Category "From The Field"

This Week in Photography: Visiting Houston in #2020

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

I went to Houston six months ago.

Went is the past tense of the verb to go.

In Spanish, it’s ir, and in French, it’s aller.

So I would say Je suis allΓ© a Houston.

Do you remember what it means to go places? To leave your home, or your town, and transport your body somewhere else, to a different city, or state, to a different culture, with a different landscape?

Honestly, I kind of forget what the sensation feels like.

Six months ago, I did something that was, at that point, second nature to me.

As you know, if you’ve been reading regularly, I hopped around America on airplanes from 2013 to early #2020, and wrote about many of my adventures for you.

By my trip to Houston, I was so burned out on travel.

I’d been to Europe two weeks before the Texas trip, and in 2019, I went to California, New York twice, Portland, England, Chicago, and Colorado.

Now, I can barely remember what it’s like to go anywhere, and I would kill for the chance to travel, while the last time I got out of New Mexico, I was barely able to scrape my carcass onto the plane.

I suppose I can thank this truly batshit year, #2020, for reminding me what’s important in life.

 

Part 2. Getting there

 

I was headed to Houston to attend the SPE National Conference, where I’d be debuting my first book, “Extinction Party,” at a Saturday afternoon book signing.

I have some good friends in Houston, and have written about the city here several times, so while normally I would have been fired up to go, my general exhaustion dampened my spirit.

As such, I booked only a two-night-trip, and then packed my itinerary as full as I could, to suck every bit of juice from the experience.

Thank goodness I did, because those vivid memories have been my sustenance, travel-wise, for the last half-year. (Which has of course felt like five years.)

The world has changed so drastically that I got a late start writing today, because I was giving my daughter a pep talk about improving her attitude towards Zoom school and remote learning.

Back in March, on the heels of my 46th birthday, I had never heard of Zoom, and remote learning was for people studying in a different part of the world than their teachers.

Not a different part of town.

But here we are, and I’m sitting in my customary writing spot, having just chugged a cup of my super-caffeinated Jot coffee, and I’m closing my eyes to see the places I visited.

 

Part 3. Being there

 

In retrospect, a lot of the travel writing I did in 2019 pointed out the cracks in the American dam.

There were hints, which I picked up on piecemeal, of an impending crash.

I chronicled NYC becoming so expensive that it was now meant mostly for tourists, with rents no one could afford. And a development project in my hometown in New Jersey that had sat vacant for nearly 15 years, before getting a multi-million dollar infusion.

I chronicled Portland street-gang fighters, and how they mocked Antifa while admitting there were a host of white mini-gangs that liked to stir shit up.

I discussed the decline and fall of San Francisco, where the homeless issue was so bad that the city was in effect a Third World society.

The signs were there.

And when I arrived in Houston, got my rental car, and headed to my friend Ed’s apartment, in East Houston, I soon saw hints of expansion and gentrification that only happen at the very, very end of a long economic boom.

While Ed napped, I got hungry, and walked a few blocks East to a dingy strip mall where he’d once taken me to a great Thai restaurant. (Houston is a driving city, but I needed to stretch my legs.)

At the time we ate in the Thai joint, (2013) I remember Ed telling me his part of town was mostly Latino, and thoroughly un-gentrified.

There was not much around, he said.

But while the Thai restaurant was closed on me, (in between lunch and dinner service,) right next door, I found a hipster cafe, Bohemeos, with great prices for tasty, heaping plates of food, (chicken nachos,) palm trees in the outdoor courtyard, and cool, inexpensive paintings on the walls.

 

Right next door, a street-art gallery, Insomnia, had popped up, with graphic T-shirts for sale, manga and graffiti-style art on the walls, and a young hipster behind the counter who paid me no mind. (Very on brand.)

 

There was a record store next to that, so I was surprised, to say the least.

As we drove around town that weekend, Ed showed me shiny new condos build along the train tracks, (Houston famously has no zoning laws,) which he said went for $450,000, and another new condo building that was literally abutting a highway overpass.

For the uninitiated, Texas real estate is notoriously cheap compared to wealthy mega-states like California and New York, so half a million bucks to live on the train tracks is the equivalent of twice that in a blue state.

I took note, and thought things were out of whack, but even then, in early March, with Covid-19 on cusp of destroying reality as we know it, I had no idea what was coming.

 

Part 4. Get on with it already

 

Honestly, no one did.

Not really.

Because my 48 hours in the city were packed with gallery openings, museum visits, parties, dinners, FotoFest’s grand opening, and lots of hugging my friends.

A few people wanted to elbow bump, but other than that, (and the fact that people were talking about the virus,) life was essentially normal.

What would you give to go back in time and feel normal again?

After I ate my lovely nachos that Friday afternoon, Ed and I went to the Houston Center for Photography, for the opening of their fashion photography show.

It was packed, and my publisher arrived and handed me my first copy of my book, which I promptly handed off to a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for their library collection.

I was jazzed up, and talked to friends for an hour, barely getting to see the art on the walls, but I did return on Sunday, and have some photos for you.

The truth is, I saw two fashion photo exhibitions in Amsterdam two weeks prior, and both were edgy and progressive in their installation, while the HCP show had some new work, and a slew of re-printed reproductions hung in one horizontal line, so I was disappointed for sure.

 

From there, we went to Foto Relevance, a gallery run by HCP supporter Geoffrey Koslov, and it was in a very chic, Chelsea-like concrete structure that screamed of money and a big rent.

The gallery was gorgeous, and the Letitia Huckaby show was nice, but I couldn’t help wondering if this too was a sign of an economic imbalance, as the gentrified-high-rent-Museum-district was so much shinier than I remembered it.

(Houston, or H-town, is known for its keeping-it-real, diverse charm, rather than glitz.)

From there, it was on to a big, art-dinner party, in a lovely Italian restaurant, with some fellow artists, curators and collectors, and I had such great time.

I sat across from Osamu James Nakagawa, and diagonal from Brad Temkin, two super-talented artists who have been embraced by Houston, and the party was in honor of Brad’s show at the Houston Museum for Natural Science.

Needless to say, such gatherings are currently verboten. (And often illegal.)

My broccoli cannelloni was delicious.

 

Part 5. Finishing strong

 

On Saturday, I had brunch with curator friends at Barnaby’s Cafe, a local chain that all the art folks like, and the plate of food they gave me, for a reasonable fee, was 2x as big as I could eat. (Leftovers for sure.)

While perhaps not everything is bigger in Texas, certainly the food portions are.

From there, we went to the MFAH so I could sign a copy of my book, and get a tour of “Through an African Lens: Sub-Saharan Photography from the Museum’s Collection,” which featured some killer work, including a massive Zanele Muholi wheatpaste.

 

MFA,H was among the first museums to re-open in the US, earlier this summer, and they have some major health protocols in place, so maybe it’s time to go visit?

From there, I sped across the city to SPE at the Galleria, the massive mall complex in the Western part of Houston, where thousands of maskless people walked around, shopping obliviously, not knowing that the end of the world would soon be upon us.

My book signing went well, as we sold some copies, and I was always engaged talking to friends, as the photo community is so supportive.

Rather than resting afterwards, I’d set up in impromptu dinner party at Ed’s place, with curator, artist, festival and educator friends, but before that, even, I snuck in a quick trip to Cherryhurst House, a private, alternative exhibition space that was almost like a mini-Pier 24. (The San Francisco non-profit I’ve written about a few times.)

I’d met Barbara Levine, the Cherryhurst House curator, at the HCP opening the night before, and she invited me to an open house to see the space, of which I had not previously heard.

(A second open house event, scheduled for a few days later, was eventually cancelled, as we were all standing on the precipice of the cliff, we just didn’t know it yet.)

There was an exhibition of vintage album covers, presented as art, and the entire place, with its beautiful sofas and modern design, was like an art installation in which you could make yourself comfortable.


There was a photo booth, and Barbara and I crammed in together, new friends for only a day, to take our portraits.

(I haven’t been that close to someone other than my family since.)

There is a second installation on the property, an old house that was carved up into bits by a visiting artist duo, Havel Ruck Projects, in the style of Gordon Matta-Clark, and I found it fascinating and oddly beautiful.

Then I said goodbye to Barbara, and sped back to Ed’s place, late for my own party, but secure in the knowledge that others would turn up even later than I did. (As was the case.)

After a simple and tasty dinner, with friends from Chicago, Atlanta and Albuquerque, I left Ed behind and went to the FotoFest opening party, for their show “African Cosmologies: Photography, Time and the Other,” which was busy, but not packed with people crushed together. (Thankfully.)

To give FotoFest credit, I’ve never been to an art show that had so many African-American people in attendance, and it felt wonderful to be around legitimate diversity.

 

 

But I was very tired by then, and after doing a couple of laps around the massive space, I went home to bed, zipping through the empty highways, amazed that such roads could ever be quiet.

I woke up hungry, and Ed and I went to brunch with our friend Joan at Bistro Menil, after taking a turn around the neighboring park, but before we toured the Menil museum collections.

I had one of the best burgers of my life there, (Spanish-style,) and noticed friends walking across the park, though the window, sent a text, and watched them read it and smile.

Afterwards, we went to the new drawing center, and sat quietly in one of the most Buddhist, calming, invigorating shows I’ve ever encountered, by Brice Marden.

The guards insisted I not take pictures for you, and for that I apologize, as it was the last art show I saw in #2020, and possibly the best.

Will I ever see an art show again?

Will I ever get on an airplane?

I hope so.

But this deep into #2020, I really don’t know.

Visiting London, Part 7

 

Part 1: the Intro

I was watching “Project Runway” with my family last night.

(Well, that’s not exactly true.)

They call it “Making the Cut” now, though it’s still Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum leading a panel of judges on a fashion design competition.

(They rebooted “Project Runway” with younger hosts, and Amazon bought the high-end talent, much like “Top Gear” begat “The Grand Tour.”)

Anyway, (spoiler alert,) on episode 6, the judges were just about to cut an Israeli designer who’d won the previous week. Her victory had gone against the run of play, and then she reverted to her regular poor form.

Despite the ugliness of the clothes she’d made, in gross yellows and blues that were tacky, (and cheap looking,) no less a hardcore critic than Naomi Campbell was defending the woman to the other three judges.

Pleading, really.

Naomi Campbell, the supermodel known for throwing things at people, for tantrums, and whom my kids had called the toughest judge earlier in the series, was being sweet, and compassionate, going to bat for the young Israeli woman.

She gave it all she had, truly.

And then when they asked Heidi, an Italian influencer judge, and Joseph Altuzzara if she’d changed their minds, one at a time they said no.

They made the right call, as the contestant’s awful clothes that week, and tepid efforts earlier, left her as the least talented or capable designer at that point.

I tell you all this, because the best part was watching the look in Naomi Campbell’s eyes as the cold, serious Heidi, and the others said no to her.

It was like someone being told no for the first time in their lives. I could feel her pupils dialing millisecond by millisecond.

 

Sad Naomi Campbell

 

She took it well, god bless her, but it was highly entertaining.

I could read her mind, as she thought, “Rules? There are no rules!”

And like Naomi, I tend to agree, when it comes to creativity. (Give or take.)

There are no rules with this column.

It’s a part of what’s kept it fresh over 8.5 years, each week.

Now, we’re stuck in our homes, and can’t go anywhere.

So I tried to force myself to write about Amsterdam today, but my creativity was letting me know it wasn’t quite ready yet. And I just did two book reviews. No book review today!

Just as I was wracking my brain, the computer beeped from FaceTime, and it took me a second to recognize the ring.

It was my friend Richard Bram, calling from London to check up on me, because I’d tweeted the day before that my mental health was cracking.

I met Richard on Twitter 10 years ago, and he’s been in this column many times before. (He’s Zamir to my Tony.)

But I met two other friends on Twitter as well, and they both live in England.

That’s three IRL friends I made on Twitter.

All in England, and I visited with each last year. Honestly,Β I always had this article in mind, but never got around to it.

So today, we’re going back to London, in May of #2019.

 

Part 2: A Monday in London

Shortly before arriving in England, I changed my plans, and asked Hugo if I could stay in his place for six nights.

It was a big ask, but he’s gracious, and I cooked, cleaned, and was out most days, all day long, to minimize my impact.

Still, I thought it wise to take a day trip out of town.

I was aware of Colin Pantall from Twitter, years ago, and knew he was a great blogger. But we’d never interacted much directly, that I can remember.

8 years of reading someone’s tweets and you get a sense of their taste and character, I guess. So I sent him a DM and told him I was in England, and would he be around London by any chance?

He wrote back pretty quickly, and said I was welcome to come visit him in Bath.

I looked up “Best Day Trips from London,” and sure enough, Bath was near the top of the list.

(Less than an hour and half by train to the West, on the way to Bristol.)

I wrote back sure, and he wrote back let’s do it, and then we made a plan to meet somewhere tangible, at a set time, because as I’ve said many times, my Verizon phone wasn’t working.

Once done, I hit up Brian David Stevens, another photographer with whom I’d been trading jokes and silly links on Twitter for years. I also knew he was a good photographer, having reviewed one of his books years ago, and I kept up with his exhibitions via social media.

He suggested we meet near a train platform in Paddington Station, at the coffee cart, because it would be easy to find. I had a rough idea what he looked like, and I’m sure he had the same, so when he walked up, though we’d never occupied the same continent before, it was as if I knew him.

Because I did know him.
(The digital him.)

And now, in the #2020 pandemic, that stands in as real enough, doesn’t it?

I told him I was in no rush, and could grab a train in a while, as my meeting with Colin was late in the day. (I asked if he knew Colin, and he said he did, digitally.)

We walked out of the station, and he took me around the block a bit. I remember taking some nice photos, so it’s cool I can share them here.

He told me he knew West London well, because most Londoners stuck with the quadrant of the city they lived in when they first moved there. Even if they changed houses, or neighborhoods, they tended to stick to East, West, North or South, depending.

He was a West London guy. Felt comfortable there, though he later admitted he and his wife were leaving the city for a house in the burbs.

I was ready for a coffee and croissant, as I wasn’t eating much those days, and needed a top up. So we cruised a few more blocks, and came to a likely contender.

Up just 50 yards from there corner there was a flashy looking cafe to the left, which caught my eye, and an understated one I barely realized was a cafe to our right.

I was inclined to the first, and Brian said we should go to the latter.

He’s the local, I thought, so of course he’ll know.

Turns out, it was the shop/cafe for ΓΌber-trendy Monocle Magazine. And of course the young guy at the counter was a stone face hipster as well.

 

The coffee was good, and the baked goodies were good too.Β But I can’t say as I remember either a year later, but I could tell you about the pizza at Zia Lucia like it was still in my mouth.

Know what I mean?

Brian told me about a series he was working on, shooting pictures of a musician friend who’d tried to commit suicide.

Now, it’s a year later, and I’ve seen links to the work on Twitter.

We chatted for an hour or so, and then he walked me back to the train station, insisting on escorting me through the ticket office, where I’d get a better deal than the machines.

(You’d think it would be the other way around, but he was a local, I trusted him, and he saved me money.)

We said goodbye at the gate, and I headed down to what became a very comfortable train ride, replete with good wifi.

 

Part 3: The Baths.

When I told Brian I wanted to go to some hot springs in Bath, he told me that as far as he knew, you couldn’t go into the baths.

Meaning the famous Roman baths.

But I meant there was a resort in town, Thermae Bath Spa, with a decent day rate, where you could have a soak. (I saw something about it on the internet.)

I was right, and as I read you didn’t need a reservation, I turned up shortly after arriving in Bath, but unfortunately right after I ate a street sausage. (Bad call.)

I booked a spot in the outdoor communal tub, which was featured by itself, across the street, in its own private ancient courtyard.

No lie.

I turned up at the appropriate time, and waited where they told me to wait.

There was a young man sitting nearby, wearing a fedora, and he was singing to himself and making lots of noise. Rocking back and forth a bit too.

I moved away, but didn’t realize that since he was waiting where I was waiting, he was to be my tub mate, along with two other dudes.

So much for my plan to sit in silence, working out muscle kinks after a week of walking 15 miles a day.

I remember thinking, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” But it’s all true.

 

The tub had seen better days, if I’m being honest, but was more than nice enough. And the water was warm and soothing, if not hot.

It was the setting that was priceless, and I’d go back.
If I could.

But this dude swam around, singing, the entire fucking time.

And I did my best, martial-arts-Zen-monk-on-the-mountain routine to chill out my mind, and tune him out.

There was the sound of water flow, which also helped, and I was pretty happy, except for the one time I opened my eyes and caught him staring right at me.

Once done, I walked across the city, which is so, so beautiful, and met Colin at the outdoor cafe at the stately Holborne Museum.

I watched him approach from a park entrance, opposite from where I’d arrived, and was a bit surprised when he turned up. He was a tall, strapping guy, with graying hair, glasses, and a big, open smile.

(Like a slightly nerdy action hero.)

As with Brian, it was an immediate ease, though we’d never communicated outside Twitter, and we chatted for an hour and a half, easy.

When the cafe closed, he suggested we go for a walk, so I got a guided tour of the small city. I recall him telling me it was so very beautiful because money coming back from the slave trade had been pumped into the local architecture.

He thought it might be a fair English comp to Santa Fe, for its beauty, nature, and artsiness.

Jane Austen was mentioned.

Then the pub was discussed, and so we headed there. But not before stopping at a church, across the street, in the middle of a graveyard, where we met a man prepping an art exhibition for an upcoming Bath festival.

Colin took my picture in the graveyard, and then we went into the pub and had one too many. By the time we realized it was late, and dark, we were both hungry, and the train schedule suddenly got unfriendly.

From leaving every half hour, it appeared I’d need to catch a train getting me in well after 11 pm. (Not the best time to be coming home as a guest.)

We walked down the hill, through a secret staircase that led through a supermarket shortcut, (Waitrose, I think,) and then down to a Chinese restaurant Colin was fond of.

He’d lived and taught in the area for years, and like Brian before him, had an ease of movement through his town.

The place was closing, but they knew Colin, and we ordered two beef noodle bowls immediately. I think these folks came from Hong Kong, and the noodles had a flavor palette that was a bit new for me. (They hit the spot.)

Like Brian before him, (these polite Englishmen!) Colin also escorted me to the train platform, but we saw it was to be delayed.

He offered to wait with me, but drunk, and fed, I told him to head home to his family.

The wait for the train sucked, no lie, and walking through Paddington Station to catch the tube at 12:30 am was no fun either.

Much worse was the feeling, once I got back to Hugo’s, and crawled into bed, that I was going to throw up.

It was 2am by then.

Hugo and his girlfriend were sleeping a floor below, but there were open doors, and sound traveled.

If I woke them up, on my 5th night there, I’d never, ever be be invited back.

What to do?

I crept down the stairs, into the bathroom, and used my entire mind energy to vomit silently.

And it worked!

Can you imagine? Puking without making a sound?

 

Part 4: Meeting Richard

So I slept late the next day, and nearly blew Richard off. (We had longstanding lunch plans, though we’d already done Photo London together.)

He was gracious, and told me we could meet for a later lunch, so after I hit up the Arsenal store at the Emirates Stadium, for some swag, I took a train to a train to a train to see Richard.

If I recall, it required the overground, to get to his neighborhood, Limehouse, but wasn’t a terribly long or difficult trip. (Such great public transport.)

As good as Richard is at looking at art, he’s an equally excellent tour guide, and told me stories about buildings and streets in Limehouse, East London.

But, because I was hung over, I don’t remember the details. I think it used to be warehouses, given the waterfront location, but is now totally chic.

 

We ate in Ian McKellen’s pub, which I chronicled already, and took a stroll around the waterfront.

We went to his apartment, and his studio.

It was beautiful weather, and it felt so wonderful to be in the company of a good friend, IRL. The entire day, it didn’t even occur to me that we met on Twitter.

But yesterday, when my mental health was cracking, he saw my Tweet.

And today, he called to see how I was doing. (I was about to write my column, and rushed him off the phone.)

So I’m going to hang up on you guys now, and call Richard back, because that’s what friends are for.

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 2

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Why do people travel?

Why do we go places?

Right now, it’s a good question, because we can’t.
Go places.

(Those of us not headed to “life essential” jobs each day, I mean.)

Speaking of which, two of my former photo students work at the local Smith’s Grocery store. I haven’t been there in three weeks, but I’m assuming they’re still at it, and hope they’re safe.

Big shout outs to Jason and Dylan! And to my father-in-law Mike, and sister-in-law Jemery, who are both Taos doctors.

The rest of us, anyway, are stuck at home.

Not going places.

And even though the uncertainty of it all makes it feel like this pandemic will be permanent, that’s not the way these things go.

Humans hate uncertainty more than anything else, which is what gave rise to monarchs and autocrats and totalitarians in the first place.

In China, for instance, as I have previously written, the depth of the bloodbaths that would occur under disorder caused many people to trade freedom for security, from certain Emperors to Mao on down.

Hitler came to Germany after the shitfuck of WWI and the Great Depression, (Please watch Babylon Berlin on Netflix,) and ancient royalty, from Egypt to England to Guatemala, has claimed to have a relationship with, and blessings from the divine.

 

 

So where we are now, with no clear answer as to how long “this” will all last, humans do lean into the hunker mentality. (Rhymes with bunker.)

But life will go back to some semblance of normal again.

It might be a different normal, like life was never quite the same after the Great Recession.

(You know I’m right.)

The Gig Economy, Uber, the permanent street class.
The first African-American President.

Donald Trump.

All of that came Post-Great-Recession.

Wait, I’m getting depressing again.

Sorry.

What I mean is, this scary phase will end.
It will.

And we’ll be able to travel again.

So, to get back on topic, why do we do it?

 

Part 2. The asshole

 

What kind of asshole writer opens a section with a question, and ends it with the same question, without ever answering the question?

Me.

So, here’s my answer.

I think we all love a proper adventure.

All of us.

It’s why we’re binge-watching all these shows and movies, and reading all these books.

We escape into the fantasy of adventure and drama.

Traveling to other cities, towns and countries, with different languages, foods and landscapes.

It is the hero’s journey.

It is the “actual reality” version of “virtual reality” that so many people like in their stories and video games.

(Minus the murder and mayhem, of course.)

When you’re out there, somewhere new, you never know what’s around the next bend?

How could you?

There is an inherent and proper romance in a great voyage, and somehow, even after the insanity that was #2019, I got to have a perfect, rambling, symbol-laden adventure in Amsterdam in February of #2020.

 

Though I am writing on April Fool’s Day, (just so you know,) I promise all stories told in this series are true.

And to be clear, I’m not saying I was James Bond, nor that it felt like my trip should be made into a movie or anything.

It’s just that it was MY movie.
My story.

And to relive it in my head right now, on lockdown, is kind of fun.

 

Part 3. Take my last Euro

 

When last I left you, I was departing the Jolly Joker, jet-lagged, on my first half-day in Amsterdam.

Saturday, February 15.

As an experienced traveler, I knew I was likely to need a bit of quiet time, and some food, to chill out before I hit the city hard again.

So I popped into a cute looking bakery/cafe, (they’re everywhere,) and got a bresaola, arugula, and fresh mozzarella sandwich, on fresh baked bread, with a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino to go.

(General advice, of the many munchies on offer in the city, including some with silly names, the bakeries and delis seemed to have the most consistent, high-end Euro product, that I observed.)

 

Dubble Trouble

It set me up for the afternoon, looking out the my window on the shimmering canal, watching a spot of local tv, and getting a bit of jet-lag-rest.

 

Hotel Room View

 

Once done, I left the Hotel Mai for my first big walk.

Is it creepy that I could consult my iPhone now and see how long I walked that day? (5 miles. It only went up from there.)

I remember that I cut through Dam Square, headed West a block or two, and then and just let whimsy be my guide.

Twisting and turning through the canal ring.

There really are few better feelings.

Turn here.
Look there.

Stop in a coffee shop and get stoned.

After a couple of hours, it got dark, and I realized I’d need food and another smoke.

I had 20 Euro left.

Decisions, decisions.

Coffee shop or restaurant?

There’s nothing wrong with having a smoke in the street, (except for the constant devil-wind,) so I opted to go with my grinding stomach.

Before me stood a Vietnamese restaurant with a cute name, Pho King.

Say it fast.
Get it?

 

 

It was cash only, which meant my commitment was complete, because I was hungry, it was relatively early, 7 or 8pm, and I wanted to be done purchasing food for the night.

To say the place had a great vibe is not an undersell. It was small, but clean, and my spider-sense tingled that it was going to be good.

I asked for some recommendations, and the smart, young Vietnamese woman behind the counter said the Pho was the best thing.

She was serious in all the right ways, and after I made a few jokes, all the ladies behind the counter liked me.

“OK,” I said. “I’ve got only 20 Euro. You’re the boss, now. I’ll do what you say, and you can use up all the money, including a small tip.”

I looked at the menu.

 

I love BBQ pork bun, and there it was. The meat is served over cold, or room temperature, rice noodles, typically with shredded carrots and cucumber, with crushed peanut, and then you add a cold, sweet fish sauce, nuoc cham.

“I love that,” I said. “It’s my favorite.”

The young woman behind the counter shook her head no.

“No?” I said. “I can’t get that.”

She shook her head no.

“No,” she said.

“But you have my best interests at heart, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “I do. We’re gonna get you a Beef Pho, with all three kinds of beef. It’s what we do best.”

“Great. Fine. But I can’t have the BBQ Pork Bun. It’s my favorite.”

“No,” she said.

I was bummed out, but keeping the faith.

She smiled.

“But look. The fresh spring roll. Look at number 14.”

I looked down, took a second, the marijuana and hash slowing me perceptibly.

I read: BBQ pork, rice noodle, shredded vegetable, peanuts, dipping sauce. Inside the fresh spring roll wrapper!

I looked at the price: about half of what I was badgering her to let me order.

“It’s the same thing,” I said, “but in a spring roll, and cheaper.”

She smiled.

Meaning: I could have the soup, and the spring rolls for my 20 Euro, including a small tip. (But no drink.)

I asked for it to go, and again, she shook her head, No.

“No,” I said? “I can’t take it to go?”

“No,” she said. “You eat the spring rolls now, while they’re fresh, and I’ll pack up the soup for you to go.”

“OK,” I replied. “If you say so. Like I said, I’m in your hands.”

The spring rolls, when they came, were a meal in themselves, and as good as any version I’ve had. The bbq pork was sweet, and succulent, and I didn’t think I’d have room for soup later. (I did.)

Nor that I’d eat BBQ pork this good again that week.
(I did.)

But after I cleaned the plate, I said thanks to my new friend, and headed back out into the night with my goodie bag.

Pho King, 2 locations in Amsterdam, Cheap eats, Highly recommended.

 

Part 4: I have a question

 

Were any of you drunken slobs in college?

I know I was.

(Thank you, Duke University. You trained me so well.)

I used to sleep until 1 or 2 in the afternoon each day, if I could.

Not since then, not since the mid-90’s, have is slept until 1pm.

Until Sunday morning, February 16th, when my jet-lag, weed-hangover, and a properly silent hotel room conspired to let me sleep.

Long and deep.

When I finally woke up, rather than food, I needed some tea, and then a fresh smoke.

The Hotel Mai had opened only a week or two before I got there, so the rooms were properly fresh. With a no-smoking policy.

They had a tea kettle and a Nespresso maker included, with green tea and coffee replacements each day.

Very classy, this hotel. (I hope they make it…)

In addition to the no-smoking policy, the windows were sealed shut. Jimmy at the front desk said it was because the city had too many jumpers, tourists high on magic mushrooms, and made a law sealing the hotel windows up.

So out the door I went.

For a moment, I stared at the water.

 

Then, down to the Jolly Joker I went, and as always it was crowded.

I spotted a seat up top and sat down next to an young Indian guy, wedging myself into the corner of a wooden banquette.

Like Gerrit had the day before, I introduced myself, since there were open seats around.

He asked if he could use my lighter, which I’d bought at the local head shop. It was black plastic, and said I heart Amsterdam.

“That depends,” I replied.

“That depends?” he asked, looking at me like I had a hole in my head.

“Yes,” I said. “It depends upon your answer to a question.”

“It depends upon my answer to a question?” Again, he looked at me like I was a two-year old.”

“Yes,” I said.

“OK,” he said, “what is the question?”

“Do you love Amsterdam,” I asked?

“Do I love Amsterdam?” he said? At that point, he looked at me like I didn’t speak English. What kind of a stranger asks that question, in these circumstances?

“Yes,” I said. “Do you love Amsterdam? If you answer correctly, you can use my lighter.”

“OK,” he said. “OK. OK. Yes, I love Amsterdam. Are you satisfied.?”

I showed him the lighter, he laughed, and then I passed it his way, as he had just rolled a joint with tobacco and marijuana, as was the custom in the city.

(There were little rolling paper dispensers on the bar, like napkin dispensers in a traditional cafe, and most people took them.)

His name was Yogesh, he was from India, on a business trip that took him to Poland, among other places.

He was in Amsterdam to get high and have fun, more or less.

My kind of guy.

The bar man was playing Travis Scott.
Drake.
And lots of trap music.

Things I listen to at home.

And there I was again, chatting up a stranger, listening to brilliant music, out in public, in a crowded, life-affirming, gorgeous, historic, European city.

Shout out to you, Amsterdam!

In the end, after an hour or so of chatting, we made plans to have dinner, but it wasn’t meant to be, as our timing was off.

So my final shout out today is to Yogesh, my erstwhile stoner buddy.

I hope he, and all of you, are safe out there!

 

Visiting Amsterdam, Part 1

 

Part 1: The Intro

Blue New Mexico sky, #2020

 

I was scared shitless to go to Amsterdam last month.

Like, palpably afraid.

I cried, before leaving, I was so terrified.

My wife and daughter looked at me with deep empathy, and my son, nearly 12.5, had the awkward grin I recognized from my own youth.

A look that said, I’m uncomfortable with your naked display of emotion. Men aren’t supposed to cry. I’m not quite sure what to do here, so I’m going to smile like a paralyzed snow-monkey.

I understood how he felt, as for a moment, I could see myself though his eyes: the bearded, aviator-sunglasses-wearing hipster Dad, always cool.

And there I was, crying like a baby because I had to go to Europe.

We’d all discussed the risks, as there was not yet Coronavirus in Holland, no tourists were leaving China, and it wasn’t thought you could just pick it up in an airport.

So after my best mate and my book’s designer, Caleb Cain Marcus, told me the book could be 10% better if I supervised on press in Holland, he, my wife and kids all pushed me to spend the money and go.

To spend that much, (though I did get a great deal,) and to head out into a world where this new virus was taking root, it triggered some deep fear in me.

From the distance of only a month, (that feels like two years,) I now know why I was so fucking scared.

The wave that was coming was so much bigger than I could have anticipated, but I felt it in my bones.

Walking to my car, with my bags over my shoulders, I swear, I could hear the Jaws theme with each step I took.

Duh duh.
Duh duh.
Duh duh duh duh.

And then, (other than almost dying once,) nothing bad happened.

Nothing at all.
Quite the opposite.

I had a magical week, alone, in a shockingly cool European city.

 

Part 2. The journey

 

I bought a package trip on Orbitz, and the airfare and hotel were together what the plane ticket was supposed to cost. So when we all start traveling again, (which WILL happen,) I’d recommend you consider the tactic.

It meant I was able to leave my home, drive the 2.5 hours to the Albuquerque Airport, and board a flight to Houston, where I’d grab my international leg straight to Schiphol Airport.

In retrospect, the flight to the Netherlands, which I found obnoxious at the time, now seems like something powerful and special that I neglected to appreciate.

There we were, in the middle of the plane: A middle-aged, tall Dutch businessman to my left, an older Afro-Caribbean lady to my right, and a young Indian woman, living in Holland, to her right.

The four of us, crammed in tighter than a miser’s butthole, in a plane full of diverse humans.

Again, that was just over a month ago, as I write this on Wednesday March 18th.

I took two Benadryl to get some sleep on the flight, and it messed with my brain, because I know I watched two movies, but all these weeks later, for the life of me, I can’t remember one of them.

Seriously, what the hell did I watch?

The other movie, “Booksmart,” directed by Olivia Wilde, was a clever, Post-Me-Too update on “Superbad,” and maybe all teen movies like it, by flipping the protagonists to female, and making one gay.

Not that I saw the parallel until this very moment, but after my 4 hour nap, I watched the beginning episodes of “Killing Eve,” which I finished on the flight home. (A proper 10 hour binge watch!)

Killing Eve promo pic

 

Highly, Highly recommended.

Talking about flipping the script? Who needs James Bond, really, when you have female characters this badass, complex, sexy and surprising?

Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh are brilliant, and some of the foreshadowing, in particular in season 1, when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was show-runner, was bone-chilling.

(I won’t do a spoiler alert. I just won’t spoil it.)

In our new world, with plenty of spare time, watch this one and you’ll thank me.

 

Part 3: The arrival

 

If you think I’m teasing this out, well, maybe I am?

Do you have anything else pressing at the moment?

I’m reliving it in my memory, and if I savor every morsel of the now-forbidden-travel-fruit, would you blame me?

But as I said earlier, everything went so smoothly. Me and the other humans, pressed up against each other, and I was through customs in twenty minutes.

The train station is in the airport in Amsterdam, out at Schiphol, so it’s the easiest thing in the world to grab a 5 Euro train ticket into Amsterdam Centraal Station, the rail hub of the country. (Though all the other cities, Den Haag, Rotterdam and Utrecht are close by as well.)

Schiphol Airport

I remember sitting on that train, closing my eyes, and enjoying a moment of quiet, after I’d been traveling for 16 hours or so.

Then, I heard some loud American teenagers, and they wouldn’t shut up.

“Seriously?” I thought. “I travel halfway across the world, and my jet-lag-headache gets lit up by some dumb teenagers on a pleasure trip with their wealthy parents?”

Eventually, I moved, and then they got off at the wrong station, got back on the train on my new end of car, and sat down near me again.

After they kept yapping, I shot the Dad a look, and he quieted them down for me.

It’s an important thing to remember in these new times.

A lot of important information can be communicated through body language. (Nearly all of what we need to tell a stranger, anyway.) So as you approach people, and step into their personal space in the next couple of months, (or whatever,) just think like a martial artist, and read their energy and intent first.

I stumbled off the train, having to take a piss like you wouldn’t believe, and would you know it, but after walking up and down the train station, I found a public toilet, but you had to pay to use it?

I had no European money yet, much less coins, but the nice guy working there let me in, because I was polite, and obviously had to pee.

Why do I tell you this?

Because up and down that city, people were so cool and friendly. I’ve been around the block, and I can’t say enough about the Dutch, and the Amsterdammers in particular.

After leaving, I quickly arrived at the Hotel Mai, which is somehow located in a quiet, chill vortex that is both right up the street from the train station, and right on the cusp of the Red Light District.

Hotel Mai, looking North

Hotel Mai, Interior Entry

Hotel Mai, Chinese statues in the entryway

There is no reason for that spot, on the Geldersekade canal, to be mellow and relaxing, but it was.

I arrived shortly after 10 am, woozy from the jet lag, and met Jimmy, a nice young guy behind the desk, who told me there would be no Hurricane Dennis. (Which I wrote about previously.)

I asked if he’d take my bags, and he said sure, but then I kept asking about when I might be able to check in early?

The entire time I was in Europe during 2019-20, having a Verizon phone, which only works with Wifi, was a big downer.

Except for this once.

Because each time Jimmy said, “I’ll text you when your room is ready,” I could truthfully say, “I won’t get it. My phone doesn’t receive SMS here.”

He pushed some buttons around a few more times, and then said, “You want a king bed, right,” and I said, “Of course.”

“I have a room for you now,” said Jimmy, and then, all of a sudden, at 10:15am, I had a hotel room, a place to clean up, and my goodness, if that wasn’t a gift from the travel gods, and an omen of good things to come, I don’t know what was.

 

Hotel room view

Part 4: The coffee shops

 

So what do you do, standing in your beautiful, brand new hotel room, staring out at the shimmering water of the canal, now that it’s 10:30am, and you’ve washed your face, smacked your cheeks, and talked to yourself in the mirror to get psyched up?

Well, the first thing you do is change money.

I’d been to Amsterdam 4 times before, including one that I wrote about here in the column, so I had a rough mental map of the area. (Now it’s much sharper.)

I cut Southeast to Dam Square, though the tourist throngs, so I figured I could get my Euros there. (Cash only in the coffee shops.)

Dam Square, the former palace

It was easy to find the action, and I went to the money changer in the middle, because the ones on either end grab the first tourists to happen by.

The man behind the counter was friendly, and gay, with big chunky glasses, and we chatted for a few moments. I came back two days later, to get the rest of my money changed, and he told me about one of his favorite places in town.

It’s called “This is Holland” and is a 5D experience in which you get to simulate flying over the country. Though it sounded dope, I never made it. (But when things open again, you might want to try it.)

After I got that first batch of money, though, I hightailed it straight to the Oude Kerk, a beautiful 17th Central cathedral, because my favorite coffee shop was there, the Cafe Oude Kerk.

Though it seems like not much changes in Amsterdam, (until now of course,) the cafe was now called the Old Church, the English equivalent.

And it wasn’t open yet.

I walked around for 10 minutes, killing time, and finally the woman working there came out to talk to me.

Apparently, the “coffee shop” moved to a different part of downtown, and this coffee shop only sold coffee and food.

No weed or hash.

Luckily, they’d printed a map, (for all the idiots like me,) and I walked there in 10 minutes, like she promised.

Why did it have to the be the same place as last time, when there are hundreds of “coffee shops” in Amsterdam?

Good question.

The Old Church had a Cannabis-Cup-winning-hash, from 2004, a blonde hash that was my all-time-favorite.

(Brand loyalty, if you will.)

But the young woman behind the counter sold me something that didn’t seem the same, though it had a similar color, but she was confident.

Pineapple Express pollen hash.

I’d bought a pipe and a lighter at a little convenience store before I walked in, so a gram of hash and a pear Looza juice, (silky, from Belgium,) set me back 17 Euro.

I sat down, smoked a couple of small bowls, and felt a nice buzz, but that was about it.

Disappointing.

I overheard the ladies behind the counter saying “California, California.”

There was scorn in their voices, but also jealousy, so I went up to investigate.

“What’s that about California,” I barged in? “Their stuff is great, no question, but I’ve been thinking of coming to Amsterdam for years. You can’t get this hash back home in the US.”

“Well,” one young woman said “if you look at the menu, all the top strains are now from California. 30 Euro a gram or more.”

“I hear you,” I said. “I can get that back home. It’s great. But what about the hash? This doesn’t seem like what I had before. That won the Cannabis Cup?”

“Ah,” said a deep, smoker-throaty-voiced, blonde women in the corner. Obviously the boss. “You mean the Royal Cream.”

“Yes,” I exclaimed! “Yes. The Royal Cream. That’s what I came back for. That’s the shit you can’t get in the US.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t get it here now either. It doesn’t leave Morocco anymore. They have a new King, and new rules. Plus, most of the old timers are retiring, and their kids don’t want to do the work.”

“Bummer,” I said.

“Yeah, well.”

I left, with my mild buzz, and headed over to The Jolly Joker, a centrally located coffee shop, where I hung out with Hugo in 2013. (I still wear the T-shirt.)

The Jolly Joker

I bought some weed to go with my hash, the Tangerine Haze, for 14 Euro. A lot of the local strains had “haze” in the name, and all of them were pretty average, compared to what I have access to in Colorado.

It’s a blanket statement, but I’ll make it here and now.

The best part of the coffee shop experience was the social interactions, the music, the vibes, the people watching, and the fact that smoking decent weed and hash only made it cooler.

At The Jolly Joker, I sat down at a table for two in the window, and watched the world go by. Within minutes though, a young man approached and asked if he could join me.

As is (or was) the etiquette, I said sure, and as he rolled a joint, I began to ask him questions.

His name was Gerrit, he was a social worker from Munster, Germany, in town for a big guys-night-out.

10 German dudes, meeting up to go out for beers and grilled meat. (But he only knew two of them, and was therefore a little nervous.)

Gerrit made no mention of sex clubs, or anything illicit, and I took him at his word.

10 German guys in a food, booze and weed feast only.

I asked if he’d send me a picture, and eventually he did.

The Guys

I bragged about my luck, getting a hotel room a block away at 10:15 in the morning.

Gerrit’s face fell.

“What?” I asked.

He said he was waiting for his buddies to come to town, and he couldn’t check in to his hotel for 4 more hours. He was tired, dirty, and couldn’t wait to get some private space.

And there I was bragging!

I felt awful.

“The least I can do is help you pass the time then, since I can go shower and lay down whenever I want. My hotel is just up the block.”

“Thanks,” he said.

So I stayed, and we talked for another hour.

That a month later, the simple pleasure of smoking and chatting with a stranger, in a public place teeming with people, in a busy city crawling with humans, would seem so luxurious?

So impossible?

We’re all still trying to comprehend it.

 

Considering the Crucifix in the Wild West

Part 1. The Intro

 

Buckle up.
We’re going for a wild ride today.

(But at my wife’s request, I’m going to keep it moving.)

She liked that last week’s column was info-dense, but also clocked in at 1200 words, rather than the 2500 I was dropping with regularity in #2019.

After all the time I spent hoping that 2020 would finally come, it’s hard to believe the year is already 1/12 done.

And what does 2020 mean, anyway?

Obviously, I know that years are sequential, but who decided to start at 0?

We’re now exactly, or approximately 2020 years after Jesus, a Jewish guy in the Holy Land, was born?

Jesus, a young Jewish preacher, a rebel and an upstart, challenging the status quo in Israel, which was then a vassal of the Roman Empire.

He kicked up shit for the Jews the Romans put in charge, and also for the Romans themselves, and was killed for it in an awful way.

I did a bunch of reading on the subject this morning, readying for the piece, and was not surprised to learn the sad ending of the story, (for the man Jesus, anyway,) was all about money and power.

The Rabbis were charging people to get “clean” enough to pray, making bank, and Jesus called them out for it. (All this I learned from an archived BBC website.)

Later, a massive religion grew up in his name, with billions of people believing he rose from the dead, after being crucified to death, and that he was actually a combination of man, God, and the Son of God.

Judaism, the religion Jesus was born, lived and died believing, claims that no Messiah, no divine being, has yet come back to Earth, but billions of Christians disagree.

Honestly, as Jews, we must see some missed opportunities, with Islam and Christianity sprouting from our religion, becoming the two biggest faith systems on Earth, while we’re a few measly million people in this world.

Why am I on about this today?

Where can this possibly be going?

I know you must be asking yourself that.

Come on.
Admit it.

 

Part 2. Leaving comfort zones

 

The truth is that 2020 has felt different than #2019, and I’m shaking things up accordingly. (For example, no early-morning email check, to keep the cortisol down for a few hours.)

So last Friday, my wife and I decided to do something we never, ever do.

On Friday late-afternoon, after our son has his Hebrew practice, the four of us piled into the car to leave Taos, driving the hour and forty-five minutes to Santa Fe, just beating the dark, so we could attend a public opening at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

I’d been overdue to see an exhibit there, curated by Christian Waguespack, which focuses on the Penitente culture in Northern New Mexico.

It was a 17th through 20th Century local, Spanish Colonial Catholic tradition in which men would pray together, whipping and flagellating themselves, in a small building in each community called a Morada.

They also staged fake crucifixions, and other seemingly extreme Catholic traditions imported from Spain.

By the time we rolled into Santa Fe, the sky was rapidly blackening, and our collective hunger was rising.

The parent in me thought: we’ve got to avoid a collective food crash.

The art critic in me thought, let’s get to the museum first, since it’s on the way, and we’ll get more time there.

(Quick snack at Trader Joe’s it was.)

We arrived at the New Mexico Museum of Art shortly thereafter, after a short walk across the plaza, which featured large trees extravagantly lit in non-harmonious colors.

There were nice snacks in the lobby, and free admission, so my kids each ate a cheese chunk or two, though I was waiting for good restaurant food.

(The Santa Fe food scene is much better than ours in Taos, IMO.)

We headed through a lovely tent, covering the open courtyard of the early 20th Century building, and then into the special exhibition section in the Museum.

Only then did I learn the exhibition, “The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Christ: from Michelangelo to Tiepolo” was all about Jesus, his life, crucifixion, lamentation, and resurrection.

(I’d decided to come trusting it would be cool, not bothering to learn the details ahead of time, if I’m being honest.)

And there were indeed masterpieces on the walls, some of which were drawn, others a wash in a light ochre.

Michelangelo, stood out, as did Filippo Lippi.

Cornelis Cort, The Crucifixion, after Giulio Clovio, 1568, Hand-colored engraving with bodycolor, heightened with gold and white, printed on blue-gray silk.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

School of Andrea Mantegna, The Descent from the Cross, 1470–1500, engraving.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Michelangelo, The Three Crosses, 1521-1524, red chalk.
Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

My daughter fled quickly, with my wife in tow, and I only briefly heard, “she wants to draw at the kid’s station out there.” (I later learned the pictures freaked her out.)

My son and I flitted about, getting hungrier by the moment, with many of the pictures being properly ogled by the a nice-sized crowd.

All the masterpieces were on loan from the British Museum, so it was an opportunity for New Mexicans to see old-school, proper European art, without having to leave the continent.

Frankly, I felt like the smart move would be to come back, without the crowds, to sink into the details of admiring a 500 year old drawing, without someone waiting their turn.

(Selfish, maybe, but it’s how I felt.)

But you can certainly see how Jesus imprinted on my mind rather fiercely, and off we went to the Penitente show, “Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood.”

Here’s where I tell the truth, because the same curator was responsible for both exhibitions.

The paintings, drawings and photos in the smaller Penitente show, while local and younger, had a creepy, scary, powerful, religious juju that blew me away.

Paul Burlin, The Sacristan of Trampas, 1918, oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase, before 1922 (118.23P) Photo by Blair Clark.

Russell Cheney, New Mexico (Penitente), 1929, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Russell Cheney, 1942 (1181.23P) Photo by Cameron Gay.

I kept saying, “I need to come back. I need to come back.”

(Rather than, “I’d like to come back.”)

Because each object was so tight, and in the smaller rooms, with the lower ceilings, in which the Northern New Mexican architecture so clearly matched the subject matter in the work, everything felt just perfect.

And experiential.

B. J. O. Nordfeldt, Penitentes – The Crucifixion, n.d., etching, 10 1/8 Γ— 12 1/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Emily Abbott Nordfeldt, 1957 ( 597.23G) Photo by Cameron Gay.

Gustave Baumann, Penitente Ceremony, Gustave Baumann, 1922, woodblock print, 7 3/4 x 6 7/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase with funds raised by the School of American Research, 1952 (1752BH.23G) Β©New Mexico Museum of Art. Photo by Cameron Gay.

Gene Kloss, Penitente Good Friday, 1936, drypoint etching, 14 3/4 x 17 in. On long term loan to the New Mexico Museum of Art from the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration (646.23G) Photo by Cameron Gay.

For all the talk of Meow Wolf, (which in fairness I have yet to visit,) and the Instagramification of the world, with backdrops mattering more than reality, I thought this show wasΒ a breath of fresh air.

(Of creepy air, I mean.)

I didn’t have enough time to process each piece, with my stomach rumbling, but the self-flagellations were there and the crucifixes.

Ernest L. Blumenschein, Penitente Procession (Study for Sangre de Cristo Mountains), circa 1925, ink, watercolor, Chinese white on paper mounted on paper, 9 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Helen Greene Blumenschein, 1985 (1985.507.4) Β© The E. L. Blumenschein estate. Photo by Blair Clark.

Cady Wells, Head of Santo (Head of Christ), circa 1939, oil and watercolor on paper, 22 3/4 Γ— 15 1/4 in. New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of the Cady Wells Estate, 1982 (1982.16.40) Photo by Blair Clark.

There was one standout, black and white documentary photo by Miguel Gandert, of some 20th Century Northern New Mexican Penitentes, in street clothes, outside the Morada.

Miguel A. Gandert, Hermanos de La Morada, NM, 1992, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, 2016.20.1, Β© 1992, Miguel Gandert

So Badass.

You know, week ago, I hadn’t given Jesus much thought.

(Though with American politicians like Mike Pompeo actively awaiting the Rapture, maybe we should all think about Jesus more often?)

But then I saw those two art shows, and the imagery bore down into my consciousness like a dental drill.

 

Part 3. Kick it up a notch

 

After a weekend spent moving washing machines, learning stick fighting, and hanging pictures, we kicked it up a notch on Tuesday, when my wife had the day off from work.

She suggested we cross the border to San Luis, Colorado to visit the Stations of the Cross ShrineΒ that looms above town.Β (Among other reasons.)

Jessie had always wanted to do it, and again, in 2020 we’re gunning for new things, so I said yes.

I swear, I made no connection to the intense, Catholic work I saw in Santa Fe, nor did I plan to write this column.

We parked the car next to the humble town hall, and were instantly met by a huge old dog, who leaned into me for pets.

He was sweet, and a chunky collar said his name was Bam Bam, the Mayor.

It had snowed the night before, and Bam Bam accompanied us across the street, and a little foot-bridge, where we soon blazed our own trail in the 5 inch snow, as no one had yet gone all the way up the hill.

Bam Bam seemed an apparition, or a spirit guide, there was no way around it, and when he chose to turn back, we waved, and kept on alone.

We broke trail in fresh snow against a perfectly blue sky.

There were no people around.

It was all ours.

Up we went, stopping occasionally to check out the sculptures honoring Jesus’ last ascent, with his cross, to be crucified.

I believe there were 14 bronze sculptures in all, by local artist Huberto Maestas.

(You knew I’d come back around to it, right?)

Jessie and I remembered the Carmel Mission, and how it was similar in its intense combination of beauty and spirituality.

But the setting here, on a mesa-top called the Hill of Piety and Mercy, surrounded by snow-covered, jagged Rocky Mountain peaks in the Wild West, was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

I stopped at the Pieta sculpture, Jesus draped across Mary’s lap, (which I now know is a subset of the Lamentations, thanks to the excellent NM Museum of Art Gallery Guide,) and made this video for you.

 

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a more stunning location for a piece of art, nor at a more perfect moment to view it.

I’ve seen better art, in more famous places, but nothing more perfect than this spot.

Finally, we circled around to try to enter the shrine, which is in a Spanish Colonial style, (in honor of the local ancestors,) but it was obviously locked on a snowy morning.

So down we went, occasionally pausing to take in the Sangre de Cristos to the East, and the Conejos Mountains to the West, with the sun burning happiness into our cheeks.

Listen up.

If you’re coming to Taos, or Santa Fe, or Southern Colorado, I can not suggest this place more highly.

(And I didn’t even get into the Shrine.)

The strangest part, if you ask me, the one that ties this tale together, across the Millennia, is that I would have bet anything the chapel, La Capilla de Todos Los Santos, was built in the 19th Century.

Taos families pushed North into the San Luis Valley in the 1840’s, and the town was officially founded by those Spanish Colonial Catholics in 1851.

But it was a town made of dirt back then, at the edge of nowhere.

With no resources.

(I guess I didn’t think it through.)

So my research turned up that it was built, as an offering of peace and love from the San Luis parish, in 1986!

The 80’s!
Again!

Are you kidding me?

This Week in Photography: A Secret Chapel Under London

- - From The Field

 

Part 1: Words of Wisdom

Man plans, God laughs.

It’s an old saying, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

I’m 45 now, and that qualifies as middle-aged.Β (Which means I’ve accrued enough life experience to know a thing or two about human nature, and its foibles.)

Furthermore, without ever intending to, I’ve become an opinion columnist, a political pundit, and a travel writer, in addition to being deeply versed in photography and art.

As I’ve been writing weekly here for so long, in a way, I’ve grown into a more mature, wiser, successful person during the course of this continuing narrative.

I’ve learned so much about the world, through the photographs I’ve viewed at festivals, the books people have sent along, and the trips I’ve taken to most of the great cities in America.

And yet, despite all that, some mistakes, I continue to make.

In particular, I still haven’t accepted that setting a deadline in life when things will get calmer, or easier, or better, never seems to work out well.

That idea, that we can externalize the process of getting that extra bit happier, or more rested, that we can outsource it to some future magical time, is a fool’s errand.

(Which makes me a fool, I know. So much for our reliable, omniscient narrator.)

This year, #2019, has been the most exciting, challenging and exhausting year of my professional life. I ping-ponged around the US, (and even the globe,) and you went along for the ride.

Thanks to my awesome, open-minded editor Rob, we took this column to new places, including straight travel reporting, restaurant reviews, and even film criticism.

Then I produced our Antidote retreats, had a huge museum show, co-designed my book, and ran my first crowd-funding campaign, all while full-time parenting, being a good husband, and volunteering at my children’s’ school.

So I should have known better than to say things like, “As soon as that Kickstarter campaign is over, I’ll get a chance to rest. Once we get to December 7th, things will be easier. I’ll finally have that mythical chance to recharge.”

(Like I said, that kind of thinking never seems to work out the way we’d hope.)

In this case, my daughter got super-sick, so we ended up at the hospital, and she had to be connected to an oxygen tank for nearly a week, because she couldn’t breathe properly.

I became her full-time caretaker during the day, and between that experience, the extra trips to the doctors, and the added medical expenses, my stress level shot through the roof.

All during the week I’d “planned” to chill out.

To be clear, most of the things I poured myself into this year were great, and I’m not trying to complain.

Rather, I want to do you a solid, and suggest that in the coming year, (with all the guaranteed political strife,) you invest in yourself a bit, in particular with self-care.

I know it can seem like a bougie concept, or perhaps New Age, but the truth is, if you don’t take care of yourself, who will? Exercise, classes, new hobbies, travel, walking, cooking, getting together with friends, making art, building community, all these things make us healthier on an on-going basis.

Just this morning, when I almost lost my shit after one extra unexpected stressor, I made a drawing, and called my best friends.

(And I’m writing, so of course my mood has improved.)

Even now, I’ve closed my eyes, and am imagining the calmest place I can think of.

I’m typing with my fucking eyes closed, all so I can conjure visions of the secret chapel at the far end of the crypt.

Say what now?

 

Part 2: Meet me at the London

Back in the day, I used to have a year-end column about the best work I saw that I hadn’t already written about yet. (I did it for years.)

Instead, I’m going to tell you about the best place I visited this year that I haven’t already written about yet.

After 5 London articles this summer, I hit the wall, and never got around to telling you about St. Brides of Fleet Street, the journalist’s church in London.

On my last day in town, my friend Richard Bram, after a brilliant fish and chips lunch in Limehouse, told me that if I wanted to see the oldest part of the city, (so much had been destroyed,) that Fleet Street was the place to go.

 

And while it was unintentional that I found it, after a long wander past St Paul’s cathedral, where I heard the bells tolling like a mad hatter, I soon realized I was in the vicinity of Richard’s recommendation.

 

Just a touch more wandering, and I found St, Brides. (What American isn’t a sucker for an old church, right?)

When I saw stairs heading down, I followed them.

Down into the crypt.
Down into the bowels of the city.

Down into the heart of European history.

(There was signage all around, explaining why the place was famous, and properly ancient, so you can read a bit about it in the photos.)

I walked past head stones, a coffin, and walls built in different centuries. It was quiet, and obviously creepy, but still, I followed the path, deeper underground.

 

Deeper and deeper.

What would I find?

I’d be lying if I told you I thought such a place existed.

The tiny chapel, when I found it, seemed like a modernist art installation, or the private altar of a stylish Billionaire in Miami Beach.

Anything but what it was; properly Christian, hidden behind ghosts and spirits, buried under one of the oldest cities in the world.

The white walls, the glowing green, the sound of silence.

 

I sat down on a cushioned bench, and didn’t move.

Transfixed.

If teleportation existed, I’d go there right now. (No doubt.)

I prayed for the journalists out there, for the truth tellers, risking their lives to report on power. And I meditated, reveling in my favorite-new-secret-place.

So listen up, people.

If you can, go there.
If you go, you will thank me.

(I guarantee it.)

Even now, just thinking about it, I feel warm and fuzzy.

So as these will be my last words to you in this crazy #2019, (I’ll be off next week,) I wanted to say thank you for reading along this year.

For following my journey, and for all the kind words so many of you have passed along this year too.

We appreciate you!

Hope you have a lovely Holiday season!

This Week in Photography: Understanding China

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Consider yourself warned.

We’re going deep today.

I’m writing on Thanksgiving, you’re reading on Black Friday, and these are highly-loaded days in America.

In their honor, today, we’re doing a proper examination of these perilous, political times in the United States and China, Earth’s dueling super-powers.

For my American analysis, you already know I’ve got the goods, as I’ve been spewing on about American politics since Rob gave me this platform. (Or, more accurately, since Thanksgiving 2011.)

With respect to China, I’ve got a BA in History from Duke, I studied Chinese art history at the undergrad and graduate levels, taught elements of its art history at the college level, watched more Hong Kong action films than I could ever count, learned bits about Buddhism, and studied Chinese martial arts as well.

(Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and I’m familiar with Qi Gong.)

Finally, on the subject of my Chinese street cred, I wrote an article here in 2011, after artist Ai Weiwei was unjustly kidnapped and imprisoned by the Chinese government, that was highly critical of China’s rulers.

(I called them assholes.)

After we published, I battled Chinese government trolls in the comment section for a few hours, which Rob and I still talk about. (And we wondered, will they return today?)

This time, though, I’m going to sit down in the nuance.

This will NOT be a story in which I only call the Chinese governmentΒ to task, condescending in my moral superiority, confident I know better.

Not today.

Rather, we’re going to look at the bigger picture.

Because China in #2019 is as impossible to ignore, (and as good at generating headlines,) as Donald J. Trump.

And that’s saying something!

In preparation for this article, I read almost everything I could the last two weeks, and encountered some excellent journalism in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and this amazing piece by the ICIJ that focuses on the second major leak coming out of China in the past month.

But even more impressive, (I think,) is that we’re also going to offer you some actual, unpublished, hot-off-the-presses documentary photography, straight from the front lines in Hong Kong, which has been roiled by massive protests this year.

My Antidote student, Hillary Johnson, has strong ties to the martial arts community in Hong Kong, and has spent a significant amount of time there over many years.

She recently put together a small Go Fund me campaign to raise money to get to Hong Kong to document the protest movement, and just got back.

These photographs are current, is what I’m saying.

And she both knows the city, and has deep ties there.

The Hong Kong protests are only part of what I want to discuss, but it’s exciting to be able to share Hillary’s work while it’s all happening.

Photo from the 7th floor of the Eaton Hotel that sits right at the intersection where the battle took place at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. Flowing in and out of the intersection like a murmuration of birds, throughout the day and night of fighting with the police, the protesters worked together tirelessly and with great courage to keep the police at bay. It seemed clear they had studied military history and tactics, particularly Roman battle techniques. They made a phalanx at the barrier and inched towards the police under cover of umbrellas which protected them from the tear gas. They were finally driven out by police around 3 or 4 am.

On November 18th protesters used anything they could find to make barricades during the battle that went on for more than 24 hours at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. They pulled bricks from sidewalks and broke them in half, bamboo from scaffolding, street signs, anything they could get their hands on was immediately transformed into a weapon, shield or barrier. The sound of things being dismantled was a relentless, unearthly tapping of brick against brick, metal against metal.

 

Part 2. Understanding China

 

When I wrote the Ai Weiwei article, I rememberer mentioning the movie “Hero,” and how it had chilled me to hear the phrase “Our Land,” and then see Jet Li’s character (spoiler alert) give up his life to allow an Emperor to rule a united China.

I thought it meant they were coming for us, (which they kind of are, but more on that later,) but in the ensuing years, I’ve come to see the film differently.

What I now know of Chinese history is that, as long as it is, the periods of Chinese unity led to prosperity and relative peace.

But when smaller powers were jostling within, in a country as big as China, with a historically huge population, wars broke out, and tens of millions of people died.

(This happened a lot.)

In the late 19th Century, most recently, the Taiping Rebellion killed an estimated 60-70 million people.

And that was an uprising against the Qing Dynasty, a weak power that conquered “China” from Manchuria, in the Far North.

There was also the time when the Mongols defeated China and ruled in the Southern Song Dynasty, in the 13th Century.

The pride of the dominant Han was damaged then too.

Fast forward again, and China in the Qing Dynasty was so underpowered that England carved it up, during the Opium wars, imposing the drug on the country, and taking territory, like Hong Kong.

When the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed, just before World War I, the Japanese came in as conquerors, and from then though World War II, (featuring things like the Rape of Nanjing,) China was humiliated by a neighbor, and again millions of people died.

Next, there was the violence during the Communist Revolution, when Mao Zedong took over, which led to the partition of China and Taiwan. (Which China does not recognize.)

And millions more starved when Mao did as he pleased with the Centralized economy.

(Even in a united China, under Mao, lots of people died, back in the day.)

So here we are in #2019, and China is now united, but with the resources of a mega-power, due to its embrace of Western Capitalism.

The leadership under the unapologetic dictatorship, (more on that later,) consistently stresses the value of a united, powerful China, and its citizens, many of whom have left poverty for the middle class, (or outright wealth,) appreciate the stability.

Xi Jinping, China’s power-hungry ruler, stepped in at this time of unprecedented prosperity, and decided China was ready to embrace its role as a Superpower, rather than cloak it, as had been the case since Deng Xiaoping.

So now Xi has an axe to grind with the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans.

(Russia, with whom it shares a border, is a natural rival as well, but certainly they have things in common too.)

Xi also lived through watching his father get taken down, and reeducated, so he has a chip on his shoulder there as well.

Given all I’ve written so far, are we really surprised that a guy who had the rules re-written so he can be dictator-for-life would claim some rocks in the South China Sea, engage in a huge trade war with a super-power, lock up and torture 1 million Muslim minorities in concentration camps, or try to take Hong Kong’s (partial) democracy in plain view of the world?

 

Part 3: The War on Terror

 

After 9/11, the United States of America started two ground wars, one in Afghanistan, and the other in Iraq.

(One is still ongoing, and the other wrapped up under President Obama, but we sent troops back in country this Fall.)

After the attacks that killed 2000+ Americans, and cost untold billions, travel in airports changed forever. Privacy laws changed, (remember the Patriot Act?,) and though George W. Bush admirably argued against it, Anti-Muslim sentiment in this country increased.

Overall, the US spent TRILLIONS of dollars on those Middle-Eastern wars, killed tens of thousands of people, and locked some up indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay too.

Today, in #2019, we are currently running our own detention (or concentration) camps for illegal immigrants, depending on your preferred term.

Children get sexually abused there, or taken from their parents forever.

They sleep on cold concrete floors, and are denied hygiene and occasionally health care.

(The US Government actually defended the lack of hygiene in a video clip that went viral.)

We also incarcerate millions of Americans for a drug war that is destroying our neighbor, Mexico, and a massive percentage of our overcrowded prison population is comprised of people of color.

Plus, our police, (at least in Dallas,) now shoot African-American people in their homes, while they’re playing video games, or eating ice cream.

You really can’t make this shit up, but doesn’t make it any less tragic.

Honestly, the only thing I like about Vladimir Putin is that he’s always calling us out for our hypocrisy.

We’ve taken territory.
We’ve removed governments.
We’ve meddled in elections.

On this, he’s not wrong.

Can we really look at what China is doing with the (mostly) Uighur population in Xinjiang and say we’re that much better than they are at the moment?

The Uighurs were killing Han Chinese, in terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2014, and then Xi Jinping said make it stop.

He said, use the power of the Dictatorship to make it stop.

And so they did.

They built camps from scratch, increased facial recognition surveillance, locked up 1 million people, torturing them, threatening their free relatives to stay quiet, and went about brainwashing the Islam and Uighur out of them.

All since 2017!!!

And again, I ask, in this age of Trump, with our camps, and our history of locking up the Japanese in World War II, slavery, and the genocide of Native America, are we so sure we’re superior? .

We did lots of torture in those CIA black sites during the War on Terror, in addition to waterboarding, sound and light torture, sleep deprivation, and many other goodies.

No wonder we’re all getting headaches from the complexity of #2019.

 

Part 4: Defending Democracy

 

I take my freedom of speech very seriously. (As you know.)

I’m thankful to Rob Haggart, my amazing editor, for supporting those rights for the last 9.5 years, and for paying me to share my opinion with you.

He has never censored or edited me, in all these years.

Not once.

And when I suggested this column, he said go for it!

Because I’ve been thinking a lot about China’s threat to our free speech lately.

As Xi flexes his muscles, (and all these countries become interdependent,) like with anything else, might makes right.Β It’s why Pakistan and other Muslim countries stay silent as China jails and tortures other Muslims in Xinjiang.

They’re addicted to Chinese money, and the customer, (and boss) is always right.

So I was immediately concerned the second I read that China had come down so hard on Houston Rockets GM Darryl Morey’s Pro-Hong-Kong-protestor tweet back in October.

Mr. Morey had only retweeted a generic message of support from his personal account, and it literally turned into an international incident overnight.

I cannot overstate how big a deal it became, both to China, the NBA, and US-Chinese relations.

Joe Tsai, an Alibaba founder, and new owner of my beloved Brooklyn Nets, wrote a long, open letter on Facebook echoing some of the history I mentioned in Part 1, and calling the protestors separatists. (Ironically, he’s Taiwanese, and was educated in the US.)

Chinese power has come into America, and apparently pressed for Mr. Morey to be fired.

Several times in the aftermath, China made clear in writing that it believes free speech does NOT include criticizing its government, and that it also now feels that practice should not be limited within its national borders.

People outside China, workers within the American Capitalist system, should have their freedom of expression limited, says the People’s Republic of China.

If you’re not a little concerned by that, I think you should be.

And I told all of that to Hillary Johnson, my intrepid student, before she left to support the Hong Kong democracy movement this month.

I told her Xi Jinping was willing to do anything to win.

That these protestors did not stand a chance.

That it would be dangerous.

She said she knew all these things, and was determined to go anyway. She wanted to be there with David, against Goliath.

I told her I admired the hell out of her bravery, and that I’d support her as I could.

The photographs Hillary made, over the course of a week+ in Hong Kong in November 2019, are her vision of a community she, (and I) desperately appreciate. (Or a part of her vision. She had hardrive drama, so this is only a small sample of what she shot.)

China came along earlier this year, and wanted to expand its power to extradite anyone from Hong Kong to the mainland judicial system.

Hong Kong’s citizens, especially the young, realized this was not a power-grab, but a complete takeover.

If it had succeeded, if Carrie Lam, (the puppet) had gotten her way, then any freedom would have evaporated.

You say the wrong thing, and you can all-of-a-sudden end up locked up forever in a Chinese political prison.

It would be the same implicit threat hanging over folks in Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. (Because the mainland Chinese made a devil’s bargain, of wealth and security for human rights and freedom.)

Here in the United States, we have, for most of our history, preferenced the latter at all costs.

Do we still?

Trump wants to be President for life.

He jokes about it all the time.

The dictators Putin, Xi, and Erdogan are his friends.

And now he’s about to face an impeachment trial, with an election coming up next year.

Where does it all end?

I have no idea.

But the Hong Kong protestors forced China to back down on the extradition law, and just supported the pro-democracy movement in local elections.

What happens next?

Again, I have no idea.

Happy Black Friday!

A nurse who must remain anonymous, photographed on November 18th during a battle between protesters and police for the intersection of Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd in the Jordan neighborhood in Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR. She volunteered to care for protesters overcome by teargas or suffering from other injuries. The police shot a mix of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets as well as live rounds directly at protesters.

The mother of the young protester who both must remain anonymous pose for a portrait holding a copy of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy magazine. This page features a heroic painting of the protesters by @harcourtromanticist. They are a rare example of a family stronger together now than before. Many parents have disowned their children for being involved in the protests.

Anonymous young woman. She is a college student and her boyfriend is a front line protester. She said, “I am not as brave as him but I want to help so I am learning first aid, so I can help them when they go to the front line.” She was inside the Prince Edward MTR station when the police locked the station down, trapping riders and innocent people for over an hour while triad thugs, dressed in all black so they could look like protesters, came in and beat ordinary people, (who were not protesters,) indiscriminately with blunt instruments and batons.

A family of a front line protester. He is just 21 and lives with his mother and grandmother. His mother worked at Police headquarters for 11 years. In the beginning of the movement, she and her mother didn’t believe the stories about police brutality and were against the son protesting. It almost split the family apart. They finally came to see the stories were true and though she worries about him every time he goes out she supports the movement and feels that in her job she can keep an eye on things and know what is really going on.

This woman so fears the police that this is the only we she could be photographed for publication. Because of her work, so many people know her, some of them police, it was completely unsafe to show her face or photograph her any recognizable place that could be identified. Her husband could not be photographed at all for fear of reprisals.

These three gentlemen are part of a confederation of labor unions representing different industries. The two wearing masks have been deeply involved in the movement. To show their faces would put them at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Thousands of people have already been arrested and there are reports of intense police brutality including beatings, arrest and rape. Of the election, one from the Cross Sector Resistance said, “It showed that the people will not submit to pandering or terrorism, but recognize that human rights are non-negotiable.”

This man is an organizer and labor leader in Hong Kong. He said, “The Chinese government has already seen my face, so I’m already dead! Let’s do one photo facing away from the camera anyway.” The five raised fingers stands for 5 demands and not one less. He sees labor issues as being inextricably tied to fundamental concepts of freedoms embodied in the five demands and the pro-democracy movement.

This Week in Photography: Building Your Team

 

Part 1. Team-building

 

Two of four covers for “Extinction Party”

 

I spoke to some students the other week, as they came to my museum exhibition.

I tend to lecture the way I write, (off the cuff, spontaneous,) and soon found myself pointing to one of the photographs on the wall.

“People think artists work by themselves, as individuals,” I said. “They envision the lone wolf, quiet in the studio, but that’s not the way it works.”

“Just to get this print on the wall,” I continued, “takes an entire team of people. It requires tons of help.

No one does it alone.”

Now, you know this column is getting strange when I start quoting myself, (be forewarned,) but the message is important, and I’m going to lean into it today for a few reasons.

The biggest of them, (and the one driving today’s column,) is that I just launched aΒ Kickstarter campaign for “Extinction Party,” my very first photo book, which will be published by Yoffy Press in Atlanta.

(Assuming we raise the needed funds.)

You, our audience, come here each week to see photographs, and read my musings about art, politics, food, travel, pop culture, sports, or whatever else is on my mind at a given time.

(Again with the stream of consciousness.)

So I’m here to ask you, directly, if you’d please be willing to help support me, (and my team,) as we’re hoping make an important book that symbolizes how human behavior is leading to planetary destruction.

For the hundreds of columns I’ve written here, this will be my first book, and I’d like to think all the practice critiquing will make it special.

(We also have an original essay by “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan, an expert on over-consumption.)

The project required so much work from other people, including my publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, who edited and proposed the book when she came to ski in Taos last February.

People often wonder how a book gets made, or what to search for in a publisher, and I recommend working with someone you respect and trust. So many people want that first book, it can lead to ethical or financial compromises, and I encourage people to look out for that.

I’ve known Jennifer a long while, and she mentioned several times over the preceding year that she was open to publishing my work, once I had the right idea.

While many artists want a book for each project, I waited 10 years, deciding, (after some great advice from Dewi Lewis,) that I should not make a book until I felt compelled.

Until the idea was strong enough to build the proper motivation.

When Jennifer first came here, I told her I had the raw material for a book, but was too close to make the edit, as there were too many connections for me to focus.

So when she asked to take a stab at editing for me after dinner, (but before we’d agreed to work together,) I said “Yes, please.”

I can’t stress enough, we all need colleagues, friends and collaborators who get what we’re doing. (The age of begging powerful people to take pity on you is over.)

It’s DIY, these days, and having learned a thing or two about team-building, with Antidote, I am starting to get the hang of things.

Work with people you like, appreciate and respect, of course, but don’t forget to look for complementary skill sets.

Can your teammates do things for you that you can’t do yourself?

In my case, my publisher is a master-marketer, a great editor, and has experience executing her vision, so it’s a good fit.

As for my designer, it was my best friend Caleb Cain Marcus, who’s also helped me develop and build our Antidote programming.

Oddly, we met less than 4 years ago, (at a photography festival,) but I’ve found that many of my closest friends are not my oldest friends.

The more we get know ourselves, the better our judgement can be, with respect to choosing friends and colleagues wisely.

In order to make a book, you need help with the making, and these days, with the funding.

As much as I feared having to ask the global photo community for help, (as I’m doing now,) I always tell you that getting out of your comfort zone makes you stronger.

And this about as far out of my zone as I can get, at the end of #2019, the busiest year of my career.

If you’d please be willing to help with our pre-sale and buy a book, a print, or just make a small donation, I’d be very grateful.

 

Part 2: The Perfect Partner

 

I’ve mentioned Caleb here many times, and at first, I reviewed his books without knowing him at all.

(He’s super-talented as an artist, digital guru, master-printer, book designer, and editor.)

Eventually, once we became good friends, I reviewed another of his books here, but then, I added a disclaimer.

So I found it amusing last week, when I was raiding my book pile, (which I wrote about in the column,) and came across a package, from early 2019, sent by a PR agent who normally submits good stuff.

I tore open the envelope, and wouldn’t you know it, but Caleb’s recent Damiani book, “A Line in the Sky” slipped out, along with a note asking me to consider another review.

Though we’re super-close, Caleb never mentioned the book had been sent, nor did he ask for a write-up.

He never even checked in to see what I thought.

And then, looking at it, I wondered how to review it, since I’d need to be open about our friendship, but also, I wasn’t sure the book was entirely necessary.

Unlike me, Caleb has made a book for each project, (more or less,) which means he’s many books into his publishing career, and doesn’t have to use crowdfunding to publish them.

Eventually, most established publishers will provide funding, when they’ve worked with an artist multiple times, and have a proven track record of selling the books.

I also helped Caleb a bit on this one, provoking him to think about how to approach the writing.

Looking through the book, nearly a year later, I was struck by the raw, tranquil beauty of the images. A rift in blue, a set of skies torn asunder by gold leaf.

Though there is a nice dance among the rectangles, from page to page, the repetition of form, and the very-slight subtlety, made me think the work would be more powerful as an exhibition.

I could see myself surrounded by the images, like in the Agnes Martin gallery at the Harwood Museum here in town. (It’s octagonal, and all her paintings are slight variations on a theme.)

He opens the book with a lovely poem, which is cool, as he studied poetry years ago, but wasn’t using that skill set lately.

And in the end, a brief, super-clear statement of intent, discussing the sundering of America in the Trump era.

As a metaphor, I love it.

But then, I know Caleb and his life.

I’m aware that only a few months after this quiet, personal book came out, his own life was ripped in two, when someone in his family developed a serious illness.

Context is key, as I always say, and I found it creepy that I could only understand the book, now, as the calm before the storm.

Even if it was meant to represent the chaos.

(Life was easy for him, when this book came out, compared to now.)

“A Line in the Sky” is certainly worth showing here, as it’s a beautiful, sad little object, and also demonstrates the range of Caleb’s talents.

I’m lucky to have him as a friend, and a charter member of my “art” team.

 

Part 3: Supporting your community

 

It wouldn’t be my column if I only made it about me and my buddy.

Having to blatantly self-promote is so hard, given that I try to collaborate, and help out my photo community whenever possible.

It’s the reason I made Antidote a group teaching endeavor, rather than naming it after me, and trying to do it all myself. (Again, doesn’t work.)

So last night, even though I was launching the Kickstarter today, and was tired to the bone, I went to a fundraiser at the UNM Art Museum in Albuquerque.

I even gave them some money, even though I need raise so much myself.

It was important to squeeze it in, as the museum’s new Director, Arif Khan, wrote me a personal email, asking if I’d come support the institution.

Not only that, but the event was on behalf of the new Diversity and Equity fund, which he recently launched with curator Mary Statzer, and the first recipient was photographer Jess Dugan, who was in town for the night.

The UNM Art Museum has been exhibiting her major traveling exhibition, “To Survive on this Shore,” which was done in collaboration with her partner, Vanessa Fabbre, who’s trained as a social worker. (Like my wife.)

They interviewed and photographed 88 (if I remember right,) older transgender or gender nonconforming people, in particular many who identify as Trans.

In order to be down with the proper nomenclature, I asked Jess how she identified, and she told me “non-binary” or “queer,” and that she did not primarily use the pronouns they/them.

But one of the images being acquired, from a separate series, heavily implied that Jess has had gender-related chest reconstruction surgery, so the entire subject is personal for her, as well as political.

Arif gave a lecture in which he projected certain statistics about the paucity of women, and people of color, who are represented in museum collections.

The numbers were stark.

 

Then he asked people to support the fund, and put up a goal that was only slightly higher than we need to make our book.

I felt a pang of guilt for asking people to support my work right now, as a Jewish-American man, given my demographic is the one that’s supposed to have all the opportunities already.

I quickly shook off that line of thinking, though, as I work hard each week to support other people, and my photographs, with their strong environmental commentary, bear messages that also need to be disseminated.

But hearing from students and faculty, and listening to flamenco guitar played by one of Jess’s trans photo subjects, everyone was so proud to be a part of an endeavor that was righting an obvious wrong.

The energy in the room was deeply positive, and made me glad to have driven five hours to spend two at a museum fundraiser.

As I told someone last night, Northern New Mexico is one big community, from Taos to ABQ. Hell, our Colorado cousins come down a lot too, so maybe it’s one big Rocky Mountain happy place.

The truth is, I need other people for guidance, and conversation. For inspiration, and challenge.

We all do.

So if you don’t want to support my Kickstarter, I’ll certainly understand.

Hopefully, though, you’ll go out of your way to help someone this week, and then they might help you back.

(Karma!)

Visiting California, Part 2: The Decline of San Francisco

 

Part 1. Synchronicity

 

Meaning is what we make of it.

That’s a fact.

A week ago exactly, I stood on my front porch as our Antidote event broke up, and I watched a newly formed community, people who hadn’t even known each other a few days before, split with sorrow, as if parting with family.

One student stayed a little longer, so I could set her up with a cool road trip around Southern Colorado.

Now, I’m the first to admit that our program, set in the hippie Mecca of Taos, NM, is rather progressive in the ways we teach creativity and open-mindedness.

Hell, I write about this every week for you guys, so I have no doubt you can imagine the ideas that get kicked around the breakfast table.

But a week ago, I stood there with Christina, discussing future possibilities for her art, when a red-tailed hawk began screeching loudly from the sky.

At first, I smiled and kept talking, but the hawk kept it up, so finally, I paused.

“Hey Christina, let’s go see what the hawk wants,” I said.

“Christina” photo courtesy of Hillary Johnson

So we did.

Immediately, I saw two in the sky, and began theorizing as to what they might mean for the two of us, symbolically.

Then, Christina saw a third bird, forming an upward-triangle-vortex in the deeply blue sky.

Her photographic art, both past and (potentially) future, revolves around her triplet daughters, who after some health scares are now successful young women, out in the world.

Three girls, three hawks.

The symbolism for both of us was unmissable.

Three birds.

Free.
Alive.
Glorious.

I looked at Christina and said, “Out here, on this farm, we choose to believe that the things like this can mean something. They are symbols, with power, as opposed to random events in the natural world. I know that can sound new-age, so feel free to think that’s crazy.”

But Christina lives in California, and was embedded in a very positive, life-affirming, artsy group for the weekend, so it was clear she saw those hawks in the sky, and her girls in her mind’s eye.

Photo courtesy of Hillary Johnson

In a normal year, that would have been one of the craziest moments I’ve had, fraught with metaphysical essence.

But it’s 2019, and many of you have been reading along, so you know it’s been one wild fucking ride.

 

Part 2. The sermon about San Francisco

I mentioned California just a few paragraphs up, and of course that’s where we’re headed today. But it won’t be a long, rambling visit, as we’ve had many of those.

I’ve tried to take you on the deep dive into contemporary New York this year, and New Jersey. Portland and London too.

That’s the East Coast, West Coast and Europe.

As to San Francisco, I don’t think I have it in me to drill into the core of the myriad problems.

It’s just too sad.

It’s easy to pile on San Francisco these days, but sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

I used to live in the city, from 1999-2002, back when booms were met with busts, and artists could still afford an apartment.

And I’ve reported on the growth and change here on APE since at least 2013. Year by year, we’ve discussed the rise in homelessness.

That’s what I called it at first.

Then, I reported on the rise of tent cities, and the sense of hopelessness that the problem could ever be solved, as income inequality grew to absurdist proportions.

Finally, we’ve settled on the term street class, which I wrote in last week’s book review, as the trend solidified into something normal. Something regular.

Something permanent to be tolerated.

Much as Trump’s America has given us kid jails, and ever-more-rampant spree killers, it’s also seen the final blow dropped on what was once a truly cool, vibrant, special American city.

Now it feels like one big tourist trap overlaid on a tech-bro landscape.

City Lights Bookstore

 

Part 3. Visiting a gallery in the old neighborhood

San Francisco is getting killed in the media, regularly, so it gives me no pleasure to write this. But as soon as we got to the rental car place, in Oakland, the nice Haitian woman who helped us swore that SF was so dangerous she didn’t go there anymore.

She even warned us off of the visit, if you can believe it.

But after leaving the airport only to land in Bay Area morning rush hour, with an 1.25 hour drive to go a few miles, (little did we know,) the only thing I was worried about was how long it would take to get my pupusas.

I’d promised the family some great Salvadoran food, in our old neighborhood, the Mission, and desperately hoped we could make it there before food crashes, or traffic, undermined us.

After a few close calls, in all the chaotic traffic, we made it, and stuffed our faces on masa-stuffed goodies, served with spicy salsa and a vinegary claw.

La Santaneca de la Mission, right near Mission and 24th, is so fucking good. Try it, but make sure to bring cash, as they don’t take plastic. (Note that, Europeans.)

Thinking back, the meal was perhaps the highlight of the visit, as it resonated of the Central American immigrants who used to dominate the neighborhood, back in the day.

And then then we went on a short walk, and saw several local institutions in the midst of being replaced by gentrification. (Like the old school Locatelli Ravioli, which seems to have shut the day before we got there.)

I did a loop of the old haunts, and even Mission Street, which still looked the same, felt like a zombie. Somehow, I recognized the places, but the soul was gone.

That’s the best way I can describe it.

I split off from the family, and headed to Euqinom Gallery, where I was meant to hook up with Philip, an artist I’d met in Portland. We both wanted to see “Present Objects,” curated by Emily Lambert-Clements and Monique Deschaines, which featured 5 female artists who worked in very different ways.

But just before I got there, not 100 feet from the gallery, was a tent, sitting there, in the middle of the sidewalk.

By itself.

I stopped dead, but decided I would NOT take a picture for you, so I didn’t.

My heart sank.

The gallery is about 1/4 of a mile from where I used to live. My old home. The stomping grounds.

And now people are living in tents in the middle of the sidewalk.

I mentioned it to Monique, who said it happens constantly these days, as once residents call the police, the squatters still have 3-4 days before the cops come roust them.

Sometimes, Monique says, a few tents will join once one pops up, and they’re harder to move. She mentioned a story she’d heard about someone pouring water on a tent from above.

Again, this is normal now.

As to the exhibition, the work was strong overall, featuring a variety of processes, and fairly or not, my favorite were the paper-based wall sculptures by Julia Goodman. Totally textural and sumptuous, I was told the artist makes them with composites of old t-shirts, among other things.


There was also an installation of fake detective novels by Rachel Phillips that was clever, but not something over which I’d swoon. The other three projects were more photographic in nature, and featured a fairly disparate set of styles. (All of which I liked, for sure, but did not love.)

As we were wrapping up, I asked Monique if there was a theme to the entirely-female group, as it didn’t seem to be “about” feminism.

She told me the gallery will always have 2 female artist for every man, and then she turned the tables on me.

“You would never have said that, if it were five men in the show.”

“Yes, I would have,” I replied.

“No, you wouldn’t have,” she countered.

“You don’t know me very well,” I said. “It’s 2019. I absolutely would have noticed if it were five men, because that would have seemed out of step with the times. Not only that, I think a lot of people in the photo world would notice, after the last few years.”

Don’t you agree?

 

Part 4. Pier 24

We spent the night in a fancy hotel on the Embarcadero, a few blocks from Chinatown and the waterfront. In retrospect, (and having just watched “Warrior,” which is set in 19th C SF,) I guess that part of San Francisco, the Barbary Coast, has been dodgy for a long time.

Hotel View, on the Embarcadero

The Transamerica Building, from the Financial District

The Ferry Building at night

But while I had seen a lot of hard-core poverty in the Tenderloin, over the years, what I witnessed by the Bay, in late July, was several degrees worse.

I knew better than to take my kids out after dark, but Jessie and I took the briefest of walks to the Ferry Building, and almost got mugged once or twice.

No exaggeration.

The collection of desperate, down-on-their-heels people would have been darkly mesmerizing, if the natural human instinct wasn’t to get back to safe harbor as quickly as possible.

In order to avoid an alley, Jessie asked that we take Market Street, and in only one block, there was a woman wailing for anyone to help her move her wheelchair, several people sprawled out on the ground, and I swear it felt like we’d descended into Hell.

I know that stories like this fit Trump’s narrative that America’s cities are in bad shape, but as I’ve reported constantly over the last year, I don’t believe that’s the case.

Desirable cities are booming, but the income inequality wave is drowning more and more people each year.

It’s a horrible set-up, I know, but part of why we stayed near the Ferry Building was that we wanted to visit Pier 24, the very excellent, free photo museum/gallery that we’ve profiled here several times before.

I’m going to avoid editorializing right now, and state only that the museum, as I’ve previously reported, houses the collection of the Pilara Foundation, which runs the space.

They allow a very limited number of people inside, and the space is enormous, so they’ve created an excellent, boutique experience for viewing some truly exceptional contemporary and vintage photography.

It’s owned by a very wealthy patron, and in the past has featured an exhibition ABOUT the collector class.

The 1%.

But the wealth is put to the benefit of the public. (If you know about it, and can reserve a space online.)

The people who work there, though, are regular folks like us. They’re neither rich, nor Upper Class.

So when I took my family, (again, for free,) we walked along the waterfront, as people slept on the sidewalk, or leaning up against the sides of buildings.

The tourists were everywhere, creating side-walk passing lanes I hadn’t seen outside of New York.

Inside, Pier 24 was celebrating its 10th Anniversary, and the first space, which was filled with the Sugimoto wax royals, set the scene nicely.

As I said, the place is sprawling, with so many prints by so many famous names. Amidst all the great work, one mini-gallery felt so subversive, I did a double-take.

There, together, were a set of original Dorothea Lange images, and as she was a Bay Area photographer, they packed an extra punch.

BOOM!

The past few years, as I tried to explain to people what this new street class looked like, I would say, “It’s like those photographs from the Great Depression. It’s happening again.”

And there they were.

In my mind, I imagined some of them were hung on walls shared with the exterior. (It’s possible.)

Maybe, some nights, while the photos hung on the inside of the walls, sad, lonely humans slept on the other side.

(Whether it happens literally or not, it happens metaphorically every day.)

Major Kudos to curators Christopher McCall and Allie Haeusslein for sharing that gallery in the middle of a city in crisis.

Three photos by Adou

There was plenty of other great work on display, including Adou, a Chinese artist I’d never heard of before, but only one thing knocked me on my heels.

And it takes us back to today’s beginning.

Symbolism.
Meaning.
Synchronicity.

Because one little gallery was filled with vintage Robert Adams images, which were clearly from Colorado. (His old stomping ground.)

The looked so familiar, but I was sure I hadn’t seen them before.

My brain was whirring, one more mystery in a crazy year, when I saw it. Things clicked.

It was Eden.

Eden, Colorado.

Where my London adventure began, on the highway to Denver, four months ago.

It was in Eden, that mythically-named spot, where I noticed people living in their cars.

As if it were normal.

Welcome to 2019.

Visiting California: Part 1

 

I didn’t want to write today.

It’s true.

It’s not that I don’t love you all.

I do.
Of course I do.

But I’m always honest, and keep you apprised, so the issue is that I’m super-exhausted.

Good things, like bad things, sometimes come in threes, and we wrapped our first session of Antidote this week, I’ve got a big museum solo show coming up next month, and we’re working on my first book as well.

I’m as cooked as a lobster after an hour in the pot.

But deadlines are not forgiving, and Friday looms just ahead.

So I tried everything I knew to boost my creativity.

I drank some coffee.
Did some stretching.
Ate some sweets.

And then I went for a walk. (The best trick of all.)

Out there, in the fresh air, with the sun on my face, I remembered that we can’t force our creativity.

It doesn’t work.

With this weekly column, 8 years old next month, I’d say I’m an expert in keeping the creative juices in regular, working order.

No column, no job.
No job, no money.

And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the creativity is the boss, and we’re the vessel.

The worker bee.

I often tell my students we don’t have an art boss, but as I sit here writing, on this day when my creativity is so battered, I realize that’s not entirely true.

The creative energy, or the force that makes it, is really in charge here.

If you want to tap into it, long term, you have to nurture it, and respect it.

That’s why I went for that walk, knowing it was my best chance of communing with the writing gods.

And idea would come, I hoped, as I couldn’t motivate to revisit London, or Portland, and the first two books I looked at weren’t right either.

London, 2019

Out there, in the sun and the breeze, I thought of how instinctual creativity really is.

So much comes from the subconscious, or through happenstance and coincidence we take to “mean something.”

We imbue things or experiences with heft, believing that certain objects, places, or days, are just THAT MUCH MORE SPECIAL than everything else.

As photographers, we believe that some things can step out of time.

Out there, on my walk up the hill, I remembered the moment, in July of 2016, as my family and I spent a little vacation on California’s Central Coast.

My wife’s family live in/on the Monterey Peninsula, so I’ve visited many times, and think it’s about as ideal a California lifestyle as I have yet seen.

Public park, Monterey

I’ll write a cultural-critique-travel-piece about California sometime soon.

I promise.

But for today’s purposes, we’re going to focus on the drop dead beauty, and the impossibly lovely feeling of the ocean moisture on your skin, in the air, no matter where you are.

Back in 2016, we were in Carmel, headed South to Jessie’s Aunt’s place in Big Sur, and the traffic, now famous, was about to REALLY get going, when I saw a sign for a historic Mission.

I wanted to pull over.

Jessie and the kids were fried, so they tried to veto it.

“Five minutes,” I said.

“Five minutes,” she growled.

My daughter, who would have been three, came in with me, while the other two stayed in the car.

Maybe because it was a wedding, the courtyard was open, and we walked right in.

A fancy photo shoot was going on, and people seemed happy. I felt a pull into the courtyard, and then further still into the limestone church.

It was an energy I can’t describe, but it said, “Things of incredible weight happened here. This place matters. It is beautiful, so very beautiful, but it is also important.”

I had five minutes, god dammit, and I marched into the chapel, and peeked around.

It felt like I’d stepped back in time.

Like I was in Zorro’s California of the late 18th or early 19th Century.

I felt like Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were going to leap out from an alcove and challenge me to a duel.

“SeΓ±or, you did not pay the entrance fee. You have offended me, and I challenge you to the death.”

“I’m sorry, Antonio Banderas. I didn’t know there was an entrance fee. The gate was open. I only have five minutes. You really were great as Zorro. Can I go now?”

I was sure there was something special about the Mission, and when I saw the name Junipero Serra, and what appeared to be his grave, or tomb, it burned into my brain.

Look this man up.

Come back to this place.

So I got in the car, and told Jessie, “I’m going to figure out what the hell is so important about this church. And we’re going to come back as soon as we can.”

As it happened, there was a big, deadly accident on Highway 1, maybe five minutes down the road, in the direction we were headed.

Did the ghost of Junipero Serra save my family’s life?

I don’t know.

I don’t think I’m that openminded yet, even though I did once write here, in this column, about talking to Garry Shandling’s ghost through a medium via a Subaru’s bluetooth.

When I got home, I hit up Wikipedia first, and then read a biography on Junipero Serra that I purchased for my Kindle.

I read it in stages, and admittedly, this was an obsession from 3 years ago.

But the short version is that Junipero Serra, a Franciscan monk from Majorca, was an incredibly powerful, and seemingly power hungry dude.

He used to whip and flagellate himself, and walked around with an open wound on his leg, and also, he was a witch hunter for the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico.

It it undisputed that he colonized voraciously for the Catholic Church and Spanish Empire in the New World, and essentially enslaved native people when he ran things for the religious wing of Colonialism’s power.

Serra, who was recently Sainted, badly wanted to colonize California, as there were only rudimentary Jesuit missions in Baja California, and nothing but the native people up above.

After machinations, the Jesuits were removed from power, kicked out of Baja California entirely, and Serra was given license to take Alta California, with military guards for his relatively small operation.

This man, whose tomb I discovered, was the Religious Conquistador of California.

The boss of bosses.

Junipero Serra

His first mission was at San Diego, just as a beachhead, but the next, and the most important, was at Monterey and Carmel.

The 18th Century power center would be the Monterey Bay, with its proximity to fertile lands, and the abundance of the sea.

San Francisco would become bigger and more important after the gold rush in the late 1840’s, and of course Los Angeles would be the 20th Century mega-city of them all.

(Running on cars and optimism.)

But it’s in Monterey and Carmel that you can feel the 18th Century vibe, and see the best, elegant beauty of that era of Spanish Colonial art and architecture in North America.

So when my family and I were in Monterey late last month, we went back to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, in Carmel, and I paid the $9 entrance fee, which as a journalist I rarely do.

It was so, so worth it.

I know it’s silly to say that, as its a church, not a museum, but in this case there’s little difference.

The Carmel Mission was finished in 1797, rebuilt over the years, and recently underwent a major renovation, so it’s certainly looking its best these days.

I told my friend Ed about the hour we spent there, as a family, and the way my wife and two children were equally seduced.

The gardens, the fountains, the bougevvilla, the tall trees.

 

“Be careful,” he said.

“That’s how they hook you. Ever since Junipero Serra was out there making converts and crushing skulls. They know what they’re doing, the Catholic Church.”

Is it true? Were they using beauty, the limestone, the paintings, the history, to whitewash the original sin of Colonialism?

I guess, on some level, they were. It’s like a mini version of going to the Vatican, instead of the Prado.

 

It’s why my references, as an artist and occasional art historian, go to Madrid, or even Rome.

Junipero Serra lived at the Mission, and is buried there. Whether you’re a fan, or think he was a character from a horror film, either way, this was seismic ground.

I knew that something important happened there, back in 2016.

My gut was screaming, and in this case, it was totally right. The history of California ran through the walls, and by trusting my creative instincts, I had the most wondrous experience three years later.

(I even made a little promo video for you guys below. My first time in front of the camera)

 

My wife, kids and I were all entranced, so as a place to visit, I’d say this spot comes highly recommended.

Everyone else staying at our motel in Monterey was from Europe, or another continent, so this advice applies to all of you.

Next time you’re in the area, on your way to photograph like Weston at Point Lobos, stop in at the Carmel Mission.

You’ll thank me.

Martin Parr’s “Only Human” at the National Portrait Gallery

 

Where I grew up, Bruce Springsteen was a god.

He was IT, as far as New Jersey locals were concerned.

The Boss.

At some point, Bruce more or less became synonymous with the state.

Like, if the SNL guys had done a Springsteen skit, instead of one about Ditka, and if they’d gotten Stevie Van Zandt to do a parody of himself, instead of George Wendt, we’d be talking about an entirely different timeline. (Though perhaps still a good one. Is Jon Bon Jovi President in this alternate timeline, I wonder?)

I mention Bruce today, because I grew up loving his music, but lately, have begun to wonder if he is actually good at singing.

Which, you, know, with him being a singer and all, is kind of a bad question to ask, at this point.

I guess now that I’ve lived away from New Jersey longer than I lived there, the Bruce Springsteen-magic-fairy-dust is wearing off, and I’m awakening from a chloroform-like haze.

Sometimes, when the person and the place become the same thing, it can be hard to know of they’re still making the pizza with the same recipe, or of Junior is scrimping and buying cheaper mozzarella.

You know what I’m saying?

The legend can cast a large shadow, and as photographers, we all know how valuable the light is, if you feel me.

And speaking of famous institutions…

I’d like to discuss Martin Parr’s “Only Human” exhibition that I saw in May at the National Portrait Gallery in London, just before it closed.

I’d interviewed Martin Parr for an NYT Lens blog piece, back in April, and he invited me to attend a walk-through of the exhibition, if I was going to be in town.

I’ve previously covered the reasons why I was in London, so I accepted his offer, and oddly bumped into him at Photo London the afternoon before, where I confirmed I’d be attending. (He was doing a book signing at the fair.)

When I gave my name at the front desk, early in the morning, I wasn’t on the list, but when I assured the guard I was legit, I guess I seemed trustworthy, because they let me in.

I joined the talk a couple of minutes after it started, and found it all to be a bit perfunctory, really. (Like a docent tour at the zoo.)

When we spoke via Skype, Martin Parr was very funny, but we always kept the conversation with in range of our purposes. There were no off-the-wall digressions, nor any surprise details dropped.

At the talk, it was all business, but that spark of wit and charm was not on full display, unfortunately.

Below he describes people dancing.

And Brexit.

 

Here’s the selfie wall.

 

And there’s the tennis room.

 

By the way, have you seen the cafe?

Martin said the art-installation-cafe had been his idea, and so they built an extra one that served real food, though it wasn’t open yet, being morning and all.

The Autoportraits, in which he allowed himself to be photographed by local portrait photographers, in their typical style, never smiling, were pretty great.

Funny and original, I laud the idea and the effort.



And I loved the Grayson Perry family portrait.

Grayson Perry family portrait

But the rest of it left me feeling a bit cold, if I’m being honest.














Martin Parr’s often lauded for being satirical, and surely there were images critical of the English across the racial and class divides.

He pointed cameras at the Brexiteers, and the diverse English residents driving the racists bonkers. The show gives us Aristocrats and fishmongers and everyone in between.

The photographer is known for being ambiguous; influenced by the dry, new topographics style of the 1970s.

And it wouldn’t be English if it weren’t at least a little absurd.

But maybe that was my problem?

In a shocking, Post-Trumpian world, these seemed a little average.

They felt current, but not RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES.

I know the Parr style of big flash, saturated colors, and flattened picture plane was radical, at one point, but collected in the museum, work from the 21st Century, it was a bit tame for me now.

Does that make sense?

Like, when I heard “Born in the USA,” in the 80’s, I fucking loved that song, but now, when I hear it, I think, we’ll, that’s a bit dated, isn’t it?

I like to be moved, or feel inspired, and that didn’t happen in the “Only Human” exhibition.

If I were English, or hadn’t spent time looking at all the images in the catalog, preparing for my article, I might have felt there was more freshness.

When you see the photos and video I’ve included, you may think I’m off the mark.

(There were positives, of course. I’m not saying the show was bad, only that it was unremarkable.)

I was impressed that a wall placard gave credit to those behind the scenes, which was very decent, and it was clear the audience treated Martin Parr like a rock star.

And they lined up to meet him in the gift shop.

Ah, the gift shop.

I can’t not write about it.

I just can’t.

In my lede for Lens, I referred to Mr Parr as a cottage industry, and the variety of products on sale were staggering.

Chocolate bars, flip flops, t shirts, you name it.


Along with the Instagram wall, the entire gift shop felt like it was designed to be on the Gram as well. I suspect the merch on offer, and the hashtags generated, were a part of the show’s allure for the crowds too.

I know that for an opinionated critic, not taking a stand here is very unlike me.

Why bother spilling ink, if it was just OK?

Well, to begin with, I promised the review three times, so it would be lame to back out.

I normally love funny, and absurd, and English, but I willed myself to love “Only Human,” but only found it “Meh.”

What can I say?

The heart wants what it wants.

Visiting London, Part 4

 

Part 1: The Intro

I just spent the week in California.

(Well, most of a week anyway.)

As a reporter, or journalist, or whatever it is that I am, (when I’m not being an artist/teacher/dad/husband,) I’ve written about the Golden State, here, on many occasions.

Needless to say, California in the age of over-tourism is not a pretty sight.

Perhaps that’s the wrong turn of phrase, because it’s the undeniable prettiness that’s led to the insane overcrowding, and now the ridiculous tourist hordes.

The Pacific Ocean in Carmel, looking towards Point Lobos

But as a travel writer, bashing tourism, (in general,) would qualify as biting the hand that feeds me.

And while I may occasionally tend towards the quixotic, people rarely call me stupid.

Therefore, I’m going to let my California experiences marinate a bit, (as usual,) so I can return to the subject in the future, without the road-weary-bitterness I’m feeling at the moment.

Rather than rip on Gavin Newsom’s hair, or the now-legendary homelessness problem, (which I first reported here 3 years ago,) I’m going to step back into my memory, and re-visit my life-changing trip to London.

 

Part 2: The Sifu

“Whatever you do, don’t be late,” said Hugo, and those were his last words before I headed out the door.

“Right,” I replied, “don’t be late. Got it.”

Hugo had set me up with City Mapper, an app that was meant to offer directions, even without an internet connection. And we’d planned the route carefully.

I had to change trains a couple of times from Holloway, so we discussed the track I’d need, and that I ought to check with one of the rail workers before I boarded.

He even told me to make sure I saw New Malden on the electric ticker, as there were multiple trains that left from each track. (I was headed from North London to Surrey, so it was going to be a long-ish trip.)

And where was I headed?

I’d booked a private lesson with Sifu Leo Au Yeung, one of the most impressive Kung Fu masters, and instructors, in the world.

Am I exaggerating?

You decide.

Sifu Leo, who is seemingly only in his 30’s, was the Wing Chun choreographer and instructor for Ip Man 1, 2, and 3, which happened to be the most popular Kung Fu movies of the new millennium.

 

Ip Man, if you don’t know, is credited with popularizing Wing Chun around the world, via his dojo in Hong Kong, where he trained Bruce Lee, among other greats.

Sifu Leo was also the Kung Fu teacher for Iron Fist Season 2, the now-departed Netflix-Marvel show that was notable mainly for being better than the genuinely bad Iron Fist Season 1. (How Marvel missed the moment, and cast Danny Rand as a whiny, rich, entitled white guy is beyond me.)

In addition to his star-connections, Sifu Leo also has a thriving Kung Fu program in London and Wimbledon, and unlike many a closed-minded martial artist, travels the world to study with other teachers, and learn from other arts.

In other words, he’s a genuine badass, and the nicest guy you’d ever meet.

Or so I’d been told by Hugo, after I’d recommend he study with Sifu Leo, after watching a few of his videos on Youtube. Hugo’s trained with him once a week for well over a year now, so oddly, after I recommended my friend to him, my friend now recommended me right back so I could book a lesson.

And his final words were, “Whatever you do, don’t be late.”

I left with plenty of time, (though perhaps not enough,) and did exactly as I was told. I double-checked with an attendant that I had the right track, and then watched “Malden” scroll by on the ticker before I boarded the train.

It was supposed to take 20 minutes or so, so I settled in for the ride, nervous as hell to train with a genuine Kung Fu master.

On the train with Red Bull and Instagram

After about 15 minutes, I checked with a conductor who confirmed we were headed to Malden.

But then at 30 minutes, I started to get a funny feeling in my chest.

Something seemed off. Not right.

So I got up, took a good look at the map, and noticed that there were in fact two Maldens: New Malden, where I was headed, and Malden Manor… where apparently the train was headed instead.

On the convoluted map, I could see where the spurs diverged, and that I was already two stops past where the train cut towards my putative destination.

Shit!
Double-shit!

I jumped off the train at Malden Manor, and considered taking the next train back in the opposite direction.

Thankfully, the uber-polite English folks on the platform were uniformly helpful, and assured me that would be a mistake. They said head into town and wait for the K1 bus, it would be faster.

I had about 20 minutes, before I’d be late, and my heart was pumping harder than Donald Trump’s, while he’s digesting an after-dinner snack of 2 Big Macs, an order of Chicken McNuggets, and a large fries.

I ran to the nearest bus station, as I could see a bus approaching, but the folks waiting assured me it was going the wrong way, and that the proper stop was around the traffic circle.

No worries, they said, they come every 10-12 minutes.
You’ve still got time.

So I sat, and tried unsuccessfully to poach wifi from a nearby food co-op.

Eventually, a nice English lady sat down next to me, in her late 50’s, and then a gentleman around the same age, of South Asian descent.

They could see I was miserable, so I told them the story, and they assured me it was best to wait, rather than walk, or try to find a nonexistent cab.

Sure enough, the next bus that came was also headed in the wrong direction, and then I was officially late. The lady had a calming voice, and told me things would turn out alright.

The nice man offered me his phone, so I could text, but at the last minute, the free wifi kicked in, and I was able to send an email to Sifu’s assistant, explaining the circumstances. (I assumed she was down the street, but later learned she lives in Japan, and therefore my message went from Malden Manor to Tokyo and back to New Malden.)

Eventually the bus came, and the nice lady took my hand, determined to see me off to my destination. So we sat next to each other, and she told me of her travels to Las Vegas, as her husband’s brother was a renown musician, who’d worked on the original James Bond theme.

The bus moved slowly, and all I could hear in my mind was the opening riff to James Bond, mixed with Hugo telling me, “Whatever you do, don’t be late.”

Late, I was.

I feel awful that I never asked my friend her name, as I was so frazzled, mostly because I wanted to turn up suave and calm, and that plan was clearly out the window.

New Malden was a fair bit shinier than Malden Manor, with a cute little High Street, and then I finally made it.

New Malden, Surrey

Of course, Sifu was as gracious about my lateness as anyone could be, and his assistant Crystal wrote that she’d made the same mistake herself once. (Taking the wrong train.)

Plus, I was paying for the time I’d lost anyway, so in the end, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

I went in with expectations, hoping to mix it up a bit to test my skills, and maybe practice on the wooden dummy, but when Sifu asked what I wanted to learn, I said, “Whatever you want to teach me. You’re the Sifu.”

I’ve heard from other teachers, (as I am one,) that the experience of getting a proper teacher, of being subordinate in the learning environment, can be a liberating and exciting feeling, and I must agree.

So Sifu Leo, instead, felt my body structure, appropriately detected my weak spots, and gave me some tips on how to improve.

Then, he taught me a technique of releasing my joints simultaneously, from the inside, with my mind, so that I could always regain leverage in any situation.

It was as close to a Jedi Mind Trick as I’m likely to ever encounter, and he demonstrated it by reversing position, every time I had the upper hand.

Rather than fight, or tussle, or show off his strength of body, Sifu showed me how the mind-body connection can be taken to levels I’d not previously considered.

And in the end, he even let me snap a few photos to share with you.

For my UK readers out there, I cannot recommend Sifu highly enough. If you’re looking for an opportunity to build up your mind, body and spirit, this guy is for real.

And in the end, my biggest fear came true, and it wasn’t that big a deal after all.

 

Part 3: Speaking of Violence…

I’m rewatching “Luther” this week, from the beginning, as I’m desperately trying to get a little bit of rest before Antidote, (our photo retreat program,) begins next week here in Taos.

For those of you who don’t know, (though I referenced it once already in the London series,) Idris Elba plays John Luther, a super-cop who’s such a badass, he seems more like a super-hero than an actual guy. (Which could probably be said about Elba himself.)

The series is as dark as it gets, with enough gruesome murders, haunting killers, and proper wing-nuts to give you a permanent set of nightmares.

The show fetishizes the grotesque, and the Gothic, in a way that sheds light on the recesses of the English soul. (Much the way Stieg Larsson’s books seemed to plumb the depths of Sweden’s buried-Viking-persona.)

I love “Luther,” and if there’s a better anti-hero than Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan character, I’d like you to show me.

But much the way John Luther is the hero England wants and perhaps needs, over here in America, it’s another John we’re all crazy for: John Wick.

As it happens, Keanu Reeves’ “John Wick 3: Parabellum” opened while I was in London, and I managed to score a ticket on opening weekend, without even waiting in line.

I bought the ticket from a robot, because there are few humans doing such jobs in London, from what I could gather. (Look out, American movie-ticket sellers… I’m betting the robots are coming for your jobs soon.)

The film opened with commercials, which are the norm over there, I was told, as TV didn’t used to have commercials, so they were on the cinema instead. And when I saw Jeff Bridges, in full “Dude” character, pimping beer in Amsterdam, instead of weed, I was sure we were living in 2019.

I wrote on Twitter the other day that everyone’s on the hustle these days, and you know it’s true.

As for the film, I’m an action-movie junkie, and have seen more martial arts/action movies in my life than I could possibly count.

I know my Donnie Yen from my Jackie Chan from my Jet Li from my Bruce Lee from my Steven Seagal from my Keanu Reeves, is what I’m saying.

And the world is right to love the John Wick movies, which are so fucking stylish. World building is in these days, (Just ask Marvel,) and the John Wick films do it brilliantly, with their gold coins, assassin hotels, and intelligent use of Ian McShane. (And now Boban Marjanovich?)

I mention this, though, not to write a proper movie review, but because so much of the film felt made for the audience. It was fake-real, with trained dogs, kicking horses, and knife-throwing scenes that managed to bring humor and awe to a lot of blood.

Until.

Until a scene near the end, when John Wick decides that the only way forward is to get the biggest gun he can, with armor piercing bullets, and start shooing the bad guys one bullet a time.

Bang.
You’re dead.

Bang.
You’re dead.

The sound was so deafening I covered my ears, and the feeling was one of mass shooter on the rampage.

Immediately, I was taken out of the narrative, and thrust into my head again, thinking about all the AR-15 wielding, racist lunatics roaming my country, which at that point was 3000 miles across a big ocean.

I’ve never been near a mass shooting, thankfully, (before I drove past the Gilroy Garlic festival on Sunday, two hours before the shooting started,) but the references were unmissable.

If I thought it was political commentary, I might not have minded.

Instead, it felt wrong, and exploitative, and awful, and sad, and misguided, and strange, and I don’t know why they included it.

7 minutes of reality, in the midst of a violent fantasy.

And maybe that’s the problem?

I’ve been raised on fantastical violence, in all those movies, and maybe it was wrong to romanticize it in the first place?

Visiting London, Part 3

 

Part 1. Β Re-visiting Tarantino

Chronological order can be boring.

Ever since “Reservoir Dogs,” which blew my mind as a youth, it’s been clear that non-linear narrative is the coolest.

(Harvey Keitel, why can’t there be more of you?)

 

As a result of that film’s success, we’re living in a different world, cinematically speaking, if not a different Universe.

It begs an important question: are we allowed to go see the new Quentin Tarantino movie?

Is it ethically appropriate?

QT came out and apologized/admitted that he knew about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory, (sorry, rapist) behavior.

Plus, his most-recent film, “The Hateful Eight” was by far his worst.

And I just remembered Uma Thurman also said Quentin Tarantino got her massively injured on “Kill Bill.”

(Pause.)

That settles it. I’m not going to see his new movie in the theater. Tarantino gets an only-for-free-on-Netflix-or-Amazon-Prime ban from now on.

Honestly, he was probably my favorite filmmaker, (as of two years ago,) and I once taught a class on cinematic tension by leading with the opening scene in “Inglorious Basterds.”

Wait a second.

Am I writing film criticism while introducing a travel piece?

Yes, I guess I am.

I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too. Which makes me a bit like Boris Johnson, according to this excellent recent profile in The New Yorker.

Boris reminds me of a hybrid of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, which is not a flattering comparison at all.

He is a good segue, though, as Boris used to be Mayor of London. And now I can jump right back into the city, and move this article along.

 

Part 2: Historical PaintingsΒ 

Just now, going through my iCloud, I was reminded that by pulling 18-hour-days for a week, I really did do a lot of cool stuff in London. We’ve got a full-travel column today, and we still won’t be halfway through the trip yet.

So let’s get on with it.

Friday morning, after the Martin Parr show, I went upstairs into the rest of the National Portrait Gallery.

There are lots of busts and paintings of old dead people in this museum, if I’m being honest, and some of them were really cool.

Of course I was personally invested in the section on the founding of the America, because how couldn’t I be?

I loved the bit about George Washington being “the son of a planter who became an inspirational leader of the American people.”

It was condescending in spirit, if accurate in fact.

Reading the text, in the context of the room, I suddenly understood “their” side of the history.

“Some of our people established a colony, and they got too big for their britches when we tried to tax them to pay for their own defense. We were too broke to defend our entire global empire, so we decided to keep India and cut the provincial ingrates loose.”

(Or something like that.)

And now, in 2019, the fact that George Washington was a slave-owner gets as much press as the fact that he founded our nation. (It is a hard fact to over-look.)

Nearby, “The Death of the Earl of Chatham,” by John Singleton Copley, was also magnificent. His dead gray pallor, compared to the pink cheeks of the dudes next to him, chills me here in New Mexico, six weeks later. (Or maybe I just need to turn off the fan?)

In a separate wing, where there were images of more-recent famous people, I liked the portrait of the Beatles next to one of the Stones. You can’t blame them for doing that, can you?

From there, I headed back out into the streets, (giving up the blessed free wifi,) and walked around a bit.

As I was heading down the road, off Leicester Square, a flyer caught my eye for a screening for a new Korean film. I was in the mood to be observant, so I went inside to see what the theater was about.

Short version: there was an art gallery inside the Korean Cultural Centre, with an exhibition featuring 19th Century-Style Korean Minhwa genre paintings, done mostly by contemporary artists.

After a long chat with the woman up front, (who was just on contract to sit there the length of the show,) and after reading the paperwork, we determined that perhaps one was vintage?

Really, though, it didn’t matter. The detail of some of the realistic ones was the same kind of time travel I’d just felt up the street at the NPG, but instead of being in 17th Century England, I was in 19th Century Korea.

And as for the funky animal paintings, dragons and tigers and magpies, if you don’t like these, you’re DEAD INSIDE.

DEAD INSIDE.

 








 

Part 3: The Eating tour of London

I lost a lot of weight in London.

I walked 60 miles, if my iPhone is to be believed, and given that I was mostly going on adrenaline and caffeine, (and maybe some gummy bears,) I didn’t eat often, but when I ate, I ate properly.

Friday morning, I ran out the door, coffee only, and never had much of a bite.

Eventually, I crossed the Thames, on my way to Tate Modern, and along the South bank of the river, came upon a street food corridor.

I gave it a good look, eyeing up options for the way back, as I was pretty sure I would be ready after my next art mission.

I noted there were four or five different countries’ versions of pita-wrapped-food.

Who had the best, I wondered?

There was someone from Greece, and Syria or was it Lebanon?, and somewhere else, and then the Afghan place.

Walking by, some Italian ladies offered me a taste of truffle sauce ravioli. Sure, why not?

What’s not to like?

An hour later, famished, I admit I took another free ravioli, walking the other way, knowing full well I wasn’t going to eat there.

Was that terrible of me? Sample abuse?

Walking back, it was clear there was a line at the Afghan place, 2 Lads Kitchen. That was enough for me.

I ordered the marinated chicken pita, noted that he had a few to make before mine, and got up close to watch him work. (Forgive me that I don’t remember his name, though I’m sure he told me.)

The chicken was marinated 24 hours in a yogurt-paste, like tandoori. And it was cooking slowly.

Slowly.

In a few minutes, he began to build one sandwich, then another. First, he put down yogurt, and fresh vegetables, and grilled potato.

His hands moved slowly. One thing at at time. One cut at a time.

The London bros waiting for their food were patient too.

Everyone was patient.

Because I was nice, I know I got extra chicken, and he put the pickled red chiles in my wrap, one at a time, where he told the other guys they could do it themselves.

I was surprised that the squeeze-bottle sauce, which looked like green chile sauce, was really a cilantro chutney. It was clear that Afghanistan’s proximity to India meant this food was hybridized, but I’ll tell you one thing, it was delicious.

And very fresh.

I did my work, and hit the city, but later in the day, having taken the tube to the Holloway Road in London, I went for a walk to stretch my legs, and got my stomach ready for the evening.

Hugo and I walked up the road to Sambal Shiok, a Malaysian joint he said was top of the charts great. We’d likely have to wait in line, but he said it would be worth it.

Luckily, we got in right away, but were wedged in tight, super-duper tight, between other people on either side. (It was a bit much, but we decided to go with the flow.)

The host and wait staff were English hipster, but Hugo said the owners and people in the kitchen were from Malaysia, so the food was authentic, and we’d be good to go.

I heard a lot of American English in London, much more than I remembered from previous visits, but maybe it’s because the exchange rate is so good at the moment? (Seriously. Get on that.)

As it happened, the young American woman sitting directly to our right was rather annoying, and we had a hard time tuning her out.

Luckily, the food came quickly.

We had poached shrimp, lychee and sambal lettuce cups that were as good as that sounds.

And fried chicken fingers with peanut sauce that managed to be crunchy, soft, moist and elegant at the same time. Just writing it, I don’t know how they defied physics.

Later, the chicken and tofu skin Laksa was rich, smoky, fish-sauce tasting. Simply perfect.

But we bailed before finishing it, and the restaurant didn’t have takeout boxes, (bad for the environment,) so we chose to leave it behind.

On we walked, on a huge tour of Islington, and Hugo kept telling me about this Mongol place he wanted to take me. Where the chefs hang out. 90’s Rock playing in the background.

It was started by an alumnus of Fergus Henderson’s place, St. John. (The nose to tail stuff.)

He said they have this special type of oven. In the Mongol place.

I had the fried artichokes, which I liked, but didn’t love, and Hugo had the squid ink bread with quail egg and cod roe. I tried it, and we agreed it was like Greek taramasalata.

It hurt my head trying to figure out how that was Mongol food. (Maybe the gummy bears didn’t help?)

It wasn’t until Sunday, walking through Hackney, that I figured out the oven in the restaurant was called a Mangal.

Not Mongol.

And the restaurant was called Black Axe Mangal, which now made sense.

It’s a Turkish oven, not Mongol.

(I’m normally bright, but clearly, I was slow off the line on this one.)

Hugo loved the food at Black Axe Mangal, but for me it was just pretty good.

Probably I was too full from the Malaysian joint, and if I’d ordered differently, I might have been happier.

Walking back after dinner.

 

Part 4: The Only New Mexican food in England

Now that I think about it, I barely ate anything on Saturday. (No wonder I food-crashed at Photo London.)

Somehow, though, when I got home to Hugo’s from the fair, I decided to make a proper New Mexican meal. (Or at least as proper as I could make it, under the circumstances.)

Cooking in Hugo’s kitchen.

Will I get arrested for admitting I brought dried chiles into the country? Is that even illegal?

I stashed some powdered and dried red and green chiles, though the latter are always best frozen, and it works in a pinch if you’re traveling. (That the green chiles are not really meant to be dried means that our food wasn’t purely authentic.)

But I did the best I could under the circumstances.

Chile Rubbed, Blackened Chicken

For the chicken, I used two good, large, skin-on chicken breasts that were delivered from the farm, along with some produce.

Coat each side with a healthy amount of salt and cracked black pepper.

In a separate bowl, throw together 4 kinds of chile, (or as many as you feel like,) oregano, thyme, and cumin.

Then coat on each side of the chicken, and let sit for 20-30 minutes. (Or up to over-night, depending on how long you have.)

Chile-rubbed chicken, resting

Next, mince an onion, shallot, or leek, and caramelize it in a cast iron pan, cooking it slowly, and salting it to taste.

Remove from pan.

After 20-30 minutes, add some more olive oil to the skillet,
and then sear the chicken on each side, removing when it’s golden brown, but NOT cooked though.

Let the chicken rest for a few minutes on a cutting board, then slice it into 1/2 inch pieces.

Add the onion/leek/shallot back to the pan, and then add the chicken back, and stir a few times until the chicken is cooked through.

Add the juice of one lime.

Toss the chicken around the skillet, and then remove to a platter.

Proper (or improvised) Green Chile Sauce

In one pan, sautΓ©e some minced garlic in olive oil until it lightly browns, and season with salt.

Then, in a good skillet/sauce pan make a roux with cold butter, flour and salt. (Turn them around in the pan so they don’t burn.)

When it’s mushy and brown, add your roasted, peeled and seeded New Mexico Green Chile. (It’s available all over NM, beginning in a few weeks, through October.)

Or maybe you have some in your freezer left over from last year?

If you have to do what I did at Hugo’s house, reconstitute dried NM green chile in warm water for 20 minutes, then drain it, and add salt and lemon or lime juice.

After adding the chile to the pan, add water, chicken or veggie stock, and salt, more lime juice, and the sautΓ©ed garlic into the pan as well.

Keep cooking and seasoning until it tastes good, first by bringing to a boil, and then simmering to cook it as long as you’d like.


I like to add more lime juice, a touch of sherry vinegar, and a dash of orange juice too. Fresh oregano is also great.

(At Hugo’s, I went with a more British, autumnal theme, and used apple juice and apple cider vinegar.)

We had everything fajita style, with shredded English Cheddar, fresh tortillas from Waitrose, the Green Chile sauce smothered over the top, and chips and home made guacamole on the side.

NM in England Guacamole

2 ripe avocados
A few cherry tomatoes, diced
One big garlic clove, minced
Lemon or Lime juice (preferably both)
Salt
Pepper
Cilantro

Feel free to use any part of the recipe this summer.

It’s a crowd pleaser.

See you next week!

Visiting London, Part 2: Photo London

 

Part 1. Why travel writing?

Staircase, outside Somerset House

 

I’m having a lot of fun with these articles.

Can you tell?

After 5 solid years of book reviews, I figured you were ready for something different in the column, and Rob agreed, so here we are.

At this point, I’d say a thank you is in order, to him and to you, because I’ve never gotten so much positive feedback, over a period of time, since I began the column.

Always, though, there’s a hater.

And I wouldn’t be an internet writer, born of and from the digi-verse, if I didn’t at least acknowledge the shade. (On Facebook, of all places.) Even better, I’ve got a story about confronting an old troll in person, in Portland, that I’ll share in an upcoming piece.

As to this (admittedly slight) criticism, a Facebook friend I don’t know asked when I’d be writing about photography and photo books again?

It’s only one person, and I don’t mean to over-invest in the critique, but I do have an answer to the question.

I’ll delve deeper into Photo London today, and I also saw the Martin Parr show, and an exhibition of British photojournalism at the OXO tower, put on by the British Press Photographers Association.

 

The Offprint Fair at Tate Modern was on the docket as well, where I presumed there would be gobs of photo-books. (Not exactly.)

The plain truth is that the photography I saw, in person, was far from the most interesting art I saw in London.

I know this is a photo blog, because I’ve been writing here for 9 years.

But this column has evolved, and as much photography as I discuss, (most of the year,) it’s important to note that the medium was not doing it for me, compared to other things I saw, ate, and experienced.

So pivoting to travel writing, here in Summer 2019, is as much about being honest about what is earth-shaking out there, IMO, as it is about keeping it fresh on a long-haul column. (And again, we’ll discuss photography today.)

The architecture in London, (yes, that history again,) is so beautiful that it’s hard to put into words. Or capture on screen.

Walking the Thames riverfront feels meta and actual at the same time, like people say about the Seine in Paris, only with more grit.

 

Just last night, watching the latest episode of Luther Season 5, (Idris Elba has to be the next Bond,) I paused the screen, recognizing I’d stood in that exact spot, on the Embankment, just across the street from Somerset House last month.

Except on screen, there was a dead body hanging from a noose, wearing a scary mask that replicated the face of a psycho killer.

(England goes dark, when it goes dark.)

I was there at Somerset House, in Central London, to visit Photo London on three consecutive days, and I used it as something of a hub. (Wifi, bathrooms, friends to talk to.)

Given that I had press access, which was free, (Thanks, Photo London,) it allowed me to have a much deeper and broader experience than I would have otherwise. (Though no free lecture tickets means I can’t write about them. Nudge, nudge.)

So let’s break it down by day, as each experience was so different.

 

Part 2: Thursday at Photo London

View at Somerset House

As I said last week, I bumped into almost no one the entire weekend.

Which means I was really able to key in on the work to a far-greater-degree than I did at AIPAD.

My first move, that Thursday, was to look around the pavilion, and see if any art attracted my interest. (At that point, I was still scanning the room a bit, for people, before giving up entirely.)

Definitely some cool work by Richard Mosse, Andreas Serrano, Paul Graham, and David Goldblatt. (But nothing I hadn’t seen before.)

I know I said these fairs are more for collectors and dealers than artists and journalists, but when I tab up all the things I saw at Photo London, the good, the bad, the interesting and the tacky, there was quite a lot on display.

Models with big cats? Ouch.

I was searching for inspiration on this trip, though, (Thanks, cousin Mike,) and I didn’t get much at Photo London.

After the pavilion, I went into the West Wing, looking for the Discovery section, which was tucked away in the labyrinth. (There was a photo book fair in the East Wing that was always hard to walk through, due to crowds.)

There were emerging galleries from all over Europe in Discovery, (located on a hidden Mezzanine that was always hard to find,) and a lot of weird, construction-based work. Nothing that made me crazy, though I did photograph a few things for you guys on a Saturday return.

One weird fact: there were human sized-niches in the Discovery section, and I saw two gallery workers emerge from them, as if they had been powered down, at a standing rest. (I guess they were.) Creepy and cool simultaneously.

Scott implored me to spend some time with the very-tall postcard exhibition, into which lots of artists had been invited, and he was right.

There was some strange, really odd work, (including preggo nudes,) and some of the groupings were really interesting.

Last thought for Thursday: I was fortunate to interview Stephen Shore during my 6 year run at the NYT Lens blog, (more on that later,) and he’s a super-nice guy. I’ve traded emails with him once or twice since.

So it’s hard to admit that Scott and I saw a show of his big iPhone work, blown up large, and it wasn’t very good. He told me, a few years ago, that his Instagram feed was his primary artistic medium these days.

I believe these photos derive from that phase, and I know that not every project can be a hit, nor one creative phase as fertile as another.

But if I were Mr. Shore, I’d switch it up again.

 

Part 3: Friday at Photo London

 

Bathroom View, Somerset House

My morning was packed, with things that will come up another time, but once I finally arrived at Photo London, (Wifi and Bathroom pit-stop) I mostly wanted to talk with my Portland buddy Gregory Eddi Jones, and meet his wife Stephanie.

I wanted to get out of there quickly, though, as Hugo and I were meant to meet up, so we could head back into town to see “The Warriors,” which was playing at a revival theater in Leicester Square.

But we got to talking, and before you know it, some guy came up and asked us if we wanted a chip for a free drink.

A negroni or something else with Campari.
(I forget.)

I’m all for a free drink, and like I said, we got to talking, so of course I got home too late for the movie.

It led to an eating tour of North London, though, which combined with my Afghan lunch was one to remember. (We’ll get there too.)

 

Part 4: Saturday at Photo London (AKA Holy Shit what a coincidence)

 

Richard photographing in front of the Pavilion

 

Here’s where things got interesting.

I met my dear friend Richard Bram, quite by accident, as his message popped up as soon as my phone was live again, when I arrived at Somerset House on Saturday afternoon. We had a date for Tuesday, (again, more to tell,) but Richard was there, and I was there, so we made a plan to meet up.

I was a bit of a grump, because I needed some water, and likely some food, but Richard was kind enough to let me unwind, and then he bought me a fresh squeezed grapefruit juice to help with the blood sugar.

(Thanks, buddy. What a mensch.)

Richard is one of my favorite people to look at art with, because he’s very smart, knows a lot, but also isn’t pushy with his opinions.

We breezed through some galleries with not-so-impressive stuff, and then, again in the West Wing, encountered a full, private gallery room filled with 19th Century gems.

Julia Margaret Cameron. Gustave Le Gray. Charles Negre.

The woman behind the counter, Paula Hershkowitz turned out to be the proprietor, and she said she ran a private dealership with her husband Robert. (In Sussex and London.)

That she was the only nice, interested dealer I met might have been because she was THAT nice, that I didn’t try hard enough to engage the others, or that it’s just the way these things go.

But after we ogled her wares for a while, she told us there was a big Roger Fenton show, in the bowels of the basement, that her gallery had arranged.

If we could find it.

It took a while, as we stumbled through the Discovery section again, and also bumped into the dumb Gavin Turk Instagram egg and the boring Stephen Shore show.

Then, thankfully, we found it.

And it was breathtaking, to stay the least.

(Not inspiring, though, because I’ve seen versions of this work many times before.)

Setting aside that standard, these were amazing photographs.

I think part of the genius, beyond the patina of age, is that the best 19th Century artists were experimenting with a truly new medium.

They were making it up as they went along, and that’s the juice I think photography lacks, these days.

It’s descriptive, and expressive, but it’s not radical in any way.

(Even that photo that just came out, of the dead Salvadoran Dad with his dead daughter clinging to his body, won’t really change anything, will it?)

Richard told me a story about one of the famous manor houses featured, and how the wall of glass was almost scandalously extravagant for the time.

Also, he recounted how a statue in one photograph had been moved, during a public infrastructure project, and how the affected courtyard’s Feng Shui was forever off.

We were chatting, enjoying ourselves immensely, when a guard came over and asked us to be quiet, as there was a talk going on in an adjacent gallery.

We had no idea about it, as Richard is my witness.

But sure enough, once we shut our traps and went to explore, we found it was a one-on-one discussion between Josh Haner, NYT Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, and Meaghan Looram, who is now the Director of Photography.

Right in front of me, stood the guy who saw “The Value of a Dollar” at a portfolio review in 2010, and offered to publish it in the New York Times Lens blog.

As a result, it went viral, and made my career.

And there he was, talking to the woman who I’m told decided to shut, or “hiatus” the New York Times Lens blog, 9 years later, thereby relieving me of my duties at the Gray Lady after 6 years and 50+ articles.

There they were.
Right in front of me.
Talking to each other.

I was stunned.

Richard asked me what was up, as I was clearly shaken, and if I wanted to talk about it. I suggested we keep our voices down, as it was sensitive information, and it likely wasn’t the right place to discuss it.

I was upset, as the whole affair was still fresh, and there are details I’ve not made public.

So we decided to get the Hell out of there, after we took a second to look at Josh’s photographs.

The truth is, he’s gotten a lot of credit for his global drone work, video in particular.

His drone videos are tight, for sure, but these landscape pictures, (which I know are supposed to make me care about climate change,) failed to move me, or seem distinctive in any way.

They’re too boring, and maybe no images can do this anymore anyway? (But sometimes they can. Ask Ed Burtynsky.)

As Richard and I were leaving, (because I was afraid I might let my emotions get the best of me,) who was standing in front of me on the stairway landing, looking me in the eye, but Whitney Richardson, who was the NYT Lens blog producer, halfway through my run.

The beginning, middle and end were all there in one room, and you’d have to be a proper idiot to miss the significance.

It was my chance to say goodbye to a phase in my life, and move on.

Whitney said she was now an event producer for the NYT, living in Islington, (where I was staying,) and that life was great. In fact, she’d produced the talk for Photo London.

That was her gig now.

It was a bit much, at the end of a very long day, (in which I missed that crucial train,) and I admitted to her I was hurt at how it went down, and that it seemed like too strange a coincidence for me to handle.

I didn’t want to express anger, nor be rude, so I wished her well, congratulated her on her new job, asked her to give my regards to Josh.

Then I left, shaking my head.

The truth is, I worked with 5 producers during my experience with Lens. They all get promoted to the good jobs, and those people make lots of money, with great benefits, and new opportunities.

They have a chain of command to go to, when things go wrong. There are union reps, and all sorts of systems in place.

But organizations like the New York Times, (or in this case, we’ll just say The New York Times,) also run on freelancers, who get paid next to nothing, have no benefits, no opportunities for advancement, and no chain of command.

As I’ve said before, my time working for the NYT benefitted me immensely, and I learned a lot.

I’m truly grateful.

But there was never a moment that I wasn’t aware of the two-tiered system. It was clear, again and again, that we were second class citizens.

The byline was the same, so to the outside world, I looked like one of them. (Before they took bylines off the home page.)

My byline said I worked for the New York Times.

But I was always disposable, with 1000 people lined up behind me to do the job for little pay.

Every time I tried to make a new connection, or ask for a new opportunity, I was told the same thing.

No.

So when I hear that blogs are closing there, political cartoons are disappearing, and perhaps other organizations are doing a better job in general, I’m not surprised.

My experience with the New York Times company was purely transactional, and they paid me more with cultural currency than hard cash.

(They could, so they did, because that’s how Capitalism works.)

And when they were done with me, I got not nary a thank you, nor even a “Good Job.”

I’m too classy to drop the details here, but it was very unpleasant.

So that’s how I wrapped up my Photo London experience.

Not fun, but highly cathartic.

(And again, those Roger Fentons.)

Thank you, Photo London, and I hope I can make it back next year. I know I got in for free, but I can honestly say the experience is worth whatever they’re charging.

Visiting London, Part 1

 

Part 1: The Departure

 

Do you believe in omens?

I’m not sure if I do, but when I got in the car to drive to Denver last month, on the first leg of my journey to London, I was feeling good.

A big adventure just up ahead, I thought.

Maybe it will even be smooth?

Two miles later, though, the tire pressure light came on in Jessie’s car. (She insisted I take it, as it has some assisted driving features that can help on mountain roads.)

Shit, I thought.
Just what I need.

I hope it’s not an omen.

I called her up and asked about it, and she reminded me it happened 10 days ago, and she’d gotten it fixed, supposedly.

Must be a slow leak.

Sorry, she said, but maybe get a little air in it on the way up.

I’d already forgotten my Benadryl to sleep on the plane, so that would make two stops, on top of the 4.5 hour drive.

(It was beginning to feel like a smooth trip might be just outside my grasp.)

But I bopped my head to some great hip hop music, driving across the Rockies, and even made a video to show Hugo, of the car moving through the Great Wild West while some good music ran in the background.

(You knew it was gonna be Old Town Road, right?)

By the North side of Pueblo, (the end of New Mexico-infused Colorado,) I knew it was time to stop in the not-so-aptly-named town of Eden.

Dusty and dry, this version of Eden.

With 18 wheelers coming at you faster-than-they-should-be-going, from every direction.

There was a truck stop there, I remembered, maybe a Loves, and surely they’d have a place to get air. I went inside to use the restroom, and buy some caffeinated drink to get quarters to use in the air machine.

That done, I drove the car from one parking spot to another, right next to the pressurized air, and got myself organized.

I pulled off each tire cap, and put them in a really obvious place, one per tire.

I took a deep breath.

Then I popped the quarters, and began testing my tires, quickly and efficiently, because you know that Damn machine is only gonna give you one minute of air, if you’re lucky.

Now, did I still manage to knock over a tire cap and have to go searching, just barely avoiding hands and knees?

Yes. Yes I did.

But it was only when I got everything together, started up the car, and began to drive away that I noticed there were people living in the car parked next to me.

They’d been in there the whole time.

Watching me, all dressed up for my big European adventure, dancing around the Subaru, quick and business-like, trying to make my plane.

The whole time, I was secretly thinking of the infused edibles I was about to buy down the hill at Strawberry Fields. (I ended up with rice crispy treats. They were delicious.)

All that while, some nameless people were in their car, not four feet away, living in a completely different America.

Right there at Loves.
In the middle of Eden.

 

Part 2. The arrival

 

I lost my watch and sunglasses at the security check in Denver, or much more likely they were stolen.

Either way, that was the bad thing that ended up happening, omen-wise.

It sucked, but then I was over it.

And Hugo handed me a nicer pair of sunglasses as soon as I walked in his door, in North London. (Plus, the watch was too fancy for me anyway.)

Other than getting jacked at the airport, I don’t think one bad thing happened to me the entire time I was in England. (Unless you count one crucially missed train connection, and a middle-of-the-night-silent-vomit excursion. But we’ll get to that.)

From the moment I arrived in Heathrow, I had the opposite of an omen. As I stood there in the security line, I noticed a pair of adult, identical twins in matching outfits, a very skinny seven foot tall white guy, an orthodox Jewish family, a wealthy Indian woman with a large and exposed midriff, and a Slavic woman wearing a tacky princess T-shirt.

It was all absurd, in a good way, and I thought, this trip is going to turn out well.

I just know it.

After clearing security, and learning the officer was a Chelsea fan, I walked the long journey in endless tunnels to get to the London Underground, which comes directly into the terminals. (Though two separate trains service the airport, so make sure you get on the right one when you head back at the end of your visit.)

The Piccadilly Line runs right into the city, and it just so happened that’s the line I needed to get to Holloway, in North London. So there was one last hour-plus train ride up ahead, but at least it would be direct.

The London public transportation system is lauded, and even New York Magazine just did a piece ogling London and Paris for the breath and variety of efficient options in their overall metropolitan areas.

In this case, I spent 50 pounds on an Oyster card, which covered every local train, (overground and underground,) and bus I took for 6 days. (And I spanked that system.)

It is easily the best transportation money I’ve spent in my life.

There wasn’t even much of an overground when I was last in London in 2013, I was told, and now it’s a thriving thing. They build and build their public infrastructure, over in London, and as an American living in car culture, I was supremely jealous.

The cranes were everywhere, too.

I recently speculated that perhaps all cool cities are undergoing a boom these days?

London certainly did its part to confirm the theory.

The city is going off, so let’s get into it.

 

Part 3. Visiting Photo London

 

Like any decent traveler who just slept on a plane, I wanted a nice hot shower once I got to Hugo’s. (After he’d handed me a coffee made with some non-dairy chocolate milk.)

Once clean, I sat down, and we caught up, as I hadn’t seen him since we hit up the Morgan Library together, and walked around New York, back in 2017.

It was a nice morning, and I was ready to stretch my legs, so it was time to head back to the underground to find Somerset House, where Photo London was being held.

I jumped off the train at Covent Garden, and as Hugo said to just roll down to the river, and I’d find it, that’s exactly what I determined to do.

I remember visiting the area 6 years ago, and that there was lots of shopping about. Back then, Russian was everywhere, and not surprisingly, it was all about Chinese tourism in 2019, and I’m not sure I heard any Russian at all.

There’s a big outdoor/indoor market and restaurant area there, and I saw my first Shake Shack, though it wouldn’t be the last. There was an Apple Store there too.

But true to the directions, I headed “down,” which in this case was South, and soon I found the sprawling Somerset House complex, which I was told was the first public building in London.

Apparently, it was once the Hall of Records, and the home of the Navy as well.

Shit has a long history in England, and it gets me every time. Plus, people do seem fond of recounting that history, (when they know it,) so the conversation seems to come up a lot.

Somerset House is built around a central courtyard, and a large-scale tent structure was constructed in the middle, to house the Photo London pavilion.

There was a pop up Negroni bar in the courtyard as well, and a cafe just for the event, but part of what makes the entire complex interesting is that there are cafes and tea houses among offices and galleries.

It’s a very cool and beautiful spot to hold a photography fair.

Hard to top.

I was afforded the opportunity of press access, and might possibly have been tipped off to the wifi codes, (unless you buy a local SIM card, your American phone only works with wifi,) so in the end I visited Photo London on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Given that we’re already at the end of this piece, I’ll write a direct review of the art viewing experience another time, as I took a ton of photos of the exhibitions, and they sprawled over multiple floors of this ancient, overwhelmingly big space.

Instead, I’ll wrap up with some general impressions.

When I was at AIPAD in New York, and Photolucida in Portland, I seemed to know almost everyone. Really, I was amazed at the degree to which I’ve encountered so much of the American photo community, between art and journalism.

Here, though, I knew almost nobody. Everywhere I went, each face was new. And I was totally anonymous.

To be clear, I’m not complaining.

Rather, it’s obvious that once you get outside your own country, even if its one as big and important as America, you realize the world is much, much bigger than you really consider on a daily basis.

It is also an art fair, and those are not really made for artists and journalists. Dealers are trying to meet and sell to collectors, and tourists can pay 30 pounds for a proper day of art viewing, coffee drinking, and lecture-attending.

So I checked it out, made some mental notes to look further as the weekend evolved, and set off to find my buddy, who was showing his work with Euqinom Gallery from San Francisco.

I had made plans to meet my friend scott b davis, and we go back a long ways. He was featured here on that Marfa trip, I’ve written many an article about his Medium Festival of Photography, and he’s teaching at my retreat this summer as well.

It was a nice counterbalance to being in a foreign country among strangers, so we left Photo London to grab a pizza at Franco Manca, which I now know is one of the big Italian chain successes that crushed Jaime Oliver’s restaurant business.

(It went into foreclosure while I was in town, but apparently Jamie himself is still worth half a billion dollars, so no worries on his end.)

I had a solid, fresh pizza Margherita, and scott got a special, with local organic vegetables. I think my pizza was 6 pounds, which is a screaming deal, and we had plenty of space and time.

After that, we chose to stretch our legs, and walk off the pizza, and found ourselves in nearby Trafalgar Square. I walked him into my favorite church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, where I heard a concert rehearsal 6 years ago that made me cry.

 

The National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery are there, next to each other, and both are free to enter. You know me by now, and great free art is one of my favorite things in the world, so off we went.

I was due at the NPG in the morning to hear Martin Parr speak about his show “Only Human,” and I’m going to review that one in a dedicated article later this summer.

Instead, we went into the National Gallery and wandered among some of the true masterpieces of Post-Renaissance painting.

Here an El Greco, there a Caravaggio.

Why, do you like this Rembrandt?
Yes, I do.

But this Velasquez is nice as well.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful it is to be able to do something like that. A casual visit to such a beautiful place, for free, chatting with a friend among the heights of human history.

There’s much more to the story, but I think we’re done for today.

I’ll share some highlights from the National Gallery with you here.

Last thought. If your museum still has a Sackler Room, it’s probably time to get on that. Those folks have caused too much misery. See you next week!

 

Impressions from Portlandia

 

It took me 23 hours to get home from London yesterday.

No lie.

It was a walk to a train to a walk to a plane to a walk to a plane to a walk to a train to a walk to a 4.5 hour car ride.

And it was so, so, worth it.

So very, very worth it. (Trust me, the stories will be crazy!)

But London will have to wait for a bit, as I’ll likely intersperse some of those articles with the pieces we’ll be doing soon about the Best Work I Saw at the Photolucida Festival in Portland.

Not today, though.

Today, rather than drop you into London, May 2019, where about 30% of my brain still seems to reside, I want to think back, just a few weeks, to my odyssey of a trip in Portland.

Seeing the East Coast, West Coast, and then Europe in 6 six weeks is not really something I could have planned.

It just happened.

Each city has its own particular flavor, its special brand of cool, and while London may be my favorite global megapolis at the moment, Portland is a proper little, boutique city in comparison.

I flew in to Portland from Albuquerque, (via Phoenix,) and almost immediately I knew I was “there.”

Walk out the offramp, there was a Columbia outerwear store, a Pendleton blanket stand, an “Only in Oregon” wine shop, and so many cute locally owned restaurants you could blind-fold yourself, spin around, point at any of them, and it would likely be good.

(Vietnamese? Thai? Pizza? Deli? And so on.)

Returning home, I noticed a sign that said that the law required all stores to charge the same prices in the airport as they do in-town. So my amazing Pad See Yew noodles were only 8 bucks, and I saw bottles of water for sale for $1.25.

It’s the kind of thing they might mock on “Portlandia,” but really, what’s not to like?

Mostly, I think that’s my take away from Portland.

What’s not to like?

Separate your preconceived notions about twee, or meet-cutes, or whatever Carrie and Fred might have mocked, and I thought Portland was rad in just about every way.

I admit, though, I was a bit disoriented at first. Coming into the city from the airport.

Like any good city should, you can grab a train right there, (light rail in this case,) that will bring you right into the heart of town for something like $2.50, in 45 or 50 minutes.

All the way along, through, we were in tight corridors. And everything was green and lush!