I was talking today with Marcie, my new Native American friend. She’s from the Taos Pueblo, and we really enjoy chatting about art, culture, religion. Stuff like that.
No matter how much you might feel a spiritual connection with Native American views on the sacred nature of Earth, it feels trite when you’re not raised in that culture. (If you’re white, I mean.) Which lends a certain frisson to the conversation.
To be frank, Marcie doesn’t give off the vibe that I’m a poseur. Just the opposite. She’s open, honest, and nonjudgmental. Rather, the voices in my head are self-generated. Too many hours digesting post-modern theory in graduate school, I suppose.
Of course, the Native Americans are not the ones who believe that Nature is sacred. There are strains of Buddhist tradition that teach of Inter-connectedness, or Inter-being. We are all one. I am the rocks. You are the trees. We are all made up of the particles of the Universe.
In the course of our conversation, Marcie asked if I was actually Jewish? I replied that of course I was, because in my religion, you are born that way. (If your mother is Jewish, you’re a Jew.) She pushed forward, asking if I actually practiced? Did I believe?
“That’s a tougher question,” I replied. I’m like a religious version of the aforementioned Post-Modernism: a pastiche. A little of this, a little of that. So many of us are, these days.
But I do like to meditate, when I have the time, and believe that the silent absence of something can be just as powerful as presence. I’d rather have a clear, empty mind than an over-driven, neurotic, Woody-Allen-inner-monologue any day of the week.
Given that, and my oft-professed love of seeing something I’ve never seen before in a photo book, how could I not review “Some Windy Trees,” a new self-published soft-cover book by Vincent Delbrouck in Belgium?
Open it up, and after the requisite blank page, you find yourself looking at a solitary, windblown tree. The book contains several such images. Trees you want to stare at for a while. They’re so lonely. And beautiful. Mountains in the background too.
Turn the page, and you see nothing. Just more blank white paper. (As I once titled a photograph of my own, paper comes from trees.)
As I flipped through, I did a triple take. He keeps interspersing emptiness. At one point, you actually flip twice before you come to the next photo. I have definitely never seen that before. Empty pages on purpose. Who does that?
This guy, apparently.
There is a random insert of a scribbled drawing in bright red. Not blood red. Candy-cane red. Santa Claus red. Christmas-time red.
The back page tells us the pictures were made in high, windy valley in Nepal. (I suppose the cover image hints at the Himalayas.) A portion of the proceeds from each book will go to a foundation that supports the preservation of this particular region, called Mustang.
That same red repeats on the back cover, which is where we find the title. (That, I have seen before, as you regular readers will well know.)
I’m more than sure that some of you will think me crazy for celebrating someone for leaving photos out of a photo book. But what does it do? It focuses the mind. It draws attention to what is there. And it also gives off the whiff of enlightenment, that ephemeral state which the Himalayan Buddhists eternally seek.
Bottom Line: Strange, zen pictures of Himalayan trees from a Belgian
My father reads my column every week. Without fail. Recently, he took exception to the fact that I labeled my writing “nonsense.” Thank goodness for encouraging parents.
I try to keep these articles entertaining, and have found that a little self-deprecation goes a long way. Occasionally, I revel in it, because I used to have very thin skin, as a youth. I’d fall to pieces if anyone made fun of me. (As Dad can attest.)
That’s why I love to start these travel pieces and festival reviews with a funny story, making me look foolish. Like the time I set off the fire alarm at the NY Times review. Or the time a heavy door at Gagosian hit me in the stomach, right in front of a gorgeous gallerina.
Eventually, though, I was bound to run out of embarrassing incidents. It was inevitable.
And here we are.
Nothing funny happened to me at Review Santa Fe this past June. I was invited as a roving reviewer, and as the guy who announces their raffle at the Saturday night party. (Yes, I broke into Spanglish, but it was more ha-ha funny than Ricky Gervais cringe-worthy. So not relevant here.)
I had a very nice time, as it was my sixth consecutive trip to the review. Good food, good weather, lots of nice people from around the world. I think I’ll even skip the part where I defend the review process from those who get upset about having to pay for meetings.
Overall, I saw the best work of any review I’ve yet attended. Polished, relevant, accomplished projects, professionally presented.
So if nothing bad happened, nor anything eventful to recount here…let’s get on to showing the best work I saw at the RSF ’14.
Qian Ma is a photographer based in Brooklyn, who recently finished a degree at ICP. In a perfectly strange coincidence, he just finished studying with my former professor, the great Allen Frame. I wasn’t surprised to hear that, as Allen is adept at pushing young artists to dig into a practice that allows their personal aesthetic to shine.
Qian’s black and white prints were totally gorgeous, and admittedly, the jpegs don’t do them justice. People literally lined up to see this work. I loved the otherworldly, odd, metaphysical qualities. How a simple cell phone can make you think of a parallel universe. So of course I asked him if he read Haruki Murakami, and of course he said, “Yes. Everything he’s written.” The project is called “Luminance,” and if you happen to see a sheep man lurking in a corner, at least you were warned.
I met Julia Cybularz within seconds of walking into the open portfolio viewing at the Santa Fe Farmer’s market. Normally, you wander around such events, looking for the juicy bits. Not that night. Hers was the first work I saw, and I loved it.
She’s photographed her niece, who has horrible scoliosis. Debilitating stuff. The photos were elegant, razor sharp, and visceral. Apparently, Ms. Cybularz suffered from the same affliction, which adds to the resonance. She also had a concurrent project which featured her cousin, who has schizophrenia and is mentally challenged. And he has scoliosis as well. It made for a fascinating mix of family, malady, and personal connection.
Meike Nixdorf is an artist who was visiting from Germany. Again with the Japanese references, she was showing a project that was inspired by Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji.” She was looking for a mountain that she could photograph from many different angles, that would allow the structure of the pictures to change radically.
She found one, El Teide, in the Canary Islands. I asked her why there, as it seemed so random, and she told me she visited the mountain many times, flying over it in a virtual flight simulator. If that’s not updating Hokusai’s vision to the 21st Century, I’m not sitting at my kitchen table on a rainy day in the mountains. (In fact, I am.)
I also met Miki Hasegawa that night. (Two women with different spellings of the same name?) Miki had a series of images that she photographed from the vantage point of her young daughter.
As we all know, life is lived at eye level. We grownups make the world in our image, but our offspring are always looking up at a reality they must grow into. Terrific color palette as well, and the prints managed to capture the wonder and curiosity of childhood. I loved them immediately.
I had a long, rambling, roving review with the Denver-based photographer Benjamin Rasmussen, who’s originally from the Faroe Islands. (They’re in-between Norway and Iceland, so you don’t have to Google it.) He’s interested in issues of identity and displacement, and his project “By the Olive Trees” focuses on both.
He photographed Syrian refugees in Jordan. And he was apparently in Ferguson, MO, last week, so you can check his website to see what’s going on in America’s homegrown war-zone. (Hands up, Don’t shoot.)
According to Twitter, Russia invaded Ukraine today. Is that news? Haven’t they invaded several times already, including when they swiped Crimea? Hard to imagine a more topical project than one which examines the cross-cultural divide between the two countries. (Soon to be re-united?)
Sasha Rudensky was born in Russia, and studied in the famed Yale program. With her project, “Brightness, she has given us some seriously strange pictures that do just that. She photographed in both places, and the image of the thugs holding a giant snake was my favorite single picture at RSF. (Unfortunately, she isn’t ready to publish it yet.)
Finally, I got to see the work of Jeanine Michna-Bales, who was one of Center’s Prize winners. I’d seen a couple of her prints on the wall of the Center for Contemporary Arts, and was transfixed. You won’t believe the premise.
Ms. Bales was interested in understanding the reality of the underground railroad, that patchwork network that led escaped slaves to freedom. A beacon of light in America’s bleak past.
So, she recreated it herself.
She stopped every 20 miles or so, between Louisiana and Canada, which was the supposed average distance an escaped slave could have covered. Then, she made pictures at night. It was so sketchy that she had to hire bodyguards to protect her, out in the middle of nowhere, under black skies.
Obviously, the premise is terrific. But the pictures are every bit as good.
I was watching “The Lone Ranger” on TV yesterday. It’s possible I’m the only person in America who saw the whole damn thing. Major bomb, it was. (Who knew Jerry Bruckheimer could fail at anything?)
The movie wasn’t half as bad as I expected. (And boy, is that Armie Hammer a handsome man.) It was clear they spent more money filming than Roman Abramovich drops on soccer talent. Wow, did Disney waste some cash on that ridiculous runaway train sequence.
I wasn’t surprised at the movie’s lack of mass appeal, though. They focused on the dark underbelly of American history: the theft of Native American land in the name of progress. (Sorry, I meant greed.) In particular, they made sure to demonstrate that treaties were made, and then broken, under dubious circumstances.
Does anyone really think that’s a good idea to hammer home, in the name of mass-market-summertainment? Who green-lit that premise, Noam Chomsky?
They even had poor Barry Pepper dressed up like George Custer, playing a military sap who unwittingly massacred a heap Comanche for the RailRoad Conglomerate, and then went full-scale denial when he learned the truth. Wonder who that little metaphor might be referencing? Oh. That’s right.
On Twitter, I was recently accused of being a closeted Englishman. But of course that’s not true. I love my FREEDOM/DEMOCRACY/FOOTBALL/BLACK PRESIDENT as much as anyone.
I just had the good fortune to learn the truth about our past from some stellar teachers in High School and College. And it is far easier to pretend our wealth was not built up on stolen land, resource annihilation, and free slave labor.
I think that’s the main reason Americans are so ahistorical. It’s not that we’re stupider than the rest of the world. Just that we function better as a forward-looking society. (Land ho.)
That’s why so many artists love to mine history. To spend days in dusty archives, combing through crusty books to find out who said what to whom. We love us some primary sources. (Wait. You mean George Washington wasn’t really named George Washington Blaustein, as my young son suggested this week? Quelle Surprise.)
The other method is to get out on the road and see what things look like now. Is there really a Plymouth rock? And why did they name it after Plymouth, from whence those grouchy Puritans came?
I can answer in the affirmative, that such a piece of stone exists, having just seen it in Colombian artist Oscar Palacio’s new book, “American Places.” (Published by the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.)
The book is fascinating, in that it mashes up the historically important with the constructedly banal. What could be more American than that?
Gettysburg battlefields, Underground railroad sites, the Lower 9th Ward, Manzanar, the Wounded Knee Memorial, and chopped trees protruding through fences. Concrete covered with grass. White banisters, defenestrated, rotting in the dirt.
The book is quiet the way a library is quiet. It helps to focus the mind. BTW, you know I’m going to respect anyone who goes to Mt. Rushmore and comes back with a photo that blocks the money shot. That takes guts.
Perhaps it’s easier for an outsider to admit that our society is built upon shaky foundations, like the Sunset district in San Francisco. (Sand dunes sit beneath the sleepy beach community.)
I love this country. We’ve given the world airplanes, cars, and the Internet. But also nuclear bombs, NSA spy software, and a legacy of misery that is felt in Native American and African-American communities to this day.
This book manages to blend the poignantly beautiful and the boringly sublime. Which are both stand-ins for the the glory and gore we’ve managed to produce since the Pilgrims landed more than 400 years ago.
Long may we prosper.
Bottom Line: Surprising, quiet, classy book that reminds us of a history we’d rather forget
I saw my first yellow leaves this morning. It’s August 13th, as I write this. Seems a little early to be thinking about Autumn.
In fact, you’re probably sitting on a beach just now, nursing a cold one, cursing my reminder of Summer’s impending end. I hate you, Blaustein, you mutter under your breath.
Every year, I think I’m going to do so much more, with my free time in Summer, than I actually do. My wife and I make a metaphorical list of adventures, and then succumb to hanging out around the house, cooking good meals with farmers market produce.
No mountain climbing. No swimming in Abiquiu Lake, in the shadow of Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch. No road trips around the Southern Rockies. I guess we’re just lazy.
Hell, I didn’t even go fishing this year, and I have a trout stream in my backyard. (It might have less to do with my torpor, and more to do with the nasty, fishy taste of trout. Not enough honey and lemon in the world, to cover it up.)
I did take my son fishing a couple of years ago, with my wife’s family. We went to Hopewell Lake, less than an hour away. Most people would call it a pond, but f-ck those guys.
It ended up as one of the more traumatic experiences of my decade. Why? Because the entire place was covered with caterpillars. Am I exaggerating? For once… no.
They were so thick they blanketed every surface you could see, in 3 inch intervals. It was an alien infestation gone wrong. (As opposed to an alien infestation gone right?) They came in to eviscerate the local Aspen trees, and simply sucked all the fun out of our day. (Damn Global Warming. Such a buzz kill.)
Needless to say, I don’t know much about fishing, beyond the fact that I’m no good at it. But it is a Summer activity par excellence. So what do we do when we want to go fishing, that perfect euphemism for “not working,” but can’t do it IRL?
You know the answer. We look at a photo book. Or in your case, you look at pictures of a photo book, and read the nonsense I type above. (Yes, this nonsense.)
“The Angler who fell to Earth,” is a new hard cover book that ended up in my stack from photo-eye. It’s a gray, slim hardcover, and looks like something that MACK would put out. (Like the book from 2 weeks ago.)
Surprisingly, though, it’s an independent publication, designed and published by the artist, Mark Mattock. I learned that from the post script, as nothing in the volume itself suggested it was DIY.
In fact, nothing in the book suggests much of anything. It’s dedicated to Matisse, opens with a cool quote by Thoreau, and then is all pictures.
Like last week’s book, this one is abstract and obscure in it’s thinking. It gives you nothing but pictures, and leaves the rest up to you.
Who is our angler? Where is our angler? What does he do but fish? Why is he riding a train? Is he riding a train? What is going on here? How many questions can I ask in a paragraph before the Internet police arrest me for being overly inquisitive? I don’t know.
I like a book that crawls down into my brainstem, and this is one of them. Lots of cool pictures. Still lives mixed in with more narrative shots, which is another of MACK’s hallmarks. Does Mark Mattock like MACK books? Does he sell sea shells by the seashore? I don’t know, but I’m betting yes.
I love the upside-down newspaper headline about a worm crawling into someone’s brain. (Written in the first-person to boot.) And the fishhook tattoo. And especially the photo of a note telling our angler not to fish in a particular spot. (The detail “We know who you are” is so good I might have to steal it. Is it real? Once again, I don’t know.)
Last week, I ruminated on the beauty of the potential dialogue between artist and audience. Here, the artist is clearly going for it. Here are my pictures. I will not tell you what they are about. If you like my book, you’ll probably try to figure it out. If you don’t, you’ll likely get angry and confused, and hurl it against a wall, sad it won’t shatter.
Bottom Line: Cool, strange pictures about an Alien Fisherman
By now, you know me pretty well. I’ve discussed just about every personal quirk and lifestyle detail possible. You name it, I’ve been willing to put it out there every Friday, for nearly 3 years.
All in the name of what, exactly? I write about photo books, so that you can look at the pictures.
I try to pick interesting, smart, challenging, or beautiful offerings every time. But occasionally, the stack runs short, and I have to pretend to be more excited than I really am. Those weeks, I might amp up the absurdity a hair. Turn the Blaustein-dial on the speakers up to 11. (Even if it’s meant to top out at 10.)
But rarely do we take a moment to ask why there are so many damn photo books to be begin with. It’s been accepted wisdom, these last 5 years, that every photographer wants a book. Today, I thought it might be worthwhile to stop and ask why.
I began thinking about it earlier this summer, when a colleague admitted to considering expansion into the publishing business. This, from the same person who swore to never go that route, as there is an occasional whiff of exploitation about the process. Seems the ridiculous dollars people are willing to spend were too alluring to ignore.
The industry seems to have moved over to a pay-to-play model to a shocking degree. That’s why we see another Kickstarter entreaty every day now. Artists, not the wealthiest of types, are seeking to raise anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 to have someone design and arrange for the printing of a paper-based-object. (Printed by a 3rd party, in most cases.)
I can’t help but wonder if that’s the most effective use of people’s time and money. Is this not a vanity business, for the most part? How many books do we need?
Every photographer is clearly entitled to spend his, her or (other peoples’) money however they like. It’s still a free country. But what is the end game?
Is it that a permanent object will outlive them? That it shall adorn countless shelves, when their bodies are decomposing in the ground? Or perhaps it is still a marketing object, as I was told by many in 2011-2? A marker of career success that makes people take you more seriously?
The problem with that line of reasoning is that when everyone has a book, having a book is no longer an exclusive proposition. And if everyone can and does have one, then having one does not make you automatically more successful than the hordes. Right?
Couldn’t 25G buy you a new car? Or pay off your student loans? Or cover year of graduate school? Or a trip around the world?
Might not a trip around the world add more than a bound-sheaf-of paper to a photographer’s burgeoning gravitas?
How many artists actually view making a book as an opportunity for communication? How many consider a book an expression of dialogue between themselves and an anonymous collection of strangers?
I ask you, having recently leafed through “Notting Hill Sound Systems,” for the third or fourth time. It was recently sent my way by English photographer Brian David Stevens, having been published by Café Royal Books. The artist and I have traded witticisms on Twitter occasionally, so he sent the book to see what I thought.
Book might not be the right word here. It’s more of a catalogue, or you might even call it a leaflet. It’s on decent-quality paper, and stapled in the middle. No separate cover at all.
So it couldn’t possibly have cost that much to make.
The entire book is filled with images of stacks of speakers sitting on the streets of London. Or so we assume. As there is no supporting text in this publication at all. No hints. No screeds. No explanation of what is going on.
Is it the documentation of an art school project? Are they readymades? Were they put there to be photographed, or were they a part of an existing system? There is almost no way to tell.
I wrote Brian to see what the deal was, and he provided me a link to some backstory. Apparently, right around now, there’s a big Reggae festival in the streets of Notting Hill, a posh West London neighborhood. The whole place becomes an epicenter of reefer madness for a day, and then it all goes back to normal.
He crept around the streets, early in the morning, well before the festivities, just to get this set of photographs. (In all their trippy ambiguity.)
Sitting here in Taos, there was no way for me to possibly know that. But the artist didn’t care. He wanted the viewer to see these things for what they were. Beautiful objects? Fascinating combinations of metal, wood and screen? Quiet totems that represent insanely loud bits of fun? (A nod to John Cage’s silent music?)
Again, we don’t know. After he told me what was up, I perused more carefully, and noticed that several images had “parking suspended” signs embedded within. The kind of things that municipal workers post right before a festival, or a film crew comes to shoot for the day.
So that’s at least a clue. But no more than that. To Londoners, this book will have a completely different meaning than to the rest of us. He’s communicating with them in code.
We get another read entirely. One that absolutely arouses curiosity. What is going on here, and why?
It makes me think the artist has given this whole publishing endeavor a lot of thought. He worked with a publisher, rather than self-publishing, but obviously found someone who understood his vision. And given that CRB is based in England, they were clearly down with the double meaning of the pictures.
They didn’t spend a Range Rover’s worth of cash to get the thing printed. (Or half a Bentley?) And then the first edition sold out quickly, so they got a second edition humming right away. (Which would have kept the costs down further, until a clear market was established.)
Yes, I’m rambling longer then normal today, which is odd, as I normally like to coast in the Dog Days of August. But I’ve been out of the classroom since mid-May, so you’ll have to allow me a teachable moment.
Please, don’t make a book unless you really know why you’re doing it. And if someone tells you to give them $40,000 so you can have your dreams met, just think carefully before writing the big fat check. Or maybe start summoning cheaper dreams.
Bottom Line: Cool catalogue to disseminate cool photos, not a paperweight
I was sitting in a hot tub in Dixon, New Mexico, the other day. My attempts at relaxation were futile, as two soon-to-be seven-year-old boys insisted on jumping in like enormous balls of hail. SPLASH! SPLASH! (No, it wasn’t very relaxing, but the hot water felt good on my sore shoulder.)
Soon enough, I gave up on achieving bliss, and began to chat with my new friend Stephan, who’s visiting from Brooklyn. How strange, that two 40-something Jewish guys might hit it off in the hinterlands of the American West. (Sarcasm intended.) He’s a very bright guy, and told me on several occasions that he’s been reading high level stuff on his holiday.
Naturally, I asked him what he was catching up on. Calculus, physics, philosophy. That sort of thing. (All while I’ve been addictively refreshing my browser to get the latest Arsenal Transfer News. Embarrassing.)
Just as I was exiting the hot tub, he mentioned a concept in computer science theory called an NP problem. (It stands for nondeterministic polynomial time.) Apparently, they’re not solvable via the technology of the day. So they’re alluring to many a great mind.
The unsolvable problem is a somewhat nihilistic concept, when we bring it down to the human level. Can poverty ever be eradicated? I doubt it. And didn’t Bill Gates try to annihilate smallpox or some such disease, only to see it make a genuine comeback in the chaos of Syria. (Facts can be checked on Google, but I’m just spitballing here.)
If you were to poll a bunch of random people about what conflagration is never likely to burn itself out, I’d bet they’d say “The Middle East.” Push them further, and you know they’ll say Israel. The homeland of my ancestors.
Northern New Mexico actually looks a bit like Israel, in the right light. I know, because I was there for a summer vacation/ teen tour in 1991. Smack dab in the middle of the first Gulf War. (Speaking of not relaxing…) All I remember is trying to sneak off for a nap during Kibbutz work duty, and downing horrible Russian vodka to summon enough courage to hit on a pretty girl. (Yes to getting super-drunk, no to any success with the lady.)
People were all geared up for war back then, as they have been since the country’s inception. Which was rather recent, given that my people were living there forever, before we got ejected by the Romans. As of 1948, though, things have looked grim, with respect to any kind of lasting peace.
Of course, I write this now, in the middle of yet-one-more episode of War. People killing people, to try to make a point. Which is?
I certainly won’t be able to tell you, from my cozy chair on the other side of the world. But then, no one will, as peace in the Middle East is most definitely an NP problem. The best I could offer here would be to share another’s more personal, more educated view on the matter.
So I will.
Frederic Brenner’s new book, “an Archaeology of Fear and Desire,” was recently published by MACK. Apparently, it’s one of a series of projects shot in Israel that were commissioned by Mr. Brenner. Other artists like Stephen Shore have had their say, and this book is Mr. Brenner’s take on life in Israel.
It’s a very clean, formal, precise view, with the requisite irony on full display. For example, we get a two page run in the book in which a religious Israeli family dines in splendor in a big house, and on the following page, a Palestinian family crunches together in a much smaller space.
But it’s not just the status quo. We see a couple of dirt bike riders in the desert near Sodom. (Are we to question their sexuality, because of the title.?) And another portrait of a woman who looks very much like she is gay, but am I allowed to speculate on such things? And if I did, what might gay rights look like in a religious country?
We see a blind former soldier with two prosthetic arms. And an anonymous Palestinian man who sure looks like he was tortured, or at least beaten to a pulp, with a wicked scar running across his eye.
There are migrant workers of color, jimmy-rigged border patrol wearing head scarves, and some Orthodox Jews in an airport, with their eyes shaded, looking ancient, except for their always-dorky rolling suitcases. Classy.
This book was perfect to write about this week, for obvious reasons. The images within are well made, but will not change your life.
But they do offer you a window into a world without hope. Or, at least, without hope of ever fixing its own, ancient set of problems. Which is a fair metaphor for what we all do every day. Keep going, enjoy the pleasures at our disposal, and fight when we must.
Bottom Line: Clear, color vision of life in contemporary Israel
“There but for the grace of God go I.” Two weeks in a row, we’re opening with an old school aphorism. Why is that? Have I detected
a growth in our Millennial readership? Am I trying to adhere my contentical requirements to shorter attention spans?
No, that’s not it.
Frankly, I think many of us work less in summer. We try to read a book here and there, and allow a few random moments of calm to intrude on an otherwise busy lifestyle. There’s the Fall Season, and the New-Year-through-spring mad dashes of productivity. And then we have Xmas time and summer breaks, to re-gather one’s thoughts.
As such, my thoughts have turned to wisdom’s efficiency. Aphorisms are like tweets, in that they aim to provide maximum information in minimal form. So much so that we’ve even managed to abbreviate them further: i.e., better safe, a bird in the hand. Neither of those are complete thoughts, but we know them well enough to intuit the second half, and the meaning.
“Better safe than sorry” is like “when in doubt.” It encourages caution, above all else. I suspect the cautious proto-humans were the ones that gave us many of our genes, as the braver sorts were likely eaten by saber-toothed tigers while exploring.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” sounds like it was made up by a farmer. I’ve got my crops. They are here. They feed my family. If I try this new seed that Jenkinson was telling me about, it might bring in much more. Or it might not. Better safe.
And what about the first one I mentioned? There but for the grace of God, is what people say. They abbreviate this one too. It means, please remember that there are many billions of the people on planet Earth who are less fortunate than I am. I could easily have been born into a war zone, or somewhere with no indoor plumbing. But I was not.
We tend to push such thoughts outside of our day-to-day thinking. It’s easier to get by that way. But what if you lacked the luxury? What if you could never forget or escape the consequences of fate, or God, or whatever word you choose to use for such concepts?
Christopher Capozziello has such a dilemma. He’s a photographer, and writer apparently, and last year he put out a book called “The Distance Between Us,” by Edition Lammerhuber, and I just got my hands on a copy. His twin brother, Nick, was born with Cerebral Palsy, and has had an insanely difficult life as a result.
Two brothers. One womb. One twin healthy, the other sick. It’s like something out of a Dickens novel.
I’ll have to step out of character even further here by telling you I met Chris at LOOKbetween in 2010. We talked a lot, and then stayed in touch. I gave him some tips on how to access the fine art photo community. He came and hung out while I was writing about Photo Plus Expo for APE.
I therefore saw this work very early on. Before the accolades. Before the book. He also asked me to peruse an early-version-pdf at a time when he was submitting a concept for a publication competition that he didn’t win.
All for the best.
Because he’s used the ensuing years to fine-tune his vision, and this large book is the beneficiary. There’s text throughout, including under many of the photographs. He writes naturally, and the narrative fills in many gaps that would not have been dealt with sufficiently, with only titles to inform us. Furthermore, by telling his story so directly, he’s able to amp up the emotional reaction in his viewer.
Nick has seizure cramps that are debilitating. He likes to play pool. He had major brain surgery, and an implant was put in his chest. You can see the implant. You can see Nick go through the ravages of pain.
All the while, Chris can’t help but wonder, why not me?
Eventually, the brothers take a big road trip at the end. And even better, we close with a selection of Nick’s pictures from the trip. (We’ve seen Chris photographing Nick taking pictures, so there’s even foreshadowing.)
Don’t you love it when the column connects from week to week? It’s the happy ending. The über-American cinematic narrative. (With the road trip thrown in as a bonus.)
The book has a message, a point, and a vision behind it. I might have found the text a bit overwhelming at times, but that’s nitpicking. If you invest your time in this one, you’re likely to get a lot back.
You can tell that years of planning and care went into the creation of this book, and years of pain went into the living. Yet when you hold the book, the finished article, you’re holding the outcome of someone’s dream.
Bottom Line: Great book, powerful personal family tale
The grass is always greener. So they say. I’m keeping that in mind as I try to relax into my staycation this summer. No use envying other people’s holiday photos on Instagram.
Sometimes these aphorisms carry deep wisdom. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That’s the cycle of history in one short sentence. Impressive. (Certainly terser than a blustery treatise on why Vlad Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is hardly avant garde.)
There’s another that’s been on my mind lately. “Wherever you go, there you are.” It’s practically koan-ic.
As our longtime readers know, I did a lot of travel writing for APE from 2010-13. It was something of a dream, to wander about as a part of my job. And I got to visit amazing museums and galleries to boot. Not bad.
Eventually, I realized I was no happier in London or New York or New Orleans than I was at home, and the post-trip crashes were brutal. I might have been a tad more charming on the road, or higher on adrenaline, but I was still me. Still perpetually stressed about keeping all the balls juggled, and the children fed.
Late last year, my desire to travel began to wane. I realized that if I could be happier at home, more content in my own skin, I might not need to be somewhere else to be a better version of myself.
Some people don’t need a happy ending, though. Euro films have been cranking out depressing, dour, dimly-lit dandies for decades. (And to think, my college writing professor told me alliteration was too obvious.)
Furthermore, what must it be like in Scandinavia in the dead of winter? Saturated Color doesn’t exist. SunLight is a rumor. Who’d be happy then, or even believe such a concept as happiness was anything other than naive voodoo? (If I lived there, I’d be addicted to cigarettes, vodka and Internet porn in weeks…just kidding.)
Anders Petersen channels that energy as well as anyone. Not in a sense of depression, per se, but a celebration of joyous nihilistic depravity. He deifies the drunk at the end of the bar; an understandable response to the absurdity of existence. (I saw, but never reviewed, the lurid “Soho” from MACK.)
Wherever Anders Petersen goes, there he is. A year after a 2012 earthquake in Northern Italy, he was invited to the Emilia area by Studio Blanco, to take Anders Petersen photos. Or so we are told at the end of “To Belong,” his new book published by SlamJam.
We get the explanatory essay at the end, and the title on the back cover. I suppose you have to do things differently these days, if you want to stand out. Shake it up, as it were. (In fact, the closing statement does dedicate the book to those whose lives have been shaken.)
It opens with the obligatory boob shot, (Boobs Sell Books℠) but then cascades through stuffed animals, a mountain-lion in a cage, odd dolls, a crotch-shot with a girl stretching her leg over her head, some seriously strange-looking old people, some surprisingly hopefully portraits, and rubble and dancing and Dora the Explorer. (The rubble makes more sense upon second viewing.)
We get to see one of my favorite creepy-awesome-weird photos of all time, on par with Asger Carlsen, with some dude’s chest-hair growing up through a tattoo of the Virgin Mary. I felt like spiders were crawling on my spine, while I stared at it.
There’s a recurring symbol of flexible-connecting tubery, which I didn’t quite figure out. (The need to contort oneself to survive among human kind, especially in the face of a natural disaster? Good guess?)
The book is also made a little differently. The pages are two pieces of paper sandwiched together. They turn easily, though. It makes for a rather beautiful object, in addition to a sumptuous collection of images.
And how’s this for a message takeaway: the Earth crumbles beneath our feet, occasionally. Life falls apart along with it. And yet we endure. So you might as well let a little of the crazy in while you’re here.
Bottom Line: Very cool book built upon an earthquake-shaken foundation
Mishka Henner is an artist based in Manchester, England. He’s been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and Deutsche Borse Prizes, and was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Art in 2013. His work is currently being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a solo show recently closed at Carroll/Fletcher in London.
Jonathan Blaustein: There’s a project on your site called “Less Americains,” in which you erased most of the information from Robert Frank’s seminal work. There does seem to be a strong American inspiration in your practice.
I get it. I’m a bit in love with what you guys do in England. I try to work with absurdity. I see it as positive, and a healthy reaction to the state of the world. It’s the flip side to outrage; they go hand in hand. When you don’t want to swallow your outrage, you can look at it sideways and have a giggle. That seems very British to me.
Mishka Henner: I love Bill Hicks and I’d like to think there’s some Bill Hicks in some of this work. With “No Man’s Land,” and the feed lots. Absolutely.
JB: Well, there was a line of inquiry I was headed towards, which is, you piss people off.
JB: I just saw a photo blog that described your “Less Americains” project as a “waste of time.” Is that necessarily a bad thing? Do you see yourself as a provocateur? Do you think great art ought to ruffle a few feathers, and not just tell people what they want to hear?
MH: I think I stopped being earnest about six years ago. I was making what I think of as very earnest, documentary work. More straight documentary.
Then I came across mostly American artists working with photography who were funny. People like Chris Burden. They were daring, amoral. There was real ambiguity in there. And they weren’t subscribing to this idea that documentary photography has to be earnest. What’s Chris Burden saying when he fires a gun at a Boeing 747 taking off from LAX? Who cares? It’s a brilliant gesture.
So documentary could be dangerous, confrontational. And it could also tell jokes. All things that I never thought photography could be, right?
MH: That’s why I did “No Man’s Land.” When I first started doing it, I was thinking, “Fuck. I can’t do this. You cannot do this. You can’t go around photographing prostitutes with a Google Street View camera. That’s just fucking outrageous. It’s just a complete moral and ethical No No.”
And then, the more time I spent on it, the more I was thinking, “Hang on a second. What is this? Who are these women? Fuck, maybe I’m like one of them.”
You know what I mean, as an artist? Standing by the roadside, displaying your wares, waiting in the middle of nowhere for someone to come along and fuck you over. Metaphorically speaking of course. My point is that I could recognize myself in the subject. And the fact it was all done remotely was even more powerful to me.
JB: I do have that on my question list. I was going to ask you if you have ever tried to pick up an African hooker in Calabria?
MH: (laughing) No. No, I haven’t. Virtually, maybe. But not physically.
You know, the longer I spent working on “No Man’s Land”, the more I was thinking, “If you’re going to photograph street prostitutes in the middle of nowhere in Europe, this is the way you do it. You don’t go there, pretending to be doing an earnest project. You do it sitting at home, alone, in front of your own computer terminal looking out at these shards of reality.”
There’s a thing called the Prison Photography blog…
JB: Yeah, Pete Brook. We know Pete.
MH: He’s cool. I like him. But he and some others went on this crusade talking about how what I had done was somehow inferior to the photographers who went there and photographed the women. That in those works, there was much more beauty, subtlety, and empathy in their work. That those images were literally imbued with an ethical and moral sympathy that was absent in mine.
And I just thought, “What a load of bullshit that is.” To be honest with you Jonathan, I’ve found that quite a few of my projects have revealed a lot of the assumptions and judgements that a section of the photo community continues to take for granted about documentary. It really doesn’t have to be like that. There’s so much more scope for pushing the boundaries of what documentary can be.
It has a lot to do with this earnestness that I’m talking about. It’s the pitiful image. Documentary’s no good unless you’re made to feel sorry for the people in your photographs. Which is outrageous really. And quite demeaning and condescending to the people who are the subjects of those pictures.
At least the sex workers in my pictures have their faces blurred. They’re at a distance, a long way away from the lens. It means the work isn’t just about them, it’s also about us looking at them. Which I don’t think enough documentary does.
I made “Less Americains” for a number of reasons but a major one was because I was getting sick and tired of this monumentalizing of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” It was as if the book had become a biblical text that couldn’t be questioned. It was beyond reproach. I was thinking, “Hang on a minute. The discussion around that work is turning it into some sort of mythology. They’re just creating myths. And I really don’t like that. I react very strongly to that.
It’s like dogma. Do you know what I mean?
JB: I do. I’ve railed against many of these same things, so I do feel you. But it’s interesting, as artists, to watch how perceptions change, as things age. I’m sure that’s where your sociology background can inform your thinking.
Frank’s work, in 1958, was transgressive. It was shocking.
MH: Of course, I know that! My problem isn’t with the work, it’s with the spectacle that surrounds it.
JB: How could something maintain that read, 60 years later? It can’t. I was able to see the show a few years ago, when they brought it back together, and sit with the objects, within the context of his Guggenheim application, and his earlier work. It was a joy to see the pictures on the wall, but in a way, we as younger artists have to fight through that.
You know, the Baby Boomers aren’t leaving the stage in any industry. It’s not just ours.
JB: So there’s a natural desire to rebel against the canon when the canon doesn’t have the same juice it did 60 years ago. Right?
MH: Absolutely. I can totally imagine the impact it must have had. It must have been revolutionary, certainly.
JB: In culture in general. It’s a little dorky that I’m an Anglophile, and you love the Americans, but in the late 50’s, mainstream culture here was very white, monotonous, buttoned down, hierarchical culture. Everything was hidden under the rug.
It was all veneer. So this guy comes over, rips off the skin, and shows disaffected people.
JB: And in a way, he does what we’re talking about. We’ve all had conversations about what it must have been like, in the 50’s, to look at LIFE magazine, see a picture of a starving poor person in a Third World country, and have that picture punch you in the stomach.
As opposed to now, where your eyes glaze, and you can’t possibly relate, viscerally, to suffering in the same way.
MH: I don’t know. You see, I do look around and think we are in a very conservative time, in which there are horrific things going on which are being pushed under the rug. I do think that.
I only have to look aroud me or turn the TV on to see things that I’m sure someone like Robert Frank would have seen in 1950s America. I do think that.
JB: Sure, but we’re talking about the fact that the visual language, the way art is made and the way in which it is received, has changed, and needs to change to keep up with the times.
You’re using technology that wasn’t even imaginable then.
MH: That’s right.
JB: Your process is 21st Century, and the problems are 21st Century.
MH: And the visual language isn’t entrenched yet. These images can’t be pigeon-holed so easily and I think that as a result, they can stimulate parts of the brain that other images we’re so used to seeing can’t. If you went out today and tried to photograph the culture like Robert Frank did – which a lot of people do – it would be pointless and almost disingenious. I know because I was doing it before. And I realized that what I was doing was trying to emulate the idols.
A big change for me was to think, “Fuck that. Fuck the idols.” They lived then, I’m living now. I have to try to see and represent things as they are now.
JB: Yeah, fuck those guys.
MH: It’s not just because I want to be center stage, it’s more that I’m trying to get a grip about what the hell is going on. One of the reasons I wanted to work with satellite images is because the people who are running the show, that’s the stuff they’re working with.
When they’re working out logistics, where combat troops have to go, where pipelines have to go, they’re not working with ground-based imagery. They’re working with this network of cameras that surround the globe.
I wanted to get into their heads and try to see the world from their perspective, which is why I did “51 US Military Outposts.” It was the first project I did working like that and was a deliberate attempt to try to see things from that perspective.
After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and then our intervention in Libya, I had to find out for myself why we were going to these places. That’s why I started working with satellite images, to try and see things from that perspective. Which is a completely non-emotive perspective. It’s pure logistics. Pure strategy.
And of course, when you start to look at the world in that way, you see things entirely differently. Things become clearer.
JB: I saw Trevor Paglen speak last month, and he was talking about how he’s interested in this huge mass of imagery that’s being made by machines, for machines. The pictures are designed to be read by algorithms. They’re not even meant for human consumption, at this point.
MH: I’ve heard that.
JB: We’re living in a crazy time. We can think about what’s going on with those Nigerian girls, who were just kidnapped. It’s a global sense of powerlessness. The idea that we can be aware of things, minute to minute, and feel their impact, but also be completely devoid of any kind of control, or ability to impact these situations.
That’s a unique phenomenon, given how long it used to take information to travel. Now it’s instantaneous, and what do you really get? You get a feeling of dread and fear that Vladimir Putin’s coming to take over your country. Or some Islamic assholes are going to steal your daughter.
MH: Sure, but like Bill Hicks says, you turn your TV off, you look out the window and think, “Where’s all this shit happening?” I think there’s a big difference between the media landscape, and the landscape outside my window. Do you know what I mean?
JB: I see horses, ravens and eagles out my window. I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Rocky Mountains in the hinterlands of the American West. So I do, in fact, know what you’re talking about.
MH: Well, there you go. I see a motorway.
JB: That’s why I think these ideas are powerful. Because we are living bifurcated existences. We have our online existence and our real world existence, and there are more and more enticements, these days, to pull people out of meat-space and into ones and zeroes.
You alluded earlier to wanting to figure out what the hell is going on. That’s what drives contemporary art, at its best, is the desire to figure out what the fuck is going on out there. With a concomitant desire to find a form for that content that makes sense in the now, and is relevant, as opposed to a form that feels antiquated.
MH: I agree. Having said that, I think, in some ways, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. When I compare myself to net artists, they’re like Spacemen, and I’m still trying to get a plane off the ground.
Some of these guys, I don’t even understand what they’re talking about. They’re doing all sorts of crazy shit.
When I question myself, which, obviously, I do a lot, I wonder what I’m doing printing pictures out and putting them on a wall. That’s kind of a nostalgic project.
But at the same time, you’ve got all these museums and institutions that have walls that need to be filled, and people do go and see them, so you think, “Maybe that way of doing things still has legs.” It’s still an effective way to show pictures.
JB: Listen, we’ve definitely got to wrap this up. But just before we began our chat, I saw something on Twitter, and I thought it would be fun to get your reaction to it.
MH: Go ahead.
JB: Somebody submitted a potential app to the Apple app store, that was an anthropomorphic vagina that taught women how to masturbate. Someone made a cartoon, almost anime-style app, to teach women how to understand their own private parts. Apple rejected it, and said, “No thank you.”
MH: (reading) Female masturbation, there’s an app for that. Happy Playtime.
JB: There it is.
MH: Well, I’ve got a two-year-old daughter, not that it’s going to be related to this …
JB: Hey now.
MH: But whenever she sees my partner and I on our iPhones or iPads – which is often – it breaks my heart. It feels like she’s caught me with a needle in my arm. I find myself carrying my phone, and it’s more a part of me now than a phone or an object has ever been. These things are so addictive, they’re designed so that you’ll be absolutely be glued to them. You have to go to rehab just to rid them from your life.
They remind me of Pringles. Do you know Pringles?
JB: I do.
MH: I’m pretty sure they lace Pringles with powdered smack. Once you pop you’re fucked.
JB: I have a friend who worked for one of the chemical flavor companies for a couple of decades, so I have no doubt they jimmy-rig that shit. For sure.
MH: So you’re asking me what I make of this app? I’m surprised it’s only coming out now.
51 Military US Outposts – Ascension Auxiliary Airfield- Ascension Island, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
51 US Military Outposts – Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
51 US Military Outposts – Diego Garcia Indian Ocean, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
51 US Military Outposts – Camp Lemonnier- Djibouti, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
51 US Military Outposts – Camp Adder- Nasiriyah- Iraq, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
51 US Military Outposts – Menwith Hill- UK, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
Mishka Henner is an artist based in Manchester, England. He’s been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and Deutsche Borse Prizes, and was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Art in 2013. His work is currently being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a solo show recently closed at Carroll/Fletcher in London.
Levelland and Slaughter Oil Field, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
OIL FIELDS – Cedar Point Oil Field- Harris County- Texas, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
OIL FIELDS – Levelland Oil – Gas Field- Texas, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
OIL FIELDS – Wasson Oil – Gas Field- Texas, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
Jonathan Blaustein: You probably don’t know this, but we were both nominated this round of the Prix Pictet prize. For “Consumption.”
Mishka Henner: Okay, right.
JB: I’m going to have a picture in the book. But you were chosen for the short-list. And you will be exhibiting your work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, yes?
JB: I’ve been thinking about it a bit, and since you were short-listed and I wasn’t, I’ve come to believe that it makes you a superior human being to me.
MH: (laughing.) Clearly. Yeah. Although you’ve probably got a better paid job. But go on.
JB: You agree? We can go there?
MH: That I’m superior?
JB: Yeah. To me.
MH: It’s obvious. If I made the short list then you’re a loser. Although come next Wednesday, I may well be the loser. The question is, will I be the bigger loser because it will be on a bigger stage, or a smaller loser?
JB: Nobody even knew that I had been nominated and failed, until now.
JB: Here’s the way I look at it. I’m prepared to stipulate that you are superior to me, as a human being, and an artist, but your humiliation will likely be larger than mine. Which was heretofore in private. What do you say?
MH: (laughing.) Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right.
JB: Good. I thought we could establish that right away, so that you could realize “Holy Shit. He’s telling the truth. This isn’t a regular interview.”
MH: Yeah, okay. That’s fine.
JB: Good. We’re there now. Well, first of all, good luck. When I saw that Boris Mikhailov and Rineke Dijkstra were on that list, I felt OK about not making it. That’s the big leagues, bro.
MH: I know, I’m well aware of that.
JB: Your ascent seems to have been somewhat rapid, in that you were short listed for the Deutsche Borse prize, and got the ICP Infinity Award. Now the Prix Pictet. How did you get on this many radar screens this quickly?
MH: Fuck, I don’t know. The Internet?
JB: There it is.
MH: I’ve gone viral, I’ve given everyone a virus.
JB: (laughing.) Did you? Go viral?
MH: Well, yeah. I’ve never had a publisher, and I only started working with galleries in the last six months.
JB: Get out. Six months?
MH: Yeah, up to that point, all I’d been doing is print-on-demand books. Books that have maybe sold ten or twenty copies. Those books had a greater life online than as physical books, that’s for sure and a few of them went viral. I did a project called “No Man’s Land,” where I photographed sex workers across Southern Europe using Google Street View.
MH: That was a print-on-demand book, and I made a just single copy of the book. The pdf was available online and it drew some controversy. A sex worker on the West Coast wrote about it and she was quite positive, but then a load of feminist sex workers on the West Coast basically went ape shit, trying to get the book banned, writing letters to the print-on-demand company.
I had to defend myself to the company’s lawyers and I guess I succeeded because they let me get on with it. After that I sold about 60 books and decided to bring out a second volume.
When the dust had settled I’d sold a few hundred books and “No Man’s Land” was short listed for the Deutsche Borse prize. It’s also the project that was nominated for this Prix Pictet but I didn’t submit it because I was tired of it. I’d been working on the “Beef and Oil” series and thought it would be more interesting to enter that. Nobody had really seen that work properly so I thought it would be interesting to launch it through a prize like that.
JB: You took a risk?
MH: I’d been nominated with “No Man’s Land” for the Prix Pictet for the Power theme two years ago, and didn’t get anywhere with it then. So the risk was that nobody would ever hear about it. Which was fine.
JB: I know how that feels.
JB: Hey, I made the book. You’ll see it. I’m not a total loser, just mostly a loser.
MH: A mere footnote.
JB: (laughing.) I’ll take that. But just tucking back, when you said the West Coast, you meant the West Coast of the United States?
MH: Yes. But most of the exposure I’ve had has been in the US anyway. In Europe, I’ve had some exposure, and the work has done well, but really, my work’s flying in America. That’s where people are taking notice of the work most and are buying it. The picture editors at the New York Times were my earliest supporters.
I’ve hardly sold any work in Europe.
JB: You guys are bankrupt as a Continent, essentially?
MH: Yeah. But people just don’t buy art here the way they do in the US. Maybe it’s to do with tax breaks, or something else. I don’t know.
There always seems to be something going on in the US about buying art, as opposed to Europe.
JB: You probably could have just stopped that sentence at buying. Right? We’re talking about “Consumption,” and my peeps have sort of perfected the idiosyncrasies of Capitalism. We Americans are proud of it.
MH: Yeah. You’ve done pretty well at it.
JB: And you guys don’t have a lot of disposable income. Even your football clubs are bought by other people. Come on. You’re in fucking Manchester.
Some Americans and some oil sheiks own your shit. You have to know this.
MH: I’m with the oil sheiks.
JB: Of course you are.
MH: That’s right.
JB: Two titles out of three. You’re with the winners. (ed note: Manchester City.)
MH: Look, the biggest photo museum in England has an acquisition budget of £12,000 a year, which is about $20,000. That might just about pay for a cleaner in a US museum. No disrespect to cleaners but that’s doesn’t offer much hope to artists.
JB: It would pay for one square inch of a Gursky.
MH: Exactly. I think that tells you something about the market here.
JB: We went right to the market. But “Consumption,” is the theme for this year’s prize. But we went right to the commodification aspect of Consumption. I’ve spent a bit of time in England in the last couple of years, and went to quite a few museums, which are free. The consumption of art that I saw in London was mind-boggling.
Families and kids and babies and grandmas. Anecdotally, I thought the consumption of art, with your eyes, was much more impressive than I have seen in American major cities.
MH: It’s possible. I think there’s a real hunger for it here, absolutely. And the market for that probably isn’t as developed as it is in the US. I think there are different reasons to do with tax laws, as I said. There are incentives for buying art that probably don’t exist in Britain or Europe.
But listen, I haven’t got a clue. We’re talking about things here that are way out of my league.
JB: I mean viewing. Looking. You must go to London a lot. Do you not notice the hordes that are there to absorb ideas?
MH: Yeah, but maybe we’re talking about different things. It’s true online as well. There’s a voracious appetite for new stuff to look at. It’s a bit like the Tumblr culture, where you’re looking at a waterfall of great stuff. Great imagery, great music. And we absorb it quickly.
We consume it super-fast, and spit it out just as quick. That’s as true in the art galleries as it is online. But as an artist, when it comes to the actual material fact of making a living by selling work, that’s quite different, I think.
Which is more what I was talking about before. We can talk about that other aspect of consuming data, or culture, if you like.
JB: I like to talk about all of it. I was just pointing out the natural way we gravitated. Of course, selling objects is a necessity, if you’re trying to make a living that way.
In America, we have so many more people, and so many more artists, that I think a very, very, very small percentage of contemporary artists even attempt to make their living exclusively through sales.
JB: Almost everyone, including the big dogs at Yale, is teaching, or running workshops, or writing. I call it the 21st Century Hustle, because almost everyone has to hustle over here. We don’t have the social service infrastructure that exists in Europe.
I personally live in the Wild West, but I think America is that way. Fend for yourself.
I like to think of the various strands of the process. Why we create? How we create? What we create? And then the market forces are a separate concern. The business and creative concerns rarely come from the same place.
MH: That’s right, and it’s why I’m a bit out of my comfort zone talking about the business side of it. Because I don’t have much experience at that.
In terms of the creation stuff, what was interesting to me about the Oil Fields, especially, is the lineage from John Paul Getty II to Mark Getty. The former was this huge oil baron. He was once asked for the secret to his success and replied, “Rise early. Work hard. Strike oil.”
And Mark Getty, his grandson or great-grandson, is the founder of Getty images. He was once asked why he gravitated towards images as a commodity and said, “Intellectual property will be the oil of the 21st Century.” Or something like that. You should look it up. Anyway, I love that transition from oil to images.
That’s why I became obsessed with oil fields and the idea of even looking for oil fields. In effect, if you think of the world now as a single image that’s been photographed from every angle, from satellites to street view cameras…
JB: Planet Earth is now Picasso’s guitar.
MH: Yeah, it’s an assemblage of images. I like the idea that all this stuff is there, but because there’s so much of it, we can’t see it. Finding the valuable stuff is as difficult as finding oil. When a plane like MH370 goes missing the first place we look is at the satellite imagery because the images of the plane are probably already out there. But just like the ocean is unfathomable, so is the quantity of imagery. We just don’t have the capacity to study it all.
Now, what happened with the feed lots, for me, was fascinating because that’s the work that really went viral in the US. Feed lots are generally remote, in the middle of nowhere and Americans had never really seen them before.
JB: How much time have you spent on the ground in America while you were making this work?
MH: I visited California with friends three months ago for ten days, but that was to see “Spiral Jetty,” Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels”, and Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative.” It was more of a pilgrimage. But apart from that, none.
JB: On I-5, the highway that connects San Francisco and LA, there are strings of these feed lots, right along the highway. You can smell them about ten minutes before you see them, and that stench will carry on for about ten minutes after you’ve left.
So the Californians are familiar with it. It’s not only tucked away in Kansas.
MH: I spent a lot of time looking at California because there are hundreds of feed lots there, but the key ones that struck me were generally in Texas and Kansas because of their size.
Feed lots are pretty much all the same. There are thousands of cattle, you’ve got silos that mix the grain, tracks that allow the trucks to pass up and down dispensing the feed. And then you’ve got these huge lagoons of piss and shit. That’s pretty much a feed lot. I looked at thousands of them. After a while, you start to wonder how big the series should be and I eventually whittled them down to seven key pictures.
The main one is the one with the huge red pool in the middle of it. The one that looks like a cross-section of a brain.
JB: I just want to say lagoons of piss and shit out loud, because it’s such a great phrase. Now I’ve done it.
MH: (laughing) Well, that’s what they are. People ask, “What’s that?” And I don’t know how to say it really, other than to use those words. Piss and shit is what it is. Hundreds of tonnes of it.
JB: Sure. I’m not mocking you. I’m honest. It’s fun to say stuff like that every now and again.
What do you hope the impact will be on your viewer, when they look at these pictures? What do you want people to think, when they see the picture, read the words, and understand what they’re looking at?
MH: I first came across the feed lots when working on the oil fields. I’d come across the structures and didn’t know what they were. When I started to research them, I was amazed these things existed and would ask myself, “How have we gotten to this point?” The feed lots represent an end point of Capitalism to me. You wonder how much further we can go with it before we destroy ourselves.
But I’ve never seen the feed lots as being just about the cattle in the pens. This is literally a system for living and dying, and I think that system exists beyond the feed lot. It’s a system that our societies, Britain and the US, are aspiring to. The feed lot is almost a dream system. It’s not my dream, it’s my nightmare. But it’s this idea that every sinew of a living animal should be drained dry of productive value. You know what I mean?
JB: I do. They’re concentration camps for cows, really.
MH: With a lot of my projects, the more I spend time working on them, if I think it’s good work, my ideas about it change quite dramatically. From the beginning of the feed lot project, it went from a very practical understanding of what these things were to me thinking that these were systems for living and dying that exist all around us. That we’re actually part of and involved in.
JB: What do you mean by that? That’s an abstract statement.
MH: Well, if you think of yourself as a journalist…are you a freelancer?
JB: I’m a writer, a teacher, and a freelancer writer. I write for this publication, A Photo Editor, every week, so it’s very consistent. And I do a little work for the New York Times.
I’m the person I described before. I’m a little bit of everything, out of necessity.
MH: You might disagree with this but being freelancers we’re trying to make the most of the skills that we’ve got, wherever we can apply them. We’re atomized, in a sense. Our identities are reduced to these productive units.
In England, for example, there’s a lot of discussion about the welfare state. People who work, and people who don’t work. It’s very polarized; ideas of who is worth something in society.
The people who are worth something, generally, are those that are working and productive. The rest are basically draining our resources. They’re a waste of time and space.
It’s an extreme idea for me; an extreme view of life. The idea that every one of us has to be absolutely drained dry. Generally serving someone else’s profit, right?
JB: Yes. Of course.
MH: Taking it back to the feed lot, it’s a perfect demonstration of that. Every single animal in the feed lot, it’s entire life is devoted to serving a single purpose.
Being someone else’s dinner and providing maximal return on someone else’s investment. You can see that way of thinking happening in Britain. It’s less extreme than in the US, but in Britain you can see that thinking applied to the health service. Or to education.
I should probably say I didn’t come from an art background. I never studied art, other than informally. My education was Sociology and Cultural Studies.
In Cultural Studies especially, there’s this idea that you can take a 3 minute Pop song, and in deconstructing and analyzing it, you have the code of the culture. There is a structure, and a code and a language within it that informs how culture works.
I think that’s true of images as well, that maybe there is something locked in the idea of the feed lot, and in these images of feed lots, that stand for something much bigger about the society we’re in.
JB: That’s what we hope to do, when we pick our symbols. Visual Art is about creating symbol sets that speak to larger issues. When you’re good and lucky combined, you might hit on a style of language that makes sense to people.
That was why I was asking what you wanted the viewer to get out if it. It’s clearly very powerful. There’s a lot of solid intellectual underpinning to the interconnection of oil and corn and cows. It’s been sifted through quite a bit, over here in the States.
But your pictures, by combining Internet, Satellite, Surveillance, and then these particular symbols, I think they make it easier for people to comprehend what’s actually going on.
I imagine that’s your goal?
MH: I’m not into artists who lecture, who present their work and accompany it with a lecture about what their intentions and motivations were. Or their research. So I’m reluctant to talk about that and try to keep that out of it.
Obviously I’m talking a lot now and probably saying more than I’d like to, but whenever my work’s presented, I try to say as little about it as I can. There’s the work and then there’s everything else. If I want anything it’s for people who come across the work to really examine it, to figure out for themselves what they’re looking at, and to reach their own conclusions about what’s going on.
I didn’t know, for example, that it was illegal to photograph feed lots, in a lot of US States, because of the Ag Gag laws. So I love the idea that someone who’s confronted with these images is seeing something that has been censored from them. Kept away from them. And all I’m doing is exploiting a loophole, which is that the satellites have already photographed it, and the imagery is out there.
I’m not a vegetarian. So it’s not like I have a very clear goal that I want people to become vegetarian.
JB: Did you decrease your consumption of cows, subsequent to the project?
MH: Yeah. When I was in America, I couldn’t eat beef, because of all the stuff I’d read and seen about it. Most of the beef in the US comes from feed lots so having worked on them and meditated on them for so long, I couldn’t eat it. But I ate chicken. And I imagine the production of chicken’s not much better either. But I didn’t see it, whereas this I could see.
Maybe that’s something: this idea that I’m trying to make something visible that is very difficult to visualize, even if it’s just to help me get to my head around it. But once you do, it can really affect you. That was my idea with the “Oil Fields” as well. On the ground, it’s very difficult to get a sense of the scale of them. But when you go 500 miles up, you can see the scale of them. That was quite shocking to me.
It affected me, and I assumed it would affect others who saw the prints as well. But that’s not something I can really control.
Some journalists have called me an “activist,” but I don’t think of myself as that at all. I think it’s almost disrespectful to activists. I’m an artist and there’s a big difference between the two. I’m not out to persuade anyone or to win an argument.
JB: I can relate to a lot of what you’re discussing. My work went viral when the NYT published it, and it deals with many of these issues. I’ve photographed cows from the pasture to the plate, and then ate them raw.
JB: Yeah. I photographed a cow being skinned 10 seconds after it was killed from three feet away, with a 50mm lens.
JB: The project that was nominated for the Prix Pictet I did was called “The Value of a Dollar,” and I bought all these food objects, and measured them out, and presented them as is, so it was a reduction of animals as commodity. Comparing the relative value of a handfull of organic blueberries versus a hunk of beef shank that was just a cow leg that someone slapped on a jigsaw and deconstructed.
MH: Yeah, yeah. I’ll look it up.
JB: It just helps give perspective into why I’m so excited about what you did. Your pictures have a palpable ability to impact peoples’ consciousness.
Many artists don’t want to be called “political.” But if your work doesn’t have any sort of political undertone, then you’re not really saying anything.
I’m very interested in how you think of these things.
MH: Well, if you dig really deep down there’s my outrage. I’m pretty outraged about the stuff I see around me. I have strong reactions to it all. And I try to articulate that in such a way that isn’t a rant. If you look at the other work in the Prix Pictet, this is probably the loudest. I think of the image with the red lagoon, and it’s almost like Munch’s scream. Only it’s my scream.
MH: It’s like a gunshot wound. Or a decapitation. It’s pretty horrific. It’s a pretty strong articulation of my outrage. I really liked what Ed Ruscha said once, that all he wanted to do was photograph the facts. He just wanted to see if it was possible, with his gasoline stations and parking lots and all the rest of it.
JB: Of course.
MH: He wanted to photograph them as facts. I know that’s not fashionable, and there’s been 40 years of photographic critical theory that’s gone against the idea that photographs can in any way be factual, but I like that.
That’s why I love appropriation. It’s using what’s already there. Reframing it changes everything and that can be enough.
FEEDLOTS – Black Diamond Feeders Inc- Air Base- Herington- Kansas, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
FEEDLOTS – Centerfire Feedyard- Ulysses- Kansas, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
FEEDLOTS – Friona Feedyard- Friona- Texas, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
FEEDLOTS – Randall County Feedyard- Amarillo- Texas, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher
I awoke this morning, before 6, to a bright pink sky. It wasn’t pink like my daughter’s sun hat; more electric, day-glo pink, like a patch of cloth on my Obermeyer ski jacket back in the 80’s.
As I gazed upon its magnificence, I noticed three huge ravens just outside the window, not 10 feet from where I stood. They began to bark at me; it wasn’t squawking. (You’ll have to trust me.) Their bodies shook in fury, and the sound emanating from their beaks were absolutely barks.
Shockingly, the next second, two strange dogs appeared, scaring the ravens away. The dogs, nominally barkers, were totally silent. They trotted away into the field, towards the horses, who we’d more reasonably expect to trot.
Words are funny things. Embedded in language, with its rules and structure, they maintain a consistent power. But unleashed, as they have been in our oddly-futuristic times, and there’s no telling what they might mean. Or how they might be misused.
(OMG. R U for realz? Propr word use is for squarz, man.)
Just think of curses. I occasionally write for another publication, where I can never, ever use the word fuck. I could, however, say copulate, fornicate, or engage in sexual congress. Which all mean the same thing. So what the f-ck is the difference, I ask you?
Sometimes, the original meaning for a “bad” word is so antiquated that it falls off the face of the Earth. For example, when I was young, my mother hated when I said “scumbag.” In Jersey, that meant a slimy person of low repute. To her, it meant condom, or a bag for scum.
She didn’t mind the word condom, of course, just its less-classy euphemism. Why? I still haven’t a clue. Maybe she’ll enlighten us in the comment section.
Another 20th Century epithet was “pudwacker.” I just thought it meant doofus, or jerk. But “pud” is a synonym for johnson, or member, or dick, or penis. So a “pudwacker” is actually a masturbator.
Was Jason Nocito, the artist behind “pud,” a new book published by Dashwood, aware of this? I guess so, but I have no idea. The book lacks any text at all, save for the title/thank you page at the end. (Or paragraph of gratitude. In which he thanks the New York Knicks, which I’ve never seen before.)
The book is orange and blue, (OK, just got the Knicks reference,) and opens up to some grooved, textured paper. Which kind of stuck to the first page the initial time I thumbed through. This was helpful, because the photo I saw immediately thereafter was a puddle. Most of the photos inside, in fact, are of puddles strewn with spent cigarettes and spilt oil.
Is pud short for puddle? Again, I have no idea. But the puddle pictures are the epitome of anti-aesthetic, and I loved them. (Or ugly beauty, if you will.) The colors in the reflected oil are luminous, like the aforementioned pink sky. The pictures appear to have been made with a really-good-medium-format-digital camera, as they’re super-hi-res looking. (Or hyperreal, if you prefer.)
There are a few photos that are definitely not of puddles, like a section of the hood of an old pink Camaro from the 80’s. So does pud mean puddle, only the artist was too insouciant, or devil-may-care, to make a book entirely of puddles? Je ne sais pas.
So I went back and looked again, trying to figure it out. This time, I noticed that the first picture is actually of some wilting flowers. Not puddles, and not “puds.” (It won’t fit, no matter how hard you try to force it, so just go with it.)
We’ll have to chalk this up to a hipster artist, prowling the Lower East Side, finding beauty in the least obvious places. And then being too “ironic” to admit it, so it’s couched in mystery. (Or enigma, if you will.)
When I picked the book up a third time, I grabbed it upside down. I noticed that the cover could also be read as “pnd”. Does that mean anything to you?
Bottom Line: Really beautiful photos of ugly and/or random stuff
We talk to strangers all the time, on the Internet. Twitter makes it so easy. Just add someone’s handle to the beginning of a short missive, and they’ll probably read what you have to say. What could be more impersonal?
When I got back, I saw that my notifications had blown up. He’d chosen my question as a launching point to explain his motivations. He sent six or seven tweets my way, deconstructing my inquiry in a very methodical manner. And hundreds of people had RT’d the info around the globe.
I felt bad for having started the chat, but not been around to reply. So I apologized to Mr. Coates, and then dropped him another note. Both tweets were summarily ignored, and I was neither surprised by that, nor offended.
He doesn’t know me. We’ve never met or spoken. Despite the fact that he used my handle repeatedly in his replies, it was little more than a Socratic technique. I was a stand-in for the many people out there who yearned to know more about what drove him to engage so deeply in the journalistic practice.
I was not a real person in this situation, any more than he was a real person to me. I typed a few letters, pressed send, and then my thoughts went out into the ether, where they were received as information. The words were disembodied; a process to which we have all become so accustomed in these last five years.
Our ability to “reach” people we don’t know has never been greater. I still remember the shock I felt the first time I got an email from “Barack Obama” in 2007. (Chicago again.) It seemed like magic. Now, I don’t even click on the spam he sends me. I’m under no illusions anymore.
At best, no matter how many “friends” or “followers” you might have, you can’t possibly have real relationships with more than a hundred people. Even that is a stretch. Which means that 99.9999999999% of humanity will always be strangers to you. People with parents you’ll never meet, boobs you’ll never see, stories you’ll never hear.
And that makes them fascinating. We may know that most humans have much in common with the herd, but unfamiliarity is its own kind of exoticism. Which is why I was so impressed with Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” exhibition when I saw it at Aperture, in New York, this past April.
For a guy who writes about photography on a weekly basis, there’s surprisingly little I see that embeds deeply in my brain. I’m the type of artist more likely to be influenced by cinema, painting, sculpture, or fiction. Photography doesn’t boil my blood as much as you might think.
But this project was mindblowing. It was the perfect metaphor for the medium writ large. We accept the nature of the rectangle or square. It is the biggest part of what makes a photo; that delineation between what is included or excluded. We accept that there is a world surrounding the border, but we choose not to care, for a brief moment.
As the exhibition has since closed, we’re lucky to be able to view it in book form, also called “Touching Strangers,” also available via Aperture. (The publisher’s name is itself a reminder that the camera is inherently limiting, in its access to light.)
Mr. Renaldi spent years combing the bus stations, laundromats, public spaces, and fancy museums of America, casting regular folks to be his models. Once the text, (and a video in the exhibition) allows us access to the process, a world of wonder floods into our consciousness. We imagine him out there, wrangling people, making small talk, offering compliments about a woman’s hair, or a young man’s bandana.
Yet it all happens offstage.
It puts me in mind of the story Reid Callanan told in our recent interview, how a photographer can approach a random person with odd questions, but, minus the image-making apparatus, the same interlocutor becomes a nuisance, one step short of an assailant.
It’s hard to believe these subjects never met until Mr. Renaldi intervened. The pictures feel so natural, which is a testament to his skill. They’re uniformly excellent, and seeing so many together allows those subtle differences to emerge. Who was reluctant? Who held back? Who cast a curtain across his eyes, to make sure we couldn’t steal his soul?
Which people had chemistry? Who opened up, blossoming into a faux-model for just a moment? Which of those Vegasites with beer cans was totally drunk? How close to death was the bald-headed cancer patient?
Did the Orthodox Jew and the African-American in Brooklyn each realize the other had a guarded look? Did they know the artist must have been thinking of the Crown Heights riots, back in the day? If they knew, did they care? Did their moment of contact create an opportunity for the suppression of prejudice?
I had so many questions, none of which I tweeted to Richard Renaldi. In his beautifully-written end note, he shares his own story, growing up in the segregated city of Chicago. Apparently, he ventured out into forbidden territory as a youth, in search of trysts with strange men.
He became intimate, we can only imagine, in ways far beyond what he’s asked of the people in this book. But the courage and confidence he developed, while fortunately not being kidnapped and killed, enabled this project to coalesce decades later. Thankfully. Because this book reminded me of why some of my colleagues, like the indomitable Jörg Colberg, still find photography fascinating on a daily basis.
Bottom Line: Remarkable project, great exhibition, wonderful book
Jonathan Blaustein: You used to be a stand up comedian?
Susan Burnstine: I worked in the entertainment business for many years, in many aspects. I started playing with stand-up comedy after. I was out there 8 years or so. Can’t say I was that great.
JB: (laughing) You weren’t funny?
SB: I was funny. I just wasn’t funny enough.
JB: (laughing) OK. I like that.
SB: Because you have to be contained in this 30 minute slot. I’m not very contained. I did stand-up comedy in college, and then I started working for Castle Rock, and a lot of different entertainment companies.
I happened to fall on to these sitcoms with a lot of famous comics, and one of them put me up on stage at the Comedy Store, and it went that way for a little while.
JB: So in what capacity were you working for the studios?
SB: Everything. Mostly development. I was behind the scenes, and didn’t do much that was exciting. I did write for years, but I never had any notable successes. So it’s nothing to talk about. I honestly hate talking about my entertainment past, so apologies.
JB: Why do you hate talking about it?
SB: It’s a past that I buried, and I truly don’t relate to it anymore.
JB: I feel that way. Don’t you think a lot of creative-types have phases in their lives? Or snake-skin-shedding periods where we were different people and then we change? I think that’s very common, and not embarrassing.
SB: Certainly. It also brought me to where I am now, because the cinematography and my writing are both a big part of how I create my images. I see very cinematically.
Learning to write screenplays, and having that background, really did give me the fundamentals.
JB: Let’s back up just a hair. You’ve been making and exhibiting your photography for quite some time. Can we put a rough figure on that? How long have you been engaging in the world of galleries, exhibitions, and publications?
SB: I’ve been making my own cameras since 2005, and by 2007 I ended up in my first gallery, thanks to Dave Anderson.
JB: Shout out.
SB: Shout out. Absolutely. He’s the best. I was in Photo LA just walking around. I was a nobody, enamored by everything that was on the walls.
I had been communicating with Dave via email, because I was such a fan of “Rough Beauty.” He’s such a nice guy. I saw him walk by with Alec Soth. Now, I live in Hollywood, and am around famous people all the time. It doesn’t affect me whatsoever.
But I saw Dave Anderson walk by, and I said, “OH MY GOD.” I was totally star-struck, and started screaming, “You’re my favorite photographer.” I made a total ass of myself.
JB: In front of Alec Soth.
SB: Yes, this is the funny part. I’m sorry to Alec Soth, because I have a great respect for him, but I was screaming, “Oh my God, Dave Anderson.” He was so excited that someone recognized him, much less next to Alec Soth he said, “Wait, I want to look at your work.”
So I brought him back to my car, he looked at my portfolio…
JB: In your car?
SB: In the trunk of my car.
JB: You had a portfolio review, impromptu, in the trunk of your car? That is the origin story to your art career?
SB: It is.
JB: Oh my God. I’m not even saying OMG. That’s a straight up Oh my God.
Listen up people. There’s the lesson right there. You gotta hustle. We don’t say this stuff for our own edification. You gotta shake and bake.
SB: It’s true. But I wasn’t planning it. I’m not a hustler. Something told me, “Put your portfolio in the car today.” So I did. And Dave went crazy, and snuck it back into Photo LA, which you’re not supposed to do. He brought it to one of his galleries, she looked at it, and in 2 seconds, I was signed.
End of story.
JB: OK, I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. Because I’ve never heard that before. There are a lot of people out there waiting for something like that to happen to them, and I tend to think those things don’t happen, ever. And that pinning one’s hopes on random discovery is not a particularly viable strategy.
You’re now telling us, “You never know.”
SB: You never know. You never know. That’s how I got discovered. That gallery sold me like crazy for a few years, and more galleries came, and that was it.
JB: Let’s talk about the work itself. You made mention that you build your own cameras. But the cameras you build are not super-hi-tech machines. They’re made out of plastic and tape?
SB: Yes. They’re total pieces of crap. They fall apart. I have to carry tape and Ducco cement with me whenever I go out.
JB: What is the allure of such a process?
SB: The allure is tied to the conceptual reason of why I began this. I didn’t just say, “Oh, I want to make my own camera.” That would have been insane. There had to be a fundamental reason why.
The why is because I was looking for a way to re-create my unconscious world. I suffer from night terrors. Do you know what that is?
JB: Not really.
SB: Mine started at 4 years old, after a severe trauma. What they are, basically, are severe nightmares that you cannot wake up from. You just can’t. And they’re detrimental to your waking and unconscious life.
My Mom was very smart. She was artistic, and a musician, and she decided to help me try to work out these night terrors by drawing and painting the dreams I had from the night before.
The process really worked, so she used that through-out my childhood. They came back in my 30’s, when she was tragically killed.
JB: I’m sorry to hear that.
SB: I decided to work out the effects of the night terrors by photographing my dreams and nightmares, because photography was my main source of creativity at that point. I tried every single camera known to man-kind. You name it, I tried it.
Nothing looked like what I was trying to communicate. My Dad was an engineer and inventor early in his lifetime. He would always build things in the house that were absolutely crazy. When I took my problem to him, he said, “Why don’t you just make your own cameras?”
I’d been working with toy cameras, and realized how they were fundamentally made. Very simplistic creations. So I decided, why don’t I take some time to take them apart and rebuild them. Teach myself how to create a camera.
That’s what I did. Then, I created my own lens, and it all came together in 2005. I did this one test shot of my dog’s nose entitled “Blue’s Nose”, and realized, “That’s what I’m going for. That really looks like my unconscious world.”
That’s how it all began.
JB: That’s amazing. I don’t profess to have begun this process of becoming a journalist with any intent, or any skill. I still bristle at using the word to describe myself. But if I were any good at the job, I would not have missed the two opportunities you brought up to discuss some heavy stuff.
You just told me you had a major tragedy at 4, and then your Mother was tragically killed. There’s a part of me that likes to pretend I don’t hear these things, but then I feel like I’m not really doing my job if I ignore openings for serious discussion.
Let me put that to you in the form of a question. Are you interested or comfortable discussing either of those things
that you mentioned? Or would you rather we just keep going?
SB: (long pause.) I can kind of talk about it. (pause.) I don’t like to talk publicly about what began these dreams. Because it’s pretty shocking. It’s probably not for public consumption.
JB: Like I said, we can move on.
SB: But my Mom… it happens whenever anyone dies. That’s when my night terrors are created again. There’s no telling when they’ll stop. I’m in a real bad phase right now, where they’re coming almost every night. It’s crazy.
JB: I’m very sorry to hear that. On behalf of the readers, we offer you our empathy. Given that I already busted your chops before I turned on the recorder about the very dark and serious look on your face when we began…I think I have my answer about where that was coming from.
My apologies for any insensitivity to your plight. With my obnoxious jokery.
SB: Don’t be silly.
JB: I’ll consider that apology accepted. Listen, the pictures are dreamy. I can’t imagine looking at them, and not using that word. They’re blurry and soft-focus. But they’re also very, very beautiful. Skylines, skyscrapers, the Santa Monica pier. Dynamic and epic subject matter, rendered beautifully. Exquisitely attractive.
SB: Thank you.
JB: But we’re talking about a root cause that is the opposite of beautiful.
SB: You’re touching on an interesting subject that I had a conversation about last week. How come they end up beautiful, and not ugly?
JB: Maybe not ugly. But they don’t feel conflicted. I teach at-risk youth, and I always talk about the idea of using the artistic process to take negative psychic energy and channel it into something positive.
The channeling itself is positive, but oftentimes, the end product might not be. How does that work for you? Is it intentional, to have the pictures be lovely? I’m not saying you need to be Joel-Peter Witkin, but to me as a viewer, they’re 180 degrees from dark and scary.
SB: There’s a reason for that. When my Mom started this process, when I was 4 years old, she actually told me to re-interpret them in a positive way, so that I’m actually re-writing my unconscious existence. And it worked.
It somehow patterns my brain to think more positive than negative. Ultimately, this kind of process helps me stop the night terrors. I’m re-creating my world in a more positive way.
JB: Is it important to you that the viewer of your photographs is privy to your process? If so, how do you go about communicating that additional information?
SB: It does not matter to me, because I honestly didn’t get into this for any other reason. I started creating these images for myself. It’s my own psychological process to purge what’s going on inside of me and create art.
I didn’t plan to be in the fine art world. I didn’t even know what fine art was, until it sort of fell in my lap. So it’s not that important until people start asking me questions, and that always happens.
“Why do you create cameras? Why are you creating this image?” You have to be honest with your viewers. It comes from a serious spot. I could say, “Oh, I like to make blurry pictures.” But then I’m not honoring what I’m really doing.
Once the conversation starts, I have to be frank about where it’s coming from. But it doesn’t matter to me if you just buy it because you think it’s pretty. I don’t care.
If it means something to you, and you want to put it on the wall, if it brings something to your life, that’s great.
JB: Understood. Wow. I rarely get uncomfortable in these interviews. I like making people uncomfortable.
SB: I’m honored. I made you uncomfortable.
JB: I get the video experience via Skype, but the readers don’t. Your turmoil is flashing across your eyes on a semi-regular basis. I’m responding to what I’m seeing, as well as what I’m hearing. And other people don’t have that luxury.
Thank you for sharing this with our audience. I’m always on a soap box. My readers know this. I practically live on my high horse, telling everybody else what to do.
The reason why I do this is because I was a very unlikely candidate to become an artist myself. This process, over the last 17 years, has enriched my life in every way I can think of. And helped me grapple with my own demons, such as they are. Thankfully, and admittedly, they don’t derive from any hard-core trauma.
Even though I try to enliven the writing with humor, I’m very serious about why art helps a lot of people. We build a super-structure over the process: buying and selling, talking and promoting.
Oftentimes, we confuse the value of the super-structure with the value of the process. I feel like you have very cleanly explained to people the way it’s supposed to work. And then dangled this carrot out there, that even random people can be discovered. Which is a myth I try to quash, but there you go.
We’re telling it like it is today. Are we not?
SB: We’re trying.
JB: Fast-forward again, and you’re doing very well. You’re represented in a slew of galleries, show a lot, and just took home an award last week from the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Best in the reviews, is that right?
SB: Yup. That was a shocker.
JB: Well, you also had that happen once at PhotoNOLA, so I’m not sure if it was an actual shocker.
SB: Wow. You do your research.
JB: No, I just have a really good memory. Where are we headed here? We’re headed to teaching.
We’ve talked about why and how you do what you do. And what the pictures look like. But teaching is an entirely different beast. One need not be a great artist to be a great teacher, because the skill sets don’t always overlap.
SB: “Visual Narratives” is about communicating your own personal narrative, visually. Digging deep inside of yourself, and being able to identify a consistent thread that is within all your images. And be able to create a body of work.
I have a unique way of teaching that’s very psychological. Most of my students think they went to the shrink’s. They call me “The Psychiatrist.”
It’s a very interesting class. I love it. It digs deep into each person’s personal world, and teaches them how to bring back their unique qualities: what they’ve experienced, what they’re passionate about, and put it into a visual element.
JB: Does that presuppose that everyone is interesting?
SB: I think everyone IS interesting. I suppose there’s someone really boring out there, but I haven’t met them yet.
JB: You’re talking about a framework through which you approach strangers, basically. And a set of assumptions you bring to the table to then teach those strangers. What types of questions do you ask people to get them to share private, secret, interior information?
SB: I have a way of working where I ask stream-of-consciousness questions, and you have just a few seconds to write down the answers. By looking at all the answers together, in a group context, we’re able to put a map together of what makes that person tick. And what they’re really trying to say, whether they know it or not.
Questions that seem vague and unimportant, but they’re very specific, once you put the map together.
JB: What happens if someone comes to your workshop with perfectly anodyne and average pictures of flowers and birds? The most typical and uninteresting set of pictures you might imagine.
SB: (pause) You have to ask them about what is really inspiring them, and why is it flowers, or bees, or whatever it is they’re taking pictures of. And what is it that they want to do with that? I always look at the person’s aspirations for the image, and where they want to get to, compared to where they are with their image making today. Because if I succeed, tomorrow they will start the process of making images they aspire to create. And as a teacher, there’s nothing more rewarding to witness than growth in your students.
For instance, I was always inspired by Impressionists, my entire childhood. Somehow, that informed where I went. My work is Pictorialist based, but I didn’t know what a “Pictorialist” photograph was until maybe 10-15 years ago. But I did know what Impressionism was, and was inspired by the images.
The Impressionists informed my work, and what I was trying to say, so I ask people, “What type of art form are you inspired by, and what really gets you going?” To me, that’s a vital clue about where a photographer aspires to achieve with their work. Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. It was a slightly rude question, but you answered it positively. It’s not easy to get people to open up, and then you have to build trust within the group. Group dynamics, and making sure your pupils respect and trust each other, is important as well. The environment they’re in, and whether they feel secure or insecure in the group, will also determine how far people get in a short span of time. Would you agree?
SB: Yes. I think this is where the stand-up comedy comes into play. (laughing.) I just love people, and I love making them laugh. I love having a true conversation with someone, and digging in to what’s important.
That’s what my classes are about. I don’t accept a vague answer. I really keep digging at people.
I’m from the Mid-West. I talk to everybody.
JB: Well, according to that philosophy, I let you off the hook earlier in the interview. I didn’t keep digging until you broke.
SB: That’s different. I’m not paying $1200 to get to the next level.
JB: (laughing) Touché. We’re talking about inspiration. Outside of the New Yorkers, you Angelenos probably have access to the best art in the US. Or maybe the Chicago girl in you would quibble? (pause) Oh my goodness. I read it in your eyes. Honestly, people, she did not say anything. I did not edit this part at all. I read it in her eyes. She may live in LA, but she was like, “Aw, hell no.”
JB: There it is. Chicago. Hot dogs, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Never leaves your blood.
JB: Pizza. Let’s not go there. You guys use more cheese, the New Yorkers have crispier crust. Truce.
Where I was headed was, where do you like to go look at work in LA? How do you keep yourself juiced up, with all that great art at your fingertips?
SB: It’s funny, but it’s mostly when I’m traveling. I hate to say it. That’s when I have time to go to the museums. I always hit up MoMA and the Met and everything, when I’m in New York.
Who has time when you’re actually here? It’s sad to say, but I’ll go to the Getty and LACMA, when I can. I get a lot of juice going to gallery shows. Artists that I wouldn’t have a chance to see.
I recently saw a great show over at Kopeikin Gallery that was really inspiring. Kevin Cooley. Do you know him?
JB: I saw his videos at MOPA in San Diego. Dynamite.
SB: Unbelievably inspiring show. There’s always a great show going on in the galleries here in LA.
JB: You use the galleries more than the museums?
SB: I think so. When I go to a museum, I get lost. It’s a commitment. I only allow myself that time when I’m out of town, not when I’m here.
You’re catching me at a bad time. It’s been an emotional couple of weeks, so my mojo is low, like a cheapskate’s gas tank. On top of that, I’m out of books again. So this is one of those columns where I’ve had to sift back through the rejects and find something interesting to say.
In the past, I’ve found these queries can lead to deep thoughts. Why is this book worth writing about now, when I felt otherwise the first two times I leafed through the pages? Maybe it’s not.
But each time I’ve done this, (seemingly always in summer,) I find that challenging my own notions has been a worthwhile endeavor. Why do we make judgements so quickly? How am I to maintain my position as your proxy, if I don’t push myself to reevaluate my own perspective?
In this case, the book in question is “The Return,” by Adrian Chesser, in collaboration with Timothy White Eagle. (Daylight) According to the end notes, a lot of VIP’s supported the production, so who am I to quibble with their taste?
My problem is that the photos look like Lucas Foglia and Mike Brodie’s pictures had explicit sex, and then 9 months later, Adrian Chesser’s images popped out. As there are many hippies involved, I’m sure someone ate the placenta.
But I’ve definitely learned it’s not fair to penalize an artist just because others are mining similar turf.
This book chronicles a set of lost-ish, lower-class, Caucasian wanderers who returned to living off the land in the mountains of Utah. (Like early hunter-gathering Native Americans.) We know the locale, as one photo shows a middle-aged woman reading the Deseret Times at Burger King. Apparently, says the book, even super-duper-hardcore-subcultures still have difficulty eschewing ALL the trappings of modernity.
These pictures are compelling: with many a dead animal used as trap bait or tree adornment. Even my beloved eagles have been harmed in the making of this new world, which is based so ironically upon the ashes of a cross-Continental society that these folks’ ancestors razed to take America.
I don’t doubt the artist’s fascination with his subjects; nor do I doubt you’ll find the jpegs below worth clicking through. Rather, I wonder why I can’t empathize with their plight? Am I too cocooned in my bourgeois existence to fathom feeling so disaffected by the 21st Century that I’d consider eating mice and sleeping in a teepee, forever?
Perhaps I am. But photographs are tricky beasts. They creep into our minds when we’re not looking.
I live in a place where if I drove 15 minutes, I could hang out with actual Native Americans, who still hunt Elk in their own protected mountains, and most definitely eat at McDonalds. Were I to drive 20 minutes further, I could dodge the rifle cracks that ring out on “the Mesa”; Taos’ own community of wingnut dropouts and water witches. They live with little, and I’m not sure they eat at Burger King.
What’s my point? Humans have found every way to live we can imagine. One woman’s abaya is another woman’s tattooed bare chest. (Boobs Sell Books℠) One man’s obsession with Lebron James is another’s love for Vladimir Putin. Honestly, who am I to judge?
Bottom Line: A window into a genuinely strange sub-culture
My wife got me hooked on nature shows. Or, I should say, the “Nature” show on PBS. Is anything more predictable than a liberal artist extolling the virtues of Public Television?
I doubt it.
The other night, we were watching the episode about swarm behavior in the animal kingdom. Birds, fish, and mostly insects. They somehow develop a communication style that allows them to move in tandem. Thousands, Millions, Billions, or even Trillions at a time.
In all my years, it was one of the strangest things I’ve seen. Especially the segments on locusts and cicadas. My wife turned to me and said, “Who needs aliens when you’ve got those bastards cruising around the planet?” (Or something to that effect.)
In fairness, it’s a sentiment she’s said before. Some creatures are so shocking to behold that one wonders how anything Extra-Terrestrial could possibly compete. Watching those cicadas hatch, after spending 17 years beneath the Earth, is something I won’t soon forget. (Nor when they shed their hardened bodies for fresh new ones. OMFG.)
They looked so much like the creature in Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” he must have been thinking about freaky cicadas when he designed his vile monster. I’m certain.
It made me think of the “thought experiment” in which we imagine what a real Alien might think of our world. Would a car seem more valuable than a bowl of noodles? Would she/he be able to smell farts, flowers, or fabric softener? Would it wear clothes that need washing, or contain sexual organs that require satisfaction?
All these questions came to mind when I looked at “Light of Other Days,” a new soft-cover book by Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs. (Published by Kodoji Press.) I’ll be honest with you: the pictures in the book don’t make much sense on their own. It might give you a headache trying to sort it all out.
The photos are exclusively black and white, and appear to have been made in a studio. (Which the end notes confirm.) It opens with a couple of images that suggest galaxies, or celestial bodies light years away.
But then, it moves away from blatant space-type-references. Sculptures that appear to have been mashed together by an angry and confused deity. People with fingers for torso-bottoms. Furry lightbulbs. Hollowed-out books and drills spinning ’til Infinity. Like I said, weird shit.
The entire time I perused, I kept thinking everything looked like an Alien. It was communicated to me via the hive-mind, as none of the photographs, beyond 1 and 2, were explicit in their references.
After the photos, I began to read the closing story, “The Eighteenth Voyage,” by Stanislav Lem, translated from Polish. Of course, it was narrated by a scientist who claimed he had created the Universe. Literally.
I chuckled, impressed these ideas appeared in my mind before the words confirmed it. Like the Army ants in that PBS doc, who efficiently decapitated a giant praying mantis by working together, these artists had collectively gotten inside my head.
As I said in the article about Francis Alÿs, sometimes art can burrow beneath the surface, subvert the consciousness, and implant ideas below. That happened here.
I never know which of these books you’ll want to buy. Hell, I don’t even know who “you” are. But I’ll keep writing about things I find interesting, or fascinating, or downright bizarre. And, hopefully, we’ll all learn a thing or two along the way.
Bottom Line: This is one, trippy-ass, inter-stellar photobook
My son graduated from Kindergarten this morning. It was quite the big deal. Lots of parents in attendance, lining the gymnasium bleachers like beakers in a chemistry class. Fun stuff.
There was five-song-medley that went on for ages. Or at least it seemed to, as we tried to keep our young daughter from shrieking at any moment. It’s fun for her, the screaming, and she does it with a smile.
Where was I? Losing focus today, as end of school year always finds my fried family worn down like a #2 pencil. Right. The graduation medley.
Each child sang and danced. Hips twisted. Caps and gowns swayed in the fresh mountain air. They opened with “First Grade, First Grade,” (to the tune of “New York, New York,”) segued through the Spanish numbers, and closed with “Happy” by Pharrell F_cking Williams. Had he been in attendance, I would have been “Happy” to beat him to death with that stupid oversized hat he insists on wearing.
All those 6 year olds, in matching outfits, doing identical choreography. At one point, my mother pointed to young Abigail and said, “Look at her go.” She’d found the one girl with that extra little rhythm. The one who could actually dance.
I began to pay more attention to the children in my vicinity. The moves were the same, yet ever-so-not. Differences were easy to see, once I was paying attention. Kind of like that story in the New Yorker the other week, that talked about how the road from Moscow to Lviv is lined with villages. Each can always speak to their neighbor town. But by the time you get to the end of the line, Russian and Ukrainian have diverged to two completely different languages.
Those dancing little New Mexicans came to mind immediately after putting down “Preganziol 1983,” a new oversized hardcover book by Guido Guidi, recently published by MACK. It’s like a Highlights magazine in a 1980’s dentist office. (Which one of these is not like the other…)
Open up and you see a black and white photo of a room with some pencil-written words. Then the same room in color. A well-worn space with an open window looking out across some trees. And a shadow on the wall, with a tree in it. It’s labeled A1.
Turn the page, and the image appears the same. Turn the page again and the image appears the same. Again. Turn the page again and the image appears the same. Again. Turn the page again and you wonder, what the hell is going on here?
Is it the color? Has there been a super-subtle shift in hue? No, that’s not right. Turn the page again, and you definitely notice the shadow has moved. Turn back to what came before, and sure enough, the shadow moves slightly each time.
Keep going, and you actually get to enjoy the minimal changes. At the end, we see a different view of a room, and intuitively know it’s another direction in the same space. The next two photos confirm, the final two directions, rounding out the book and the concept. B, C, & D.
Finally. A16. Room with no shadow.
(Take another look at the cover, and you see a sketch of a four-sided room, with A, B, C & D corresponding to walls in space.)
To be fair, I haven’t photographed the entire book. Seems crude to the artist to give it all away. Honestly, the whole thing might be too repetitive for you to splash the cash. Such a small little idea.
Or is it? Taking the time to notice how time and light are constantly shifting reality, even if we’re too dim or busy to notice.
The rainfall was relentless, like a Kenyan endurance runner. The windshield wipers were working hard, and I hoped my friend’s brakes were new. (I also hoped he wasn’t impaired by the two huge whiskeys I watched him down at the Irish bar we just left.)
Only in New York City can it take so much bloody time to go from one village to the next. (In this case, West to East.) I was late, so I was a bit anxious. The whole plan was my idea, and now I was the one mucking it up.
We were en route to Cooper Union, where I was to meet up with my photo buddies Richard and Jaime. Two more intelligent, menschy guys, you’d never expect to meet. As soon as we arrived, I skidded out of the Honda Pilot and dashed across the street. (Only to realize I was in the right spot a moment earlier. Look before you leap into traffic, I always say.)
Our destination was a lecture by the super-duper Art Star Francis Alÿs, who’s from Belgium but based in Mexico City. (Just because someone is super-famous in the Art World doesn’t mean you’ve heard of him.) As I’ve said before, your lowest-IQ Reality TV Star would likely have a larger Twitter following.
But I had heard of him, and had seen a few of his videos online. The Lord only knows how much he charges for his limited edition pieces, repped by David Zwirner and shown at MoMA, but it’s all online for free.
Think about that. In an Art World replete with private vaults, this dude puts it out there for all of us. I’d seen a video where he’s accosted by neighborhood dogs in rural Mexico, one where he set a fox loose in a Museum at night, and the renown piece where he dragged a block of ice behind him until it melted to nothing. He also dashed into a dust-storm/mini-tornado in the name of art.
As I mentioned previously, though, I mucked up the plan. I told Richard it started 30 minutes after it did, so he waited in the lobby for me while it all got started. Jaime, not privy to that round of texting, got a good seat right in center.
Richard and I? We had to sit on the cold concrete floor, with obstructed views, dripping our rain-soak all over ourselves. It was murder on our posteriors, so time was never going to be unlimited. 20 minutes max. Fortunately, we got lucky.
The talk was so casual, the searching for digital video files on his laptop so comical, I couldn’t believe this guy was as important as he is. Very distracted-professor sort of vibe. But he did exude a niceness, it should be said.
Both pieces were made in Afghanistan. Much is being made these days of European artists making “art” about war zones. (i.e. Richard Mosse in the Congo.) Personally, I think it’s great when artists try to make content out of genuinely important subjects. Or in dangerous places.
But Art, at it’s core, is about transformation. And news is about documentation. No one has written more about the 21st Century blurred lines than I have, but I’ve begun to contemplate the differences between the now-morphed traditions.
The video is cheeky and fun. Thoughtful for sure. But it’s a document of something that was already happening. It’s first level reproduction. I see something. I capture it. It is depicted.
From that, Mr. Alÿs said, he imagined “Reel-Unreel.” It is longer, and I saw only an excerpt. But I practically stopped breathing. You’re in Kabul. It feels like you’re there with the camerawork. Some screen text says that when the Taliban took over, they tried to eradicate the films in the National Archive. Burn them.
Some people fooled them into thinking they got the master sets, but those had been moved. (That text is at the end of the video we’re showing.) So the boys in the “created” video roll a cinema reel through the dirt streets. You can almost smell the truck exhaust. Eventually, one of the reels falls over a cliff.
I forgot about my soggy pants, and uncomfortable ass. I was transported somewhere else. It was a captivating couple of minutes. And that’s why I’m writing about it a month later.
Great art distills. It catalyzes one idea into another through symbolism and craftsmanship. It’s not direct, like documentation. That’s a strength, I think, when it’s done right. Our subconscious speaks in symbols through our dreams. Art, therefore, can circumvent the intellect.
It’s why I love it so much, especially the best of it.
To be clear, it’s not impossible for documentary work to do that. Just much harder. Literality is for lawyers, after all.
I play with clichés and stereotypes. Maybe I’m just lazy. Or maybe it’s the art training, which suggests that nothing can be completely denuded of meaning. (Even Robert Frank’s jukeboxes will seem fresh again. In 2057. When no one’s ever heard of a jukebox.)
One famous cliché is once you’ve been a teacher for a while, it’s good to go back to being a student. I’ve been teaching for nearly a decade, so I thought it was time to flip the script late last year.
I’m also one of the only Americans with an ounce of intellectual street cred who’d admit the following: I watched every Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme movie made over a 5 year period, in my youth.
I always wanted to learn martial arts, but never had the stones or follow-through to do it. Now, I’m happy to report, I’m 4 months into studying Kung Fu and Tai Chi, and there’s no quitting in sight. (Knock wood.)
I absolutely love it. You might too. It’s brilliant for self-defense, physical activity, mental strength, stress release, discipline, and reduction of the ego. (I might need some help on that last one.)
Observing animals in their element is like peeking behind Oz’s curtain.
Just two days ago, I watched a pair of ravens dive-bombing a golden eagle in my backyard. It was a masterclass in calm cool as the eagle, bigger, stronger & faster than the blackbirds, barely flinched as the ravens went by. He was a model of energy efficiency, moving as little as possible, and only when necessary.
His adversaries hurtled past harmlessly, like a bad joke.
We have a couple of golden eagles that live in our valley all winter and spring. They come when the leaves drop, and leave when they pop again. (Turkey vultures rule the skies while the raptors summer elsewhere.) Learning from those two birds has been one of the joys of my time in New Mexico.
I don’t photograph the eagles, though. It feels unseemly. Fortunately, Manabu Miyazaki does. Of course the man to photograph eagles, hawks, owls, and mammals of the night would be Japanese. And yes, there’s an obligatory snow monkey picture or two inside his new book, “Manabu Miyazaki: The Pencil of Nature.” (IZU Photo Museum)
The night photos, made with special rigs, are a bit magical, and show me things I’ve never seen before. As promised, those credentials will get your book reviewed every time. This stuff is fascinating.
We see a bear messing with a camera. An albino badger. A fox looking pleased with itself. And a gorgeous white bunny stunned by the strobe like a deer caught in the headlights. (What? You thought I wouldn’t go long on clichés in the cliché column? Silly rabbit.)
There’s a photo of a jumping field mouse that proves how those little bastards get into my engine block and shit all over my Hyundai. There’s also a deer decomposition sequence that fits so well with the William Christenberry book we just showed that you’d have to believe I planned it. (Unless you live in Taos, and can blame it on Interbeing.)
I recently heard that other Miyazaki, the one who makes the amazing children’s Anime films, may be retiring. Too bad. That dude churns out genius art like the grumpy guy made the donuts. (Try Ponyo.)
The photographer, Miyazaki, could probably go on shooting forever. Hanging out with the critters in the woods. Whispering to the trees. Learning the hidden secrets of Nature.
Bottom Line: Amazing book of nature photos from Japan