My name is Jonathan Blaustein, and I’m an artist and writer based in Taos, NM. I write a weekly photo book review column that’s published right here each Friday, on A Photo Editor.
We’ve never met or spoken, but you might recognize my name. That’s because I’m the a-hole who attacked you earlier this year, right here, on A Photo Editor. (You might have heard something about it.)
I made an example of a book you’d made, presenting it as evidence of the remarkable vapidity of much of contemporary photography. I’m here, many months later, to apologize. It was poor form to suggest your intellectual curiosity was less impressive than your friend list.
I often use this column as a place to sharpen the many axes I choose to grind, and you were the unwitting victim. I hope you accept my apology, because, as my regular readers know, sometimes I just can’t help myself. The taste for controversy is rarely sated gracefully.
For the rest of you, this letter is meant to serve as a reminder, yet again, that we need to keep our minds open. Just because you feel something strongly doesn’t mean it’s true. We’re at the end of 2013, and it’s a good time to make amends, apologize to those you’ve wronged, and clear your head for the New Year.
As a way of proving my positive intentions, let’s take a quick look at “Notes from the Foundry,” a new soft-cover book recently published by Spaces Corners in Pittsburgh, PA. (And edited by… you guessed it… Melissa Catanese, along with the equally-well-connected Ed Panar.)
It’s a strange book, given its inviting Tiffany-esque color palette. Open it up, and you’re met with a postcard insert informing you the publication is a compilation of work by several photographers, including luminaries Zoe Strauss and Todd Hido. (The latter of whom apparently inspired Spike Jonze’s new film, “Her,” if we’re to believe what we read on the Internet.)
Back to the book. That small bit of text on the insert is all we have to go on. Then it’s page after page of photographs, totally unlabeled. No titles, no sections, no essays. Nothing.
I recognized one image by Andrew Moore that I’d seen so many times before, and then the Todd Hido pictures at the end were easy to spot as well. But the rest of it was a bit opaque; a mashup of images by people like Daniel Shea, Nicholas Gottlund and Gregory Halpern. In fact, I had to look through the book a couple of times before discovering the text on the backflap that gives order to the artists’ work.
But what about the photos? Don’t they matter too? Or is this just an absurd attempt to hoover up some of the slime I hurled in Ms. Catanese’s direction earlier this year?
The pictures are so different from one another, it’s hard to say the book is about anything. Unless it’s Pennsylvania. Or Northern Appalachia. Maybe that’s it. The Eastern Mid-West. What would we call that?
The theme might not be super-tight, but the pictures are engaging and well-made, and in their variety, forced me to ask some good questions, as a viewer. What is photographable? Is everything?
Cameras are pointed in all directions, now, all the time. Are we really living in a world that co-exists, brick for brick, in the physical and digital realities simultaneously? If a tree falls on Google Earth, will you hear it through your new-Christmas-present-beats-by-Dre headphones? And if you do, does it even matter?
Sometimes, I find myself drawn to things other than photographs. Hunks of rock, paint on canvas, or a movie that makes me want to give it all up and hitchhike to Hollywood, with a bandanna dangling off a stick like some yokel from the Beverly Hillbillies.
Other times, though, while flipping through a book like this, I’m reminded that it’s insatiable curiosity that keeps us clicking the shutter. Curiosity at what a group of children might look like, in the silhouetted light of a highway overpass? Or why the acrid smoke rising from a chimney resembles a triumphant tornado? Or why some random pieces of plywood are taped together on a city sidewalk?
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Bottom Line: A cool compilation, perhaps about PA?
A couple of years ago, I noticed a pattern. I’d throw my back out every year, during the first week of December. Every. Freaking. Year.
I realized it was not a coincidence. A year is a natural cycle, and come December, we’ve all hit the wall. It’s been eleven months worth of work, drama, and all the other things that slowly sap our life-force. By now, we’re all feeling weak and wobbly. (But my back has held up this year…knock wood.)
With the New Year just ahead, we limp into the holidays. Little problems loom larger. We find ourselves distracted and worn down, like a football player in extra time. I’m here to give you the good news: it happens to everyone.
You are not alone.
Just the other night, for example, I bungled badly while answering the phone. We’d just put the kids to bed, after a very long day. I’d sat down a minute earlier, thrilled to finally be “off-duty” for the day.
Then the phone rang.
At that time of night, it’s almost always my mother-in-law. Almost always. So when I pressed the button, I had some clear expectations.
Instead, I was met by a strange voice. A solicitation call. “What do you think about same sex marriage rights,” asked the unnamed caller? In a flash, I was angry. Just leave me the f-ck alone, I thought, so I can watch some vapid television.
What I said was, “It’s none of your business what I think.” Then I hung up.
Thirty seconds later, I cringed. Not only was I impolite, but I realized there was a decent chance the call was made by an organization supporting same sex marriage. Oh shit. They might put me on the homophobic list. What if anyone found out?
I actually thought that. What if people suspected me, the super-liberal-art guy, of secretly hating gay people?
Yes, we’ve come a long way here in the US in a short span of time. “Will and Grace” might have seemed revolutionary ten years ago, but we have officially entered the Gay-Mainstream phase of American culture.
Barack Obama’s election obviously did not erase 200+ years of institutionalized racism. So I’m not here to suggest that homophobia has been conquered, only that it is no longer an acceptable position, in most of society. (Again, thank goodness.)
Because one only has to look back to “Hustlers,” the seminal photo series by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, for a reminder of how far we’ve come. It’s waiting for us, conveniently enough, in a new large-scale, hardcover, yellow book from Steidl.
This is one of those books where there’s only so much I can say. It’s a masterful project that has been revered, rightly, through the years. Now, you can own it, in an exceptionally well-made object. But it costs more than PLdC paid each of those lonely boys and men, back in the day. (To take their photo. Not for a quick hummer in the alley behind MickeyD’s.)
The photos are titled by the name of the subject, where he came from, and how much the artist paid to take the picture. But that last piece of info is not provided until the end. A viewer might guess that it was the amount the “sex worker” charged for some actual action. (The closing statement reveals that the two prices were meant to correlate. It also states that the project is a tribute to the artist’s brother, who died of AIDS. Not something I knew beforehand…)
It goes without saying that these hustlers were down on their luck; plying their trade on Santa Monica Boulevard, one penis at at time. The pay was poor back then, and I doubt it has kept up with inflation. They just grab the coin, and use it to buy some booze, or drugs, or maybe a date with a higher class sort of fellow.
The pictures are so excellent that at first, they do pass for “taken,” rather than “made.” Then you reach the page where the guy is draped ever-so-gently across the sidewalk, covered with a blanket. Even a guileless viewer, who knew nothing of the artist’s meticulous set-ups, might question that reality.
Throughout, while flipping, I would be temporarily floored by the lighting in a certain image. Or the interplay between bodies, when more than one subject was present. Truly fantastic photographs.
Now, we see them as artifacts of a time that seems ancient. But it’s not. Sometimes, culture moves so quickly that decades can seem like centuries. Do you really remember what it was like not to have a cell phone in your pocket? I don’t.
We’d like to think that with the battle for equal rights on the upswing, we’d turn our thoughts to immigration issues, or prison reform, or our antiquated drug laws. All of which do intersect with this book, as well.
But sometimes, on a bleak December day, it’s nice to remember why you feel so tired. (B/c it’s the end of the year. Remember?) And it’s also nice, occasionally, to be happy with the progress we’ve made. Such as it is.
Bottom Line: An instant classic. Get one if you can.
It’s Thursday afternoon, so this article is due in a few hours. The snow is falling rapidly outside my window, as winter has arrived in full force. To the East, the mountains are hidden behind a wall of moisture-laden clouds, which litter white gold upon our steep slopes.
Could there be a better time to close my eyes and imagine myself sunning by the über-SoCal-pool at the Lafayette hotel? It’s hard to believe it was almost a month ago that I visited the Medium Festival of Photography. Yes, people. Time flies.
But I’ve already discussed my experiences, in snippets, twice before. So I’d rather not rehash things. Let’s keep it fresh, like virgin flakes dropping from the sky. (By the way, I’m beginning to doubt the “fact” that no two snowflakes are alike. That seems statistically impossible. If anyone can verify that for me in the comment section, I’d be much obliged.)
Back to San Diego, though. I’ve promised to tell you why Medium was so successful, so here goes. I’ve been to several festivals over the last few years, and some of them have been genuinely excellent. (Cue the obligatory Review Santa Fe reference. No, I’m not on their payroll.) But Medium stood alone, for a few reasons.
Scott B. Davis, the founder and director, is rare in his skill set. He’s methodical and detail-oriented, but also warm, relaxed and grounded. He’s got the creativity of a successful artist, (which he is,) but also the clinical, keep-the-trains-running-on-time abilities of person who would be Director of Exhibitions at a museum. (Which he is.)
It’s unexpected to find one person who can wear both hats. As a result, Medium felt well-organized and put-together, but also managed to capture a slightly-improvisational, OMG you’re my new best friend vibe as well. I got into several conversations about photography that lasted for hours, which almost never happens.
And because the weather was great, cheap food was plentiful in the surrounding neighborhood, and the palm trees were always waving just outside the windows, most people were in a good mood. Relaxed, friendly people make for good company, and other people really are the foundation of a festival. (Hello, Captain Obvious.)
So aside from the negative interaction I mentioned two weeks ago, (which could, in fairness, be chalked up to a misunderstanding,) for five days, I was riding a cloud of positivity. It pushed me to open up, and constantly listen for new information. In fact, I even altered my lecture, at the end of the festival, to include things I’d learned in previous lectures by my fellow speakers.
Of course, I was primarily there to look at work during the Eye to Eye portfolio reviews. Surprisingly, most of the people who sat at my table were not looking for immediate gratification. (i.e., can you please publish my work in Lens and APE?) No, most of the photographers I met were looking for constructive criticism and feedback about how to improve. It was hard not to be impressed by their drive to better themselves as artists.
That said, I did see some work that I’d like to highlight here. The overall quality ranged dramatically, and some of what I’ll show here might not be your cup of tea. But I though it merited mention.
We’ll begin with an exception, though. The final lecture I attended, before heading to the airport with a car full of tired photo-peeps, was by Michael Lundgren. He’s an artist based in Arizona, shows at ClampArt, and has had a book published by Radius. So, to reiterate, Michael was not there to have his portfolio reviewed.
His lecture was the opposite of mine. It was relaxed and low-key; full of quotes and thought-provoking material that he read aloud. It was far more lyrical than I can expound upon in this brief space. He did lament the lack of critical writing about photography, though, so how could I not accept the challenge?
Michael’s current project, “Matter,” was shot in the desiccated desert, as is much of his work. Though some images from his earlier series, “Transfigurations,” managed to concurrently portray the Arizona desert as a distant planet, while also implying the Earth will get along just fine once all the humans are gone, “Matter” is more oblique.
It mashes up sci-fi references with environmentalism. (Which is a difficult mix, but the algae-marinated fox below hits the mark perfectly.) Before I saw him speak, a colleague described him as “profound.” I admit that a couple of paragraphs here, and a handful of jpegs, make it impossible to communicate that. In person, speaking for an hour, he did strike me that way. Michael embodied the artist as shaman, pushing one’s vision beyond the normal to bring back stories of “ecstatic time” to the rest of us. (There was no mention of peyote. To be clear.)
Now we’ll get on the photographers I reviewed.
First up is William Karl Valentine. His physical presence struck me right away, as he was a very big man, with a prominent cop mustache. His super-intense eyes said he could crush me in a bear hug, like a villain out of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. (Yes, I watched a lot of bad karate films in the 80’s. Who didn’t?)
Bill studied photography in the famed ASU program back in the 80’s, working with Bill Jenkins and Bill Jay. But his career took another route, and he ended up becoming a police officer in Southern California. (Chino, actually. Hence the cop stache.)
He made black and white photographs on ride-arounds before joining the force, then while in the Police Academy, and he shot some images while “on the job” as well. The dated feel brought me right back to the days when gringo kids like me were bopping our heads to NWA, singing aloud about this mysterious place, “Compton.” (Actually, I heard ‘Dre and Snoop in the car just yesterday, and couldn’t help belting out the chorus.)
Next up, we’ve got Amanda Dahlgren. She’s based in San Diego, and has spent the last few years making photographs that look at the remnants of the housing crisis. She was interviewed about her work by Kai Ryssdal on “Marketplace,” so she’s definitely given these issues some thought. Her current project, “Pre-Abandoned,” looks at homes under construction in the Master Planned communities that were so rapidly de-populated once the world went to hell.
Her premise is that these structures, not-yet-lived-in, will be abandoned in the near future. It’s a bleak outlook, but I found the photos to have a quiet dignity that the housing crisis so clearly lacked.
Pauline Gola showed me a set of photographs made under water, shot in black and white. As I’d met someone at PhotoNola last year with a similar process, I had to mention it during our critique. But the pictures themselves are very different. In her artist statement, she describes the photos as being, “liquid aberrations” which I thought was a very smart phrase.
Steven J Knapp had the work that probably surprised me the most. He’s also an Arizona resident, and told me he felt compelled to make the following images as a response to the Gabby Giffords shooting a couple of years ago. He felt rage and horror, and wanted to channel that into his art.
Granted, the following pictures have no actual visual connection to the tragedy. But the emotion comes through pretty clearly. They reminded me of angry gods from ancient Tibetan tapestries, but are in fact self-portraits made in Photo Booth, and then manipulated like mad in the computer.
Finally, we’ve got two pictures from Cy Kuckenbaker. He’s currently an artist-in-residence at MOPA, and has a background as a film-maker. Cy is interested in transitioning to stills, but also wants to figure out how to tell stories using stills, video, and text all together. (Get in line. That’s the holy grail of storytelling right now, isn’t it?)
While I’m normally loathe to publish someone’s unfinished work, Cy did show me two very cool pictures from a new project. It’s called “So Your Friends Will Really Know It’s You”, which is the prompt Facebook gives you when you create a new account to upload your profile photo. He’s made digital portrait masks of people, and then re-photographed them wearing versions of themselves on their face. One guy is a dead ringer for Vladimir Lenin, which is odd and cool at the same time. (We’ve got to have a Big Lebowski reference right here, don’t we? “Shut the Fuck up, Donny.”)
Cy then posts the pictures on Facebook, and titles the images based upon how many likes the picture receives. Love. It.
I imagine very few of you have actually read all the way to this point. If you have, well done. I’d like to give you a better conclusion, but I have to put another log on the fire. Hopefully, though, the above pictures will have properly warmed your heart. (Cheesiest. Conclusion. Ever.)
Welcome to my third annual Thanksgiving column. Once again, we celebrate our forefathers: the ones who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to take over a continent blessed with untold natural resources. Yes, we Americans eat turkey to honor a genocide.
As you know by now, I love this country. (Despite being aware of our blood-drenched creation mythology.) People throughout history have done bad things to one another. Once word got out that there was land for the taking, and trees for the felling, it was only a matter of time before shit got real.
Sure, we can be cynical, and dismiss the entire American experiment as one of rapacious greed. But what’s the fun in that? Isn’t it better to mock the Puritans for their lack of humor, obsession with witches, and fastidious yet spartan fashion sense?
Even today, their name is evoked as a pejorative term. Puritanical. We only thank them for founding our country once a year, because that’s about as much time as we can stand to think about their no-dancing-no-fun-having lifestyle.
Our Manifest-Destiny-ness is counterbalanced, of course, by the narrative of a nation of immigrants. We are a new society, and have proved a haven to those seeking a better life, though we rarely greet them with open arms. They come anyway, and many generations have been able to ensconce themselves, forging a safer future for their offspring. (Big ups to my now-dead-great-grandparents for making the move. Staying in Europe would have been very, very, bad for my bloodline.)
Ever since our Siberian ancestors, 15,000 years ago, Americans have been walking, swimming, sailing, floating, driving, and even riding bicycles to the land where the streets are paved with gold. This country is the perfect embodiment of the imperfection of the human condition. We do some things really well, and fail at least as often as we succeed. (Could Obama really not find anyone in the whole country who knew how to build a freaking website?)
No matter what changes in America, people continue to move here seeking a fresh start. Just like the auto mechanics and scrap metal traders at the heart of Jaime Permuth’s new book, “Yonkeros,” published by La Fabrica in Spain. (The country for whom the Italian, Cristoforo Colombo, forever altered the course of history by discovering Hispañola.)
The title refers to a nickname for those types of businesses, which are found on a small peninsula called Willets Point, in Queens, NYC. The place is charmless in a way that’s charming, and gritty in way that allows for the subtle observation of beauty. In other words, it’s the ideal place for a long-term photography project.
Mr. Permuth is himself an immigrant from Guatemala, and it’s not hard to see why he was drawn to the place. The inhabitants come mainly from Mexico and Central America, so we don’t have to wonder if their conversations were carried out in English. (Que tal? Me llamo Jaime. Soy fotografo. Podria tomar su foto, por favor? No, no soy immigracion. Es seguro.)
It’s a perfect symbol for America, and the contradictions we can never escape. We killed a bunch of people and took their land so that we could set up a country where are men are free. (But not the slaves, of course. Or the women.)
We have a big statue in the New York harbor that offers to accept the tired, poor, and huddled masses. Unless we build a huge fence at the border to keep them out. We don’t want to pass immigration laws, because if we don’t, it’s like the 11 million illegal immigrants don’t exist. Our laziness converts them into phantasms; ghosts that are really good at fixing cars, cleaning houses, and picking fruit.
The book, the nominal subject of this diatribe, contains many pictures, so it’s likely you’ll have your favorites. I love the ones that are razor sharp and slightly surreal, like the deflated soccer ball, perched atop a car, reflecting clouds in the shiny painted metal. The few color images are a bit out of place, until you see the glowing pink sky above a snow-covered world. (Gorgeous.)
I also found a highly-pornographic image embedded on a small TV, which caught me by surprise. There is enough image diversity in the book that it entices you back, confident you won’t have seen it all just yet. Which is a good metaphor for the human condition, I’d say.
Yes, we’ve seen many things before. Almost everything, in fact. But that’s the keyword, isn’t it? Almost.
Bottom Line: A cool book about immigrant culture, perfect for Thanksgiving
Last week, I wrote about conflict of interest. Or at least I mentioned it. Which was a first.
These days, when everybody is connected to everyone else, it becomes much more difficult to speak the truth. We become co-opted by our relationships, occasionally, and I do wonder how often I’m affected.
I’ve worked hard to write with honesty in this space, and I hope it’s branded me a straight shooter. (Or more likely a big-mouth. So be it.)
Where am I going with this? I’m currently in the second article of a short series about the Medium Festival of Photography. It was founded by a very good friend of mine, and I went to review portfolios for APE and Lens, and to deliver a public lecture about my work.
As I’ve already written, the festival was truly exceptional. Will you believe me, knowing I’ve got a personal connection? Medium certainly invited me knowing I’d write about my experience there. (Which was overwhelmingly positive.)
But what about the bad stuff? Will I be critical, or will I keep my mouth shut? I’ve been asking myself that very question. What to do?
It’s funny, but the one dark mark on my time there had nothing to do with Medium, per se. And still I feel awkward sharing. But I will. (Can’t. Stop. Fingers. From. Typing.)
I almost-met a fellow artist and blogger at Medium, and was seriously put off by his boorish behavior. I’ve already written about his book, and reviewed it very positively. So there was no prior bad blood.
Doug Rickard, who appropriated and photographed images of poor people on Google Street View, gave me the velvet-rope-ignore-treatment, on three separate occasions. I was taken aback, as it had been a while since anyone pretended I didn’t exist, from such a short distance. (18 inches. I could practically smell his breath.)
Mr. Rickard lectured directly after me, and came very close to shoving me out of the way to get to the podium. He didn’t even muster the obligatory head nod, or half smile, that most civilized people would. It was like a microcosm of high school. He was the burly jock, and I was the black-clad artsy kid, not significant enough to acknowledge.
I write this knowing many of you will read these words as vengeful. I’ll show him! (Shakes fist.) Who does he think he’s dealing with? It’s inescapable, that you’ll think this.
I should add, Mr. Rickard was a pretty big guy, like a Sacramento version of an amateur SoCal motor-cross racer. (Replete with a flat-brim, bro-style baseball hat.) He might genuinely try to kick my ass. So that’s another reason to keep my moth shut. In addition to looking petty, and disappointing my friend Scott.
So why dish? Because I think the mere fact that I feel this uncomfortable telling the truth, after years of bragging about my propensity to do so, makes this a worth-while endeavor. And it’s also a hugely teachable moment for the rest of us.
There is no privacy anymore. It’s gone. Mourn it as you will, but it’s not coming back. Our behavior is a reflection of our brand, and our reputation. No matter how successful you are, you need to treat people well, or it will come out. Whether it’s Terry Richardson facing boycotts, or this dick Doug getting outed on the Internet.
My lecture, just before his, focused on the genuine effort necessary to see symbols in the world and embed them in art. To recognize connections. To choose to make meaning from life, whether you believe it resides there inherently or not. We say it every day, right? We’re all connected. What does that even mean?
I’d mentioned Mr. Rickard’s work in my lecture, as I showed a project I’d done in 2006-7, in which I photographed the computer screen. The resulting photos were absurd and random pixelated portraits, fragments from jpegs I’d stolen from various dangerous parts of the Internet. I don’t typically show the pictures, as I felt the series was too derivative of Chuck Close’s aesthetic. I gave Mr. Rickard a shout out for getting it right.
And of course, Mr. Rickard was also a member of Richard Misrach’s young artist salon. We reported on that after Mr. Misrach’s lecture in Tucson last year, when he’d shown work by several younger Bay Area artist friends of his. I felt awkward telling you guys about it, as it seemed like the epitome of the incestuous behavior at the heart of this now-rambling article.
My pixelated portraits might go over well one day, or I might keep them in a drawer. Regardless, I haven’t seen that many things quite like them.
So you’ll appreciate my shock at reaching into my book stack, and discovering “11.21.11 5:40pm,” a new book by Richard Misrach, published by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. (Whose Gallery Director I know from his days in Santa Fe.) If you’re ready to hear about a book, congratulations. You made it. And what day is it now? (I delivered the article to Rob on 11.21.13)
This book is strange, and you likely won’t want to buy it. It’s conceptual enough that it might seem too narrow for a collection, given the price. (Or perhaps it’s meant mostly for collectors. What do I know?) But it also happens to be one of the most interesting books I’ve seen in my time as a book reviewer.
It opens with a view of a couple down on a beach, seen from a terrace above. I was immediately reminded of Mr. Misrach’s other ocean-and-beach-based projects. That’s where the similarities end.
We notice that the young couple is taking a dual-selfie. Or joint- selfie? A couplie? What’s the proper nomenclature here?
Each subsequent page turned reveals a closer version of the previous photo. It devolves to pixels, and then the black of a presumably singular pixel. (Like the deep black of that awful Sopranos ending. David Chase: you’re better than that.)
Then. A surprise.
The image begins to resolve again. Pixels. And then a pixelated portrait. Finally, the image is sharper still, and we see that we’re looking at the portrait of the couple. The one that they actually took of themselves.
What? How did he get that? What the f-ck is going on here?
Awesome. A little worm-hole gem. So odd and smart and surreal. I love it. But will you want to actually own it? That’s another question.
It’s taken me almost ten days now, since I returned from San Diego, to get my head together. It’s forced me to ask some hard questions.
You’ve got to make up your own mind about how much you think I’m holding back, these days. I’d like to think I put my integrity out there each week, but this is one big icy-yet-twig-strewn slippery slope. It’s new territory, and through this column, you’ve come along for the ride.
So I hope to continue to earn your trust, and I’ll endeavor to keep it real. But there are now layers to be parsed, and I accept that’s going to happen. Medium expected I’d be me, and I’m sure they’re now thinking that if the worst thing I can say about them is that one of their lecturers was rude…they’re doing pretty well.
It’s helpful to be reminded, though, that we need to take a hard look in the mirror. In a networked world, in which we all become beholden to one another, it’s good to be conscious that it’s happening.
I was lying in bed the other night, trying to fall asleep. Dreamily, I asked my wife a question. What are the five places you’d most like to visit? She named them, but I couldn’t follow along. By the time she turned the question on me, I was already unconscious.
I thought about it the next day, when I awoke. I whittled down to Germany, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. As I recited the list, I realized I had chosen the former Axis powers, and two Communist countries.
OMG. What does that say about me? Am I a less-than-patriotic American? Or a horrible Jew? And what about Africa and South America? Does their Continental omission mean I’m also secretly racist? Or do I just really like asking absurd, rhetorical questions?
Frankly, I haven’t been to Italy, the artist’s paradise, in a decade, and I’ve never been to Asia. So that covers 4 out of 5. As for Germany? I was in Lübeck once, very briefly, about 15 years ago. The people in the North were very nice. They kept buying me beers, incredulous that I’d come to their part of the country, rather than Bavaria. And the currywurst was super-delicious.
I’d like to go back, because who wouldn’t want to visit Berlin these days? But there’s something else, and it has far less to do with WWII than you might imagine. I just seem to groove on the German aesthetic. I love that they are so serious about their formalism and craftsmanship. And they’re eternally curious, without ever seeming to believe they’ll hit upon an answer.
Take this week’s book, for instance. It’s called “Landscapes & Memory: Thirty photographs” by Jo Röttger, published by Peperoni Books. Does it consist of exactly 30 photographs? Of course it does. Are they exquisitely composed, and built as well as a Maybach? Did you have to ask?
This book is excellent on multiple levels, but really excels at reminding us why iPhones are cute, but will never replace a large format camera. And why journalists and artists are…not exactly the same thing. (Much less citizen journalists.)
I’m not here to disparage the growing number of amateurs out there. Hell, if they’ll call me a journalist, they’ll clearly let anyone in the club. It’s an important job, sharing the news, but it’s not the same thing as making art.
This book gives makes the difference very visible. The artist was seemingly embedded with the German military, and made photographs in their company. He shot them while they were training in country, and also while they were active duty in Afghanistan.
The formalism is impressive, as I mentioned, but so too are the beautifully drained colors seen at dusk. The mid-day-desert sun leeches desire from the world too, and that blister-bright palette is on display as well. These pictures beg to be seen at 40″x60″, and I wouldn’t doubt that they’re built that large for exhibition purposes.
I was certainly reminded of Simon Norfolk’s work, but then Mr. Röttger kicks the whole thing up a notch. (My first, and last, Emeril Lagasse reference. Bam!) At the end, he photographs the German soldiers while they’re training in some Alpine landscapes that are straight out of “The Sound of Music.” (Which I’ve never seen, but am more than happy to reference here.)
Where are the lederhosen? Where is the alpenhorn to summon the shepherds home for strudel? I don’t know, and I don’t care. These pictures are so damn good, I want one for my wall. Hell, I want to build a bigger wall, and then put one of these bad boys up.
This project offers what I wanted, and then rejected from the Luc Delahaye photograph in the War/Photography exhibition I reviewed at the beginning of the year: the size, sharpness, clarity and patience that a big camera offers, without the knee-knocking sense of exploitation. (i.e., profiting off of a dead Talibani soldier. Delahaye might not have stolen his boots, but what he did take was worth $20,000 a pop.) Regardless, I do hope you enjoy the book.
PS: I’d ask you to share your top five list in the comment section, but when’s the last time that worked?
Bottom Line: Exquisitely crafted photos in Germany and Afghanistan
I love a good paradox. We photographers relish rare moments alone, prowling a foreign land with a camera in hand. (Maybe another in the pocket.) The lone wolf roams, hunting for pixels.
But no one gets very far these days without a good team. Success is impossible without friends and colleagues. In order to get more time by yourself, you have to play well with others.
I was reminded of that when I visited Photoville on my trip to NYC in late September. I might have mocked the MoMAPS1 art-world-hipsters last week, but at least they showed up to represent. So too were the crowds in evidence at Photoville, a photo festival that practically kisses the East River from it’s waterfront perch in Brooklyn.
“Rent some shipping containers, and they will come” is not the kind of quote that launches popcorn blockbusters, but it does seem to sum up Photoville’s premise. There were plenty of metal-clad photo exhibitions on display, along with other containers showing off new Ipad apps, or offering to take your tin-type portrait. It was like a county fair for photo-geeks, and I was thrilled to see so many people out in public, interacting with art and each other.
The festival was founded and is run by Sam Barzilay, originally from Greece, and his wife Laura Roumanos, of Australia. Nothing like Brooklyn to bring people together from all over the world, right? (Where’s Marty Markowitz when you need him? Can I get a shout out?) The festival is free, and the largest source of funding was from the Dutch Government, I was told. (As if we needed another reason to love the Dutch.)
Again with the paradox.
This week, we published an interview with Chantel Paul, who recently curated a California triennial at MOPA in San Diego. Do those artists really have something in common, just because they live in the same roughly defined land mass? I heard there was a show of Texas photography in Houston recently as well. Was it all about pictures of cattle?
I know that’s a dumb question, but it masks a better one: is regionalism actually dying, as John Gossage suggested? In a world in which culture moves at the speed of light, and information is no longer subject to the ravages of time, are we all just plugged into the same machine?
If you’re curious as to whether there’s even an answer to that question, why not check out “New Irish Works,” a book published this past summer by the Photo Ireland festival in Dublin. (Did you actually doubt I’d wind my way to a book review? Is the Pope Catholic?) It contains imagery by 25 young Irish photographers, including Paul Gaffney, whose book I previously reviewed.
I’ll spare you the trouble of guessing: I couldn’t learn much about Ireland through this book, but I do like it a lot. The practitioners have vastly different processes, though two photographers were shooting the television screen. (Barry W. Hughes and Muireann Brady.) I saw buckets of blood, (Patrick Hogan) wisps of minimalist nothing, (Roseanne Lynch) and light from a flash illuminating a sheep’s fuzzy ass. (Miriam O’Connor) Ms. O’Connor also took the perfect photo of a cheap motel bedspread, so good for her.
You might question why I’m highlighting this book, if we don’t learn anything about Ireland in the process? I laud the collaborative effort and community spirit that good festivals embody. Plus, there are cool photos inside, and you’ll definitely get a sense of what this young generation of artists is contemplating. Is that enough? If not, go buy yourself a Guinness and drink it.
Bottom Line: Cool book with work by a slew of young Irish artists
Earlier this summer, I caught up with David Maisel, a few weeks after reviewing his new book “Black Maps.” He recently began working with Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, and has a solo show up at Haines Gallery in San Francisco through October 26th.
American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 8), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 18), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 1), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 2), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
The Mining Project (Inspiration, Arizona 9), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 3), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 7), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 5), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 9), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
The Mining Project (Clifton, Arizona 7), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five
Jonathan Blaustein: Were you raised on Long Island? Is that right?
David Maisel: Yes.
JB: Your bio states that you went to Harvard as well as Princeton. That’s pretty impressive.
DM: True, but technically I would have to call myself a Harvard drop-out. I went there for graduate school in architecture. It was a 3.5 year masters program that I left after a year.
JB: At Princeton, you studied with Emmet Gowin and Edward Ranney?
DM: Exactly. It was quite a remarkable experience. They were photographic educators, but that kind of skims the surface of what their impact was. I had the opportunity to work with Emmet at Mt. St. Helens when I was an undergrad, and they both informed what my view of landscape could be.
And even what a photographic practice could be. To have both of those men as teachers so early on was really amazing.
JB: When I was looking at “Black Maps,” it made me think of the Nazca lines, and I know that Ed is one of the foremost contemporary photographers who’s worked in Peru. It occurred to me that it might be a literal link in the chain of your creative process. Is that the case?
DM: Absolutely. When I was working with Ed, he was engaged in this very intense, deep photographic survey of Mayan and Incan architecture, and the vestiges that those civilizations had left in the land. That sense of working as a visual archaeologist, looking at artifacts from former civilizations.
I’m looking at artifacts from the present. It’s a future-past, in a way. I’m documenting and cataloging that which our current civilization might leave behind. Ed’s work helped me view contemporary artifacts in the landscape through the lens of what remains when a civilization is gone.
JB: I reviewed the book, and wrote that there was an element in which you were making the work for future people to judge us. So it sounds like that is conscious in your process.
DM: I think so. I think there’s also a science fiction aspect to it as well. A JG Ballard, post-apocalyptic sense that these are the elements that might remain. Or we might be unearthing past civilizations. It’s not entirely academic in nature. I think Ed’s work in large measure is. And I think that’s one of its strengths. I’m playing with other elements as well.
JB: How do you view yourself, with respect to the contemporary environmental movement? You’re doing this exclusively as art? Or do you have motivations to try to alter people’s behaviors in the present, in addition to cataloging degradation for the future?
DM: These are really good questions, but I have to say, first and foremost, I’m looking at landscape from a conceptual point of view. Politics and environment enter into it, but I’m primarily a visual artist, and I’m not making these pictures in order to change policy. If I was, I’d need to make very different kinds of pictures, and I’d position them very differently than I do.
My primary interest is in making interesting photographs, and I think there’s a way that photography has a burden put on it that I want to refute. The pictures are not made in order to change policy, let’s put it that way. But they do have environmental concerns, and they’re based on sites that have undergone very intense environmental transformations.
Politics is part of it. But I think the conceptual aspects of landscape drive me more than the notion of being a documentary photographer. I don’t think that I am documentary photographer.
JB: In 80% of the interviews I do, we end up having a discussion about nomenclature, and the distinctions made in the worlds of photography and art in the 21st Century. Over three decades, you’ve made multiple projects looking at the way humans are interacting with the land. To me, that speaks to a very deep personal motivation.
DM: It’s intrinsically political. You can’t spend so many years looking at these sites without having a certain kind of viewpoint. But my viewpoint is perhaps less about environmental demise than it is about the psyche of the culture that makes these sites.
These are distinctions that I think are important. In the past decade or so, there have been many more photographers looking at issues in the environment than there were when I began. I’m not really sure to what degree my work fits in with that movement.
There’s a history of looking at landscape in photography in the 19th Century, moving forward into the New Topographics. I see my work as a response to those prior ways of making images.
JB: You spoke of investigating the psyche of a culture that would do what’s been done. Since we’re talking about such a long investigation, culminating in the book, what have you learned about the psyche of this culture?
DM: We’re very distanced from the notion that the way we live exacts a toll. I’m part of the equation, and photography is part of the equation. We really do use natural resources without regard to where they come from, how they may or may not be able to be replenished, what the methods are of their extraction.
We’re divorced from any sense of how we are a part of nature, and how we fit back into nature, and how we use nature. We live in a house or an apartment building, in a city or a town. We drive to the shopping mall, we go to the beach. But we don’t ever really see the kinds of places that I’m interested in looking at, and sharing.
JB: When you show your work, you introduce these concepts to people through art. And there is currently a show in Scottsdale?
JB: I’ve been many places in my life, and Scottsdale, Arizona was one of the most challenging. With the all the concrete built right on top of the desert, and the obvious lack of water, it felt like a place where people shouldn’t be living, ecosystem wise. And yet it mushroomed into a city.
What’s your take on Arizona?
DM: The whole issue of desertification is something my work has been looking at through “The Lake Project,” and the “Oblivion” series,” but in my home state of California. But I think there are certain parallels.
I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner lately. You’re probably familiar with his writing.
JB: No, I’ve heard his name, but I haven’t read his work.
DM: I hadn’t realized the degree to which his writing in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s really helped construct a new way of looking at the American West.
He has a book titled “The American West as Living Space.” He writes about the West, and you can include Arizona and California both in there, as being defined by inadequate rainfall.
He basically says, “What do you do about that?” If you’re a nation that’s totally used to getting its way, you can do one of two things. You can either deny it, for a while, and then you either try to adapt to it, or engineer it out of existence.”
That’s what’s happening now, around the American West. We live in denial of the fact that the population of these places is not sustainable, given that there’s not enough water.
Or we try to engineer it out of existence with dams, and other kinds of waterworks projects, and systems of aqueducts, etc.
He’s quite a brilliant writer, and I think his influence has been profound on our concepts of the American West, and to a certain degree, legislation that set aside certain areas of the West. It’s pretty incredible, and worth taking a look at his work in depth.
JB: I will do that, and there’s also a chance that some of our readers will as well. So on their behalf, I appreciate the tip.
By putting together all the projects in a mostly linear way for the new book, did that give you new insight into what you’ve been pushing towards all these years?
DM: It was a really fulfilling project for me, because when I started making these kinds of pictures in the mid 1980’s, there was not much of an audience for this kind of work. I didn’t have the capacity to put this work out into the world in a way that would gather an audience to it.
So to have this trajectory of this work, over something like 30 years, and to look back at the origins of the work, that was incredibly meaningful and satisfying. It answered a lot of the questions that I had about my work in my mid-20’s.
To see the resonance the projects have with each other, the way my viewpoints change over time, the kinds of subject matter that I have looked at, I’m not sure it led to new realizations. But it brought me back to the person I was when I started this.
It helped recall the urgency that I felt about making these pictures, and the incredible frustration I had, because there were not many avenues to exhibit or publish, pre-Internet.
JB: You went to graduate school for photography many years after you had finished your schooling. A lot of people today are questioning and balancing the value of these very expensive arts educations. I got one, and loved it, but I’m still paying off the loans. What led to your decision?
DM: I’d moved to the Bay Area in 1993, and a decade later, I felt like I was still working in isolation here. I wanted to expand my community. That was one reason.
I also wanted to challenge myself to be more rigorous in my thinking. It was an unusual time, perhaps, to go back to school, but for me, it was perfect. I trusted myself enough, at that point in my life, to be able to discern what was useful to me, and what wasn’t, in that MFA program.
I could do it for myself in a way I wouldn’t have been able to, had I gone in my mid-20’s. It was a terrific experience. The environment at CCA, California College of the Arts, I liken it to the Bauhaus. There are all of these different disciplines happening under one roof. It’s an incredible hotbed of creativity, and intellectual and artistic growth.
JB: I was out in SF a year ago, and it was clear the place was really booming. Everyone was talking about Twitter moving in, rents going up, and the big Cindy Sherman show was at SFMOMA. There are a lot of younger SF and Bay Area artists who are doing well right now.
Have you seen anything lately, or come across any exhibitions that really spoke to you? What’s your take on what’s going on out there?
DM: It’s interesting. I’m pretty involved with the Headlands Center for the Arts. I’m on a board there. So that’s the filter through which I see a lot of what’s going on. There are some great things happening.
The de Young Museum has this Diebenkorn exhibit up called “The Berkeley Years,” so it’s not work that’s current. But it’s an exceptional show that focuses on work that he made in the mid to late 50’s. There are certain ways I see some parallels between his way of seeing and my way of seeing, which have been very intriguing for me.
JB: It’s a great point. It can be so helpful for photographers to look at painting, sculpture and cinema. Having a broad range of input tends to lead to more sophisticated output. If I were to make such a grand generalization, which is my speciality.
JB: “History’s Shadow” and “Library of Dust” are two projects in which you seem to be interested in categorization and typologies. History has a way of forgetting much more than it remembers, and things march on. As such, I was wondering where you were headed, creatively? What new things are you planning?
DM: I’m working now with some X-rays of paintings. The “History’s Shadow” work to date has been based on X-rays of 3 dimensional art objects, from antiquity through the invention of photography.
JB: And you photograph the X-rays?
DM: I rephotograph them. Exactly. So I’m now starting to work with X-rays of paintings. It’s pretty early on in that process, but it’s funny that we were just talking about Diebenkorn, and now we’re on the subject of painting.
I’m probably as inspired by other visual arts in my work than photography, or as much, certainly. Looking at Robert Smithson’s work, or Walter de Maria’s incredible Earth works art.
I found it very interesting to work with the X-rays of 3 dimensional artworks too, because in a way, photography is all about translating 3 dimensions down to 2. As you shift towards photos of 2 dimensional surfaces, it’s very interesting what happens. I’m still grappling with it, but that’s one of the things that’s coming next.
I’m also hoping to do some aerial work in Spain later this summer, or in the early Fall.
JB: What about architecture? Does that also inspire your photographic practice?
DM: It’s absolutely present in every single way. I thought from a very young age that I would be an architect, as soon as I could name it. I looked at magazines and floor plans from a very early age.
The ways architects analyze space acutely informs how I make pictures. You could extrapolate and say the aerial view is the way architects look at things and plan. The plan occupies the bird’s eye view and shows you things.
And the “History’s Shadow” work is more about cross-section: you’re slicing into something and seeing its structure. But the work is absolutely tied to the same interests and pleasures and puzzles.
JB: I was fortunate to see the “Library of Dust” project, in which you photographed the ashen remains of people who had passed away in a mental institution. I saw the prints a few years ago in New York. Maybe it was at Von Lintel?
JB: The prints were exquisite and also chilling, because you shined a light on a particular place, and people who had been perfectly forgotten. Did that spur anyone to come claim their relatives ashes? Did you hear any stories like that?
DM: Absolutely. One, in particular, was told in a beautiful and eloquent way by a woman and her adult daughter who were researching their family tree. They came upon a woman named Ada, who had vanished. Eventually they learned she had been institutionalized at the Oregon State Hospital.
They found out she had been one of these patients who had been cremated. They tried to work with the hospital to claim the remains, and were unsuccessful. When the “Library of Dust” book was published, that gave them another round of energy to approach the hospital. At that point, they were able to reclaim her.
It’s interesting, this idea of advocacy. Like I said, my work is not made with advocacy as its primary goal, but there is definitely a social aspect that is woven intentionally into the work. Hopefully in a subtle way.
Before the book even came out, the President of the State Senate in Oregon asked if he could use my photographs of these canisters on the Senate floor to advocate for more funding for the hospital. It was an active hospital even when I was making those pictures there, although some of the wards had been empty for a while.
He was successful in arguing for more funding, to the tune of $3.5 Billion. And in fact, the hospital has been rebuilt. This project was in some way a participant in that process. Did I set out to do that? By no means.
JB: Fascinating. Congratulations. You mentioned again that advocacy is not your primary motivation, but of course we also have secondary and tertiary motivations…
JB: Subtlety and nuance come from having multiple ideas sharing the same dance floor, and some times it’s hard to pick them out.
We’ve talked about your different interests and talents, and that multi-tasker model does seem to be hot at present. Do you have any advice you might share with other photographers out there, things you’ve learned that might help them with their careers?
DM: That’s a great question. For me, to study photography alone was not really enough. I do think that what might have felt at the time, as a younger person, like a lack of clarity in terms of making a career path, in the long run all of those things that might have felt like diversions were exactly the things that fed my artistic practice. Studying architecture, landscape architecture, the history of art, counseling and psychology, all these things came together.
JB: So that’s a yes, then.
DM: Follow multiple strands of study, and of inquiry. Follow your curiosity where it may go. Photography, in and of itself, is a vehicle for ideas. What are the ideas that you bring to the table? What are the ideas that you bring to your work? Those are the real, critical questions.
JB: Before we go, is there anything coming up that we ought to know about? Any new shows opening up?
DM: There is a solo show opening in September at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. (ed note, this is still ongoing.) It’s an exhibition of my mining photographs, and we’re going to focus on two bodies of work, one from 1989 and another from 2007. In a way, it brackets the timeframe of my obsession with open pit mines.
JB: And everyone who goes to see the show will get one free gold nugget?
DM: That’s right. And a vial of cyanide.
JB: Can you imagine? You have to pick a hand. You either get $10,000 of gold, or you die.
DM: Actually, cyanide is used in the capture of microscopic amounts of gold in many of those open pit mines. It’s an intrinsic part of the process, and it seems only fair that we’ll be serving little vials of cyanide at the opening.
Have I ever told you that I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains? Of course I have. Like, a million times. I say it constantly.
Is it a nefarious part of my personal branding? (That Blaustein. Always makes it about him.) I suppose it’s possible, if you believe me that much of a cynic. But I think it’s something else.
Writing for the global Internet is a strange job. Technically, you know you’re reaching a lot of people. But that reality is abstract, like a cloud that looks like the European Continent. Knowing readers are out there is nice, but it has no bearing on my daily life.
It’s very remote here, which is why I bring it up so often. Most of you are living in the urban world, where things run smoothly, and you can get decent takeout almost anywhere. Never before, in the history of time, could we have this sort of asymmetrical dialogue. Without the Internet, I wouldn’t be able to live the way I do. (Which includes having to fire up the wood stove on this, the first un-official day of winter. Snow outside already?)
That I can remain connected and removed enables me to have the perspective that I do. Sometimes, things work out perfectly. Take this morning, for instance. I just swiped through Twitter, and saw a few people saying that the Lori Nix exhibition at ClampArt was a must see. Cool, I thought. Good for her. But what the f-ck does that have to do with me?
Good question. Because not three minutes later, I reached into my book stack, and “Voila!” There it was. A new monograph, “The City,” by Lori Nix, just published by Decode Books in Seattle. (I love that the credits mention the color correction was done domestically, before the printing transpired in China. Lest we be confused…)
I’ll say it straight off. Totally fantastic book. Amazing work, beautifully printed, and I even like the way they constructed the narrative. (A few photos, for the uninitiated, then an essay to explain and contextualize the project, and then all the gorgeous plates, with a few detail shots thrown in to make sure you realize the labor involved.)
Are we done now? Of course not. I forgot to tell you what Ms. Nix’s work is all about. I think my cold bones are clouding my intelligence. Is it possible to lose IQ points when it’s cold outside?
The photographs in “The City,” and presumably on the wall in NYC, are supremely intricate dioramas of interior scenes in a post-apocalyptic world. (Thank god for spell-check. I butcher post-apocalyptic every time I type it.)
Whether it’s the zombie fetishists, the nuclear war junkies, the climate change fantasists, or the Jesus freaks, there are lots of people out there convinced we’re going to end ourselves shortly.
We certainly possess the means to do it. Personally, I think our survival instinct is such that it would be very difficult to eradicate humans off the face of the earth. Terry Gilliam’s underground fantasy from “12 Monkeys” is far more likely, if the shit hits the fan.
The photographs owe a debt to James Casebere, whose brilliant work I saw in Washington DC a few weeks ago. (A description of which will have to wait for a subsequent article.) The craftsmanship of the scenes is mind-boggling, as is the photographic construction. Great color, great light.
The sad beauty is melodic, in that you enjoy it, while still understanding that it’s prophesying your own doom. (Or that of your grandkids. Hard to say.) The dead mall photo, which was like a Play-Do version of Brian Ulrich’s “reality” picture, was superb. As was the control room image, which I preferred to Thomas Demand’s Teutonic version. That there is a conversation with contemporary art Easter egg-ed inside is just a bonus treat.
I hate to give away surprises, but there is a photo of a Natural History Museum late in the book, (Sugimoto reference) and the roof has been blown off. I had to look several times, but up in the sky, one can clearly make out a Pterodactyl. (Or is is a Pteranodon. Given that I have a six-year-old, I ought to know the difference by now.) So what does that mean? Do the Dinosaurs come back? You’ll have to ask Ms. Nix.
OK. Now we’re done. Fantastic book. You should buy it if, like me, you’re far away from NYC, and can’t see the prints for yourself.
Bottom Line: Brilliantly constructed scenes of what it looks like when we’re all gone.
For the first time ever, I ran out of books. It’s been a while since I’ve been to photo-eye, and I’m due there tomorrow. But that doesn’t help me today.
Frankly, I wrote a column yesterday based upon a book I’d previously rejected four times already. It was all I had, and the resulting effort was tepid at best. What to do?
Fortunately, earlier this morning, my wife rustled up a package from our overly-messy mail pile, and showed me that someone had sent us a book. It’s begun to happen more often, lately, as the word has gotten out that I review photo books. So I slit the cardboard, and took a quick look at what was inside.
Really, the only reason I’d choose to write an entirely new article is that good books prod good writing. And boring books bring you the kind of reviews that make you wonder if there isn’t someone better for the job. (The line forms in the rear…) Mr. Gaffney has put his soul into this book, and I’ll aim to do it justice.
The delicate, gray, soft-cover book is slipped into a colorful, pink and yellow half-cover. It sends the message right off that muted colors and vivacity can co-exist. It’s not an easy pairing, or more would attempt it, but it works well here.
Begin to leaf through, and immediately we notice the beauty of the color and light. I suspect it’s Ireland, given the artist’s provenance, but eventually it doesn’t matter. The title is instructive, so we take it for what it is. Each photo gives us the sense of a flaneur out and about, albeit one with Zen sensibilities.
If an artist is going to make one more book about lonely wandering, the maker ought to have a pretty interesting perspective on the whole venture. No worries here. Again and again, the misty light seduces, or the pop of earthy color, the luxurious nature of green, or a depression made by a sleeping animal.
Natural structures in the woods are paired off with animal burrows, and man-made over-passes that look like large-scale sculptures leading to nowhere. I busted out the nature walk just yesterday, to clear my mind for writing, and yet these photos make me long for a more humidified environment. No wonder why all those Irish folks have un-wrinkled skin.
Finally, we reach a beautiful poem by Antonio Machado, in Spanish and English, which tells us nothing the photos don’t. (But it does class up the joint a bit.) Only in an accompanying PR postcard did I learn that Mr. Gaffney spent a year walking 3,500 km to make the pictures.
It was the rare case of that extra info being purely extraneous. The photographs communicated the practice, and its purpose. How often does that happen?
Bottom Line: Very beautiful, thoughtful, self-published book
I almost wrote about a different book today. I thought about it, but decided not to. The putative subject was an area in Central Asia dominated by countries that end in “stan.” Flipping through the pages, I was taken by the generic-ness of it all.
People don’t like it when I use this space to be critical. For book reviews, I’ve learned to keep the gloves on. (And take the brass knuckles off.) So I chose not to write about that book, even though it was interesting, in the manner in which it looked like so many other projects I’ve seen before.
If you look at photo books (partly) for a living, eventually you’ll see just about every place on Earth. That I’m doing this in one of the more remote locations in the US is at least a little bit ironic. I look out my window, and I see horses, hills and mountains. I look down into the illusionistic space of a book, and I can tell that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are more than a little similar.
So when I opened up “Semicircle Law,” a new book by Tomoki Imai, (published by M.27,) that was my state of mind. The desire to suss out a locale, as quickly as I can, is something of a game these days. Given the artist’s name, my first thought, obviously, was Japan.
But there was no way to know for sure. The mountainscapes were as generic as landscapes can be. No Himalayas, these. The scrubby jutting land could be anywhere. Keep turning the pages, and no real hints emerge. When the snow comes, I feel better about the obvious guess: Japan. I close my eyes and see the snow monkeys sitting in their natural hot springs.
Are we in Hokkaido? That is my guess, now. And then I wonder if people ever get into the springs with the monkeys. Can’t you just imagine some dumb tourist getting his willy torn off by a savage monkey? That would be horrible.
Eventually, the pictures stop. Your guess is as good as mine. And then the text starts. The very first page, post-photos, shows a map of the area surrounding the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. BOOM. We’re going there.
Yes, this is one of those books that doesn’t tell you what the f-ck is going on until the end. An essay by Charlotte Cotton divulges the details. The photographer repeatedly penetrated the 20km forbidden zone set up around the disaster site. Not unlike the better known Trevor Paglen, he skulked into the hills to bring back secret photos for the rest of us. (And likely braved some serious radiation. Crazy bastard.)
So this book becomes a bit like a new-fangled version of “The Usual Suspects.” You can’t know what’s going on until you do. And then it changes everything about your perceptions of what you just saw. The two written pieces focus on the brilliance of the post-post-post modern, post-human nature of the project. It’s genius, they imply.
I’m not sure I agree. The pictures are graceful, but boring, in a way, and meant to be. It’s a smart project, and perhaps an important one. But to me, it says more about our own expectations of the drama linked to disaster. Banality is probably a better way to go about telling these stories. Because those of us who live in safe places would likely be shocked at how commonplace horror can become.
Bottom Line: A very smart, brave, and probably dangerous project
Jonathan Blaustein: Photography is a crazy thing to do with one’s time. And a crazy thing to devote one’s life to. It’s obvious that you’ve given almost everything a lot of thought. What do you think it is about this particular method of expression, as opposed to chipping in marble, that hooked into you and never let go?
John Gossage: Simple, practical things. It keeps me amused. It keeps engaging me. I make pictures for myself. I’m not an entertainer. I don’t make work for an audience.
I try to make it clear, and present it to others, because I really enjoy when other people value what I do. But they have to come to me, more than anything. That’s the difference between art and entertainment.
I played music for a while, and the idea is that you play for an audience. There’s an interaction there, and playing music is entertaining. What I do isn’t.
I suppose it’s serendipity, but it’s kept me amused, so it’s kept my audience amused. Around 1980, or ’84, I realized I wanted to make books, as I’d thought for a long time that artist-controlled books are the major leagues of photography. Books have the greatest impact on me, from other photographers. So I had faith that my work would make the most sense to people that way.
It stays out in the world. The first commercial book I did was “The Pond,” with Aperture. They set up a book signing at ICP, and one person came. Nobody knew what the hell it was. It got reviewed, positively in “People” magazine too, which is one of the most bizarre things of all time. Unfortunately, “People” has absolutely no cross-over with the audience that buys photo books, which I tried to explain to Aperture, so it made no difference.
Now, Aperture has re-printed it, and it’s one of the classics. Everybody I meet says they bought an original edition, and it changed their lives. But there could only have been twelve of them.
You have to have faith that if the work engages you, it will engage others. It’s about taking that bet. And sometimes, you can be wrong.
JB: Under that philosophy, if it doesn’t engage others, it doesn’t matter, as long as it engages the maker. Right?
JG: Oh yeah. I’m interested in continuing to be amused.
JB: You’ve made many, many books over the years.
JG: Unfortunately, yes.
JB: And in non-traditional ways, using non-traditional materials. Oversized books. Wooden books. And according to your Wikipedia page, and congrats for having one…
JG: I don’t know who did that. Not me.
JB: I don’t doubt that. But as I was saying, did you really make a book called “Hey Fuckface”?
JG: Oh sure. It was a box, actually.
JB: A box?
JG: I got interested in the space in between the wall and your lap. Pictures hang on the wall, and books sit on your lap. There’s that space in-between. So I made these boxes that can’t hang on the wall, because the back comes off. If you try to hang it, it falls to the floor.
It was called “The Things that Animals Care About, and” and “Hey Fuckface,” which is a book about curses. Or maybe it’s a publication.
Basically, you get a box with a Plexiglas front, and wood around it. You put one photograph in, and look at it for a while, and then you move it and put another photograph in it for a while. They have to lean against a wall, or sit on a book case, or something like that. Somewhere in between the two.
JB: Have they been exhibited as sculpture? How did that work? Did they make their way into individual collections?
JG: “Hey Fuckface” is actually original prints on boards with hand-written curses with each of them.
JB: (pause) You don’t know me well enough to know that I’m rarely speechless. But I don’t know what to say. As a formerly-foulmouthed Jersey Boy, I have to see that. Where could an average person see that? Is it possible?
JG: I don’t know what collections have it. Currently, they’re going for $7000 now, even though I sold them for $150 to begin with. That happens with photobooks too. But what they are is pictures of some of the most polluted places in New York State.
The interest is the nature of curses. If you’re not religious or superstitious, what is a contemporary curse? And also, curses never mean what they say.
It started by taking one photograph of this, up in Syracuse. I was taking a portrait of a young boy, and next to him was a telephone pole. Scratched into the pole was the mis-spelled curse “Dickless pigfucker.” Luckily, I wrote it down.
JG: I thought, what a wonderful curse. Anatomically impossible, and aesthetically unpleasant. What more can you ask? It’s done to annoy people. I guess Roe was right.
JB: I was just thinking about that, as I recently reviewed a book by Dash Snow. It’s a interesting idea, how we offend people. Like it’s an action that you’re doing to somebody else.
I read that you got some NEA grants back in the day. Is that right?
JB: That was before everything shifted, because Serrano and Mapplethorpe “offended” or perhaps “annoyed” the wrong people. As an artist, I think it’s kind of interesting to think about how personally people can take their own emotional reaction to somebody else’s ideas.
JG: I see it here in Washington. I saw a wonderful thing at the National Gallery, about six months ago. The National Gallery is free, and it’s on the mall, so it’s often the first museum experience for people. They’re going down the mall, and they end up in an art museum.
Anyway, there was a guy, almost totally cliché as a non-art person, and he asked the guard “Did my tax dollars pay for that?” He was pointing at an Elsworth Kelly painting of two colors.
I found out later that the guards are trained to say this, because he replied, “No. Mr. Andrew Mellon paid for that, Sir.”
He was offended. He wasn’t going to engage it. He was offended by the lack of understanding of what might be going on here. He didn’t speak the language.
It’s like being offended by Bulgarian poetry, if you don’t speak Bulgarian. People don’t do that, but with art, they do. Art can really get people worked up, which is one of the reasons, I guess, that we do it ourselves, and hope others get engaged with it. It still has that power, amazingly.
JB: Especially in a world where most people are so well-trained to tune out information that doesn’t coincide with their worldview.
JG: Its presence is offensive, if you don’t understand it. In America, most of the news about art has to do with how much it’s worth, not what it’s about.
JB: I made the local TV news at some point, for that reason. They got their hands on some documents about what the State of New Mexico paid for my work.
Thankfully, they didn’t kick up the outrage they were hoping to. The only person they interviewed was some un-important conservative political activist, and they didn’t rile anyone enough.
JG: (laughing.) I’m sorry they didn’t rile sufficiently. Maybe next time.
JB: Next time, I suppose they need to pick a more intelligent critic. It was just some guy who owned a pet store, or something, and was a Republican on the weekends.
JG: (laughing.) I’m willing to rile up a guy who runs a pet store. That should be worth doing for an afternoon.
JB: One of the things that I intentionally put into that project, “The Value of a Dollar,” and I continue to think it’s funny, is that anyone who wants to can spend a dollar on a McDonalds doublecheeseburger, and put it on a pedestal in their room. Or you can go spend a dollar for a pack of candy necklaces, and thumbtack it on your wall, for a dollar, or you can buy my picture of those same candy necklaces, on a piece of paper, for $1000.
JB: I don’t often hear people recite that absurdity back to me, but I think those inherent contradictions are often what makes people respond subconsciously.
To me, what could be more obvious about pointing out the economic machinations of art than to say that simply by Two-Dimensionalizing something, I’ve increased its value 1000%.
JG: Sherri Levine was really involved in that in the 70’s. She re-photographed Walker Evans’ pictures exactly, and made them her pictures.
What? Where’s the value? Where does art actually exist in this whole transaction? What’s going on here?
That’s the whole Duchamp question. What’s going on here? What keeps us fascinated? How does this work? There’s no real answers for it. It’s a set of questions that keeps you going.
Why is the original less important than the image made of it? What degree of eloquence comes into play there? Because it is there.
There is a Bill Eggleston picture of little toy animals on a chrome counter-top. From the early 70’s.
JB: OK. I can’t think of it immediately.
JG: It’s one of his famous pictures. I actually have the animals Bill photographed, and the picture. He took them away from his son Bill Jr, he said, “Sure, you can have these.” So I could remake that photograph, any time I could find the right countertop.
JB: You didn’t actually steal candy from a baby, but you stole toys from a child.
JG: No. Bill did. It’s one of those evil Bill Eggleston stories that we all tell. He took them from his son, and his son has never forgiven him, I’m sure.
JB: I’d like to talk about politics, because I know it motivates you to some degree. For the record, I tried to get my hands on some of your books. I was at photo-eye on Friday, and the power went out across the city of Santa Fe.
I was actually holding your books up to the residual window light, just to get a sense of the objects themselves.
JG: I like that.
JB: No one says I don’t work hard.
JG: You could start a small fire at photo-eye with books I hate, and use that light to look at mine. But I won’t name which photographers’ work I hate.
JB: I would ask, if I weren’t so sure it would ultimately get redacted, even if you said so now.
JG: We won’t go there. Don’t pick on the crippled and lame.
JB: Well, I wasn’t able to see many of the books, but I tried. But where I was originally headed with the question was talking about politics. You spent time in Berlin in the 80’s, right?
JB: So you photographed the Berlin Wall, and many years later, you made pictures through the gates of power in Donald Rumsfeld’s neighborhood in DC. When you’re dealing with topics that are so loaded, like heading to Colorado to photograph a town that has three Supermax prisons, or environmental waste sites, to what degree does your personal politics motivate your subject matter choices?
JG: You have to understand, I live in a town where politics is actually a true profession. But I would never make a claim that my photographs have any impact, politically, because I know people in the administration now. You live long enough, and you’ll know people who actually have real power.
I have the ultimate respect for how hard it is to actually do anything politically in this country. For anyone.
So the photographs have political implications. Let’s put it that way. They’re not political, as such, because I don’t have any faith that they change anything directly. It just doesn’t happen. You’re talking mostly to the already committed.
JG: But let’s take it case by case. I was asked to do a show and a workshop in Berlin in 1982. It was interesting to go to a place where the literature of that place is already so pre-established, that I can lean on that, and see what I can do, as opposed to discovering it.
It had WWII, it had the Wall. The absolute dichotomy, right in front of you, between Communism and Capitalism, all laid out in UPPERCASE LETTERS. You could play off of that.
When I got there, I realized it was far more complicated than that. The Wall was incredibly beautiful. It was funny. I was utterly convinced that the guys at the CIA had conned the Russians into building it, because it was the worst PR for Communism you could possibly have in the whole world. And it was evil. Everything I was told. But it had all those other factors.
I got fascinated with photographing in the city, so I spent almost 11 years photographing around Berlin. I had close friends there, and people kept inviting me back to do stuff, so I spent a lot of time back and forth, but never lived there.
The thing with Rumsfeld is, this is my neighborhood. If I move to the other room, I can virtually see his ex-house out of my window. I was interested in the connection between beauty and elegance, and it’s a neighborhood I like a lot. I run through it, and have for many years.
Discovering that Rumsfeld was my neighbor made me convinced that I was at the center of the evil that was going on in the world at that moment. That dichotomy was of interest, so I tried to make very, very beautiful photographs that imply the sensibility that you can’t come from a perfect place. Everyone else wants what you have.
And you have the right to enforce that upon them, which would be an ultimate mistake. It seemed the perfect project to be my first in color. (The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler/ Map of Babylon)
JB: Had you been shooting in color all along, but not showing the work, or was this actually the first time you tried to make pictures that way?
JG: I’ve been friends with Bill Eggleston since 1972. We’re really close. I saw the work before his show at MoMA, from very early on, and thought, this is terrific. This is brilliant.
So I made a couple of dye-transfers, and looked at them, and thought it wasn’t my vision. I didn’t like film color. I didn’t like the color space that you have to manufacture into film products. And I didn’t like the nature of the prints.
They suited Bill perfectly, especially dye-transfer. Dyes and Kodachrome suited Bill perfectly. It was exactly what he wanted. And for me, it wasn’t.
But then digital got good enough. Martin Parr is a close friend of mine, and I would see what he and the Magnum guys were doing. I asked them what was the best camera to get, and they said a Canon this and that.
So I got that, and started fiddling with the RAW files to see if I could get the color I saw. I realized that I could. So then I could do color, because before that, I couldn’t get it to look like what was attracting me, and that was really frustrating.
JB: Ironically, I think that might be the first book of yours that I saw. The pictures are really lovely.
JG: There’s a certain picture in there of a wrought-iron sign. It was made the first day I got the camera, and it convinced me I could do it. I figured if I could make that, I could learn how to make more of them.
JB: Speaking of digital, someone mentioned to me you don’t have a website.
JB: Given that it’s 2013, what’s the reasoning behind that?
JG: I don’t have any interest in people encountering my pictures on a screen, except in the most casual way. Stuff that happens on the web is like conversation. It’s like what we’re having now.
I’m more interested in the form of literature. It’s different.
JB: You used that word with respect to Berlin, but you meant it in a visual way?
JG: Oh yeah. It’s all visual. I’m a terrible writer. Like I told you, we have to talk this through. I’m not going to write any of it.
JB: Don’t you worry. I’m transcribing this stuff. You won’t have to do anything. It’s on me. (ed. note, It took me two and a half months to get to it. My bad.)
With respect to literature, though, that’s not normally the way people use the word. How do you connect the word to the constructed visual experience to which you’re referring?
JG: For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say that photographs look like something, and they’re about something. Those are two things that are totally intertwined. That “looking like” is integral to what they mean. It goes around and around. It’s an unresolvable conundrum.
As a maker of it, it’s a way to think about it. Like, “What are these things about?” And “What have I done to make them look and feel like that?”
You have a photograph in front of you. It’s in your lap, in a book, perfectly reproduced. You can see it absolutely presented. Nothing is hidden. It’s immediate. Every time you turn the page, it’s all there.
If it’s a really remarkable image, you emotionally react to it, you intellectually react to it, and you viscerally, sensually react to it. It all happens at once, in that instant. Similar to the moment of taking it.
This is the end of my Guggenheim Fellowship year, which is on a project that is going to be a book called “The Nicknames of Citizens.” It’s something I started in 2003, thinking about photographing in America, and what the nature of photographing in contemporary America might be.
The only parameters I gave myself were I didn’t want to photograph iconic American cities, in that I didn’t believe America had regionalism anymore. So the places were Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Rochester, MN, St. Louis, Tucson… just places.
JB: Did you come out of this project continuing to believe there is no longer any regionalism in America? Or did the act of investigating change your mind?
JG: It didn’t change my mind at all. Let’s put it this way: the degree of regionalism that exists is basically irrelevant to what I care about. My pictures, if I do them correctly, will all look like they could have been made in virtually the same place.
There are certain little specific differences, obviously. You can pick out that Tucson doesn’t look like Memphis. But anything that’s to the point of it is all the same. That’s where we’re going.
Walker Evans could go out and shoot Alabama one way, and Bethlehem, PA the other, and he’s stressing the differences. Even Frank’s “The Americans” doesn’t even stress that much anymore. When you decide to do a project on America, you obviously look back.
The bibles of American photography always took that subject on. And it’s interesting to decide to say, “All right. What did they do? What did they achieve? What’s left to do? Is there anything left?”
I’ve made a bet on that, but I’m not quite sure what it is yet.
In the middle of this, out of total happenstance, I wound up photographing kids that want to be artists. 17 year olds. I hadn’t done portraits in years, and I did one day in Rochester, MN, because I had nothing else to do, and it was raining. Every kid I photographed produced a portrait that just stunned me, so I did more of that.
JB: I did see those pictures, in a book at photo-eye. It’s oversized, to say the least. It’s bigger than a coffee table.
JG: It is pretty big. It’s one of those books you put under your bed. Basically, if I come over, you dust it off, you take it out, and then I ask to go to the bathroom, and I can see the square under your bed where the dust had been.
JB: Given how much you’re got going on, are there any upcoming exhibitions we can tell our readers about, or any other new books coming out?
JG: Long-term, in 2015 I have a retrospective show called “Routines” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Book-wise, I have a Steidl book that’s been for sale on Amazon for about six months that we haven’t designed or printed yet. And I’m doing a book with Kominek, the people in Berlin who did Alec Soth’s “Looking for Love 1996.” It’s called “Nothing,” with photographs I took in Saudi Arabia in ’84. Radius is doing a three volume set of color work taken in Italy, with three stories by Marlene Klein.And Aperture is doing a Masters of Photography book, which should be funny.
John Gossage: I was just coming over to answer the phone, and I was thinking, “What if the interview is just all lies?”
Jonathan Blaustein: Lies? I’m just interested in things that read well, and are interesting…
JG: Exactly. There’s more interesting things that I can make up than I’ve actually done.
JB: That may well be true. You have my absolute permission to bullshit to your heart’s content.
JG: This is the assumption that previous interviews by me weren’t all bullshit. And most other photographers as well.
JB: That makes for a great first on-the-record question, doesn’t it? Should I expect what you tell us to actually be true?
JG: Just having fun with this, you know what I think the interesting question is? It’s a question that is sort of unanswerable. But thinking about these photos I just made around Albuquerque and Cañon City, do I think that they’re actually true, or are they just good stories?
You never really get an answer to that, as a photographer. You take what you’re offered, and assume it has some germ of both in it.
JB: It might be generational, but you go to college and art school, and they do whatever they can to rub the value out of that word: true. Thanks to the Post-Modernists, it’s almost like I have a reflex. You hear the word true, and you cringe a little bit. I think that’s sad. It should be a powerful word, but it’s been robbed of some of its weight.
JG: There is a generational difference. I had a whole bunch of people from Yale come by a few years ago. Some graduate students and an undergraduate. Really, really smart people. God, the degree of theory they have honed their way to has made them incredibly confused.
The way I came up, there was nobody to talk. Nothing was theoretical. Everything was practical.
JB: Maybe part of the development of that language was a defense mechanism against photography not being considered a real art for so long?
You started making photographs at 14? And you told me you had your first show at 16? Is that right?
JG: It was about 15, if I remember right. I had my first professional assignment when I was 14.
JB: (laughing.) Who gave you your first assignment as a 14 year old?
JG: The Staten Island Advance. A newspaper. I was born and raised in Staten Island, New York, and a school friend’s father was head of the sports desk at the Advance. They had lost one of their photographers. I’d been doing it for the High School newspaper. They said it was better than what they were getting in the regular newspaper, so they asked if I’d like to do some assignment work, if it didn’t conflict with school hours.
JB: Did you look like a 14 year old, or were you unnaturally old looking?
JG: I’ve never had a good idea of what I look like, to tell you the truth. I have a feeling I looked 14, but I had really good equipment. (laughing.) As we all know, from all of the advertisements, good equipment trumps everything.
JB: Are we not now living in an age where that is more-or-less true? The off-the-shelf digital cameras, for $500, are so good that almost anyone can make a passable image. Given how much of the work that little computer chip does. Isn’t it amazing?
JG: The technical end of it has become phenomenally simple. Photography has always been a simple medium, compared to painting in oil or chipping at marble.
JG: There was never a lot of technical sweat, if you will, because the machines brought you a considerable distance. It was obviously a lot more sweat, back then. When I was in Santa Fe, I was shooting film with a 2 1/4 x 2 3/4 range finder camera, because for black and white, that produces the best results for me. I’m not wedded to technical stuff at all. I just want results.
When I shoot color, I shoot the highest end digital stuff, because I always hated film color. I sort-of stand in both worlds. But you are right, it’s very easy to make technically good images. What’s absolutely clear is that it’s very, very difficult to make images that are memorable in any particular way.
JB: I agree, and that’s a pretty terrific place to jump off from. At Review Santa Fe, you gave a talk, which I wasn’t able to attend. The word on the street was that you were there as the sober voice of reason. Or maybe not sober? It was a Sunday morning, so were there any bloody marys involved?
JG: My lecture was in a church. A few people took Iphone photos of it, and it really looks like we were delivering a sermon to the congregation. It was really funny.
JB: What was the gist?
JG: They asked me to do certain things. I was meant to speak to an audience of photographers who’d come for the review. People pay a lot of money to get there, so they wanted to give them as much take home as they could. Usually, people ask me to come and explain my work. This was more about whether I could tell them, at this point in their career, how things worked for me, when I was coming up. I said it isn’t really applicable anymore, because it’s a whole different world.
So I told stories, if you will. The running joke was that I was the speaker to crush all hopes, dreams and aspirations. But I think by that point, a lot of people had gotten a lot of opinions from people, so they’d already done that.
JB: You took it easy? I was hoping to get some dirt on what you said to crush all hopes and dreams, but it didn’t come to that?
JG: Basically, there were all sorts of photographers with different ambition levels as far as a career goes. I told them, “I’m a fine art photographer. I show in galleries and museums, and I do photography books. I don’t do commercial assignments.” By this point in my life, I would be awful at it, because I don’t take instruction well.
What does that mean? I tried to base it on the simplest business model. You’re selling a piece of paper for thousands of dollars. Why can you justify that business model? What I’m trying to do is make photographs that don’t fully reveal themselves, except after multiple, multiple viewings.
If a collector buys a $5000 photograph of mine, and puts it on their wall, and they have basically gotten from it everything they can get, in a month…I’ve ripped them off.
I’m actually sitting here right now, and there’s an Atget photograph right next to me that I’ve probably had for twenty years. I just turned my attention to it, swiveled in the chair to look. It still utterly amazes me. It’s the greatest bargain I ever spent on a piece of paper. That’s what artwork has to be. It’s not immediate satisfaction, or the whole business model is wrong. We make objects of fascination.
I saw a few people’s photographs in Santa Fe, but not a lot of portfolios, because I didn’t have a lot to offer to the people who were there. They needed concrete results. The few people who had subtler work, who weren’t getting immediate feedback of “I’ll hire you, or I’ll give you a show”…I wanted to talk to them to say that they may well be doing it right.
Somebody asked me once what the perfect reaction to one of my photographs would be, when someone saw it for the first time. I said it should be sort-of-like, “Huh.” That’s about right. “Huh” means “there’s something there…I don’t quite understand it…but there’s something that attracts me…something that I want to look at again.”
That’s what I try to do for me. To keep me interested in what I’m doing.
JB: How do you go about approaching the concept of subtlety like that? Most of the work that you do involves being out there in the world, navigating, and making pictures. What goes through your mind to force you to pull back? You’re talking about aesthetic restraint, in a sense. How does that work?
JG: It isn’t exactly thought about. When I’m out shooting, I’m not thinking. I’m reacting. It’s almost like the photographs are offered to me. That’s sort of an acquisition phase, if you will.
One of my oldest friends in photography is a photographer named Lewis Baltz. We’ve known each other since the early 70’s. Lewis is the ultimate conceptualist in the way he approaches things. Lewis knows what he wishes to do, and then he makes photographs based on those concerns, based on where he thinks he should go to illustrate those concerns most succinctly. I’m the absolute inverse.
I may set some parameters, like I’m going to Italy to photograph, or I’m going to Berlin. But I’m totally open to the world educating me on what the content is.
Having made photographs for a long time, I trust my ability to make photographs. Things almost appear to me. “That looks like that could be a photograph.” And most of the time it’s not.
I came back from this trip to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Colorado with about 130 rolls of film, because I was really pushing photographs that I didn’t know how to do. Looking at the contact sheets so far has been depressing. So many mistakes and so many stupid photographs.
Slowly I’m beginning to see the ones in there that are interesting. They’re a surprise to me.
JB: As we said, you’ve been making photographs for over 50 years. What were you doing that you didn’t know how to do? What were these challenges? Were they technical, or spiritual?
JG: It was very practical. I wanted to stand back further. I wanted to see how far I could be away from something and make contact with it. I’ve always appreciated tremendously another good friend of mine, Robert Adams. When you go to Colorado, you think of Bob Adams. There’s no way around it.
JB: Indeed. He owns it.
JG: He photographed things at great distances that seem intimate. I always thought, god, I don’t know how he does that. How does he make that work? I’m not shooting mountain ranges and tract homes.
I’m thinking “All right, step back a little further. Try to make the point of what you’re photographing almost hard to discern.” I failed a lot, because composition is like juggling a number of balls. I can only juggle six at once, and I was trying to juggle twelve.
Most of the time I dropped the ball.
The light of the fires and the smoke changed my whole sense of what light I should be photographing in. Very quickly we lost that clear-cutting Western light, for an overall smoke plume. I did a number of things with that that were of interest to me.
Changing the context of what I was doing, I started photographing right on the edge of Cañon City, where, if the fires had come over the hill that was separating the fire from the city, this neighborhood would be the first to go.
It’s not that uncommon in the West, especially these days, to have these fires. For me it was a totally different way of thinking about the anarchy of nature. (ed note, Now those same folks are worried about flooding at the end of the same Summer. Crazy.)
JB: To me, that’s why Mr. Adams’ work was so successful. It’s his emotional connection to the place. It’s almost expressionistic in that regard. You’re so aware that there was a human being, standing there with a piece of technology, capturing light.
Do you feel like maybe we’re entering a phase where it becomes far more about the accrued wisdom, knowledge and personality of the photographer, instead of just the light and texture and tonality? Does that sound reasonable to you?
JG: Everybody thinks their now is an exception to the rule. I thought so in the 70’s, and the 80’s. You think “We’re different.” The more you look, you realize we’re not.
Let’s just say, in the US, though of course it’s a world-wide community of photography, there are 25 serious voices working today that will be kept. It’s true, there’s a lot more to be disposed of now.
Look at photo books. Someone said we’re in “the renaissance of photo books and the dark ages of content.” That was the quote.
JB: That’s not your quote? Because it’s a good one.
JG: It comes from an email from a friend who I shouldn’t credit, because he’ll get in trouble.
JB: Of course you’re right, that everyone thinks their time is exceptional. But from where I stand, it’s hard not to look at the numbers game. Even if the amount of quality practitioners doesn’t vary, we’re living in a time where there are tens of thousands of photographic artists out there who all believe that they’re the ones who have something to say.
So it does seem exceptional, in that the amount of material that is constantly bombarding us is unique, in the history of photography.
JG: When I was coming up in New York City, there was little outside the city. Photographic education consisted of taking Lisette Model’s class, and maybe taking Brodovitch’s workshop. That was photographic education.
On the East Coast, there was also Minor White, whatever he was teaching at MIT, which I was never quite sure about. And at RIT you could learn how to make film with Kodak. That was the end of photographic education.
Then the programs came along. I taught graduate school for 14 years at the University of Maryland. My sense is that it’s one of the greatest educational failures of the American education system.
The College Art Association did a survey once, that I came across in their magazine. They surveyed people who had MFA’s in all fields, not just photography. They asked, five years out of graduate school, how many of them considered themselves working artists.
Five years out of school, it was 13%.
If you taught medical school that way, you’d be thrown out of school. You wouldn’t be able to teach. It’s a phenomenally abysmal statistic. There are no more really interesting voices out there with school than there were before it.
I think people become interesting in spite of it, as opposed to because of it.
JB: Let’s go there for a second. Is that not something that people are missing in general? The need to be interesting as a human being? The need to cultivate interests and passions, and contradictory attitudes? To take risks, and fail?
Where do people go wrong?
JG: Where do people go wrong? (laughing) I’m not the one to say that. With respect to the programs, I can only speak to the places I’ve been: Yale, Bard, Columbia College. People who have asked me to come and speak recently.
People have to defend their work, week after week. That’s brutal. You have talk about it all the time, but that’s stuff you can’t talk about. There’s this incredible pressure on projects, as opposed to sensibility. Most photographic projects do not resolve a subject in any particularly interesting way. Photography subjects do not tend to come to resolution.
They’re a framework in which a sensibility exists. That’s totally misunderstood by most of the younger photographers I meet. They think that projects are inherently interesting. Most projects aren’t.
One of the people I’ve gotten to know recently, and I’m going up to his opening next week, is Roe Ethridge. He’s a really, really interesting photographer. When I met the students at Yale a few years ago, basically, everybody wanted to be Roe, as far as I could tell. They sort-of admitted to it.
It’s unsolvable, what he does. It’s a mixture of everything. Commercial, un-commercial. We did a talk together in Paris, and he said, many years ago, he showed my book, “The Pond,” to his teacher Ron Jude, who told Roe that I said I made pictures to annoy people. He said he took that as the best gospel he’d ever heard.
I think Roe makes pictures to annoy people, but they’re brilliant. Just wonderful. They have nothing to do with the way I think about books, or sequencing. I enjoy seeing that. His is a unique, original voice.
Art is made by individuals; it’s not made in theory. It’s not made by being reasonable at all. It’s made by being obsessed. And you can’t teach obsession. You can’t teach obsession that’s intelligent and inviting.
Without intending to, I suppose I’ve become a real journalist. Were we to go back to my first APE post, in the summer of 2010, I suspect we’d find the writing a good deal less evolved. I was faking it until I made it.
I knew I was doing the job properly when I recently interviewed a slightly addled 94 year old man in his nursing home bedroom. I drove 3 hours to Albuquerque, just to get the story right. (And three hours back, obviously.) The conversation was enlightening, as the man reminisced about his experiences in World War II, seventy years prior.
His son, who followed his footsteps as both a doctor, and a conscientious objector, mentioned how differently we view war in the United States, since the abolition of the draft. When it was the law of the land, almost anyone could be absorbed into the fight for freedom. Everyone knew someone who had suffered.
Now, we have what he referred to as a “warrior class.” People who we pay, (and not well,) to do the fighting for the rest of us. I can’t speak for you, but I don’t personally know anyone who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. I suppose I don’t mix with the warrior class. What I know, I know from the media.
Occasionally, though, one does come across a narrative that cuts through the emotional exhaustion. Dr. Cobb’s tale was one such circumstance. Or the time I talked with Ben Lowy about the way bombs function very differently in real life than they do in the movies. (Light travels so much faster than sound.)
This week’s book is another such example. If you want to feel personally invested in things, if only for a little while, I’d heartily recommend Guillaume Simoneau’s new, aptly titled book, “Love and War,” recently published by Dewi Lewis in England.
I’d heard of this project at Review Santa Fe in 2011, but hadn’t seen so much as a photo. Buzz is a real phenomenon, like momentum, and lots of people were talking about this work at that festival. Still, I never got around to Googling it. (Thankfully. I would certainly not have enjoyed the book as much without the surprise factor.)
Apparently, the artist met a young, beautiful girl at the Maine Photographic Workshops in 2000. It was a different era, as we all know. Nobody gave a shit about Osama Bin Laden, who’s since turned the world upside down, before sinking to the depths of a forgiving sea.
The object of his (and our) affection, Caroline, eventually joined the military, and served in Iraq. She also married someone other than Mr. Simoneau. Eventually, they reunited. It’s implied, though never explicitly stated, that they conducted an affair. I suspect it was a complicated relationship.
The book tells the story in a non-linear fashion. They were together in Goa on 9/11/01, and then another photo shows a newspaper from 9/12/01, photographed ten years later. The headline speaks of George Bush bringing the culprits to the book. Is that a Canadian expression?
Caroline is visually compelling, and all of these photographs are superb. I can see why my colleagues were taken with this tale two years prior. The photos, like the subject, have charisma.
There is an essay at the end, which she wrote, that is like a kick in the gut, by a mule in a foul mood. It hurts, for a little while, but makes the preceding beauty stand out that much more.
I’d bet this is one of those books that will make all the year end “Best Of” lists that will start to pop up before you know it. (Has anyone seen a Christmas tree yet? I wouldn’t be shocked if someone somewhere is trying to kick off the shopping season in September.) It’s a great book, and will deserve the forthcoming accolades.
Most of us will never know what a charred body smells like. Or peek into an exploded tank filled with melted flesh. That’s for the best. Because I now know of at least two people who have nightmares about such things, and I’m glad my psyche was spared.
One last thing, because I forgot to mention it before now. There are photos in the book that show communications, between the lovers, in the form of photographed text messages. I’m sure this has been done before, but it’s unlikely to have been done so well.
Bottom Line: Beautiful photos, innovative story-telling, great book
I’ve made a huge mistake. Of course, you’ll assume I’m quoting Arrested Development. But I’m not. I haven’t even seen the new episodes, as my ass-backwards slow Internet is not good enough for Netflix streaming service.
I’ve actually made a huge mistake. Last week, I told you about my voracious neighbor, who is re-shaping nature to fit his whims. He has the money to do it, and that’s all that matters. But I used that intro a week early. Should have saved it for today.
Such a bummer.
Now, I don’t have an opening rant worthy of the book I’m about to discuss. I already talked about the fact that we manipulate the Earth’s environment at our peril. So what am I supposed to open with today? The Beatles? Chemical weapons in Syria? Why Tony Romo sucks, despite the fact that the Cowboys beat the Giants Sunday night?
F-ck it. I’ll just talk about the book.
“The Line” is a new soft-covered publication by Palíndromo Mészáros, published by the Universidad de Cádiz, in Spain. In case you’re wondering, I’ve always had fantasies of being an old, crinkly retired dude, sipping sherry in Cadiz, staring out at Morocco. Does that have anything to do with the book? Of course not. But since I cut the intro short, my personal narrative is creeping deeper into this week’s book review.
The book includes a tan band that sits snugly across the bottom, like a band-aid covering a bloody wound. Were that the simile were less appropriate. Alas, it is.
Remove the partial-slip-cover, and you’re faced with a photograph of a forest, with the bottom of the trees covered in ochre. (I love that word. Makes anyone who uses it seem smart. A lesser mind would just say red.)
What’s going on here? You’ll have to wait to find out. Next comes a piece of translucent, Rioja colored paper that’s partially blocking a somewhat-cliché photo of a road, receding into the distance. Yes, we’ve all seen that picture before. But at the beginning of a book, it’s obviously being used to lead us into the narrative. Nice device, I say.
Soon, we see a beautiful, flowering tree, covered, to a point, with that same ochre dust from the cover. The architecture screams Europe, but what’s happening here? Has Christo gotten loose with the paint again? Is it a large-scale performance piece that we just haven’t heard of yet?
The line of dust continues, through the eerily empty, mostly bleak landscape. Ominous vibes are building, for sure, but not until we find some text, in the middle of the book, do we know what is going on, and where in the world we are.
Apparently, on October 4, 2010, a horrible industrial accident befell a couple of villages in Hungary. 35 million cubic meters of toxic waste swept through the area, killing some, and ruining the environment. Perhaps forever, but it is not specified. The text is originally presented in Spanish, and the subsequent English translation is a bit Googly for my taste, but I suppose it is kind-of endearing. (And the Roger Fenton, Atget and Bill Owens references are right up my alley.)
From there, the line winds through the rest of the book. The photos are uniformly well-made, and contribute to the overall-very-high-quality-nature of this publication. Really, it’s just so well-thought-out.
It closes with what we assume to be the factory itself, then a big pile of the red stuff, and then a second sheet of the see-through elegant paper. Fantastic, if tragic. (How many times have I echoed that sentiment, as so many photo books deal with difficult subjects?)
The book accompanied an exhibition of the work, and both, presumably, received public financing in Spain. That the brokest country in the world is supporting artistic documentation of an environmental disaster in another European country is enough to get you out of bed in the morning. (That, and good night-dreams about waking up to cafe con leche and churros, before switching to sherry and tapas. Man, those guys have it good, even if they do have 25% unemployment. Not a bad way to spend a job-less day.)
OK. We’re done here. Yes, I’ve shown you most of the photos in the book, because there aren’t that many to begin with. But don’t be a mooch. Buy the thing, and support some Spaniards while you’re at it.
Bottom Line: Exceptional production of a far-too-common occurrence
Jonathan Blaustein: What’s the story with the beard? How long have you had that not-quite-quasi-ZZ-Top-looking thing?
Zack Arias: I have not seen my chin in sixteen years. I had a goatee after high school, and then in ’95, I went on a trip around the US, and I decided not to shave. It’s a really good device to cover up double-chins.
So I’ve just stuck with it. I had to cut it off once for a part-time job delivering pizzas. Other than that, I’ve had this stupid monster on my chin for a long time. One reason I keep it is it’s a reminder that I can’t go back to a normal day job. I have to make photography work for me.
It’s lost all its color, though, after four kids. It’s all gray and white. Part of me is ready to lose it, but none of my kids know me without it.
JB: I’ve had mine about as long as you’ve had yours. I can’t really imagine going back, they do become a part of our personality, no?
ZA: They do. I would not be able to think about things without it. Whenever I’m thinking, I twirl and pull on it. If I cut it off, I would be so lost.
JB: It’s a good point. It definitely is an advantage for guys like us. It makes us appear smarter…
JB: …and it gives us that extra beat. That extra two seconds to figure something out. You touch it, and look pensive, but really you’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say, and I need to come up with something quickly.” Is that about right?
ZA: (laughing) That is exactly it.
JB: Our secrets have now been divulged to the cyber-sphere.
JB: Isn’t it safe to say you don’t have any secrets from the cyber-sphere?
ZA: Not too many. I try to be a fairly open book, wherever I am in life. I used to operate differently. I would play my cards close to the chest, and embellish whatever I was working on so people would believe I was working on more important things than I was. The whole fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude.
That didn’t go well for me, and my whole life fell apart. I’ve always been active on forums, or some sort of water-cooler-esque type of thing where photographers commune and get together. I just decided that when I came back to photography, I would be truthful with myself, and my colleagues. For better or worse.
And it’s been a lot better. I don’t feel like I have to position myself with anyone any longer.
JB: And yet so many people are nervous and afraid to speak their mind. Wouldn’t you say?
ZA: Yes. I think so. Some people are nervous about sharing where they are in their life or career, because maybe they have to keep up the persona that “Hey, I’m busy, and things are going great.”
In a world where we all need to be nice, and professional, and everybody’s worried about sticking their neck out, or saying anything that isn’t nice…if you have a problem about something in your industry, you keep your mouth shut.
There are fantastic arguments to be made for that. I do bite my tongue a lot. But then there are times that I let it loose. I’m going to say what I think, and try to be professional, and hope that works out well.
JB: I can relate. When I started writing for Rob, almost 3.5 years ago now, he encouraged that type of honesty. I remember being really uncomfortable the first few times I let it fly. His advice, which I took very seriously, was that people respect honesty.
In my research, looking at the way people respond to you online, where you have a huge presence, it seems like there’s been a correlation with your success. Or am I assuming too much here?
ZA: I would agree with you. My goal is not to build a community, or build numbers, or get people to follow me or read my stuff. My goal is to interact with my industry, my peers and colleagues, and help out where I can.
But I am going to say what I think. The people I interact with, I want them to be the kind of people that understand that. They don’t have to always agree with me, but there has to be a mutual respect.
I don’t want to make everything sugar-coated and happy, trying to bring in as many people as possible without ever stepping on toes. I think people do react to people who are genuine. People who are honest.
You can tell that about someone by just going through their twitter feed, or reading a few blog posts. I think my number one hero in this industry today is Joe McNally, and he is the most genuine, humble, truthful, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy.
He’s very helpful, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s honest with his success, and his failures. I love that man, as a photographer, as well as a person. There’s not many people I look up to more than McNally.
We’ve all met the divas and the rockstars, and their ego enters the room before they do. I don’t want to associate with that, really.
JB: As a photographer, have you found that working in such close quarters with people, under pressure-packed environments for years, that you can kind of smell that ego and attitude as soon as it walks in the door? How are you at getting quick reads on people? Is that a skill you think has evolved?
ZA: Absolutely. Maybe it’s a personal skill that you just bring to photography, or to life. But being a photographer, especially working in editorial or commercial fields, you never know who you’re going to be in front of, and who you’re going to be interacting with, day to day.
You get an email that says you’re assigned to go shoot Mr. Jones, over at ACME company, and when you walk through the front door, you have no idea who you’re going to meet. It is a good skill to be able to size people up quickly.
In photography, you don’t have very much time to interact. If I feel like this person is puffing themselves up, that lets me know how to deal, and get the best picture out of them. Sometimes, I’ll play into that, if it lets me make the best portrait I can.
Other times, I feel like I need to bust through the veneer, and I understand the veneer, because I too had that myself. But I want to bust through that, and get something different.
It’s a good skill to have, but I can’t say if photography has taught me that, or not. You get that gut feeling about someone, when you meet them.
JB: Speaking for myself, it’s definitely a skill that I’ve learned over time.
JB: I know I was naive and worthless for some time. But pushing 40, I feel like I’ve begun to figure it out. It’s funny, because in a youth-obsessed culture, we often under-value these skills that you can only learn from taking your knocks.
ZA: Have you seen Craig Ferguson’s rant on youth?
ZA: It was one of his opening monologues. Fantastic. He comes out and says, “I’ve figured out what all the problems are.” He talked about the fact that society used to appreciate experience, wisdom and age, and then it turned to celebrating youth, and became stupid. That kind of thing.
I just hit 40, and I start to worry, am I going to be as relevant? Every art buyer I meet is fresh out of school, and twenty-something, and here comes the gray-haired old guy. But the reason that I really appreciate where I am in life now, though I know I still have a long way to go, is that I bring experience to things that don’t have anything to do with lenses, cameras and lights.
I can walk in a CEO’s office, or a hip-hop studio that’s filled with weed smoke, and I can do my job. Experience is invaluable.
JB: We’re all looking for that sweet spot. Because we’ve all seen work by older photographers, and we scratch our heads and say “when did he lose it?” So a lot of people are wondering “how do you keep it?”
ZA: I hope that the hunger to evolve always stays with me. This October marks the ten year anniversary that I left my day-job, and put a stake in the ground. I said, “I’m gonna be a photographer, dammit.” I had failed before at this venture, and this was my second chance to make it.
I’m proud of what I’ve done over the last ten years, but I want the next ten years to look different. When I hit 50, I want to change it up again. I don’t want to settle in.
JB: But for you, it’s not just shooting, of course. I think a lot of people are familiar with you through your web presence. You’ve got a popular tumblr in which you answer people’s questions, and you just turned that into a book.
You make yourself accessible to others, and you teach workshops, sell T-shirts. Do you see teaching as much a part of who you are as clicking the shutter?
ZA: I do. I actually had to back off on teaching, because I’m a photographer. I’d been asked to do some workshops, and I really enjoyed it, so I did some more. Then, a lot of my regular music-industry client work fell out from under my feet.
Teaching kind of caught me, so I started doing it more. But then, all of the favorite pictures I was creating, at that point, were at workshops. Not personal projects, or going out and getting steady client work.
I was becoming miserable as a photographer. I’ve watched photographers become popular with their web presence, start teaching, and stop shooting. We don’t really see them take pictures anymore. Yet they’re constantly out there saying, “Come on photographers, I’m going to help you out…to do the thing that I don’t do anymore.”
I love teaching, and I’ll continue to do it, but I want you to find me with a camera in my hand. I don’t want to just set up at the end of the dock and sell bait. I want you to find me with a hook in the water, and if you ask me what I’m doing, I’m going to tell you, and share my experience.
I don’t think I can be a relevant teacher, if I’m not out there shooting, and working with new technology. If all of your stories are, “Well, ten years ago, I was on this job…” I’d rather say “Ten days ago, I was on this job, and this is how I dealt with it.”
JB: I want to talk to you about Cuba, because the Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and a little birdie told me that you did a workshop with those guys in Cuba. Then I saw on your blog that you made some images down there as well. So I thought maybe we could consider you our resident Cuba expert for the day.
ZA: For the day, yes.
JB: Are you comfortable with that moniker?
ZA: I’ve only been one time, with the folks from Santa Fe. They brought me in to lead a group of photographers through Havana.
JB: So what did you think?
ZA: It’s an Un-Believable place. And the people are so amazing. Cuba is just an unreal, fantastic place. The thing I tell people, when I start talking about it is, get your ass to Cuba. Get there now, before it opens up. Before the casinos come back, and there’s a Starbucks on every corner.
It’s a remarkable place that is just on our back door.
JB: What were some of the things that were most appealing to you?
ZA: The people were the most appealing, number 1. Number 2, it was meeting fellow photographers, Cuban photographers and artists.
They have done so much with so little for so long that they can do anything with nothing. Some of the best photography that I’ve seen in a long time was done by Cuban nationals that are down there.
The stories that they tell, like when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was the red-headed step child, and they got dropped. “Sorry, you’re on your own.” One photographer was telling me that during that time, there was no film. But he had gotten his hands on some expired, 35mm movie film, and he and a buddy of his cut it up, and put it into canisters. But they didn’t have any chemistry. So they went hospitals and doctor’s offices, and got the expired chemistry that they used for making X-rays.
With vinegar and water and such, they built their developer, stop and fix, and it was super-contrasty, but it worked. So they kept shooting.
I met another photographer who had gotten hold of an old Nikon D40, or something like that, and he had an old Minolta lens. Of course, the lens didn’t fit on the body, and there were no adapters. So he would take pictures by holding the lens in front of the body, and focusing it, and he made it work.
As far as other forms of art, it’s like, I’ve got some phone books, and a cardboard box, a broom, and someone’s going to make prints. It’s a purity, and I walked away from that experience in Cuba looking at all of us photographers in the West, in the developed world, and we have everything, and we’re not doing anything with it.
They have nothing, and they are pouring out their heart into the craft. They are so sincere about photography, and art in general. We went to a ballet school, and a boxing school, and the kids are so passionate.
It blew me away, and showed me how fat and rich and spoiled we all are. I left half my gear in Cuba. I dispersed it to people who needed it, and the next time I go, I’m going to buy some used stuff, or things I’m not using much, and leave all the gear there.
“You need a camera? Here you go. You need a flash, here you go.” You take down some AA batteries with a recharging unit, and you’ve made a friend for life.
JB: It sounds like the experience offers the photographers who come down to the workshop more than just the chance to photograph old cars and beaten up doors and windows.
JB: It seems like degraded, weathered old Cuban things are images that we’ve seen so many times. How are you able to guide people away from just clicking the shutter at cliché?
ZA: You’ve got to remember, some people just enjoy photography for the sake of photography. They’re not trying to cure cancer with their camera. They’re not trying to be the next Richard Avedon, or Mary Ellen Mark. They go to Cuba, and they cannot wait to shoot an HDR picture of an old Chevy.
That is their dream, and they’re going to go home, and make a big print of it, and put it on their wall. Then, they’re going to sit back with a huge smile, because they’re going to remember going to Cuba, and getting their HDR picture of an old Chevrolet on the side of the street. And they’re going to love that.
You and I will scoff, and gag, and say “NO!” and tear at our clothes, but you’ve got to let people just enjoy it. Sometimes, I’m jealous, because there’s a lot of pictures I never take because everyone takes that picture, and I’ve seen it a million times.
What I tell people, especially on something like going to Cuba, is let photography be secondary. Your camera is your passport into experiences. There’s an old Jay Maisel quote that I harp on all the time: “If you want to become a more interesting photographer, become a more interesting person.”
You do that through increasing your experiences in this life, with the people you meet, and the things that you see. Going to Cuba will definitely make you a more interesting person. It opens your eyes to things, socially, politically and economically. You come back different, with a new perspective on life.
The pictures are good and fun, and of course you want to go down there and make photos. My thing is portraits, so I wanted to get some of those, and street photography and such. But when I think of Cuba, it’s not about the photography. I think about the people, and the music and the food and the art. Sitting out by the ocean, watching the young kids jump in the water. And the rum, and the cigars.
And the stomach bug I had for two weeks after the trip…
ZA: All of that. I don’t think about the pictures, but the camera is what took me there. It allowed me into the doors of people’s homes, places I couldn’t have entered otherwise. The camera was the excuse to share a coffee with someone, which was far more valuable than whatever picture I took.
Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. It’a heck of an answer. So good that I’m going to spin it on you. Given how well you just described Cuba, now I’m a little curious about where you’re based.
I’ve only been through Atlanta, the ATL, one time. It was very brief, many years ago, and let’s just say my memories were clouded. We’ll leave it at that.
What’s it like down there in Hotlanta? You’re from Georgia, right, so this is home turf?
ZA: Home turf. Yes. I wasn’t born here, but I moved here when I was three, so close enough.
JB: That will qualify. Is everyone hangin’ out with Ludacris, smokin’ blunts and going to Braves games? Or what?
ZA: That’s just our life. No, Atlanta a great, big city that allows you to do whatever you want to do with your life. It’s got a big enough population, 5 million and growing, that it can handle that, but it’s still a small town kind of feel. The life in Atlanta is all about the neighborhoods.
Our downtown kind of sucks. Don’t bother going there. The life is in the neighborhoods. We’re a networking city, so we love to connect people with other people. Whenever I’m out talking to someone, very often I’ll say, “You know what, you need to meet this other guy I know, because he’s working on something you could connect with. I’ll put the two of you together, because I think y’all could do something with that.”
I get a lot of work in Atlanta like that. Two people are having a conversation, and then my name will get dropped into there, and then I get an email connecting me to someone else.
We’re a great hub. I love our airport, because I can go anywhere in the world I need to be.
And I would say we rival New York in food. If you want to come and eat amazing food in Atlanta, I will send you home fat, happy, and bloated out of your mind.
JB: Something tells me New York wouldn’t necessarily compete with you guys on the biscuit and gravy front. I would think you have that all wrapped up.
ZA: I’m talking international cuisine. Not just southern food. One of our favorite places to go eat is this little dive called Hankook Taqueria. It’s a Korean taqueria with a little Southern flair to it. It’s unreal.
We have the best pizza you’ll ever put in you mouth, in this town. And I’ll say that to any New Yorker.
JB: Are you intentionally trying to provoke controversy here? I feel like you are. If you’re going after pizza…
ZA: It’s hip hop. You’ve got to have some rivalry. We got to talk crap about other places and people.
JB: (laughing.) So this is now the pizza version of Dirty South claiming supremacy over NYC-style hip hop? Is that where we’re at?
ZA: That’s where it’s at.
JB: It’s hard out here for a pimp. Is that what you’re telling us?
ZA: (laughing) One of my top three favorite movies ever, right there. Hustle and Flow.
JB: It’s a great, great film. I actually found that out by reading an interview you recently did in which you claimed that those interviewers were the most prepared and excellent that you’ve ever interacted with. So I felt that, given I was guaranteed to not be number 1, I could just be lazy. I didn’t have to do any prep.
I really felt empowered by the fact that someone else was automatically better than me.
ZA: (laughing) Well you should. Because Tina and Ryan at The Great Discontent are…
JB: They’re better than me.
ZA: They’re blog gods.
JB: I hear you. I’m not even being sarcastic. I accept the fact that I am a blog human, and not a blog god. I’m empowered by it. You’ve done me a favor.
ZA: Come on? Don’t you want to rise up to the occasion?
JB: Nope. Nope. I’m a lazy, GenX slacker, man. You’ve been generous with your time. Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know about? When did your new book come out?
ZA: It’s been out a month or two. I can’t even remember.
JB: Where can people find that? Amazon?
ZA: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, things like that. But I don’t want to toot my own horn here. I do want to give a shout out to you, and Rob, and everyone working with A Photo Editor. You’re my number 1 photography-related blog that I follow.
There are a lot of good photography blogs, but about the industry, and working, and the people that you profile, everything Rob’s built has been fantastic.
And a shout out to the Santa Fe Workshops too. They took a chance on me, doing this trip to Cuba, and I appreciate that. Get your ass to Cuba. That should be the name of this article.
JB: Get your ass to Cuba. That’s the un-official title. And that was very classy of you. In all of my interviews, you’re the first person who’s ever turned it around with a reverse shout out to us. Good on ya.
My next-door-neighbor spent most of the summer erasing a hill. Even now, as I sit and type, enormous machines are cranking and clanking away. They dig the dirt, gather the boulders, and then large trucks come and cart the land away.
He’s building a road a few hundred yards up the valley, so the hill has slowly disappeared, while the road takes form. Though humans are at nature’s mercy, we do our best to deny that reality. Foolishly, we think we’re capable of more than we are, simply because we know how to design and build things.
Most of the time, we only scratch the surface of this enormous orb. Occasionally, as we’ve seen in photographs of mining operations, we bore down a bit further. Either way, we rarely consider that the Earth is thousands of miles deep. There are rivers of water, and then lava flows, beneath the concrete on which you tread.
Wherever you live, it is difficult to get a fresh perspective on things; to be reminded our precious turf is a small fraction of the planet. Aerial photography is often used for this purpose, and it works. And we can all conjure the image of Earth taken from space. Close your eyes and try. (It’s not difficult.)
Asako Narahashi has come up with a different methodology: photographing land from the perspective of water. Wade, swim, photograph, and everything will look different. I know this, having just put down “Ever After,” the artist’s new monograph put out by Osiris. It is one beautiful production.
That’s the word that kept popping into my mind: beauty. How often do we dismiss that term as not-significant-enough? How many of you have that as your simple goal; the creation of beautiful, well made things? Were you to read the lengthy interview with Ms. Narahashi at the end of the book, (which I admit I only skimmed,) you’d see that she has loftier ambitions.
But I’m not sure they’re met, and I’m not sure they’re necessary. Looking at the photo of light gleaming off the ocean waves, with Mt. Fuji looming in the background, I wonder whether I could ever want anything more? Wow, is that a gorgeous picture. Though I haven’t complained until now, I’m actually feeling rather crappy, laid up with a cold. That photograph made me forget about my temporary troubles. I could look at it forever, withering to dust.
Flipping through, I briefly considered that the photos represent the view from inside a Tsunami, barreling towards shore. But they lack the sense of violence, so the thought was quickly discarded. And I was surprised when I recognized Amsterdam, seen from the vantage of a canal.
Only then did I realize the book moved beyond Japan’s shores, with photos taken in Dubai, Santa Monica, Brooklyn, and other places. It made for a nice diversion from my virtual Japanese vacation. Less successful was the later interspersing of land-based images. Certainly, though, the artist is free to mix up her pictures as she chooses.
That’s about it for today. I’ve got to go take some cold medicine, and put my sorry ass to bed. But this book is a keeper, and I’d heartily recommend it for your Fall Season Shopping List.
Bottom Line: Gorgeous photos of (mostly) Japan, taken from the sea
Jonathan Blaustein: Are you still in love with photography, or has it gotten boring after all these years?
Sam Abell: That’s a good question. I was asked by a student what my most significant accomplishment was at National Geographic, after thirty years, and I said that my career came to an appropriate close, and I still loved photography. Not everybody who spends their career at anything ends up fascinated and involved with it.
I think that it’s workshops, honestly, that have kept me keen about photography, and about my photography. My career as a workshop photographer came while I was at the Geographic in the late 70’s, and has continued consistently since then.
It actually has transcended my career at the Geographic, so that when my career there ended, I had momentum as a teacher, and a belief in photographic education at the workshop level.
JB: Forgive my ignorance, but you speak of your role as a photographer in the past tense. How and when did that come about? Do photographers retire?
SA: (laughing.) Well, I can’t speak for other photographers, but the photographers who went forward strongly when the so-called “official” part of their career ended, to me, were those who had taught. Teaching enriches and enlivens one’s work.
When assignments were over, photography continued. One of the primary reasons it did was that I wanted and needed to have fresh work. Also, it’s very stimulating to be around non-professional photographers. They’re the ones with the purest flame burning about their photography. I appreciate that.
My Dad took a workshop from a photographer who worked at the Toledo Blade, a newspaper I delivered. I knew this photographer’s work. My Dad took a night class from him at the University of Toledo. Without that class, I wouldn’t have become a photographer, because my Dad came home and taught me what he learned in class.
People say to me, “Who’s your favorite kind of photographer?” Or “Who would be your favorite photographer to have in a workshop?”
And I always say, “My Dad.”
My least favorite photographer to have would be myself. Someone who wanted a career at National Geographic. Because it’s almost mathematically impossible to achieve that. It’s more difficult now, to be a Geographic photographer, than it was when I came along. And it wasn’t easy at that time.
JB: That’s the assumption that a lot of people are making these days. I often find myself talking about the literal tens of thousands of photographers who’ve come through art schools and educational programs in the last few decades. To speak nothing of the everyday hobbyists and enthusiasts.
If I was able to travel back in time, and tell you in 1974 that there would be 5 billion camera-phone wielding photographers in a few decades, what would you have said to something like that?
SA: That would astonish me, of course. For example, in my dorm, at the University of Kentucky, I had the only camera. I don’t think anyone came to college with a camera, other than me.
JB: People are constantly trying to parse what it all means. It seems like some people are astonished and excited about the fact that the world has become obsessed with our particular passion. Then you see a camp that’s almost resentful, because citizens are undercutting a lot of people’s jobs. The entire landscape seems as if it’s built upon earthquake territory, at this point.
How do you view this incredible shake-up that we’ve seen in a pretty short span of time?
SA: I’m in the first camp. I’m glad about it. I welcome it. I’m keenly interested and excited for this moment in photography, and am glad to have seen the evolution of it.
It was unexpected, of course, although I was a consultant for Kodak back in the late 80’s. There were engineers there who told me that in the future, most photographs would be taken on telephones. They weren’t able to do anything with that. They were engineers, not management.
But that’s the first time I heard about that astonishing idea. And now I’ve been watching the tsunami of images.
JB: Anything that has any potential to stand out, one in a billion, needs to have something special about it. That seems like an obvious assumption. As a teacher, how has your approach to people’s expectations shifted?
SA: It’s shifted in a good way, away from what you might call the singular successful image, to the sustained body of work. Yes, there are billions more photographers, and billions more photographs every day, but who’s building up a point of view? Who’s photographing with intention, and whose body of work will sustain itself and survive?
This might seem off the track, but an interesting thing to me that others could talk about better than I, but one of the growth areas in photographic education has been the so-called slow photography. The tin types, daguerrotypes, collodion process…old processes, in short. Old, time-consuming, craftsman processes in photography.
The thing with my workshops is, photography is a thoughtful process. In an atmosphere of fast photography, and generally thoughtless, quick, automatic photography, I think that there is an interest in the slowed down, thoughtful approach. Even though I teach with 35mm, my method takes people by surprise, because it isn’t fast, and it isn’t about hardware or software, or even great results. It’s about great process.
JB: You’ve been teaching at the Santa Fe workshops, the sponsor of this interview, for a really long time now. How did you originally get involved with Reid and the crew?
SA: I met Reid at the Maine Photo Workshop, where he was #2. I saw him in action there, and when he went out to Santa Fe, I wanted to help him succeed. So my connection to Santa Fe is very closely, and continuously a connection with Reid. I believe in him and his philosophy of photographic education.
I teach at a couple of other workshops too, but I’m most loyal to Reid, and he’s been very loyal to his teachers, and to me personally.
JB: Do people come to study with you with the secret hope that you’ll help them launch the one in a million shot at National Geographic? Or do you mostly get students who appreciate your vision, and your understanding of color and light?
SA: Increasingly, it’s people not interested in National Geographic. In the last workshop I taught, a woman flew in from Thailand. She’s a medical doctor in Bangkok. I asked her in her one-on-one session where she wanted photography to be in her life.
Did she want a second career? Was it about earning money? Or was it art? And she said “None of those. I want photography to be serious in my life.” It would be like someone wanting music, like piano playing, to be a richer, deeper, and maybe even harder experience.
That’s who comes to my workshops. I jokingly tell my students that the class could be called “Your photographs: Better.”
JB: Well I’m sitting here, and it’s probably morbid, twisted professional curiosity as much as anything else, but I’m looking at “Stay This Moment,” one of your monographs, that I got at the Taos Public Library.
I’ve got the book open to a photograph of some cowboys castrating cows. This one guy actually has a surgical blade, covered with blood, jutting out of his teeth, while he’s getting ready to do some business.
JB: It says something about me that I’d choose to leave that page open…
JB: …but it seems as if you’ve seen quite a few crazy things in your days of traveling around the world taking pictures. Is that a safe assumption?
SA: That’s safe. But the picture that you chose is a singular picture for me. Probably the most singular. It’s on the spine of an upcoming publication of mine, in four sections. In other words, there’s four boxes, and each box has a section of that picture.
JB: And that’s a Radius publication?
SA: Yeah, that’s right. Though Geographic didn’t publish that photo in the story that it was done for, “The Life of Charlie Russell,” a cowboy artist in Montana. But later, maybe a year and a half ago, they named it one of the 50 greatest pictures ever made at National Geographic.
The picture has had a life, and after Geographic didn’t publish it, I got busy and published it in the book that you have, and wherever I could publish it. It’s a photograph that has gone on to have a life.
It’s also a good example of how I teach the composition of photographs: from the back to the front. Even though the picture is dominated by the cowboy in the foreground with the surgical knife in his mouth, the composition begins with the landscape, which was the first thing I saw.
Then it jumps forward to the cowboy, and everything in between is what I’m looking at. The last thing I’m looking at is the red bucket, as it exits the frame.
But the picture wouldn’t exist if the cowboy on his horse in the distance weren’t above the horizon. If the horizon were going through the head of that horse, I wouldn’t exhibit or publish that picture.
There are things that I teach, about building photographs, and that’s why people come to my workshops. Word has gotten out: Sam Abell has a way to take pictures. When people come to the workshops, they’re consumed with seeking the subject, and I teach seeking the setting.
JB: It’s kind of you to share that with the audience. I’m looking at these cowboy pictures, and they’re so iconic, I can’t help but segue to the fact that you were, at one point, the photographer entrusted with creating the massively important 20th Century archetype of the Marlboro Man.
As a National Geographic photographer, and an editorial guy, how did you come to work on that campaign?
SA: Well, I did it once, and they recruited me. I did it primarily out of curiosity. A lot of legendary photographers had worked on that campaign. Ernst Haas had done the early photography, and I knew him. There’s a lore in photography about that campaign, and I was curious.
So I did it once, and they asked me to do it again, and I declined, because my curiosity had been satisfied. It was enjoyable, interesting, and an insight into Americana on several levels that I couldn’t get any other place. Insights into advertising, and big production photography, which is the opposite of what I usually do, operating as a single person.
It was interesting to see the spectacle of a shoot like this, but it only occupied three or four days out of my life.
JB: Wow. Where were you guys shooting?
SA: New Mexico. Over where the Philmont Scout Ranch is located. The other side of the mountain from you.
JB: Up by Cimarron?
JB: Who knew? I don’t like to be predictable, but given that our audience has risen up in anger many times about what Richard Prince did to you, or to your picture, I’d be a fool if I didn’t at least bring it up.
We all know the circumstances through which appropriation got hot in the Art World, and came to represent Post-Modernism. I would guess almost all of our audience will sympathize with you, as opposed to Mr. Prince. But would you mind if we briefly discussed your reaction to the way your Marlboro Man photo was appropriated?
SA: Let’s put this way: Richard Prince’s most famous photograph was made by me.
JB: Right. What does it feel like to be in that position?
SA: I will just say, appropriation is an intellectual idea until it happens to you. It’s a philosophy, and it’s got its own intellectual framework. Then there’s what happens when it’s your photograph. Then it’s personal, and that’s all I’ll say.
The reason I don’t want to say anything about it is it has a strange power to take over the conversation. Just like it’s doing with us. I was asked to participate in a documentary about Richard Prince, and be the voice of someone who was appropriated, and I declined. The reason I did is I don’t want it to be the subject of the discussion of my work.
It has that power.
JB: I appreciate that, and I will honor you and move off topic as we speak. I brought up the cowboy images, because they’re so powerful in this particular book. Clearly, through your work, you’ve been able to travel quite a bit. Now, I’m looking at a picture of Lake Como, and there are also pictures here from Japan.
Is there anywhere in the world that you always wanted to go, and haven’t yet had the chance? Or have you scratched all of your curiosity itches?
SA: I would like to go to Antarctica. That’s about all. I’m very involved in photographing America now, so I don’t think of faraway places, as I did when I was young. As I said in the Radius book, I now want to be a photographer of my time, and our common culture.
It’s what I’m photographing, and I’m very involved with that.
JB: Where have you been photographing lately?
SA: Wherever I am. I’m never not on assignment. What I’m interested in is modern American history. I’m taken with the changes that have occurred in America in my lifetime.
I’m interested in smokers standing on ledges, and big box stores, the rise of the suburbs, and the hollowing out of small towns. Self-storage. Things that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Our common culture. What we have agreed is OK to live with.
In my first class at the University of Kentucky, my American Literature professor came in, and the first sentence out of his mouth was “The central theme of American Literature is an attempt to reconcile what we’ve done to the New World.”
I wrote that down in my notebook, and thought, “What is he talking about?” But that’s what I think about now. The New World and what we’ve done to it.
I did a story for the Geographic on Lewis and Clark, and Stephen Ambrose was the writer. He said, “I’ve got the easiest job in the world. I just have to re-tell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job, which is, pretend like nothing has happened in the last 200 years.
That statement woke me up to the fact that the landscape that Lewis and Clark came across was greater than the Serengeti. And it’s gone. It’s been replaced by agribusiness and hydroelectric projects, and cities and towns, and networks of transportation. If that happened to Africa, there would be a world-wide outcry.