I used to have a friend named Adam. He’s kind of a dick, so we no longer speak. Such a shame. Despite, or perhaps because of his cranky narcissism, he had a huge impact upon the course of my life.
We met when I was 20, and were roommates in Albuquerque for a year. I followed him to UNM, where I studied photography, and to Pratt, where I got my MFA. (No, I’m not a stalker. Yes, I know what you’re thinking.)
Adam’s last great contribution to my education came during a visit to Brooklyn, back in 2000. Along with some friends, we were smoking cigarettes outside a historic pizza joint in Dumbo, and the guys were busting my balls. (That all-time NYC über-skill.) Jessie and I were living in San Francisco at the time, and very happy.
“San Francisco?” Adam yelled. “San Francisco’s not a city. New York is a city. It’s like living in Rome at the height of the Empire. San Francisco? It’s not a city, JB. It’s a country club. A f-cking country club.”
“Screw you, dude,” I drawled. (Proud of my Now-West-Coast-Style chillness.) “It is too a city. I live there. I should know.”
“No. You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a country club. You’ll see.”
Prophetic words. Jessie and I moved to Brooklyn soon after. New York bitch-slapped us upside the head so swiftly, ferociously, and consistently that I wince even now. They were, fortunately, the most helpful, life-affirming, educational bitch-slaps I’ve received before or since. (Belatedly, I thank you, New York. It’s easy to see why you inspire genius on a daily basis.)
San Francisco, while clearly a city, elicits derogatory daggers from NYC-based writers all the time. Seriously, could they use the word “earnest” more often, while describing the famous San Francisco niceness? (Or chillness. Groundedness. Down-to-Earthness. Take your pick.)
What’s the secret? San Franciscans know they’re living in the prettiest city in the world. Yes, Amsterdam, Rome, London, Paris; are all exquisite. (And no, I haven’t been to Istanbul.) But SF has the architecture to match; thousands and thousands of Victorian and Edwardian gems.
No, the difference is the Nature. The peninsula boasts miles of extraordinary beaches along the Pacific Ocean, with rocky cliffs that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge. There are the views of Alcatraz in the middle of the bay, with sailboats glinting, and the golden/green landscape of Marin County and Oakland looming behind the shining Bay Bridge. (Gold in summer, green in winter.) Plus, the absurdist giant hills, crawling with cable cars, and the Eucalyptus-laden mini-mountains in the city’s heart. It might as well be a fantasy camp for Outward-bound junkies.
Always somewhere on the boom and bust continuum, boom-times are back in 2012. Twitter, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, all have major presences downtown now. Oracle was hosting a 50,000 person geek-fest-convention while I was there too. (Why didn’t Larry Ellison just rent the city, like he bought that Hawaiian Island?)
The Mission still has a Latino population, and Chinatown and the Outer neighborhoods contain a sizable Chinese contingent, but I was shocked at how white and wealthy the downtown section of the city had become. Safe and clean are attributes that draw a certain demographic.
The Bay Area also has access to a bottomless vat of cash-money that practically rivals the Chinese government for liquidity. (Apple and Google are just up the road.) The lifestyle is the big draw. Living in such a beautiful place, where it never snows, is good for your brain chemistry. As is the obvious access to healthy, locally-grown produce, the amazing restaurants and cafes, wine country across the red bridge, and all those nice, chilled out, progressive people as your neighbors.
Open-mindedness blossoms. So much tolerance is addictive. And many folks stay forever, given rent controls, another side-affect of progressive politics. Not surprisingly, co-operative spirit prevails in a place like this.
When I got to town in early October, I found an excited, successful, productive, collaborative, energized photography community. (Whether people were based in the City, or elsewhere around the Bay.) Everyone I spoke to seemed to be connected to one another and supportive of each other’s success. Artists, gallerists, curators, and publishers were working together in different combinations and permutations. (At Gallery Carte Blanche, in the Mission, there was even a mashup exhibition of books from the Indie Photobook Library and framed prints shown together.)
My local contacts, whom I’d met at Review Santa Fe, were so generous with their time. Pointing me in the direction of places to see photos. Sharing the principles that have engendered their success. Inspiring me to break my karaoke cherry. (Yes, I serenaded someone, by request, with Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Does video evidence exist? I don’t know. Would I be ashamed? I suppose we’ll find out.)
The photographers I spoke with, Kevin, Pacarrik, McNair and Sarah were all involved in different critiquing groups. Each was also shooting multiple personal projects at once. They were affiliated with similar publishers, (Owl and Tiger, Daylight) and either worked, printed or hung around Rayko, the gallery/everything space just up the street from SFMOMA, under a highway overpass. When I visited Rayko, Lydia Panas’ “The Mark of Abel” was on view, looking gorgeous, and Kevin’s show, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” was due to open the following week.
Ann Jastrab, the gallery director, gave me the guided tour. Rayko offers full, wraparound services for every possible photographer’s need. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) I saw a shooting studio with lights, gang and private black & white darkrooms, a color processor and darkroom facility, plus a full digital setup with computers, a rental Imacon, a drum scanner, and large format printers.
In addition, they have the aforementioned gallery, a full slate of classes, a glass case selling used cameras, a working vintage 1940’s photo booth, and an artist residency program too. Amazing. It’s like Rayko decided that the 21st Century Hustle was here to stay, and built a business model to satisfy its cravings.
Believe it or not, I told Rob that this San Francisco Series would be more condensed than normal. Not the Introduction, apparently. Henceforth, I’ll do a few specific exhibition reviews, as I saw so many stellar shows. (And one klunker I might just write about.)
Before I go, though, I’d like to deliver a message to my San Francisco peeps, meant with love. It is so gratifying to see your scene thriving. Especially as it’s obviously built upon mutual respect and communal positivity. Kudos.
It can be a challenge, when you’re all connected, to always share your truest thoughts in a critique. When people need to stay on good terms, in order to succeed, there can be a disincentive to probe and offend, which is often necessary to reach that next level of creative excellence. So stay vigilant while you stay classy, San Francisco. It’s a small concern, relative to all the things you seem to have figured out at the moment.
Two months ago, I referred to Daido Moriyama as a woman. My mistake. Let this be my official apology. He is clearly a man, and I was remiss for stating otherwise. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
How could such a thing happen? Well, I’m not omniscient. Despite the fact that his work is everywhere at the moment, (Tate Modern et al) I’d not seen much before I picked up that Okinawa book. And let’s not forget Dido, that New Age singer who was sampled in that classic Eminem song back in ’99. It must have stuck in my head as a woman’s name. (Like any parent knows, accidents happen.)
But I’d love to atone, and see an easy way to do so. I will now tell you of the existence of “Labyrinth,” Mr. Moriyama’s new book, recently published by Aperture. Yes, this week is more show than tell; not quite a straight review. (Even by my absurd standards.)
Why? Because this book consists of hundreds of black and white contact sheets. Only. Thousands of images. Not even an essay, thank the photo gods. Just an endless stream of photographs, presented with the hits next to the misses. As they were shot.
I’m providing a couple of extra photos, so you can feel confident about your prospective purchase. My two cents? Dynamic imagery, innovative concept. (I’m sure if anyone has ever done this before, you’ll tell me. It’s cool nonetheless.) And to you, Mr. Moriyama, you have my apologies. Keep up the good work.
I complicate things sometimes. With my elaborate introductions, I could be accused of stealing the spotlight from the books themselves. With the constant references to self, perhaps I am nothing more than a child of a meta-obsessed generation? Malkovich inside his own head.
If I were kind, though, I might focus on my laurels, like the desire to discuss these books in the context of a lived experience. We share more in common with each other than we don’t, I believe. And yet there are some ideas which cannot be accommodated with others. Some divides seem genuinely unbridgeable.
First on my list would be that gap between extreme religious believers, and the rest of us. Religion, taken to its limits, can be an Operating System. The code, once uploaded, can only work within those sets of instructions. No new information can infect a closed loop.
While Jewish in upbringing and somewhat Buddhist in leanings, I have nothing against the whole endeavor. Whether it’s creation mythology or community building, there is a lot of good in said holywater. But much of the death and destruction we see today is based upon either the nasty intertwining of religion and tribalism, or the inability of ancient beliefs to reconcile with a 21st Century understanding of the world.
Here in the US, we have an almost unbelievable battle waging. On one side lie those who believe that Dinosaur bones are only a few thousand years old, women are subservient to men, and the planet is not warmed by an excess of carbon in the atmosphere. Basically, they don’t believe in science.
The others, myself included, view the continuum of knowledge as a good thing. Physics and genetics and all manner of science wings pursue more and more information, while also admitting how much remains to be learned. It’s absurd and also humbling to believe we used to be Australopithecines, grunting and hirsute.
Is this going anywhere? Does it ever? This week’s book is special, and while I rarely go out and say it, this is probably a book to buy: Berenice Abbott, “Documenting Science” recently published by Steidl. Only in the end notes did I learn that this is the second in a series of books about the artist that Mr. Steidl is producing.
The book begins with a wonderfully written, obviously vintage letter by Ms. Abbott, pertaining directly to her desire to study the eponymous subject. So cool. “The artist through history has been the spokesman and conservator of human spiritual energies and ideas.” Serious intentions lead to serious work.
The photographic plates, made from scans in the Steidl studio, are masterful. (And will definitely suit the tonal range cultists out there.) Different scientific concepts, like Motion, Electricity and Magnetism, and Light and Optics are delineated through a variety of individual examples. Each idea has been rendered as an experiment, or visualization.
It’s terribly clunky in words, I know. That’s part of the point. There’s no magic in the phrase “Conservation of Momentum in Spheres of Unequal Mass.” Yet the photograph those words describe is genius. Kinetic yet Zen.
The book is solid as well as dense. If you read this column, and are a book consumer as well, this is one to consider. I’m not sure what it costs, but you’ll likely return to it again and again for years. As well as it’s built, it ought to resonate down the line, serving as proof that Science is more than just big words and thick glasses and white coats.
Growing up hetero and male, there is nothing more alluring than a woman’s private parts. The vagina is talismanic, and leads to unhealthy obsessions. For years, in one’s adolescence, a woman’s naked body sits on top of the teen hierarchy, above even cash-money. Objectification may stem from the media’s depiction of women, but there is a genetic element as well.
Then one day, you have a daughter. The day you bring her home, and change the first diaper, the appearance of the vajayjay, as it’s now called, is disconcerting. Confusion follows repulsion, as one really doesn’t know how to recontextualize the situation. Do you look away? Stare at it? Wiping away the brown business requires focus and co-ordination.
I’m not the first man to have a daugher, obviously. We all deal with the awkwardness, and then get more competent. Now, I barely flinch at the task. But I do think, quite a bit, about how my perceptions of women were built upon that foundational obsession. And now, will it forever be different? Is this a cliché sentiment? Probably.
But it could also lead to growth. Sure, I’m an avowed feminist, but raising a girl will inevitably roll over my preconceptions, like a tank over a bicycle. Diggety, diggety, crunch, diggety, diggety.
Father, or not, though, I was totally engrossed with “This Face,” a new book by Chinese artist Xu Yong, recently published by Editions Bessard. It’s a nice follow up to last week’s book, as these images also meditate on the the intersection of boredom and repetition. (Plus daily suffering for the almighty dollar.) Or, in this case, the Yuan.
The book is soft-cover, and probably not built as strongly as I would like. But I’m not the publisher, and of course, it must have been cheaper this way. The string binding sits on the outside, and the initial essay is an insert that falls out too easily. Which is not always a bad thing, because, in this case, it allowed me to see the images without context.
Each photograph is a tight portrait of a young, Chinese woman’s face. It takes a bit of page turning to determine that it’s the same person, because our eyes must acclimate first. (Which builds curiousity and interest.) It’s a great way to add a touch of tension, and keep the pages turning.
She wears no makeup, then lots, and then none again. Her expression changes, but always maintains its guard. We see this face, and want to keep looking, but there is never the payoff of vulnerablity that we crave. Kept at a distance, yearning for the personal connection, the tension remains.
After the pictures, there is a text page, in English and probably Mandarin, that reads “The images of Zi U’s face, a prostitute were photographed at intervals through a day of her work.” Jackpot. That’s what the story is about.
From there, we’re given a dense but taut diary, written by Zi U, that graphically describes the events, and penises, that she encountered while the photos were made. Totally fascinating. And then, of course, you go back through the photos and try to read her face more carefully. The narrative is linear, so the waking up is easy to spy, as is the end of the day. The in-between? Still obscure.
People will always be fascinated by the world’s oldest profession. The allure of the salacious is hardwired. It explains so much of our entertainment habits, from action movies to MMA to pornography. Here, I believe the artist has personified it in a poignant way. It boils down to a woman, making money with her body, and hiding the rest of herself from her Johns, as well as the camera.
Bottom Line: A compelling look behind a hooker’s veil
I recently spoke with Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena, who’s based in the battle-torn city of Monterrey. His work has been awarded and honored like crazy the last few years. “Suburbia Mexicana” was exhibited this Summer at Kopeikin Gallery in LA, and his current project, “Car Poolers,” was published in the NY Times Lens Blog and Lens Culture.
Jonathan Blaustein: Are you well? I know you’re busy.
Alejandro Cartagena: Yeah, I’m doing great. I’m doing a lot more commercial work than I expected. Commissions too. All the publicity. I don’t know how you say it in English?
JB: The hype. The buzz.
AC: Right. The hype, the buzz, it helped because people you wouldn’t expect to hire me for jobs are hiring me for stuff. Not just documentary stuff. Right now, I’m shooting chairs for a chic design firm.
It’s been really cool to be able to expand my job like that. I’m not a particularly good product or advertising photographer, but pushing those limits seems interesting. It makes you understand a little more how an image works. I think I’m starting to like it. I don’t want to do too much, but it’s good right now.
JB: So your career has shifted because of the success you’ve had as an artist? People have approached you and asked you to do stuff you’ve never done before, and you’re learning on the job?
AC: Definitely. Three weeks ago I got a commission to go to El Salvador, to shoot a coffee farm. That was a 3 day shoot. The farm, the processing plant, the owner, the people working there.
What I tell the clients is that I don’t know how to do work that’s used as advertising, but I do know how to do portfolios for your products. You want to show off how nice the design is on something, I can take that out of your product to make it look really nice. Not to sell the product, but how you produce your product. That’s where I’m trying to push my commercial work.
I don’t know how you put that. Documentary Commercial Photography?
JB: Have you had to change your equipment to make the switch? What are you shooting with?
AC: Last year, I bought my first big digital camera. The 5d Mark II. And now I have a 3 piece lighting setup. This has pushed me to have an assistant, who knows about lighting, who helps me to produce the shoots. It’s something I’d never done before. I’d just go out with the medium and large format camera and shoot whatever I wanted.
I’m still shooting my projects. One here in Monterrey, and one in Guadalajara. I have the flexibility to still do that, and also do the commercial jobs that bring in some money.
JB: We kind of launched into this, because my first question was “How are you?,” and here we are. So let’s back it up a bit. Given your name, and your accent, and the fact that you live in Monterrey, 99% of people will assume you’re Mexican, but your bio says you were born in the Dominican Republic. How did you end up in Mexico?
AC: My Dad came to Monterrey to study in the 60’s. There was this big thing in the Dominican Republic in education where the government was giving money out to people to go study abroad. But they were obligated to come back to work in the sugar cane factories or any specialized engineering job.
When he was here, he married my Mom. They went back, and me and my other three brothers were born there. They left Mexico in ’69, and they stayed in the Dominican Republic until 1990. That’s when I came to Monterrey.
JB: Can you do the math for me. How old were you?
AC: I was 13 when I left.
JB: Do you feel Mexican?
AC: At this point of my life, I’m definitely Mexican. I feel Mexican, I love Mexican food, I love my city, I love my country.
There is a strange thing going on between me and my wife right now. It’s this going back to our roots. We don’t know if it’s the baby that’s coming? My wife’s Dad is Canadian, her Mom is American, and she was born here in Mexico. So she’s this weird NAFTA kid, you know? American/Canadian/Mexican. And she’s been listening to all this country music and american oldies songs.
Weirdly, I’ve been going back to listening to a lot of Merengue music, which is Dominican. So I don’t know. This thing about having a child, wanting to be in touch again with my roots, it’s bubbling out a lot lately.
JB: Congrats. When are you going to have a baby?
AC: First of October.
JB: So you’re coming up. I can’t bitch too much about my stress because you’re sitting right there too.
Let’s talk a bit about Mexico, though. I just learned that Monterrey is the wealthiest city in Mexico, which caught me off guard. I would have assumed it was the DF. But I was wrong.
So you’re based in the wealthiest city in Mexico, which is up there in the Northern desert, in the middle of the Drug War shitstorm.
JB: The World wants to hear about this stuff, and you’re right there. You got a new President elected, and the PRI is coming back. The guys who ran the country for, what, 100 years or so?
AC: 70 years.
JB: 70 years? I was close.
AC: It’s almost the same.
JB: Right. That’s a big deal, and geo-politically, you’re sitting on the front lines. And I know that you make work in and about Monterrey, but thusfar, it’s touched only tangentially on the Chaos, unless I’m mistaken.
What’s it like?
AC: I think precisely because it’s the richest, that’s why it’s the most fucked up at the moment. There’s so much money, there are so many people wanting to have more money, there’s so much ambition. The downside is there’s not enough jobs to have that money, so there’s a lot of poor people at the same time.
An ex-girlfriend used to work in a government agency, it’s like what used to be the FSA in the US. It’s an institution that goes around and finds poor communities, and they try to find them jobs, they bring them food, they document them. And Monterrey has more than 60 below poverty communities.
So that speaks to the disparity. There’s so much wealth, but also so much poverty.
JB: It’s kind of a popular topic here in the States. Our statistics on income inequality are rising. The problems that come from that grand a chasm tend to cause a host of problems.
JB: But as far as violence, is your quality of life impacted in the rising gang wars of the last couple of years in Monterrey?
AC: Yeah. Starting in that difference of income, that creates a sense of anger towards all the people who have so much money. And they’re so separated. The people who have money live in this part of town, and the people that don’t live in that part of town. I mean, this is nothing new in the world, but when the shit hits the fan like its happening here it feels like its never happened before.
Then with the building of all these suburbs, for the rich people it’s perfect. Just send them as far as you can. Only the rich get to stay in these prime lands.
That has created the perfect scenarios for the gang situation. I don’t know, when we talked before, if I told you how the drug war has moved into these suburbs I used to photograph. Those are the perfect spots for them to live, right now, because there is no police. And if there is police, they’re corrupt, or they’re actually part of the gangs.
My Mom’s from a place, it used to be a little town, it’s called Juarez. It’s not the crazy Juarez from Chihuahua, and it used to be 30,000 people in 1993/94/95, and now it’s more than 300,000 people, with the same amount of police and transit police. So that tells you how the growth of that city, and that suburb, has made it so easy for the drug people to move into those areas and just be Kings.
There’s nobody watching them, and if they are watching them, they’re part of the deal. That has made it very difficult to live in Monterrey. You don’t know who’s who. You want to be looking at people who look kind of sketchy, but at the same time, it’s the police also who’s sketchy.
That definitely impacted our way of life. We used to live right downtown, and six months ago, we decided to leave because its become unbearable. There are shootings in downtown. After 8pm, there’s no one on the streets. It was getting kind of dangerous.
We decided to move to just outside of downtown. It’s a bit safer. We’re close to a couple of embassies, so there’s police patrolling once in a while. It makes you feel a little safer, but definitely we changed our lifestyle.
You don’t go out at night that much. Or if you go out, you try not to go to a restaurant. Because that’s become a mess here. They go into restaurants, and they steal people. They take their cars. There’s been some cases where they rape women in the restaurants. So those kind of things just get you paranoid and scared.
You try to live your life around those things that you can’t do anything about it. You try to be in at night. You try to go out when you can. There was a point last week where me and my wife got a little paranoid about even going to parties.
The bad guys started going to parties. If they would hear music outside the house, it was a perfect place to come in and steal and make trouble.
JB: Wow. (pause.) I’m rarely speechless. I spent a lot of time in Mexico in the last 10 years, including going places 10 years ago that I would never go now. As an American, it almost looked like the whole Calderon Presidency was to see if the government was powerful enough to take down the cartels, and now that it’s over, it looks like the answer has been given, and the answer is No.
JB: Is there a sense of fatalism in Mexico now that the cartels are so rich and powerful? Do people feel like Mexico is doomed? Or do people talk about Columbia, and how fast things turned around there? What’s the mood?
AC: Let me think what I’m going to say. I definitely feel scared of what happened in these past six years. I vaguely remember, maybe it was in January of 2007 or 2008, when Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers, to Michoacan, or another region where there was a lot of trouble with the drug cartels. I remember feeling, “This is so awesome. They’re finally gonna get rid of all of this shit.” (Laughs.) At least, from my perspective, I was really excited that a President had taken such a big decision to attack the cartels.
But then it all just went to shit. It all went downhill from there. Everything started to get worse. Before 2010, in 2007, you would hear of the killings, but it was always out of the city. In the suburbs. There was no violence in the city, or downtown, where there was more police.
And then, in 2007, it all turned around here in Monterrey. You started to hear about people being killed downtown. Bodies being dropped in the middle of the street in downtown. It just started to rise and rise and rise and just get worse and worse.
It almost seemed like the cartels were in a campaign of terror, for us as civilians. They started to hang people on highways. They started to line up people on the street and just shoot them and leave them there. I can’t speak for the other people of Monterrey, but for me, that got really, really scary.
Of course, you become paranoid. You’re always trying to watch out not to get in the crossfire. I’ve had friends who were close to the balaceras, how they call them here.
In 2010, that’s when I really got scared. That’s when the shootings really started in downtown, just blocks from our house. I remember there was one shooting that was really crazy. It went on for like 30 minutes, and I never heard something like that. It was like a war zone.
It started with a couple of gunshots, pop pop, and we were in bed. I remember looking at my wife, and thinking, were those firecrackers? And then, suddenly, Boom Boom, and all different sounds of machine guns and grenades. That’s definitely not fireworks.
We dropped to the floor, and went to the middle of the house, and we were lying on the ground. It was so scary. I’m sure, for war photographers, that’s something that you experience. But for a city boy, in your city, at 12 at night, when you’re getting ready to sleep?
JB: I can’t imagine. I just can’t. You use the word terror, and it looks like the cartels have been robbing the playbook from the Taliban, and straight up terror groups. They understand that if you create that degree of bone-shaking fear in a general populace, then you can control that populace. It sounds like the rule of law is not really there with you guys right now, and it’s tragic.
I don’t want to make light of it just for an interview. I love Mexico, and I go, because my parents live in Playa del Carmen in the Winters. I’ve seen the growth there. I’ve got massive curiousity as to how the Italian and Mexican Mafias co-exist so well down there. But that’s another story. I want to be a fly on the wall in that sit down to hear how they divide up the town, because the money laundering is off the charts.
JB: But for “Suburbia Mexicana,” you were a guy walking around some sketchy rural and mountainous neighborhoods with some very expensive camera equipment, by yourself. Fairly recently.
So you’re telling the global photo community that now, even two or three years later, you could not do that work anymore?
AC: Now that I think of that, I feel so lucky that I was so naive to go into those places. At that moment, I didn’t know that those were the places that the drug people lived. From 2011 to now, it’s become really unbearable. Everything has become exposed, and you know that they live in these small suburbs in the outskirts of Monterrey.
I finished shooting in late 2009, early 2010. I would take my car and park outside of wherever I was shooting. I would carry my 4×5 and my tripod, and just walk. I felt that made people a little bit less scared of me, and made me not so vulnerable, even though I was vulnerable.
They wouldn’t be scared of me. I wasn’t in a car, and I had a huge camera. It’s not like I was going to run away or be trying to gather data on them. So people were very accepting of me an my presence. I don’t know. At this moment, I would not even think of doing something like that. I was lucky nothing happened. It’s getting scarier and scarier and scarier.
Most of the portraits in that book were done in Juarez, where my Mom’s from. My parents have a restaurant there, or they had a restaurant there. They actually had to close down the restaurant in February because of the Mafia-Cartels. They started to ask for money.
JB: Shakedowns. Protection. My god. We see photo essays about this. Maybe read an article in the New York Times. But I think it’s difficult for most people to straight up empathize, and to think about what it means to be living without governmental protection.
I know Mexico well, and I live in a border state. The fact that the US, this global superpower, has spent trillions of dollars, and essentially all of our political capital, fighting two wars on the other side of the planet…
JB: And in that exact time, our most important neighbor, (No offense to Canada,) is living with borderline Chaos in some places. It’s an underreported story, how the US squandered so much, and left our neighbor to eat the shit.
AC: Yeah. As you were saying, I think it’s very difficult to be empathetic to the situation here, because I think, even we as citizens of Mexico don’t understand what’s going on, at some point. There’s so much rhetoric by our government saying everything is so well and fine, and nothing’s happening. A lot of people believe it. I don’t think there’s anyone in government, any politician saying, “You know what, Mexico’s crap right now. We need to do something about it.” There’s nobody saying that!
At least the elected ones. They’re just saying, “Oh that was a minor incident. They killed 52 civilians in a Casino. Oh, that’s nothing. That’s just between the drug people.” Man!
JB: Are they afraid of assassination?
AC: I don’t know what the fuck are they afraid of?
JB: Maybe it’s that they don’t have the juice. We started this with me asking, did the government lose the war? And the results on the ground seem to say they did. They don’t have the money or the power or the clout to stop the cartels right now. That doesn’t mean it’s over. Colombia’s got to be a good example for you guys, that things can turn around.
AC: Yes, but its different in many ways and things aren’t complete cured in Colombia yet.
JB: But look, one of the things I love about your work is that you’re a humanist. You’re able to look into complex stories. “Suburbia Mexicana,” in anyone else’s hands, would have been a snarky, ironic look at how mass consumption leads to environmental degradation.
JB: And I reviewed the book twice, so I’m not going to repeat what I said, but you didn’t do that.
JB: You’re able to understand the human element. What you’re living through is proof that human beings are insanely resilient animals. You’re living through things that people who live in Afghanistan, or Syria, or Iran, or Sicily have been living through for decades or more. God willing, that’s not going to be Mexico’s fate. But people like me, people here in the United States, we can’t help but take our governmental protection for granted. It’s crazy. You’re only a few hundred miles away from me right now.
Enough of my rant. Let’s segue for a second. I know “Suburbia Mexicana” is being exhibited right now, at Kopeikin Gallery, in LA. And concurrent with that, you curated a show called “Looking at Mexico.” So now we can call you artist and curator.
AC: No, no.
JB: OK, then we can call you a pretend curator like I’m a pretend journalist. Well, congrats. I don’t want to recite the list of honors you’ve racked up in the last few years. I know that you’re traveling a lot, you’re exhibiting across the world. You’re getting collected. All the things that people want.
On the surface level, you’re as successful as any of the colleagues I know. On a personal level, you’ve already shared that you’re living through an insanely difficult situation.
AC: Its a complicated thing.
JB: My heart goes out to you. But you were just in London, and in Amsterdam. When you’re in these safe European countries, with their decadent beautiful art cultures, is it difficult to reconcile? How are you dealing with that? Do you have to bifurcate your personality?
AC: That’s pretty cool that you brought that up. That’s definitely a sensation, not only when I go to Europe or the States, even to other cities here in Mexico. I understand how paraniod I’ve become. When I go to Mexico City, or Guadalajara, it’s like I can’t believe I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see if someone’s following me.
There’s this huge sensation of relief that I can be myself. And I don’t have to be looking out for myself. So definitely, I think I’ve become two different people. One outside, which is the normal me, and when I’m home, I’m me the paranoid Alejandro.
Google is a big number, but not quite infinity. Hanging Chad means the guy who’s always sitting on the couch, next to your roommate Aaron, drinking your beer. The Soviet Union is dead, China has yet to rise, and Americans feel like the world is a big apple tree, and all you have to do is grab what you can.
I’ve just moved to San Francisco, and live in the Mission District with my girlfriend, Jessie. (Now wife.) Dotcom millionaires peek their heads out of limousine sunroofs as they cruise through our neighborhood at night. I get my coffee with a bagel and cream cheese at the cafe on the corner for $1.50.
Tired of waiting tables and ready to be an adult, I get a job at a non-profit, progressive public relations firm on Mission St. The organization, since merged with Fenton Communications, was a spinoff of the famed liberal bastion, Global Exchange. My co-workers are a typically San Franciscified bunch; all colors, sexes, and sexual orientations are represented. (Yes, I’m being literal.)
We were housed within the same building as our Global Exchange brethren. Thick body-odor musk, wafting taqueria fry grease, and a lingering marijuana stench contributed to a healthy, lived-in aroma. Everyone was talking about how they were just in Nicaragua, or Guatemala, and pronounced the names with proper Spanish emphasis. Life was good.
Two weeks in, the ED announced the company was moving to the Embarcadero, right on the Bay. My commute would grow from a short walk to a 30 + minute hassle, requiring BART. And lots of rain.
We moved into a re-done, second floor office, built directly onto the pier. Nice view: seagulls, the TransAmerica tower, the shimmering reflection of the Bay Bridge on the water. Unfortunately, the space inside bore the typical corporate color scheme of gray on gray on gray. Carpets, partitions, office chairs, all gray. Immediately, my job, answering phones, helping to change the world, lost its glamour.
Sure, the higher-ups were battling to make the world a better place. But I was stuck fighting my myopic boss about which garbage cans to buy for under everyone’s desk. Foolishly, I made a rash decision, and was shamed as she slowly circumnavigated the room, interviewing each employee as to their desired preference of trash-bin-recepticle. Chastened, I promised never to make a unilateral decision on matters of such significance.
Days became weeks, and I became less happy as each passed. My naive desire to join the San Francisco non-profit community led me straight into my own, boring-ass version of Office Space. The phones rang, I answered them. The trash filled up, I emptied it. Wow, just writing about it bores me. So lets move on.
One day, I woke up and realized that the average-joe-lifestyle was not for me. Monotonous, sterile, repetitive. Gray on top of gray on top of gray. Please, make it stop.
So I quit, ready to commit to being an artist.
Here we are. It’s 2012, and this week marks my one year anniversary of writing this column. I’m sitting on my favorite green couch, my feet now wedged against my daughter’s crib. I’m headed back to San Francisco in a couple of weeks to check on the art scene, and report back. My how things have changed.
But this wouldn’t be a column if I didn’t write about a book. Today, the above musings were brought to you by Florian van Roekel, who seemingly self-published a super-cool book called “How Terry Likes His Coffee.” Some of you might have seen it before, but the 2nd Edition landed on my book pile, and I’m loving it.
The book is black, with yellow post-it-style sticker on the front. It looks like a fancy pad that you might use to take notes at the Friday Staff Meeting. Straight away, it opens on the doodles that some Terry might have made while studiously not listening to what was going on in said meeting.
Apparently, Mr. van Roekel spent some time in actual office parks in Holland, because you could never fake it so well. (And I’d guess he was influenced by Ricky Gervais’ “The Office” as well.) Even Thomas Demand’s fastidious recreations lack the soul-sucking, stultifying reality of what we see here. I’m having flashbacks. “Hello, Communication Works. This is Jonathan. How may I direct your call?”
The book follows a pattern of my current favorites, which is to include non-photographic imagery, and to create a natural progression. A narrative. A plan. It begins with with office party decorations, file cabinets, cubicle art, the water cooler, jackets on the back of chairs. All the images feature a heavy use of flash, which by now you must know I enjoy. Not everyone does.
Then we’re into the portraits, mostly backs of heads. Awkward. Uncomfortable. Too real to mock, to awesome not to appreciate.
–“Hey Terry, how was your weekend?”
–“Oh, you know, the ususal. Bought some terrific hash at the coffee shop, stared at my reflection in the canal for 45 minutes. Watched a football game on TV. That Robin Van Persie is such a wanker. How about you, Josh?”
–“Oh, you know, the same. Shannon’s mother is in town, though, and you know how that is. Hah, hah. If I’m not careful, she likes to grab my package under the dinner table. Just pour her whisky a bit heavy, though, and she’ll fall asleep before it gets to that.”
After the back of the head shots, and more portraits, the artist moves onto a set of double-images. Slightly, slightly different, but really the same. The sales pitch. The cold call. A terrific metaphor for monotony. If I use the word monotonous one more time, I will have acheieved its effect.
Next comes the office get-together at the pub at the end of the day. No faces here, just shoes, suits, & some sneakers on the ladies who got tired of high heels. Hands on shoulders, hands on elbows, coasters on the table. Routine. Finally, at the end of the book, we see some nature images. A walk in the park on Sunday? Has to be. Right?
Bottom Line: Has somebody got a case of the Mondays?
It’s cold and grey outside. A wet wind whistles in from the West. Summer’s sultry sun is gone, taking with it the long, languid days. (And the afternoon-delight-style naps are gone as well.) Soon enough, my nose will freeze and my toes will cry as I cram them into my snow boots. Winter is long in the Rockies.
Fortunately, I have an antidote. I fire up the teleportation machine, as it needs a few minutes to warm up. (Don’t we all.) Then, I step inside the lexan booth, enter the encrypted security code, say a prayer, and push the button. Poof.
I emerge, almost immediately, in a purple/yellow/green field. Trees sway gently in the breeze, which carries whiffs of garlic shrimp, bitter coffee, and roasting peppers. It’s quiet; the grass soft beneath my feet. At first I am alone, at the edge of the woods. Intermittently, I am joined by passing wanderers: a man and his daughter, two young-ish boys heading deeper into a tryst, a pair of gypsy children.
The light needs a camera for proper description. The colors are not natural, but only because the remnants of sun’s castoff rays commingle with the light pollution at the margins of the city. Which city? On the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, I’m not sure it matters. The teleportation device’s range is notoriously broad, like a pre-smart Navy missile, so it could be any number of places.
Fortunately, with a 5 year old at home, I’m skilled at pretend. Today, I owe my lingering daydream to a quiet, little soft-cover book, “In the fields of gold,” by Miquel LLonch. It was recently published by Poursuite, with support from the cultural board of Terrassa.
The book is slim and delicate, but not in the kind of way that makes you worry about ruining it. The inside flap has a short statement, in French and English, explaining that the artist is a child of the Mediterranean, and hopes to live and die there like his forebears. Keep the integrity of the tribe and all.
Then, we’re right into the photographs, remnants of twilight walks at the edge of the city, which remains unnamed. As I’ve said before, if an artist wants you to know something, he/she will give you that contextual information. So here, clearly, the exact locale was unnecessary. I’m guessing Barcelona. The book has Spanish thank you section, and the artist’s name seems Catalan to me.
As to the photographs, there are exquisite landscapes mixed in with dreamy portraits of the aforementioned passers by. The people shots are nice, but it’s the landscape images that sit in my brain still. Wow, are they lovely. Mystery without menace is a difficult balance.
Are the colors real? Silly question in 2012. Everything’s subjective, whether your picture is massaged in camera via settings, in a web app via filters, or back in Old School Photoshop via color correction. The more appropriate question might be are the colors expressive? Claro que si.
Sadly, I have to give these books back. My little sojourns are temporary, and then the pictures live in my head. In this case, I’m ambivalent. Sure, I’d keep it if I could, but it’s not necessary. I can taste the salt on my tongue, feel the next-day sun on my cheeks, and relish the hangover churro as it slides down my gullet into a grumbling stomach.
Bottom Line: Pretty twilight landscapes, perfect for September
Last Spring, I got to catch up with Asger Carlsen, the Danish artist behind the amazing 2010 book, “Wrong,” and the forthcoming Mörel project “Hester.”
Jonathan Blaustein: Why did you decide to move from Denmark to New York?
Asger Carlsen: I was working as a commercial photographer, and signed up with an agent here. They gave me a work permit, so I decided to try it out for a year. It seemed like a good idea at the time. This is five years ago.
JB: Is it the same agent you’re working with now?
AC: Yes, Casey in New York City. I signed up with them 7 years ago and that’s how I came to move to the states. The jobs we did in the beginning where more straight up assignments, but now it’s more based on my artwork ideas with a very strong post production concept to it. I even had one client in in london asking me if they had to provide the image material or if I did the photography part, so in away i’m more “material director” then a photographer. The challenge is to communicate that to the market.
Do You do commercial jobs?
JB: No, I don’t do that anymore. But everything I did was local, out here in the boonies. My skills were never such that I could have done commercial work in a major market.
AC: There is obviously great income potential to be made from the commercial industry- but ultimately I feel more related to the Art Scene and the sensitive forms of art.
JB: Yes, we all need to pay the bills.
AC: Yeah, but even maybe I’ll find something else. Teaching could be an idea, or something that could keep my creative side happy.
JB: Listen, I’ve been teaching for seven years, and the grass is always greener.
AC: Let’s say I want to spend 50% of my time doing Art, (if I could do art full-time I would do it) I could pretty much do anything. Teaching would be interesting, although the money is probably not as good.
JB: No. But it’s deep work, depending on who you’re working with. I want to start with a big question. I don’t know how much time you spend surfing the web, but I feel like there’s an idea that we hear a lot, so much so that it’s almost accepted: Every picture has already been made. Every photograph has already been shot. Every idea has already been done.
I think a lot of people believe that. I don’t. I strive to innovate, myself, but I think that anyone who looks at your book “Wrong” can’t believe that anymore.
How do you feel about innovation, and finding an original vision, as opposed to doing what everyone else is doing?
AC: It’s definitely the challenge. Like you, I’ve heard it many times before. Every picture has been taken.
When I started the project, the first couple of images, they were so different from my aesthetic, the direction that I was heading, so I didn’t show anyone the images for a whole year.
I don’t want to say that this is the newest work, and it’s so different from any other artwork you have seen. But that was the most important thing for me. The reason why I did continue that style, although I found it was not my aesthetic. It was important to me because it was new, compared to any other direction I had headed before.
So in away the innovation won over whatever problems I had with my new discovery. I also found out by working this new approach
The core of my work comes out of arrival materials or props I build in my studio. For my latest project all the materials is very short photo sessions with models done mostly in my studio.
All these photos becomes a pile of materials that I can work with in my studio. That new approach allowed me to be a hundred percent creative in my studio. Because I didn’t have to run out and find that one special picture to capture. Because I’m now mostly driven by ideas around that martial and in away it become my everyday knowledge.
JB: You say it was very different from your aesthetic, but you made it. What aesthetic of your own were you contradicting?
AC: You know, the way that you work as a photographer is that you pick a style, and then you continue down that road, and you try to stay consistent, because that’s the way you become known for a style, or get work, or become a good photographer. You can copy that style over and over.
I had a very straight style, more inspired by what they do in Germany. The Gursky, kind-of-landscapey photography.
JB: Does that loom over the Danish scene?
AC: You know, ten years ago, that was the photography that people were looking at.
AC: You know, large-scale formats, landscapes, Thomas Struth & Thomas Ruff, all those people. I’m sure you were inspired by those too.
JB: Sure. You were doing that work, showing it to the world, and then, in your little computer room, you were hiding away, working on your mad projects.
AC: I was almost embarrassed by the first two images. I didn’t show them to anyone. In the end, I thought it was more important to create these new things. Maybe they were not pretty images.
JB: No. They’re not pretty.
AC: They’re not photographic beauties, which was the aesthetic for that time. You were supposed to do really detailed landscapes. You would find this perfect viewpoint where you put up your tripod, and took these images.
JB: And I read in another interview that you were a crime scene photographer?
AC: People sometimes get that confused. I was a crime scene photographer, but that was when I was out of high school. So I was 17, and then did that for ten years.
JB: Who did you work for? A police department?
AC: Newspapers. I was a full-on newspaper photographer. I started out as an intern, and saw how it was done. Then I bought a police scanner, and would respond to the calls. Car accidents and stuff. Eventually, I did photograph a bit for the police.
JB: You’ll have to forgive me a bit here. My wife is a therapist, and my mother-in-law is a therapist, and now, being an interviewer, I’ve kind of morphed into this guy who tries to read the tea leaves. It sounds to me like there was a lot of darkness going on in your job, and in your head, and all of a sudden, it popped up out of the shadows, into this style that became “Wrong.”
AC: Certainly, there is an understanding of how those crime scene scenarios could look like. The work certainly represents my time as a newspaper photographer.
You can dig into that. You can see how I was standing in front of a car accident, photographing it. It’s just different objects.
JB: Did you photograph in Black and White for the newspapers?
AC: Yeah, it was all in Black and White. It sounds so long ago. This was the early 90s, and there was no scanners or anything, so everything was Black and White. The newspaper that I was working for, when I first started out, could only print color on the weekends.
JB: When I first saw “Wrong,” which I reviewed for photo-eye, I went to the whole sci-fi thing. They’re so techno-futuristic. William Gibson. Paul Verhoeven. I think I dropped “Total Recall” in the book review I did about it.
JB: At the same time, it’s almost like Weegee meets William Gibson. Old school, Black and White man on the scene aesthetic meets techno-futurism. A pretty original mashup.
While you’re not saying it outright, it becomes easier to see what the steps were that led you to an innovative breakthrough.
AC: For me back and white is very sculptural and that helps then become more like objects, which is part of my ambition about the work…. I have a lot of interns here, and when you talk about Black and White images, and the way they were printed, and the way you technically shot them, because you could only do certain things in a darkroom. They just don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Do you know what I mean? The work is done that way because I understand that sense, and that quality.
JB: I have some students, and we were looking at some work last week that was really super-digi. Over-saturated, hyper-real, hopped up, textured and degraded. I talked about that, and these are younger students, and they couldn’t see it. That archive that we have in our head, of the cinematic and celluloid look, they don’t have that baseline. Their baseline is digital reality.
They can’t tell the difference between the super-saturated color look on the screen, and what you see when you walk out your door. Their brains are just different now.
AC: They are different. Do you think they understand my work differently than you understand it?
JB: Sure. I would think they have to. I showed “Wrong” to students last year, and they ate it up. Ate it up. I’m curious to see what happens when this generation of students, who has only grown up in the digi-verse, when they’re mature enough as artists to make shit that we can’t even imagine.
AC: I’m sure in ten or twenty years, the files being produced by these random Canon cameras, that’s going to be a style that people will try to copy again.
JB: The sci-fi reference in “Wrong” are so strong, and I don’t even consider myself a sci-fi geek. What did you read or see that ended up percolating into your work.
AC: I was inspired by painters, different art movements and all these obvious classical references. There’s a certain awkwardness in the work, and maybe that’s my attempt to try to fit into a photography style. Part of the reason why I became a photographer is that there was a certain loneliness in it, a searching for something. I think the work is a bit about that as well.
Trying to find my spot. Maybe I am a dark person? (Thinks about it.) I am a dark person.
JB: You certainly have it in there.
AC: I felt like an outsider when I grew up, for sure. There are certain things I’m good at, and photography is one of them. But I was not a success in school, not a success in many things, but there was this one thing I could do.
JB: So you were an artsy kid?
AC: Yeah. Maybe I said in an interview that it was my attempt to try to belong somewhere. I would say that there is some subconscious influence to the work as. That could refer to who i am and what live i lived.
JB: That sounds like something someone would say in an interview.
AC: (laughing) I’m still saying that.
JB: It’s funny, but the question was about sci-fi culture, and you didn’t really address that…
AC: Of course, I find Star Wars and stuff like that, Total Recall and Blade Runner, I find that stuff amazing, aesthetically. They’re not totally 100% perfect, but they have something else. Of course, I’m inspired by this Universe that can lead you somewhere, but is not an entirely precise realty.
JB: They do say that Science Fiction, historically, was like an Allegorical playing field. By stepping out of reality, it allowed certain authors and filmmakers to comment on a cultural moment in a way that was abstract enough to give cover to talk about real things. If we were going to say that about you, then the work casts a scathing eye on genetic modification, and the slippery slope towards cloning. The photos make it seem so real.
And yet, using the wooden legs, and bringing in the low-tech, was just badass. Do you talk about contemporary culture, when you talk about the work, or do you try to let the pictures speak for themselves. What’s your take on that?
AC: In general, I try to let them speak for themselves. People often have different interpretations of the same images. But I’m trying to be cultural commentator. If anything I’m trying to remove it from looking like contemporary. But there is a certain openness in the stories and maybe should be to explain.
JB: Ambiguity is crucial. We want to have enough information in our pictures that people really get where we’re coming from, but not so much that everything is tied up with a bow on it.
Do you have an artist statement for “Wrong?” Do you find yourself having to talk about it and write about it? That’s another buzz-worthy topic. A lot of photographers are caught in between this desire people have for us to be able to write and explain everything, as opposed to being simply visual communicators.
AC: Yes I don’t have to talk a lot about the work informs of interviews etc. I think a lot of creativity comes from a place there is hard to realize. I personally don’t always have the need to over read about why an artist made the choice of work that he did. Do you know this application Instagram?
JB: I do.
AC: Do you use it?
JB: I don’t.
AC: I use it a lot, and I think it’s an amazing application, because it’s just images. People can leave small comments, but it’s just pure images. Pure visual observations. I find that really interesting. I don’t want to hear the information about how the picture was captured, or the ideas behind it. That’s just how I am.
JB: I don’t use it, because I don’t have an Iphone. Instagram seems a little superfluous with my janky little LG phone. I’m glad you made that leap. Unexpected. But if we’re going to leap, why don’t we leap to the new work.
JB: This is your second book with them. Was it always your goal to have your work presented in book form?
AC: I have no plans, for better or worse. It just happened. This “Wrong” project, I just did if for myself. I didn’t have any hopes that it would be a book, or an exhibition, or anything else. I just did it without thinking that I could have a reaction to anything or anyone.
Then Aron Mörel of Mörel Books emailed me and asked me if I wanted to do a book with him. It took off from there. Kind of unexpected. I think Kanye West blogged about it, and I had massive emails and hits on my website.
JB: So are you down with the champagne lifestyle now? Are you partying with Kanye and Jay-Z?
AC: No. I live a pretty normal life.
JB: How will “Hester” fit alongside “Wrong?” Are they companion publications? How did you go about planning the second book?
AC: They’re definitely linked. The new work is more sculptural. In my artist statement, I say it could be a photograph of a sculpture, more than real photographs.
JB: Are you carving foam in all these images? Certainly in “Wrong,” there are all these creations. Are you making things with your hands, in your studio, and then over-laying it? Or is everything coming out of the computer?
AC: All the weird shit is coming out of the computer. Except for “Wrong.” Where I built all the props myself.
JB: You did.
AC: Wood, foam, meat, metal. They’re hanging here in my studio. I built them in my kitchen in my Chinatown apartment.
JB: What happened when people came over?
AC: My apartment was crazy at that time. All the walls were covered with references, and props that I built.
JB: It sounds like it was a pretty organic extension of who you are and what you care about.
AC: Yes. It was a turning point where I left my old routines as a photographer and started something I was not quit sure of at the time. like I couldn’t hold it up against anything. It just felt important for me.
JB: That’s a part of the philosophy. It has to be personal, and it has to be important, and it has to be authentic to us. One place where people do get caught up in being derivative is they’re making their work based upon what they’re seeing in the outside world. People they want to be like. They’re more reacting than creating.
AC: Yeah, I hear that all the time from my interns. They’re talking about this photographer, and that photographer. Two days later, they show me an image that they almost copied.
I just did this work because it felt right for me. It was the ultimate way of expressing myself, telling the world who I was, and what I found interesting or funny. I wanted to use photography in a way that it wasn’t used before or at least make the attempt.
I didn’t want to become Ryan McGinley, or someone.
JB: But both he and you have both photographed Tim Barber, so you do have that connection.
AC: Yeah, and we both live In Chinatown
JB: I had no idea.
AC: But the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t trying to be someone, or care about that stuff. It was just a piece of work that I wanted to do, and I had a lot of fun doing it.
JB: It comes through. Experimentation and risk-taking are ultimately what lead people to innovate. You can’t know what it’s going to look like before it’s done, in the beginning. You have to feel your way towards things that you don’t know how to do.
But I want to shift gears for a second. There’s something I want to give you a hard time about. You live in New York. You’re used to it.
AC: Give it to me.
JB: Some of the most striking images in “Wrong” depict nude women. Naked people. Your publisher, Aron, even told me, when I pointed it out, that one of the nudes is the best selling image.
In “Hester,” it’s all naked women, fused together with you. Is that right?
AC: Yes a pile of images of different models collected (photographed) over time. Including images of my own body like muscles, and my bone structure. For me its just process of gathering martial.
JB: It’s Frankenstein Art. But I also saw something on your agent’s website where you did another series for “S” Magazine where you did a whole set of manipulated nudes. Boobs on butts. That sort of thing.
JB: So here’s what I want to know. I saw on Twitter last week, where the Guggenheim was doing some Twitter promotion about the John Chamberlin exhibition. One tweet said something like “Chamberlin said his work was not about America’s car culture.” And my response was “Bullshit.” An artist can say whatever they want, but ultimately, if they’re good at what they do, the communication comes from the work itself.
AC: Sure. I also think that abstract expressions doesn’t need a concert reference. Other then maybe subtle gestures.
JB: So, you’ve been photographing a lot of naked women. But in one of the interviews I read with you, I have a quote where you said, “I have no desire to photograph naked girls.”
AC: I have no desire. That’s true.
JB: And yet you do it?
AC: And yet I do it. I can defend it.
JB: Cool. I was hoping to get you defend the statement. Especially as some of the women, at least before they were genetically modified, seemed to be young and attractive.
AC: Some of them were very young and attractive. I have no desire to photograph pornography, or naked women. No desire at all. Except for project I did called homemade that gives very strong associations to porn. But in fact most of the props I used was totally unrelated to a sexual realty. Like an empty illusion.
AC: my intentions was to create something timeless that wasn’t interrupted by contemporary culture. So, the choice of not having any clotting seamed necessary. Like more as seamless and sculptural statement.
JB: But you’re also keeping it within the continuum of Art History. People have been drawing, painting sculpting the nude body forever. Is that a part of it for you, to make it a Post-Post-Modern, Post-Punk version of Classicism?
AC: Yes it could be be post post modern, hester has strong sculptors ideas and i guess I’m trying to prove that there is no difference from a sculptor working in clay and shaping his sculpture from me working on my digitizer. I think if you work with photography in a way where you build forms and shapes in the traditions of art history I could be perceived as sculptural art. I know a print is still a flat surface, but my hope is that it will gain a value as an object.
JB: I have to think about that.
AC: It’s just different materials. It’s just because photography belongs to a certain idea, and there are certain people doing it. I think that doesn’t have to be true anymore.
JB: In every interview I’ve done, give or take, we always end up coming back to this idea of the words we use to describe what we do, whether it’s journalism vs art, or documentary vs art, or sculpture vs photography. It’s almost like people get so caught up in the language used to describe the objects that it detracts from people looking at an object and just taking what’s there.
AC: But isn’t that the problem with photography, still. Do you think? If you take it into the Art World, photography is still considered something on the low end, compared to someone who is doing drawing or painting.
JB: The biases do persist.
AC: Maybe people are getting over it. But then, I have been talking to a few high end photo galleries, and they all seemed very interested, and in the end, they all come back to me and said they don’t think they can sell their work to their photo clients because it’s too far away from photography history. The idea is not consistent with what you would expect photography to be like.
JB: This Spring, I was in Houston for this big photo festival, FotoFest, and I had at least five people ask me whether I thought my work should be in an art gallery instead of a photo gallery.
But this idea that photo dealers can only sell work if it’s attractive and conservative, and the further out it gets, the more it has to be consigned to into the Art World. It doesn’t seem very representative of today.
AC: Well, I know a huge gallery in London, which I won’t name. They represent big, famous, established photographers. I think it has to do with money. A lot of what they do, where they make money, is vintage photography.
They’re afraid if they bring in something like this, they’ll scare away their clients. That is the feedback I’m getting.
Your Dad works in the ship yards. Your brother too. And your Dad’s brother, for good measure. There’s no such thing as the Internet. It’s cold often, and gray more often still. School is there just to carry you over until it’s time to get a job at the ship yard too.
Life is dreary. You get that job, when the time is right, and after work one day you like the look of the lass at the end of the bar. You offer to light her cigarette, thinking you’re suave, till you notice the guy to her left. He’s already struck the match, and they both laugh. Fairly confident of yourself, you tip your fisherman’s cap, nod, and turn back to watch the football match on the screen above. She’ll marry you yet.
I know you’re none of these things. More likely, you’re reading this over morning coffee. Or during a quick break from color correction. Or perhaps before you hit the Metro on the way to a shoot.
But if you were me, and spent some time over the last few days with “arbeit/work,” the new monograph by Chris Killip, you’d probably get where I’m coming from. The book was released by Steidl and Edition Folkwang, in conjunction with an exhibition of the artist’s work. And it’s one moody piece of business.
As you might have gathered from my momentary hallucination, I like the book. Not surprising. At some point, and I’m not sure when, I morphed into an Anglophile. (That’s not true. I do know when. It was the second time my wife made me watch the Colin Firth/ Jennifer Ehle version of “Pride and Prejudice.” That Mr. Darcy is so dreamy.)
Where was I? The book. It’s divided into sections, each focusing on a segment of one of Mr. Killip’s interlocking projects. They were shot predominantly in the North of England, in the 70’s and 80’s. Evocative stuff, this.
The photographs are entirely in Black and White, and feature a gruff textural sensibility that matches the cultural landscape. Graffiti, coal mounds, drifting garbage, massive waves crashing here and there. Excuse me whilst I grab a sweater.
I loved the woman hanging out her door, a massive tanker ship just outside her field of view. And the father, downtrodden and hot, holding his daughter on his lap, wedged into a corner of the sidewalk. Punks having a laugh, neck tattoos and beer cans, fishermen and grandmas. Another favorite: a suit-wearing old dude, along with his lady, lounging on a blanket, surrounded by trash.
Bottom Line: Terrific B&W images of UK bleak beauty
I’m sitting in my library. Diaper packs are stacked around me. Pink blankies peak at me from disparate piles. They mock my attempt to focus. “Enjoy it while you can, Fool,” they say. “Your precious quiet is about to DIE. This is our turf now, Fool. Move along.” Damn pink blankies. Who knew they could be so cruel?
Yes, as I shared with you a few months ago, my daughter’s arrival is now imminent. Any minute now. I sit, and wait. Which leaves a lot of time to think. I channeled much of the anxiety into a fruitless search for a new camera, but really, I was just hiding from the truth. (Big Ups to Rich Andres at Fotocare.) Change is coming. And few things cause more fear in humans than the Unknown.
Understandably, then, change has been on my mind. Beyond the obvious, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to grow as an artist. Thankfully, at 38, I’ve finally managed to have a bit of success. But my ego is healthy enough to admit that I have far to go, if greatness is my goal. We all have our own ambitions, true, but I’m not one to accept that my best work is behind me. Better to jump off the Gorge Bridge and be done with it. (RIP Tony Scott. That “True Romance” face off between Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper was a cinema classic.)
Given the scope of my ruminations, I was fortunate to get my hands on “State of the Union,” a new book by Mitch Epstein. It was published by Hatje Canitz, in conjunction with an exhibition of the artist’s work in Bonn. And, it is unique in all the books I’ve reviewed thusfar.
The oversized hardcover features several essays, and an insightful interview with the artist that alone makes the book a worthy purchase. It is impeccably produced; basically divided into two sets of plates. The first features a set of photos made in the 70’s and 80’s: very obvious temporal references. The photographs are big, each spilling from the right page to the left, and they are terrific. Talk about implied narrative.
Whether we see a man sleeping on a cot, next to a car, in the shadow of the former Twin Towers, or a pack of ladies scrambling to pick something up off of a Madison Avenue sidewalk. (A contact lens? A buffalo nickel?) Snake handlers, snow-cone-eaters, and children chilling in a pack-and-play while their dad pulls in fish off of a nameless pier. All are lovely, all draw you in, and force questions: What is going on here? What are they looking at? Where was this taken? How big is this freaking country?
The photographs are terrific, but definitely fit beside Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston. They were contemporaries, and it shows. Each has a slightly different personality, which emerges in the work, but the similarites outweigh the differences. Here, section 1 gives us a glimpse of the best young Mr. Epstein could offer.
Then, a big jump. Bam. The next set of plates time travels to the 21st Century, each a sample of Mr. Epstein’s recent opus, American Power. Immediately, the style shifts. We get to see Mr. Epstein’s vision at a more mature stage, and his growth separates him from his other famous peers.
These photos were obviously taken with an 8×10 camera, which the text confirms. They are as sharp as a Hattori Honzu sword. Details shine, compositions are more formal. They are excellent images, and the plates are better than many of the prints I’ve seen at portfolio reviews. If you love Mr. Epstein’s work, but are not in a place to buy an editioned print, the quality here is reason number 2 to buy this book.
I loved seeing this before/after mashup. The new photographs, look at the energy industry, and the aftermath of Hurricaine Katrina. Smoke billows from a power plant, a security guard stares through binoculars in the ravaged New Orleans Museum of Art, a newer hurricaine swirls on a projection screen, just outside the 2008 Republican Convention in Minnesota. There are more, but I don’t think it’s necessary to list them all.
So there you have it. This book is worth purchasing for a variety of reasons: the interview, the print quailty, and the potential inspiration it offers. And rest assured, I’ll continue writing these reviews even after my life gets turned upside down. I’ll just have to find a new favorite spot in which to do it. C’est la vie.
Bottom Line: Amazing production, unique in its dual vision
It’s both easy, and impossible to get lost in the Met. Easy, because the building is both rambling and enormous; impossible, because you’re never really lost. There’s always something fascinating to look at, and the off-the-beaten path stuff is often the best. (I once found a little room, recreated as Frank Lloyd Wright designed it. Haven’t seen it since.)
That said, after we left the Islamic galleries, we traipsed across the entire Museum to forage for food. Fifteen minutes later, standing in a line, waiting to pay a lot of money for not-very-interesting-sounding grub, we had a change of heart. Back, through the halls we trudged, back the way we came, back to the second floor to see some photographs. (As promised.)
The first photo exhibition, culled from the permanent collection, was called “Spies in the House of Art.” The series of images and videos was meant to offer inside access to the inner workings of the exhibition industry. The show was replete with big names, like Francesca Woodman, Candida Hofer, Louise Lawler, Thomas Struth, Diane Arbus, and Sophie Calle. Impressive lineup.
Alas, it was mostly boring. Some of the images were really good, to be sure, but ultimately, I was convinced that what happens in the front of the house is much preferred to the offices and vaults. There’s a reason they keep that stuff hidden: it’s not that interesting.
Up the hall we walked, towards another photo-only exhibit: “Naked Before The Camera.” Did that grab my attention? You bet it did. Finally, a show worthy of my snark and curiosity. I’ve been on a bit lately, in the book reviews, about the incessant use of boobs to sell photo books. Yes, they’re nice to look at. But when inserted by men, as so often happens, the repetitive pattern tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Exploitation needs a better reason, IMHO.
This exhibit was probably the most provocative I’ve seen at the Met. The two rooms of photographs, almost all Black and White, were engaging. Swarms of photo heroes and heroines were on display. There was a run by Larry Clark, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus that got my attention. Some brilliant images by Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Brassai that were all vibrating on the wall, packed with latent energy.
Lots of amazing photographs. True. And enough variation in style and history to make one look harder at the human shape. But that was not what left me shaking my head.
Iván and I stood before a photograph by an artist of whom neither of us had heard: Jim Jager. The photo was called “Sharkey, 1980.” Within the rectangle stood an African-American man, against a studio backdrop, naked, holding a long wooden staff in one hand. His manhood was large, befitting the stereotypes we’ve all heard before. The implied reference was Africa, though the wall text insisted the image was made in Chicago, one among many.
Apparently, the photographer made soft-core porn images on a regular basis. They were not deemed “Art” at the time, any more than the series of harlot photos by the now famous EJ Bellocq. They were just meant to get people off.
The photograph was shockingly racist. So racist that Ivan and I kept looking at each other, then the back to the photo, then to each other, raising eyebrows and blowing air slowly through our mouths. Wow. So. Very. Racist.
I turned to my friend, “Should this be here?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know.”
“Is the picture really that racist, or are we racist for assuming it’s racist?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, if it was a white guy, or if the penis wasn’t so huge, would we be offended?”
“I don’t know. I’m really not sure,” replied the massively opinionated, incredibly intelligent man to my right. “I just don’t know.”
I still don’t know. The layers of meaning, the depth of the references to Slavery and all things unholy, were inescapable. Should that be on the wall, among the masters of photography? Should an institution shy away from such provocations? Should it be censored, in a world in which lynching photos are hung, and vestiges of death and destruction? (Yes, no, no.) But still, I was terribly uncomfortable.
The rest of the show was tamer, until I headed for the door. There was an image of some naked Zulu girls from 1892-93. Pure trappings of colonialism. “Hey, look a the naked savages. They’re someone’s property now, so you don’t have to feel shameful.”
Together with the earlier image, they re-enforced a slimy feeling within me, one that was surprisingly lacking when I looked at all those breasts, penises, and vaginas. That was easy. Racism is hard. By including the sub-theme in the exhibit, however, the curators took a brave stand. Racism is a part of humanity, they decreed/implied, and it’s best to look at it directly. Too often, it’s left for the shadows.
One more mention, before I move on. The final image, or at least the last I noticed, was by Nadar. It was a full-on hermaphrodite photograph. The genetalia were front and center, the rest of the body faded into a shallow depth of field. The year: 1860. The effect: timeless. I shuddered, and then walked out the door. Like I said, this show ought to be controversial. If it’s still up, go see for yourself.
From there, we hiked back across Central Park, as I promised Iván some great pizza on Amsterdam Avenue. We waited out the rain, hoped the temperature would drop, watched some of a Euro Cup match, and munched on great food. (Ceasar’s Palace Pizza, Amsterdam between 83rd and 84th St.) It was a short walk to the subway from there, and we were downtown bound, to hit up a few shows in Chelsea.
Henceforth, I won’t do it that way again. The Uptown museums are about history, risk-taking and brilliance. Visions from the past, and visions that confound our expectations of the present. Clearly, not all the work on the wall is brilliant. Not possible. But the ambitions are always grand. Dream big, and you might make it.
In Chelsea, though, it’s a marketplace. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes, the salesmen are dignified, though they won’t pay you any mind. They’re worried about the big fish that drop mad cash via email. Fair enough.
I don’t begrudge them anything, despite some of my past criticism. Capitalism marches on, and the businesses are there to sell Art. If they didn’t have to be open to the public, perhaps the doors would lock forever. But they do. And we go.
There’s often, if not always, great work to be seen. But it’s lost in the noise of mediocrity. My brain morphed from idealistic and humanistic to jaded and angry, and all it took was a train ride South. So much work was so seemingly tied to who knows who, or who’s profile is big enough to demand a solo show. Or at least that’s how I felt in the moment. Like I said, jaded.
In fairness, it was Summer, which we all know is not the time to see the showstopper exhibitions. And, having spent the better part of an hour sweating in Central Park, I didn’t have enough time to hit up 20 or 30 galleries, which would have increased my chances of seeing something transcendent. Alas.
As it was, we met my friend Jaime at Matthew Marks, to see the new Thomas Demand exhibit. Arriving early, we checked into a few spaces right there on 22nd St, and both were shaking our heads as we opened the door to the cavernous space. (One of several that Marks has in the neighborhood. He’s one of a handful of “Super-dealers” that drive the scene.)
I’ll say straight out, Mr. Demand is one of my favorite artists. I’ve long been enamored of his super-intricate, hand-made, illusionistic creations. They look “real” but are not. What is “real” anyway? Is paper real? Surely it is. But when people think they’re seeing a composite desk, or a ceramic bathtub, then paper and cardboard are relegated to “fake.”
There were three photographs on the wall, and a video in the larger back room. (They reconfigure the space for each show, I believe.) As much as I love the artist, I’d say the show was workmanlike, at best. When there are only three images to behold, they best be brilliant.
The money shot was called “Control Room.” It depicted what looked like the bridge of some Space Ship, or the nerve center of a Government bunker, deep underground. Hidden under Colorado Springs, no doubt.
The panels of the ceiling hung down, however, and there were no humans to be seen. It was empty. Haunted. One could not escape the feeling that the image was meant to represent a dim view of the future, when we were gone, but our organized infrastructure remained. Empty, yes, but don’t forget the organized part. (The artist is German, after all.)
The other two images were far less dramatic. One, a storeroom filled with art, the other, a room service cart in a generic hotel room. Often, there are stories associated with Mr. Demand’s scenes, stories not accessible by the title or image. The background floats along by word of mouth. Which is to say, if there were reasons for these photos, they escaped me.
Jaime was entranced with the lighting techniques in the food cart photo. He deconstructed the way the light enhanced certain shapes, and softened others. It was not something I would have noticed. Another great reminder how subjective was our venture, judging and deciding. One man’s love of implied narrative is another man’s fascination with light.
Speaking of implied narrative, as there was no image-history at our fingertips, I guessed, “Maybe it was one of Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard’s last meals? Before he was put down for his failure to protect the big boss?” Quickly, Jaime retorted, “No, they don’t eat pork.” I looked again, and there, among the fake paper food, was a piece of fake proscuitto. Well seen, Jaime.
The video returned to the Space Ship theme, as a room swayed above, on the screen. The commissary of some lost Enterprise, sloshing back and forth, back and forth. All the furniture would slide one way across the room, and then back again. Jaime noted that nothing was ever damaged, though. Odd, yes, cool, sure, but I wondered if it pushed the artist’s ideas any further along?
And that was why I ultimately left disappointed. Mr. Demand has been making work in this style for a very, very long time. Will he shift? Will it end? I don’t know. Should he? Can an artist mine the same territory, over and over and over again, and never get bored? Will the work improve forever, or get stale, like that hunk of ciabatta you forgot about, that guards the back of your refrigerator?
Of course, I don’t know. When I shot my current project in my studio, I knew some would say it looked a lot like “The Value of a Dollar,” as they share the same locale. But I wanted to build on my ideas, and thought it was silly to change my studio around just because some would have me do so. A table is a table, after all.
But, never would I ever shoot only that way, forever. It would not cross my mind, to never, ever change. Yes, making a new way in the world can be scary, and failure is more than possible. So I suppose that means that, in my opinion, it’s time for Mr. Demand to move on. Freshen things up.
Will he? Who knows? I can tell you one thing though. If he does, it won’t be because of anything I’ve said. When we make Art, we’re ultimately our own boss. If we choose to slave to the market, so be it. He can laugh all the way to his secret bank account in the Caymans. Who am I to criticize?
“Central Park West?” His eyebrows shot up, quickly. “Ah, I see.”
The humidity clung to our damp shirts, formerly respectable. Our moods tumbled. Quickly. We just realized we’d gotten lost in Central Park, and had walked South for fifteen minutes, rather than East. Which meant thirty more minutes of schlepping in the heat over rocks and towers and ponds and asphalt.
I suppose it was understandable. We hadn’t seen each other in four years. We were excited. Gregarious. Gesticulating.
And we’d chosen to walk from the bus stop on 86th St, rather than take the bus that awaited. (A mistake I ought never have made. You always take the air-conditioned route in Sweat Season.)
I was raring to chat, because I’d seen something shocking, yet ordinary the night before, and couldn’t wait to hear what Iván thought about it. My uncle had showed me some videos on the computer. A distant relative’s girlfriend, a self-styled vocalist, had made a series of singing videos.
I admit, she’s very attractive, in a conventional way. Using her webcam, in low-cut underwear, she’d sway as she sang, staring right into the camera in her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was really bad at singing. (And not the good kind of bad.) Off key, pitchy, call it what you will. I laughed so hard I fell off the couch. For real. All the while, I felt very bad about myself. Ashamed.
In one song, I can’t remember which, she even similated sex, hopping up and down on an imaginary lover. My first thought was, this has to be a joke, right? But my Uncle swore no. Second thought: poor thing. She has no idea.
It was all just so…personal. Stuff like that should be for your friends. No cameras. Just messing around while you’re hanging out. Having a laugh. It’s not meant for strangers. How have we all gotten so mixed up about reality?
The whole thing just seemed so perfectly symbolic of these difficult-to-quantify times. There she was, using the web to overshare, horribly, all the while thinking it was the ticket to stardom. Not ironically. (Too bad. That might have caught on. Though I suppose nobody remembers William Hung.)
We hear that the unemployment numbers for Generation Y, (or the Millenials,) are off the charts. 50% higher the the national average. And how many of these 20-somethings have moved back in with their parents? An astonishing amount, by any reasonable measure. To top it off, these kids now owe so much money for their student loans, that they’ll be working it off until they’re 50. But there are no jobs to work off the debt. It’s criminal.
They think that Flickr or Youtube or Twitter or Instagram will make them wealthy and famous, so they can continue to live in the lifestyle to which their parents have made them accustomed. (Formerly known as the American Dream.) Which is to say, this is likely to be the first generation of Americans who have a “lesser” lifestyle than the one before. (Or did Generation X beat them to that distinction, as my wife pointed out?) Furthermore, is that such a bad thing? The concept of infinite wealth is seriously outmoded.
And that’s where I left off, when I realized we were going the wrong way.
It took forever to traverse the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but eventually we succeeded. After swiping the plastic in the lobby, (you can pay what you choose,) we darted to the bathroom, where I had to use three paper towels to get the sweat off, and then still dunked my whole head in the sink. Classy. (Sir, we’ll have to ask you to leave now.)
Thank goodness we had to use the bathroom. Had we not, I’d never have seen the oldest painted portraits I’ve encountered. They were encaustic, wax on limewood, from Egypt. Mummy portraits, from 130-150AD. Men peaked out under coal ringlets of hair, with big haunting eyes, and razor cut cheekbones. Wow. So Old. So beautiful. (As we photographers know, it’s always about the expression in the eyes.)
Iván and I were there for a reason, though: to visit the newly redone Islamic Galleries. I’d read that they were brilliant, (Peter Schjeldahl claimed himself a different person upon departure,) and wanted to see for myself.
Tucked through the Mesopotamian wing, we walked in, thinking at the outset that it lacked bombast. No book store, no lady offering you headsets. And so far in the back. But nothing in this Museum is ordinary, so my expectations were high. (Alas, I was not. Work is work.)
It’s built like one long, rectangular loop. We entered to the right, which I’d recommend, but only if you want to have the experience thusly. There were many beautiful objects to be seen, carved wood and sculpted clay jumping out, and color as well. Beautiful blues.
I was drawn, immediately, to a wine glass. So ordinary a concept. Here, it was a 1200 year old, blue-green piece of glory from Syria or Iraq. I had a daydream. I was a bearded, black-haired merchant. It was warm out. I munched dates, and slurped cool wine from this beautiful, blue-green waterglass. Sounds nice.
We continued through, and of course I had my favorites. But soon I found myself saying, “What’s with the hype? It’s nice and all, but not worth dying over.” Then, not 10 seconds later, we walked into a room to our right, the Koç Gallery. Boom.
The ceiling was wood, sculpted and dominant. I wrote in my notes that it was “somewhat indescribable.” (And yet I try.) Spanish, from the 16th Century. (They don’t scrimp at the Met.) Under its eye, the walls were covered with huge carpets. 20, 30 feet high. One seemed to be 40 feet for sure.
We sat. And stared. And, as much as we both like to talk, we were quiet. It felt like five minutes. Who’s to say?
There were other treasures, yes, but this was the room to see. We passed some Chinese-Style porcelain plates, blue on white. Lovely. But not from China. They were Persian, from the 16th Century.
That’s when it hit me. Globalization is not new. Idea transmission, global commerce, interconnectedness, these are not new happenings, and their attendant problems not new either. Empires rise and Fall, but power endures. Our predilection to violence remains, as does our desire to trade things we have too much of for things we crave. Or, as Iván put it, “What we call Globalization is really when Globalization was completed. Nothing left to Globalize anymore.”
And looking at the Art, one could never believe the Iranians as savage as our Talking Heads might have us believe. Not slightly. They laugh at Chumps like Saddam Hussein and George W. (Though nobody messed with Saddam as badly as the South Park guys. Beyond twisted.)
And that’s why I go to museums. And why I love to write about it afterwards. (Remembering memories make the memories stronger, I recently read.) I go, because I never know what new thoughts I’ll have, what colors I’ll see, what gods will be there to worship. I go, because I want to improve as an artist, and the only way to get better is to see new things, made by better artists than I am.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, in which I go look at some actual photographs.
Just now, not three minutes ago, I saw a hummingbird. Clomping down my dirt road in flip-flops, I was lost in thought. The first few paragraphs of this column were dancing through my brain; synapses firing, mentally banging on my keyboard. A hundred yards from my computer, and already I could hear the rhythmic song of plastic on plastic.
Then, I saw the whizzing wings out of the corner of my eye, hovering above the most beautiful orange/red wildflower. I stopped dead, turned my head towards the little creature, and watched. Of course, you can’t see the wings move. Everyone knows that. But the blur is hypnotic.
Suddenly, I could hear a magpie squawking. Then, two different bird calls joined the chorus. Next, the sound of the Rio Hondo behind me, whoosh, whoosh, gurgle, gurgle. A symphonic moment, all thanks to Nature.
Of course, the sounds were there all along. I just didn’t hear them, as I was too busy listening to the voices in my head. Ironically, I was planning to write about the intersection of Nature and religion. I had it all worked out.
Then, I saw the hummingbird, and everything disappeared. I was left with only my immediate surroundings. My mind cleared, and I felt much better than I had the moment before. Now, I’m writing a different column than I would have otherwise.
If you were trite, you might say I had my “Moment of Zen.” (Thank you, Jon Stewart.) To all the urbanites out there, I’ll tell you this: I know it sounds cliché. Mountain guy writes about hanging out with the birds, while your background noise consists of honking horns, cursing neighbors, ice cream trucks, and jackhammers working on the roads. (I think they were hammering on Canal St. the entire time I lived in NYC.)
Or, maybe you’ll think something else. “Wow, that sounds amazing. I wish I could live in such a pretty place.” I tell you, we have problems here just like everyone else. Violence and poverty and addiction and wildfires. And you can’t get a decent slice of pizza to save your life, even if you have mad cash like Mikhail Prokhorov.
With respect to the idea of Zen, though, I think it’s worth taking a step further. Art communicates information. (For once, I state the obvious.) Information is a general term: it can mean ideas, of course, but also emotional energy. We’ve been through this before.
Most of time, we tend to focus on the Art that shakes us: dynamic, baroque evocations of Environmental disaster, sexual trafficking, or death. Things like that. Everyone’s always talking about whether Art can change the world, or how images of War are so important for our general body of knowledge. All true.
But how often do we talk about Art that will simply change your mood? Is there value in a photograph, if it only slows you down, soothes your mind, and hijacks your brainwaves away from anxiety or fear or exhaustion, if even for moment?
Minimalism and abstraction have been around for a long time. (The former was popular in China 800 years ago, and the latter evolved in painting a Century ago.) Personally, I tend to prefer my minimalism Sculptural, in the Donald Judd or Carl Andre style. Minimalist photography is not normally my thing.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see Uta Barth’s new book, “to draw with light,” recently published by Blind Spot. Slowly tease the simple hardcover out of its matching slip-cover, and the world’s noise begins to melt into the background.
The volume is broken down into three sections, each displaying a very narrow range of imagery. The first, my favorite, connects to the title. Curvilinear, wave-like forms of white light are depicted on luminescent, white curtains. Again. And again.
One person’s seductive beauty is another person’s “boring as hell,” but hear me out. One minute, I was stressed out about having to write this column, not sure I had the proper creativity-juice-cocktail today. The next moment, my mind was still. I felt better.
The photos are unquestionably beautiful, and simple, lacking any over-arching socio-political message. If you asked the artist, she might not discuss the Zen qualities, the hint of Buddhism. Or perhaps she might. It doesn’t matter.
The other two sections are similar. The second depicts white light on white studio cabinets. The final returns to the curtains, this time interjecting solarized images with the normal ones. Not my style, as I’ve seen a few too many student-cell phone-solarizations to find the tactic worthy of such a major artist. Little matter. I’ve had my few minutes of peace for the day, and have emerged thankful.
Bottom Line: Beautiful and simple, which ought to be enough
“Thank You,” and “I’m sorry” are among the most powerful phrases in any language. (As words are only ideas encoded in sounds, fortunately, the concepts are universal.) In my day-to-day business, I’m constantly surprised that so many people are unaware of the import of appreciation and contrition.
Taken together, those twin values synthesize into Respect. Which is, in my opinion, the key to happiness and success. If you don’t respect yourself, you cannot possibly respect others. And unless you’re a super-talented, pathological narcissist, you’re unlikely to make it far in this world without a healthy dose of Respect.
I mention this, today, because I’d like to temporarily tackle an issue that’s been consistently bugging me for my two-year tenure here at APE. Yes, I’m going to directly address the cadre of knuckleheads and d-bags that leave nasty, heartless, and comically un-self-aware comments at the end of these articles. Lest you think me a simpleton, I do know that these words you’re reading ensure we’ll see more such comments below.
That’s right. It’s time to speak to our gallery of fools; the short-tempered, know-it-all, sadsacks who hide behind the veil of anonymity. Here’s the truth: you make yourself look really bad every time you drop the hatred on our heads. Secretly, deep down, you know this to be true. If not, you’d add your name and email address to each post. But you don’t.
When you disrespect me, (and Rob,) with your petty, childish zingers, you disrespect the rest our the enormous audience that follows this blog. They know better than to admire your thoughtlessness. Ultimately, you disrespect yourself. Your shame spiral all but guarantees that you’ll do it again, here or somewhere else. There is no bucket of Ben and Jerry’s big enough to drown your self-hatred. (Clearly, I’m differentiating between hating, and constructive criticism. The latter is beneficial, as I’ve said many times.)
If you are one such person, gathering your thoughts to trash me at the end of reading this, how about you try something else today? Stop reading, here, now, and go do something else. Take a walk. Lift some weights. Read a book. Even better, grab your camera, and go make some Art. Channel your anger into something more productive. Because if your goal is to hurt my feelings, or get me fired, it won’t work.
However, if this community, (and the Internet in general,) were to lose that mindless hatred, we might just have ourselves some interesting, intellectually challenging debates. I’m certain there are countless readers who never, ever write in because they’re afraid of being embarrassed by one of the few people to whom I’m speaking now. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what those people have to say?
Yes, Respect is the word of the day. It was the keyword for the recently completed European Football Championships too. (Plastered all over those Polish and Ukrainian stadiums.) It’s also a word you hear a lot in inner cities. Minority and low-income communities are constantly decrying the lack of respect they feel from the police, the powers-that-be, and from the rich folks who live a neighborhood or two away.
One way to combat a dearth of Respect is to challenge people’s pre-conceptions and bedrock assumptions. It’s the reason that I wrote those incendiary paragraphs above. It’s also the reason that Kehinde Wiley has had such a remarkably successful career in a short span of time.
Mr. Wiley, the SFAI and Yale trained painter, has made a living off of placing not-quite-sterotypical visions of contemporary African-American men into the traditional, art historical painting context. (At present, he’s also working with Non-African-American-Men-Of-Color.) I say not-quite, because, despite the clothing and bling, there is a vulnerability to his subjects, and sometimes almost a sexual ambiguity, that defies easy stereotypes.
I missed his show at the Jewish Museum when I was ever-so-briefly in NYC late last month, mostly because of a lack of time. Additionally, I knew I had his book in my pile. Big mistake. If you live anywhere near NYC, go check it out. The book has stoked the embers of my curiosity. But now I’m back in my horse pasture. Oh well.
Mr. Wiley has a new monograph of his work, published by Rizzoli, and I’ve given it a good look. Fantastic stuff. The artist photographs his subjects, and places them in ornate, painted compositions that are often titled to reflect their art historical origins. As so many photographers wish they could paint, including the brilliant HCB, this book is worth checking out. The transformation from person to photo to canvas is symbolic of the entirety of Art practice.
Furthermore, there are a suite of photographic images included in the book. The style is the same as the painted images, but they lack the magic, spark, genius…whatever it is, they lack something. Definitely not as good, but still interesting. I only mention it, because I believe it behooves all of us to be proficient in more than one medium, but of course that’s much easier said than done.
Bottom Line: Very cool book, probably not something you’ve seen before
I hated scary movies as a child. My twisted cousin Jordan showed me “Altered States” as a 6 year old, and followed with a low-budget flick about a monster that lived in the sand and swallowed beach-goers whole. (I lived 7 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.) Oh well.
There was a period in college when I sampled the bloody genre, starting with “The Shining.” I pushed it a bit with the Scream series, defying my nature watching Drew Barrymore get hacked to bits with a very sharp knife. Not fun. It continued through “Seven” (Gweneth Paltrow’s head in a box,) and came to an abrupt end several years later, thanks to “The Blair Witch Project”.
I was traveling abroad when the movie dropped, and so missed the enormous, watercooler, pre-Internet hype here in the US. (Ring, Ring…”Hello, Tabitha?” “Yes.” “It’s Ashley.” “Oh, Hi Ashley, what’s up?” “Sweetie, I saw this super-scary movie last night, called, like, The Blair Witch, or something. I almost crapped the floor. You have to see it.) As I avoided the first wave, I decided to block it all out, every last syllable, until the proper time.
Several months later, I was living in San Francisco, and my girlfriend (now wife) was leaving town for a few days. Jackpot. I rented the movie, unplugged the phone, shut all the curtains, and pressed play around 10 pm. So. Scary…So. Very. Very. Scary. Please. Make. It. Stop.
I’ll never know if I’d have been as terrified if I’d heard what the movie was really about. (Lots of implied evil, lots of scary trees, lots of shrieking.) Sometimes, hype can kill art’s spark. Give people too much context going in, and the element of surprise is lost.
Just last year, I noticed a similar phenomenon with Christian Patterson’s book “Redheaded Peckerwood.” One day, I’d never heard of the dude. Then, his name was everywhere. (“OMG. U Must C This Book.”) Somehow, I never saw a copy, and never read one of the many, many reviews. So I decided to wait.
Then, in March, I found myself sitting in the lovely, bright offices of MACK, the book’s publisher. Poppy, the super-nice media contact, handed me a copy, with several other sets of eyes peeking too. “Here,” she said, “have a look.” The first page was scanned, hand-written text. No way I could read it with her staring at me like that. I flipped a page, looked up, and saw her eyes watching me watch the book. No good. “Forget it, Poppy,” I said. “I’ve waited this long, knowing nothing, so I’ll just wait for the impending Second Edition, and give it my proper attention.”
And here we are.
I grew up in New Jersey, which is Springsteen country. He wrote “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a mile from my house, and his imprint was everywhere. The first time I met him, I asked him to play “Blinded by the Light” at an upcoming concert. (He passed.) His music was everywhere too: unavoidable. I can recite the first few lines of many a song, from memory, including “Nebraska.” Which was inspired by the killing spree wrought by Charles Starkweater, and Caril Ann Fugate, his teen-aged lover and partner.
As was “Badlands,” the excellent Terrence Malick film. (Damn, Martin Sheen rocked that jeans jacket. You go, dude.) As was, as you might have guessed, “Redheaded Peckerwood.” Sex and violence and the thrill of the chase. Not hard to figure out why this story keeps metastasizing through different narrative forms.
So, now that I kept a perfect media blackout, what do I think? It’s a pretty terrific book. Worth the hype. Buy it, tuck it away, and it will probably be worth more than you paid for it. Why?
The book opens with some handwritten context by Fugate, as I’d previously mentioned, and then a map to provide the necessary geo-tag. After that, it’s a straight myriad of photographic styles. Historical imagery, studio shots, landscapes, color images, black and white, more text, some paper inserts that reference the racism and politics of the 50’s, and a few random images of boobs thrown in. (Boobs sell Books.℠) The narrative is non-linear and ambigiuous enough that most of the photos can be appreciated on merit, while still giving a sense of time, place, and emotion.
I do love the emotional quality of the images. This is not a happy story. The two kill Caril’s 2 year old baby sister, for goodness sake. As you turn the pages, even when you’re staring at a dry and not-terribly-on-message image, you still feel the icy sadness, the eerie emptiness, the morbid curiosity of the rubber-necker.
This edition closes with a mauve, stapled insert that matches the lining of the book. It contains two essays that explain in words what Mr Patterson communicates very well through imagery. I started to read them, (and they are good,) but then I stopped. They didn’t tell me anything I needed to know, at least nothing that wasn’t implied by this terrific book.
What’s the lesson for the rest of us? Mix it up. Both in the creation of a project, and in the editing of the book. Simple, repetitive through lines are boring, and, perhaps, passé. Do your homework. And don’t shy away from those grand, dramatic meta-narratives, the kinds that can’t be extinguished by the ravages of time.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if I ran into a week where I had nothing to say. If you read my interview with Rob, published Tuesday, you’ll know a bit more about why I’m so fried. Endless deadlines, heading back to Christmas, when I digested the biggest of all: our daughter is coming at the end of August. No extensions possible.
The last time I was this burnt, I made a joke about a de-sanguinated chicken. (I was pretty proud of that one.) Today, I doubt I could drain the blood from a stink bug. And then the house would smell.
I hope you’ll forgive my wallowing, but I just don’t have it in me to be witty or profound this week. It’s hot, my kid is complaining in the next room, and I just want to teleport to the Costa Brava and drown my exhaustion in a pitcher of sangria. A bowl of garlic clams would be nice too.
Before the crash, Americans would head in herds across the Atlantic to Europe each Summer. I’m sure there are still a few people who can afford the airfare, (not including expense accounts,) but I don’t know any of them. My memories of living La Dolce Vita seem like a something out of a Woody Allen movie. Charming, but off.
In 2012, most of us only jet to the Continent if someone else is footing the bill. It’s like a game of musical chairs; if you’re still standing when all the Kickstarter funding has been disbursed, you’re S.O.L.
You’ll have to trust that I don’t plan these things, but we’re going back down a similar road as last week: the Artist Residence. I love it when themes come together. It makes it seem like I have more forethought than I actually do.
Tod Papageorge is a photographer, and also the head of the photo program at the Yale School of Art. Yes, the same folks I accused of running a photo mafia. It’s true I speculated that they might off me for shedding light on the Skull and Bones nature of the operation. Fortunately, their assassins haven’t hit the mark just yet.
Of course, I’m kidding. It’s hard not to respect an institution that consistently promotes sustained excellence. But as to Mr. Papageorge, he was fortunate to have his stay in Rome covered by the American Academy. Artist Residences are a hot topic, mostly because the allure of lounging on someone else’s dime is rather strong.
The artist lived in the Rome for a time in 2010, and “Opera Citta”, published by punctum, is the result. I’m not going to say this is a brilliant book, because it’s not. It’s very well-made, with the block of images released from the spine. They open out in a continuous fold, which is a very enjoyable way to experience the pictures. The paper is durable, so you don’t have to fret about ruining your purchase.
What I like best about this one, beyond the high-class production value, is that you can tell Mr. Papageorge really grooved on his time in Rome. It’s a vibrant place, one that has to meld together locals with multi-millennia roots, hordes of tourists that occupy each Summer, and newly integrated immigrants, who are changing the demographic of the country. It’s a magnificent city, but also a bit of a theme-park. (I’m not the first to posit that the Earth’s post-card mega-cities now belong as much to the world as to their local residents. Seriously, how many of you actually live in Manhattan?)
The book captures the cultural mashup very well. The images are not dramatic, in the conventional sense, but belie an insightful curiosity, and subtlety of vision: The fidgeting gestures of a group of nattily-dressed businessmen cavorting in a piazza. The light of grace on a old woman’s face as she catches her breath on the sidewalk. The glean of sweat on a tatooed shoulder at the beach in Ostia. The calm of a little girl sleeping in her father’s arms at Termini Station. Lovely stuff.
Bottom Line: Very cool book, if you don’t mind Euro-envy
Journalists tell stories. They relay facts. (As much as anyone can agree on the definition of a fact in 2012.) Photojournalists, by extension, tell stories through pictures; they visually encode reality. This happened to that person, and it happened there. Bombings, oil spills, butter-eating contests, all are detailed in a matter-of-fact way.
Artists, by contrast, are trained to make it all about themselves. My vision, my opinions, my composition, my color palette. This is what I think, symbolized in pictures. If you like it, cool. If not, that’s fine too. (Well, that’s the ideal. The reality is probably more like this: “You don’t like my work? I hate you. You’re a bourgeois homophobe. Die.”)
Anyway, I’m musing because I spent the past weekend meeting with photographers and checking out portfolios in Santa Fe. Everyone wants to talk about audience and context these days. If I edit this way, I can can blow them up big and hang them on the wall. A different selection will be more appropriate for the magazine editors, and another still if I want to get commercial clients. Welcome back to the 21st Century Hustle.
I’m not sure how I feel about these developments, but they’re probably here to stay. Fewer employers + many more people searching for work = everybody jostling to stand out. My take is that it makes a personalized vision, with the self-awareness to bend that vision at times, all the more important. How much can I learn about a person through their photographs? Code, if you will.
This week’s book does it very well: “La Résidence,” by JH Engström, published by journal. I had a whole intro today about how I got stuck in Brussels for a few days on my honeymoon, but decided to save it for another time. We’ll stick to Mr. Engström’s anecdotes today. Mine will have to wait.
Here’s what you can learn about Mr. Engström from looking at this book. He got invited to do an Artist Residence in Brussels, and it required visits in 2003 and 2006. That much is explained in the intro. Come, Mr. Engström, visit our fair city, relax and find yourself, then make pictures that reflect your time here. Sounds pretty straightforward.
Look at the book, and you’ll quickly surmise that Mr. Engström was, (I don’t know about is,) likely a lonely alcoholic who quickly adapted to his new surroundings by seeking out the company of the coordination-challenged, “I love you, man”-type, 2 am bar crowds that are so easy to find everywhere. Everyone is your friend when they’ve had enough to drink. (Unless they want to shank you.)
As we turn page to page, we see a succession of haggard-looking Belgian sorts, smoking cigarettes, and trying not to fall off the bar stool. We also see lots of banal, artsy-type visions of random detritus and architectural randomness. They look like the photos you’d take if you had to take photos for a couple of months to justify your stipend, but didn’t really connect to any underlying elements of the culture. (Beyond the aforementioned bar culture, which is transnational.)
What takes the book further, though, is Mr. Engström’s inclusion of text. Poems, musings, and even a starkly honest paragraph about his relationship with his father. Some observations are obvious, others smart, but all make you feel like the artist is letting you into his head. The book becomes far more experiential for their inclusion. (Sample: “These pictures may be an account of my failure to depict photographically a place I didn’t go to for private reasons.”)
Additionally, most of the photos are only accessed by folding the pages out to triple-spreads. It’s laborious and a bit time-consuming, especially as you don’t want bend or ruin the pages when you refold. But the additional seconds enhance the banal-style photography; you feel the photographer’s boredom that this book reflects. (And some of the portrait spreads are amazing.)
I doubt all of you would enjoy this book. It might piss you off. But it’s a terrific example of an artist downloading his thoughts and personality into a bunch of pages, bound and wrapped in linen.
I feel bad for kids today. Teen-agers in particular. There is no privacy anymore. No secrets. It’s impossible to grow through one’s awkward moments out of the camera’s gaze. If I had to worry about my worst habits and styles living forever in a Facebook post, I’d probably move to Plum Village and become a monk.
Am I exaggerating? Not really. You see, I grew up in the 80’s, that famous decade now fetishized daily in the mainstream media. (Have you seen the trailer for that new Tom Cruise movie? Yes, people, we have a new definition of irony. The king of the 80’s, who actually managed to get it right back then, parodying the entire farce in a fake rocker outfit. Please.)
Back then, I actually sported a mullet and braces at the same time. Yes, photographic evidence exists, but I suspect my parents will set a high price. My style was so bad, I wore a day-glo ski jacket for two years. My first earring hole got infected, so I went back to the mall to have it punched again. That’s right, the mall.
Was there ever a more American invention than the shopping mall? I believe it sprung to life in Houston, which makes sense to me now that I’ve visited. Who wants to try on the new Tommy Hilfiger button-down when you’re covered in a sheen of humidity-induced sweat? Not me. Not anyone. So the air-conditioned, sequestered, shopping-only zone was born.
The mall used to be the coolest thing in the world. (Again, this is a world that approved of rat tails and shoulder pads.) My parents would drop me off for a few hours, and my friends and I would search out others of our own kind: with our own two eyes. Clearly, that youth-mating-ritual is obsolete. (OMG, u r @ the fuud kort? B rite ther.)
And what of malls? Do they still reign? Not exactly. I’m sure the Beverly Center in LA still has its swagger, and I’ve never seen the Mall of America, so I’ll reserve judgment there. But in general, I think the safe answer is no. They’re an anachronism, like the myth of American Exceptionalism.
In fact, I think Brian Ulrich’s “Dead Mall” photos are some of the most compelling documents of 21st C America that we have. Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and say that his “Dark Store” Circuit City photographs are the enduring images from the Great Recession. (The crumbled KFC sign picture is up there too.)
Seriously, what could say more about the fallacy of endless consumption than those eerie, empty boxes, glowing from within? Yes, the stores are vacant and worthless, but let’s keep that electricity running. (Pictures can indeed communicate better than words, sometimes.)
The images turn up at the end of “Is This Place Great Or What,” Mr. Ulrich’s new monograph, recently published by Aperture and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The book is blue, which seems a bit random, and opens with historical images of a bygone American era, which seems odder still. At the very least, it sets the scene.
The book covers Mr. Ulrich’s “Copia” series, which has taken up the last decade or so of his life, broken down into convenient sections: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores. Each investigates a different facet of America’s ubiquitous consumer culture. It’s the first book I’ve reviewed, I believe, where you can see the artist’s clear improvement as you turn the pages.
The initial series, from early in the last decade, depicts life inside the world of consumption, before the bubble burst. People push shopping carts through Costco, Target and Home Depot. We see crucifixes, big screen TVs, guns, and spilt milk. All smart, but slightly obvious symbols. The pictures feel grabbed, and a little naughty. The compositions are well done, but also a bit arbitrary. Good work, for sure, but it feels like he was just beginning to sort out his vision.
Next comes “Thrift,” which shows more of how the other half lives. There are some real gems here, true keepers. The room full of useless computers, the racks of empty plastic hangers, the barren garage with an asymmetrical Britney Spears poster. Sharply observed, and definitely more visceral than the first section. Mr. Ulrich was starting to hit his groove.
Finally, we come to “Dark Stores,” the project that rightfully made the artist’s career. Powerful stuff, this. The global economy almost broke completely during the creation of “Copia,” and it shows. Desolate parking lots, empty stores, and the sorriest looking abandoned Toys-R-Us I ever did see. These photos are as well crafted as they are well seen. The symbols resonate, the eye dances around the rectangle, and the physical impact of the disillusionment is palpable. These photographs will endure.
Bottom Line: An artist’s evolution, with some brilliant images