Category "Art"

London Art Visit – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

Where were we? Right. London. I loved it. How’s that for succinct? Now you don’t have to read any further. (Just kidding.) It’s a fantastic city, one of the great spots on Earth. And of course, England and the United States have a “special relationship”, (as if I could make such a thing up) so there was lots to talk about.

My good friend Hugo, the deviser of the Art tour we began yesterday, moved from New York to London in 2007. He endured the Bush years, but missed all of Obama’s term. So he was incredulous when I told him that nobody talks about George W. Bush anymore. (From omnipotent to irrelevant in 4 short years.) Can you imagine? In Hugo’s mind, all that passion about W. was locked in time, and delivering the news of his obsolescence brought calcified shock to Hugo’s eyes. But I digress.

We left off on Friday, after visits to the British Museum and National Gallery of Art. My brain was tired, but we soldiered on. Our tea spot of the day was a cafe and bakery on the top floor of the Comme des Garçon store near Saville Row. The green tea and bacon-egg-tart were equally smashing. Our waitress was American, and dropped the word “bangin'” on us as if it drew gasps of pleasure from a more typically British crowd.

Then, on to some galleries up the street, right next to that famous fashion spot for bespoke suits. The first, Hauser & Wirth, had two separate galleries. One was lacking, and the other had some super-large, super-subtle paintings by the Dutch artist Michael Raedecker. They were panels, striated in pale pink, gray-silver, and green: Houses on a hill, chandeliers, and window curtains the symbolic motifs. Nice houses. Serene. Like on a hilltop outside LA. Easy living. (Sounds nice.)

The paintings were really, really beautiful. In the gallery, with its huge ceilings, white walls, concrete floors, insanely large square footage, nice ladies behind the counter…Pretty special.

Around the corner and up a short elevator ride, we went to see a Sarah Lucas exhibit at Sadie Coles. The woman working there, again friendly, was wearing this wicked Victorian-collar-meets-well fitting-short-dress, in black. It was seemingly on trend, as one of the ladies at MACK wore something similar that morning, in blue. (Not that we’re here to talk about fashion.)

The show was insane for three reasons. One, there was a video by the artist’s boyfriend (of course), in which he was playing with himself dramatically, while wearing fake boobs. And homeboy was selling it. It was so offensive it was hard to look away, so I didn’t. I watched for a solid two minutes, and make of that what you will.

Two, the artist, Sarah Lucas, had a piece in another room of a raw chicken hanging off of a hanger with cooked eggs. (The chicken has to be changed when it starts to smell.) Three, was a large-mural photograph, printed right on the wall, of a giant T-shirt, with just the middle of the nipples worn out on each side. I asked if it was editioned, and I was told yes. Ed. of 5. “Made to measure.” And I’m not making that up. That’s exactly what she said. Right next to Saville Row.

That night, I had dinner with a motley crew of global photographers at a Turkish restaurant in North London. We set the whole thing up in an online Facebook chat, if you can believe it, and I walked from Hugo’s place down the road. En route, I saw a road called Ennis, and some clever bloke had painted on a P at the front. Then, he claimed his credit: “Cletus wuz ‘ere, ’12.” Nicely done, Cletus. Nicely done.

Sitting down at Petek, ravenous, I started scarfing olives until I could catch my breath. And with whom was I to dine? Ben was British, Hin an Australian of Chinese descent, Dana from Romania, Liz another Brit, and Maja from Sweden. They all loved living in London, were working on totally disparate projects, (Romanian youth identity, Occupy St. Pauls, following the entirety of the Rio Grande River…), and seemed fulfilled in their careers. Wait, that’s so boring. No controversy? Sorry, not that night.

Saturday took us to the Burough Market, near the London Bridge tube stop, where we shopped for some of the most fantastic products I’ve seen. There was a dinner planned for that night, and we wandered the stands looking for inspiration. We ended up going the Italian route, as these were things that don’t exist in New Mexico. Mozzarella di Bufala, Grana Fiorentina, bresaola, rocket (arugula), fragrant lemon, tortolloni di cingale (wild boar,) and fresh garlic shoots to top it off. Our dessert of hazelnut, chocolate and coconut gelato was purchased the night before. Like I said, Hugo doesn’t mess around.

Art wise, we went to the Hayward Gallery, another public space, right up the way. (Though we did scarf down a Syrian Schwarma at the outdoor food market just below the entrance. Delicious.) This gallery does cost money to enter, and it’s a part of the massive, partly-Brutalist Southbank Centre on the edge of the Thames. Very beautiful spot. (Have I said that already? Are you sensing a theme?)

Two British artists, like Sarah Lucas a part of the famed YBAs, were paired together, Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley. Each, on its own, would have been a brilliant experience. Together, they were good enough that I deemed myself (incorrectly) done viewing Art for the rest of the trip.

We went into the Deller exhibit first, as it was on the ground floor. Both men work in multiple media, including a fair dash of photography, and utilize humor, wit and pathos. Straight off, we entered a room filled with Music posters and random photos, cramped and not exactly special. Next, a fake bathroom with a real toilet, as an installation, with people queued up to enter. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Next, a huge wall mural, painted in dark gray, that said I Heart Melancholy. But the heart was an emoticon. Which I don’t know how to type properly.

Then, a photo print on mirrored stainless steel, a hanging video of dancing weirdos, a functioning restaurant in the middle of the gallery space, a couple of super-well-done photo series, a newspaper and reading lounge, an exhibit of professional wrestling capes, a whole section called “My Failures,” where he shows projects that never happened, and finally, miraculously, a 3D video, in a dark room filled with strangers, of 10 million bats emerging from a cave in Texas. Try reading that sentence again ten times, and you might understand how I felt coming out of the bat cave. I normally get headaches from 3D glasses, and this was no exception. But it was worth it.

I soldiered upstairs to see David Shrigley’s exhibition, from whence my memories are more fuzzy. Mr. Shrigley’s work was even funnier and odder, or perhaps just equally so. The first thing you see is a melted foam fisherman in hip boots. No, sorry, before that was of course the headless fabric ostrich. Then, a photo of a red sign on green grass that said “Imagine this green red.” A grocery list on an actual tombstone. A series of line drawings, animated, as black on white music videos. And, of course, a stuffed Jack Russell terrier in a vitrine holding a picket sign that said “I’m dead.” Just one more? On a wall pedestal, a 1 ft tall brass bell, next to it a sign saying “Not to be rung again until Jesus returns.”

That was one dense paragraph. And I didn’t even cover 1/4 of the show. You get the point. Clever stuff. Witty, smart, creative, and powerful in person too. Together, this was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time, alongside “September 11”, which was a Bizarro version. (Tragic/Comic)

Spent, I said I was done. I told Hugo, “No more. No more. Have mercy.” Even one more espresso/lemon tart pit-stop, and a walk along the Thames, didn’t clear my head enough. (Sample surreality: a three-piece Gypsy jam band, an African guy playing the saxaphone, and an Afghan man selling fake peacock feathers: all within 90 seconds on the Thames.) But then we found ourselves, mere steps from the tube stop, standing right outside the beautiful, Gothic, Southwark Chapel.

I. Could. Not. Help. Myself. So we went in.

Huge, vaulted ceilings, dark and imposing, it was irresistible. We slowly walked towards the crucifix ahead, and it glimmered. What? We got closer, and it was clearly metal. Just as I spied a route to get us closer, the deepest, darkest, scariest-sounding,two-story-high organ began to play, directly above my head. So, so, so frightening. Hugo said, “Remember, these were the guys who invented Halloween.”

I shook off the sound, and walked around that corner and up to the statue. A metal screaming Jesus, pierced by countless spears. That’s right, screaming. “Die Harder,” by David Mach of the Royal Academy. Recent, contemporary Art, displayed in a Gothic Cathedral. Not a merciful god, this.

Next, the very next minute, no lie, with the organ thumping in the background, and the scary Jesus sculpture shimmering behind me, Hugo tapped me on the shoulder, and there, a cat padded down the hall towards us. Then he skulked by, and disappeared. (This is not a work of fiction.) Have you had enough?

That night was a beautiful dinner party for my birthday, so the next day required a late start. (Especially as it featured the only real rain I saw all trip.) Hugo’s loft has got a partly glass roof, so we squirmed off much of the ensuing hangover by drinking crazy-special tea from China, and watching the gray clouds move across the sky. I said, “No more art. I can’t do it. Please, don’t make me.”

Eventually hunger, if nothing else, drove us across London, in the Porsche, in the rain. On to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the other Crown Jewels of London. (Really, it was straight to the coffee shop.) We sat in the Victoria Room, which was suitably decorated, and ate currant scones with jam and clotted cream. We drank Lapsang Souchong tea, which is smoked. I’d heard of it before, but did not believe such things existed in actual realty. (Ever the economist, I assumed it was like a widget, a fictional product that doesn’t exist.)

What did I see, that you’d want to know about, that you could even possibly remember, after reading both of these articles? How about a golden kimono made of cannibal spider silk? One million spiders, to be exact. Or a stone tiger urinal from 6th Century China? Or, crazier still, a plaster replica of Trajan’s column from Rome, to scale, at 38 meters high and 3.8 meters wide. For you Americans, that’s 125 feet tall. (Imagine the roof on this place.)

Then, cruel twist of fate, the last gallery we visited housed the permanent photography collection. (The second to last show was the Cecil Beaton portraits of the Queen, which is not free, and totally, I repeat, totally, worth skipping.) As for the final act, let’s just list the names, shall we? Amazing examples all: Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Muybridge, EJ Bellocq, Atget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Frank, Friedlander, Ed Rushca, and El Lissitzky. Just. One. Room.

At that point, the Museum was about to close, so they chased us out. Hugo and I stopped for sea urchin at a secret-sushi spot, and then drove home, exhausted. I caught a plane the next morning.

What else is there to say? London is fantastic. You should go there. That is all.

London Art Visit – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

I first met Hugo in graduate school. Day one, I believe. It took me a few months to discern that he was well born. The type that neither brags nor name drops. From London originally, he was raised in Upper Manhattan, and attended the right sort of schools. (We used to laugh at the visual of a little 5 year old in short pants, tossing his British accent amidst the swarms of rabid New Yorkers.)

We stayed close in school, taking the same photography classes, and graduated together. Other than the random visit to the Soho House, lounging in the roof-top pool, high above the Meatpacking District, he acted no differently than any other graduate student. When I moved back to Taos, he came and visited twice, tearing up the slopes with his Swiss-style-skiing. (All hips. Pretty to look at, but you wouldn’t really want to take it into bumpy trees.)

And then, nothing. Our relationship devolved into monthly two sentence emails, as he made it plain that the next visit was on me. He moved back to London, the economy fell apart, and the chances of me scrounging up the cash for an Intercontinental plane ticket were only slightly larger than Rick Santorum becoming President.

Relationships, like plants, need water. Email, Facebook, Twitter, they all work for basic relationship maintenance, but friends need to see each other from time to time. Or things die. So when I finally got to visit London last month (to report on the Art scene for our faithful APE readers,) I had an extra-special-double-secret reason to go.

Emerging from the plane, my first time in the UK, I thought it no different from any other jetway. It calmed my nerves after the long trip. As soon as I set foot in passport control, it was clear that I wasn’t in America anymore. The line snaked along under purple lighting and exposed silver duct-work, and my fellow travelers hailed, rather obviously, from Afghanistan, Mongolia & Southeast Asia. I waited my turn, passed through the booth, and was off.

As a resident of America’s car culture, there are few things as pleasurable as emerging from a foreign airport and hopping on a train in the basement. The type that whisks (or crawls) you into the heart of town, for little cost. (As opposed to the $35 taxi ride I recently took on the way back to Houston Hobby.) Luckily, Hugo lived just a few blocks off the Picadilly Line, the very same train I grabbed at Heathrow.

Just over an hour later, I knocked at Hugo’s door, in the shadow of the gorgeous Emirates Stadium in North London. (Yes, I follow Arsenal. Predictable, no?) Hugo answered the call, dressed impeccably in the kind of gentleman’s pajamas that only make sense in certain circumstances. (Very sharp, but I don’t think I could pull them off on the farm.) He said, “Great to see you again, Old Chap.” Game on.

It couldn’t have been more than two minutes before I had a perfect Lavazza espresso in my hands, chased by some beautiful Italian mineral water. I barely exaggerate when I say that for the next 96 hours, while awake, there was always some brain-chemistry-enhancing-substance in my hands: coffee, tea, water, wine, gin, champagne, or a hand-rolled cigarette. I normally don’t smoke, but to properly battle jet-lag, that mashup of adrenaline, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and H20 works very well. (Until the crash, of course. But you don’t want to hear about that.)

Why all the fuss about Hugo, and his regal understanding of hospitality? Because I was there to see Art, and he was my guide. For the first time since I wandered the streets of Rome, trailing my freshly-taught younger brother, I let someone else do the planning. Hugo knows me very well, and understands my taste in Art, among other things. So I allowed him to pick our spots, as well as the order in which we saw them. Perhaps he was an over-qualified tour guide, but you are the beneficiaries, so I thought a bit of backstory was appropriate.

All this was on a Thursday morning. The tour started that afternoon, after we visited with a curator friend of his. She was lovely, but I’ll respect everyone’s privacy for once, and not drop her name. (I didn’t know she was important at the time anyway.) The three of us hopped into Hugo’s 1983 black Porsche, replete with whale-tail and silly cherry-colored-checkered seats. It was a flashback to the 80’s, yes, but served like a better version of an ironic mustache. So cheesy it was cool. So nerdish it was smooth.

We ate lunch in the East End, apparently trendy, and then hit a few galleries so that I could earn my keep. We saw 150 year old paper negatives at Daniel Blau, which only served to highlight the importance of talent and vision. Several pieces, by Gustave de Beaucorps, jumped off the wall, and the rest didn’t. Even the power of age didn’t lift a pedestrian image above its merit. Though I did feel that in a digital age, it was far more difficult to connect to the passage of time. As everything can now be faked, it sometimes disempowers the real thing.

Another highlight was Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro. Countless huge paintings hung on the wall, the Pop palette mixed up with an interesting, Eastern-tinged symbol set. Hard to believe so much work was available to view, as the artist was having a concurrent show at Tate Modern. (Which I then felt less of a need to see.) We also went to a public gallery called Parasol Unit, where there were some terrific Richard Long pieces on the wall. White China clay hand prints on black paper, marching from one corner of the composition to another. Beautiful and elegant. (Like London?)

Whipping through the streets, shortly thereafter, Hugo pulled to the side of the road by a tube station, and ejected me out with little notice. I was already trending late for my aforementioned meeting with Aron MĂśrel, and there was no time to waste. I was tardy, in the end, but only because I couldn’t sort which direction was which back on street level. And my fellow pedestrians were no help at all. (Not surprisingly, the only times I felt lost and out of place in this brilliant city were when I was alone, and trying to find my way.)

When it happened Friday morning, not 300 yards from the MACK headquarters, I got a great piece of advice from a local. Staring helplessly at a map, certain that Denmark St was practically within reach, I asked a nice man which way was North. That was all the help I needed to orient myself. He laughed. “There’s no such thing as North, South, East and West in London,” he said. “My wife’s American, so I can see why you’d make that mistake. She was the same.” Then he directed me the wrong way. (By accident, of course.)

It wasn’t until that afternoon, deep into Hugo’s perfect Friday Art tour, that I understood what the gent meant. We ambled from one plaza to another, or one alleyway, or one narrow lane. Here in Taos, I can see for 100 miles, no lie. But in London, “Here” was never more than a couple hundred yards in any direction. We’d not yet made it to the Thames, so every turn we took just landed us back into a serpentine block of beautiful buildings, not so different than the last. It made mid-town New York’s grid look positively German. What it lacked in perspective, though, it more than made up for in charm. (Seriously, though. How do they keep London so clean?)

The first stop on our tour was the British Museum, to see the King’s Gallery. I haven’t googled it to fact-check, but Hugo said it was the world’s first public Art museum. And by public, I mean free. None of the public museum and galleries in town charge a fee, unless you’re seeing a special exhibition. We sauntered in, without even a bag check, and the place was teeming with people. Think about it. In NYC, at $25 a ticket, a family of four has to shell out $100 to experience the best art. And that’s per museum. Here: Free. Brilliant.

The King’s Gallery looked like a huge library in a castle somewhere in the country, with an open second story covered with books. There was far too much to see to take it all in, so as a viewer, one gravitates to whatever pulls you. Like shopping in the Mega-mart. You might not need any laundry detergent, but of course you have to have some pickles. I was delighted there, and all trip for that matter, to see things I’d never seen before.

What did I love? Some greenish-patina colored Centurion helmets. Amazing. I guessed Roman, and was not too far off. They were Etruscan, so I was 500 years too late. There were also some glazed relief tiles from Buckinghamshire, made in the 13th or 14th Century. A crucifixion piece looked like a mashup of Tim Burton and Monty Python, gruesome and yet witty. And, of course, very old.

I saw 13th Century French enamel cups that looked like Hobbit houses from the Shire, or Trullo homes from Basilicata. The colors, blue yellow red and gold seduced me, all these years later. (Which was a theme of the day, ancient color alive and vibrant. Makes me rethink the idea of archival pigment inks.) Then, an Ice-Age-Hand-Axe found inside a Roman elephant in 43 AD. Yes, you read that right. It’s since been dated to 400,000 years ago. (I suppose it’s better not to ask how it was found inside an elephant. Perhaps Donald Trump Jr. was responsible.)

Next, a colossal foot, on a pedestal, from Ancient Greece. It reeked of totemic power, like it was crushing down on your throat. Then, a gravestone, in Arabic, from 1032 AD. (Rest in peace, Ali, son of Ahmad.) On to Persian glazed tiles, a Marble Dog Vishnu from Rajasthan, and the most beautiful Chinese porcelain Bodhisattvas I’ve ever seen. Yes, this was all in one gallery in one museum. And, to be clear, I only saw 5% of what was on display in the King’s Gallery. So much human genius, so little time.

Out we went, into another gallery, and I found myself facing icons from the Aztec Empire. Back on familiar terrain, or so I thought, we walked up to a double-headed turquoise snake sculpture, with sharp, dangerous teeth. (Real? Maybe.) Named Nahautl, it was as powerful and scary an object as I’ve seen. I could almost smell the blood in the air, singed as the hearts burned in vats on top of the temples.

On through the Americas, we ended up back where I began. Bending down, I saw a beautiful piece of pottery, from Diego Romero. (Born 1969.) It was from the Cochiti Pueblo, in-between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Can you believe it? I couldn’t, so I yelled out “Big Ups to Cochiti Pueblo,” and then exclaimed that I might be the only person in London at the time who knew exactly where it was. (Big dam, little lake.) Was I ridiculous? I don’t know, as my fellow museum-goers were too polite to mock me.

Back into the street, we needed a coffee. (Remember, always have some narcotic substance in your bloodstream at all times.) Write this one down. 1.5 blocks from the entrance to the British Museum, there’s a great little spot called the Camera Cafe. Lenses, cameras, espresso, and Chicken Chow Mein, all in one spot. The man making coffee even gave us a free cookie, as we’d only bought one for the two of us, and he thought we’d made a mistake. A must for visiting photographers and Londoners alike.

On to the National Gallery of Art, also free. Hugo led us straight to the Florentine Renaissance paintings, to see Paolo Uccello, in particular, with whom I wasn’t familiar. A huge piece, “The Battle of San Romano,” was a revelation of color and early perspective, which was still working itself out. As such, the background battlers, in the upper corner, looked like something out of a contemporary video game: rendered to keep the eye moving along, but far from the important bits. Uccello also had a dragon painting, from 1470, which made me feel like I was really in England. (Despite its Florentine origins.) It was beautiful, and tame compared to what I saw next. (After some brilliant Fra Angelico pieces, that is.)

We headed for the Dutch galleries, as I always love to see some new Rembrandts when possible. They were there, but less special than what I’ve seen before. So, as I spun, unimpressed, I was shocked by what I faced. Cornelius van Haarlem, in 1588, painted an image of a dragon eating some dude’s face. Mid-chew. Grotesque, gory, and gifted, it stopped me cold.

I looked until I couldn’t look anymore. How have I never seen such a thing before? Nearby, El Greco’s “Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,” stood up to it, though, and wiped the face blood from my RAM.

Yes, it’s time to compare our brains to a computer. We only have so much buffer space, before things don’t stick. They just push each out of the way, and hope to be good enough, or lucky enough, to write to the hard drive of our deep consciousness. That’s why I’m typing this article a full month after I arrived home.

Travel, and art, make our brain work so hard that it’s impossible to know what’s important in the moment. I can’t even remember what most of the buildings looked like, as each new nook of the city pushed out my memory of the one before. So on that note, having already dropped 2300 words on your head, let’s pause for a respite. This London tale will be continued tomorrow.

The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Time is like an apathetic teenager. We see it as linear, because it’s easier for our brains that way. But many of us know it’s relative. That information does us little good, though, when we’re late to work, and Grandma in the car in front of us is savoring every last second. At twenty miles an hour.

The only thing to match the monotony of the march of time is the certainty of change. The second law of thermodynamics and all. We like to think we stay the same, remain true to ourselves, but it’s just an illusion, no more real than a flogborgibbit. Change is the normal state of things, far more natural than a charge of flip-flopping, but the very epithet tells you all you need to know about most people’s view of the inevitable.

I’ve come to accept and even relish change, myself. I enjoy the opportunity to work on my faults, to modify my behavior, whether it be evolution or revolution. I’ve had it both ways, massive epiphanies that alter my soul in a day, or a slow, daily slide into sloth and misery. (Freshman year at Duke, it took only months for a skinny, mostly well-adjusted goody-goody to metamorphose into a fat, drunken ball of insecurities who…well, we’ll save that one for another time.)

Change is a function of time, and time is the bedrock of our chosen medium, photography. Light is the more popular sibling, as time is far more challenging to manipulate. It’s difficult for photography to match video when it comes to processing duration, but difficult, as we’ve often seen, does not mean impossible.

It’s probably not surprising that I’d bloviate on this subject, what with the end of the year upon us. I’m either the most philosophical blogger in the world, or it’s biggest jackass, and I suppose we’ll each have our own opinion on the subject. But I have seen a lot of photographs this year, and written about most of what I’ve seen. New York, twice, LA, Washington DC; not a bad lineup. Ironically, for two years running, I haven’t been able to shoehorn some of my favorite work into an article. Despite the thousands of words, there just wasn’t room in the narrative thread for great photographs, by the same photographer, in both 2010 and 2011: Rineke Dijkstra.

So here at APE, we’ll now christen a new feature, “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Rolls off the tongue nicely. Here we go.

Last year, it was at the Met, in a fantastic curated show that included a copy of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” Somehow, I ended up writing only about John Baldessari, and Ms. Dijkstra’s incredible series about a young refugee girl got left on the cutting room floor.

This year, I saw her work at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), on a sunny summer San Diego sojourn. (I was always a sucker for alliteration in school. Easy way to score points with the teacher.) Back in July, I snuck down from my beach abode in North County to visit an exhibition of the Bank of America permanent collection, curated by MOPA’s Executive Director, Debra Klochko. (And in case you were wondering, B of A did not cover the admission cost, thereby missing out on a relatively inexpensive way to burnish their horrible public image.)

On a very big wall, right behind the admission desk, was a seven image photo series, installed sequentially, by the aforementioned famous Dutch artist. Each featured a handsome young Frenchman named Olivier Silva, who was about to embark on a stint in the French Foreign Legion. (Insert random French joke here.) The framed prints, all largish, were exhibited in a temporal sequence that transpired between 2000-3, during Mr. Silva’s military service.

In the first image, we see a skinny, innocent looking 17 year old, (give or take) with a full head of hair. Unquestionably, his eyes say, “Oh shit. I’m not so sure about this.” In the next, from the same day in 2000, he’s just had his head shaved, and has got the camo outfit on. His look says, “True, I’m not sure about this, but I suppose I’ll give it a shot.”

Number 3 is from a few months later, still in France. Now he’s got the face paint, is rocking the shaved head thing, and he’s trying to be tough. Definitely seems sad. And on to the next. Here, Olivier is in pristine dress, but still looks like he misses his Maman. By now, his face has filled out a bit. Same month, about to ship out.

The fifth photograph, almost a year and a half later, and now we’re in Corsica. (Chasing Mafiosi?) Homeboy is wearing the most ridiculous Foreign Legion cap, like something out of a Peter Sellers movie. Squinting into the sun, his shoulders are fuller, and he has the vibe that he could have killed someone by now, but probably hasn’t. The burgundy epaulettes are just too much. Finally, a bit of humor.

Next to last, and the guy looks like an action hero. You start to wonder, did Ms. Dijkstra know it all along, that the skinny kid had the movie star looks right beneath the surface? It’s the first time you think about her, as the first five were so natural, and the expressions so believable. By the way, he’s in Djibouti. (Between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries that don’t like each other very much.) And that last bit of farm-boy is still there. Barely.

For the last photo, Olivier Silva is looking directly into the camera, his drab marine colored T-shirt offering more about his character than his dead, militarized eyes. Inscrutable. He’s been thoroughly socialized through the system, they’ve made a good soldier out of the boy. Ready to kill, if necessary. It’s July of 2003, three years after the process began.

And then it’s over. And you begin to think, those expressions, the clues I read to deduce Silva’s character, they’re something the photographer has created. They’re a window into a linear, stop-motion jaunt into some random guy’s history, sure. It happened. But the series toys with the notion of the document, and with my immediate faith that what I was seeing was real, beyond the interpersonal connection between the young Frenchman and the artist, Ms. Dijkstra. Tremendous stuff.

I didn’t end up writing about it this Summer, because I skipped San Diego for the bustle of the Megalopolis up the coast. So there you have it. “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Happy New Year.

Remembering at MOMA PS1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I awoke to the bleating ring of the landline, ruining a perfectly good dream. Lacking coordination, I smacked at the phone, glancing at the clock as I pulled the handset to my ear. It was 6:30 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time. Too early for good news. On the other end of the line, my mother started yelling at me. She was crazed, like a fanatic speaking in tongues. “We’re under attack. We’re under attack. The towers are gone. The towers are gone.”

“Mom,” I replied, “calm the fuck down. I can’t understand what you’re saying. There are no aliens. We’re not under attack. And it’s really not funny.”

“Oh, Jonathan, it’s so horrible. We’re under attack by terrorists. They flew airplanes into the twin towers, and they’re not there anymore. They’re just gone. The Pentagon too,” She finished. “Turn on the television. You’ll see.” So I did.

I would have been there, like so many people reading this, but I almost chopped my thumb off while opening a can of tomatoes. (Lots of blood.) The incident, or accident, occurred just after I was accepted into Pratt, in early 2001. The recovery was such that I deferred a year, planning to move to New York in July of 2002 instead. So if not for the jagged edge of a Muir Glen tomato can, I would have been living in Brooklyn during the tragedy. But I wasn’t. My girlfriend and I were living in San Francisco instead, 3000 miles away, and only heard about the thing after the fact. Kind of the opposite of having been there.

It’s ten years later, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that people like round numbers. (This from the dollar guy.) The memorial services are done. The names of the victims were read. Candles were lit; Tears absorbed into shoulders and hair. And of course, the anniversary exhibitions are up on the wall. It so happened that I was in New York in the end of October, and had the chance to see the September 11 show at MoMAPS1 in Long Island City, Queens, just across the river.

I might have neglected to mention that the particular New Jersey suburb in which I was raised was just a few miles down the road from Atlantic Highlands, the tallest point on the East Coast (At a meager 300 feet or so.) We had hills in my town as well, and were close enough to the bay to see the Twin Towers presiding over the city across the water.

My family rarely went into New York, it being the dicey late 70’s and early 80’s, and I was a bit of a wimp about the whole thing, truth be told. But those towers… I saw them at least three times a week. Two big, phallic, shiny symbols of the wealth and power of Wall Street, New York City, and by extension, the United States. They dominated. And now they’re not there.

The skyline has seemed imbalanced to me ever since, the midtown skyscrapers taunting Wall Street, perhaps enticing a Napoleon complex that begat the Great Recession. And, really, what has changed? We take our shoes off at the airport. We color code our fear like stripes on a lollipop. Fanatical loonies tried to blow up airplanes with bombs in their shoes, underpants, and even a printer cartridge. But so far we’ve been lucky.

We have a bi-racial President now. That’s big news. And geeks run much of the known world. (Seriously. Mark Zuckerberg gets laid on a regular basis. Enough said.) We went to war, twice, and are thoroughly in hock to the Chinese. All because we had to have those two wars, and some tax breaks to boot. Not a lot of value out of those purchases, if you ask me.

Now it’s nearly 2012, and so we might ask, with all the 9/11 hullaballoo, “Why an art show?” Why go to the trouble to collect items from around the world, paint the walls, pack and unpack the shipping boxes, spend a fortune on Fedex, re-write press releases until your carpal tunnel gives you a migraine, just to invite some people in once the lights are on, to look at some photographs, videos, paintings, sculptures, and drawings?

Why indeed? I suppose, as I describe the work I saw that day, the answer will become evident. One would hope.

Lets’ be honest: these articles always seem to run long. I’m aware of that. Perhaps I have a hard time expressing myself in few words. Who knows? In case you don’t feel like reading to the end, let me break it down succinctly. If you live anywhere near New York, you ought to go see this show. How’s that for brevity? Just go. Swipe your Metrocard, drop the $10 at the front entrance, and go inside.

The exhibition begins on the second floor of the former school building, and the wall card announces that almost none of the work was made in response to the September 11 attacks. Much of it was even made before the event. I was curious, and a tad dubious, to tell the truth. If the work was decontextualized, then clearly the curator’s POV would dominate the show. The entire exhibition would be one giant installation by Peter Eleey, the curator in charge. Pretty ambitious.

Normally, in these reviews, this would be the point where I meticulously detail each and every thing I saw. But I don’t want to do that. It seems forced, as I sit here at my kitchen table, 2000 miles and six weeks removed from the actual experience. There was a surreal poetry and magic to my time in the September 11 exhibition, and I’d rather try to recreate a fragment of it. I can conjure the best of that day in my mind, easily, so let’s start there.

One of the first pieces to slam me in the belly was a pair of framed, 4 foot square bulletin boards affixed to the wall, replete with pin holes, staples and paper scraps. (“Nothing prevents anything,” -07-09, by Harold Mendez.) Each sat on the wall on opposite sides of an entry way, like lions guarding the gate. Bulletin boards? If I saw them in a gallery in Chelsea, I’d probably giggle, and shake my head at how far people will go to be the first to call something art. But here, in this context, they felt empty, vacant, purposeless, forgotten, as if they were hanging in an Elementary School during Summer session. I thought about the kids who started that Summer, in 2001, with Dads and Moms, and then, shortly after Labor Day, they were gone.

Normally, we see work like this in quiet. People in galleries and museums are more silent than a tennis audience. Here, though, in this very room, there was music piped in. A grand, emotional, film score, by the great John Williams. (Yeah, the guy who did Star Wars.) A wall card explained that the music was the theme from the forgettable Mel Gibson crap-fest, “The Patriot.” (Which was apparently then appropriated by Barrack Obama during his 2008 victory speech.) So. Ironic. That. My. Head. Almost. Exploded. All the same, the emotional music definitely made the viewing experience more poignant.

What else? In the middle of the room, there was a nearly 20 foot long sculpture on the floor, made of ash. Long and narrow, the material was configured into the undulating form of a lunar-scape, with faux mountains and valleys seen from above. Astonishing. It looked a little like a 3D, gray-scale version of one of Motherwell’s Spanish Elegy Paintings. But it gets better. A look at the wall text explained that the ash sculpture, by Roger Hiorns, “Untitled 2008,” was actually an atomized passenger aircraft engine. Ash, the dominant symbol of that horrible day, here literally made out of a plane engine. That’s about as good as it gets.

Except that it was just a part of a larger whole, the gestalt of the entire gallery. The ash led the viewer, like a psychedelic arrow, straight up to a George Segal sculpture called “Woman on a Park Bench.” A lady sits, eternally, white patina over bronze, on a black bench. Waiting. The sculpture has been placed before a vaulted archway, and is backlit, like a knave in a Gothic Cathedral. It’s not hard to see her as a symbol of a grieving widow, immobilized by sorrow. Forever.

And in case you weren’t paying perfect attention, all of the above is simply one gallery in a much larger exhibition. I can’t think of a more touching tribute, and yet it was the work of the curator, as much as the aggregate artists. If you don’t believe me, just look up George Segal on Wikipedia. He died in 2000.

I enjoyed seeing a painting by Maureen Gallace, a drawing by Mark Lombardi, and a photograph by Thomas Demand. All good, for sure. But the next great thing was a worn, black suitcase on the floor, sitting in the corner of another gallery. It reminded me of the room of shoes at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. Those little, human details that bring Geo-Political horror down to the human level. Seeing the suitcase, we can imagine it belonging to some random guy who never made it back to Penn Station with his claim ticket. Or sitting on a sidewalk somewhere, after having been blown out an open window.

It was a piece of found sculpture by Lara Favaretto. The object was part of an ongoing, obtuse project where she buys one suitcase a year at a flea market, locks it, and then never opens it. Just the sort of boring conceptual project that gets far too much attention, but in this context, it was brilliant.

Diane Arbus, perennially popular, was represented on the wall with “Blowing Newspaper at a Crossroads, NYC, 1956.” The photo was dark, fuzzy, abstracted and a bit menacing. One I’d not seen before. Here, it spoke of the itinerant trash roaming the empty streets in the aftermath, hours after everyone still standing had gone home.

In a similar vein, a room otherwise full of black and white images and objects contained a dash of color, courtesy of William Eggleston: “Untitled (Glass in Airplane, 1965-74). A single plastic cup of Coke sits on a lowered tray table, backlit by gleaming light streaming in through the window. Anywhere else, it reminds of a stained glass window. Pretty. Contextualized, it puts you in the first person position of someone sitting on one of the planes, quaking at the thought of the crazy dudes holding box-cutters in the cockpit. What a horrible fucking way to die.

Elsewhere in that gallery, the walls were covered by a collection of B&W photos by John Pilson, from the series “Interregna” from 1998-2000. Mr. Pilson apparently worked for an investment bank in Lower Manhattan, across the street from the WTC, and made documents of the office experience in the late evening and early morning hours when no one was around. They were literal, and well-made, but in the show, one thought immediately of the empty offices, abandoned while people streamed screaming down the stairwells in the moments after impact.

To finish it off, a white pedestal sits in the middle of the room, with a glass vitrine on top. Inside, “Snapshots from Baghdad,” from 2007, by Roman Ondak: A matte black disposable camera with undeveloped, exposed film. All black, it looked a bit like a gun, just another way to shoot. Undeveloped, it spoke of unfulfilled potential. Baghdad, it reminded of the War rounded up like a posse in the victims’ names. And that was not the only Iraq reference in the house.

From there, I wandered upstairs, towards an abandoned looking section of the Museum. I ran across a man, coming in the opposite direction, who snickered, “It’s nothing but empty rooms. You might like it more than some of the art.” Classy. I pushed on anyway, and found that he was right. Empty rooms only. Early stage installation in progress. The galleries were the same as the ones below, but they lacked the life, the light, and the energy of a finished exhibition. A small moment, I gained even more appreciation for how much work it takes to make the trains run on time.

From there, I descended a few flights of stairs into the basement. As this was once a functioning school, the basement contains the innards of the structure. It’s cold, and feels like the opposite of every gleaming Art Museum you’ve ever visited. It also contains, for now, one of the single most powerful art installations I’ve ever experienced. No. Exaggeration. Necessary.

The boiler room is where it’s at. Down a few short rickety stairs, you enter the physical-plant-nerve-center of the former public school. It’s dirty, cold, and cave-like. Creepy doesn’t quite do it justice. In the far corner, I saw some speakers, a chain hanging from the ceiling, and a place to sit down. So I did.

The speakers were blasting some random, ambient sounds; unfamiliar and disturbing. I sat there, waiting, thinking, and then all of a sudden, I saw the flash of a shadow. My neck swiveled, and my liver almost imploded. No lie. Frightening. But I stayed. A minute or so later, there was a clanking, crashing sound, and another shadow flash. Bang. The hanging chain started to sway, so I knew that I hadn’t imagined it. Slowly, I realized that I was sitting in a simulacrum of a dungeon. Abu Ghraib? Some nameless CIA black-site hole-in-the-ground in Afghanistan? Does it matter?

The experience was real, and confusing. Then, I looked up at the ceiling and saw skylights onto the street level. The room sits below the sidewalk, and whenever a Queens resident or visiting passerby walked over me, I heard the crash. When they walked only near the skylight, shadow no sound. Are. You. Kidding. Me.

After a few minutes of simulated torture, I walked back up the stairs, and looked for the wall text explaining the music. (If you could call it that.) Stephen Vitiello, the artist, once had a studio given to him through a residency program. In the World Trade Center. 91st Floor. He recorded the sound of the building swaying in the wind during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

I’m running out of exclamations here to describe my overtaxed brain, upon reading that information. The swaying, creaking, buildings, no longer in existence, providing the backdrop for a simulated torture chamber, representing a major war that was launched because the buildings were destroyed by terrorists from another country. Well played, Peter Eleey. Well played.

After that, emotionally drained, I spent the better part of a half an hour trying to get permission to take the one photo I’m including here. They’re beyond strict about prohibiting photography, so you really will have to go see this for yourself. Then I walked through the freezing Queens rain, and dropped down underground again to grab the subway. The train’s recording, with each stop, reminded me that it was a World Trade Center-bound E train. As if I could forget.

Why Isn’t Art Used To Change The World?

- - Art, From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein talks with JĂśrg Colberg of the blog Conscientious about using art to change the world.

Jonathan Blaustein: I wrote a long article recently about my trip to Reno, and you pulled from it a particular question and posted it on Conscientious. I thought it might be interesting to turn that back on you and start there. I have the question right here on my little note sheet.

JĂśrg Colberg: It doesn’t look like a fake note sheet like Jon Stewart’s, though.

JB: No, it’s real. I even have magazines here (waving them in front of the webcam.) We’re going to get into all the good stuff. Let’s start with that question, and hopefully it won’t seem ridiculous that I’m quoting myself right now.

“I’m wondering why I didn’t hear more [at the A+E conference in Reno] about how we, as artists, can use a variety of skill sets and methods to expand the reach of our work, to recruit new viewers, to communicate a message in a manner that will speak to more people without dumbing down the art in the process?”

I’m assuming the question must have been intriguing to you, because you quoted it. So what were your first thoughts on that, as a starting point?

JC: There are a lot of hooks in that quote.

JB: Sure. We can start with any little part of it. Maybe I can give a little back story. You responded to a Google+ post that I did on the Reno article, and then you and I started going back and forth briefly, before we decided to flesh it out further in this interview.

JC: I don’t know whether I have the real answer. I have my own personal answer, and that’s biased in all kinds of ways.

JB: Of course. I’ll stipulate to all of your biases, and you can stipulate to mine. How about we start there.

JC: All right. I think the first thing is, a lot of the talking that’s going on online is about artists using their skill sets for social media and promotion. That’s the first thing. There is very little talk (or maybe I’m just missing all that talk) about what you’re talking about. You know, how artists can use a variety of skill sets to expand the reach of their work. Expanding the reach of their work doesn’t seem to get beyond making sure that more people see it to potentially buy a book or buy a print. I could be mistaken, but that’s something that I’ve been rather critical of, more and more. Social media is really just about blanket promotion, because, in theory, it could be about exactly what you’re talking about. Reaching more people, and talking about the work, and what’s behind the work, and how what is behind the work has connections to all these other things that go on in non-artists’ lives.

JB: You went right to social media, and of course social media was the impetus for this talk. Perhaps the rampant self-promotion we’re seeing on the web is finally wearing people out. You agree, I agree. But the exact same infrastructure, the social media infrastructure, just brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The tool itself has already proven it’s power to do the impossible, or at least what people consider impossible.

JC: Yes and no. I think it’s disputed what the real power of social media is and how it contributed to the Arab Spring. But that aside, it’s a little like quoting the lottery winner. These are outlier events. I don’t deny that they’re true, but I think that using outlier events to prove a point is always a bit risky. Even if we stay with the Arab Spring, what brought down those regimes or what made people go to the street is not social media. It’s the willingness of those people to go out of the house and demand change.

JB: Of course.

JC: Social media alone are useless, unless… it’s the same with photography. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking this a little bit right now, but it’s this question, “Can photography change the world?” I don’t think it can, unless we learn our lessons from what it shows us, unless we decide do to something about it.

JB: That’s why I wanted to have this discussion. I’m talking about social media as an infrastructure. As an architecture that can be used, because all it is is a fancy term for the perfect information dissemination vehicle. Free, (sometimes) ubiquitous, let’s call it perfect, or certainly the best the world has ever seen. That’s where I think it starts to get interesting, when we talk about Art. You said, “Can photography change the world?”, and my article was basically written about an event where a bunch of artists were conceding that they could. And that they needed to, because Climate Change was such a dramatically horrific issue for humankind and animal kind.

I come from a background and an age where I’m trying to get over my cynicism about that idea. I feel like, coming up with Post-Modern theory in art school, there was an indoctrination against the idea that art could, or even ought to, aspire to create change. So leaving aside the bigger question of whether it can, we’re living in an age where most people don’t think they ought to try. It’s like a limited set of expectations of what our chosen calling can offer to the world. That’s where I want to start. That’s what the rallying cry was, though we’re probably not at that level where I can even call it a rallying cry. The question really is, “Why aren’t people even considering that it’s worth an attempt?”

JC: You know, I honestly don’t know. I think people make their decisions based on their personal beliefs and comfort levels. I have this idea that there’s this talk about the creative class. You’ve heard that term, right?

JB: Sure.

JC: I always thought that another name for the creative class would be the complacent class. It’s really rude, in a way, but I think it’s true. We’re so complacent about what we do. We want to change the world, and then we don’t want to do much about it. We think, “Well, if just click on ‘Like’ on Facebook for that cause, that’s going to make a big difference.” I suppose it makes a little bit of a difference, but you know, there are no consequences.

There are people who are really going out to change the world. I’m thinking of Pete Brook, who was just visiting here with his “Prison Photography on the Road.” He’s literally taking his blog to the road, staying with all these people and talking to them. He got started on Kickstarter, asking people for money, and a lot of artists donated prints so that he could give something back.

I think you can do something. Why people don’t do more? I don’t know. The situation is, I think, quite overwhelming. Every day, there is some other disaster. Some other drama going on. I guess there’s a sense of hopelessness. Of course, nobody can change all of the disasters and all the dramas, so I think you just have to pick one. But I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know why there is not more happening.

JB: To be clear, I don’t ever expect you to speak for anyone beyond yourself. In my belief as an artist, I find that ideas are often in the air. Oftentimes, you find that different people, in different parts of the world, are working on something similar without any connection. It’s our job, I think, to reach into the Zeitgeist and try to pull out these little nuggets of contemporary culture and then transform them, synthesize them.

In this week’s Newsweek, there’s an interview with Thomas Campbell, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (By Blake Gopnik) In the headline, it mentions expanding the audience and not dumbing it down. And in the New Yorker, there was another article about the Met, because they’re rolling out the new Islamic Galleries. It discussed how the Met devised a really fancy lighting installation at the edge of the gallery to entice people inside. I was surprised that this idea was reflected back at the highest institutional level, because, in a sense, we’re talking about artists on the street and the power structure as well. Clearly, the idea is out there.

We both could speculate as to why people aren’t necessarily ambitious or political in their content, oftentimes, but I would say that the bigger idea that we can talk about is, how we even consider going about enlarging the tent? What can we do to try to increase it’s power? At least here in the United States. What are you seeing, as far as artists’ attempts to reach across the divide?

JC: The problem in the US is pretty unfortunate, because the arts are pretty marginalized. I grew up in Germany, I lived there for 30 years. I don’t want to pretend that it’s the artistic paradise, because it certainly isn’t. But Art is talked about more often than here. There’s Art education in schools. All the way up to high school, I had to take classes in Art and Music. That was just something that I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. Just like German and English and Mathematics, you’d have a class on Art. I actually learned how to knit in school. That’s completely useless for me, as far as I’m concerned, but I learned it anyway.

JB: Knitting was useless for you, and Algebra was useless for me. We’re even.

JC: Art here has a different connotation. The high falutin’ people with their crazy ideas that are very different from the common man or regular folks. You have that in Germany too, but I know that a lot of people go to art galleries or to museums in Germany that would never go here. I know a lot of people are really interested in Art, and what’s going on here. I go to a diner every Saturday for breakfast, because I like to hang out at the counter. I talk a lot with people, and they are actually interested in what’s going on. The discourse about Art is just messed up. Funding for Art doesn’t exist, or is very minor. And that’s sort of at the very basic level.

One way to really make a difference, and I know it sounds naive, would be to send a letter to your Congressman saying “Why are we not funding the arts more?” Because there are jobs in the arts, obviously, but also because there is something that Art has to offer everybody. That’s the first aspect. The second aspect is maybe related. Art has such a weird standing. A lot of people don’t really like to talk about themselves as artists that change the world. It sort of has a bad feeling to it, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe the people who went to art school know there’s all this Post-Modern bullshit, so I can’t do that. I don’t think that every artist should try to change the world. It’s completely up to them. But I think every artist should really think about this. Do I want to change the world, or what do I want to do? What do I want my Art to do?

JB: I agree with you, but I don’t want this to just be, “Well no, I agree with you.” “But no, I agree with you.”

JC: That would be boring, right?

JB: Exactly. We have to get the controversy in here somewhere, or I won’t sell newspapers. Oh wait, that’s right, I’m not actually trying to sell newspapers. What I’m very curious about right now is…you’re presenting Art in a different context and a different culture, Germany. I think most art-literate folks are going to know that it’s the case. In Europe, there’s more cultural support for the arts. In the US, we acknowledge that the arts are marginalized, and that there is a heavy emphasis on Class and Status and Power within the Art world.

JC: Right.

JB: It’s a separate question to say “How do we go about changing that?”

JC: Really, that’s what it comes down to. I just watched this documentary by Robert Hughes, the art critic, called “The Mona Lisa Curse.” I don’t know whether you’ve seen it.

JB: No.

JC: You can find a version with Spanish subtitles on Youtube. He was talking about how the art world has changed, has become incredibly commercialized. And how that is affecting the way Art is being done and talked about. I think we can, as artists, (and I’m calling myself an artist), we can take that back. It’s just that easy, but of course it’s not really easy. It’s just like Pete. He went on the road, and he’s doing it. There’s nothing, in principal, that can stop us from doing that. Creating something where we interact with people, and just disseminate what we do, and talk about it more. Bringing it to people who might be interested.

JB: I suppose we’re doing it right now. Or at least, the first step. But Art has always been used in service of power and in service of information dissemination. Look at the way it was used by the Catholic Church, or by the Mayan Ruling Class. At this point, I think we could say that at it’s highest levels, maybe it’s been hijacked in service of Capitalism. You said Commercialism, but in service of the Market.

JC: It doesn’t have to be that way.

JB: Referring back to that Newsweek article, it said that the Met had something like 5.8 million viewers last year. Now, it’s probably more than this, but let’s say that 1/3 of those viewers are tourists to New York coming in on the cheap dollar. So let’s say 4 million Americans. That’s not much more than 1% of the US population right there.

JC: That should tell us something, right? The Met is kind of a special example, because it’s the artificial environment that is New York City. I read that there was some talk about where do the 1% live, and there are several zip codes in New York where many of the top 1% of the wealthiest people live.The people that go to the Met, a lot of them are actually well off, as are many people who go on vacation to New York.

I think we should be looking at museums in places like Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. Places that are more regular, or behaving more like the average American city. Let’s see how museums are faring there? Whether people go to shows? Then we should think about what we can do to bring Art to people. I think museums are great, galleries are great, but of course they are environments that are kind of artificial. I think they can be intimidating. They’re certainly making every effort to be intimidating.

JB: I agree. I don’t think that point gets made enough. American’s really don’t like to talk about Class, I have found.

JC: No.

JB: So let’s sit on that idea. Museums in Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. Or, like I speculated in that article about Reno, outside of museums entirely. Listen, I’m a huge fan of Art Museums. I was brought up in suburban New Jersey. It was Bruce Springsteen country. Unpretentious. Blue collar, or at least a Blue Collar Mentality, where you do your work and you keep it real. I was just back in New York, and I’m going to write some articles about it, but I saw this fantastic show at PS1. (Article to come…) I was in New Jersey, talking about it with some relatives of mine.

I thought they’d be interested in the exhibition, as they had some personal connections to the subject matter. I brought up the show, and I talked about PS1 and Long Island City, and they said, “How come we’ve never heard of it?” Actually, what they said was “How come no one has ever heard of this place?” Of course, I said, some people have heard of it. You have to kind of be inside the club, or in the know, to hear about these things. As I was saying that, it just seemed so absurd.

So this is where we have to start. Because once I told them what I’d seen, they were ready to get in the car and drive to Queens. What we’re talking about is, if the mechanism of communication is there, which it is, and I think that the quality of work that one could see in the United States, probably across the country, is really high. So we cycle back to enticing or alluring people to open their minds enough to experience a different kind of media. Isn’t that really what we’re talking about?

JC: To an extent. I don’t think people have to be enticed, actually. I think a lot of people are actually more interested in some of the issues we deal with than we think they are. I think the PS1 problem is a good problem. For example, I don’t know where your relatives live, if they have a local newspaper. But that’s the first problem, is if they still have a local newspaper. And if that local newspaper still has an arts writer, then that arts writer might have written about it. It’s likely that there is no local newspaper any longer, and even if there is a local newspaper, then the arts writer is long gone, because there is no money for that. So it’s no surprise that your relatives have never heard of that show because…

JB: They never even heard of the venue.

JC: Is there a local newspaper?

JB: They live in New Jersey. It’s the New York area, so their daily newspapers are the Times and the Post. But it’s not just access to information…

JC: It is access to information. That’s part of it. But we need to create a culture where Art is being talked about on a more regular basis. Not just as a special section that’s called Art. People have to start realizing that what’s in the Art section is not just abstract paintings of things that nobody understands. It’s a lot of stuff that affects our lives. I guess that’s where we start agreeing again.

JB: Right. It keeps coming back to the How? And in a sense, the Why? Of course it’s about access to information, but I think it is very difficult for people to want to talk about that attitude and air of exclusivity that derives it’s power from keeping people out.

JC: So we have to take that away.

JB: Well, we can say “How” all day long, but maybe by saying “How” we’ll get some other people to think about it. It’s interesting that I got to read about the views of the head the Metropolitan Museum of Art talking about these issues in the same week that we are. When you read this stuff, it comes with this defensive slant. Like, “Yes, it’s nice to get the attendance numbers up, but, God forbid, too many people seeing this stuff means it’s less good. Or, it has to be a blockbuster show. If you want people to come, it has to be Tim Burton, you have to show movies. I disagree. When I first encountered the World’s best Art, and I was very fortunate, before the dollar went to shit and the economy went to hell, I was able to travel to Europe, and I lived in New York. A lot of my passion for Art comes from that physical experience of standing in front of something, and having your mentality shift in realtime. I believe, like you, that if more people were introduced to that experience, without changing that experience, people would get it.

JC: It is a big question. You have to start somehow. I don’t have a magic solution. There’s all kinds of things you could imagine. What it comes down to, literally, is bringing art to people. By showing it, by talking about it. There is no reason why interesting Art should always be in big museums in big cities. You can imagine, something that I’ve always talked about but never done it, is to rent a barn from a local farmer and do an art show for two weeks. Just bring in a bunch of artists, and put up a show, with advertising and everything. People have to drive to the countryside to see it. It’s a beautiful drive out here (Western Massachusetts) anyway. You would visit art, and it would be embedded in a community that maybe doesn’t have so much access to that kind of stuff. And then after two weeks, its gone. You don’t have the overhead of keeping up a museum, and you would take art of of it’s context that it’s in right now. This high falutin’ world with a lot of pretense. With a lot of money. With a lot of expectations, and a lot of stuff. I think it’s doable.

Even the web. Just talking about Art, or making multi-media pieces about Art. I think that’s why multi-media can be good, it is because you can bring the experience of Art closer to people. As photographers, we’re lucky, because photography is an ideal medium for the web.

JB: Sure. Photography and the web changed my life. I’m living proof of how well jpegs can work. Yet that was never my goal, nor was it the optimal way for people to experience my work, when things are meant to be big. But I think you hit on it…

JC: That’s the thing. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but people are worried that that’s not the optimal way to experience their work. Of course, I hear that a lot, because I’m a blogger. People say that it doesn’t look so good on the screen. But that’s totally missing the point. If you get curious about photography, or you get curious about photo books because you see me flipping through a photo book in a crappily made video, you might go out and buy that book, right?

JB: Right.

JC: And then, suddenly, you have the book and you start looking. That’s kind of what I think I can do. Show and say let’s look at this, this might be interesting. The viewer still has to make that step: I’m going to go and see that show. Or: I’m going to buy that book. I think putting it out there, and saying this might interest you has got to be the first step. And with photography, there are books. They’re not even that expensive.

JB: Look, I’ve said this in print several times. The experience of knowing that millions of people around the planet were thinking and talking about my work, it was indescribably awesome. Brilliant. But when I know that the pictures, in my head, and on the wall are meant to be seen at 30″x40″. You can’t experience a 30″x40″ print on a white wall through the Internet. It’s not either or, here, between the Internet and the wall. It’s both.

But the idea that I want to sit with, for a minute, was that you talked about this idea of bringing Art out to the people, and I talked about it in my Reno article. Now Kickstarter is there. Maybe we’re really talking around it, but Occupy Wall Street came from a call from the media, right? Adbusters. I’m not, in any way, about to speculate that you and I chatting via Skype can have even a fraction of the impact. However, maybe it’s something as simple as saying, let’s do it. Let’s try to organize a series of ten pop up art exhibitions in interesting places in the United States, and let’s raise the 50 Grand that’s necessary, and let’s publicize the shit out of it. And let’s take Art to the people. And whether “Let’s” is you and me, or people that we know, or people who read this…maybe that is the start. Is to say, “OK. Let’s do it.”

JC: Why not, right?

JB: Well, I live in Northern New Mexico, and you can bet your ass that people would like to see photo installations and projections on the sides of cliffs. I know I would.

JC: I think it’s actually doable. You could certainly reach enough people. We’d have to plan it.

JB: Of course.

JC: You’d literally make these shows for a week or two. Maybe you could tap local arts organizations. They might be happy to help. I don’t know. But I think that something could be done. Yes.

JB: Yes.

JC: And I think that would be a good start. You do this in ten cities? Just imagine. Even five cities.

JB: Or, as you said, rural areas.

JC: It would be so amazing.

JB: Or maybe it’s both. You just never know. I’m not saying we’re going to light the spark. I’m just saying we can’t rule out the possibility. I think we hit on something.

JC: It’s just something that we have to do now.

JB: Do you want to follow up on this? Do you want to put a little elbow grease in? Or should we let other people do it?

JC: In this day and age, especially with something like this, it shouldn’t be something that one or two people are doing. You have to make sure you get 5 or 6 people together.

JB: Right.

JC: So you sort of have a collective.

JB: Let’s get Art out of the temples, and out into the cow pastures and smaller cities.

JC: I think it’s a great idea. It sounds so populist. It is a really good idea.

Edward Burtynsky Interview

- - Art

Jonathan Blaustein: I was in New York this past week, and I was able to see both of your exhibitions that are currently on display at Bryce Wolkowitz and Howard Greenberg. It’s such a great lead in to our conversation, and I definitely want to ask some questions about those shows. To give you a bit of backstory, I come to this process as an artist, not a journalist or a professional. I’m one of those people who seems to be faking it until I make it. The goal will be to try to provide some information for the audience, and get a sense of where your head is at, because I think, realistically, everybody who reads the interview will be familiar with your work. So let me just jump right in. I have a lot of specific questions, but from a standpoint of my personal curiosity, I was hoping to start with something really broad. I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about why you do what you do?

Edward Burtynsky: I have no idea what else I would do. Creating ideas and objects, and being involved in art making, whether it’s in the form of photography, or something else is part of my being. The creative urge feels as if it’s in my DNA. If I’m not creating something, then I feel as if I’m having a slow death.

The “why” of what I do is fairly straightforward, it’s why all artists are compelled to do their work. Most of the artists I know who are successful don’t have a lot of choice. It’s something they simply need to do. That’s as close as I can come to why I do it. I’ve always made things. I’ve always been involved in the arts.

JB: Kandinsky had a great phrase for it that I picked up in grad school. He called it “Inner Necessity.” When I get asked the question, I give a similar answer, but given that you’re so accomplished at what you do, I was curious to hear your take. Anyway, because I got to hear you lecture for 40 minutes at the Art+Environment Conference in Reno, and because I got to see two of your exhibitions in the last four days, my questions are kind of focused on what you’re doing now. We also got to chat in Reno a bit as well, and you mentioned that in 2011, you are now working with “drone helicopters.”

We continued our conversation, but that phrase kind of stuck in my mind. When I mentioned it to other people, everyone had the same reaction, which is, “What? How? Why?” I was hoping you might share a bit about how that process works?

EB: We call them “drones” but I guess it’s kind of a misleading term.

JB: You can see why I got curious. We all have visions of toy airplanes firing guided missiles at bearded dudes in the hinterlands of Pakistan, so I had to ask.

EB: I refer to them as “RC-copters”, remote control helicopters. I’ve always been interested in being able to position my camera at an optimal viewpoint in order to take a good picture.
My response to a subject determines the appropriate distance, angle and time of year. I’ve been working – and scratching my head – in China for almost a decade now. China has no civil aviation. It’s mostly, if you want to get up in the air, you either have to deal with industry, or you’ll have to deal with the military.

For instance, the hydro-electric projects. Up in the regions where they’re putting the dams in, the Chinese use huge Sikorsky helicopters to shuttle men in and out of building sites. These overkill choppers can carry a dozen men and their gear. You can rent one but it’s ridiculously expensive. The only other way to use airspace by helicopter in China is through the military. Getting them on side is a major hassle and again you’re paying buckets of money to use their craft, at their convenience, and it means you’ve got to go right to Beijing and talk to them. The beaurocracy is staggering.

One of the workarounds we were sorting out was to try getting my Hasselblad up in a helicopter without me. The whole process started from the question “How can I stand where I want to stand and shoot from where I want to shoot, in a place where I can’t get up in the air? If I want to take pictures from a lofty perspective in China, or in India – where it’s equally challenging to get chopper space in remote areas – how do I accomplish that?”

With the small RC helicopter I’m able to shoot in isolated areas utilizing the same opportunities that a regular helicopter provides, without having a full-on rig and related expenses. We’ve been successfully doing aerial tests, shooting with the Hasselblad at about 700-800 ft. We can shoot down rock-steady and control the point of view—totally remote.

JB: Do you have a live video feed to tell you when you want to click the shutter? Are you seeing it in real-time?

EB: Yes. I’m watching in real-time, so I have a camera in the eyepiece of the Hasselblad. I have three-way positioning on the camera, so I have all the movements of a tripod head. I’m working with a helicopter operator to say “Freeze it in that spot.” Then I’m working with a guy on the head, and I hold the shutter release. So I’m getting live video feed as I compose from the camera.

JB: Wow.

EB: You can fly as far away from base to the point where you lose visual contact, which is a bad idea with a remote, because you want to be sure to get it back. It’s a lot of expensive equipment.

JB: No doubt. When everyone reads that, they’re going to be mentally tabulating the bill on that equipment. That’s insane. I’m really not a tech-obsessed guy, but that concept, especially with the contemporary context of remote control warfare, I had to ask.

JB: I just saw your two shows in New York. I was fortunate to get a preview of the Dryland Farming series in Reno, but seeing the prints of the new work on the wall at Wolkowitz was kind of astonishing.

I hope you won’t assume flattery here, but I’ve seen a lot of your work through the years. Part of being an artist is just being aware of what’s going on. And I thought the new work was absolutely fantastic. I think people my age are often afraid of the tendency to do your best work early on, and then kind of slowly crater. Seeing something that awesome and invigorating was inspiring. The prints were extraordinary, and hopefully we’ll get this interview up in time for people to go see the show. But they are somewhere in the range of 40″ x 60″, just gigantic images, and they are abstract to the point where they were almost vibrating. The fingers of the Spanish landscape reminded me of little alien fetuses. People familiar with your work will recognize the thumbprint, and yet they were kind of a new aesthetic to me, particularly the color palette. The photographs looked like digital capture to me, as opposed film.

JB: I was wondering if I interpreted that correctly, or if it was just the palette you were using. Have you shifted your process at all to make that work?

EB: They are now shot digitally.

JB: They are…

EB: Yes. I’ve tried every way I can, and film isn’t capable of that quality in aerial work. When I first started shooting from the air in 2003 I took a large format film camera up. I was using my Linhof 4×5 with a rangefinder on it, and ran into a host of problems. One is, because you are in motion, and there’s vibration, so you’re trying to get high shutter speeds. You have to expose at one five-hundredth of a second or better, even with a gyro and a copter pilot trying to steady the craft as best he can. That’s pretty much the fastest speed on the older shutters. To get that speed, you’ve got to expose wide open, and most large format lenses don’t render optimally wide open. In my case F5.6 is wide open, and it’s hard to get the picture sharp at the corners. They really need to be at F16, or better at F22.

JB: These are technical reasons. But the color palette, the aesthetic, certainly on those large prints, it reads as Hyperreal. Which to me kind of grounds it in the 21st Century, and makes them even better. The non-linearity of the land was just shocking, the way the water movement shapes the parcels for farming. Was that a project that you’ve always wanted to do, or was it the kind of thing where you were in Spain, you saw something, and it triggered an idea in your mind?

EB: All my work is research driven. When I started doing this Dryland Farming series, I was already working on the idea of water. I had just finished my Oil project, having spent twelve years, exploring that; at different times I’d go back to it, then do something else, take a year off, think about it, research some more, and go back to it.

I often work in chunks: research and then implementation. When I started looking at water, one of the key things staring me in the face was that, well, I’m not necessarily interested in water as Water per se, because that’s one big subject. We have oceans that cover two-thirds of the planet, and I’m not so interested in that part of the story, but I am interested in human intervention. How do we interact with water, and how do we re-shape and synthesize water into what we want it to be, into the various things that we need it to be.

When I started researching from that perspective things get fascinating, 70% of human water usage is in agriculture. So agriculture becomes a dominant theme within the research, to ask “where is agriculture done in conceptually and visually interesting ways? Where can I find that?”

So I started researching agriculture subjects, working with researchers here at my studio. We’ve looked at everything from California’s Imperial Valley, where they are using the Colorado River with aqueducts; to Dryland farming in the Monegros, Spain, a natural usage of available winter rainwater, where there’s no irrigation at all, so it’s one crop per year. And I was recently photographing near where you live; driving through New Mexico into the Texas panhandle, then flying over and photographing gigantic pivot agriculture systems that are drying out the aquifers.

These are examples of the very different ways in which humans intervene with water, but again, it’s all research driven. I’m looking to find the visual representation of various ideas in the landscape, and then allowing the ideas to push me to the place that needs to be photographed. I’m trying to find the form which best suits an aspect of the research, and for the most part, the best visual description of what we do with water cries for elevation. I need to get up above it to see it from a great height, because it’s often such a vast thing I’m looking for, that the point of view has to be from a bird’s eye view. That’s basically the way I’m developing the project.

JB: It leads to my next question. You talk about oil, you talk about water, you talk about research and planning, and yet sometimes a disaster can make an idea, or the intersection of two ideas, suddenly achievable. At the Howard Greenberg gallery, you had a few images, super-large scale, of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. There was a particular image, I think it was titled “Riptide,” where you could literally see the line between the encroaching Oil/Water, and what was presumably the water not yet polluted, which had a different color. They’re aerial, using copters or planes. One thing I was curious about was, certainly within the photo community, there’s this sense that with each new disaster, there’s a crew of guys, a slew of people sprinting there as fast as they can to be the first to document that particular scenario. That’s not the way you typically work. I wondered what that was like for you on the scene? Did you see any competition of photographers trying to get up in the air first? What it was like for you as an artist to witness the journalistic practice?

EB: I wasn’t necessarily separated, but I wasn’t trying to get my work out in AP or anything like that. That wasn’t my intention.

JB: Clearly. When you see the work, it was almost like it had to be. It fit so perfectly within the through-line of your work.

EB: You’re quite right to pick up on that. I had a foot in both worlds. I just finished up doing a twelve-year project about oil, which is traveling the world until 2013. And I’m three and a half years into a project on water. Almost two years ago, when the Gulf oil spill happened, both of these themes were present in one place. I don’t generally follow disasters or current events in that way. If I am photographing a disaster, it’s a slow, intentional incremental one. It’s not typically where a natural disaster kicked out, or one where something went horribly wrong. In the Macondo well, something went horribly wrong. I generally don’t go after that kind of subject, but in this case it involved the two liquids that we, as humans, engage with on a massive scale, and both were present. That’s something I rarely have a chance to witness, as an image-maker, where two big themes that I’m working with are suddenly come together in one landscape.

“Riptide,” the image you’re talking about, is actually where the water goes out, about eighty miles beyond the Mississippi, where the water streams into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s silted, so there’s a certain opaque tonality to the Mississippi water. The Gulf of Mexico is a clearer, and has an aquamarine-blue appearance. It’s where brackish water meets the salty ocean water of the Gulf. That particular intersection in the photograph is where these two different types of water are actually coalescing and blending together. The oil had found its path into that water too, so it was caught into the confluence of these two waters. The oil is being held in that tide, and that is one of the few places where I was actually able to see the oil. Mostly, no one was seeing it for days and days, because they were using dispersant. Deep down, something like 4000 feet down somewhere, they had a pipe that was blowing dispersant over the oil as it came up, and it was atomizing it. So the oil itself was never surfacing. This was one of the places where an oil mass made it to the surface.

JB: I had a really interesting reaction, standing in front of the print. As much as the world relies on jpegs, there’s really no substitute for the physical experience of being in front of a 40″x 60″ like that. It was one of the most disturbing, beautiful photographs I’d ever seen. It was so luscious and gorgeous, that for the first time as a viewer, I actually felt guilty about appreciating the magnificence of the photograph. It’s not subtle, why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, between the title and the visual. I felt like you took it to the outer edge of how to use the seductive power of beauty to get people paying attention. I don’t know if there’s a question in there, but obviously, you use aesthetics to draw people’s attention to these environmental disasters…

EB: What I’ve often said is that it follows, very much, a state of mind, collectively, that we’re all in. If I had to put a psychological term, on it, it’s that we’re all in a state of cognitive dissonance. In other words, we all know that the collective impacts the earth. You’d have to be pretty out of it to not have some sense that as a species, we’re having a profound effect on our planetary systems, water systems, air systems, the forest, life in the oceans. Everywhere you turn, humans are doing things on a large scale, and Nature is really getting the brunt of it, is being pushed back. So many of us know that this is happening. It’s getting harder to simply enjoy life, and go on, buy another car, fill your tank up with gas, take your favorite vacation down South in the Winter. Whatever it is you do.

Everything now is almost a guilty pleasure. Everything we do has consequence. So we live with the desire on one hand, to live a full life, and the consequence that we’re all having in that collective expression of Capitalism, and Democracy. These are two irreconcilable things. “

Cognitive dissonance” is when you tend to deny anything that contradicts what you want life to be. It’s also called “myside bias.” We accept any information that supports living life as usual, and not having to change our behavior is embraced, and anything that sounds like “Oh, I have to change my behavior if I want to be a good citizen,” we tend to shun. There is a kind of attraction/repulsion, but rather than deal with the repulsion, we tend to try to close it off. I think it’s societal, so in terms of a psychological state, it’s happening on a very big scale.

I think the work itself, that I do, also mirrors that dissonance. On one hand, we’re attracted to the image. The aesthetics are equivalent to the desire that we feel, the beauty we long for, yet once we come to terms with the fact of its subject matter, the content then puts us into a state of realization…”What’s that telling me?” It’s hard to feel good about what you’re seeing, because you know this is a disaster. It’s tragic.

JB: It’s great to hear you say that. I know I stumbled to even formulate a question there, but I’ve seen a lot of photographs in my day, and that sensibility really came across in your work. The use of structural metaphor in your practice, I think, is probably a big part of why you’ve achieved what you have. You used the word mirror, which is a great segue, because I had a question about that. There was some new work up at the Greenberg gallery that I’d never seen before, and I’m assuming most people haven’t seen it either.

You had a mini-exhibition within the gallery called the “Pentimento” portfolio, which were damaged, beaten up, aged-looking, black and white prints from the Bangladesh series. (The project where you photographed the ship yards where they deconstruct aging oil tankers.) I’ve seen those images in color, but these were black and white chromagenic prints, which left me curious.
It seemed like another case of structural metaphor, where the destruction in the print mirrored the destruction of the ships, which are taken apart by hand, piece by piece. Which is then a mirror for the destruction of the environment, with all the oil that seeps back into the water. Given that you’d gone so far out of your way to make a statement with your process, I thought that maybe you could talk about that for a moment. Did you intentionally trash those prints? Was it a digital manipulation?

EB: No, it wasn’t done intentionally, and it wasn’t done with the computer. This was in 2000-2001, so twelve years ago. Basically, what happened in that situation is that I usually shot Polaroid Type 55s to proof, and then colour neg. I was shooting 4×5 and I had to work quickly out there. I did have 8×10 along, but most of my work in Bangladesh was shot on 4×5. I could work faster using my Linhof. I could easily find infinite focus, it was a real extension of my way of seeing, and have the shot done quickly. To ensure that I had the image, I would always shoot a Type 55, and then I would inspect the negative for sharpness to make sure it could go up to 40×50 or 50×60 size. You have inspect those proofing negatives on site with a 10x magnifying loupe if you want to be sure that you’re going to be able to produce the prints back in the lab at home.

I was used to working with 10x loupes and 4×5 negatives, but in Bangladesh, I decided for the first time that I wanted to keep the black and white Polaroid negatives. The one’s just before I shot the final images. You have to place them on site in the sodium sulfite bath until you get back to the hotel at night, then wash them, and then hang them to dry, which I did, religiously every night during that entire shoot. I went there twice, and spent almost a month in that location. And then I went and did all the color negative work, and released the work. But all the Polaroids were in boxes, and I stored them where I keep all my negatives, in a safe at my lab in Toronto. I opened the boxes up three years later, and they were all fused together as a block. Basically because the moisture differential…

JB: The humidity in the air…

EB: Right, the humidity in Bangladesh was so high that they never really dried out, until they were in the safe and then they stuck together. So I kind of ripped them apart, and said, “Yikes, well that went wrong!” At the time I had an intern working for me and asked him to “make contact prints, because they’re kind of interesting. Let’s see what I got.” So contacts were made, and there were about a dozen that I found quite interesting.

When I made the black and white contacts, it seemed like these images were coming from a bygone age. When I was in the field in Bangladesh, I felt like I was getting the vision that Charles Dickens had at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or Blake’s reference to Satanic Mills, a dark workplace where everyone was in harm’s way. Environmentally, the place was a disaster, and a dangerous. It seemed like I was looking at what Industry might have been like 100 or 150 years ago, before safety regulations were in place, before human life was ever considered as something precious. Back then, if you got killed on a job too bad, you weren’t being careful enough, but that’s exactly how it was there in Bangladesh only ten years ago. If you didn’t survive the day, well, that was your own bad luck.

Ultimately, the actual tears were where one emulsion was transferred to the other emulsion. What you’re seeing is a black hole in the negative is where it’s emulsion came off, and a white area is the emulsion from another negative stuck to it. It was like clarity and resistance, in terms of light. To me, here was the distressed look of the negative of a distressed situation, distressed for the workers, distressed for the environment. The pictures seemed like they were made at beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So for all those reasons, I felt that there was enough aesthetic resonance in those images to release them as a suite—as a small portfolio of ten images with a book.

As for the title of this project Pentimento, it’s a term used painting. Basically, what it means is… let’s say you’re a court painter in the 17th Century, and you, or your patron didn’t like the person to the left side of the composition, or no longer wanted the dog in the foreground, or something like that. The artist would then hide it. It was still there, but painted over. They’ve actually been able to recover paintings under paintings, with technology today, with X-rays and all that. They can see the layering. For me, these photos were very much the image as it existed the minute before I took the final image that I released into the world. These were the images just behind the final rendering. So the idea of the pentimento is the idea of underpainting. The image just on the other side. If you see the book, you’ll see the image that I did, the Type 55 black and white Polaroid field proof, and then flip the page, and you see the colour image that ended up being released into the world—that was based on the field proof.

JB: We started the question with that idea of structural metaphor, and it does come through, the connection between destruction and destruction. When we talk about Climate Change, I went and visited the Greenberg exhibition in the middle of the eye-tooth of Saturday’s Nor’easter in New York. The October 30th snowstorm. It was madness.

Anyway, I recognize that I’ve probably gotten more of your time than I deserve, but I do have a question that I want to ask, because the article I wrote about my experience in Reno was just published today. I know that we discussed it a little bit when we met, but one of the really powerful things for me, as an artist, coming out of that conference, was the sense that we, the artists, the intellectuals, the intelligentsia, call us what you will, were all talking to each other in this modernist fishbowl, while the insanity of Reno, Nevada surrounded us. We keep hearing all this talk, from a political and economic standpoint about the 1% this and the 1% that, and I came away from the experience wondering how we, as artists, might try to expand the tent. To kind of grow the pool of people who do interact with contemporary art, who see what we make. As opposed to just preaching to ourselves.

You’ve worked in film, with “Manufactured Landscapes,” and you mentioned that you’re working on a new one. I know film can often have an audience that transcends. You’re a guy who has put your money where your mouth is for decades, working on political issues. I think many artists of my generation try to stay away from politics whenever possible. (little p) So I suppose the question is, do you often think about expanding the artist’s reach beyond the gallery and museum?

EB: I do try, by virtue of doing films, and I do a fair amount of interview and media work, radio and television, which gets it outside of the museum thing. But I try not to couch it in a political way. I think, particularly in America, politics has become terribly polarized. You’re either left or you’re right. The centralist is kind of dying out.

JB: Binary politics for a binary world. Zeroes and ones.

EB: That division seems to have become entrenched, quite negatively entrenched, because no one is listening to the other side anymore. I think both sides have valid points, but when people stop listening to each other, then it doesn’t lead to the proper outcomes and solutions that we need to have through policies and government actions, and through collective human actions.
That being said, I’m a firm believer that what we do with our environment is ultimately our habitat, and this is what provides us the conditions for life. When things go wrong with the water, when things go wrong with the air, it doesn’t select the left or the right, you know? When consequence comes home to roost, it doesn’t respect religion or politics. It hits us all equally, for the rich and the poor.

I don’t think it’s a political question. It’s more of a human, moral, ethical question. With the knowledge that we have today of what the human impact is, what are we doing about it? Whether you’re left or right, to me, is irrelevant. Do you believe that we’re having an impact? That’s question number one. If you don’t, then obviously you’re not looking at the data properly, because if you look at the data we’re clearly doing something big.

So the first thing is to accept that there’s a problem of collective human action on the planet. As an artist, helping to bring people to at least a point of accepting through visual evidence, of accepting that we can’t help but be having a collective impact on the natural resources of the planet. It’s undeniable that 90% of the large predatory fish have now been fished out of the ocean—the tunas and the sharks. This isn’t hypothetical, this is real. It’s not hypothetical that, like clockwork, we’re adding more carbon dioxide every year. It makes sense. Look at how much fossil fuel we’re burning every year. It can’t not have an effect.

At this point, with the amount of information that’s now in front of us, the whole notion of this issue being a debate is almost laughable. As artists, we can help visually, and intellectually make people understand that, at some point, we have to accept that it is our collective impact that is putting the whole planet in jeopardy. If you have children, how you feel about that problem is really a good place to start. Do you feel robbing your children of a future is something that is ethically and morally acceptable in present day society, with what we know?

JB: I couldn’t agree more. But I was just back in the suburbs of New Jersey, where I was raised, and I had a disturbing conversation with a family member, whom I love very much, but who’s pretty conservative. He admitted that there was no amount of information I could provide, there was no Harvard-backed study, there was no way I would change his mind about Climate Change. There was no information that anyone could present that would counterbalance the information that he gets from Fox News. He admitted that it didn’t matter what I said, it didn’t matter how many scientists believe X or Y or Z. So I love what you said, because I’m coming to believe that myself. That as artists, we have a facility with visual communication.

We have an understanding of metaphor and symbolic language. If we use our skill sets, and we try to present what we believe, and then we try to expand our audience beyond the black-clad gallery-goers in every major urban area… it’s almost incumbent upon us to try.

That was what I came away from Reno with. The consensus in the presentations and the visual evidence of destruction were there. So the next question that I had, and I didn’t hear a lot about this was, what do we do with this knowledge? We, the next generation of artists. So to be able to print your answer to my previous question is really powerful. It’s a question I have, and I hope other artists do as well. Clearly the line between art and propaganda…people have discussed it to death and we don’t want to cross that line. But I think that putting our beliefs and our passions and our knowledge into a visual structure is the very least that we can do. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but we’re presenting this interview for others to read. I’m kind of hoping perhaps to inspire some people to take some risks, and make work that has a higher reach for it’s potential impact.

OK, enough of my blather. This whole time we were speaking, I was addressing you as if you were an American, which you’re not. You’re Canadian. I feel like sometimes Americans, myself included, have a trouble seeing the distinction, other than knowing that every one of you guys lives North of us. I would imagine that someone at your level of success could be based wherever you choose, and you still live in Toronto. So I thought maybe you could talk a bit about the Toronto art scene, and why you’re based there?

EB: I was born in Canada, in St. Catharines, an hour away from here. I think 85% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the American border. We all cluster because it’s warmer. Most of Canada, if you think about it, we have more of a North-South relationship than an East-West trading relationship. We’re the largest trading partners on the planet. Generally speaking, we give you guys a lot of raw natural resources, and you process them, finish them, and sell them back to us at a markup.

JB: Gotta love it. Profit margin makes the world go around.

EB: (laughing) So that’s been our relationship in terms of Economics. But also culturally, American culture seeps over. Another commonwealth country is Australia, but it’s been able to keep a larger self-identity intact, because it’s way out there in the Pacific. But we’re kind of joined at the hip, so we’re always America-watching because as someone once pointed out, when you guys catch a cold, we get pneumonia. In today’s economy, it’s just the reverse. You guys got pneumonia and we just got a cold in terms of our banking systems and the collapse of the real estate market. Our real estate market is actually fine. But as to Toronto, it’s a great staging place. I have family here, and it’s an hour to New York, it’s an hour and twenty minutes to Chicago. I’m into the States at least once a month, sometimes twice. In October, I spent three weeks in the states and one week in Toronto. We know a lot more about the United States than the United States cares to know about us.

JB: I think we all assume that. So tell us what it’s really like? Do you guys have a hopping art scene? Should we encourage all those Northeast Americans to come check out Toronto? For me, it’s an abstraction.

I assume it’s a super-cool city, but I’ve never set foot there.

EB: Oh, I think Toronto has a killer art scene. We have the largest photo festival in the world, called CONTACT. It happens in the month of May. We just put together a Canadian photo prize with Scotiabank, one of the five big banks in Canada. It is for Canadian artists working with photography, and they win $50,000 cash, and they get a Steidl book, and an exhibition produced and shown during the CONTACT festival, and possibly travel as well. It’s a major award that we’ve now developed, and we’re into our second year involved with the bank.

There’s the Toronto International Film Festival, North America’s most popular, and second largest in the world. We also have a sizeable annual International Art Fair in Toronto, which has been a huge success. We’ve got galleries from 15 countries showing there. In terms of selling my photography, Toronto is by far my largest art market in the country, and always has been, for 25-30 years. Whatever I sell here is usually equivalent to all global sales of my work. So there’s a really enthusiastic collector market, and a very enthusiastic art market. And we just rebuilt the Art Gallery of Ontario. Frank Gehry did a whole new renovation on it. I’d say we’ve got a thriving scene here.

JB: I’m glad I asked. And as far as that prize goes, if I start saying “Eh” all the time and profess a love for hockey, can I qualify? Or do I need to show paperwork?

EB: You’re gonna have to show some paperwork.

JB: Damn. Well listen, I had one question that I forgot to ask, so I’ll just say it, but in the NY Times Sunday Magazine a week or so ago, they had an interview with the world’s foremost private submersible designer. These high-end, private, multi-million dollar submarines that are designed like airplanes. As the world’s resources run out, as a submarine designer, he was predicting a mad rush into the seas. Into that 70% of the Earth, for minerals and resources. In the future, everyone’s going to start hacking away at the seabed. So I had visions of you kind of working like that. It would be a natural extension for you to get underwater and start using these fancy toys.

EB: (smiling) I’m familiar with that, and the guys who are innovating all of that. It’s on my radar.

Susan Worsham Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: I thought you’d have an interesting take on the way photographers essentially have to have two careers: the getting it out there phase, and the making the work phase. In the last interview i did, Jesse Burke called it the “wheel of self-promotion.” He said “the wheel of self-promotion is always spinning.” I related to that. I know a lot of people relate to that. Right now, I feel like I’m trying as hard as I can to de-emphasize it and remind myself of why I do what I do. Of all the people I’ve talked to in the last few years, you seem to have your head on straight as to why you make work. So I thought maybe we could talk a bit about how you see your motivations as an artist.

Susan Worsham: Well, what you were saying about the “wheel of self-promotion?” I guess, I don’t even think about self-promotion. The contacts that I make are more based on me being me, and the people being them. It’s about natural connections, as opposed to trying to force a connection. My “By the Grace of God” series is about me going out into the world and making connections. Right now, the connections are not about making it, or getting ahead. It’s hard for me to explain.

JB: That’s OK. You said it right away. You don’t consider the “wheel of self-promotion.” You don’t care about it. I feel like of all my friends and colleagues, you’re the only one that when you say it, I believe it. That’s kind of why I wanted to talk about this. I feel like so many photographers, certainly fine art photographers, have gotten distracted by the 24/7, all encompassing noise of the Internet, and the blogosphere, and FB and Twitter. People put so much energy into the other that they lose track of the root causes of why we started making art to begin with. I thought that you might be able to share a little bit of your perspective on that.

SW: It all happened for me in a natural, one thing led to another way. At Review Santa Fe, the reason that I even went was that someone nominated me for the Santa Fe Prize, and I had to look up what that was. When someone nominates you for the Santa Fe Prize, you get to go to the portfolio review. And I’d never really heard of a portfolio review before. Someone that interviewed me recently asked me, “Are you really that naive?”

JB: Ouch.

SW: Yeah, but I wasn’t upset by it. I answered, “Yeah, in this case, with this particular subject, I am naive.” I don’t come from a publishing background, and I didn’t go to school for photography, so I’m not going to know everything that everyone knows. Frankly, none of that really matters to me. It’s the art that matters to me. But the reason that she asked if I was really that naive, to prepare for my first portfolio review, I had to google portfolio reviews to see what people brought. I saw that people were bringing what’s called “clamshell boxes,” so that was the first thing I did. I ordered myself a clamshell box. So I kind of feel like I’m just being me. And my art work is how I connect with the world, and how I get my feelings out. And that’s really mine.

JB: That’s what I wanted to talk about. I gave a lecture yesterday at UNM, in Albuquerque. At the end of class, the professor, Jim Stone, asked what advice I would give the students. I said “Don’t do this because you want to make money or get famous. It’s too hard and too degrading.” The business aspects of what we do, even when things are going well, it always feels like a crapshoot. So if that’s why you want to be a photographer, my advice was clear. “Do something else. If you want to be famous, try to get on television. Make work because you have to, because it’s a part of who you are, and if these things don’t come out as art, they come out as insanity or kicking a dog.” That’s where it comes from for me. I wouldn’t have dealt with 15 years of rejection by choice.

SW: I recently had a younger photographer email me, and say she was in my city and could we meet. So I said sure. I always feel a connection to other photographers, because we share a passion. She said, “You’re all over the place right now. How did you get that?” I said, “Gosh, I’ve been taking photographs for at least 20 years.” It’s not something that just comes all of a sudden. You make work that’s important to you, and at some point, someone is going to see it. I just don’t think about money, when I’m thinking about photography. When I leave my house, and I’m in my car, and the lighting is just amazing, and it’s hitting someone’s back yard, I freak out. I just follow that beautiful light. That’s what inspires me. It’s really simple.

JB: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, because I know it can be tough to talk about.. As photographers, we’re primarily visual communicators. But when you’re out there shooting, do you feel like you’re actively looking for something, or you’re waiting to find something?

SW: One of the things that’s funny is that when I go up to people, and I ask if I can take their photograph, sometimes I explain that I’m doing this series called “By the Grace of God,” and it’s kind of just like this. I’m meeting you right here, this light is beautiful. It’s not like it’s a religious thing. I find myself often having to explain that I’m not a crazy nutbag religious person.

JB: (laughing) Did you say nutbag? Because I want to keep that. You better not make me cut nutbag, because that’s too good.

SW: No, no, no. Nutbag is fine.

JB: Excellent.

SW: Sometimes the title of the series helps. I actually walked into what I thought was an abandoned dilapidated church, right into a small service. I ended up standing up and talking about my project, and even got a few hallelujahs. I’m definitely a talker, but when you put me in front of a group of people I tend to freeze. And it’s funny that the first time I stood up and talked about the work was to a non photography crowd in a church service. I believe in a higher power. I am not someone who goes to church all of the time, or even reads the bible all the time. It’s more of just this feeling inside, when I’m taking photographs. It’s following what’s in my heart. Now that I’m older…… Let me give you an example. I used to be in my car, or even out walking, and see something and say, “ Wow. That’s awesome. I’d love to take a photograph of that.” And I wouldn’t stop. Now it seems like I’m listening to myself more, and I’m stopping and taking the time to follow what just made me really excited. Why extinguish that and keep on driving? Why not go ahead and turn down that road, and then usually when I do, and I take out my camera, and I meet someone, it seems like I was supposed to turn down that road and look at this beautiful thing that happened.

JB: When you say, “Why not stop?” I think it’s a great way to cycle back. I think a lot of people don’t stop because they don’t have the time to stop, or because they’re staring at their Iphone, and they don’t see it to begin with. I’m the last guy to be critical of anyone who tries to navigate the system, because certainly I have. But at the same time, within the last few months, I’ve just been pushing myself again and again to be more patient and to take more time. Through our past conversations, I feel like you’ve inspired me to reconnect to that. So…

SW: I’m going to interrupt and talk about patience for a minute. Gosh, patience? I have a lot of patience.

JB: I know. I feel like most people have a problem with it. I don’t think I’ve gotten my mind around how to be patient until very recently. I’m still learning.

SW: I’m actually still learning too. Sometimes, I have to wait a year. I often photograph one of my oldest neighbors, Margaret Daniel. All my family’s gone, and she’s my oldest neighbor from my childhood street, Bostwick Lane. She still lives at the top of it. I photograph her a lot. I’ll give you a bit of background story on her. I was in her basement, and there were all these boxes. They were labeled by the years. So I went upstairs and said, “Margaret, what are all the boxes in the basement?” And she said, “Well, honey, those are my walnuts.” It turns out that she collects walnuts as they fall from her tree, and labels them by the year they fell. It’s since been a very big part of my work with her. One day she was eating walnuts from her parents’ tree that she had brought with her. I call it a dowry of sorts. One fell, and made a tree. Now, it’s 50 or so years later, and that tree is just huge, taller than any house on Bostwick Lane. But the interesting thing about Margaret, and the funny thing is now I forget what the question was… but patience. That’s what we were getting to.

So I really wanted to photograph Margaret. I call her my Black Walnut Bride. I wanted to get photographs of her walnuts, and I had to wait, I would say two years. I said, “Margaret, tell me when the walnuts are going to come. Tell me when the walnuts are going to come.” And she was like, “Honey, the tree was barren this year. That happens every so often.” And so I didn’t get to photograph them, and I was quite upset about it. Now this year, they are plentiful, and I have had to go and help her collect them every day to where my back hurts after picking them up for hours. And we’ve made a walnut bed in her garden. Another metaphor. The woman is rich with metaphors. And she told me, “Honey, we’re going to make a walnut bed. Collect them and put them over there in the garden.” And so that’s the patience that I’ve had to learn, to wait two years for the walnuts to come. But they’re such a big part of her, and now of me.

You know, waiting is fine. You can go off and take other photographs. I don’t consider a series quite finished yet. A lot of people probably think that my “Some Fox Trail in Virginia” project is finished, but I’m going to go on and photograph Margaret, probably, until she is gone. That would be when that series would end.

JB: I didn’t realize the project was still in progress, but when I went to your website, I saw images from “Some Fox Trails” that I hadn’t seen before. When we talk about patience, I feel like everyone else is going in the other direction. There’s this pressure from the outside world that people feel to come out with the next project. To tie a bow around something. To have the book done. I feel like when we get caught up in that, it takes us away from the things that motivate us to make our best work: the quest for knowledge and the desire to improve. We need to kind move around and sit down into something, and I find that of all the people I know, you seem to understand that on an intuitive level. You’re patient with people. You listen. Certainly, I could be accused of loving to talk. But often I try to remind myself that we learn more, and we find the good stuff when we listen.

SW: Exactly. Getting back to Margaret’s walnut bed, to me, the metaphors that come every time I photograph her, the work is getting stronger, and I’m getting stronger as an artist. Just spending time with her. She’s very old, and I know she’s going to pass. I don’t know how long I have with her. The walnut bed, when I look at it, enables me to deal with death. I use a lot of metaphor in my work, and I’ve begun to see the world in metaphors. So when I go to her yard, and see that mound of earth covered in walnuts, she’s not only my Walnut Bride, but that becomes her Walnut Deathbed. In photographing her, she’s helping me come to terms with death, or deal with death, in kind of a poetic way.

My brother was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. On his first visit home, he took his life. He just wasn’t a person who could live without the use of his legs. Margaret Daniel was the last person to see him alive. She had made him his favorite, which was her homemade bread. When I was photographing her for the very first time, she told me the story of his last day. She brought him his favorite bread, and she took it up the stairs, and she buttered it for him. He kept on saying, “Margaret, can you bring me some more bread?” She said, “Susan, he finished the whole loaf.” Then my mom and Margaret went for a walk. When they came back, he had shot himself, and then died shortly thereafter. So the metaphor of that being his last supper. I don’t know if a lot of people know that’s one of the reasons why I concentrate on Margaret, because she’s the last person to see my brother alive, she’s the last of my family, since my family’s passed. It’s all getting connected for me now.

JB: I know this might sound crazy, but I went through your whole website, and the one photograph that I kept up on my screen to talk about, that I’m looking at right now, is the photograph called “Risen,” the freshly baked loaves of bread on the countertop. Of the 150 pictures on your site, that’s the picture that stuck with me. I had no idea of the backstory, and I had no idea that it was your brother’s last meal.

SW: I’m a little shocked. Not knowing the story behind it. Sometimes I think someone might think that was a boring photograph. But for me it has so much meaning.

JB: But the title…let’s sit here one more second. The title: Risen. We see the loaves of bread. And there’s this glowing light. The title has all those spiritual connotations. So between all that, it felt to me like there was really a lot more there. You have a very sharp lens on your 4×5, but there’s always a sense to me that you have a very insightful eye. To me, there was a story here, and I didn’t know what it was. I’m looking at the photograph right now.

SW: There’s always a lot more there. I’m finding out a lot about myself, through the series, and in turn, when I work on “By the Grace of God,” it allows me to get that close with other people.

JB: Whether you’re shooting in Syracuse, New York, or at home in the South, your stomping grounds, whether people are white or they’re black, time and again, no matter what class people come from, or their background, you manage to find a grace and a dignity and a respect. When I see that, that you’re depicting people with respect, then I make this mental assumption that’s how it works on the street. That you meet people, young or old, and they sense that respect, and it creates a rapport. It’s not like, “Hey, there’s a freak, let’s take their picture, and it will be freaky, and then we’ll sell that picture for $10,000.”

SW: I have a little story. I used to go play pool a lot. I met this older black gentleman. His name was Larry, and he was kind of a pool hustler. Larry would put a quarter down on the side of the table while I was playing, and tell me to aim for the coin. I would get four balls in with one shot. He was a very interesting character, and one day Parliament was playing on the jukebox.

JB: P-Funk? George Clinton?

SW: Yeah, P-Funk. So he asked if I liked that, and I said “Yeah.” He told me that he used to dance for Parliament, and they called him the Rubber Band Man. I believe there is a song about him by another band. Now I always believed Larry. He was someone that actually taught me a lot about patience, and reading people. He worked at Tysons Chicken Farm and everyday after work he would ride his bike up to play pool. And I hung out with him quite a lot. So here is this guy, working at a chicken farm in Virginia who travelled the world with George Clinton. I don’t think he even had a phone, but he told me he still had a closet full of fancy costumes. That’s life. That’s how it works. But none of my friends believed he was the Rubber Band Man. I remember once I was outside, and I was talking to Larry. A drunk guy stumbled up with a bottle in a paper bag. He was like “That’s the Rubber Band Man. Do you know who that is? That’s the Rubber Band Man. How do you get to be talking to the Rubber Band Man?”

And that’s kind of how my life works. I wasn’t taking photos at the time. There are just so many stories, and so many special people out there. Everyone has a story. What I’m coming to terms with now is the patience that you talk about. I can’t take all the pictures that I want to take.

JB: There are a million different people out there making pictures a million different ways, but we can only talk about what we know. Irrespective of the fact that you place all the value on the process and not the business aspect, fortunately the world has come to respect your work. You’ve wona book award from Blurb, you’ve had a slew of exhibitions, including the recent Lishui Photo Festival, you had an artist residency at Light Work in Syracuse, and in 2011 you were chosen as a member of the PDN 30. There seems to be a lot of mystique around that list. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about what impact, if any, it’s had on your career?

SW: I remember me and another person that got the PDN this year talked on the phone, and talked about how we weren’t sure if we were doing everything that we should be doing with that award. I think the year that you’re PDN 30 is the year that you’re supposed to use that. That’s your chance to get appointments with galleries, and do that sort of thing. You know, network more because you have that behind you. We didn’t know if we were actually doing that. Because… I don’t know…I use natural light and an old view camera. So it’s hard for me to start doing commercial work. I guess we were both feeling bad, like, “I haven’t done anything with it, what about you?” This is the time we should be doing it. For a commercial photographer, the Photo District News award is amazing, because you immediately are going to have so many people looking at your work, and maybe giving you jobs because of that. Which is wonderful. I wasn’t at the point to take any of those jobs, because again, I use a view camera and natural light. So it would take quite a while for me to develop and then scan, and give a photo shoot back to someone. I think I got Fraction Magazine because of PDN 30, though I don’t know if that came before.

JB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the South. Out of high school, I went to college at Duke in North Carolina. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I could have spent three and a half years in Durham, North Carolina and learned, essentially, nothing about the South. I probably didn’t leave campus very often. I had hush puppies at least ten times. The sweet tea was good. But I can’t believe I squandered the opportunity. You were just included in an exhibition at the Danville Museum in Virginia as a Southern Photographer. People tend to relate to a lyricism and romanticism and sense of visual literature, when it comes to the South.There is a sense of place that is so deeply rooted in your work. It’s a place that I think a lot of people are fascinated by. Certainly since the Civil War. You probably just see yourself as Susan, but what’s your take on that?

SW: That’s the weird thing. Now, I’m beginning to see it a little. Really, when you say sense of place, a sense of home. Everything I’m doing in my work lends itself for people to say, “Oh, it’s very Southern.” But really it’s just me. Often, when I photograph a backyard that’s dripping with overgrown weeds, with an old rusted swing set, to me I immediately see that and I see it as a graveyard of my childhood. A family that lived in that house and is now gone, the children have all gone off to school. I just recently went to my childhood home, last week in fact, and noticed that the kudzu was completely overgrown. Every time I go back it was just growing more and more because the house is deserted right now. So all of the things that I am using to represent life and death and memory and past. It all happens to just lend itself. I don’t think too much about being a Southern photographer. When I do went to my artist-in-residence at Light Work, I had a few days to take my camera out where I wasn’t working on my computer. Maybe four. And the photographs that I did get, people told me, “Wow. Somehow you made Syracuse look like the South.” To me, it just means that going around with my camera to places that I wanted to photograph are the places that reminded me of home. You know?

JB: And what was it like to be included in your first major museum exhibition at home in Virginia?

SW: I’m having a very Cinderella moment. Earlier, when you talked about the Danville Museum show, when I was at Light Work, Elijah Gowin happened to be coming through just for like two hours. I had told someone that I wanted to get a wedding ring portrait of some of the first Virginia photographers whose work that I saw, and maybe Elijah Gowin also. It was a big coincidence, but I got to know him a bit.

Not too long after, I got an email from a curator at the Danville Museum in Virginia. He said “Elijah came home at Christmas time, and showed me your work.” Apparently, he really liked it. He asked me if I wanted to be in a show with Emmet Gowin and Elijah, and Jeff Whetstone, all of these photographers whose work that I knew. And it was funny because they were all academics. They all taught at Universities. So when I went to the opening, I was the waitress. So that’s the stuff that is neat in my life. I can be hanging in a museum show, with all of these important photographers, and I’m a waitress.

Susan Worsham is a Richmond, Virginia based artist. She recently exhibited her photographs in the Lishui Photo Festival in China. To see more of her work, visit www.susanworshamphotography.com.

Bob Dylan’s Unoriginal Paintings

- - Art, copyright

Seems that the Gagosian Gallery of Cariou v. Prince fame can’t stay away from artists using photography to make their art. This time it’s Bob Dylan who takes photographs, repaints them and then claims they are “firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape.” How about secondhand Bob:

Read more at the NYTimes.com and ArtInfo.com.

Jesse Burke Interview

- - Art, Photographers

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan: For good or for bad, I think it’s helpful to start at the beginning. I haven’t yet gotten into the Tarantino-style, Reservoir Dogs-type narrative. So how did you get started? How did your photography practice begin?

Jesse: I got started as a skateboard photographer in Tucson, Arizona. I grew up in Connecticut, and then I moved out to Tucson to get away from the East Coast in my early 20’s. I took a photo class at a community college because it sounded fun and I needed to fill credits. Then I piggy-backed that onto my skateboard lifestyle, which was something that I’d been doing for ten years or so at least. It was a natural progression to start documenting the lifestyle, the social things that were happening with my friends, and the action shots, us hanging out, all that stuff.

So how did you end up in Tucson, of all the places you could go?

With the skateboard community, it’s so tight, everyone sticks together. So one guy followed the first guy, I followed the next guy, then a couple of guys followed me, and a couple of guys followed them. Before we knew it, there were a lot of Connecticut transplants in Tucson. I took a class, and quickly found it was something that I was interested in. I’d always been into art, but nothing so formal as a college course. That was it. I was hooked immediately, transferred to U of A, where I found a photo community and a whole different world. I got really serious about it. I was a bit older already, when I started to attend University of Arizona. I was probably 26 or 27, so I was older than the average undergrad BFA student.

Did they call you Grandpa Jesse?

No. My youthful demeanor kept that a secret, I guess.

Really? Did everybody make you buy them beer? That’s the obvious question.

No. No.

No laws were broken.

I got a late start on a lot of things. I had the 15 year plan for college. It took a long time for me to get my act together. Once I found photography, I had a really good support system with my teachers at the U of A.

Do you want to give any shout outs right here?

Sure. Joe Labate and Ken Shorr.

These were your professors?

Yeah, they were really encouraging. And they could tell I was really serious about it. I had found something in my life, finally. Everybody’s looking for something that’s going to make them happy, something to pursue, whether it’s biology or medicine or law. Mine just so happened to be photography, and I found it in this sort of flukey way. They could tell that I was very serious, and I decided in my senior year that I was ready to go to graduate school. I had just started getting serious a couple of years earlier, and since I was a transfer student, I knew that it wasn’t the time to take a break and think about grad school, but to really seize it. And I just went for it, and they were totally supportive and helped me out. That led me back East to RISD.

And that’s where you got an MFA?

Yeah.

I bet you spend a lot of time on blogs and the Flak Photo Network, and I know I do. I feel like, on a regular basis, you see photographers asking questions like, “Should I get an MFA? What’s the point? What am I going to get out of it? Is it worth the money?” Things like that. I went to Pratt and you went to RISD. We both did get the degree. We both started late. I mean, listening to your background, it’s pretty similar to mine. Especially the East Coast moving West. You went from Connecticut to Arizona, I went Jersey to New Mexico. Not that different. So if someone asked you point blank, “Should I get an MFA? Is it worth the money? What will I get out of it?” what would your answer be?

People go to graduate school for various reasons, but two of them stand out to me. One is because they want to be an artist. And the other is because they want to be a teacher. In my case, I always wanted to be a visual artist. Teaching wasn’t even something that I’d considered, or was aware of, really, when I was applying to grad schools. For me, it was all about visual communication, and pushing that further. If you have an inclination to take a chunk of your life and a chunk of your money…I think of graduate school as a business decision. It was the first major business decision that I made. It’s so incredibly expensive in terms of finances and emotion and time commitment. If you’re ready to make that decision, then graduate school can be incredibly beneficial. It gives you a time to focus on just your artwork, where you don’t have to worry, (hopefully) about the other things in life, like having a job to pay the bills. It just depends on how you set up your system when you get to graduate school.

I knew that I needed time to work on a project. Similar to what you probably experienced, relocating from the East Coast to the West Coast is quite the culture shock. So I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into, relocating back home, to undertake a new life, with a goal of becoming a photographer. Everything I knew about photography was based in the desert of Tucson, so when I came home it was a little bit risky. Getting back to your question, “What do you get out of it?”, I think one can spend a serious chunk of time dedicated to a project, where there are no distractions. Part of what you’ll get is working in a very tight, serious community of professors and peers. You learn from other photographers, who hopefully have the same level of seriousness that you have. That’s one of the very few places where you can ever do something like that. It doesn’t happen so much in undergrad, because people are distracted, there’s a lot more going on. I think graduate school is serious business.

Do you need a graduate degree to become a good photographer? No. To be successful, or famous? Not necessarily. I certainly think it can help in many ways. It makes you a better photographer, a smarter individual, more worldly, more experienced. So all of those things will help you in your life, and your photo career.

So is it safe to say, you don’t think you’d be the artist you are or have the career you’re having if you hadn’t taken the time to get the degree?

In my case, absolutely not. Going to graduate school was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I would say the same thing. And am I right that you teach at RISD?

I do.

I want to get back to that in a second. When I go back and look, so many of the people that went to school with me are now not practicing artists, that I’m aware of. It seems like it’s an interesting conundrum. It costs so much money to get these degrees, and they can be a pathway. But some times, I wonder what happens to people who invest all that time and energy, and then go on to do something else. What’s your take on that?

Most of my friends, at this point, are either high school friends, skateboarder buddies from the past, or people I met in grad school. The majority of them didn’t continue down this path. There are so many elements involved. Some people can’t hang with how tough it is. It’s incredibly hard to keep that self-promotion wheel spinning non-stop. Not to mention coming up with interesting and meaningful work. Getting into grad school is one part of it. Getting out of grad school is the second part. Maintaining that would be a third part. Not everybody’s cut out for it. A lot of people still work in the photo industry or arts industry in some fashion. I’m not sure exactly what happens, but life takes over. Once you get out of the proverbial nest of graduate school, it’s a lot tougher to make your way through it when you’re in reality. Let’s be honest. When you’re in this cushy situation in graduate school, where you don’t have to think about real life, I didn’t have kids at the time. I had a wife, and she’s very supportive, but we didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have two car payments. This industry does not allow an easy segue from grad school into success, whatever success means. Shooting jobs? Having shows? Coming up with ideas? Something as simple as having a critique of your work just immediately disappears. Having that structured support system disappears too.

I want to come back to this idea of real life, and reality, because it’s an interesting through line in your artwork. But while we’re on the subject of RISD, what classes do you teach?

I only teach one class at RISD. My schedule is kind of hectic, so I’ve never really been a serious multi-course adjunct professor. I teach “Introduction to Photography for Non-Majors,” which is a really amazing course, because I’m teaching photography to people who are not going to be photographers. Architects, painters, lots of students from Brown University.

So you’ve got to be focusing on visual communication as much as anything?

Exactly. Why photography matters. What can you say with a photograph. Why is photography important?

Dude, you just opened it up. There it is. There’s my next question. Why is photography important?

We have this final project, it’s called “What’s important to you?” What I try to get across to them, when they leave my class, (beyond black and white analog skills for developing and printing film and a little bit of digital input) is understanding that the world is a dynamic and amazing place. Everybody’s story is important and that people care about each other’s stories. So what I try to stress is that what’s important to you is also important to me. I try to focus on having them figure out a way to share their personal interest, and things that are important to them, in a dynamic way to the world. Hopefully they’ll leave the class being a better architect, or a better language studies student because they can see how visual culture and photography help make the world go around. It helps them get their message across, whatever their message is, in a smarter, better, more visual way.

Cool. As far as I understand it, you shoot commercially, editorially, you shoot as a fine artist, and you teach. That, to me, sounds like the 21st Century Hustle. That’s it. It’s a little bit of everything, shake it up, and hopefully a few things are going to pop at any given time. How do you get it all done? How do you keep the balance?

I have to say, that has always been my end goal. I think that’s not true for a lot of people in the art world. They don’t want to shoot commercially. Obviously, a lot of commercial photographers aren’t interested in the gallery world. I’ve always felt that there’s been such an overlap, in terms of my photographic world, my married family life, what I like to do in my free time, what I’m interested in. All of those things overlap. My interest in academics. RISD in particular. All those things, for me, were always related. So I approached my career, even early on, from the standpoint that this is what I wanted to make happen. I wanted to have a gallery. I wanted to have a commercial agent and shoot cool jobs that related to my artwork. And then I wanted to teach a little bit to stay tapped into that academic world. I agree with you 100% that it seems to be the 21st Century Hustle, as you put it. I like that. Ultimately, it’s a really difficult balancing act. Inevitably, one takes precedence over the others.

Is that how it works for you? Does your commercial work make up the bulk of your income? Is it broken down into thirds? You mentioned two kids, two car payments. Let’s be honest. You’re living on the East Coast. That adds up. So how does it work?

Sure. Well, I will say I have a very awesome, supportive wife who has a regular 9-5 job. Without her, I don’t know if this would be possible, this freelance existence. In terms of breakdown for finances, I would say that commercial jobs make up most of my income. I sell some work through my galleries, and then RISD pays my teaching salary for one course. Which isn’t much across the board across the country. Just to be clear, I teach because I love it, not because of finances. I would do it for free if I had to, because it’s just that enriching to me. And I schedule enough time out for teaching because it adds a lot for me, and I’m giving back to the community. I think the biggest struggle, inevitably, in doing something like this, is balancing the schedule. The schedule gets really tricky. You need to have availability for commercial assignments, which means you could fly out the next morning. And then you have to be accountable to teach your class, every Monday, when you’re supposed to be there at 1pm. It can get a little crazy, but I think where there’s a will there’s a way. So for me, it’s a combination of financial reasons, but also passion that makes me keep this crazy freelance thing going.

Did your experience as a fine artist help enable to you make the jump into the commercial world?

Yes. As you go through your career and your life, as a photographer, I keep going back to this, but it’s a business thing. I think a lot of people don’t approach it from the perspective of “This is serious business.” Even your art career. Sure, you’re out in the middle of the woods, photographing dogs running around, or whatever it is you’re doing, but when you get back to the studio, it’s a business. I think you have to be smart about certain things. And approach them from certain angles where you can benefit the best. I knew that I wanted to be serious about commercial photography, and I felt that my work had enough of an overlap into the commercial market, and modern pop culture, that I thought I could do pretty well in terms of editorial and advertising photography. So I was really aggressive finding an agent. When I finally reached the goal of getting acquired by a New York gallery and having a solo show, I used that as a launching pad to find a commercial agent. This is just something that I thought was common sense. You’re having your first exhibition. This is your first foray into the real art world in New York City. Why not try to use that to catapult yourself in this other part of your career? It worked out, luckily for me. When I called and emailed people, they actually responded. Would that have happened if I hadn’t started the conversation by saying that I was having an exhibition in Chelsea? Maybe not. I think that’s just the reality of it.

That’s in the summer of 2010. You had a solo show for your project “Intertidal” at ClampArt. Coincidentally, I happened to be in New York that night and had the chance to come check it out. The place was thumping. So you were very strategic in the way you tried to leverage the exhibition as an opportunity to market yourself in the commercial world. I think that’s pretty interesting.

Yeah, I knew that this was a moment that I needed to capitalize on. I just knew, for me, that it was the first time that I thought it made sense to approach so and so and to try to make the most of my commercial potential, because of the gallery. And I found that I got a much better response than I actually anticipated. Due in part, absolutely, to having this exhibition. All of a sudden I had options.

Did you, in the end, benefit more through commercial connections through the show, or through selling prints in the show. Let’s talk about that. People want shows. That’s a given. But I think in 2011, people are starting to ask questions about production costs, and framing, and can I make my investment back? So it sounds like this is a great thing to know.

Yeah, sure. Both, maybe a bit more on the commercial end. But it’s a complicated question.

I know that. Look, to me it seemed like a positive way to ask what might have been a negative question. I can ask you “Did you make your money back from your show,” and you’re going to answer honestly or not. But before we even get there, you’re talking about the fact that you had a show and that got you work. So you’re telling us that having the experience of the big solo show in Chelsea automatically had a huge impact on your career. So it becomes less about feeling the pressure to sell the work off the wall. Is that a fair assumption?

The real question is, was it a worthwhile investment? Absolutely. I wouldn’t say that it had an immediate massive impact; it’s a building process. The thing that shocked me most about my career, that continues to shock me, is that you set these milestones for yourself. I’ve got to get a gallery in Chelsea. I have to get a book deal. I have to get an agent. I think those are difficult, serious, but “it makes perfect sense” type of goals. So I think the idea that I’m going to have an exhibition in Chelsea and that’s it, or I’m going to be in the Whitney Biennial and that’s it? Forget it. That’s not how it works. And I think a lot of people, myself included early on, didn’t understand exactly how much of an investment in terms of time and money all this stuff really takes. The end goals are still there.

Also, I have to say that I was really particular in my pursuit of the gallery. That’s a whole separate story, but back in the day, before I was exhibiting with ClampArt, I knew it was the right gallery for me for a lot of reasons. I just had to convince Brian, and introduce myself to him. That’s obviously the difficult part. But in terms of the show and a financial investment, it’s a serious chunk of change to have 30 pieces framed and exhibited anywhere. I think of that stuff as a personal business loan to myself, because that exhibition has an infinite ripple effect into my career many years later. The exhibition at ClampArt open opened up many opportunities for me in the commercial world as well. I’m working with i2i, in part, as a result of my exhibition. Lizzie, my agent, even said that to me. It certainly helped. I think that’s just the nature of the beast. And I accept that, and have no issues with it whatsoever.

It just so happens, other things from that exhibition also came to fruition. Things that are much more important to me than art sales, such as the inclusion in the “Truth is Not in the Mirror” exhibition at the Haggerty Museum (and Fraction Magazine). That’s directly because of my ClampArt exhibition. That’s the kind of thing that I don’t think I can put a financial price tag on, being included in a show that traveled, and had that much clout and respect when it was happening at the time. And showing beside some of my photo heroes, that’s not something that I could put into monetary consideration.

So it sounds like you’re really taking the long view instead of the short view.

You know, I think that’s really the only view, as far as I’m concerned. Because if you have the short-term mentality, you’ll quickly find out that it most likely won’t pan out for you.

So maybe that’s a lesson we could share with, I don’t know, the entirely of Corporate America?

[laughing] Right.

So we just decided that the entire structure of the US Equity Market is wrong.

Right. Basically.

Basically. Can we do something about that? What do you think? Should we just fix it?

I don’t think so, man. Money talks.

You don’t think we could fix it? Just like that? Make a call?

Not two photo guys.

No. Probably not. Well, we’ll set that one aside for now. So listen. All this talk about business, it has a purpose, but we haven’t really talked about art. So why don’t we shift gears a little bit. In the beginning, you brought us back to skateboarder culture, and we can all imagine you cracking your head on some concrete in Tucson. Because Lord knows they have a lot of concrete in Arizona. But now, let’s talk about the project that you showed in New York. Let’s talk about “Intertidal.” How would you talk about what your work is?

“Intertidal,” for me, was something that came out of nowhere, actually. When I agreed to take up my MFA at RISD, I knew that I was moving home, so to speak, to New England. I grew up in Connecticut, RISD is in Rhode Island, which neighbors Connecticut, so in a sense, I was going back home to my family and friends. But I’d been gone for 10 years, and in that time gap, I became a visual artist. It was culture shock for me to get back to the East Coast, in a photographic way. I sort of stumbled into this project by accident. I had always been photographing my skateboarder buddies, and an exploration of who we were as skaters. But I left that behind in Tucson, and became a serious, full-time student. Neither grad school nor my body allowed me much time for skateboarding, so I just started photographing. And the only thing that I knew how to do was photograph what I consider part of who I was, my world. I just applied that formula that I had started in Tucson to my family within New England. I started to really scrutinize, through the guidance I had in grad school, what I was doing. And what exactly was I doing? And what exactly were these pictures of?

Drinking.

Drinking…drinking is part of it.

More specifically, drinking beer.

Coincidentally, I wasn’t. But drinking beer was really interesting to me, because I came from a family of heavy drinkers. Drinking was something that I knew a lot about, in a way, but didn’t as well, because I wasn’t really part of that. It’s part of why “Intertidal” came to be. Initially, I was exploring the differences between what I perceived as my identity as a man, and how I perceived my family, my father, my grandfathers, my friends, and the rest of the typical New England male archetypes. The fisherman. The logger. The blue-collar worker. These were things I didn’t really know much about, because I took off when I was in my early 20’s. And grew up into adulthood away from my family, away from this New England identity. So when I came home, I was initially exploring the differences between them and me. So inevitably, I became more familiar with my history, with their history. And then I started to explore the notions of masculinity. And that’s where “Intertidal” ended up at, it was an exploration of the typical ideas of masculinity versus the reality of being male. So this is where the drinking beer thing kind of gets funny, because beer and a lot of things, such as the forest, hunting, shooting guns, strength, these are all just vehicles for me to talk about what I’m interested in. Not necessarily participate in. You know what I mean?

It makes a lot of sense. It’s actually where I wanted to get to. We talk a lot about reality, which we were mentioning before. When we look at this work, and I like it a lot, you’re in the work. You’re in the work drinking. You’re friends are in the work, drinking. You’ve also got images of your daughter in a separate project. You’re willing to put yourself and your family in front of the camera. So that makes me ask questions like, “Is this even trying to be real?” I some times feel, when I’m looking at these portraits of you, that I’m seeing a character. And that they’re not even meant to be the “real Jesse Burke.” It’s a fictionalized narrative. Is that a read that you’re comfortable with?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s part of the truth behind the photographs. I think it’s important to realize that all of this work is a production. This isn’t candid photography. Not the landscapes, per se, but a lot of the portraits. It’s all staged. It’s all very conceptual in my head. This isn’t me following my dad around, documenting what he does. This is me having an idea about how I perceive my father, and then having him fill that role, whether or not it’s true.

That’s what I thought. One of the things that I’m wondering: we talk about masculinity, and I read a quote of yours that I have right here, where you see a world where “blood and sweat mix with sunsets and snowdrifts.” We’re past the metrosexual phase. People don’t even use that word anymore. So I’m curious. A lot of the portraits you take are of shirtless men. So my question is, when you show a fine art portrait of a semi-naked man to a logger or a fisherman, to some of your friends who don’t come from the art world, what reaction do you get?

It’s an interesting question. I don’t think I get any reaction. Ultimately, my family members don’t give me an involved, dedicated response to the work. Going back to the beginnings of this project, which is “Who am I? Why am I this artsy guy in a family of not-so-artsy guys?” I didn’t expect a big response from them, or the public, or “normal” guys. I just started making these pictures that I thought were fun, and talked about these ideas that I was interested in. Inevitably, what happens is they don’t really question it. They just sort of go, “OK. It makes sense.” I think the fact that the art and photo worlds have been gracious in giving me some attention, and some exhibitions, and a book, I think that gives it validity to people that don’t necessarily follow conceptual photography, or fine art photography. I mean, let’s be honest, who are we making this work for, besides ourselves. Who’s the market? Who’s going to buy it? Who’s going to display it? Who wants to buy my book? It’s certainly not the average Joe Schmo who works in Boston. I understood that I was getting into an elitist culture, and that wasn’t an issue for me, but I knew the art world is like that. And I could have some backlash from these people. Luckily I haven’t. But I have a really hard time answering the question of “How do they respond to the work?” because quite honestly, I don’t know. We’ve talked about it, but I don’t have a thorough understanding of how my uncles read my work.

Actually, I would disagree. I think it’s a good, honest answer. Look. We could spin off and talk all day about the marginalization and elitism of art within mainstream culture. We could. But I don’t know we would ultimately tell anyone anything they don’t already know. So let’s move along. One of the things that’s crucial to me as an artist is seeking great input. When I write these articles about going to look at art, I would be going to look at art anyway. I believe the better the input, the better the things that we see, the better our work becomes. What do you look at? Where do you get your inspirational input? How does that process work for you?

I get a lot of my input from living everyday life. I watch TV. Believe it or not, MTV. Lots of sports. So I get a lot of inspiration from media, magazines, TV, cable shows. Things like that. I’ve become sensitive to what I see as the rift in masculine perception. So I’m always sort of looking for it, wherever it might lie, whether it’s in a football game, or Jersey Shore, or hanging out with the other dads at the park with my kids.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Your guilty pleasures can be fodder for your creative practice. Jesse Burke has just given you permission to watch as much MTV as you want.

Jesse Burke is a Rhode Island based artist. You can see a site-specific installation of Jesse’s photographs at ClampArt’s booth at Pulse Miami (December 1 – 4, 2011). He is represented commercially by i2i Photography in NYC.


The Dog Days of August – NYC Visit

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I visited New York City in early August. It took me 15 1/2 hours to get there. You read that correctly. That’s enough time for a New Yorker to have a cup of coffee from the bodega, catch a cab to La Guardia, and have a dinner of dolamdes in Istanbul. Or for a San Franciscan to wake up to a nice latte, BART down to SFO, and graze on sushi in Tokyo. It’s also enough time to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad, and then cook up a small batch of meth afterwards. In other words, I live in the boonies for real. (I’m actually writing this from a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.)

So this will be the story in which I drop in on the world’s biggest media empire, (My apologies, Herr Murdoch), do a 60 Minutes walk & talk style interview with the photo world’s preeminent Kickstarter expert, and finish up with a visit to the world’s most transgressive art exhibit. If that sounds a bit like a 21st Century Jewish guy’s version of an Odyssey, it certainly felt like one to me. It all began with the aforementioned insanely long travel day from Taos to Washington Heights. (My apologies…Hudson Heights.) I started the day listening to the ravens squawk before sunrise, and ended up in my cousin’s apartment above the GW bridge. Guest rooms being a rare commodity in New York, I crashed on a trundle bed below a bunk bed shared by a four year old and his seven year old brother. No, I’m not making that up. (Big ups to Nathan and Noah Burak. Thanks, guys.)

Regardless, I slept well, and woke up on a Tuesday excited to make my first visit to the New York Times. I understand that there’s an inherent name-dropping quality to these articles, and I do hope you don’t think the less of me for it. But there I was, at 11am on a not-so-opressively-hot early August morning, standing under the big gray lady’s corporate logo, wondering how it all came to pass. (Yes, I did take a photo of myself for my parents. Yes, I do know this makes me a huge dork.) I was there to meet with James Estrin, the photojournalist and editor of the Lens Blog. We’d met earlier in the summer in Santa Fe, and after I thanked him profusely for changing my life, we got to talking about our respective educational initiatives. Mr. Estrin, along with Adriana Teresa of Visura Magazine, recently started the Envision Foundation, which sponsors digital photography programs for teen-agers in locations around the world. (China, Haiti, the Bronx, and Mexico City.) Last year, I created a similar program to work with rural youth from the mountain communities of Taos County at the local UNM branch, so we found we had a lot in common. He invited me to partner my program with his, and there you have it.

I traveled back across the country to meet with Mr. Estrin to chat about photography, and get some of the details squared away. As we agreed to meet in the Times building, I was getting a chance to peek behind a very famous curtain. Of course, given that I always seem to manufacture a mishap on these adventures, I got in the wrong elevator. Turns out, in the fancier buildings of today, some elevators only go to certain floors. Who knew? But I sorted it out without any stress, and soon arrived on the 4th floor of the recently built Renzo Piano skyscraper. First impression: it is a beautiful building. Modern, with lots of steel and glass, but there are huge swaths of red everywhere. Mr. Piano is apparently involved in the interior design as well, and insisted upon the crimson invasion. I love it. One would imagine that a contemporary newsroom would contain oceans of gray, so the enforced color was a welcome touch.

It’s funny, but I’ve been a working artist for fifteen years. My career has been a slow-build, with lots of one step forward two steps back phases. But the last year, as many of you know, has had a bit of a wormhole feeling to it, so walking around the Times was totally surreal. I was aware that they weren’t going to kick me out or anything, but I had this sense of being a kid trailing his dad at take your child to work day. I tried to hide it a bit, but also thought that since it was authentic, I might as well go with it. Mr. Estrin kindly showed me around, and I got to meet and thank Kerri MacDonald, who wrote the Lens story that continues to bounce around the world. Everywhere I went, really smart, witty people were crashing into each other in impromptu meetings, discussing photographs and the state of the world. The place was massive, with the third and fourth floors open to each other, and the sound of fingers tapping away madly on Apple keyboards reminded me of an atonal Phillip Glass symphony. A far cry from the roosters and horses and magpies to which I’m accustomed.

Meetings are meetings, so I’ll spare you any further descriptions about what we were talking about. But I did have a one-of-a-kind-photo-geek moment that I’ve got to share. At some point, Mr. Estrin, who had briefly stepped away, came thundering around a corner and motioned for me to follow. As I emerged from his office, I saw a not large man holding court a few feet away. He was unremarkable, save for the fact that he had some shiny, metallic artificial legs. Joao Silva, in the flesh. When I was 12, I met Joe Montana on an airplane on the way to Superbowl XXI. When I was 19, I met Bruce Springsteen outside a waterfront restaurant where I was working at the Jersey Shore. In both cases, I felt like a bashful fanboy, basking in the glow of grandiosity. This was no different. I’m guessing almost all of you already know, but Mr. Silva is the Times journalist who was blown up by a land mine in Afghanistan, and continued to shoot pictures from the ground, whilst his legs were ripped off his body. So the awe I felt was understandable, but of course I had nothing interesting to say to him. Really, what do you say? “Mr. Silva, it’s a pleasure to meet you. You’re an inspiration,” or something like that, right? You try not to gawk at his legs, and fail. You try to be casual about the whole thing, and fail again. It was clear that he did not want to be ogled for his disability, and his matter-of-factness only made him seem tougher. A friend reminded him to sit, as to make it easier on himself, and he ignored the entreaty. One tough dude.

That was the highlight of my Tuesday, obviously, but I did see three albino triplets riding Razr scooters outside Rockefeller Center, so it wasn’t quite the landslide victory you’d imagine. And I finished the day at an Irish Happy hour joint in Midtown where my friend Adria and I wondered aloud if the bartender had earned her boob job back in tips yet. Adria, ever the cynical New Yorker, voted no. (I believe what she actually said was, “With that face, it’s no surprise she went for the boob job,” but I wouldn’t swear to it.)

My Wednesday was spent in Washington, as was previously chronicled, and I awoke on Thursday with a plan to visit the Ryan Trecartin show at MOMAPS1, followed by Boris Mikhailov at MOMA proper. As I lounged around, slowly packing my back for a trip to Jersey later in the day, I got a call from my friend and fellow photographer Manjari Sharma. We’d made plans to get together previously, but as I hadn’t heard from her yet, I assumed she’d gotten too busy. I told her what my plan was, and by the time we’d hung up the phone, we’d agreed to go see the Alexander McQueen show at the Met instead. (It was about to close, and since has.) Ms. Sharma is among the most persuasive, persistent people I’ve come across, which I find amusing and endearing, and of course she brought me around to her way of thinking. There’s a lot to be said, in this world, for not taking no for an answer.

So off I headed, rolling my newly purchased travel bag, for the trip from Hudson Heights to the Upper East Side. A train to a train to a bus, in case you were wondering. As I crossed Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum in sight, I realized that our plan was likely to change. There must have been a thousand people lined up outside, snaking up and down the block. I’ll say this for New Yorkers, they take “culture” seriously, and I commend them for it. But my day was not playing out according to plan. Does it ever?

Expect the unexpected. It’s the perfect, oxymoronic clichĂŠ for New York. Of course it’s impossible to follow the advice, but when I lived in Brooklyn, it was a daily mantra. That, and “It’s always something.” You’re late for a big meeting? Plan on the subway car stopping in a tunnel for no reason. You forgot your umbrella one day, for the first time ever? Well, then, you know a Noreaster is imminent. Have two bucks in your pocket for slice of pizza? Well, of course that’s the day they they raise the price to $2.25. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love New York. It was a bitch for me to live there, but I love the place. I just accept that the city is an entity, like Godzilla, and she’s always in charge.

Back at the Met, I decided that since Manjari texted that she’d be late, I might as well get in line and see what the future would hold. My travel suitcase was new, and just a bit too big to fit in the overhead compartment, but looks a lot like a backpack. So there I was, rolling it two feet at a time, slowly shuffling along with everyone else, starting to get a bit excited to see a show that people were this gaga about. Moving. slowly. moving. slowly. Mind wandering. The sky looks pretty today. Why do those kebab carts always smell great and taste like crap? When’s Manjari going to get here?

After 25 minutes, I was starting to settle in. Getting comfortable with the idea that things would work out. Whammo. An authoritative, blue suit wearing, security guard type guy, who looked like an aristocratic Jason Statham, was walking down the street, towards me, and I happened to notice him. Without breaking stride, he looked at me and said, “We won’t let you in with that suitcase,” and just kept going. That was it. You can’t come in. Too bad. So sad. I was stunned. Where was I supposed to put my bag? They have a coat and bag check, so what’s the problem? My bag was too big, I suppose. I stood there a moment, and then continued to shuffle along with the line. Maybe he was bluffing, I thought. Maybe I can charm my way in.

I was deep in thought, trying to figure out a solution, when someone said, “Hey you, are you trying to cut in line? Where did you come from?” It was loud enough that it shook me from my reverie, and when I looked up, I found that some bald, tight t-shirt wearing dude was talking to me. “Excuse me?” I replied. “Are you trying to cut in line? I didn’t see you here,” he followed. “Listen, jerk,” I said, “I’ve been in this line for 25 minutes. What are you talking about?” “Ok, sorry,” he said. “Don’t take it personal. Calm down.” Just curious, but at any point in human history, has the advice “Calm down,” ever worked? So I started to mutter to myself, and then turned around to give him one more dirty look. “I said, don’t take it personal,” he shouted, and that was enough. It was clear I would not be seeing the Alexander McQueen show on that day.

So I went over to the steps to sit down and wait for Manjari. I started to laugh about the whole expect the unexpected thing, and put my head down to take some notes. Not ninety seconds later, out of nowhere, the sound of a capella, Motown music shocked me out of my thoughts. I looked up, and not five feet in front of me, at eye level, was a five piece band, belting out some great, old school stuff. Right in front of my face. And they weren’t there when I sat down. That’s why I love New York.

Manjari arrived shortly, and it took quite a bit of explaining on my part before she accepted that I would not be getting in to the Met that day. We spoke with several other guards, because as I mentioned, she’s not the type to take no for an answer. One guard even suggested that I take the bag up the street to the Guggenheim, as they might have more lax luggage restrictions. But alas, the Guggenheim is closed on Thursdays. Finally, I convinced Manjari to accompany me to MOMA, where I’d hoped to go anyway, and where we could get some food and catch up before seeing the Boris Mikhailov exhibition.

And that is where I morphed into Steve Kroft, walking and talking my way thirty blocks South, rollerbag in tow, and interviewing Ms. Sharma about her insanely successful Kickstarter project that recently met it’s funding goal. Earlier in the morning, she’d asked me to look at her Kickstarter page, in the hope that we might chat about it. I was blown away. I’ve been preaching to a friend for quite some time about the moment when photographers started to marry their creativity, 5d Mark II cameras, and ubiqutious broadband connections into the proper primordial soup for the birth of easy video. And that time has now come.

Manjari had posted a terrifically slick and approachable promotional video, speaking directly to the Kickstarter audience, explaining what she was trying to achieve as an artist, and why she needed help. You must see it. At the time, she told me it was in the process of going viral, with publicity from CNN, Wired, and NPR. It was easy to understand why. The video includes exposition, footage of Manjari at work in Mumbai, some terrific animation, and even a digital rendering of what her work will look like huge on the wall of a major museum. She discusses her heritage and spirituality candidly, and asks the audience to support her vision of making work. Not to buy the prints once they’re done, as the model has been for so long, but to actually fund the creation of the work beforehand. Of course, grants and fellowships have been around forever too, but this was definitely something new. Kickstarter has funded countless projects by now, but the video was the key difference here. It was just so well done. Ten years ago, I can’t imagine what the budget would have been for a three minute promo piece such as this.

She talked quickly, as we navigated the potholes and construction barriers, and made it clear that she was certain her project would fund. It was still early in the process, but she’d seen a $3000 jump (give or take) in just the previous day or so, as the viral sensation took off. People around the world were spanking their credit cards, through Amazon of course, because they wanted to see what these proposed photographs would look like. (And also for a small reward, depending on the funding level.) Ms. Sharma, who moved to the US for college in Columbus, Ohio, was originally from India. At present, she is trying to recreate important Hindu dieties as large scale photographs based upon live models. The process requires huge crews, and also a hefty travel budget to get back and forth to Mumbai multiple times. So she asked the digi-verse to help her raise $20,000, and I’m happy to report that she succeeded.

As I said before, the video was the key, as was her frank explanation within it. Fortunately, her husband is an illustrator, and another friend did the video editing. So she saved a ton of money on the production that way. I mentioned to her that not everyone would have that luxury, and Manjari pointed out that we all have our own networks and inherent advantages, and we have to work with what we’ve got. So if you don’t know any animators, skip the animation. But the reality is that a 5d Mark II can make as nice a video as anything else out there, and including motion and sound changes the experience of consuming media on the web. (If you don’t belive me, check out the JĂśrg Colberg video about the death of photography that made the rounds earlier this summer.)

Eventually, we made it to the Museum of Modern Art. While Manjari tried to talk her way into getting an artist membership, (successfully, of course,) I found myself hoping that this museum would take in my tired, weary traveler’s bones. As I approached the coat check, my heart sank at a sign outlawing luggage such as mine. But I decided to take Manjari as an inspiration, and see if I could twist some arms. I walked up to the window of a beautiful, young, smiling African-American coatcheck attendant. She looked down at my bag and frowned. Before she could say no, I begged, “Please, help. I have nowhere to stash my bag, and just walked 30 blocks from the Met because they wouldn’t let me in. Please.” With that, she smiled again. “Really,” she said, “they wouldn’t let you in at the Met?” “Really,” I assured her. ” And that was that. She empathized, bent the rules, and I was a happy man.

We had a nice lunch, but I’ll spare you the details. It’s not a food blog, after all, and I am not Tony Bourdain. (Under no circumstances will I ever eat an animal’s testicles. Ever.) But by then, after the Times, DC, and the debacle uptown, I was pretty tired. So rather than get a whole tour of the museum, I decided to save my remaining brain cells for the Boris Mikhailov show, which I was dying to see.

Let’s be clear from the start. This is probably the most transgressive, offensive group of photographs I’ve ever seen. I can imagine, now, how it must have felt the first time people saw some of Mapplethorpe’s more graphic fisting images on the wall. This collection of photographs eviscerates some of the biggest taboos I can imagine, and I loved it. I was neither offended, nor shocked, and that says a lot about the world in which we’re living. But I’ve got to assume that many people have been and will be offended by these pictures, (and whatever I write about them,) so quit reading here if you’re that type of viewer.

The photographs were made in the Ukraine in 1997-8. Just picture it. Boris Yeltsin was still in power, and was probably chugging 3 quarts of vodka a day by then. Vlad Putin was lurking, probably practicing his “I crush your head” move like that guy from Kids in the Hall. All the assets of the Communist empire were being grabbed, groped and auctioned off to the most connected Oligarchs: a tidal wave of Capitalist greed, organized crime type power, and pent up demand for Western baubles. (If you think I’m kidding, look at how Brooklyn’s favorite Oligarch, Mikhail Prokorov made his wealth. From acid wash jeans to investment banking to owning a secret resource mine in Siberia in no time.) That’s the backdrop in which these photographs were made, in a perfectly bleak little former Soviet town in winter. Seriously, do they even have summer in Russia?

As to the images, let me try to describe the premise. (As usual, I didn’t read the wall text until afterwards, but it’s pretty easy to put it together.) Mr. Mikhailov made the acquaintance and earned the trust of a group of quasi-homeless people in a certain locale. He hung around them as they did their thing, got to know their stories, one would imagine, as they navigated the local park, and whatever divey little shelter anyone could afford. And then he messed around with this sorry group of junkies, drop outs, and lunatics, doing his best to create the most ridiculously offensive poses anyone could fathom. I can’t believe he got these people to do this stuff, without offering up some crack or meth, but let’s suppose it never came to that.

The exhibition consisted of 17 photographs, somewhere in the range of 8 feet tall, pinned naked to the wall. Some were shown individually, some in groups of two, and there was one 5 image panel as well. Together, they tell the story of a group of people living in the bleakest, poorest conditions imaginable, all the while some artsy photographer dude poses them like cranked out rag dolls in a dystopian present. Fat old ladies hold up their shirts and pull down their pants, pimples asses here and there, scars abound, and black eyes too, shirts up pants down everywhere, one crazy dude wields an axe, and everywhere are ugly naked body parts that you never thought you’d want to see. And you don’t want to see it, of course. It’s not pleasant. But it is brilliant, at least in this man’s opinion.

 

What’s that old saying, in the world of the blind the one-eyed man is king? Something like that, right? Well along those lines, art made about a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent time, made in a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent place cannot be both authentic and soft cuddly beautiful, right? If it’s going to capture the essence of something terrible, it kind of has to sink down into the muck to be relevant, right? Well, if you’ve answered yes to those questions, then go see this show before it closes on September 5th. And you’ll thank me.

If you answered no, but have a strong stomach, you should probably still go see this show. You just might not like it. Is is exploitative? Absolutely. Almost perfectly so. Is it degrading? Hell yes. But how different is it than the milliions of photos of pretty naked Eastern European girls that swim around the cyberweb each day. Not to mention the countless girls from this region that are sold into sexual slavery. And that’s today. These photos were made almost 15 years ago, which in my book makes them prescient.

As I was looking, again, it was easy to see that these photos were not straight documents. The poses were often classical, which does not happen by accident. And the use of color was fantastic. Often in the form of a plastic bag placed just so. Or in the repeating theme of “red eye,” which here brings in color and the reference to the snapshot aesthetic at the same time. Amazing.

Ultimately, what I most appreciated was the gaze of the subjects into the camera. The look that they gave Mikhailov, and by extension, me, the viewer. It was clear, I thought. “What, you want my dignity? Here. Take it. I don’t need it anyway. It’s worthless to me. What, you think you can humiliate me? Impossible. It can’t be done. Because there is a sea of cold infinity at my core, and it’s stronger than your camera, or my purported government, or even the paint thinner that I huffed this morning. Fuck you.”

And that was that. I tried to look at the permanent installation show, but my mind was shot. So I reclaimed my bag from the saint of a girl downstairs, and headed out into the innocent madness of the City. Off to Penn Station, rolling along, and then a train to New Jersey, chugging along, for a nice evening with my nice relatives. Who never, not for a moment, suspected I had such twisted, horrific photographs backstroking through my brain.

Library of Congress Visit

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I visited Washington, DC earlier this month to drop off a portfolio of my photo project, “The Value of a Dolllar,” at the Library of Congress. They acquired it a couple of months ago, and due to a busy schedule and some production difficulties, (inks dry up like mad in New Mexico’s 10% humidity), I hadn’t gotten the work to them yet. As it happened, by the time I was ready to drop it off with the local Taos fedex guys, I’d already booked a short trip back to NYC for some meetings. I was planning to spend one day at the Jersey Shore with my family, playing mini-golf and ogling the hotties, but I realized that if I shifted things around, I could take the train down to DC to deliver the work in person. Good call.

I hopped on a morning Amtrak from Penn Station in early August, well-caffeinated, and watched the I-95 corridor fly by while I worked on my laptop. Lots of trees, in case you were wondering. It was a breeze of a trip, and all was well until I hopped into a cab in the warm drizzle outside DC’s Union Station. I figured all I had do was say, “Library of Congress, please,” like some character in a John Grisham flick. Maybe the cabbie’s name would be Smitty. Then, the acerbic, stogie-smoking driver, would say, “You got it, Mister. We’ll be there in a jiffy, ” and off we would go. What he said in real life was, “Which building?” I stammered, “Are you joking?,” looked around for the hidden camera, slowly realized he was serious, then fumbled around my bag for anything resembling a specific address. Awesome. Ultimately, we figured it out, but not before I ended up looking like a complete tool.

I made it to the Madison Building in time, barely, and found myself face to face with a metal detector and a sign that said PLACE ALL BELONGINGS IN THE GRAY TUB. Looking around, ever the observant photographer, I saw no grey tubs. When I asked the security guard about it, he laughed at my naivetĂŠ, and said, “We don’t have those anymore.” Oh. Right. Because America’s broke. Sure. So I hopped in an elevator to the third floor, and began the long march to the Prints and Photographs division. I’d been hauling the portfolio box, by hand, from Taos to Albuquerque to Houston to Newark to New York to DC, so by that point, I just wanted the freaking thing out of my possession. But this being a public building, and a monumentally huge one at that, the halls just kept going. And going. All that florescent lighting. Makes me sleepy just thinking about it.

Thankfully, I arrived on time, and after the gruff lady at the front desk called back to the office, I was assured they’d take the portfolio off my hands in a few minutes. I was there to meet with Verna Curtis, the curator who led the acquisition team. While waiting, I peeked around a bit, and was surprised to find that it looks and functions kind of like…a library. Big shock, right? For those of you who don’t know, the entire collection is accessible to the public. There are rules, of course, but if followed, anyone can come in and “check out” vintage or contemporary prints from the collection, for research, or the simple pleasure of looking. Unlike a museum, which puts work on the wall for the masses, or tucks it away in the archives forever, this is a totally different viewing experience. Designed to be personal. Kind of refreshing.

Ms. Curtis arrived shortly, and led me back to the Vault. I dropped the box down theatrically, glad it was no longer mine to obsess about. Of course, there was a big bucket of white gloves right there, this being an archive, so I showed her the prints, along with her colleague Carol Johnson. Afterwards, I felt a surge of relief when Ms Curtis wheeled the box away in a pushcart. Forever. Business complete, I turned to a stack of photographs on the table. Ms. Curtis, Ms. Johnson, and another colleague, Beverly Brannan, had chosen a few pieces from the collection they thought I might like to see. Very thoughtful. As we began discussing the prints, and the collection in general, I started to take a bunch of notes, and before I knew it, we were doing an impromptu interview for you, the APE audience. Perhaps they’ll make a real journalist of me yet.

Together, the three curators enlightened me about how the institution works. I was honest, and admitted that despite the honor of now being included in the collection, I was kind of ignorant as to it’s mission and function. It seemed the better course than trying to fake it with in a room full of experts. They graciously explained that the collection began as Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, which was given to Congress in 1802. (Way to go, T-Jeff.) The original building was torched by the British in the War of 1812, and a new building was erected in 1898. (Hence the Jefferson building, right across the street)

So the Library was given to Congress, which is responsible for funding, and it has a mission to serve the members of Congress as well. The ladies explained that their goal, as curators, is to identify pressing political and social issues within American culture, almost like cultural anthropologists, and then to collect artwork that reflects those issues. I’m not sure any other curatorial team has the same mandate. At first, the work represents the Zeitgeist of the present, and then it slowly seeps into history. They said that in the late 80’s/early 90’s, they collected work about AIDS, and then of course 9/11 as well. In order to acquire my project, they first had to agree that food was a subject worthy of attention. Body issues, which they described as relating to obesity, aging, youth, Anorexia and Bulimia, is another issue that is currently the focus of collection.

Ms Curtis explained that beyond the grand topic, they seek work that delivers “subject, content and execution.” They’re interested in photographs that, “are not entirely illustrative and documentary, but have artistic merit as well…where the subject is key to our time.” It was also explained that members of Congress are meant to come by to look at work to help them get a better understanding of particular issues. Which sounds pretty cool in theory. But when I mentioned that to my friend Andreas at lunch, he laughed and conjured the visual of Mitch McConnell taking a break out of his busy day to look at some… Ah-rt. I do love me some, Ah-rt. Especially them velvet Elvises. Well played, Andreas.

Back to the Vault. The curators had brought out three groups of work for me to see. The first, by an artist Robert Coppola, was a series of small-scale injket prints of tobacco farms in Connecticut that were presented in a cigar box. It was a one of a kind object, and had a poetic feel to it. We also looked at a few gorgeous gelatin silver prints by Graciela Iturbide, which were a gift from the Mexican government back in 1998. Iturbe’s prints were striking, in a high-contrast, agressive sort of way. One image, which I’d seen reproduced before, was of an Indigenous woman tearing apart an animal in a market, a knife stuck between her teeth. Another, which I really loved, depicted an Indigenous woman, seen from behind, walking alone through the low mountains of the Sonoran desert, holding a Boom Box. Awesome. Fab Five Freddy would be proud. The entire scene looked like it could have taken place three hundred years ago, save for that one fantastic temporal reference.

The curators also mentioned that they believe it’s important for the Library of Congress to be relevant in the 21st Century. Many people see it as a dusty part of history, I was told, which is not a fair assessment of the living, evolving institution. They pointed out that the LoC was the first major archive to have a Flickr page, and that countless historical images have been tagged by the populace, crowd-sourcing elements of American history. They also have the entire 170,000 FSA archive accessible online, as they started the scanning process 15 years ago. They’re currently working with a new group of photographers and writers, Facing Change, to create a contemporary version of the FSA collection.

We finished up our visit looking at a few newly-acquired prints by Jen Davis, who uses herself as a subject of self-portraiture. I’ll be as careful as a I can with my language here, as Ms. Davis is a larger woman who uses her self-portraiture as a way of looking at the aforementioned “Body Issues.” It would be condescending to call the photographs brave, but clearly we’re not used to seeing self-portraits of people who look like Ms. Davis. If I had a dollar for every 20-something cutie that takes naked pictures of herself, I’d buy lunch for everyone reading this. But of course that’s the point. Since she’s an intelligent and talented artist, Ms. Davis is capable of making images that are delicate and subtle as they plumb a variety of themes related to being big in a world obsessed with unrealistic visions of retouched beauty. (I think everyone can relate. I certainly felt self-conscious on the beach in SoCal last month next to all those bronzed, slab-shouldered surfers with hair like Farrah Fawcett. Yes, I mean the guys…)

In one photo, Ms. Davis is at the beach with some friends, well-covered, sitting on a beach towel with an attractive friend in a bikini. Uncomfortable. In another, she’s in line, her back turned, at a hamburger stand at a State Fair or carnival. Corndog, anyone? Churro? Finally, I saw a print of Ms. Davis, slightly turned away, eating a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream, like a secret, shameful midnight snack. All the prints were about 20×30, and powerful at scale. Anyone who’s read my previous articles knows I can be liberal with criticism, and prone to verbosity, but this work is hard to talk about. And given that the issues themselves are difficult to discuss in a country with an Obesity and Diabetes epidemic, I think Ms. Davis’ work succeeds on both the literal and metaphorical level. Great stuff.

From there, I took my leave, and trundled down the eternally long hallway to the exit. I stopped to give a shout out to the statue of James Madison, (What up, J-Mad? How YOU doin’?) read a few of his inspirational quotes on the wall, and then headed out into the city. I hadn’t been to this part of DC since I was a child, so it was like visiting for the first time. Lots of big white Classical buildings with ornate sculptures on top, and plenty of quotes incised on the structures as well. Some serious early 19th Century power architecture. I can see the thought process. Hey guys, let’s build a bunch of big, expensive buildings like the Greeks and Romans did, and people will know we’re a real country. Kind of like the Chinese are doing today with the Shanghai skyline. Expect now it’s the future, man.

I walked across the Mall, basically a long, narrow park with duck pond, and headed up the street to the National Gallery of Art, where I spent the rest of my day. I’ve gone on record, several times, discussing how much I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Hard as it is for me to fathom, the National Gallery is pretty close to it’s equal. And it’s free. That’s right. Free. You walk in, let the dude at the front look into your purse (or manbag), and then he says “Have a nice day.” That’s it. No money changes hands. How cool is that? Better check it out soon, as our broke-as-a-joke status as a nation will probably mean they start charging for this stuff any day now. As to the art, it’s indescribably good. (Yeah, tough adjective from a guy who’s trying to describe things.)

First thing to share: the museum is huge. Two-separate-buildings-with-an-underground-tunnel-in-between kind of huge. It’s the sort of place where you stare at the map for a few minutes, then say “Fuck it” and just wander around. So rather than trying to share my non-linear, Pacman like wanderings, I’ll just give some highlights. And there were many, as the collection of work on display here is truly remarkable. All you East Coast peoples, pay attention. Take a day and go visit. As long as your Amtrak doesn’t break down, which of course mine did on the way home, (more later) it will be an easy day, well worth it.

After spending time with some Rembrandts, because he’s the Man, I wandered into the German Renaissance section. I’ve seen a lot of art in my day, in many of the world’s best museums, but I hadn’t seen this before. The 16th Century portraits of probably-important-in-their-day German people were fantastic. I saw one, “Portrait of a Woman,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1522) that looked just like a Hellen Van Meene photo I’d seen at MOPA in San Diego last month. Head slightly turned, with an intense green background and strong shadow contrasting with her shocking red hair, it was so modern. Lifelike too. Accompanied by the equally creatively titled “Portrait of a Man,” it definitely gave me new perspective on the contemporary German portrait style. Many of the paintings I saw from that era, in fact, appeared to be the root of the stone-faced, unemotional, sharp and dry style made famous by Thomas Ruff. (BTW, I recently saw a Thomas Struth portrait of Gerhard Richter, also at MOPA, that was so self-serious I laughed out loud. We want the money, Lebowski.) Looking at portraits by Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein, I noted that if one simply changed out the clothing, the German sitters could be straight out of the 21st C.

Downstairs, I stumbled upon the innocuously titled “Chester Dale” Collection. Wow. I’m excited just reading that. Wait, who? Sarcasm aside, the man knew what he was buying. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better grouping of late 19th Century/Early 20th Century European Painting. Picasso, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Braque, Renoir, Modigliani, CĂŠzanne, Matisse, Touluse-Lautrec, Corot…and more. A diptych of Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral,” from 1894 was mesmerizing, and ought to be required viewing for every photographer. The manner in which light leads to color, and color to expressionism was laid out like a cheat sheet in a pop-quiz. Obvious but enlightening. Not to mention beautiful.

Picasso, as is often the case, was the standout. I saw two paintings, “The Lovers,” and “Classical Head,” from 1923 and 1922, respectively, that were in an almost-earnest, super classical style that I’d not seen from him before. And “Two Youths,” from 1906, featured two naked boys, around 10 years old, rendered in pale pastel orange hues. It was beautiful and haunting, and made me question some of the things I wrote about Jock Sturges last year. Not that I’m a flip-flopper, heaven forbid, but I did ask myself why it was OK for Picasso to work with such subjects, but not JS.

Soon enough, in another part of the museum, I found myself in a room with a sequence of 19th Century Gilbert Stuart portraits of the First five Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison & Monroe. (Old white men, of course) Basking in their aura of power, I thought: this is their town. I’m just visiting. They lived and breathed, they created this country, and now I’m walking around, enjoying the multi-billion dollar art collection that sprung up in their name. That was one thing I enjoyed about DC, the sense that the history of the US is alive, and that the future has not yet been written. (Perhaps I’m overly optimistic on that one.) Wherever you go, you see frumpy, serious looking people in power ties and pant suits, rushing off to solve one problem or another.

After passing the underground waterfall in the tunnel between the buildings, I found myself in the Modern wing. As you can imagine, my brain was pretty well pickled by then, but I did wander through a thorough and well curated collection of late 20th Century painting and sculpture. (No photos in sight. But the Jasper Johns Target painting and Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” are dynamite.) I didn’t see a single photograph until the end of my visit, if you can believe it. A Lewis Baltz show had just closed, and there were no photographs mixed in with any of the gallery installations I saw, until I found a tiny room off in a corner that had two Friedlanders and a Robert Cumming. I went from not remembering who Cumming was to being a big fan in a couple of weeks, after seeing his work in LA too. The show was about the alphabet, like the curators were watching too much Sesame Street, but as they were the only photographs I could find, I wasn’t going to be too picky.

Nam June Paik, considered the Godfather of video art, had a video exhibition tucked away in the top floor Tower. Given that so many photographers are now nascent video artists, this is a show to see. One piece, called “Three eggs,” 1975-82, had an old school video camera trained on a white egg, then an old, low-res video monitor of the video feed of the egg in real time, and then a real egg sitting on black velvet inside the same type of monitor that had the glass popped out. Penetrating and quiet, it was the epitome of 20th C Zen. The whole room, which had 30 foot ceilings, also had multiple, manipulated versions of a video feed of a candle, flickering huge. At first I thought it was kind of boring, but as I was leaving, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a real candle, on a stand, with a video camera trained on it. I doubled back, and saw that the set up was the basis of all the images around me. Lots of visual noise, all stemming from the silent, lonely candle, slowly melting away. Genius. I asked the security guard how often they change out the candle, and he said every day. Every day, someone lights a new candle and lets it burn itself down, in front of no one’s eye but the camera. (I also asked the guard his opinion of the piece. “It’s OK for me.”)

From there, I headed out into the DC drizzle and haze, and walked back around the Capitol building to Union Station for an evening train to NYC. Thoroughly exhausted, I lined up at the gate behind some tow-headed doofus from the Huntsman campaign who wouldn’t stop chattering into his Blackberry while finger-dancing on his Ipad. Soon enough, the train departed, and I was on my way North, ready to sign up as Amtrak’s Number 1 Fan. Until the power went dead as we sat in Baltimore’s Downtown train station. Dead as in dead. As in, not working, not planning to work, figure something else out. I happened to notice, on my way South earlier in the day, that the train tracks cut right through the boarded up B-more neighborhoods so grittly depicted in “The Wire.” So close you could touch them. And they look even bleaker in real life, if you can believe it. So I was not particularly happy about being stuck in downtown Baltimore for the night. But these things have a way of working themselves out, and my train companions and soon I bum-rushed the next Acela high speed number. I even got a seat and free Wi-f, and was back in NYC in no time. I saw some great work there too, of course, but that’s another story for a different day.

LA Gallery Visit Part 2: The West Side

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha,” the parking attendant said. “Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha?,” I repeated. (Turn right at 17th Street.) “Si,” he said. I drove away, contemplating whether I ought to listen to him, or try to find the highway on my own. Given all the times I’ve shanked myself driving around LA, I decided to trust him. Good call. I found I-10 in no time, and was soon cruising West towards Culver City.

Much like Chelsea used to be a dumpy, non-descript neighborhood before the Art world gentrified it, (bringing gobs of money and Frank Gehry frosted glass buildings,) the Culver City arts district popped up in a random concrete block in the last decade, and hung on for dear life. Wedged between Venice and Washington Boulevards, right off the highway offramp, the Culver City corridor mainly consists of one long block on South La Cienega, and a few places that spread off the corners. There must be 20 galleries there by now, and it’s easy to see a lot of art in a short span of time. Normally.

I say normally, because when I visited a few weeks back, most of the neighborhood was closed for installation. Gallery after gallery had makeshift signs in the door, casually letting me know that I was not welcome while they were hanging their new shows. Not uncommon, I understand, but unfortunately, they’d all scheduled the new openings for Saturday July 16th, smack dab in the middle of the impending “Carmageddon.” I’d been warned about it weeks in advance, and actually chose to visit on that very Thursday to avoid the chaos, bloodshed, and misery that “Carmageddon” was supposed to provide. (Hell was predicted to reign down on the West Side while a stretch of the 405 was closed for construction.) So when I saw that the art dealers had collectively chosen that very weekend to re-open to the world? I was not impressed. Like, yeah, you know, we’re having an opening, and yeah, it’s cool if you come, I guess, but we really don’t care, because we don’t sell work to you at the opening anyway.

As it happened, a few galleriests managed to get their homework done a couple of days early, and were in fact, open for business. I started at Cherry and Martin, which wasn’t there last time I visited. (Like Chinatown, there’s been tremendous turnover in the last few years.) They were showing three artists together, including a few 1970’s black and white prints by the conceptualist Robert Cumming. I remembered his name, and the vague certainty he was important, from the Contemporary Photo history class I took with Tom Barrow back at UNM. FYI, that was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Prof Tom knew so many of the photographers personally that some lectures took on an almost-boozy, you had to be there vibe that was totally addictive. Like Austin Powers with better teeth. Yeah baby. Everyone was throwing crazy, groovy key parties in the darkroom, Man, huffing fixer and chasing it down with qualudes, Man. Can you dig it? (Of course, none of that is actually true, but ought to convey the feeling of sitting in the audience.)

But I digress. Back to Mr. Cumming. His photographs were terrific, and leapt off the wall. I recall three in particular. The first was a diptych of a the torso of a naked body with a leaf covering the privates, holding a flute. In the second image, all was the same, except the torso was holding hands with a woman. It made me think of those Scholastic Magazine puzzles I used to see at the doctor’s office when I was a kid. The diptych was surreal in a groovy way. Just weird enough to be awesome. Another Cumming photo had different font versions of the letter A, and also managed to strike the right balance of oddity. Finally, they displayed a photograph that was one of the best I saw all day, “Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA”. An image of a backyard alleyway that had been slightly decorated, with a deck chair and lamps posed just so, with a projection of a palm tree at the back of the composition. It was like a crime scene meets a back lot in Burbank meets Jeff Spicoli’s perfect spot to smoke a joint. I think I could have stared at it forever, as it had that parallel universe mood that is almost impossible to achieve.

Robert Cumming Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA

Kopeikin Gallery, a peripatetic LA institution, moved into one of the best spaces on the block recently. And not only was Mr. Kopeikin’s gallery open, (despite a scheduled Saturday opening,) but the man himself was arranging number pins to coordinate with the press release when I arrived. We ended up striking up a conversation, and he gave me a gracious tour of the place. I was really happy for the LA photography community, because this new gallery is an impressive place to view photos. Three pretty, interconnected rooms that grow in size: small to medium to large. I’m not saying I loved all the work, because I didn’t, but having a super-high-grade exhibition venue in the middle of a humping art scene is a good thing in and of itself.

As to the art, it was a mixed bag. The small gallery had an exhibit of Mr. Kopeikin’s personal collection of vernacular photos that he’s acquired at flea markets over the last ten years. Great. If seven year old kids can make interesting photographs nowadays, I see no reason why anonymous hobbyists fifty years ago couldn’t do the same. And they did. The group was well curated, and had a distinct 1950’s West Coast Americana vibe to it, with burger flippers, convertibles, & cowgirls. Random puffy faced white dudes, trapped in time.

The middle gallery had an exhibit by Kahn & Selesnick. The pictures consisted of digitally manipulated alien type people on Mars. Apparently, the pair had partnered with NASA, and the backdrops were in fact taken by the Mars rover. Interesting detail, but I didn’t care for the photographs. They were kind of cool, I suppose, but felt like a more highbrow version of a Michael Bay movie.

Finally, in the biggest space, there was a two-person show of work from Cuba, featuring Simone Leuck and Jeffrey Millstein, representing interiors and exteriors respectively. Ms. Leuck’s work, which is called “Cuba TV,” featured tight, detail-style images from the interiors of Cuban homes, all with a glowing television somewhere in the frame. Repeating a symbol like that can be tricky, as it can sometimes seem like a crutch, but it worked well here, creating just enough distance from straight up documentary photographs to make the group fresh. The repetition also highlighted the differences, not unlike the Warhol Soup Cans, and brought my attention to the little things that make up someone’s private space in a poor place, like plastic flowers, little dolls, and pictures on the wall. I actually saw the other day in the NY Times that Cubans are only just now being allowed to own their own homes, so all the photos I saw were of people’s attempts to personalize spaces that did not, in fact, belong to them. Strong work, overall.

Mr. Millstein is well-known for his ongoing series of images of airplanes, shot from below, in an identical Becher-style composition. So this exhibition was a departure from what I’d seen from him before, but not from what I’d seen from others. The exterior, large-scale, supersharp images of peeling paint on decrepit architecture were about as clichĂŠ as I can imagine. I don’t enjoy writing such things, because I’m actually not an asshole, despite appearances to the contrary. One photograph, which was installed by itself on a separate wall was pretty awesome, and made me wonder why Mr. Millstein hadn’t pushed himself further. It featured a building, with some people on the sidewalk in front. Up on top, there was a billboard with a succession of politicians’ faces. The portraits of the men were illustrated in black and white, and the sign said “Volveran,” which means they will return. (I guess there’s not much surprise in the electoral process.) All but one of the men had these thick, ridiculously awesome, Pancho Villa-style moustaches. It looked like a Looney Tunes mugshot, minus Yosemite Sam. Truly remarkable photograph, which went a long way towards redeeming the show.

My final stop in Culver City was at Western Projects, for a series of hand-drawn, photo-realistic portraits of thug-life-vatos and other hard-looking dudes. The LA-based artist, Patrick Lee, met the men on the street and took their photographs, on which the graphite drawings were based. In a couple of the images, the subjects, neck tats and all, were staring right into the camera, so the viewer could look right back. As most of you know, I’m sure, in real life, you probably wouldn’t want to stare directly into one of these guys eyes. (Unless you’re a fan of getting your ass kicked.) So the drawings functioned in a way that society can’t. They allowed the viewer to contemplate and objectify the subjects, but as the commodification of gang culture and poverty is a billion dollar business these days, the phenomenon becomes a part of the metaphor. And though I’m proud to be a trigger-jockey, these portraits were definitely more engaging as drawings, which I was told take three months to create. The craftsmanship, and I suppose a bit of magic, held me in front of each piece well beyond what I would have offered up to a straight photo. Especially as the faces were surrounded by the naked paper, in lieu of the neutral backdrop one would likely see in a photographic portrait.

Patrick Lee courtesy of Western Project

Done with Culver City, I hopped back on the 10, and drove a few miles West to Bergamot Station, a self-contained arts complex on the outskirts of Santa Monica. (Which is the part of town that you’d probably live in if money was no object. On the beach, postcard pretty, sun shining, that sort of thing.) I would not suggest the art is better here than in New York, because it’s not. But I owe it to you to mention that Bergamot Station is filled with purple flowers and palm trees, cool ocean breezes and eco-friendly hybrid UPS trucks. Very cush.

First stop, Berman Projects, which was technically closed for installation, but happily let me in when I said I was in town to review some shows. Nice people. They were showing a group exhibition curated by the actress Angela Featherstone, who’s one of those people you’ve never heard of, but recognize the headshot on IMDB. The photos tracked the life cycle of Woman, or so I was told, and represented a mixed-bag of quality. Catherine Opie had a cool photo of a laundry room from a married lesbian couple, and Tierney Gearon was showing a few images of naked preggos, including a dynamite photograph of two nude pregnant married ladies kissing, But the outright standout was a photograph by Gillian Laub called “Mom and Dad with Harriet the Wedding Planner, New York, 2008.” Rarely have I seen a photograph that so clearly could stand alone, without any text or the support of a complete project. (Though I’ll admit the title doesn’t hurt.) Somewhere, in the depths of my dreams, I know I’ll have nightmares of Harriet staring down at me, wickedly extracting a tooth, while she whistles “Sympathy for the Devil,” and lets loose with the throaty, smoker’s laugh she no doubt possesses. Ms. Laub, if you’re reading this, kudos.

Gillian Laub

On to Patrick Painter, for a show by Bas Jan Ader, the second artist of the day I remembered hearing about in Tom Barrow’s class. He was a strange, Scandanavian dude who disappeared at sea in 1975. Well, you don’t hear that every day. First observation was that there were probably ten photographs in a huge warehouse space with 20ft ceilings. It was the perfect contrast to the way MOCA had disrespected “The Americans,” and I made it a point to give props to the gallerina as such. The photographs hit the mark, like Robert Cumming, between outright surreality and the subtler, more Japanese, Murakami-style version. Perfectly weird and absurd, like the triptych of the artist holding a hand-saw standing in front of a band-saw, the artist sawing the hand-saw on the band-saw, then the artist holding up the sawed in half hand-saw. His other pieces, seemingly disconnected, like the artist falling from a tree like Yves Klein, and a black hooded guy on a baseball field, were also great. One can only hope he’s secretly living in Fiji, his royalties funneled through a dummy corporation in the Caymans.

Next: Frank Pictures, for my guilty pleasure of the day. Joe Aker, apparently a famous architectural photographer, had shot details of Gaudi and Gehry buildings, and printed the photos directly onto aluminum. My first thought was cheesy, but I stuck around for a few minutes, and slowly began to love these things. Most of the images were in varying and subtle shades of ochre, and they shimmered like holograms. They didn’t mean anything, per se, beyond the architect/artists’ original intent, which normally bugs me. But these things were just so beautiful, that I began to covet. Jonny want photograph. Jonny need photograph. Feed me.

Then: Joachim Brohm’s “Ohio,” at Gallery Luisotti. He’s German, despite the name, and the dry-style proved it. Like many of his colleagues, he was heavily influenced by Stephen Shore, and it showed. These photos were made in Columbus, Ohio, during the early 80’s. Much as I love real innovation, which these images lacked, they were so well-seen and made that I began to love them. It was a day of the random perfect image (Cumming, Laub) and Brohm busted one out too. A car on fire in an alleyway. Muy bien, SeĂąor Brohm. But a few others were incredibly resonant of place and time too, like a view of a silver Gremlin from above, in an alleyway, or a handful of firemen walking into a house in red, super-short 80’s short-shorts. (Yes, I had some too.) Great use of color, great time-warp experience.

Joachim Brohm

Finally, finally, (Yes, it’s long for me too) I ended the day at Peter Fetterman, who was showing some classic, feel good favorites from Elliot Erwitt, and some classic feel-bad favorites from Sebastao Salgado. Rather than risk a Fatwa for criticizing two such-loved legends, I’ll finish up by saying that the work didn’t speak to me. Erwitt’s sweet, playful, romantic, nostalgic sensibility seemed out of time in these stressful, difficult, globalized 21st Century years. But they were made in a different era, when everything was looking up, and of course they’re great. They just didn’t move me. Same with Mr. Salgado’s work, with high-contrast black and white visions of India, Africa, and Antarctica. I wondered whether I was evil for not liking the images, but they seemed a bit too generic, like 3rd World Travel Porn, and that was that. He did have one image, super large, of an Algerian man in the foreground of some immense sand dunes that receded into the distance, and while it didn’t do it for me, I was sure that for the many photo lovers who crave the perfect “shot,” it would have been a perfect 10. El Diez, otra vez.

LA Gallery Visit Part 1: The East Side

by Jonathan Blaustein

It wouldn’t be a story about LA if I didn’t bitch about the traffic, so let’s get it done right now and move along. I was headed up Highway 5 from a vacation getaway in a cute little beach town down the coast. Off hours, no drama, until I hit the LA County line. As soon as I crossed over from Orange County (nicknamed the Orange Curtain, I now know) it was as if I drove into a pile of mud. Stop and go, snarled, miserable, bumper to bumper traffic, all the way into Los Angeles. And of course I had to pee. Badly. Really, there are so few things I hate more than being stuck on the Freeway when I have to go. And then some old-school, straight-out-of-Long Beach Snoop Dogg came on the radio while I was trapped under an overpass. I started to laugh, because sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in Hollywood clichĂŠ, and it’s just not worth fighting it.

Regardless, I clamped down as hard as I could and hopped off the 110 in downtown LA for my little tour of the East Side. (The article on the West side will follow shortly.) Let’s be clear, it’s insane to think that one can cover all of LA as a scene, so I didn’t try. I went to see as much as I could, and accepted that much would be left out. That said, I saw a lot.

I started out in Chinatown, which is home to a dozen or so galleries, mixed in among the restaurants, fish stores, and shops selling cheap crap from the Motherland. It sprang up as a home to the contemporary gallery scene a while back, and seems to have held on through the economic chaos. I was last there in 2008, and it was definitely a bleaker place now. Several galleries have gone out of business, and one spot that I’d visited in the past now had some old people playing Mah Jong inside. The homeless quotient was also way up from three years ago, which wasn’t a surprise.

I started out at Sam Lee gallery, on the edge of the neighborhood, right across the street from a highway off-ramp. Sam was showing the work of two different California photographers, mixed up around the room. The first were large scale, razor sharp images by Rebecca Sittler. Whenever possible, I like to look at work without knowing anything about it so I can read the images for all they’ve got. Ms. Sittler’s photographs were of interior scenes, tackily decorated. The first had an eye-catching textural combination of red curtains, trippy carpeting, a wall and a window drape. Another had two beds with a phone in between. There was an image of a heavy, frayed rope on carpet against an angled metal wall, a photo of a roped-off painting with a chair, and also a shiny wood railing in a fancy room.

 

Taken together, I thought I was looking at the inside of a cruise ship. They were devoid of people, and felt lonely. They spoke of an almost Love Boat, 70’s style- cruise culture, where everybody had suddenly disappeared, like the Rapture. Sure enough, I went to look at the press release, and found that Ms. Sittler’s images were made on the decommissioned RMS Queen Mary that sits in the harbor at Long Beach. (Again with the LBC) It’s impressive that she was able to communicate both the setting and the mood without any text or obvious details. Terrific work. As to why this symbol, and why now? A decommissioned behemoth who’s best days are behind it? A musty style that’s trapped in the past.? A lonely relic of the Cold War heyday? Yeah, I get it.

Adam Thorman’s images, on the other hand, were medium-scale photographs of the California Coast, shot in the detail style, from directly above. Tide pools, moss, rocks, that sort of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Coast in my day, and these looked like spots around Point Lobos, or somewhere south of San Francisco. I often wonder why artists try to capture the essence of Nature, without attempting to communicate scale or sound. Zen has it’s place, but requires a depth of perception that was lacking here. Having seen the real thing, I felt like Mr. Thorman’s photos were far less impressive than the original, and not that interesting.

I walked back to Chung King road, which houses several galleries in a row. They had completely turned over since my last visit, and there were fewer spaces in business as well. I began at Charlie James, which was showing work by Carol Selter, also from California. (Now that I think about it, I’m sure that most of the work I saw that day was local.) Ms. Selter was showing a project, “Animal Stories,” that included photographs, sculpture, and video. Her images contained taxidermy animals that she had returned to nature, then photographed. Birds in particular, and also amphibious creatures trapped in little vitrines.  One image depicted a song bird, held by string up to the mouth of a flower.

Damien Hirst references aside, the photographs were compelling. The videos featured the same squirrels, turtles, and a variety of animals talking to each other, bitching about global warming in funny voices. I enjoyed the absurdity, but it didn’t really improve on the message from the photographs. Definite thumbs up, overall.

Next stop was The Box, for a collaborative exhibition by Sara Conaway and Lisa Williamson. Ms. Conaway’s photos were mixed among painting and sculpture, and had a distinctive, airy LA vibe to them. The images were minimal, color-drained photos of 3d objects like wire, cut paper, styrofoam, and cloth. Very sculptural. One exception was a photo with red cloth against an intense yellow background. It reminded me of a de-contextualized, de-politicized “Piss Christ.” I left thinking that everything would look great on a big wall in a big house owned by a big Hollywood production executive. But I’m not about to criticize them for being beautiful, especially as they didn’t look just like everything else out there.

Pepin Moore, right down the alley (Chung King Road is a pedestrian only affair) had a group show curated by LA art star Soo Kim. The exhibition was titled “US EST,” but that didn’t really inform anything. It was a melange of seemingly disconnected work, with a heavy hand from photoshop, and a definite nod to the natural world. (The Earth and sky in particular.) Hannah Whitaker had two multiple image panels in the show: one contained four phases of the moon (boring), and the other was of a white girl in a blue costume dancing with a red hula hoop. Strange, playful, and awesome. The background was all white, and looked like it was photoshopped, especially as one of the shadows seemed to be coming from the wrong direction.

Mark Wyse, another LA art star, was also included in the show. I’ve seen several of his projects before, (cars, surfers) and have also read some of his writing(dense, Yale-ish). Here, he was showing some photos of rocks, perhaps beach rocks, photographed from directly above (not terribly dissimilar from Adam Thorman’s photos up the street.) The images were dry, and razor sharp, but left me unimpressed. Especially as I supposed they were backed by some theory of other. You get a lot of that in LA… pretty photos that are described as far more than what they really are. Not to backtrack from my linear sensibility, but give you an example, the Conaway/Williamson show of pretty pictures was described in the press release as such:

“Their meanings are implicit (not explicit!), resonant (not dull!), and inspired (not locked down!) …there is an aspiratory and generative sensibility that runs throughout.)”

Oh. Thanks. Now I get it.

From there, I made another classic, LA clichĂŠ-type mistake. I decided leave the car in the lot and walk across the 110 to MOCA downtown. It didn’t look that far, and I’ve driven it before in 5 minutes or so, so I figured it would just be a quick little nothing walk. Wrong. Pounding on the pavement in my flipflops, desperate once again to pee, I couldn’t believe how dumb I was to play pedestrian. It took almost a half an hour, all told, and I had to sneak into a conservatory across from Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall just to find a bathroom (The secret? Act casually confident, and pretend you know where you’re going. Make no eye contact, under any circumstances).

Problem solved, I walked the last couple of blocks to MOCA. I had seen on FB the previous week that they had an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s entire Campbell Soup Can series, and I wasn’t about to miss it. Andy has had a huge influence on my work, and was unquestionably one of the two or three most important artists of the 20th Century. His impact has been felt across culture, and here was a chance to see his first major painting project, returned to LA where it had debuted (lent by MOMA, fueling the ever-present East Coast/West Coast rivalry).

The ladies at the ticket counter were kind enough to tell me how to get back to Chinatown by bus, but couldn’t suppress smirks at my silly walking endeavor. Advice freshly received, I headed down into the museum. On my way to see the soup cans, I passed through an exhibition of MOCA’s Pop Art collection, and ran into one of Richard Prince’s Marlboro Men photos, “Untitled (Cowboys),” 1980-84. Prince’s work has been much discussed on this blog in 2011, and I was happy to see it again firsthand. The photo was fascinating in that it had some altered texture that looked very much like the noise or rasterized effect we see all the time in digital images that have been pushed too far. To my eye, it looked current, and the blurring texture definitely looked like an alteration of the original (which we probably all now know is a key ingredient in qualifying for Fair Use).

After rounding a couple of corners, I came face to face with the Campbell Soup paintings, installed in a horizontal line, hung in chronological order of when each type of soup had been released by Campbells. Beginning with Tomato soup in 1897, running through the last released in 1962 (the year the project was exhibited in LA).

I’ll share my thoughts as best I can, but clearly this is something to see in person. One of my first observations, as I walked up and down the line, was that the paintings are not, in fact, identical. For all the notoriety that they are 32 paintings of a soup can, they’re not. Warhol was a commercial illustrator before becoming a fine artist, and he did the majority of each painting by hand. So the slight differences, like where he drew the highlight and shadow demarcations on the can lid, became obvious. And a couple of the paintings had a slightly different hue of red from the others. A function of aging or not, it broke the continuity.

I loved the ironic humor. Cheddar Cheese soup (also a sauce), Pepper Pot, (what?), Scotch Broth (a hearty soup), Beef ConsommĂŠ AND Beef Bouillon, all condensed, of course. Subtle absurdity that grows as you engage the sequence.  I could just see the 1950’s Ad men sitting around drinking cocktails, trying to come up with the next hot product to entice the burgeoning suburban shopper class. The paintings are also cold and a bit alienating. It’s well known that the show was not an immediate success, and the dealer Irving Blum ended up buying the whole set for a song. I can see why. In their mechanical-ness, they really lacked any sense of emotion or viscerality, which would have been a big change from the high drama of the 1950’s Abstract Expressionist emo-fest. But of course, they meshed perfectly with Andy’s blank, emotion-suppressed personal brand. For all the talk about branding nowadays, he clearly got there first (15 minutes, anyone?).

What else? They’re brilliant. Simply brilliant. Has anyone ever really picked a better symbol to speak for so many larger issues? Campbell’s soup. How American is that? Soup was the original peasant food, just add water to whatever else is lying around. It also represents warmth, comfort, and Mom’s home cooking. “Soup is good food,” for god sakes. Then someone figured out how to mechanize the production, canning, and distribution of the thing, and the growth of the American Empire was soon to follow. Soup for everyone, the same everywhere, cheap, with a reassuring label, replete with fleurs-de-lis. Classy. And then, over the years, so many choices were offered. What better way to anticipate the mind-cleansing consumerism of the 21st Century grocery store, or Ebay for that matter?

Mechanization of culture, commodification of home, repetition of ever so slightly different but really the same objects, the mesmerizing combination of white and red (just ask Target how effective it is), the space-agey-ness of the Kennedy era. It’s all there. The paintings obviously look like advertising images, and from a distance resemble photographs. They’re phallic, and were a precursor to the Becher’s water-towers, as well as any other deadpan, ironic type of work we see from the 70’s to today. All together, they tell a story about how American Popular Culture, beginning with Pop Art, became the global monstrosity we see today.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I finally shoved off to see the rest of the museum’s offerings, weaving through a few rooms of painting and sculpture with little that jumped out. Suddenly, I found myself in a not-large room surrounded by 58 of Robert Frank’s photographs from “The Americans,” hung in two horizontal rows. They were crammed together, and I felt like I do when I try to shoe-horn myself into my jeans the week after Thanksgiving. Uncomfortable to the point of claustrophobia. I saw the Frank retrospective in 2009 at SFMOMA, and wrote about it in Fraction Magazine, so I’ll spare you a rehash of how seminal I think the work is. Here, I could not get a sense of the scope or the message. The installation was non-linear, and confusing. Really, it made me want to not look. And they were all framed the same size and way, cream colored mats with black frames. Hard to imagine that I didn’t want to bother looking at some of my favorite art of all time, but there it is.

Right around the corner, I saw ten terrific photographs by Helen Levitt, framed and hung the same way, literally jammed into a corner. Of course, across the hall, each of Mark Rothko’s paintings were given feet upon feet of breathing space. Odd. I’m the last guy to have a complex about photography’s place in the Art World, because I think those battles were fought and won years ago. At MOCA, however, the message of photography’s inferiority was emblazoned on the wall through it’s second-class installation.

So with my panties in a wedge, I climbed back to street level, hopped a Dash B bus, and headed back to find my car in Chinatown. After a couple of stale, nasty pork buns from a Chinese bakery on Broadway, I got some directions to I-10 in Spanish, and headed out to the West Side, hoping the traffic gods would smile kindly on me… they did.

Interview With Ariel Shanberg, Center for Photography at Woodstock

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Ariel Shanberg is the Executive Director of the Center for Photography at Woodstock. He curated the exhibition “Camp: Visiting Day,” that is on view at CPW through August 28, 2011.

Jonathan Blaustein: You’ve got a background in art. You received a BFA in painting from Rutgers. Go Jersey. And you’re from New Jersey as well?

Ariel Shanberg: I am.

JB: Me too. So how did you transition from painter to non-profit executive director?

AS: As a young artist graduating from Rutgers, I knew where New York City was, how to get there and find my way around. But I was much more interested in finding an environment where the arts and making art were more enmeshed with life. New York City felt like business, and I wanted to find a place that was more focused on the other aspects of art. Luck and serendipity brought me to Woodstock.

I had heard a bit about it while I was in school from a few of my professors, Martha Rosler and Diane Neumaier, who had done things with CPW. So I walked in, introduced myself, and asked how I could be involved. They said they had a internship program, and I said “That sounds great.” I was 23 at the time, and really looking to get exposed to arts administration, and what it was like to facilitate arts programming for the community.

I was really fortunate growing up, because art was a part of my daily life. Both of my parents had studied to be artists, and I was surrounded by friends of theirs who were artists as well. It was that love of art, when I got to CPW, that got me to say, “Yeah, I’ll work here for free.” And it hasn’t changed that much over the years.

JB: So you decided to move to Woodstock as an art community, and then you got the job?

AS: Exactly. I loved that it (CPW) was nestled in the daily life of Woodstock. That it wasn’t set in some arts district, or some stand-alone place that you had to drive to. You could literally get a cup of coffee, a morning paper, paper towels and groceries, and stop in and see what was on view at CPW.

JB: You know, it’s funny, it’s almost like you’re reading my to-do list. It says buy paper towels, and go see an art show. On a random Tuesday. It says so right here. (editors note: No, it doesn’t.)

AS: That access, and having art available to the general public was something that was really important to me. It wasn’t something that only people with certain degrees do, or people who have extra time. Everybody should see an exhibition at least once a week. It’s an opportunity to exercise your mind and see the world through other people’s eyes.

JB: CPW runs exhibitions, lectures, workshops, artist residencies, fellowships, and publications. A bit of everything. How does it all fit together, beyond the fact that it’s all coming out of one physical space? How did the program evolve to be so wrap-around?

AS: CPW’s founding was in response to the fact that photographers didn’t have a home in one of the country’s oldest art colonies. It was established first as the Catskills Center for Photography, so photographers would have a place to exhibit their work, foster community, and develop their own knowledge. When our founders, which included Howard Greenberg and Michael Feinberg, began the institution, they started with exhibitions and workshops. Two very basic things. One was using wall space to show work, as the first shows were Walker Evans and Russell Lee. Nice roots to begin the endeavor.

JB: The workshops went hand in hand with the exhibitions, because I would imagine the workshops would create a revenue stream that would enable you guys to keep the doors open from the beginning?

AS: That was part of it, but it was more about connecting photographers. We’re talking about 1977, when there weren’t that many photo programs in schools. Photography was still struggling for legitimacy within the art world. People were looking to take this utilitarian device that everyone had in the house, and do something more with it. The desire was to connect people who had something to offer to people who wanted to learn. That’s always been the motive and the mission of the workshop program. We want to see people develop their practice, refine their vision, and achieve their goals. Whether that be to exhibit in a gallery, to have an essay published, to refine their website, or build connections with other photographers.

Over the years, the staff and various directors have looked at who’s getting served in the field, who’s getting opportunities, who needs to be championed, and how can we help? Right off the bat, pre-Internet, the magazine, Photography Quarterly, was established to connect with audiences beyond our immediate borders. It has achieved that, and even with the Internet, the print publication serves as a lasting document archive to the ideas and the work. With some of our other programs, like the fellowship award, it was specifically designed to help artists working in Upstate and Central New York.

Our residency program ties us to the deepest roots of Woodstock as an artists colony. Even though we had a darkroom and expertise, it wasn’t something we were actively engaging. The program got started in 1999, and has allowed us to play a role in the creation of some pretty significant bodies of work by some great artists. It’s all about nurturing artists, whether it be educating them, giving them opportunity, serving as a bridge. Sometimes we need a bridge to master artists to mentor and educate us, or a bridge to audiences to connect our work to them. We also hope to be a bridge for artists to collectors, and to audiences who will become stake-holders in their own work and efforts.

JB: You mentioned that Howard Greenberg was a founder, and I noticed that some major New York gallerists were on your advisory board, like Yossi Milo, Brian Clamp, & Daniel Cooney. How does that connection to the NYC gallery world drive your programming?

AS: Dan Cooney is an alum of SUNY-New Paltz, and as a young college student, in his summers, would come up to Woodstock and attend our visiting artist lectures. Some of his best education in photography, as he shared with me, came from our lectures. Which, when you’re living in Upstate New York, you wouldn’t normally get in a small rural town of six thousand people. Which speaks to why some of those people are on our advisory board, but also where that education and bridge-building goes. Dan’s a great example. With all those people you’ve mentioned, and others, they really value CPW’s commitment to nurturing artists, particularly emerging artists. As galleries, they recognize the important role that spaces like CPW play in the role in the development of artists that they will eventually work with.

JB: How do you see the role of non-profit galleries as differing from commercial galleries, both to the artists and the art audience?

AS: We’re not commerce driven. We have a different definition of success. We’re really interested in risk-taking and providing a platform where artists can push their work and experiment. We don’t need to make sales because we’re supported by grants and foundations. I think that non-profit spaces are great places for young, emerging artists to be discovered. I have no qualms on being a step on a ladder in career development. The other thing, and this goes beyond emerging artists, but for mid-career artists too, the scholarly and curatorial investigation of artists’ work that can take place at spaces like ours. Being outside of the market-driven art world, we’re able to have conversations on and through the work of photographers, (and artists working with related media) that help contextualize their work in a larger dialogue.

JB: I noticed you guys did an exhibition from the VII agency late last year. You were showing prints that, certainly in the past, would have been considered photo-journalism. What was the audience reaction to being surrounded by that kind of suffering and tragedy?

AS: It was a great exhibition that was organized by Tufts University, and we were really honored to have it on view. The exhibition space is a remarkable environment where you can slow time down, and you can ask people, particularly with a still image, to consider the ideas or histories, and the narrative that often flash by our eyes. They can see things with a new light or perspective, as they’ve been re-contextualized outside of news information sources. The response to the show was pretty much, across-the-board in awe. For the commitment that the photographers in VII have made to telling these stories, and to the generosity of their subjects as well. There are many people in devastating situations and plight, but I think people left that exhibition feeling a little more connected. Maybe a little more responsible for the world we live in. It definitely did not leave people feeling down and depressed. I think the notion of going to a gallery just for entertainment or escape can work sometimes, but it should not define the exhibition space, or the museum-going experience. We seek to challenge and provoke our audience.

JB: One of the reasons that you and I got to chatting in Santa Fe last month was that you mentioned you were doing a show called “Camp: Visiting Day,” about the predominantly East Coast, I want to say 80’s experience, but I’m sure it’s still alive and well. I spent time, back in the day, in a sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania and one in New York. (The singer Pete Yorn was in my bunk for a couple of years.) A few weeks before we chatted in Santa Fe, I had some spare time, which is rare, and I found myself cyber-stalking my old camp bunkmates on Facebook. Not friending anybody, just finding the public photo albums, and trying to get a sense of what these goofballs looked like as 30-something dads and husbands. A lot of puffy faces, I assure you.

Truthfully, I’m not in touch with any of these people, they haven’t impacted my adult life, and yet I could recite everyone’s name in five seconds. These guys still pop up in my sub-conscious. So I found the experience pretty formative, and I was excited to hear you were curating a photo exhibition about Camp. I thought maybe you could tell us a bit about how you came to curate the show, and how it has resolved itself on the wall.

AS: Camp is not something that everybody has experienced, but it’s one of the most defining elements in our transition from young people to adults for those of us who have. It’s the first experience for people, sleep-away camp specifically, that they are away from their parents and have a certain sense of autonomy. While there’s supervision, it’s almost an unabashed indulgence in youth. Swimming, sports, arts & crafts. It’s also a place where we try out and explore our identity. There’s something about the nine months of the school year that lock us into a sense of perspective of identity that may or may not be our own. One that’s pressured by certain societal and social norms, and when people go to camp, they’re often interacting with kids who might not live in the same county or state. So there’s an opportunity to reinvent or claim for the first time who you are. With this being our summer exhibition, I wanted to celebrate that.

I’m a person who went through a number of years of sleep-away camp, they were really some of the first moments where I was able to see myself as an individual. The artists I ended up including in the exhibition really celebrate and identify the ways that we relate to camp. You have somebody like Jennifer Loeber, who photographed shortly after attending Rowe camp, which she went to in Western Massachusetts. This is a camp where literally, kids are governing themselves. They’re planning their schedule, and in a society where kids tend to be so over-programmed these days, this was an incredibly empowering experience. During their time there, they have the opportunity for them to mock normal conventions, and celebrate eccentricity and individuality.

(click images for larger version)

JB: If we had had that back in my day, with the kids in control, it would have been Guns’ n Roses on the loudspeaker all day, every day. “Welcome to the Jungle” on a total loop until everyone killed themselves. Which, in retrospect, doesn’t sound like such a good idea.

AS: We had something similar, but it lasted only 24 hours. It was called Revolution, and the oldest bunk in the camp kicked out all the staff except for the kitchen staff, because of course you can’t let the kids get hungry. By the end of it, no matter how much fun you had, you learned just what a tough job it was, and you were happy to see those counselors come back.

JB: I suspect you might have been more responsible than I. You and I know, and now the audience will know, that there are probably dozens of summer camps within a 50 mile radius of where you’re at. Has it crossed your mind to try to set up some sort of field trip where kids actually come check out the work on the wall?

AS: Originally, we had hoped that would be the case. There are some adult themes within the exhibition that make it challenging to get a blanket approval for a camp audience of teens.

JB: One of the artists, you’re referring to, his camp was purchased and turned into something very different…

AS: You are correct. Adrain Chesser, as a young boy and a Boy Scout, went to a campground in Southern Florida, and struggled at that time with being a closeted gay male. In an act of sublime surprise, he found out years later that the very same campground was purchased by a group of gay men who turned it into a gay campground. He returned, as an adult gay male, to photograph that campground. The pictures evoke the joy and freedom of camp, the game-playing and interpersonal relationships that take place. I love the work, it’s some of my favorite in the show. But when you’re bringing in a group of kids from different families and backgrounds, it’s a challenge to make sure that everybody’s going to be OK with it.

JB: You mean their parents.

AS: The younger generation is always more open to new ideas and ways of being than the parental generation. One of the things we will never do is compromise by shielding the work in an exhibition…I don’t believe in censorship, and we’ll leave it at that.

JB: It sounds like you’ve got certain elements to your programming that you do on an annual basis. You were mentioning that you’ve an annual fundraiser, and I know that every year you do a show called “Photography Now,” with a major juror. This year it was Vince Aletti, and in past years Darren Ching and Charlotte Cotton. I would imagine if you get to look at the submissions yourself, that probably gives you an interesting snapshot on what’s being done in a given year. Have you noticed any changes in tenor, style or subject matter? Are there strong themes that emerge each year, or is it just a hodgepodge?

AS: In 2010, Lesley Martin was our juror as well. What has really shifted over time, in looking over the submissions from year to year, the overall quality is getting stronger. I think that is reflective of the craftsmanship within photography, and people’s visual language is getting more refined. The other thing that’s getting stronger is the multitude of strains and genres of photography. We’re in a time where working with wet plate alternative processes is as relevant as someone who is working with the visual language of the computer age as well as somebody who is traveling through the mountains of Tora Bora. That’s what’s exciting about the time we’re in.

As far as the jurors go, based upon their own track records and perceived interests, and I want to emphasize perceived, each competition or call for entries attracts a different set of applicants. With Vince Aletti this year, one of the really remarkable things was how he was cognizant of his daily life experience impacting what he chose. As Vince professed, he’s a portrait person. Yet having been a juror for World Press Photo, and having spent ten days looking at intense, narrative, photojournalistic and documentary work, when he came back and had the DVD with all our applicants, he found himself gravitating towards a different type of work. Photographs that reflected more artistic exploration, with evidence of craft and the artist’s hand, that he wouldn’t have responded to had he not had that experience. That’s something that’s very generous of a juror to reveal. To reduce it to the simplest terms, it’s like saying “Hey, I had pancakes for breakfast, so I was attracted to things that are round.”

JB: The shoe was on the other foot, in that you were just a juror for a group exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography. What did you bring to the table?

AS: There’s a different approach in jurying a group exhibition, versus curating an exhibition, like the Camp exhibit, which was an idea that was percolating in my mind for twelve years. When it came to the HCP member’s show, I recognized this as a subset of photography I am pulling from, and wanted to find the best of the best. I was interested in putting together an exhibition for them that celebrated the great range of power that photography has as a communicative tool.

JB: I’d love to get to see it, but I have no plans to go to Houston this summer.

AS: On their website, they have at least one image for each artist, which is a nice survey of the work in the show. But I have to say that nothing beats seeing the work in person.

JB: I’ll have to check it out. We talked about what you do up in Woodstock, and there are so many programs available to photographers, but what’s the best way for someone
to get on your radar screen. How do you like people to get their work in front of you?

AS: One of the important roles of a not-for-profit space like CPW is to be as accessible as possible. That said, it’s also important to recognize that we do a lot, and when somebody approaches us, we want to know that there’s a serious level of commitment, not only to their work, but to the possibility of us working together with them. One of the things I strongly advise against is, don’t just send us an email saying, “Hey, take a look at my website.” We want someone to really take the time to introduce themselves to us. We want to them to show they’ve been thoughtful in their approach to us, because we’re going to be thoughtful in our approach to them.

JB: Sounds like a thorough, well-thought-out info packet, on the heels of some serious research into what you guys have shown and funded in the past.

AS: Always the best way. And don’t start the letter to me with Dear Ms. Shanberg.

JB: (laughing) You know we’re not going to cut that. It’s going right into the interview.

AS: I had a feeling. It’s one of the trials of having a gender-ambiguous name.

JB: How about Dear Sir or Madam? You’ve got to get a lot of those, right?

AS: That just reflects not doing the homework. All you have to do is read one of the staff member’s bio’s to see who to send things to and what their gender is.

JB: It’s funny. You and I met briefly at the PDN Expo that I chronicled for APE last year, and listening to the lectures during the event, that piece of advice was spouted
so many times. Do your homework. I came away wondering how could it be possible that so many people don’t?

AS: I’ll say this, making your photography, doing your art, is something that for a lot of people is a combination of technical skill, professional know-how, and personal dream and fantasy. Being an artist is this incredibly fantasized notion, and for a lot of people, it’s a place where they put their dreams. When you’re doing that, you tend to forget your practical business skills, or you tend not to think about bringing all the other skills you have to it. Because it’s about being “creative.” To put it in a concise term, being creative doesn’t mean not being professional.

Interview With Gallerist Sidney Monroe

- - Art

Contributor Jonathan Blaustein interviews Sidney Monroe owner of the Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, NM.

Photograph by Irving Haberman

JB: How did you get involved in the business?

SM: It was accidental, almost. After college, I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then, I started working in contemporary galleries in New York.

JB: Were you in the photo department at the Met?

SM: I was not. I was in the retail department. It was a fascinating time, because it was at the time of the Tutankhamun exhibition, and it was the first time they put a satellite retail operation in the exhibition, as opposed to just in the gift shop. It spurred their entire retail model. I can’t remember the numbers, but in the three years I was there, sales went from like $3 million to $50 million, because of the expansion of the retail model. This was before they had the retail stores in airports and such.

JB: So is this in the 80’s?

SM: This is in the early 80’s, yeah. I had been a business and economics major in college, and always had an interest in the arts. My circle of friends was always artistically inclined. I was completely talentless…

JB: Entirely, perfectly talentless?

SM: Entirely talentless, but I was always in a circle of creative people. When I took that job at the Met, it was a beginning opportunity in the retail department as they were expanding. Within a year, I became a manger of the book shop. In the book store, you could take anything you wanted to read, you could purchase at at discount, and I immersed myself in learning about art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an incredible place.

JB: It’s my favorite museum in the world. I studied art more there, when I lived in New York, than even in graduate school.

SM: Anyone who’s been there knows you can spend hours, days wandering, and still not see it all. And I had access to the catacombs, because there’s storage under Central Park. You go down in there, and there’s a Rodin sculpture with a tarp over it. Crates with you can’t imagine what might be in there.

JB: I would kill for a chance to see that. If any of your people end up reading this, I want a secret tour.

SM: I’m sure it’s all changed. Especially in a Post-9/11 world. This was the 80’s, things were very loose, and it was a great training ground.

JB: So you moved from there to the photo gallery world?

SM: The contemporary gallery world.

JB: Where?

Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt

SM: I started at a gallery that’s no longer in existence, and quite frankly I can’t remember the name. Then I went to The Circle Gallery, which was a commercial galley specializing in contemporary prints. For a while, they were kind of legendary for having a retail model for a gallery, opening different branches in other cities. That’s where I cut my teeth in the art business. That led to an opportunity to meet Alfred Eisenstadt. He was in his 80’s, and had done some museum exhibits. But he had never done a gallery/selling exhibit. Somehow he had gotten in contact with the owner of The Circle Gallery. I was then the director, and became involved in talking with Eisenstadt about doing an exhibit. My wife-to-be and I got to go up to the Time-Life Building, and sit across from Eisie at his desk. We were both in our 20’s, he was in his 80’s, and it was like a lightbulb went off. I was sitting across from a man who has witnessed history.That’s when I got hooked. We did this exhibit, it traveled nationally, and was huge at the time. It was on CNN, Good Morning America, all the morning talk shows.

JB: Had any of the LIFE photographers shown their work in a gallery context before that?

SM: Not so much. Time-Life had a small gallery in the building, and they would routinely do exhibits for the photographers, but nowhere near the scale of a public gallery. Eisie was a very, very smart man. Of all the LIFE photographers, he published dozens of books. He was ahead of his time in that he understood that photojournalism should be more broadly available to the public, as opposed to just existing in a magazine. I firmly believe this drove the last 10 years of his life. He worked on supervising his prints, traveling exhibitions, doing interviews, meeting the public, from the time he was 85 until he died at 96.

That set off a spark for me, and within a couple of years after that, I had two partners and we opened a gallery in Soho on Grand St. It was just devoted to photography, with an emphasis on photojournalism. That gallery opened in the fall of 1996. We did several shows with LIFE magazine photographers, and presented the first ever exhibition from the archives of Margaret Bourke-White’s estate. Fast-forwarding, after 9/11, being in that location was no longer viable for commerce. My wife and I decided to leave Manhattan, come to Santa Fe, and start over.

JB: Why did you choose Santa Fe?

SM: It’s a good question, and we’re just realizing that we’ve been here 10 years, now, and it’s gone by very quickly. We couldn’t find a location in Manhattan quick enough to relocate. The location we had on Grand St was the quintessential Soho gallery. Cast-iron columns, 16 ft ceilings, everything you would want in a beautiful gallery. Already the migration had already started towards Chelsea. We looked, and all that would be available, if you weren’t one of the big players, would be on the 6th, 7th, 8th floor of a building in Chelsea, and I didn’t like that model. We have always believed in photojournalism, and that it needs to be seen by the public. We’re very passionate about spreading the message, so the public is integral to what we do.

We’d visited New Mexico, and I have family roots here. We knew there was a vibrant art scene in Santa Fe. We did some research, and depending on the data, it was either number two or three art market behind Manhattan. Quite frankly, we took a leap of faith. 9/11 happened. We decided in October, we moved over Christmas break, and we opened the gallery in Santa Fe in April of 2002. We honed down very tightly on photojournalism. That’s all we’ve focused on showing here.

JB: Are there other galleries now that have followed your lead and do what you do, or do you still feel like you’ve got a unique position in the market?

Photograph by Bill Eppridge

SM: I think we accidentally found a unique niche. Accidentally, because it followed from a passion. Something sparked, and that’s the direction I went in, and at the time nobody else was really doing it. Now there have always been some photo galleries that show some photojournalism in with their other programming, but to my knowledge, there is still nobody doing pure photojournalism, and that’s really become what we’re known for. Both within the collecting and museum community, and the public gallery-going community as well.

JB: I’m sitting here in the gallery, surrounded by artifacts of American history, and I know you said already that you developed a relationship with Alfred Eisenstadt, and that was the catalyst for the gallery, but how did you develop relationships with the other photographers whose work you show? Especially because I’ve got to imagine you’re working with Estates, because many of these people have passed on.

SM: That’s correct.

–(editor’s note: Right here, we were interrupted by a strange woman who took the time to complain that there were no photographs of dancers on the wall. She felt slighted. Mr. Monroe patiently answered her questions, and treated her with respect, despite the fact that she was behaving like a complete nutbar.)

SM: Partly, it was fortunate timing. When we began, many of these photographers were still alive. Eisenstadt introduced us to many of his colleagues at LIFE magazine, Carl Mydans was still living, as were many of the other LIFE photographers. It’s almost like a fraternity. One of the things we’ve been so passionate about is getting these photographers to make prints while they’re still alive. As a photojournalist, unlike a lot of other photographers, they never considered making prints during their lifetime. They were on assignment. They had a job to to. They got their assignment from LIFE or LOOK or whomever, they went out in the field, shot their work, sent their film back, and chances are they never even saw it. It was edited, and used or not used in a magazine.

When we met some of these other photographers, particularly with Carl Mydans, and we suggested that they could go back through the work and see it fresh. He’s seen it in a magazine, or a book, but to sit down with a negative and a printer…the printer would say, “Carl, you can make it this big or that big, we use different paper, crop it this way or that.” It opened up a whole new possibility for them in doing their work. We’ve met these photographers, we’ve encouraged them to do this, but a lot of times they’re hesitant. It’s just not something that’s in their thought process.

JB: Then. But probably we would say that’s changed.

Photograph by Eddie Adams

SM: That has changed. And now you get a lot more photographers who say, “I want to do what he did.” It really was like a fraternity, and one by one, we either knew about photographers, sometimes we’d talk to them and they’d be resistant. I knew Eddie Adams way back when in New York. Eddie was infamous for refusing galleries. I never really approached him, but I’d always talk to him about it. Within a few months of his passing, his wife came to us and asked us to represent the Estate. It’s a combination of people coming to us, people we’ve put out feelers to, and it’s a very close-knit community. Almost all of our photographers are colleagues of some sort. Sometimes to almost a humorous point. We did an exhibit once, and a photographer found out he was hanging next to another photographer, and he said, “Son-of-a-bitch, I hated him then, and I don’t want to hang next to him in your gallery.” So we moved the exhibit around a little bit.

JB: You did?

SM: We did. My wife likes to say “We work for them.” And that’s true. A lot of times they’re elderly, and we feel very privileged. It’s important to get their work represented, particularly while they’re alive, and to get prints made that will represent a legacy for the future.

JB: You developed a relationship with a network of photographers who knew one another, and as your reputation built, they came to want to work with you. But what about the collectors themselves? How did you develop a relationship with a network of people who wanted to buy these prints.

SM: It started very innocently. This is what we were passionate about. This is what we put on the walls. This is what we want to talk about. And it was slow going in the beginning. We had many times where we had exhibits up, and the established photo collector would be like, “Gee, I don’t know about your gallery,” and then they’d look at it, and they’d say, “But this is photojournalism?” And we were like, “Yeah, isn’t it great?” A lot of what we’ve done, is that we’ve educated people about photojournalism.

Moving to Santa Fe was very liberating, in a way, because in the New York art world, there’s a tremendous pressure. What’s hot? What’s the next big thing? More so in the art world, but it does also permeate into the photo world. So seeing old history on the wall isn’t very sexy. Moving to Santa Fe, there’s more freedom, it seems, of peoples’ perceptions of art in general. We’ve tried to create an environment where the photographs speak for themselves.

JB: So most of your collectors have been into the space? Are most of the people local to Santa Fe?

Photograph by Steve Schapiro

SM: No. We have a very wide base. Fortunately, having been in business in Manhattan for so many years, a lot of those clients follow us. Of course, so much can be done in the virtual world now. It doesn’t replace the experience, but certainly they can follow the imagery. We also do photo fairs in New York and Los Angeles. Often, it comes from the first conversation you have with a person about why they’re having a visceral reaction to a particular image. Being complete academic nerds, we can recite everything that was ever vaguely relevant about a particular photographer. It’s about cultivating relationships and knowledge. You touched on the retail model. I believe it’s an important model for a photography gallery. And by retail, I don’t mean retail selling.

JB: Well, that was my next question. Because we’re in downtown Santa Fe, and during the course of this interview, I’d say 25 people have already been into the gallery, and an additional 40 have been looking at pictures through the window. I think some people believe that people come in and buy things off the wall, and other people think that’s a fantasy. I was hoping we might be able to address, from your own standpoint, how it actually works.

SM: Personally, our goal is to spread the gospel of photojournalism, so getting the work seen by the public is critical. It’s a part of what we do, and another part is to educate. That doesn’t mean we preach, but I’m available to anyone who wants to ask questions, as we saw earlier, from mundane to serious. There’s no screening process of who gets to talk to me.

JB: Is that because we’re in Santa Fe? I wrote some things that were critical of some of the galleries in Chelsea for that reason. The approachability factor is nil. Here you’re talking about the fact that you’re almost perfectly approachable.

SM: That was our posture in New York. It’s just who I am and the way I work. It is bothersome sometimes, but that’s just the way it is. And I have to say that it has resulted in some incredibly long-term relationships with very important collectors. I think it’s a thing in the art world, and everybody has their model, and they can do it the way they want. But by design, I want the work to be seen, I want people to be able to ask questions. The retail model for us is that we’re open to the public, and we’re here to show photography. Both in New York and Santa Fe, we’re connected to schools, workshops, communities. Santa Fe is wonderful because of the Santa Fe Workshops, and Center as well. Many instructors bring their classes in here.

JB: You’re talking about retail as a way to engage with the public and have an exhibition space that enables the work to be seen. I’m curious, a bit, about the alternative way of viewing the concept of retail. The idea that people are going to walk in off the street, buy something off the wall, and take it home with them. As opposed to sales coming through built-up relationships over time. How often do you find that members of the public cross over to become collectors, as opposed to the public being appreciators?

SM: It’s hard to quantify, but obviously it’s a very small percentage. But just yesterday, a young couple came in and asked about a Margaret Bourke-White photograph we had exhibited seven years ago. They got married here seven years ago, and came back again on vacation. They asked about the photograph and they bought it.

JB: So it happens, but it’s the exception. It’s not the basis of your business.

SM: No. It’s not the basis of our business.

JB: Nor could it be?

SM: No. Nor could it be. Or should it be.

JB: Right, but in a sense, we’re talking about the exhibition divested from commerce. The exhibition is about getting the work seen, which is not that different from a museum or a public space.

SM: That’s exactly right. A lot of people, as they exit the gallery, say this is like a museum.

JB: As you said before, by design. You could be a private dealer with a small office, if you wanted to be.

Photograph by John Filo

SM: Absolutely. And we curate based upon our agenda, which is to tell a story. A lot of times, you get comments from the public, “How do you know which one’s going to sell?” Well, that never even enters into the equation. And on the flip side, there are a lot of times where we have controversial pictures that upset people, and they say, “Why do you put that on the wall?” Because it’s part of the story. It’s very important.

JB: It’s a perfect opportunity to ask, you’re opening your big summer exhibition called “History’s Big Picture” on July 1st. It’s not on the wall today, so I thought you might be able to tell us a bit about that.

SM: Curating is always interesting, because you’re juggling dozens of ideas. It occurred to us that this year is our 10th year anniversary in Santa Fe, during which time we built our photojournalism focus. And it occurred to us that we’ve got this incredible stable of photojournalism that we could curate from and make “History’s Big Picture.” The hardest part is editing, because we could do ten exhibits called “History’s Big Picture” and not duplicate any images.

JB: Really? How big an archive do you have? Given what you just said, how many pictures do you have access to?

SM: Jonathan, I couldn’t even tell you…

JB: Thousands?

SM: Thousands. We have archives in the gallery, we have off-site location here and in Manhattan, and we have our photographers who maintain archives.

JB: Sure. I interrupted, but you were talking about “History’s Big Picture.” As a curator, that’s kind of a broad theme. What did that mean to you?

SM: The pictures that tell the story of history. You have to edit your timeline for history, of course.

JB: American history?

SM: Primarily history as it relates to America. We chose 1930 as the starting point, and wanted to come as close to the present as possible. We have several images from 2006, 2007 and 2008.

JB: Am I correct that for the recent work, you’re showing Nina Berman’s pictures?

SM: We are.

JB: At APE, we spoke to her earlier this year. She’s fantastic. How did you come to get her work in the show?

SM: She is fantastic. She’s somebody I’ve admired. For photojournalists today, they’re obviously working in a challenging environment, and a changed one as far as the media goes. In the heyday, you had vehicles like LIFE or LOOK, where that work was published, the photographer became known, and the public saw the work. In today’s media world, getting images shown is very challenging.

JB: You mean getting images seen?

SM: Yes, getting images seen.

JB: It’s a distinction we could probably talk about for an hour, but I think most people reading this will probably know the difference.

SM: Of course. The visual clutter that’s prevalent today. And the change of the economy of scale of the media. So Nina is one of the many contemporary photojournalists that I’ve known about, followed and admired. I wasn’t sure how we could show her work and do it justice, but in the context of this exhibit, I felt that we’ve got to have it. She was so gracious and accommodating, and it was an honor to have five of her photographs in the exhibit. We’ve got two from “Homeland Security” and three from the “Marine Wedding” series.

JB: Including the Ty Zeigler wedding portrait?

SM: Including the wedding portrait.

JB: Which I saw on the wall in New York last year, which led to the interview with Nina. So we’ve come full circle. That picture will now be on the wall here in Santa Fe all summer long.

SM: And I’m prepared. That picture’s going to elicit a lot of, I don’t know if controversy is the right word. But in the context of a public exhibition, in summer, which is high traffic tourist season in Santa Fe, the good side is obviously this show will get a lot of exposure. And the other side is that there are some very difficult photographs in this exhibit. But that’s history. That’s reality.

JB: Sure. Well, I know that everyone hates to be asked what’s your favorite, or what’s the best, or this or that. But I thought maybe if I put you on the spot, you might be able to pull out some old-school war story from back in the day that somebody told you that you still tell at dinner parties when you’ve had four glasses of wine.

SM: There’s a few.

JB: I’m sure there are many. But can you give us one?

Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt

SM: One of my all time favorites happens to be about Eisenstadt. This was at an opening for one of Eisie’s shows. He was a small man, and he was very confident of his success, shall we say. So this was at a big opening, and lots of big collectors were invited. I had a collector who’d bought several of Eisie’s pictures, and he said he’d like to meet Eisie. I said absolutely, and he asked if his son could come too. I said “Sure,” and made the introduction. Eisie was always very gracious, but he didn’t like to hang out with people too much. So the man said, “Mr. Eisenstadt, I just bought my son a camera, and I told him, now you can take pictures like Eisenstadt.” And Eisenstadt just stopped and gave him this stare, and he said, “My dear sir, I have ten fingers, and I cannot play the piano like Horowitz.” At that point, I said thank you very much and escorted him away.

JB: It’s kind of dry.

SM: It’s very dry. There’s the face value that says anybody can take pictures. And it’s a very good point, especially nowadays, where everybody’s a photographer. It’s the topic du jour now. I’ve seen so many articles about it.

JB: Me too, so we don’t even have to go there. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask one more question. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into this part of the business? What do you think is the pathway into the gallery industry in 2011?

SM: First and foremost, it has to be your passion. Unfortunately in the world we’re in today, a lot of people glamorize the business. They think it would be so glamorous to have a fancy gallery, and it has to be your passion.

JB: So not everyone gets to blow lines with Naomi Campbell?

SM: No. But we had a great exhibit back in New York with a good friend of mine named Mick Rock, who’s really become quite successful now. He was known as the man who shot the 70’s. He did all the rock and roll photography. He was Bowie’s photographer and Lou Reed’s photographer. I got to know him, and I convinced him to do an exhibit. So when we did the show, we had Bowie, and Iman and Lou Reed hanging out. I would always say, “I’m never going to get rid of that desk chair,” because Bowie and Lou Reed sat in that chair.

But that’s not why you get into the business, is my point. If you’re passionate about the work, it will be rewarding no matter what, because you’re doing what you enjoy. And that’s the bottom line. It’s a job, and it’s work. It’s a fabulous job, and it’s fabulous work, but it’s a job.

If you’ve got the passion, the first step is to find your photographers. There’s a partnership between a gallery and the photographer/artist. You’re in it together. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. When I sell a print and call up the photographer to tell them, that’s a celebration we share. The next thing that follows is the relationships with your clients. And then you take it from there.

Ai Weiwei Released

- - Art

Mr. Ai was reached on his cell phone shortly before 12:30 a.m. Thursday. “I’m released, I’m home, I’m fine,” he said in English. “In legal terms, I’m — how do you say — on bail. So I cannot give any interviews. But I’m fine.”

via, NYTimes.com

Free Ai Weiwei

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Photograph by Hugo Tillman

America loves a good bad guy. We’re never really at our best until our backs are against the wall. Just look at Rocky Balboa. He was fat, tired and lazy until Clubber Lang came along. Or was it Ivan Drago? Regardless, Manifest Destiny aside, we see ourselves as a nation of good-guy gunslingers, out to make the world safe for democracy.

So what are we to do now? Osama Bin Laden, our Number one foil, is dead. Execution style, no less. We’ve just begun the second decade of the 21st Century, and we’re lacking a proper Bond villain to whip us into fighting shape. Don’t worry, I’ve got an idea. Aside from consuming, what’s more American than Freedom? Nothing, right? From Patrick Henry on down, we’ve always been willing to scrap over our freedom to drink, smoke, and say whatever the hell we damn well please. Honestly, I’m writing this article for an audience who sometimes treats the comment section like an after hours speakeasy on the Jersey Shore. Freedom of speech is something we can all believe in, and unfortunately we probably take it for granted.

Enter Ai Weiwei. He’s the most famous Contemporary Chinese artist in the world. (Which probably makes him slightly less famous than whatever teenaged bimbos are pimping on MTV at the moment.) Anyway, for those of you who haven’t yet heard of Ai Weiwei, he’s a multi-media artist and architect, and the son of one of China’s most prominent poets. His work drips with rebellion and epitomizes the freedom of expression at all costs. He once made a photo series in which he’s photographed giving the middle finger to the White House, the Eiffel Tower, and the Imperial Palace in Beijing. He also champions the rights of the less fortunate China, having undertaken significant risk to investigate the death of so many rural schoolchildren in the aftermath of the Sichan Earthquake of 2008. He just showed 100 million hand painted ceramic sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London, and of course recently unveiled a set of sculptures near the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Oh, yeah. And he was also kidnapped by the Chinese government last month. I’d say disappeared, but it was reported last week that his wife was able to visit him and confirm he’s not dead yet. Ai Weiwei was taken off a plane by government agents in April, his studio was destroyed, and he was locked away indefinitely for the vague, trumped up charge of “economic crimes.”

Which brings us back to my nomination for America’s new Enemy Number 1: The cadre of ruthless assholes who runs the Chinese Communist Party. (There’s a bit or Orwellian double-speak for you. Calling the worlds largest sovereign wealth fund Communist.) Really, I know this will sound naivĂŠ and simplistic. Barack Obama has no leverage with these guys right now, you’ll say. They own our debt, so they can do as they please. Even Google backed down from a fight, so they must be some pretty bad dudes. I’ll stipulate that. They might even hack my email after we publish this article.

But hear me out. Ai Weiwei was locked away not because he was horribly critical of the CCP. He wasn’t, really. I mean, who can get angry with someone who honors dead schoolchildren? He also helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics, so they couldn’t have hated him that much. Ai Weiwei wasn’t a threat because of the content of his art, it was because of his process. He spoke his mind, made what he wanted to, built an audience on his blog and Twitter. Sound familiar? Basically, he acted like a digitally literate, free human being in the 21st Century. Just like us. How many of you make the pictures you want to make, say the words you want to say, write the comments you want to write?

Ever since I first saw Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” seven years ago, I knew this day was coming. (Yes, he’s the same guy who choreographed the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies that gave so many people the heebie-geebies.) I’d say spoiler alert, but the film was made in 2002, so you had your chance. Jet Li, the film’s lead, spends the entire movie trying to track down and assassinate the Chinese Emperor, back in the day. At the end, just as he’s about to do the deed, the Emperor talks him out of it, convincing Jet Li to instead give up his own life in service of the Empire. Our land. Kneel before Zod. It’s the Anti-Hollywood ending, and given Yimou’s favored-son-status with the government, I read the writing on the wall. The individual will always take a back seat to the Empire, the authority figure.

That’s why Ai Weiwei got locked up. He was the living embodiment of the power of ideas: ideas that are particularly dangerous to the Powers That Be right now, what with the Arab Spring and all. These are the same CCP leaders that own our debt, and just flew some Steath Fighter jets over Bob Gates’ head. So let’s have no more illusions that we’ll all just get along, or that they’ll allow us to corrupt their system with our dysfunctional democracy. Not. Going. To. Happen.

So Free Ai Weiwei. Tell your friends. Tell your kids. Speak your mind a little louder in your new photo project. And maybe next time you’re in the local Walmart, you’ll consider buying some cheap crap from the Phillipines, or Bangladesh. Or better yet, maybe you’ll spend the extra $3 to get something made in the USA. We still make tractors, right?