor at the University of Central Florida in Daytona, and he got his MFA at UNM in New Mexico not too long ago.

Once I knew his training, I pushed him pretty hard, and asked some difficult questions. I never would have gone down that interrogative rabbit hole, though, with someone who was new to the field, or hadn’t been trained in the critique process.

Needless to say, I didn’t love one of his projects, but found his take on Florida, his new home, to be witty and great. I make fun of Florida a lot on Twitter, (as does anyone paying attention to what happens down there,) but I liked that Justin’s subtle style contrasted with that over-the-top reputation.

Finally, we have Sheri Lynn Behr, whom I met at Photo NOLA back in 2012. (See what I mean about going to festivals. You can stay in touch with so many people.)

Sheri mentioned to me, in the hall before the review, that she’d heard I was tough, and that she wanted a tough critique. I knew her work was doing well, as she’d just had a solo show at the Griffin Museum in Massachusetts.

Sure enough, though, she showed me a bunch of projects that were mixed together, and printed on different paper surfaces. It was one of those crits where she had an answer for most of my issues, and was fairly wedded to her process, so I let it drop.

Her meta-project, which she made into a book, is called “BeSeeingYou,” and is all about surveillance culture. This one vertical piece stood out to me so powerfully that I’m going to show it by itself.

That’s it for today, and we’ll be back to the book reviews next week. I am planning to hit up a few festivals in 2019 though, including Photo Lucida in Portland, which will be my first time.

So I’ll be sure to report from the field again as soon as I’m able.