Category "Art"

Jennifer Shaw Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jennifer Shaw is a fine art photographer based in New Orleans. Her project Hurricane Story was published in 2011 by Chin Music Press. She is represented by Guthrie Contemporary in New Orleans, and by Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta. Ms. Shaw also teaches photography, and is the director of the photoNOLA festival.

Jonathan Blaustein: Did you ever watch the Jetsons when you were a kid?

Jennifer Shaw: Uh-huh.

JB: When you were watching people talking to each other on screens, did you ever think it would happen in your lifetime?

JS: Not really.

JB: And here we are.

JS: It’s my second Skype conversation ever.

JB: Ever? I’m honored that I pushed you to do something new. I just used a bank drive-thru window for the first time in my life. Sometimes technology is scarier than it ought to be. I always thought I was too dumb to figure it out, but it wasn’t that hard.

Do you use the drive-thru window?

JS: Of course.

JB: Everybody had it figured out but me. You are in New Orleans right now, as we speak.

JS: Right.

JB: But I saw in your bio that you were born in Indiana, and raised in Milwaukee. So you are a child of the great Mid-West.

JS: Correct.

JB: What brought you to NOLA?

JS: I graduated from art school. I don’t know if you went to art school, but there’s not exactly some great corporate job lined up waiting for you. It’s more of a decision of where you want to go to make a life as an artist. I always had this fascination with New Orleans. You know, the mystique. The Crescent City.

I decided after one last long, bitter winter in Rhode Island that I was going to move South. I came down here, and here I am.

JB: How long ago was that?

JS: 1994.

JB: 1994? Old school. I was just in New Orleans for photoNOLA, which all of our regular readers will know. When I do these travel pieces, I don’t have a lot of time to make observations. I keep my eyes open, and talk to people. It works. But the downside is that I’m making judgements based on a really thin slice of reality.

I wrote a piece about the city booming with money and energy and galleries. Putting Katrina in the past. That was a spot observation. I have to admit that I could be really wrong. Just because Mercedes Benz is sponsoring the Superdome…was I rushing to judgement? Or are things doing really well down there, as I surmised?

JS: New Orleans is always a mixed bag. There are parts of New Orleans that are doing really well, but there are still some areas that haven’t fully recovered from Katrina. But culturally, we’re definitely in a beautiful, Post-Katrina boom.

The arts scene is thriving. It’s always been healthy, but especially now. The St. Claude arts district is new. A lot of artist-run co-operative-type things going on. So that’s exciting.

JB: So I wasn’t completely off base?

JS: No, no.

JB: Because that was your opportunity to tell me I was full of shit in my article from a few weeks back.

JS: (laughing) No. I loved your observations.

JB: It’s 2013, so we’re coming up on almost 20 years of you living there. Is this boom unprecedented in your time in the city?

JS: I think so. A lot of the larger institutions have been here for many, many years. The Julia and Magazine St galleries have been here for a long time. But the St. Claude and Downtown scene, where it’s funky and fresh and vibrant, where the artists are starting their own spaces…that’s all pretty new. Post-Katrina.

JB: When I was in town, it was suggested that maybe part of the boom had come from the people who came down to New Orleans to help out after the storm, and then stayed. Thereby bringing in aggressive, fresh energy. Was that something that you noticed? Was it all the government money? What do you think was the cause of the Renaissance?

JS: There definitely has been some “brain gain,” as they say. People who maybe came down to volunteer to help with the re-building, and then just fell in love with the city. There certainly was money flying around afterwards, but I think that’s dried up to some degree. There was a point where there was federal or insurance money, and things felt really hopping.Β (With lots of construction and renovation everywhere.)

I almost feel like I’m not qualified to answer the larger, institutional-type questions.

JB: No problem. Ladies and gentlemen, while you read this interview with Ms. Jennifer Shaw, you can choose to disregard some of what she says because she does not claim expertise. All right? It’s in the record. You might not be the right person to answer these questions, but you’re on the other end of the video screen, so you don’t have much of a choice right now, do you?

JS: No.

JB: What about the Southern Hospitality? When you first moved South, what was your reaction?

JS: It’s charming, right? Makes you feel right at home.

JB: photoNOLA, as I understand it, is an off-shoot or project of the New Orleans Photo Alliance.

JS: Correct.

JB: And the Alliance is an artist-run, artist-founded, member-supported community organization, with its own gallery in the Lower Garden District. Is that about right?

JS: Yes, non-profit as well.

JB: When did it get started?

JS: The New Orleans Photo Alliance formed in 2006. Another one of those Katrina silver linings. Don Marshall runs the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and has a long history of working in the arts in New Orleans. After Katrina, he started calling meetings with different groups of artists, encouraging us to form our own collectives and non-profits. To help resuscitate the arts, and the wider cultural rebuilding of the city.

Out of these groups of meetings with the photographers, we eventually decided what to do, what to be, and the name. One of the things I thought we should do was start a photography festival.

JB: Was that emergence concurrent with the creation of the Photo Alliance, or did it take some time?

JS: It was pretty concurrent; it came out of one of the early meetings. We first met in February or March of 2006. There had been a couple of Mardi Gras-themed group photography exhibitions. You know there’s always a big crowd at a group show.

Everybody came out and was just so thankful to see each other again. Hugs all around. Lots of “How did you make out during the storm?” There was this great energy flowing, and I think Don had attended one of those openings. I don’t know if that was one of his catalysts for getting us together, or if it was a part of his mission to organize lots of different types of artists, and getting us forming these self-sufficient organizations.

I’m totally losing track.

JB: It’s OK.

JS: So there were these two shows, and then a formal meeting is called at the Jazz and Heritage foundation. We decided, yeah, this is a good idea. Why not go ahead and do this?
Start an organization. So we had a series of monthly meetings to figure out what we might accomplish as a group. What sort of formΒ it would take, and what the goals might be. What the structure would be.

By December of that year, we had our first officers, and a group show that started membership. We made it so the entry fee gave you membership into the New Orleans Photo Alliance. That was the beginning of it all. Don hooked us up with an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center. When he got that plotted, I said, “Let’s take this December show at the CAC, and use it as an anchor to get the festival started.”

I knocked on the doors of galleries and other venues, and said, “We’re going to do a festival. Would you have a photo exhibition in conjunction with our show at the CAC? It’s going to be called photoNOLA, a month of photography.”

So that was the beginning. The first year was just exhibitions throughout the month, but nothing what it’s like now, obviously. (Portfolio reviews were added in 2007.)

JB: I didn’t know that the Photo Alliance came out of the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It’s a really interesting idea, the DIY ethos of artists getting together to do if for themselves. Given how much work it takes to do the business and self-promotion aspects of a career, the idea of getting together to lessen the load, and create the rising tide model, makes so much sense.

Were you the head of the photoNOLA festival from it’s inception?

JS: Pretty much so, yeah.

JB: Now, we both know that there are people who do that job, the Director of a non-profit, and that’s their only job. But on top of that, you also teach photography, and you have a full-time art career, and you’re a Mom.

JS: Right.

JB: So you’re trying to juggle everything at once. The 21st Century Hustle. I wanted to hear a bit about the founding of the organization, so thanks. It’s kind of a leading and inappropriate question, but do you think this would not have happened without the storm? Was there a burgeoning sense of collaborative energy because of the Internet anyway? Or do you think this was really a reaction to tragedy?

JS: I think it was totally a reaction to tragedy. I don’t know if something else would have come up in a different form later without the storm. But with Katrina, with everybody being out of the city for two months, and desperately wanting to get home, and desparately missing all of our friends and connections, I think it made us all appreciate people in a way that we never had before. Community ties too, not just in the art world.

There was a whole civic rebirth after the storm, on many different levels. Schools, and community organizations. So Katrina had a lot of silver linings, and the art scene and the Photo Alliance are certainly two of them.

JB: As is your book, “Hurricane Story.”

JS: (laughing.)

JB: So there’s that. My house got destroyed in a Hurricane, and all I got was a hard-cover book. Is that a T-shirt yet?

JS: (laughing still.) No. I should clarify, though, my house did not get destroyed. I’m on the sliver by the river, where there wasn’t any flooding. Just wind damage.

JB: Oh, congratulations.

JS: (laughing again.)

JB: I know, it’s seven years later, and I’m saying, “Congrats that your house didn’t get destroyed.” Let’s not give people the wrong impression.

I picked your book up and reviewed it in the very beginning of my book review column. I didn’t know you, or your name, or your work, or photoNOLA. I grabbed the little object off of my stack, and was kind of shocked. I hadn’t seen anybody personalize the tragedy in such an empathetic, but slightly light-hearted way.
Because you used toys.

JS: Right.

JB: What was the impetus for telling this really difficult story that way, about your evacuation, and having a baby on the day the storm made landfall? What was the genesis?

JS: I had a Holga that I’d modified into a macro-camera, and I hadn’t done a lot with it. I had some King Cake Babies lying around, and I think one day, I saw one lying around, and it reminded me of…I don’t know. Something just sparked, and I decided to pull out that macro camera and try it on those King Cake Babies, and maybe that’s the way I can deal with Katrina.

I’d taken some traditional disaster pictures, but didn’t feel like I owned that. You know? I felt like I was doing it in a documentary sense, for posterity. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable saying that was my art, or trying to sell that kind of work in galleries. I don’t know.

It was just these King Cake Babies, this macro camera, and a roll of black and white film. It just rolled, and made sense. This is it. This is what I need to be doing.

JB: What exactly is a King Cake Baby?

JS: Good question. Sorry. Every year from 12th Night through Mardi Gras, New Orleanians have mounds and mounds of King Cakes. Inside the cake is a little plastic baby, and the tradition is, whoever gets the slice with the King Cake Baby has to buy the next King Cake. It’s a continuing tradition at parties, and in offices, for weeks on end. We all get really fat. Getting the baby is a special thing, so you tend to collect them. They’re small and plastic, and made in China.

JB: Just like everything else.

We left in the dark of night

At 3:47 a boy was born

There were rumors of alligators in the streets

The chaos was hard to fathom

Convoys of rescue trucks passed in the other direction

Mardi Gras was amazing

Art Superdealer Larry Gagosian

- - Art

Fascinating article on Art Superdealer Larry Gagosian that appears in the January 28, 2013 issue of New York Magazine: http://www.vulture.com/2013/01/art-superdealer-larry-gagosian.html

Gagosian has been, for the past two decades, the most powerful gallerist in the world, by a wide margin. In 2011, a survey of dealers in The Wall Street Journal estimated that his annual sales approached $1 billion. That May, roughly half the works for sale by the major auction houses in New York (evening sales only) were by artists on Gagosian’s roster. In addition to his three gallery spaces in New York, he owns two in London, two in Paris, and one each in Beverly Hills, Rome, Geneva, Athens, and Hong Kong. β€œIn many ways, having a show with him is synonymous with having a show at MoMA or the Tate Modern,” says Eric Shiner, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Scott B. Davis Interview

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Scott B. Davis is a San Diego-based fine art photographer. He recently had solo exhibitions at Hous Projects in NYC, and at the San Diego Museum of Art. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Scott is also the Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the founder and director of the Medium Festival of Photography, which debuted in 2012.

Jonathan Blaustein: It’s a New Year, and I wanted to inaugurate a mini-series interviewing people who represent the new pathways to success in the 21st Century. I can’t speak to what it used to be like, but it seems many of the folks who are getting their work out in the world are creating multi-pronged careers. Multiple talents, multiple income streams.

Of course, I thought of you. We met back in 1998, in a Photo 3 class with Patrick Nagatani. Is that right?

Scott B. Davis: Yeah.

JB: Our audience knows a lot about me, but they don’t know what I was like back then. Do you have any embarrassing stories about me from back in the day? What did you think of me when we first met?

SD: (laughing.) Let’s see. (long pause.) You were a guy who seemed to think he had it all figured out, and wanted to jump right in the deep end with everybody else. I say that with all due love and respect.

JB: Of course. You’re allowed to make fun of me. That’s the point.

SD: What I also love is one of the early memories, where you then turned it on me. You said, “I couldn’t stand you when we first met. You were this guy who just knew it all.”

JB: You knew a lot for a young guy.

SD: I think the bottom line is we both approached the medium from a very different place, personally speaking, but with a lot of passion and drive to make it a career.

JB: Well, you had a free shot at me, and you didn’t exactly take it. Classy. Let’s move along, though.

You are a working artist, and just had a big solo show in New York at Hous Projects. You’re also the Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and you just started your own photography festival, called Medium, from scratch. And you’re doing all three of these different jobs at the same time.

SD: Yeah.

JB: Why?

SD: Why?

JB: Yes. Why?

SD: I guess it goes back to that undergraduate experience. I knew I wanted to be heavily involved with this medium from a very young age. As I’ve grown older, and watched the world diversify around us, I realized there’s no singular experience that’s going to fulfill all the hopes and desires I have as an engaged photographer.

Working at a day job gives me these office skills, for lack of a better word, that allow me to understand the nuts and bolts of the industry. As a fine art photographer, that part goes without saying. It’s expressing personal beliefs, wishes, taking wild
attempts at making statements without language. That drives itself.

For the festival, it’s a culmination of those two things. It’s an opportunity for me to say, “How can I create something in my community that reaches other photographers, that gives other photographers a platform and a voice, and that engages me in a new way with photography itself?”

JB: It’s all really heady and high-minded, but isn’t there more to it? Isn’t it, the day job pays the bills, and the festival is where you party, and the art is where you get your crazy out?

SD: (pause) I guess you could put it that way too. The day job pays the bills. And as you know as well as anybody, it’s a dangerous trap. It can be.

But for the festival, it really is about creating a space and a place for other photographers. If it were just about a party, I’d have a party. It’s a business. Really a mega-business, for one or two people to undertake.

JB: I like to put my finger up in the wind and see what people are thinking about. Now that the worst of the Economic Collapse has passed, it’s good to see people come out of retrenchment mode and try to build things. Try to grow their own capabilities, so I thought you might be able to give us a little insight.

We’ve got readers around the planet, and thankfully photo festivals continue to pop up. But there are a lot of communities out there that could benefit from opportunities to see work, andΒ meet new people, learn and grow, kick back a glass of wine.

You shared your motivation a bit, but I’d like to dig a little deeper. Did you always want to do this? Or was it a random idea, and then you decided to put your nose down? How long had you been planning the Medium festival?

SD: About 18 months. But it’s interesting when you materialize something like this, and then you achieve it. You can look back in hindsight and have a little bit of clarity about where it came from.

When I first moved back to California, there was a part of me that wanted to start a center for photography. A do-it-yourself frame shop, and a place where photographers could come together and mount exhibitions. Host lectures, stuff like that. It was 10 or 12 years ago, though. But I didn’t have the personal need or the experience to do it.

But to cycle back to 10 years of working as an industry professional, you start to learn how things operate. What it takes to organize something like this. That, and watching other art fairs and festivals crop up all over the world, it makes you realize there are micro-communities as well as macro-communities that want to have these experiences.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s a lot of world experience that comes together and makes you realize you can take a nascent idea and start to create something unique for this region.

I’ll give you one example. Photo LA, the established photo fair, has really changed a lot in the past several years. One thing I realized it became, by default, was a place for photographers to meet. Photo LA does their own programming. They had Stephen Shore out last year. They bring in big names.

But as that really changed, and less photographers were attending it, because of personal grievances, or not liking the fair, or it not having the same energy, I realized that that community in Southern California could use a place to come together like photo LA.

I’m not trying to create photoLA, through Medium, but when I realized that there’s nothing like this in Coastal Southern California, I thought we could really use something to get the creative juices flowing.

JB: I couldn’t go this year, unfortunately, because the festival was two weeks after the new baby came. I still feel bad about it, but I’ll be there for 2013. Big ups.

Earlier, though, you mentioned 10 years as an industry professional. I know you started out cutting mats in the bowels of the UNM Art Museum in Albuquerque. You were an exacting dude with a good internship.

Then, you started as a preparator at MOPA, and have worked your way up to the Director of Exhibitions.

SD: Right.

JB: Have you had any experiences over the years where you were taken less seriously as an artist because you were working as an arts professional? Or were there situations where anyone tried to hook you up as an artist to get in with the museum? Over the years, have you noticed any changes in the way people perceive a hybridized career?

SD: If anything, I’d say it’s gotten more difficult. I don’t know that people look at me and say, “Wow, he’s this multi-faceted guy.” They usually look at me as wearing one primary hat. It’s challenging, because, particularly as a museum professional, I don’t want to breach that trust, or cross that line.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that people want to reduce you to one simple thing.

JB: I can relate. When the writing started to take off, there was a time when I was worried that people would know me more for this than for my art-making. But very quickly, I realized that if people know me at all, then I’m fortunate. I prefer they know me and like what I do, rather than wanting to firebomb my house, though.

But getting back to Medium, now that the festival came off successfully, was there anything you learned that really turned your expectations on their head? Was there any part of the process that caught you off guard?

SD: I don’t know if I can give you a good answer to the question.

JB: No? Should we just move on?

SD: Well, the reason being is that it’s anything that anyone would tell you. Anybody who’s done it, or anybody with common sense will know it’s a lot of work. And then people will turn around and ask you, “How did you do that?”

Getting back to which hat you wear, and how people associate you, it’s interesting to me, when I step back and take it all in, I’m not to worried about how people are going to categorize me. I know that doing every single one of these things is not motivated by profit, or fame or any kind of worldly riches.

JB: Speak for yourself, dude.

SD: Come on, now. It’s motivated by a very deep-seated love for what I do. From my perspective, I see it all as part of a rich life. I go to my day job, I come home and work in the darkroom, or shoot photographs. I organize a festival. To me, there are not always clear boundaries between those.

As far as advice goes for someone who’s thinking of starting something, if you’re really passionate, and you have the inclination and the capacity to do it, I think that’s the most important question to ask yourself. Because everything else has
to come from within.

JB: I ended 2012 with a column that suggested to folks that perhaps this would be a good year to try to stretch yourself, take a risk, try something new. Looking at what you went through, having a solo show, buying and renovating a house, putting on a festival and working full time all during one Summer. Wow.

Now that it’s behind you, what did you learn about yourself? Are you actually a more capable human being for pushing yourself to the limits?

SD: Definitely. I achieved what I set out to do, which is to give added dimension to a community that I passionately feel could use it. That’s something I can’t underscore enough for readers, is this idea. If you really believe in what you want to do, whether it’s to start your career as a photographer, or to start a festival, or create a publishing company. If you believe there’s a need for it, that it makes sense…this is just Business 101. Then it’s totally worth it to stretch yourself.

If you’ve done your job right, you’ve added value to the community. Whether it’s your community by zip code, or by theology. You’re adding value.

JB: Thanks for the honesty. Is there any cellphone footage of you berating an intern during Medium, like Christian Bale? Did you ever lose your shit? You might as well admit it right now…

SD: No. I don’t lose my shit. It’s something I work at more and more as I get older.

JB: I get it. I used to be a hothead, and now I’m not. I’m much happier this way.

But I wanted to shift to the museum for a second. I noticed on the website that you guys have a show up now that was crowd curated by your audience?

SD: Yeah.

JB: You guys gave your audience a chance to vote on pictures from a certain grouping, and then you showed the highest rated pictures in the exhibition?

SD: And the lowest rated.

JB: How did it work?

SD: There are forty photographs on exhibit that the crowd curated. The photos with the most and least votes are highlighted in the exhibition. Because it’s not always about winners.

JB: Forgive me if this is an obvious question, but wasn’t anybody afraid that this might prove the irrelevance of the curator as tastemaker, if the crowd can do as good a job? What’s been people’s reaction to the idea and the show?

SD: The reaction has been really positive, all the way around. The idea was born out of crowd-sourcing in general. The museum is really there to serve the community. Our photographs are held in the public trust, even though it’s a private museum. Why not give the community an opportunity to take an active role in things?

It also allows us to learn things about our collection. It’s one thing for an educated person to make decisions about what’s going next to what, and to develop thematic ideas. But it’s also interesting when you let non-experts look at something and discover new things, and in this case, new images.

It allowed us to ask some hard questions. How strong is our collection? Let’s be real. Let’s be honest, and not hide the duds. And, of course, we don’t believe it’s undermining the role of the curator.

JB: I know it’s off topic, but I think we came up with a new drinking game. Every time people read the word community in this interview, they have to do a shot.

Seriously, though, what happened when the crowd picked? Was it just, oh, they love Henri Cartier-Bresson, and nature and cowboys? Could you learn anything broad from their preferences?

SD: Well, the top three pictures were a photo by Kenro Izu of a sacred Tibetan mountain, a photograph by Bradford Washburn of climbers on an icy peak, and the classic photograph of a nuclear explosion on the Bikini Atoll. Think about that for a minute. People are responding to photographs that elicit emotions. Beautiful pictures of mountains elicit primal emotions, or fantasies about what the world should look like.

The lowest ranked images are basically abstract photographs that, when they’re set out there, on their own, without a voice, don’t make sense to people. Clearly, people didn’t respond to them.

JB: So they prefer the epic, and they eschew the abstract. At least in this experiment. That is not particularly surprising. But it sounds like it gave you guys a chance to get your own metrics in an evidence-obsessed society.

As far as your own work goes, you spend a lot of time rambling around empty deserts, at night, with a big camera. I read an interview a couple of years ago with Robert Adams, and he talked about having someone with him to watch his back, when he was shooting at night in Colorado Springs.

Is that something you’ve had to do, or do you just roll the dice?

SD: I roll the dice, and nothing that exciting has ever happened to me. The worst thing is people in Los Angeles, who find me in the middle of the night, and are whacked in the head, and think I’m making a movie.

Out in the desert, it’s a different story. The worst thing that happens is the border patrol comes by in the morning and says there was a lot of activity last night. You guys had neighbors.

JB: For years you’ve been out there working, in the middle of the night, when the rest of us are asleep. What’s the fascination?

SD: The fascination is discovery. I’m a landscape photographer. But as landscapes in the Western US become more and more well known, more and more seen, I’m interested in letting the camera help me discover worlds that I didn’t know existed otherwise. I’m looking at the world and seeing how it’s transformed, the other 50% of the time. In the darkness. Once the magic hour happens, most people head off to the bar to knock back a drink. Not me.

Three Female Artists in NOLA

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. So they say. But what if Mars is the better planet? If so, isn’t it sexist to give Mars to the men? Shouldn’t women be from Mars, and men from Venus? That would be more equitable.

Of course I’m joking. I’ve been thinking about this, though, since mid-November, when I realized that I hadn’t reviewed a book by a female artist in a long time. It wasn’t conscious neglect. I’m fairly indiscriminate when I grab the books at photo-eye, and then choose to review those to which I truly respond.

I was disturbed by my lack of awareness, but not surprised by my preferences. Early on in my relationship with my wife, we realized that all of my music was made by men, and all of hers by women. One man’s Bruce Springsteen is another woman’s Ani DiFranco. (Then, thankfully. Now it’s Lilly Allen and Regina Spektor. Much better.)

Still, I wasn’t going to let the trend continue. I had Cara Phillips’ “Singular Beauty” in my book stack, and reviewed it straightaway. I thought it was a fascinating book, and said as much. It belonged in the column. In retrospect, was this a case of affirmative action, or a belated remedy to a problem resulting from carelessness?

Shortly thereafter, it came time to give photo-eye my best books of 2012, and again I had to temper a male-centric list. I could have left it as it was, but that seemed inappropriate. Is it controversial of me to admit this? Probably, but the alternative is less attractive. I’d rather be open, and let you choose to respect my stance, or take exception.

This blog, and my effort in it, has always been about radical honesty. I’m not trying to offend anybody. I take this platform seriously, and think it’s vital to show a diversity of perspectives in the things I cover. Furthermore, I only want to discuss projects that are interesting and provide value for your precious time. If these articles promote dialogue, so much the better.

Men and women are both part of the human species, but our structural bodies and body chemistries are different. We couldn’t possibly have the same experience navigating the world. As an artist, it’s socially acceptable for me to have a lot of “female” characteristics. I’m emotionally sensitive, like to talk, and ask a lot of questions. I can empathize, and appreciate taking baths. But I also like football, farting and cursing. I’m still a dude, albeit one with a healthy dose of estrogen.

With all that in mind, I was thrilled to see three exhibitions by three super-talented female artists while I was in New Orleans. On a Sunday, just after my reviews ended, I was walking quickly towards the Ogden Museum when I got a text to stop in at theΒ Contemporary Art Center. I was meant to meet my new friend Kathleen Robbins, so she could take me to see her show “Into the Flatland,” at the New Orleans Photo Alliance gallery. She asked me to change course, and there she was in the lobby, standing with a few women I didn’t know.

Kathleen told me she’d set up a little gallery tour, and would that be OK? I said no problem. Within a matter of minutes, my slow brain surmised that our companions were the artists featured in the shows were were to see. (And the three prize winners from photoNOLA 2011.) Sarah Cusimano Miles was exhibiting at the Martine Chaisson Gallery, two blocks away, and Priya Kambli had just wrapped an artist talk right there at the CAC. The last of my guides was photoNOLA chief Jennifer Shaw, whom I’d yet to meet.

Did I suspect a set-up? Of course. But I didn’t care either way. What a great opportunity, and it just dropped in my lap. I’d been thinking about how to include more female artists in my articles, and there they were. (Was it just like having brunch with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda? No, not at all. Does my clichΓ© reference make me square? Probably.)

We went to see Sarah’s show first, in a shiny, beautiful white gallery space. The photographs were still life masterpieces: objects from the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama, (where the artist lives,) combined with her own possessions. (Mostly food.)

The photographs looked like twisted visions from a Victorian Curiosity Shoppe. Lots of dark, rich browns and plenty of dead things. The photos were very sharp, as well as sumptuous. Sarah told us she thought female artists were more motivated by intuition than were men. The other women all agreed, heartily, and the best I could muster was, “I’m down with the ladies.” (Yes, that’s a direct quote.)

Sarah shared a bit about her insanely intricate process. Apparently, she wasn’t happy with the sharpness of her lens across a variety of focal planes, so she put together the tableaux in pieces, shot by shot, with as many as 200 photos per picture. (A few inches of focus at a time.) I think that much composting in Photoshop would drive me back to coffee. (Or cocaine.)

They were incredible photographs, for sure, but didn’t speak directly to my viscera. It made me wonder about the intersection of gender and taste. Is there a feminine aesthetic, relative to a masculine one? Furthermore, does the male view still predominate throughout the art and photo worlds? (Again, probably.) But most of the curators and photo editors I know are women. And given that women now outnumber men in college, and seem to have the upper hand in the economy of the future, (health care, education) at what point will the scales tilt?

I’m not suggesting that equal rights have been achieved. Women still earn less on average, and are hampered in career tracks when they take time out to have kids. But I know more than a few families in which the woman is the primary earner, including my own. The story is far more complicated than it used to be, thankfully, and progress is undeniable. (Let me also shout out Taryn Simon and Susan Worsham, two of my favorite photographers working today.)

Back in NOLA, we walked the two blocks back to the Contemporary Art Center, and I got to speak to Priya for a few minutes.
She told me she teaches in rural Missouri, having studied in Louisiana and Texas, so all three artists have Southern roots. (For fun, try saying “rural Missouri” five times fast.)

Her photographs, at the CAC, were installed against serene blue walls. She’s from India, originally, but has lived in the US for many years. The color scheme references her background, I’d guess, as it’s a powerful theme throughout the work on display.

The pictures were, for the most part, diptychs printed together. One panel would contain scenes from her family domestic life: little toys and household objects and constructed things. They were personal as well as sculptural. Very well seen. The other panel would typically be a historical-looking portrait of family members back in in India.

Beautiful work, beautiful show.

After a few minutes, we piled into a very small car to go see Kathleen’s exhibition. There was a class going in inside the multi-purpose space, so by the time we got in to see the show, it was nearing dark on my last night in town. I was exhausted and drained, and couldn’t spend more than four or five minutes with Kathleen’s pictures. My apologies.

These reeked of a bleak, wintry, poor South of which I know nothing. The artist is from Mississippi, and the photos were of her family, herself, and the area from whence she comes. Lots of broken down shacks and barren fields. (I recognized one image from Fraction Magazine, and realized that I had seen the work before.)

The pictures are lyrical and Romantic; about place and home and sad light. Were they feminine as well? I suppose so, but they clearly had some edge. I responded emotionally to this show, most of all, and could almost hear some dark blues music in my head. (Or Ry Cooder’s opening riff to “Paris, Texas.”)

Did it make me want to go to Mississippi? Not exactly. But these three shows did give me a lot to think about. They were a great reminder that looking at art made by people of different backgrounds (or genders) opens one’s mind. I’ll keep on trying to maintain the balance, in 2013, as it benefits us all.

photoNOLA, New Orleans, 2012

by Jonathan Blaustein

They say time heals all wounds. I’m sure that’s not true. To heal implies making things better. The parents of those poor Connecticut children will never be better again. With time, though, they will likely hurt less. They will keep on living. And in six weeks, most of us will forget they exist.

Sometimes, though, the rest of us, those glued to our screens during a tragedy, are the ones who get stuck. Occasionally, the bystanders will latch on to the moment of horror, and not let go. Like with Hurricane Katrina.

I went to New Orleans last month to attend the photoNOLA festival. I was booked for their portfolio reviews, and was also hoping to get around the city a bit and see things. But my very first impression, in the airport, served to solidify my preconceptions about this storm-ravaged region. The place was under construction disarray, with plywood tacked up willy-nilly. I even grabbed a snapshot of a marker-written “Baggage Claim” sign that was about as ghetto as anything I’ve seen.

Like I said, my vision was stuck a bit in 2005. When my Eritrean cab driver approached Downtown, I saw the Superdome up ahead, and then we drove right past it. At first, I held my breath, and saw those roof tiles gone in my mind. Then, I looked more closely. The place was shiny-metal-gleaming in the rosy late afternoon light. It is now sponsored, heavily, by Mercedes Benz. The stadium was stylish and expensive looking, in 2012.

I was on notice. The multiple cranes seen erecting buildings around the city were another sign of money and development. (You can learn a lot from the cranes on a skyline. We saw so many in Spain, in 2004, that I knew something was up. Or, as the Spaniards would tell you, tragically unsustainable.) Lucien, of whom you’ll hear later, told me the cranes were raising jails and hospitals. Two constant sources of cash.

I also learned that Eritreans will eat in Ethiopian restaurants. Though the two countries were locked in vicious wars for 30 years, that forced my cabbie to flee to America, apparently the food is pretty much the same. (He was sullen, so I tipped him poorly. I still feel guilty about it.)

The short version of my trip is that I found a city booming. So much so that I only saw a fraction of what was on display. Photography exhibitions were everywhere. Robot parades, Second lines, lectures, openings, music, art, it was everywhere. Good for New Orleans. While we may still have Katrina on the brain, especially in Sandy’s wake, the folks living there have most certainly moved on. Thank goodness.

I ate amazing food, day after day. I was kidnapped, three times, by photographers visiting from various parts around the South. The clichΓ© about Southern Hospitality was on full display, and I’m now officially down with it. (For you foodies out there, Friday’s dinner was at Clancy’s. Book it. And celebu-chef John Besh’s pizza place, Domenica, was also a standout.)

The festival began a couple of days before I got there. There was a gala benefit on Thursday night, and lectures by Sasha Wolf and Mary Virginia Swanson earlier on Friday. I missed them all. You know I’ve got a baby at home, so my trip was too brief. If I return next year, I’ll make sure to stay longer. And I’d heartily recommend you go yourself, but don’t shortchange it.

My reviews were on Saturday, and I began with a meeting with an associate curator from the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first time I’d met with someone from there, the gleaming art Mecca, and I thought hard about how to approach it. I decided that the likelihood of her seeing something in a box, and it then ending up on the wall, or in the collection at the MoMA, was next to zero. Probably more like zero. (Maybe down the line, but still…)

The second route would be to be “insanely memorable.” While I can be charming on a good day, 20 minutes is not a very long time to strike up the kind of conversation that impresses someone enough to go straight to the top of their to-do-list. Possible, but, again, unlikely.

On the other hand, one thing I could reasonably hope for would be to get her honest opinion about my work. Presumably, you don’t work there unless you really know what you’re talking about. So advice, a critique, was something that seemed attainable, and potentially very helpful.

That’s how I approached it. I didn’t even show her prints from my established project, “The Value of a Dollar,” or try to woo her with my extensive resume. Rather, we focused on my in-progress work, where it was headed: what she liked, what she didn’t like. It was fascinating to hear her riff on my work, and very encouraging.

I’m sharing this, here, because I’ve been and am an advocate of portfolio reviews. The process has really made my career, and many others before me. But I’ve been victim, in the past, of that desire to make every meeting out be the game-changer. To hustle and schmooze. Talk without listening. What do they call that, the elevator pitch? Please.

The beauty of these events, and photoNOLA was an excellent example, is that you can learn more about what you’re doing from seasoned professionals. Can these meetings lead directly to exhibition, publication, and acquisition? Yes, they can. But even more, they can help push us further along, outside the domain of the “like-asphere.” (Am I coining this term, or does it already exist?)

The event was based out of the International House Hotel, just next to the French quarter. (In which the streets truly do smell of booze and urine.) The reviews took place in the hotel conference facilities, across the street, in a couple of rooms very well set up for the attending photographers. (Free wifi, free food, coffee and water? Classy.)

There were countless events in the evenings, so much that without a car and a better sense of direction, it was hopeless to try to attend most. I was bummed about that, as I didn’t get to see as much as I’d hoped, and was mostly restricted to the CBD and the Quarter. (Though one kidnapping brought me to the Lower Garden District. Cool spot. Hipster central.)

Ultimately, I realized that a surfeit of options of things to see is a good problem. You can only be in one place at a time, and you can’t talk to everyone. That’s why I’d recommend a longer stay, and why I hope to get back as soon as I can.

As for the events I did see? It started with the Shelby Lee Adams Lecture at the Ogden Museum of Art, on Friday night. He was super-intelligent, and showed a range of lesser-known work from his long career. Some of his portraits of Appalachians reminded me a lot of Roger Ballen’s pictures of poor South Africans. The pictures are straight, but the folks are so seemingly pitiable, and the lens so sharp, that the intent can seem mean or exploitative. Or, I should say, some folks interpret them as such.

As Mr. Adams is from and lives amongst his community, and his subjects love the depictions, I’m inclined to find them cool as hell. But he was very defensive about his critical reputation, mentioning it on three or four occasions. He took swipes at “Academics” at the University of Kentucky, and others. My companions and I all commented about it, as it seemed a waste of energy. He’s got great work, and is successful and acclaimed. (As he said, to paraphrase, once you get a Guggenheim, you can do whatever the hell you want.)

I was reminded of my own past fury at our pack of rabbly commenters, though I’ve since decided to leave people to their opinions. The critics are out there, in every field and forum. If you put your work out there, and it’s good enough to draw attention, then you have to learn how to take/live with the criticism. Because it will most certainly come.

Still, it was a great presentation over all, but we had to split a bit early for late dinner reservations. The next night, I was able to catch the end of a group Q&A with Keith Carter, Josephine Sacabo, Shelby Lee Adams, and Louviere + Vanessa at A Gallery for Fine Art Photography, in the French Quarter. The place is a must on any future visit to New Orleans. Tons of great historical work, and some contemporary Black and White photography as well. (Helmut Newton’s pictures jumped off the wall. Sexy photos, sexy town.)

Let’s wrap this up. photoNOLA rocks, and New Orleans rocks. It’s a city with an unfathomable amount of cultural events, and more insane restaurants than you could ever, ever eat at. The cost of the portfolio reviews is less than some competing events, which is a bonus. And every dollar you spend will pump right into the local economy.

The cabdriver who took me back to the airport was, in fact, right out extras casting for all the movies they’re shooting here these days. He could easily have been a character on David Simon’s “Treme.” Aforementioned, his name was Lucien, a fifty-something African-American guy, born and raised in NOLA.

He was funny, loquacious, and intently offered me his wisdom. We swapped stories for the whole ride back to the airport, talking shit about money and power. (I wish I could quote him on that week’s NFL shooting tragedy, but it’s NSFW.) When I lauded the local hospitality, and promised a speedy return, he summed it up for me as follows: “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice to people.” Amen.

The Best Photos I Saw This Year That I Haven’t Already Written About Yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a dirty little secret. Photography is not my favorite medium. I have equal love for Painting, Sculpture and Cinema, which inspire me greatly as an artist. Perhaps they should take away my cool-guy-photographer club membership?

But when in professorial mode, my first lectures are always about the magic of photography’s essence. Light and time. Harnessing powerful elements of the Universe. Freezing people and moments, forever. Thinking about that gets me every time.

Unfortunately, a by-product of living in a time of unprecedented image saturation, I’d be hard pressed to say I see that magic within the rectangle, very often. I see a lot of photographs in my line of work, and then we all do via our massive media addiction. We’re all drowning.

Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I visited the Legion of Honor Museum on the edge of the Presidio. The gorgeous, resplendent building abuts a golf course, and sits above the rocky cliffs jutting up from the Bay. The fog was thick, sitting in a bank that touched the tops of the Eucalyptus trees.

I didn’t even know the museum existed, but there were banners plastered around the city, promising a Man Ray/Lee Miller exhibition. That was enough to draw me. Who wouldn’t want to see his work? I’d heard of Ms. Miller before, but didn’t know her work or backstory at all.

Down some old-school-curved-stone stairs, with vaulted arches hard at work, the exhibit was in the bowels of the historical building. Did it used to be someone’s mansion? What was the history? I didn’t have a chance to find out, as the museum was about to close when I arrived.

Time to cut to the chase. The gorgeous Ms. Miller stole the show, as well as my heart. Wow. What a presence. And through the exhibition, it was clear that my name is only last on a very long list of the infatuated that included Man Ray, Picasso, and probably every man she met in Europe before World War II.

She was tall and blonde, with striking blue eyes. Ms. Miller was beautiful the way Grace Kelly was beautiful. Just the perfect, Upper Class-looking WASP goddess. Normally not my type.

She exuded a kind of wounded, cold, intelligent reserve. Bottled up, statuesque. In fact, early in the exhibition, there are a couple of photographs of her playing a statue in a Cocteau film. The verisimilitude was off-the-chains.

Her photographs begin in the second room, alongside of Man Ray’s. It seems as if the show has been designed to show her off, as she is better represented than he. And subsequent rooms show only her work, and the work of others who were inspired by her.

Man Ray’s photographs of Lee Miller amp up the sexuality. He fetishizes her, and when you see the portraits of him, you can understand his excitement that he got to have sex with her at all. In her self-portraits, though, she is subdued and classical, her intellect beaming out. Two completely different visions of the same woman.

I’m still weirded out that I had powerful urges towards someone I knew to be dead. The whole notion of freezing time, of encoding moments from the rush of history, was foremost in my thoughts. In the bowels of this old museum, on a misty late afternoon, it was almost as if there were ghosts about. (Let’s hope she’s young and hot as a ghost. I’ve no interest in the 70 year old Lee Miller haunting my dreams.)

OK, the photographs are what this 2nd Annual column is supposed to be about. Ms. Miller had one image of breasts that had been lopped off in a mastectomy. Just sitting there. Right below a photo of dead rats hanging in a shop window. Of their moment, as surrealism, they screamed of the dark soul looming within the model’s body.

And she was also tough enough to go into the Concentration Camps after the end of the War. Her photos of German officer’s bodies, after suicide, reeked of that same Surrealist training. She knew from absurd, which was a fine a response as any to the atrocities, the death and destruction. Crazy photographs. Crazy. Together, they were definitely the best photographs I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet.

Man Ray and Lee Miller eventually broke up. She married an Englishman. I have her biography on the shelf, given to me by a friend, but I haven’t opened yet. (I’ll get there.) This friend, in the know, told me that Lee Miller had been sexually abused as a child. Common knowledge, apparently.

Upon hearing that morsel, it all fit. I’d known something was wrong with her all along. That’s why I was so smitten. In those years that she and Man Ray documented, she had it all. The looks. The brains. The creativity. And the soul scars that seared her humanity into celluloid.

Richard Misrach’s lecture at the Center for Creative Photography

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The weather in Tucson is brutally hot most of the time. 115 degrees Fahrenheit for almost 7 months a year, so they tell me. But the other five months are beautiful, when much of North America is freezing its collective ass off. Not being a lunatic, I’ve visited in October and February, and, as a result, love the place.

I was overdue for a visit to hang out with my good friend Ken, his wife Lisa, and their lovely daughter. Ken and I were chatting on the phone one day, and I made that all-too-familiar, non-specific promise to come “as soon as I can make it work.” Generic meaninglessness.

Ken then mentioned that the great Richard Misrach was due to lecture at the Center for Creative Photography, on the campus of the U of A. “Misrach, dude. Misrach,” was the final refrain of his argument. I stammered. No obvious excuse came to mind. “Uh, uh, Misrach, dude. You’re right. I’ll buy a plane ticket today.”

And so I found myself, earlier this Fall, fresh off the airplane, handing Ken a breakfast burrito from an Indian Casino outside Albuquerque. Before you say yuck, I got it only a couple of hours before, and it’s designed to keep in long-haul trucks on the Interstate. Delicious.

It couldn’t have been seven minutes from the time I stepped off the airplane to the time we were driving away in Ken’s Prius. The hybrid car is not as out-of-place as you might imagine in Super-Red-State Arizona. Tucson is actually a liberal island in a sea of anti-immigrant hostility. (Though these folks do have to live on the fringe of the Mexican Drug War, with a strong Mexican Mafia presence in town as well.)

I’ll spare you any more details on what he and I did in the handful of hours we had before the lecture. But cruising on the Prius-driving-tour gave me a bit of perspective on where the town is situated. The city is actually surrounded by mountains, and pretty ones at that. I’d rank it highly on the natural beauty scale. But that probably doesn’t matter if you’re sitting inside with your underwear pressed up against the air conditioning unit.

We turned up at the CCP about an hour before kickoff, to get some good seats reserved. And to catch up with the other artists that drove into town from California and Phoenix. People pay attention when a big dog pops his head out in public.

The lecture began soon enough, and the audience was both packed and silent. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been in a quieter crowded lecture hall since taking final exams at Duke all those years ago. But this was fun instead of hysterically stressful.

Mr. Misrach structured the lecture as a linear narrative of the projects he’d done throughout his career. I was familiar with all of the earlier work, the Desert Cantos photos upon which he built his career. The Salton Sea. The fires. The Bravo 20 Bombing range pictures. The salt flats.

The projection was excellent, and the pictures looked amazing at 15’x15′, or whatever it was. It made me want to create super-giant prints, or do projection installations. Anything to achieve that powerful sense of scale. He claimed inspiration for the Cantos series, in which the projects interlock to inform each other and the whole, from Dante and Ezra Pound.

Mr. Misrach continued on through pretty pictures, like “Golden Gate” and “On the Beach,” and also showed newer things I’d not seen. Images from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Iphone images, (of course,) and a return to working in Cancer Alley, Louisiana. The project, which began in the late nineties, originated as a commission from the High Museum in Atlanta.

I’d first seen one of the large scale color images at the now-defunct Friends of Photography in San Francisco many years ago. He showed dozens of these photos, each more compelling than the next. Factories, chemical plants, plantations, riverscapes, old shacks, all in that famously perfect light. I felt the work certainly on par with Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of corporate-sponsored environmental degradation.

I heard the first seat creaks from the crowd at the one hour mark, just as he was discussing his new Aperture book “Petrochemical America,” with design work by Kate Orff. Then, things took a strange turn. (And then stranger still, but I’ll get there.) Mr. Misrach wrapped up the lecture with a segment on the private salon he has at his studio with a handful of younger Bay Area Artists. He went on to show slides of their work, including Doug Rickard, Paul Schiek, Jason Fulford, and my previously-mentioned-friend McNair.

That the San Francisco collaborative scene made such a prominent appearance here in Tucson, just a couple of weeks after I was in SF, was totally surreal for me. I’m not sure people knew what to think. Was he promoting his younger buddies, blatantly, or showing off work that inspired and intrigued him? This was quickly followed by an excellent Q&A, in which Mr. Misrach seemed to enjoy responding directly, rather than sticking to the script.

Here are a few quotes I thought you’d find interesting. On the political impact of his work: “Whether they can change public policy? I don’t think that’s real.” On how he stayed safe in the dangerous situations in which he often found himself: “I was young and stupid.” On how he deals with delving into bleakness of eco-misery: “It’s a job.”

He also said, of art making, “the process is metaphysical.” Let me be the first to agree. Finally, speaking about switching from large format film photography to medium format digital, he said, “I’m making better pictures now than I could possibly do with an 8″x10″ negative.” Hard to believe, but I suppose he’s earned our suspension of disbelief.

Seconds after he finished speaking, Lisa waved to a friend, and her diamond engagement ring flew off her hand, in full view of dozens of people, and disappeared into thin air. I’m always telling my son that things don’t vanish, but it happened before my eyes. Fortunately, the ring was discovered a month later, in the bowels of the pocket book of the lady sitting next to her.

Then, we headed back to their place for a Taco Truck dinner, and a little impromptu, photo-geek-salon/taco fiesta. We had five photographers with five MFA’s between them: a Guggenheim Fellow, two artists showing at Klompching in Brooklyn, a photographer who went to school with Gregory Crewdson, and me.

The consensus on the lecture was that Mr. Misrach was too literal and linear, and didn’t provide inspiration for my colleagues. His target audience was clearly the many young college students in attendance, who were likely less familiar with his canon than we. Alec Soth was suggested as a model of the inspirational lecturer, as several of the photographers had recently seen him speak at the Medium Festival in San Diego.

Personally, I hung on Mr. Misrach’s every word. Beyond the countless incredible photographs, and the consistently relevant issues, seeing that many years of production inspired me. Just do the work, he implied. Keep doing the work. It was kind of Zen.

Back at our round-table, I mentioned the Cindy Sherman show at SFMOMA, and we kicked around comparisons of major artists who’ve lost it and got it back again. Robert Mapplethorpe came up in the photo world, but most comps were to music. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen.

Finally, someone asked the following question, with which I will leave you. (Feel free to discuss it amongst yourselves.) Over time, what costs more, having a child, or an art career?

Interview with New Mexico Museum of Art Photography Curator Katherine Ware

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Katherine Ware is the curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. In 2011, she curated the blockbuster landscape photography exhibition, “Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment.” We caught up earlier this Fall, chatting under fluorescent lighting in the museum library in the basement of its 1917 building.

Jonathan Blaustein: How did it all begin? Were you a little girl who aspired to be a curator?

Katherine Ware: I wanted to work in a museum. That was clear.

JB: Always? Growing up in Ohio?

KW: Yes. We would play museum.

JB: You would play museum?

KW: I did. We collected a lot of nature artifacts in my family. Fossils and shells. My dad had this thing called the floating rock. So there was a demo part of the museum that we would set up with a bucket of water, to reveal its extraordinary nature.

JB: You had a demo at your pretend museum?

KW: It wasn’t pretend. (laughing.) Initially we took all our stuff over to the neighbor’s carport. We would set it up there.

JB: With your parents?

KW: No, the kids would set it up. I was very into labeling things. And making labels for the collection. Very into arranging things. I don’t think anyone ever came. I really don’t.

JB: To the carport?

KW: Right. But it was a big production to drag it all over there. And we had to get it shut down by the end of the day so that their dad could park there.

JB: Did you sell concessions? Was there a lemonade cart?

KW: No. We didn’t have a shop. Later, when we moved to a different house, my dad built us some shelves, so we had our own museum in the house. We put our specimens on that. And now I have some of the things on a small bookcase in my laundry room.

JB: So how does one go from the childhood dream to a career? Did you study art history? How does it work?

KW: I was an English major, because I was going to be a features journalist. That seemed like something practical I could do. I feel like I ended up being something like that. As a curator, I identify something of interest, do research on it, study, read, and then write about it, share it with people. And then I move on to something else.

JB: You just cut my next question off at the knees!

KW: What was it going to be?

JB: I was just wondering whether the average photographer really understands the complexity of your job. I was going ask about the nuts and bolts. You were leading into that.

KW: Was I?

JB: Yeah, you condensed it. I was hoping you could expand it.

KW: I don’t remember what I said at all.

JB: For the record, neither of us is rolling with too many brain cells today.

KW: That’s right.

JB: Your average, everyday art viewer pays their money, walks into a beautiful space, and sees art and text on the wall. I don’t think they spend too much time thinking about the years of planning that go into it.

KW: Right. But hold that thought for a moment so I can declare that I like stuff. I like objects. I don’t quite know how the transition got made from fossils to photography in regard to the type of things I work with. I don’t have a great story about that. Maybe it could be anything. Maybe the important part is the power in a one-to-one interaction between a person and an object. With the original, so to speak.

JB: Do you love all art equally, or does photography move you in a way that other media don’t?

KW: I was really involved in art making for a while, but I never considered myself an artist. As to why I connected to photography? I don’t know. I was in Washington DC in the 80’s, and photography was really starting to cook. It was an interesting time, and I think I just kind of latched on to it. What a great ride it’s been!

To come back to your other question of what goes into it, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and we can talk about that if you want to.

JB: Why, is it too boring to talk about?

KW: We can find out.

JB: In all our interviews, beyond being interesting and keeping people engaged, the goal is to give people information that they would not typically have access to.

So beyond questions about your job, I’d also love to talk about the things that you see. You see a lot of work. And among the taste-makers, I think curators have that magic ability to get work on the wall. That’s part of your job.

Almost everybody wants to have work on the wall, and there are only several score of people that can do that themselves. That have the inherent power to take something from the ether and put it on the wall.

KW: There’s a funny split — people think I get to show what I want, or I get to decide what’s shown and it’s true to an extent, but it’s also really, really not true. There’s a funny tension there, well, not so funny. On the one hand, I am in this job, and I’m the most likely person to get to show what she wants to show. But there are lots of other factors that go into it.

JB: Like what?

KW: There are people whose work I like more than anyone else’s in all the world, but in many cases I never have found a way to show or acquire it. We think a lot about balance in an exhibition program. If we’re showing some contemporary work, then often we’ll try to balance that with historic work.

We think about what we’re going to show throughout the building from a variety of angles with the idea of providing a richness of perspectives, not just the experience of one culture or one artistic school or fraternity. Art in New Mexico, especially, has benefited from all the people and cultures that have touched it and we do strive to demonstrate that. But you can only balance so much, and ultimately I believe that if you don’t follow the curator’s eye you end up with something very wishy-washy and santitized.

JB: By committee?

KW: Yeah. There’s a funny level of ego to the job, in that sense. At the same time, we’re always trying to mediate that. Do the checks and balances on that. Probably about as effective as our national system of government, right?

JB: I would guess that you end up getting constrained by politics and money. What tends to stand in the way of you expressing your vision?

KW: There’s only so much gallery space. That’s a big one.

JB: How many exhibitions do you get to mount in a year?

KW: That is unclear at this time. (laughing.) What I could do, if it’s helpful at getting at some of these issues, is talk about how the “Earth Now” project happened. It’s a great example of how something gets generated.

I was new to the museum, I got here at the end of 2008. The idea was to do an exhibition that would showcase my arrival, but the mandate was that it be a landscape show, and primarily from the collection. That was what I started out with, and I was trying to find a way to distinguish it from other projects.

One of the things I found out was that we didn’t have a lot of landscape photography in the collection. So that made it more difficult.

JB: (laughing.) To pull together an exhibition from the collection?

KW: That’s right. And I also found out that there has been a lot of shows and a LOT of writing on landscape photography!

JB: Especially in the Southwest.

KW: I also found out I didn’t know much about it. And that was a real scramble. Turns out, I’d never done a show about landscape issues. That was new to me.

JB: I saw the show, and really enjoyed it. Our readers know I get to see a lot of work, which is a great part of my job. This show was unique in that you clearly incorporated a number of younger, unknown, and lesser-known artists alongside a lot of heavy hitters. Like Misrach and Robert Adams and such.

I don’t see that very often, in the museum context, and I’d love to see more of that. How did that come about? And were you trying to deviate from the norm in expanding the talent pool?

KW: Yes, I’m that deviant. (laughing.) I really like to contextualize things that way. I think that can be a really strong approach. But I have to say, I felt very boxed in regarding what I could do by what has already been done. The quickest out was to concentrate on contemporary work, because it hasn’t been done yet. It hasn’t been beaten to death. No one has written about it 17 times. But to look at it together with what preceded it.

People say this all the time about Ansel Adams and Stieglitz: Does anybody really need to see another show of those guys’ work? We hope there’s always richness to go back to in them, but there’s also so much more out there. It was a really great opportunity to tap into both sides of the equation. And also what motivated me was seeing how many people were doing work that seemed to be about human relationships with the environment. What’s more pressing right now? That’s really one of our top issues, I would say.

JB: I would agree. I turned my personal attention from food to nature. I thought it was a natural (no pun intended) progression.

KW: But the food is intertwined with that too.

JB: Of course. I want the projects to fit together, and to look at core aspects of the human condition. Our life on this planet is so limited.

KW: It’s interesting to think about that strategy. I’m just lumping you and I together, but are we doing something additive when projects overlap over interlock, or we are we just repeating ourselves? That’s always the question for me.

JB: What did you take away from your experience curating “Earth Now?” How did it change your perspective on contemporary environmental issues?

KW: I got a couple of really big things out of it. One is that I really do believe that Art can make a difference. I was very skeptical about that before, as were most of the artists I talked to. But it can be a real catalyst. And the thing that was most powerful to me was that images can reach people in a way that intellectual conversation maybe can’t. Because we put up our barriers to the words.

Most people, we’ve already decided what we believe, and we’re going to defend that. Whereas an image, because it’s not speaking to you on a factual basis, can be more emotional. It can get into you and stimulate contemplation. Of course, it all gets filtered through the brain eventually. But it can be a crack in the armor. A way you can reach people. I found that really powerful.

The other thing that I learned with that show was I’m less interested in telling; in being the expert. This isn’t unique to me, necessarily. But lately, or at this age, I’m less interested in being the person who provides you with the answers, than the person who guides you in the questions.

JB: I know a lot of artists view their job that way. Curation is a creative expression, as is Art-making. I mentioned earlier that you were bold enough to exhibit several artists whose work might not have been seen in a museum context before. How did you go about finding these lesser known artists?

KW: I want to address something you were saying earlier, which is, “What does Art mean?” We’re always pushing on that in the portfolio reviews. I expect an artist statement, and that the artist will know what he or she is doing. What they’re trying to communicate. These are all really hard-line things the reviewers can get very adamant about. But in the end, isn’t a picture always is more than we can say, isn’t that it’s strength? So in the past, I think I’ve seen my job as taking some of what you the artists are making, and draw it together and state the meaning in some kind of definitive way.

JB: Right.

KW: I think that’s what I’ve done in the past. And now I feel more aligned with what you guys are doing, which is you give it a title, you say what your intent is, but you know that it really is much more than that. It has this life out in the world that is far beyond you. Beyond your imaginings, even.

JB: We hope. That’s the best case scenario.

KW: Right. So I no longer want to decide on or dictate the meaning. I want to participate in making the meaning. I’m one of the hands it passed through. An interpreter, sure, but not the final answer.

JB: In some sense, you’re a gate-keeper to the audience. In 2012, it’s a little different, because people can run their own shows now. But historically, at least, the audience participated through the institution. But I asked how you found the artists, and then you mentioned portfolio reviews. So I’m guessing that’s the way you’re finding the new work?

KW: That’s right. And referrals from other curators and seeing who pops up in juried shows and online.

JB: I think a lot of photographers are a little resentful that they’re expected to both speak and write about their work at a high level. But most photographers are visual communicators, which is why they’ve gravitated towards this medium. As a talented writer yourself, how do you feel about those expectations for photographers?

KW: That’s a good one to touch on. But I’m going to say one other thing before I forget. I like being the go-between. I like being the conduit between the artist and the public. It’s an amazing role to have. Putting people together with pictures is one of the greatest parts of my job.

But increasingly, if we’re saying that words are not the way things are communicated, or words aren’t the most effective way that things are communicated, then what is my role? That becomes a very interesting question.

I was just talking about that with someone who’s been around the block a little, I think it was Michael Berman. Talking about artist statements, he bluntly said, “The artist can’t do that. They can’t be expected to make the work and to write about it.” I’m someone who’s always pushing on the artist statements, but I really had to laugh. There was just so much truth in it.

Photograph by Bill Owens

Photograph by Richard Misrach

Photograph by Suzette Bross

Photograph by Robert Adams

Photograph by Brad Temkin

Photograph by Sharon Stewart

Photograph by Joan Brennan

Photograph by Ansel Adams

The San Francisco Fall Season: “About Face” at Pier 24

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the last exhibition review, I told you how to see some excellent art, in San Francisco, for free. Just go to SFMOMA on the first Tuesday of the month. With your savings, you can buy a couple of mouthfuls of seafood at the Ferry Building down the street. Or four pears. Seriously, I paid four bucks for an asian pear that was nearly as big as a large guinea pig.

From there, it’s a short walk along the water to Pier 24. I’ll say this now, prominently, so that it doesn’t get misunderstood. Pier 24 is always free. That’s more great art without spending a dime. But, and here’s the catch, you must book ahead via their website. They have several “viewings” a day, limited to 20 people per session.

The pier, which actually sits below the bay bridge, sat vacant for 30 years, I was told, before it was renovated to its current very chic status. You’d never know from the anonymous wharfside locale, but the innards are stuffed with more photography goodies than a pelican’s belly.

Once buzzed in, you’re offered a catalog, to borrow or buy, which shows you the names and relevant info for each work. (There is no wall text, which some might not like.) I met up with Pacarrick, and he knew a docent named Mark, so I made those guys hold the catalog, and we embarked straight away. We could go one of two ways, and chose to go with the natural flow, into a room filled with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s wax figurine photographs.

I’d seen them at Fraenkel Gallery, when they were exhibited many years ago. Then, I was dismissive of the work. “He just photographed someone else’s sculptures. Big deal.” Here, though, my opinion spun. These large scale black and white portraits have gravitas. And they’re spooky too.

It’s probably a good time to mention that much of the work on the wall was procured by the same Fraenkel gallery, either to sell to the Pilara Foundation, which runs the place, or to arrange the borrowing of work to be shown. As I wrote in the intro article, much of San Francisco is working with itself, and this partnership has created something terrific here. (Along with shipping crates full of hedge fund dollars.)

So there’s a touch of backstory. Where were we? Past Sugimoto, we see a room with work by Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan. Two more Bay Area luminaries. And then, a few feet away, there’s a wall installation of photography baseball cards by Mike Mandel, who collaborated with the late Mr. Sultan. (Definitely a conversation starter.)

They were obviously taken in the 70’s, and were thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. I was standing with a Peruvian dude, and an Asian guy who’s exact heritage I don’t know, and didn’t bother to ask. I looked at them, giggled, and looked back at the wall of photographers. All were white. And at least 75% had moustaches. For real. We counted. Then we counted the women, and there were a few, but not many.

I’m not being critical. Times change, and thank god there is more diversity in photography than there used to be. The grid of photo heroes and big wigs was clever and fun. Who uses the baseball card motif to talk about war? It was a great artifact of the photo community back in the mutton chop days. (Like I said, there is visual evidence of my mullet/braces phase. Not that you’ll find it.)

The exhibition space slowly unfolds, and is absolutely huge. Museum size, with genius stuff wherever you look. I recommend that you actually use your entire 2 hour window. (I didn’t.) Go in, see half, go out, grab a coffee. Look at the water. Listen to the sea gulls. Then go back.

Back to the moment, I walked through to see a huge wall of Lee Friedlanders. That guy is one brave dude. He consistently turned the camera on himself, willing to depict his “image” in unflattering ways. The honesty, combined with his consistently off-putting compositional style, is the secret to his creative staying power. (IMHO)

Next, Avedon. Big portraits from “In The American West.” (I neglected to mention an earlier four-image-panel of John, Paul, George and Ringo that was orphaned in a corner.) I risk the wrath of many of you, but I don’t dig the Western portraits one bit. Slick and stylish, yes. But no soul. The dirt on their faces might have well have been pancake makeup.

Not to bag on Mr. Avedon exclusively. The Beatles pics were suave, and then just a bit further on, he has an entire room to himself, with smaller studio portraits of major honchos. Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, and on and on. (Regan was hanging next to Caesar Chavez. Nicely done.) A ton of portraits to see there. My brain was starting to slow down.

But not before I reached the Richard Learoyd section. I profiled his book, “Presences,” in my very first book review column, last year. So I was familiar with the representations. But as large scale prints, the camera-obsura-created photos were the showstoppers for me. Radiant, and beyond sharp. Wicked light and color. One pairing stood out, a man and woman’s naked bodies. Backs arching slightly forward, faces unseen. Identical poses, subtle differences. Magnetic.

If I have any criticism of Pier 24, it’s that it’s a bit like a photo exhibition on steroids. Don’t forget, Barry Bonds hit all those homeruns ten minutes up the water. Really, really close. But the stands were always packed, and here, it’s so much great work that I don’t want to nitpick. (It is pretty lame of me to criticize them for being “too good.”)

It’s just that my brain is getting tired remembering all these photographs, and you’re going to want to stop reading soon. From there, Diane Arbus had a room. An African-themed gallery had work by Pieter Hugo, and the combination of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. Great. Then a Japanese room, and a Chinese room. This being San Fransisco in 2012, diversity will be respected. Oh yes.

Then, we doubled back to the main entrance, to go see the final wing. The first room had a group exhibition featuring work by many, many famous names. I could list them, but what’s the point? The one photo you couldn’t not look at was by Vanessa Beecroft, of all people. It was the biggest, so that explains a lot. But it jumped off the wall. Ms. Beecroft seems best known for staging naked modeling shows in the Guggenheim, so to see an image of this quality made Pacarrik and I wonder how much she spent on a DoP.

Then, a room of mug shots, and the Paul Schiek photographs I already wrote about in the book review for “Dead Men Don’t Look Like Me.” As I learned in SF, those images, which work brilliantly as a little soft-cover-book of found photos, (and which were originally shot by an anonymous, talented jail-house photographer,) are a really big deal in San Franscisco right now. They just showed at Stephen Wirtz, and were here in a prominent spot at Pier 24. The prints are big of course; presented as high-end appropriation art. In that context, I’m a bit skeptical.

But the last room in the house, (if you take the wrong path,) is the best room in the house. August Sander. Vintage prints. In a very large grid. I was too tired to count the photos. And I was too tired to enjoy them.

We’re all fans of the master German portraitist. I’ll spare you the mushy love talk. It’s a brilliant room of photographs, and I was way, way too brain fried to enjoy it. I’m still pissed off.
So, I’m saying this clearly, when you go visit Pier 24, which you should do, go see the August Sander photographs as soon as you get there. Or, at least, don’t see them last.

The San Francisco Fall Season: Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

It was sweating hot on the first Tuesday of October. If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, keep that phrase in mind. First Tuesday. Because it’s free at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). If you’re the type to get off on saving $18, go then. If you are, however, the type to hate the hordes, then avoid it.

I can understand both perspectives, so when I dropped in on SFMOMA see the blockbuster Cindy Sherman exhibition, I was glad to save the money, yet noticeably cranky because of the crowds. (Karma got me back the following day. At the de Young museum, an older gentleman actually gave me an ironic bow/apology combo, with a smirk on his face, when I asked him not to stand quite so up in my grill.)

SFMOMA is one of my very favorite museums in the US. Amazing place, with consistently interesting shows. I was excited to see Cindy Sherman’s show here, having missed it on earlier incarnations. (It’s now at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)

I’ve always been a fan of her early work, the “Untitled Film Stills.” It’s important, for the obvious reasons. (Feminism, Post-Modernism, Hollywoodism.) I’d never seen more than a handful at once, but they’re lovely. Together, those images pounce in a large 3 wall grid installation early on in the show. (It’s preceded by the earliest self-portraits, from 1975, which are electric and indicative of her continued style.)

Seeing the whole grid together, it’s clear that she’s genuinely acting. That’s what brings the vision through. She’s energetically invested in each photo, through varied landscapes. Ms. Sherman works the drama, and has the charisma of an of-that-moment-Suzanne Somers. (Yes, I just made that comparison.)
One photograph, taken at a train station in Flagstaff, gives off the Western vibe. In another, she has a crucifix in her cleavage. Classy.

The next room has color versions of the Film Stills, larger, mostly from the 80’s. Still strong. Upon closer examination, some of them, with more ornate, luxe costumes, are actually from 2007 and ’11. Despite the more expensive production values, the new ones are definitely not better than the old.

The “Centerfold” images are next, and still compelling. She’s working it, trying to squeeze the last of the “Film Still” style. From there, we walk along, and hit a big skidmark. (No future pun intended.)

The large scale color images adorning the walls of the subsequent room are offensive on every level. (Among those levels are quality and good taste.) The photos depict grotesqerie that makes Joel Peter-Witkin look slightly less alone in his crazy. A cut-off, limbless torso with a tampon in a vagina, and, also, a cock with a cock ring. There’s a photo of putrid rotting entrails, “Untitled #190”, that reminded me of the stomach contents of that fat guy who exploded in “The Meaning of Life.” (I couldn’t eat anover bite.)

So, so, so bad. What’s the point? I’m so rich and successful that I can get collectors to buy photos of rotting shit? Or was it, first, I gave them the surface version of femininity in America, so now I’ll follow with the extreme opposite: what it feels like to be objectified and relegated to second class status? Probably neither. But the pictures suck.

Then, the clowns. I had the privilege, or bad fortune to see these when they debuted at Metro Pictures. At the time, I thought they were horrifying, and the epitome of mailing it in. Once you’re famous enough, people will buy anything to get a piece of the investment action.

Here, they were creepier than in my memory. Again, bad. Bad, bad. Are they interesting for evoking revulsion? I suppose we’ll have to give her that.

At that point, I’d decided that Ms. Sherman was just one more major talent who got soft and rich and lost her edge. She’ll always have Flagstaff. And then, walking into the final rooms of the exhibition, I was surprised. (You know I like to be surprised.)

Those last few galleries were redemptive. Praise Jesus. And to what do we owe this renaissance? I’m going with The Great Recession as my hypothesis. “Untitled #463,” from 2007-8, is a large scale color photo that shows two versions of Ms. Sherman. Both are brown-haired, middle-aged, city party ladies after work. We see a red plastic cup filled with what? Probably not keg beer. She plays each broad to the hilt. Not exactly flattering.

Then, “Untitled, #466,” from 2008, shows a gray haired, grand dame in a beautiful blue silk caftan coat, floor length. She’s standing in an archway of a regal-type Spanish or California Mansion. It’s not a nasty image, but establishes the rich, powerful, older-lady-type vibe. A demographic which Ms. Sherman herself joined. It also references, no doubt, her collector base.

Grand dames buy a lot of expensive art. There are several pictures in the grouping, and they are subtly critical in their depiction of said dames. Her performances are nuanced, but powerful. No mailing it in here. The production design is as good as the acting. Great, great photos, I thought. She’s back.

Why then? Why at all, given how few artists ever pull out of the money-coma-induced nosedive. Well, though it was not so long ago, it’s easy to forget that the American and European economies fell off a cliff in 2007-008. People lost half their wealth within the span of less than a year. Fear was everywhere. Even, presumably, among the super-rich.

So I’d speculate that Ms Sherman felt the pinch, like the rest of us. Wherever her wealth is, she would have gotten hit, and then people would have stopped buying her pictures, for a little while. That kind of freaked-out energy feeds creativity. It’s primal.

Does it matter why she got it back? Or, for that matter, will we ever know? Of course not. It just makes for fun chatter. I loved all of the pictures in the last group, and was happy to see that “IT” could be re-captured, once lost. Inspiring.

In fact, it kicked off a long, round table, two hour conversation about who still has it, who lost it, blah, blah when I was in Tucson the following week to see Richard Misrach lecture at the Center for Creative Photography. Has he lost it? What is his new work like? Stay tuned.

The San Francisco Fall Season: Binh Danh and Ai Weiwei at Haines Gallery

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Artists communicate with symbols. We use them to construct a visual language that can, at its best, transcend the need for verbal translation. As viewers, therefore, we expect to look at a photograph and evaluate the subject as itself, and as a set of ideas we believe it to represent.

In the Chinese Northern Song Dynasty, just after the turn of the first Millennium, huge cliff mountains were rendered, on screen paintings, to represent god. The power of the Universe. Fan Kuan’s “Travelers Among Rivers and Streams” is one of the best examples of this tradition. (Almost 7 ft tall.) Imposing.

This symbol set, plucked from the tradition of perhaps the world’s oldest culture, was at the front of my brain as I walked around Binh Danh’s exhibition of daguerreotypes at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. The photographs were made in Yosemite, that “Most Famous California Landmark,” shot in 2012. Old school new school make sense, in a dematerialized world.

We all know this particular set of rock cliffs, as the place has been shot to death. (Which doomed the show in my companion Kevin’s opinion.) These image/objects, though, shimmered silverly against the gray walls. Blue skies were evident in several, but not all of the pictures. The ghostly, non-realistic way of depicting the mountains brought me straight through time back to those aforementioned, thousand year old screen paintings. Excellent.

Stepping through the Danh exhibition, into the rear of the gallery, I confronted a low, dense, wide pyramid of sunflower seeds, by Ai Weiwei. Quiet. Heavy. Powerful. Beautiful. Zen.

I knew of the project, from which this installation was a small part. Reputedly, the artist commissioned 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds to be made and hand painted in the factories of China. That’s a big enough number to suitably represent 1.3 Billion Chinese people, all individuals, but having to adhere to the same operating code to avoid the gulag.

It also celebrates China. The current manufacturing base has lifted tens or hundreds of millions of citizens out of abject poverty, engendered by an overwhelming collective work ethic. The entirety of the sunflower seed installation was shown at the Tate Modern in 2011. (And they subsequently purchased 8 million of them.)

Here, I faced 500 lbs of the mini-sculptures. A quarter ton. (Or so I was told. Try to to count or weigh them, and security will be on you faster than my jaw dropped when I saw Clint Eastwood kill Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” So Postmodern I still have a headache.) That’s one of the pleasurable absurdities of work like this. We trust, but implicitly know the arithmetic could be off. Who would know?

In this gallery, fortunately, the version on display was worth Mr. Ai’s considerable hype. Massively beautiful, the perfect art stand-in for the experience of sitting beside a tree next to a cliff, listening to a waterfall behind you. (And I should know.)

The San Francisco Fall Season: A Series

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

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 ΓΌber-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.

Asger Carlsen Interview

Last Spring, I got to catch up with Asger Carlsen, the Danish artist behind the amazing 2010 book, “Wrong,” and the forthcoming MΓΆrel 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.

JB: True.

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.

AC: Yeah.

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.

You have a new book coming out with MΓΆrel Books called “Hester.”

AC: That is correct.

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 MΓΆrel of MΓΆrel 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.

AC: Right.

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.

JB: OK.

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.

JB: Do you take that as a compliment?

AC: Yes, but it’s also a little sad.

 

Jonathan Blaustein debuts his new conceptual project MINE

- - Art

A couple weeks ago at Review Santa Fe I had the opportunity to see APE contributor Jonathan Blaustein’s new body of work hanging on the wall and decided to conduct a quick interview. I think this is a unique opportunity for all of us, because we know Jonathan and can follow and learn from his career. I know you will find his honesty refreshing and revealing.


APE: On your first project (The Value of a Dollar), when did you know it was done? I ask because I’ve been looking at work here at Review Santa Fe and that seems to be a common question. People aren’t sure when they are done.

Jonathan Blaustein: For “The Value of a Dollar,” I knew I was done when I got bored; when I ran out of that initial series of ideas. I capped it at 20 at the time, which is a very typical number to stop at, because of all the competitions and things like that.

APE: Why is that a typical number? In a competition, do you only submit 20?

Jonathan: Yeah, 20 is typical for things like that. It’s kind of arbitrary, I suppose. But the real answer is that I had a slew of ideas, and then I felt they resolved themselves. I edited out the pictures that didn’t fit, and was left with 20. With “The Value of a Dollar,” I wanted to create a balanced but asymmetrical picture of global commerce. Once I felt like I had that, I was done. But then, I went back and did a new suite of images in 2010, when I had some new ideas about representing local food.

APE: You stopped making pictures once, and then you restarted and made a whole bunch of new pictures?

Jonathan: Right. Why not? People ask me all the time if I’m going to continue to make pictures for that project, and the answer is yes. I’ll be showing a new one in a group show called “Market Value” in Santa Fe this July.

APE: So it’s never done. [laughs] At what point did you start thinking about your next project?

Jonathan: I started shooting the day after my first portfolio review in 2009. I began working on a project in the field in southern Colorado that was very, very different, mostly because I wanted to stay busy. I didn’t want to focus exclusively on the marketing of “The Value of a Dollar.”

APE: So, you just started pouring yourself into a new project.

Jonathan: Yeah, I went and did something totally different to keep myself focused on making the work. I was trying to find a conceptual through-line in the landscape, and I didn’t feel like I succeeded. They felt a little too much like everyone else’s work.

APE: So, you scrapped it?

Jonathan: Yes, I scrapped it. I took it off my website and I stopped showing it. You have to be your own biggest critic. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.

APE: Amazing. Had you showed it to anybody? Had you been showing it at all?

Jonathan: Yeah, I did. I showed it in Fraction Magazine. In 2010, I also showed the work at Review Santa Fe alongside “The Value of a Dollar,” and nobody cared about it. People only wanted to look at the food photos. I listened to that feedback and I said, “OK, here I have something that everyone wants to look at and talk about. I also have something, even though it’s new and I care about it, I’m sensing that it’s not good enough.” You have to have the guts to burn it down sometimes.

APE: It’s got to be really hard for any artist, because there are so many opportunities now to test work. You could put it out there on blogs, and there are online only magazines like “Fraction.” If people aren’t responding to it, then why do they follow their investment into the ground?

Jonathan: There’s an emotional connection between an artist and his or her pictures. There just is. Often people want something to be better than it is, or it’s so important to them that they impute that personal connection onto others. They assume that because they care about it, and it means a lot to them, that other people will feel the same way.

I went to art school. I got an MFA. That was the big difference for me. You spend two years learning how to take criticism; how to accept the fact that oftentimes, it’s not good enough until it’s good enough. You get trained how to listen to negative feedback and grow from it. I don’t want to say that only people who have that education understand that, but I do know that the education is based around getting you to hear those negative voices.

APE: Doesn’t that go against the idea of listening to yourself, and the work comes from you? Doesn’t that go against the idea where you’re actually testing work with an audience? You’re trying to see what’s going to resonate and what’s popular, instead of just making work that matters to you.

Jonathan: That’s a very good question.

APE: How do you resolve those?

Jonathan: I look at a lot of work, as our regular readers will know. Whenever I’m reviewing portfolios or talking to people, my philosophy is that deep inside our consciousness, we always know. There is an inner voice, an inner consciousness about what you’re doing that always knows if it’s good enough or not. Sometimes it takes time. That’s why editing takes time. The new project has 23 pictures in it right now, and I shot, I don’t know, probably almost 1,200. The edit started at 150 and then whittled down to 75, and so on.

APE: You took 1,200 pictures in the studio?

Jonathan: Yeah, for sure. What people are seeing is only what I determine to be the best of the best, but also the pictures that fit best together. There are a lot of really good photographs that didn’t make the cut, because of the size of the exhibition space, because of the color palette. When I talk to publishers, I’ll be able to bring some of those images back. For a book, 35-40 might make more sense than 23.

But you asked a good question, and the answer is that people can be trained to find those voices…The word I like to use is ruthless. For editing, you have to be ruthless. You have to be willing to separate the good from the great, and that takes training.

As far as feedback goes, there’s a balance. We were talking about those landscape photos I did. I cared about them, but I did know, deep down, that I had not innovated or revolutionized anything. When I started observing that people weren’t really digging it, or weren’t loving it, that information correlated with the dark voices in my head, and that made me more likely to listen to those dark voices.

APE: With “MINE,” tell me a little bit about the process as far as, did you have a clear understanding of what the project was, the boundaries of it, the shape of it, from the very beginning? Or did that come later? Did you need to distance yourself from the project to understand what it was?

Jonathan: That’s another really good question. This process was very, very similar to the way I started “The Value of a Dollar.” I got that idea about looking at the way fast-food was depicted in billboard advertising six or seven months before I took my first picture. I had the idea, I thought about it, and then I just tucked it away and didn’t start shooting for half a year. It percolated in my head.

The same thing happened here. I started shooting in the beginning of 2011, but I had the idea in the summer of 2010. I was just walking around my land and looking at all these damn rocks. The soil is really rocky, so there are rocks everywhere.

James Estrin wrote about it on the Lens blog, in a cheeky way. You have to see it to believe it. The idea that popped in my head was, “I could be a rock farmer, but there’s no such thing. What can I do with all these rocks?” I had the idea, “What if I photograph them?” I brought one in the studio and just messed around, and then again, just said, “All right, we’ll see about this,” and tucked it away.

I thought about it for about six months. Then, when I was ready to start, the idea was pretty fully formed. I will look at my property and my resources and try to commodify them in a very obvious and unsentimental way, and then see if I can exploit nature and respect it at the same time. Which is kind of a difficult balance to achieve, but that’s what I wanted to do.

APE: Wasn’t there a point in the project where you had to step back, and you had all these pictures and you had to go re-edit them?

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s totally true. I burned this project down, as well.

APE: [laughs] You threw it away completely.

Jonathan: I threw it away completely, about eight months into the shooting. I waited that long for my first edit because I thought I was onto something. I felt like, now that I had an audience, which I never had before, that I needed to make sure it was perfect. I waited half a year to even do a provisional edit, and then I put it on the iPad to take to that conference in Reno.

After I swiped through, I showed it to my wife, and she swiped through and made this really bad face and didn’t say anything. I was like, “Oh, shit. Oh, no.” I waited 20 minutes, and then went back through and swiped with my index finger again. I said, “Oh, shit. It looks way too much like ‘The Value of a Dollar.'” It was all natural light. All the objects were in the center of the frame. Same vibe. I felt like I ripped myself off, like I had not pushed my own ideas far enough. I went to talk to Jessie and I said, “What’s your problem with this?” She said, “It’s not new enough. You copied yourself.” It hurt to hear it, but it was true.

I stopped the edit, threw the thing away, and gave myself a month to think about it. Then I went back in the studio and started using strobes again, which I had in the very beginning, and pushed myself. When I re-engaged with the edit six months later, I was able to find a different through-line, incorporating some strobe images with natural light, and found an edgier, darker perspective than I had the first time. These theories that I apply to the artists that I critique, I apply them to myself, too.

APE: That leads into the next question, which is, you had moderate or high success with your last project? Actually, how would you characterize it? Extreme? Not extreme?

Jonathan: It’s hard to answer that question without context. For me, I would say success beyond my expectations. With the amount of work that I’ve sold, it’s changed my family’s life. Having a global audience and millions of people around the world, albeit briefly, really interact with the work, that was as good as it gets. I didn’t think that was possible, and I didn’t make the pictures to have that happen.

APE: It was beyond anything you ever imagined when you were in school thinking about a career in photography?

Jonathan: Yes, only because the Internet evolved in such a way that I don’t think anybody could have imagined. When I was in graduate school at Pratt in Brooklyn, I would’ve said the highlight, the ultimate career goals would be to be included in the Whitney Biennial, and get your work in the permanent collections of MoMA and the Met. Which are still goals of mine, and I think they’re goals of a lot of people, which is why they’re clichΓ©.

But at the time, in 2002, when I got to Brooklyn, there was no such thing as viral. There was no such thing as having people in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan look at your pictures at the same time, on the same day as your mom in Jersey.

The idea that information could be ubiquitous and that people could engage with it in their homes instead of having to walk into a physical space was where things just exceeded my expectations. Then the whole series was bought by the Library of Congress, and honestly, that’s just beyond any expectations I had. It was a wild ride.

APE: Can you talk about the pressure with the new project, then? If you have to top your last project the pressure must be incredible.

Jonathan: That’s why I tore down the project that I was working on in between, because I felt like it wasn’t good enough to be the next thing.

APE: You have to top it.

Jonathan: It depends on one’s ambition level. Yes, I don’t deny that I want to be as good as I can be, and I want my work to be on the wall of the best places and seen by as many people as possible. Under those circumstances, I did feel like I needed “what comes next” to be as good or better.

APE: But is there no room for a project that just moves you forward? This is just based on what I’ve heard from novelists, is when you have your great novel, it’s like you can’t move past it, and so you can’t produce work that’s below it and you can’t move to the next project.

Jonathan: With writers, you’re perfectly, 100 percent right. I’ve always been a huge fan of Steinbeck. It’s like, you look at “East of Eden” and “Grapes of Wrath” and you compare that to all the other little books, and there is no comparison. Maybe that’s why it took Jonathan Franzen 10 years to come out with “Freedom.” I mean, “The Corrections” was as good a book as anyone’s written in the last 50 years, so he probably felt the pressure.

For me, I was gaining success at 36. I have a family. I felt like, right now, this project, the next thing, was going to establish me or not. Hopefully, it will. Especially because my work had this kind of concept that on a bad day could be seen as gimmicky, I didn’t want to be the “Dollar” guy. I did not want to be an art equivalent of a one-hit wonder.

I thought, I need to nail it, to come up with something that’s good enough that people are like, “Holy shit, Blaustein’s for real.” Then, (now), I’ll be able to work on three or four things at once. I’ve got a lot of ideas that I haven’t shot. I just stopped teaching, so I’m going to have more time to do the kind of things that we’re talking about, whimsical side projects. I do have a pretty crazy conceptual thing that I’m working on that will be an extension of “MINE”, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.

But your questions are incredibly intuitive, because that is how I felt. Right now I feel like I’ve succeeded, but the world will decide, really. I’ve satisfied myself, my own standards, creatively. But that’s the art part. Then comes the business part.

APE: How do you have such a good handle on both when to end projects but also when you feel satisfied? Is that part of the training? Does that go back to your schooling?

Jonathan: Well, training, yes. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. It’s like the whole Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hours thing. Everyone latched onto that about “Outliers,” but it’s really a fantastic book that delves into the power of culture. I do think it had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been living and breathing photography for 15 full years.

In this case, though, it was a deadline. I pitched this concept to the State of New Mexico (NM Arts) for a public gallery with public funding a year ago. They actually support the production of the work. I requested the summer slot, and they said, “Yes.” From relatively early in my project, I had a hard deadline. I had a date I needed to meet, and that deadline was what finished this part of the project for me. It’s only an installment.

APE: I have some easy questions for you now.

Jonathan: I like the hard ones, though. They were good. Very insightful.

APE: I want to know about hanging a show, because I don’t know how it works. You have a space but then how do you pick the frames? How do you decide what sizes? How do you figure out that arrangement? How does that work?

Jonathan: Well, the presentation format that I’m using I sorted out over time. Again, in just all these years of experience, I had problems in the past with glare. I personally hate glare coming off of a picture. When you have problems with glare, it kind of rules out glass and Plexi, because non-glare glass and non-glare Plexiglas are both insanely expensive, and glass can break. I also really like the idea…Our readers probably know I’ve got a pretty serious rebellious streak. Because everyone uses glass or plexi, they encase the photograph. They cut it off.

APE: Does everybody use glass?

Jonathan: Or plexi, 95 percent of people.

APE: That’s to protect it.

Jonathan: Yes, to protect the image.

APE: Because maybe it’s their best print ever and it’s going to hang. You don’t want to destroy it, right, or damage it?

Jonathan: Well, yes. That, and most people just do what everyone else does. It’s the convention. I came up with the presentation format in the past and the frame choice in the past, so that wasn’t so difficult to do again. Especially as I’d never showed more than four framed pictures at a time. This was my first chance to do it right.

APE: The white frame?

Jonathan: Right. And they’re two different sized frames, so the math would add up.

APE: Where does that choice come from?

Jonathan: I think white, it’s just very clean and contemporary. It’s more open-ended. The white frame blends into the white wall. When you put black around something, you kind of cut it off. It’s a very final thing. White is chic. It looks good. If you go into most of the galleries, most contemporary art people use white. Of course, on this I’m bowing to a new convention. Such a hypocrite.

APE: I’m just curious, how do you make that decision? How do you pick white?

Jonathan: I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this. I have a horror story that I wasn’t planning to share that was, believe it or not, about frames and their color. When I got out of grad school, the big, monstrous, ambitious goal was to get hooked up with a gallery in Chelsea. And I did.

About six months after I got out of school, somebody took on my grad-school project. I dropped the work off, double-parked on 25th or 26th Street, took the work up to the gallery, and then a couple days later got berated by this dealer because she despised the color of the frames. They weren’t white or black; they were charcoal gray. She insisted they were purple, and hated the color of my frames enough that she told me to come pick up the work and leave. Three days after I had accomplished a life goal, I was told to get the work out of her sight.

APE: Because of the frames?

Jonathan: Because of the color of the frames.

APE: Holy shit.

Jonathan: I’m not exaggerating. I had an appointment set to make new prints. I had already set up a time to have them mounted and laminated. This particular person was so dismissive that it pushed me to leave New York. I went home that night and talked to my wife and said, “Look, if this is the caliber of person that I’m banking on, if I’m going to turn my career over to people who can do things like that, then we need to get out of this town. We need to go somewhere else. We need to settle down and get confident and strong and live in a place that brings out our best selves so that I can try to re-engage with New York down the line.”

I’m condensing the story. It was very traumatic. In fairness, I probably wasn’t mature enough to handle the relationship back then anyway. Ultimately frame color, since you keep asking about it, did become a very, very touchy subject for me. But I like white. It looks good.

APE: Incredible, thanks for sharing. Ok, maybe this question is easier. How do you decide on the sizes? Is it based on which photos you like better? Get bigger?

Jonathan: I went into the gallery space three weeks before the show opened. I had my edit, but that’s all I had. The space was cluttered from the previous show, but I took my measurements and I just really looked. I just closed my eyes and I tried to visualize things. Then I went home, and that weekend, sat down with some scratch paper, and drew it up on the spot. I sketched it out, and had the design. As to which to print big, I emailed a few colleagues and got their advice.

You pick up things at different times. I had a curator at one of the reviews one time say, “Why are they always one size? Why not have multiple sizes?” That stuck in my head. I saw Jesse Burke’s show at ClampArt in the summer of 2010, and he totally broke away from just the one horizontal line. I thought, that’s dope. That stuck in my head. But in this case, I wanted to do something that I’d never seen before.

That’s what drives me. The more work I see, the harder it is to make things I’ve never seen before. What I came up with is a symmetrical pattern, and it’s just different. There are a bevy of art historical references embedded in the project. It creates this really powerful visual arrangement.

Once I drew it up, I said, “We’re good to go.” I had my measurements. I knew how big the walls were. I knew how big the gaps would have to be between pictures.

APE: How do you know how big the gaps?

Jonathan: Just experience. I’ve hung a lot of shows over the years.

APE: What about the sizes? Did the room size dictate that partially, or do you like a certain size for your largest print?

Jonathan: It had a lot to do with the size of the room. That’s primary, because it determines about how big they have to be to hold the wall. Then you make the subtle choices within that range. With “The Value of a Dollar”, I always envisioned them really big. I made an edition at 30×40, and haven’t sold one. I had two editions, and the smaller prints, which can be hung in grids, have sold well. The State of New Mexico bought a one of a kind portfolio that was an in-between size. These prints are more in that range. The little ones were easier to choose, as they had to add up to fit under the big ones.

APE: And what are the details on the exhibition?

Jonathan: “MINE” will be up at the NM Arts’ Centennial Project Space through July 6th at 54 1/2 East San Francisco St on the plaza in Santa Fe. The gallery is free and open to the public, right next to Twin Palms Publishing. I hope some of our readers will have a chance to check it out.

APE: So what comes next with “MINE”?

Jonathan: Well, I’m going to take most of the Summer to catch my breath, as we’re expecting a daughter at the end of August. Then I’ll try to get the show on the wall in New York and other cities. I also have a second conceptual wave of the project that I’m already working on. It’s absurd.

Seriously though, thanks again for doing this, Rob. You’ve taught me a thing or two about how to run a proper interview.

MINE Artist Statement2012

I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I own the land: it’s MINE. But I share it with the animals, and things that don’t move. Every night, when I go to sleep, they have the run of the place.

It’s theirs.

Only a creature as arrogant as a human would claim ownership over his dominion, while living for such a short period of time. The rocks on my land are all much older than I am.

Artists are more infatuated with immortality than most people. We make marks, build things, and snap photos, all in the hope that we’ll be remembered when we’re gone. Deep down, we all have a dark desire that the art will be preserved, along with our name, and that people will look at it in a hundred years or more. Because the alternative is bleak. An eternity of nothing. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

I’m no different. I want my life’s work to mean something. I don’t want to disappear forever. But I also don’t think that my land belongs to me, any more than I belong to the land. I’m just part of this world, run by a simple rule: Survival of the fittest.

With that in mind, I decided to objectify my land, to leave my mark. Because I could. In so doing, I was able to investigate my territory, to sift through the dirt, to crunch up the snow, and then share it with others.

Once I harvested the objects, I took them to my studio to fashion temporary sculptures: Art pieces meant to satisfy my unquenchable desire to symbolize the world around me. I photographed the sculptures to memorialize them, just as we take pictures every day to remember what was there.

Impressions from FotoFest

- - Art, Portfolio

by Jonathan Blaustein

My feature articles run long. Have you noticed? If it’s not a book review, you can count on me to get verbose and intricate. Conversely, I also love to rebel. So let this be the first brief feature piece, a quick recap of my time at FotoFest (Session 3) this past March.

I suppose I could start with my objectives: to meet with and show work to international curators, and also to get to know some of the curators and collectors in the Houston scene. Unlike my previous visits to Review Santa Fe, this time I was not out to make friends. Just to take care of business. (And I assumed I’d get to hang out with a few interesting photographers as well.)

The trip was a breeze, less than 2 hours on a plane from ABQ direct to Houston Hobby, the Southwest Airlines hub. It’s far closer to downtown than George Bush/IAH, and very efficient, so I’d recommend you use it if you can. It’s an easy-but-not-cheap cab trip to the Downtown Doubletree, where the FotoFest is held. I was told by some colleagues that it’s best to stay there, if possible, and I’d concur.

Upon arrival, I spotted Kurt Tong and Dana Popa in the lobby, both in from London, departing from Session 2. After a quick hello to them, I looked down, and my suitcase…was…gone. Rather than freaking out, like I might have in the past, I sprinted outside and rummaged through the back of the first cab I saw. There is was. So let that be a FotoFest lesson for you: keep your eyes on your business.

How can I condense four solid days of 24 meetings, both official and otherwise? It was exactly what I was hoping for, and perfectly run. Efficient, friendly people in charge, with co-chairs Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss offering warm greetings at the first evening’s cocktail party. These people have it down. Clocks are set to FotoFest time, so you always know when your next review will run. Extra reviews are called out, and despite the first-come-first serve notion, I never saw it be anything but smooth.

The reviewers hailed from all over the world, and so did the photographers. (As an example, I met with reviewers from England, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Korea & Argentina.) I was impressed to walk by tables of people and not hear English. FotoFest is also not juried, so the quality of the work ranged pretty heavily. I saw some things that were amateur, to be blunt, but so what? Those people were there for their own reasons, and seemed to be having fun.

Houston is a cool place, too. That’s one thing that caught me off guard. Here in New Mexico, we often have a bad opinion of Texans, though we tend to see more folks from around the Dallas area anyway. But Houston people were down-to-Earth, and the place had a distinctly Southern Vibe. Not a lot of TX accents either, which seemed strange.

Downtown, where FotoFest is located, is a big, wealthy grid. Buildings are like mini-cities, with built-in food courts, malls, and air conditioned skyways between them. I totally want to go back and see how many city-blocks I could cover by abusing those things. (Sorry, off-topic.)

I said I’d be brief, right? I was able to meet some wonderful people from the Houston museum, non-profit gallery, and collector scene. Kind, interesting professionals who work with one another to keep their community lively. Judging from the water features running along the gleaming Light rail tracks, and the ridiculous number of super-extra-double-shiny-skyscrapers, it’s not hard to figure out that there’s a lot of “funding” in this town.

From what I saw, Houston supports the arts, and the arts are happy in Houston. I was able to visit the Menil collection, which is free, and brilliant, but not the MFAH or the Houston Center for Photography. Both are thriving institutions, and it seems like there’s a long list of other museums in town too. (According to the plaque in the airport, at least.) I went on a brief gallery bus-tour via FotoFest, but didn’t see enough to get a sense that the galleries are equally hopping.

I’m not going to name drop my reviewers this time, but I will say that the people I met were professional, smart, honest and curious. (No attitude.) Very few of them had seen the portfolio I had with me, despite the fact that it has been around for a few years. My new work, debuting this week, wasn’t quite ready, so I didn’t bring it. I purposely wiped it off the Ipad, so I wouldn’t cave to pressure and show un-finished work. Plus, the impending project seemed to offer me a great reason/chance to follow up.

I think I got a lot of value out of the FotoFest experience, even though it does cost a fair amount. Lots and lots of conversations with people from other places. New connections, new opportunities, and untaxed beer. Highlights included an evening stroll through the streets with a few friends, and mugs of cold cheap Modelo Especial at an outdoor restaurant on a balmy night. And, of course, the Monday evening party, hosted by HCP at Cadillac Bar, a Texas Honkey-tonk, replete with a dancing Mexican Elvis not-quite-impersonator-house band.

Who do I think would benefit from going to the biennial event? To start, anyone who can afford it as a cost-of-doing-business. I don’t mean to harp on the expense, but we do have a broad audience here at APE. I don’t think FotoFest is realistic for most student photographers.

Beyond that, photographers who have a solid project and want to get it front of a bevy of global decision-makers, all in a brief period of time. Or perhaps others who don’t have a strong community, and want to get insightful feedback on some less- developed-work. I wouldn’t do that myself, I don’t think, but could see that being worthwhile for some. Given the well-oiled grind of a four-day-event, I’d definitely suggest that people be on top of their game

You Don’t Always ‘Get’ Art, But We Still Need More Of It

- - Art

Editors Note: I reached out to APE correspondant Jonathan Blaustein after seeing an old VICE article titled “I’m Sick Of Pretending: I Don’t ‘Get’ Art” making the rounds on social media. Here’s his reaction:

Rob asked me to respond to Glen Coco’s article, making the rounds 05.02 in VICE, trashing last year’s Tracey Emin retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. I’m sure it’s because he knows I’m not afraid to speak my mind, but it could also be that I just raved about the current slate of exhibitions presented there. It’s certainly a juicy bit of text, and has gotten a lotΒ of people talking about Art, which is hard to do.

Mr. Coco, beyond pointedly hating the show, basically suggested that perhaps he doesn’t get Art. His credentials and opinion imply otherwise, but let’s take him at face value. What he doesn’t get about Art is not why people make it, or why they like to look at it, but rather why nobody ever has the stones to call bullshit. (Other than him, I imagine.)

I’m very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to see so many brilliant paintings, sculptures and photographs over the years. My travels have taken me to many of the World’s best museums, and I lived in major cities on both American coasts. If I haven’t said this enough, forgive me, but there are few experiences more joyous and educational than standing in front of a piece of brilliant Art. Particularly, but not necessarily, when the maker is already dead.

Art is like time travel, which is why people continue to make it, and have since we were standing upright. I figured this out while living in New York, and visiting the Metropolitan Museum on a regular basis. Take Rembrandt, for instance. Four hundred years or so ago, he made some paintings. True. But he also imbued those objects with his psychic energy. It’s in there still. When you feel your guts get all churny while standing in front of one of his self-portraits, you’re responding to the man himself. Like I said, time travel.

What, you might reasonably ask, does that have to do with Mr. Coco’s article? Well, everything. What he’s criticizing is Art the commodity. The word is out, in 2012, that the high art world exists to please the very, very rich. They’re the ones that buy super-expensive contemporary art, naturally, and they don’t like to lose money. Ever.

Brilliantly, they’ve figured out a way how to avoid it: never let the price of a work of Art, once it’s famous, go down. Ever. If that sounds a bit like a Ponzi scheme, perhaps it is. If no one ever admits that art is crap, or that a famous artist has long since lost the touch, then prices can’t and don’t fall. The same group of people trade objects, each helping prop up the market for his or her buddies. If that sounds a bit like an unregulated commodities market, that’s because it is.

And what is the result? Perhaps a world in which most people feel mystified, condescended to, and generally offended by much of what is considered “hot” or “special.” The idealistic notion that the best of what we make is meant to be preserved, left to future generations to sort out what life was like back then, (Now), is left to angry bloggers and Jed Perl to bitch about. Because normal people don’t care one bit. They’re too busy playing video games, or watching football, or buying lottery tickets.

I believe we need more Art, not less. More people out there making cool shit, pushing their brains sideways, and hopefully eliciting interesting questions from the people who look at it. More public support for the Arts will lead to more monkeys typing away, which of course will lead to a more intelligent society. Make it so.