Category "From The Field"

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.

“Señor, 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.  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 Paintings 

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, sautée 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 sautéed 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!

Tree canopy

Train tracks cut into ravines. Or buildings pressed in on either side.

Always pressing.

I couldn’t get a sense of where I was?

It felt like the route was pinched in.
Claustrophobic.

It was weird, which was a word I heard like 573 times during the week I was in Portland.

Weird, weird, weird. (Fedora stores and steam-punk style and Satan bars.)

By the time the train found the city proper, the buildings had crept even closer, and the entire train corridor and street were seemingly 40 feet wide.

I could barely breathe.

If I were Rodney Dangerfield, and had a collar to loosen, I would have done so in just that moment.

Gulp.

But then, and only then, did the train pass the basketball arena, make a sharp bank to the Southwest, and cross the Willamette River on a multi-purpose bridge.

Steel Bridge

Whoosh!

All of a sudden, your eye is torn in two directions at once.

The cute, shiny downtown in the glowy-evening-light, set against some green hills to the Southwest, and then, off to the North, on the East bank of the river, a huge working tanker ship at an old industrial shipping dock, right there in the heart of the city.

They literally sit opposite each other.

The working, worn, and maybe-less-than-shabby-chic part of Portland, the timber town that still has logs floating in the river, to the trendy, foodie, hipster, cultured, amazing, progressive city it’s become.

But as soon as that big open view was there, it was gone.

Poof.

And we were back in the congested feeling again, on the other side of the river.

I’m not sure this is correct from above, but I felt like downtown Portland was a blanket you’ve thrown on the ground, and it folds in weird ways.

When you’re in the folds, you can’t see the blanket. (If you’re a small spider, for example.)

But my first full day, after my first session reviewing at the festival, I went on a long walk with my good friend Heather, heading back to the river to cross at the Steel Bridge, before making it back on one of the more southern bridges, which was high enough for the first big view.

Mt. Hood.
Covered in snow, conical and majestic, looming to the East.

That helped a little.

It wasn’t until the next day, though, when I climbed the biggest hill I could find to Washington Park, and then jumped on a statue pedestal to get higher, that I felt like I could breathe.

I caught a big vantage, oriented myself in space in a new town, and then things settled in nicely, vibe-wise.

Truth be told, Mary Jane is legal in Portland, as it is in Colorado, and I went to a cool dispensary called Serra, with a buddy, and picked up a little something for the off hours. (The place was both stylish and reasonably priced, and the staff was nice. Thumbs up for sure.)

Walking to Washington Park

As my Park Walk was free time, after I did my Lewis-and-clark-like survey from a peak, I dropped a bit deeper into the park, and was immediately surrounded by 100+ft tall trees.

Entrance to Washington Park

Doing my Lewis and Clark impression, I bump into a statue in their honor

View from the Pedestal

So beautiful.

But once I turned another corner, I saw a swing set, up the way.

Nobody was there, nor was anyone even around.

Noticing swing sets was more a parent-move than stoner-sensation, but soon I was there, partaking in public, (maybe a no-no, but again, no one was even around,) and then I set my stuff down.

And started swinging.

Above me, the sky was purple-blue, and the trees were touching its belly like they were tickling a new dog.

Up, I pumped the legs.

UP.

Soon, I was as high as I could go, and then I leaned back and stared up at those trees as the motion made my belly feel like Free Fall at Great Adventure in Jersey circa 1996.

For a moment, I wasn’t a Dad.
Or a portfolio reviewer.

I wasn’t a writer.
Or an artist.

I wasn’t a Democrat.
Or a martial artist.

I was a kid on a swing set, truly, humbly amazed at the beauty of the sky, and the trees, and the flowers around me.

All the while, hoping that I wouldn’t let go, or lose my grip, or vomit all over myself.

(No vomits in Portland, but I did have a proper incident in London. We’ll get to that another time.)

After playing, I headed back down the hill into downtown, and everywhere, there are clusters of street food stalls.

One after the other. With infrastructure and everything.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a street food culture like that anywhere in the US, and again: what’s not to like?

There is much more to tell, including clueing you guys in on some of the places I ate and drank, (including one bar you will NOT believe I went to,) but those will come in future articles.

I promise.

Rather, as I’ve been all praise so far, I want to keep it real and point out that Portland, too-nice or not, is far from perfect.

No place is.

Public green on the Willamette River

The stereotype of the “Portland Street Dude” that you have in your head is very real, as is the “Portland Street Dude with Pitbull,” a difficult subset of the culture.

So many gaunt, sad-looking white guys with obvious drug problems, and no proper home.

The homelessness crisis is not quite as dramatic as it is in California, but it is pretty damn obvious in Portland too.

Really, it made me think, as I’ve pieced my West Coast travel together in the past few years, that there is a permanent street class now that rivals what we saw in all those photographs of the Great Depression.

It’s a hard fact, and one that California, Oregon, and (probably) Washington will have to grapple with heavily in the coming decade.

Not to leave you on a downer, but I’m pretty jet lagged at the moment, and just dropped 1500 words on you, so I think we’ll call it a day.

PS: I got a shiny new iPhone in Portland, so as of my London trip, we’ll have 4k video and much improved photographic technology on these articles going forward.

The Best Work I Saw at the Denver Portfolio Walk

 

Tick tock, goes the clock.

Tick tock.

It’s counting down the minutes until I need to pull out of my driveway tomorrow.

(Tick tock.)

It’s an early departure to drive 5 hours to Denver, fly to Charlotte, change planes, and then end up in London on Thursday morning.

(If everything goes as it should.)

I’d by lying if I said I was back to normal after the NYC/NJ and Portland double-double.

I’m not normal at all.

But, (and this is a big BUT,) every now and again, being jet-lagged can be a good thing. Like my wife said, right now, for me, it’s the equivalent of hair of the dog.

Since I already feel like that, I should be able to get a lot more accomplished. (If I don’t sleep, so what? I’ll sleep for a week when I get home.)

If I get hungover, so what?

I won’t drink again for months.

London and more await, but first I have to get through SO MANY THINGS on my To-Do list, then pack, and then wake up before dawn too drive over the Rocky Mountains.

The likelihood of the sun being in my eyes as I drive East over La Veta Pass tomorrow? 100%!

All that hustle to get to Denver, because the flights were 1/3 the price of flying out of Albuquerque, which is two hours closer to my house.

$500 vs $1500?

One is doable, the other is not. (Editor’s note: I did pay to upgrade my seats later today, as they were going to put me in the middle, near the toilet, with no overhead bin space.)

So Denver International Airport it was.

The Mile High city.
Home of the Broncos and the Denver Nuggets.

A boom-town for sure, but are they all, these days? The good ones, I mean?

It is one thing I’ve begun to notice, as I’ve traveled around the past year or two. It seems like Denver, San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland and NYC are all booming.

Cranes everywhere.

Perhaps it’s time to extrapolate all those numbers about the rapid urbanization of America? I mean, I can’t speak to Des Moines, or Little Rock, or Baltimore, but I just read that they’re expecting 50% of America living in 8 states in the coming years.

That’s nuts.

People flock to places like Denver because of the confluence of economic opportunity, world class leisure activities, high-end-bougie-lifestyle, like-minded politics, clean air, (for now,) and (at this point) we have to mention legal marijuana too.

Denver just grows and grows. (Higher and Higher.)

Ask anyone who’s been around the Rocky Mountain West the last 25 years, and miles of what were once open prairie or farms, all along the I-25 corridor, have become suburbs to the point that distinct cities have nearly merged.

The Colorado Springs-Denver-Boulder-Ft.Collins metropolitan area is massive, with a serious population, and it’s nearly seamless in 2019.

(Nearly. There are still a few pockets in between, and even in places like Boulder, farms still maintain micro-pockets, like Gunbarrel.)

I was last up in Denver in late March, as you may know, because I wrote about my exploits here. It was a travel piece, sure, but it also set up the premise of today’s article.

In order to visit a few friends, I drove up to Denver to attend the open portfolio night at the Month of Photography 2019, which took place in downtown Denver on a Saturday night.

I parked in a spot that while convenient to the hotel bars, seemed like it would feel sketchy by the end of the night, and sure enough, I was griping my pocket knife like it was a Hattori Hanzu sword.

But that was the end of the night.

I turned up at the space, and after heading up the stairs, I met a very large crowd. The event was definitely well attended, but there was little of the pushing and shoving that you get in other cities. (Maybe none? I’m not sure anyone pushed or shoved at all.)

Almost immediately, after saying hi to a lot of people, I decided to look at the work seriously, and I met Stephanie Burchett, who reminded me we’d hung out at an after party at Medium in San Diego last October.

(For the record, as I learned the other week in Portland, I always remember a person’s name, work, face, or the circumstances under which we met. Sometimes some of the above, but always one.)

Stephanie had recently graduated from an MFA program in Tucson, and was displaying a small fabrication of images on both sides of the border wall.

I asked if it was a mockup, and she seemed surprised, even though she admitted she made large scale installation in grad school.

It was only meant to be what it was, she said. And I kind of like that, as its intent makes it weird and a little sad. Throw in the video-still she showed me from a grad school show, in which she facial recognition tagged white people in lynching photos, and I knew there was material in Denver to publish.

I told Stephanie that if I could find even a few more people to feature, I’d do an article. Then it became a game and a race, because my friends had worked all day, and wanted to leave to party.

Needless to say, there were enough people, or there would be no article.

 

So rather than go in order, which we never do anyway, I’ll tell you about Ellen Friedlander.

Ellen was one of those few people who stick in my mind, because these days, I try to publish as much work as I can. Very rarely, I’ll say no to someone, and then think about it afterwards, because I feel like perhaps I should have given them the benefit of the doubt.

Ellen qualifies, as I met her at Medium in October as well, (small circuit, the portfolio reviews,) and we spent the entire 20 minutes, or most of it, doing critical feedback. I spent so much time telling her how to improve that I didn’t really get to evaluate her work properly.

Well, here Ellen was, and with her daughter and sister to boot! I got to tell all three that I regretted not helping her, and then I offered to publish her work on the spot.

There was a very happy woman before me, it’s true, but she also said that the critique had been very helpful, and that her new work had grown as a result.

A win win for sure. As to the pictures, they’re street photography horizontal composites, as Ellen spent years living in Hong Kong, and traveling the world.

Chris Sessions was a good sport about my smash-and-grab approach. My friend and colleague, Jennifer Murray, the Executive Director of Filter Photo told me I needed to see his stuff, and within ONE photograph, I knew we were good to go.

Chris is doing a long-term personal project on Charros, Mexican horse riders in the greater Denver area. The image of the dude hovering in air may be one of the best individual photographs I’ve ever seen at a review.

A lot of what I saw that night was not to my taste, which is not uncommon in non-juried reviews. The community spirit and vitality are as important as anything. But it does mean that the good work jumps right out.

Especially when the light/color/sky leap off of an indoor table, at night, under artificial lighting conditions.

That’s what happened with Kevin Hoth.

I saw the images, told him who I was, and said I’d like to show them just for how beautiful they were.

Aren’t they?

Speaking of beauty, I thought Angela Faris Belt poetic landscapes were also gorgeous. Exquisite.

But then I learned they depict ancient, endangered Bristlecone Pines, and she photographed with expired Polaroid film.

Normally I’d write more, but sometimes it isn’t necessary.

It’s funny how sometimes you need to travel to see people from back home. (Not far, in this case.) I went up to Philip V. Augustin’s table like a shark, as he’s a Santa Fe guy, and I’ve seen his work many times over the years.

I wanted to look at some of his perfect gelatin silver prints, made of real light shapes in the studio. Coincidentally, I saw a few on the wall, framed, at Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe last Thursday, and they were really sharp.

Last, but not least, (as I often say,) we have Carl Bower, who I met on the portfolio review circuit 9 years ago, and probably hadn’t seen in 6 or 7 years.

I’d known Carl for his work about beauty pageants in Colombia, but this work was very different. The images were presented with text on the white background, as Carl was asking people to discuss their Private Fears, as he used his art to combat the same.

 

NYC in the 21st Century, Part 2

 

Change is hard.

That’s the truth.

As much as change makes us better, though, we rarely seek it out.

People don’t choose it, if left to our own devices. One needs training, which art school often provides, to temper our natural fear of change, and to learn to trust its inherent process.

Most of the time, though, change is thrust upon us.

It drops out of the sky, like an asteroid, ready to lay waste to the dumb dinosaurs below.

That’s far more common, right?

I mentioned this today, (writing on Wednesday,) because by the time you read this, it will likely be public knowledge that the New York Times Lens blog, my erstwhile employer, is shutting down at the end of this month.

Dead.
Done.
Kaput.

You guys know me, and writing as I do here, straight from me to you, is my particular speciality. Yet for 6 years, I learned how to write like a proper journalist.

No fucks, or shits. No first person narrative.

Thanks, NYT, I appreciate it!

But I only wrote a handful of times a year at Lens, by the end, and the money won’t make a difference in my life. (Though, like working with teenagers, I’ll miss the action.)

Rather, I feel for all the photographers who won’t be spot-lit across the globe. That blog had reach, and reach can = impact.

Speaking from experience, having “The Value of a Dollar” go viral from Lens MADE my photo career. That work is on the wall in a museum in Germany now, in 2019, and that never, ever would have happened without Lens.

These days, there are other places to publish such work. Sure. But for the photographers, losing Lens means losing opportunities.

And other places will have to pick up the slack.

Here in my column in APE, I’ll tell you that we intend to do just that.

For the rest of the summer, we’ll have portfolio review articles, exhibition reviews, and adventure pieces from the field. Between Denver, Portland, and wherever the hell I end up in Europe next week, there will be many stories to tell.

And I intend to show you the work of DOZENS of photographers.

There will be much to see, and after years of book reviews, we’re going to chill a bit on that, and bring them back at the end of summer. (Unless I need a brief break from all the action.)

Speaking of action, given the headline on this piece, I should be talking about my take on New York City and New Jersey in the 21st Century.

The Big Apple, and one of its primary suburban arms.
(Two thirds of the Tri-State Area, if you will.)

When last I left you, we’d talked about the development of NYC architecture, specifically Hudson Yards, and how a new NYC was rising in the ashes of the old.

View of Hudson Yards from the South

Global replacing local.

Sure enough, when I spoke with a long-time New Yorker in Portland, and mentioned that I’d written about the Hudson Yards Project, his first comment was to complain about how it impacts locals.

I shit you not.

The first words out of his mouth.

Change is not only scary, but it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Particularly, when people aren’t actively working to embrace change: to learn and grow from it on purpose.

(Or when they perpetually get the crap end of the stick b/c of Capitalism, Racism, etc.)

I’ve had some nasty headaches the last few weeks, and I’m sure it’s because I’ve been pushing myself so hard to have new experiences this past month.

Making new neural pathways makes us smarter and better, but I’ve found that it can nearly cause a migraine. (As did all the Op-Art I saw in Portland, but that’s another story for a different day.)

Whether it’s the New York Times deciding there’s no money in a photojournalism blog, or a proud city regaining it’s mojo in 2019, change is only predictable in its unpredictability.

So while I can laud NYC for its ability to provide the most amazing 14 miles of eating, walking and looking a husband and wife could ask for, and will tell you about it briefly, I get that the “New” New York has more than its share of detractors.

As I’m pretending to be my former mentor Tony Bourdain for the summer, (#RIP Tony,) I’ll first share that Grand Sichuan, on 9th between 24th & 25th, on the edge of the Chelsea galleries, is totally boss.

I love it, have always loved it, and recommend it highly.

As Jessie and I ate our cold spicy noodles and egg rolls, sipping our (complimentary) tea on an extended walking break, she reminded me of the time my cousin Ron took us there for the night with his wife.

Back in the early aughts.

Ron was something of a foodie, had gone to culinary school, and knew to order off the Chinese Only menu. (We had chicken that was killed that afternoon.)

We drank, ate too much, and laughed all night. A few months later, Jessie and I had Christmas dinner at Ron’s house, and decided to move back to New Mexico.

Unfortunately, Ron died a few years later.

He was one of the early victims of the opioid epidemic. A nice Jewish guy from Jersey.

The canary in the coal mine.

(Hard to segue off of this, now that I think about it, so let’s just keep going.)

Jessie and I ate our way across New York, and thank god we were burning the calories.

Concrete architecture at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel

Because as soon as we walked East from the Tribeca waterfront, near the Holland Tunnel this time, we stumbled, quite literally, upon the cronut place.

THE cronut place.

Dominique Ansel Bakery

Dominique Ansel Bakery. We read a sign about the line as we were walking by, but there were only 5 people in it. So we joined up, waited a few minutes, and then had some great coffee and pastries.

The salted caramel eclair was divine, the almond coconut chocolate croissant was really good, and the Nutella milk bread was highly disappointing.

They have a lovely outdoor courtyard that was quiet and spacious, which I highly recommend, and the massive Cafe Au Lait powered me up for the walk back to our hotel in Koreatown.

At the recommendation of Darren Ching, of Brooklyn’s Klompching gallery, we went across the street from our hotel to Madangsui, a Korean BBQ place, and ended up eating everything the next morning as breakfast. (As I told you in Part 1.) The food was brilliant: kimchee pancake, and a stone bowl bulgogi bibimbap that the waitress turned over table-side.

Koreatown

Yes, we ate in New York. The food was so good, and surprisingly affordable. As for the art, Jessie and I visited the Rubin Museum, in Chelsea, and saw some transcendental Tibetan and Buddhist work, including a re-created shrine that gave me goosebumps.

Recreations of Buddhist art depicting Yogic poses.

Five stars for sure.

But anyone can tell you about New York City.

New Jersey, though, requires a deft touch. (Me and David Chase. A short list.)

New Jersey never really changes, I thought. The shore, the nasty refineries along the Turnpike.

Bruce Springsteen, and the Best Pizza in America.
Skee ball and strip malls and Down-to-Earth people.

The world I knew was made of 2nd and 3rd generation Americans, the children and grand-children of immigrants who arrived at and ultimately fled New York City.

Mostly Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Jewish-Americans, with some Central European/Slavic folks thrown in there as well.

In my town, though, we also had a large contingent of Asian-Americans, which was somewhat rare. (Back then, I didn’t distinguish between Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans, as I would now.)

We had all sorts of Asian-Americans growing up in my hometown of Holmdel, NJ, because there was a gargantuan Bell Labs facility in the center of town.

A massive complex, set a half-mile back off the road, with a trippy-ass-space-ship looking tower in the front, which was as strange as it sounds.

For the uninitiated, Bell Labs was an offshoot of Alexander Graham Bell, and for much of the 20th Century was the most important research facility in the world.

In the world?

Sure. Why not.
Along with Livermore and Los Alamos, I guess.

It was right there in the heart of Holmdel, a place where they discovered, invented or refined radio wave technology, lasers, internet stuff, and all sorts of things.

It was a Nobel Prize factory, in the middle of corn fields that had been tended by Dutch colonists since the 17th Century. (Legit 1600’s for sure.)

And then…

Mergers. Breakups. Bankruptcies.

All of a sudden, it was Lucent, and then it was gone.

Out of business.
Permanently.

So an enormous building sat there empty, for years, reeking of the ghosts of America’s past

Until…

Now.
2019.

The present.

An Orthodox Jewish developer came along, called it Bell Works, and turned the entire Saarinen-designed-space into a mixed use development. Hotel, conference center, restaurants, shops, an indoor soccer field.

What?
And indoor soccer field?

Bell Works

Saarinen’s design touch.

The Holmdel Public Library moved in, and they have a museum area dedicated to Bell Labs and its history. Plus, the place backs up on public park land, so it can be accessed on foot as well as by car.

I was flabbergasted.

Jessie and I ate samosas from an Indian-American-run convenience store INSIDE Bell Labs. With tamarind and cilantro chutneys. And it was really good!

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, you could have pizza or Chinese food, burgers in bar joints, or maybe Jewish Deli, and that was about it.

But it’s not the 20th Century anymore.

Not by a long shot.

And New Jersey, like its big brother NYC, also suffered tremendously from Hurricane Sandy as well, which I wrote about here back in 2013 or ’14. (Even I lose track sometimes.)

Sure enough, just like NYC, the Jersey Shore, which had been annihilated by Sandy, is now thriving.

Booming. Exploding!

I read in the Star Ledger that Pier Village, a shore development in Long Branch that DID NOT EXIST when I was in high school, was adding an additional 450 condominium units.

450!

And then I went there, as my buddy Felt moved into an ocean-front apartment last year. (My wife and I helped him decorate the place on a stoner ramble through NYC last April that I didn’t write about…)

Me and Felt, (who’s real name is Matt,) hung out at the Bat Mitzvah in North Jersey that drew me East, where thankfully the Italian-American food was flowing, and I drank Hennessy all day like it was going out of style.

Then I got to visit Felt’s apartment a couple of days later, and walked down a corridor so long that I got scared of “The Shining,” forgot about the reference, and then got scared of “The Shining” again, because the walk was 3 minutes long.

Looking Northeast at Pier Village

Looking Southeast at Pier Village

That’s how big they’re building these things.

And as Sandy destroyed so many buildings, clearing land, new developments were everywhere, trying to peddle chic.

Chic?

“South Beach at Long Branch” is a thing.

It’s not a joke. It’s real.

My theory is that once the Millennials decided Asbury Park was cool, as it gentrified, and they lacked the same biases against Jersey that their parents had, (Hamptons or bust,) it only made sense that these other beach towns, closer and MORE accessible, would start getting hot.

But trendy?
Like Miami?

I don’t buy it.

Rather, I think anyone who hangs out at the Jersey Shore will just end up getting Jersified.

So do ya-self a favuh, eat some great calamari at Rockafellers, ride some waves this summuh, and make sure ta tell ya friends.

You know what I’m sayin’?

My Aunt and kids after dinner at Rockafellers.

 

NYC in the 21st Century, Part 1

 

I’m just back from New York, and am off to Portland tomorrow, where I’ll be when this article drops.

(Yes, I have a headache.)

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and there’s plenty more to come, so today it’s time to tell you what I observed, as a journalist, in New York and New Jersey earlier this month.

It’s important to date it, because in 2019, these places I know so well have finally stood up tall and joined the 21st Century.

Proudly.

They’ve developed, or grown, in ways that feel authentic, and at times exciting. (As someone who grew up and lived there.) It’s a funny word to use, development, because among a certain political class, it’s almost always seen as a bad thing.

Gentrification –> Development = Low-income residents getting pushed out.

That’s normally the equation, and I get it. (My MFA thesis project in 2004 was about corn fields in my suburban hometown getting turned into McMansions.)

Sure, it was a Dutch farming village for 300 years before my parents got there, but I didn’t want those farms to become more suburbs.

No more people like me moving in to spoil it!

I gentrified the Southern end of the Mission District in San Francisco in 1999, and then Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2002, and left both places as they were getting too trendy.

Hell, Jessie and I moved back to Taos in 2005 expecting hordes of Gen Xers to follow us, but instead it’s been the Millennials who’ve gotten in on the action in the last three or four years.

All of which is to say, I’ve been a gentrifier, and one who took pains at each new farm that was plowed under for another house like my own.

In general, over the course of my life, I’d say I tended towards the condemnation of massive real estate developments, and appreciated when things stayed the same, as they did in San Francisco for 10 years after I left.

But now, the San Francisco skyline has been ruined by Salesforce, the local culture is supposedly all about tech bros, and I’d have to think hard about how many people I know who live in the city these days, rather than in the surrounding area.

New York City, though, is something different. (As is New Jersey, which we’ll get to in Part 2.)

Yes, it’s my home turf, and I’m biased. I’ve written before that I grew up able to see the Twin Towers from my hometown, gleaming across the bay.

I took it personally when the towers were destroyed in 2001, but I think something of New York’s soul was taken too. Not that it’s people were cowed, because that will never happen.

(Not in my lifetime, anyway.)

Old New York near Herald Square

Rather, the skyline was ruptured so badly, and then the local politicking, which is always dirty in New York, kept the Freedom tower from getting built FOREVER.

Really, you can look it up.

When did the Freedom Tower open to the public?

(Rare Google break…)

OK. I’m back. 2014.

That’s when the first tenant moved in.

It took New York City 13 years to replace it’s iconic Southern anchor to the skyline.

And even then, the building is just OK.

In the interim, there was a phase where some very average looking, minimalistic residential super-towers were built, which made the city lean wrong, and all that visual weight went towards the super-rich, with their part time crash pads. (I accidentally wrote cash pads, which is a good Freudian slip.)

Looking South from the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel

Nowadays, in 2019, finally, I’m thrilled to report that New York City has grown in exciting and beautiful ways. (Revitalizing growth that sometimes gets a bad rap, I think.)

In my experience, New York City has become a global tourism Mecca. In the sense that, like Paris, it now belongs to everyone.

And sometimes that comes at the expense of the locals.

Certainly, Manhattan, Brooklyn and now probably Queens are not affordable for “regular” people. Not unless you live “all-the-fuck-out-there” by the ocean.

And even where I’m from, in New Jersey, or in other outlying areas like Long Island or Westchester, the cost of living is high across the board. (Food, rent/home prices, transportation…)

Manhattan just adopted congestion pricing for the first time, to charge people for driving in the heart of the city, and the cost of tolls at bridges is nearly $20 as is.

In particular, though, I’d like to discuss Hudson Yards, the new mega-development by Stephen Ross, which recently opened in what used to be called Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s in Midtown’s Far West Side.

Approaching Hudson Yards from the North

It was supposedly built on a $1 Billion platform over a railyard, and I’ve seen that tactic used in public parks in Chicago and Dallas to good effect. (In Dallas it was over highway, but still…)

Hudson Yards has gotten panned, from what I’ve heard, because it really was built for rich people, and tourists. (I guess I’m kind of the latter, these days.)

 

Looking East towards Old New York

Looking West to Hudson Yards

Looking up at the Hudson Yards skyscrapers

There are something like six new blue-glass skyscrapers by Starchitects, and they surround a big public courtyard with the the Shed, a public art space, and the massively expensive “Vessel,” a glowing bronze public art project for which you have to get a free ticket.

The Vessel

Getting the shot for Instagram

View from inside the Vessel

Looking down off the platform


It is literally a stairway that goes nowhere, built to be an Instagram backdrop, and it does that job well. I was little confused by the physical placement within the city skyline, if it’s meant to be iconic, but then I noticed this ad in The New Yorker, which about sums up the demographic.

The Vessel is apparently visible from New Jersey

On the lower levels of one of the buildings is a huge shopping mall and food court featuring very expensive and/or trendy brands. (Muji is not fancy, but it is cool.)

I understand my point may be somewhat controversial, but I’ve been to that part of town, over the years, and it was a bit of a wasteland.

I can also attest, at 45, that New York has always been about money.

It’s the heart of Capitalism, for crying out loud.

So as a former resident, and now regular visitor, I accept that it was always going to become too expensive for people like me to actually live there.

Hell, I don’t want to live there.

The air quality and weather suck, and it’s too busy for every day.

But seeing such beautiful, gleaming buildings in Hudson Yards, it inspired me.

They’re gorgeous.

And everywhere you look, including in odd places like the Lower East Side, there are new-looking skyscrapers that balance the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, and support the Freedom Tower, which was never meant to carry downtown alone.

(Brooklyn has tons of new hi-rise buildings too, so many that when my father-in-law last visited in 2004, there were none, he confirmed.)

Sticking with Manhattan, though, Hudson Yards blends right into the northern end of the High Line through Chelsea, which is itself a phenomenal piece of design and public space.

Whereas in the past, right at the junction between the two, there might have been a locally owned pizza place, now, it’s a restaurant by Jose Andres and the Adria Brothers. That’s a massive change, and I can see how some people might hate it. (I still miss the ubiquity of a great slice.)

Between the architecture that’s grown around the High Line, like the Zaha Hadid masterpiece, to the nature planted within it, the High Line is always popular, and rightly so.

(We went twice, and each time it was wall-to-wall people, speaking countless languages.)

The High Line ends in the new Whitney, which conveniently flows into Hudson River park, which goes south along the waterfront along the city.

Looking North from the beginning of the High Line

Zaha Hadid building along the High Line

It’s fantastic, frankly.

And none of it was there when I moved back to town in 2002.

I haven’t mentioned Hurricane Sandy, yet, which hit in 2012, but that was a real punch in the nose for the Tri-State Area.

Given that New York is a money town, between 9/11, the following market crash, the 2008 crash, and then Sandy, the city was properly down on its knees.

Maybe not like the big bad 70s, but New York looked stale, visually, and I’d argue maybe it was.

As cities like Shanghai and Dubai raced towards the future, New York seemed stuck in the past.

But no longer.

On a Pier looking South towards the Freedom Tower

These days, I think it’s pretty badass that New York has opened itself proudly to the world.

It’s thriving, and looks pretty great too. (Except for the garbage on the streets, because New York is always gonna New York.)

There’s so much more to tell, (including a few anecdotes about AIPAD,) but we’re nearing 1500 words, and I’ve got photos this time!

There’s no need to over-do it, so I’ll run it back with Part 2 next week.

Have a good one.

The Best Work I Saw at the LACP Exposure Portfolio Review

 

Almost everything I write is available for free on the internet.

There are a few exceptions, though.

I’ve written essays for two of Alejandro Cartagena’s recent books, the companions: “Santa Barbara Return Jobs to US,” and “Santa Barbara Shame on US.”

These are limited-edition, fine art books in which the photography was obviously the main draw. The only people who read those pieces bought the book, and then also took the time to read the insert.

(Meaning, not everyone who bought the book. Let’s be honest.)

The ideas in those essays went up behind a paywall, essentially.
So I’m going to pull a few out today, as I think of sunny, hot, alluring California.

Beautiful, majestic, diverse, cool-as-shit California.

You’ll find few bigger fans of the Golden State than I, especially among those that don’t live there. I’m biased towards CA for sure, having lived there for 3 years, and visited more times than I could count, even if I tried. (Maybe 20? 30?)

The Bay Area is amazing, LA totally rocks, and SoCal beach towns are among my favorite anywhere. (They put the Jersey Shore to shame, I’m afraid.)

But writing for Alejandro in 2017, (in parallel with his critical agenda,) I questioned whether California, the laboratory of new American culture, was becoming a 3rd World Country? As I wrote about several years ago here, and for Lens, the homelessness problem is so bad there are essentially permanent public tent encampments now, mini-neighborhoods, and is that really going to un-happen?

Do we believe that any great new public policy will find homes for this increasingly large underclass? Or build fancy new shelters for them, as nice as Trump’s immigrant-kid-jails?

Will a sane drug policy all-of-a-sudden find ways to treat every heroin or oxy-loving junkie?

Of course not.
That’s ludicrous.

This massive disparity between mega-wealth and mega-poverty, mashed right up against each other, is likely to continue. And how long does it take to go from tent city to a full-on favela?

Who hasn’t heard of Brazilian cities where the wealthy only travel by helicopter?

Is that in California’s future as well?

Like I said at the outset, I love California. Hell, I love America, even though we have some serious problems at the moment.

Since I was a young child, it was inculcated in me that this society was ultimately a melting-pot, where people from all over the world came to live next to each other in peace, and try to make a better life for their children, and their children’s children.

I still believe America is Great, I honestly do, but this place has its challenges.

Chief among them right now is sorting out income inequality. If the American Middle-Class Dream of self-autonomy, in a safe home, with enough leisure time to enjoy your children, (or your friends,) truly goes away, then Banana Republic status will follow here in the US for certain.

I know it’s an odd way to start an article about the excellent, fantastic LACP Exposure portfolio review that I attended in July. Ranting about the striation of lifestyle in a State I’m also trying to rave about.

I get it.

But this column, as I recently admitted, is an extension of my art. And a photography festival is attended by artists, who are in general open-minded, critical thinkers.

You, the audience, know that there are no black-and-white situations.

California, in this case the West Side of LA, is among my favorite places on Earth, and I can still notice what’s wrong with the picture. (Have I been a critic too long?)

For example, in my few days staying a the excellent Hotel MdR in Marina Del Ray, tooling around Venice/Santa Monica, (and once traveling to Studio City,) I saw more $$$$ worth of automobiles than the entire annual GDP of Taos County.

I must have been $10,000,000 of cars.
Easy.
(Including one sweet Ford GT.)

That money is massive, but my summer-camp friend Russell, with whom I reunited for some beach time, showed me a homeless encampment in Venice, along the boardwalk, that was always there now.

As far as Exposure weekend goes, and the beautiful Marina Del Ray community in which it was set, I had one of the best experiences yet, and I’ve been on the portfolio review circuit for 5 years straight.

I’ve got to give credit where it’s due, and Exposure is currently produced by Sarah Hadley, who was one of the co-founders of the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. This is her second go-around, and she really knows what she’s doing.

Along with Brandon Gannon and Julia Dean, at LACP, the team was super-responsive to some feedback they got about the 2017 festival, and worked hard to improve upon the experience.

The hotel was 2 blocks from the marina, with the sun glinting off the boats and the water, and surrounded by restaurants, bars, shops, and of course a Ralphs. (The beach was just up the road too.)

The staff there was super-professional and friendly, the outdoor area overlooked a beautiful pool, (So SoCal,) and the reviews were run smoothly as well, with all the participants up-to-speed on how to present themselves, and how to handle the 20 minute meetings.

Not only that, but people left the tables promptly, there was always coffee and snacks around, both for the reviewers and participants, and the weather was bang-on-perfect. (Low 80’s. The heat wave that left town as I arrived ravaged New Mexico while I was styling in LA.)

When I complimented the participant preparedness to my colleagues, in a recent phone call, they gave credit to their super-star instructor, Aline Smithson, who lead the charge on getting people ready. They’d all done their homework on their reviewers, had the right amount of work to show, asked questions and listened to answers.

Really, it was a 10 out of 10 experience, and to have that happen one year after I was open in telling them (behind the scenes,) that there was work to be done on their young event.

This time it was a smash. Great food. Nice parties and events.

And I taught a full-day workshop with the most amazing, intelligent, thoughtful students. (One of whom I was able to profile in an NYT piece last month.)

As usual after an event, I’m going to show you selections of the best work I saw at the LACP Exposure portfolio review. It’s in no particular order, and we’ll feature all the artists today. (Back to book reviews next week.)

We’ll start with Susan Turner, as I became fascinated with one of her projects at the portfolio walk on Friday night. (Side note: they organized a social mixer with reviewers and reviewees poolside afterwards, which was a nice touch.)

I didn’t know I’d be reviewing Susan the following day, but next to a larger project of generic, soft-focus, dreamy-pretty pictures, she showed me this kooky, zany, super-fun series in which she’d made cut-out backdrops, and shot portraits.

The two projects truly looked like they were made by different people, and Susan, who is in her late 70’s or early 80’s, I believe, seemed to like that I appreciated her more subversive side.

I almost met Mahala Mazerov on the plane from Albuquerque, as I overheard her saying she was headed to a portfolio review by the beach. (If you don’t know, Marina del Ray, Venice and Santa Monica make up the West Side beach communities in LA.)

I recognized her immediately when she sat down at the table, and she told me a challenging story of having had an accident in which she suffered a traumatic brain injury. The rehab was long, and as someone who was on the high side of intelligent, the struggle was torturous.

Luckily, she found photography gave her comfort as she worked her way back. These images of flowers, of beauty in its pure form, exude extra juice when you realize they’ve been a part of her re-embrace of her powers and faculties.

And she mentioned in a subsequent email that was so good I want to quote it, re: her symbolic resonance.

“If lotuses growing through mud are symbols of purity and pristine awareness, these hollyhock, growing in drought through cracks in the pavement should be a symbol of persistence.”

Wayne Swanson had digital pinhole images of outmoded technology. It was the second project he showed me, as once he figured out that I didn’t love his first project, he pivoted to something else that I totally appreciated.

Seriously, these pictures are awesome.

But it’s a good lesson on how to approach a portfolio review, and why Wayne was representative of a cohort that had been well-prepared.

Art is subjective. Sure, there are base-level components about technique, for example, about which most people would agree.

In general, though, different experts can have wildly different opinions. If someone hates one thing and loves another, it’s a win. (It doesn’t matter that they don’t like one of your babies, as long as they like another.)

JK Lavin, from Venice, has been around the SoCal photo and art scene for years, as she went to Cal State Fullerton in the 80’s. She sat before me with flaming red hair, and I’d guess she’s in her late 50’s.

Her project showed a younger version of herself, in a stack of scanned and reprinted polaroids. It’s a proto-selfie project, as she shot herself each day for 8 years.

The images are great, of course, but the experience of looking at them while sitting in the presence of the artist added an even deeper dimension. The project will be a solo show at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Massachusetts, I’m happy to share, and deservedly so.

Dennis Keeley heads up the photo department at the Art Center in Pasadena, and was a very cool, chill, California guy, I must say. He told me that he commutes from the South Bay up to Pasadena, North of the City each day, which is a form of self-torture most would not inflict upon themselves for any amount of money.

But time in the car is a huge part of life in a driving, traffic-based culture. So Dennis decided to use the stressful situation to make art, and has photographed the commute for years. The resulting photographs are far more meditative than I expected, which I suppose reinforces that they help him find something positive in an otherwise shitty situation.

Kevin Weinstein, who also works for LACP, (and should have received a shout out sooner in the article,) sat down at the table to show me his colorful, Saul-Leiter-esque street photographs around Los Angeles.

Kevin is also a professional editorial and event photographer, and his skill-set really shows. The technical competence grounds his sense of whimsy, and I must say I like the pictures a lot.

Plus, he’s hilarious. What is it with those Jews and humor? You’d think they invented Hollywood or something.

(Oh, right.)

Matthew Finley had some very-IRL-physical-object-based images, so they don’t translate to the web as well as some other things. He builds layers of images, which deal with sexuality, but I just saw that it’s not what he sent me. (Last minute-photo editing.)

These are circular polaroids, and they’re cool too.

Finally, last but not least, we have Alexandra DeFurio. Hers was easily the most SoCal project I viewed over the weekend, as Alexandra photographs LA-Area bougainvillea in the bright sunlight.

Damn, seriously, look at those skies. That’s the California Dream right there.

I thought her photos were excellent, and suggested that as the work continued, I’d recommend some variance within her light palette, as the mid-day super-bright sun might be nicely complimented by some slight (or drastic) changes in mood and color.

Regardless, its the perfect project to end on today, as it’s cold, wet and gray here on September 20, the first real day of Autumn in New Mexico.

Portfolio Visit To New York – Tom M Johnson

- - From The Field

I asked Tom M Johnson to write about a recent portfolio trip to NYC. I think you’ll enjoy this informative and candid account of his 7th trip to meet with editors and show his portfolio in person.
— aPE

Initially, I thought I’d write a day-to-day summary of my recent New York trip to meet with Photo Editors. Rather, I’ve opted to write a summary of the experience. I believe the trip went well. Of course, exact success will not be known for some time. If 6 months go by and not one commission results from the trip, I’ll probably feel the trip was unsuccessful. Yet, I will not consider it a failure and waste of money because in my career I’ve come to learn success comes in small rather steps. The ultimate of course would be to receive a couple of calls in next couple of months offering assignments. However, I believe I benefited from the trip by nurturing previous relationships and developing a few more. I was fortunate enough to meet with a couple of editors I’ve been trying to see for a few years and believe those meetings went very well. I feel positive about this trip, because (since 1997 this was my 7th trip to New York) I was never more prepared. Of course my work is much better now, and after all these years one would hope, so I entered these meetings with more confidence and greater conviction. Yet, I believe the biggest reason for my success was the preparation I did in advance, which began a month before stepping on the Amtrak train to New York.

I must give some credit to Selina Maitreya because she helped me to create a strategy. Selina is a consultant I’ve worked with off and on since 2002. She knows me well, and I’m not just her client- we are also friends. I’ve had a few consultants over the years and gotten something from all of them, yet some were definitely better than others. Of them all, I believe Selina invests more of herself, and she truly cares for her clients… With her council, a month before my departure I sent an email blast to the 120 New York photo editors in my database. In the email, I announced that in a month I would be coming to New York to see clients and while there I would be making appointments and contacting them soon. Attached to the email was a cool image from a recent assignment for the New York Times along with links to my website. I liken this approach to an invasion like D-Day where I first hit them with artillery to soften up the beachhead before landing. To my pleasant surprise I had 5 replies from editors who had seen the photograph in the Times, and a few of them offered times for appointments… 2 weeks later I sent a second email with another image attached, this time specifying the dates I would be in New York, and that I would be in touch with them soon. A couple of more editors replied offering appointments… Then 10 days before departure I sent a 3rd email again with another image attached, this time telling them I would be calling them shortly.

The week before departing I called all 120 editors. Photo Editors move from magazine to magazine, so this also gave me an opportunity to update my database. Mostly I heard voicemails, yet I left messages announcing that I’d be in New York and looked forward to seeing them. I followed each call with a 4th email, this time directed to the photo editor I had just called with a specific pitch. Of all the editors I reached out to I made actual contact with, either by phone or email, about 25. I ultimately met with 17. It reminded me of what a salesman once told me, “You call 100 people, maybe 10 will speak with you, and out of that 10 hopefully one will do business with you.”

I am convinced that face time is paramount, yet these days it’s difficult to get appointments with Photo Editors. For one, more than ever, magazines are fighting for their survival. I met with Fiona Gardner, former Photo Editor of Popular Photography, at a coffee shop because Popular Photography and American Photo had recently closed their doors. Staffs at many magazines have been reduced and their workloads increased, and let’s face it: if Photo Editors saw every photographer who wanted to meet with them, all they would do is see photographers. Then there are a few big editors whom my chances of having a one on one with the Pope are greater than meeting with one of them. Yet, even knowing all of this, I forced myself to be vigilant and persistently continued making my calls. Some disagree, but I believe cold calling is an important part of the process because talking with someone establishes a connection and lets them know that I am determined. Even if it’s only for a brief 30 seconds, I feel a Photo Editor will remember my name more so than if I had sent him or her 10 emails. It’s difficult and often scary, especially with New Yorkers who can be terse and immune to charm, yet with practice, cold calling gets less difficult. But it’s still never easy, and because 90 percent of the calls result in voice mails when I finally do get a Photo Editor on the phone- it’s difficult to get into the rhythm of my pitch. And, trying to find that right tone of confidence is not unlike back in the day calling that special girl for a date. What’s really frustrating is after having finally succeeded in getting an editor on the phone, most would terminate the call requesting that I send, even though by this time I had already sent them 5, an email with links to my work. This I find a challenge to work around. For most editors, this is their polite way of getting rid of me. They have no intention of making an appointment, and I’m unsure if they will ever look at the 6th email I send them. While I have them on the phone I’m always tempted to push them to make an appointment, and I suppose this is where hutzpah and confidence are most needed. Because, if I push them to make an appointment and they grudgingly acquiesce, what happens if they don’t like my work?

A month before the trip I got the idea to buy a suit for my interviews. Not wanting to look like a banker, I skipped the tie. I’m older and a bit old school, so I believe this was my way of presenting myself as a serious and dedicated photographer, as well as someone whom the editors could trust to send on an assignment to photograph a CEO. Also, I showed 3 bodies of printed work displayed in custom portfolios, 2 of them made by Mullenburg Designs based near Portland, Maine. It was a royal pain in the ass to schlep this load of work via subways and a ton of walking from appointment to appointment, but I felt it was worth it. At the end of the day, the weight took its toll on my knees and back, yet I don’t see the point of showing work on an iPad when the editor can just as easily view the work on the website… After several years of trying I finally connected with this one photo editor on the phone who works for a business magazine at Time Inc. I told him that I was in New York and dying to see him, so he told me to call him back the next day to set up an appointment. I did and got a voice mail and of course, he never replied. Well, that very next day I was on his floor in the Time Inc. building, and I was so tempted to walk around the floor asking anyone I bumped into if they knew where I could find him. But I didn’t, and I’m still kicking myself for chickening out…

My goal was 15 appointments and I ended up seeing 17 Photo Editors in 4 days. Success! I could have had a few more but one editor of a major journal canceled my appointment an hour before we were to meet, much too late to hustle another meeting during that time slot. As well, by not getting the chance to see her I missed the opportunity of perhaps seeing some of her colleagues… Overall, I felt that my interviews went well; the editors seemed interested in my work, and no one told me I sucked. Once back in Pittsburgh I wrote all the editors I met with thank you letters included with another promo piece. In a couple of months, I’ll send them all another promo, with email blasts in between, all part of my marketing strategy.

Though I still believe making trips to New York is important, I wonder if the day will soon come when magazines will be not unlike darkrooms. I learned from one photo editor of a successful fashion/hipster magazine that although their feature photo spreads of young hot celebrities photographed by young hot photographers with Instagram followings in the hundreds of thousands get millions of likes and shares, yet few click on the articles to read the text and see the advertising that pays for the magazine to stay in business. I met with another editor of one of the most famous celebrity/fashion magazines in the business and she told me that they have to come up with the same quality of productions with ½ the budgets. As well, I heard that 2 of the business magazines at Time Inc. are consolidating, which means there will soon be some more unemployed Photo Editors. When the millennials want to view everything on their smartphones without paying a fee, who will pay for the providers of the content?

The best work I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Oh yes.
It’s back.

My annual, final column that never really caught on. That most rebellious of ironic year end lists. (It’s not even a list, per se, because it only mentions one thing.)

Like an ironic mustache, I get to have it both ways. I nod to the end-of-the-year thing, while simultaneously skewering the tradition by giving my version such a ridiculous title.

It’s no 10 best books list, that’s for sure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But 2016 was a witch of a bear of a blizzard of a skin rash of a melting iceberg of a year.

We know this.

The rise of Trump. The fall of Aleppo. Endless streams of millions, fleeing for their lives.

A divided US. A resurgent Russia. China flexing her military muscles. Talk of a new nuclear arms race.

And, of course, grab them by the pussy.
(Yes, that really happened.)

It seems like something you’d make up in your sleep, your subconscious big upping the nasty allure of real life into a seemingly impossible, soap opera narrative.

But it actually happened.

I know we’re all SO ready for 2017.
I had people scream in my face in 2016.
Aggress on my person. Multiple times.

It sucked.

I felt myself growing stronger in the face of adversity. Now, I’ll be the first to admit the problems I had were nothing compared to the real life and death stuff. The aforementioned Syria.

But as we’ve discussed in columns past, the things that make us grow are always the hardest. Staying comfortable is not how you become better.

And I had some truly amazing moments in 2016 as well.

I saw fantastic art exhibitions, and wrote about them, in Ft. Worth, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Chicago.

Even on vacation, in Big Sur this July, I asked my wife’s Uncle Dan what was the coolest thing he’d seen on his recent travels. He’s a booking agent for major rock bands, so he globe-trots on a regular basis.

He walked into his bedroom, and emerged with a museum catalog from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago: “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” published by Rizzoli.

Uncle Dan said this show in Chicago was the best thing he’d seen anywhere, and if I could get to it when I was in Chicago in September, I’d be glad I did.

Duly noted, I thought.

Admittedly, I mentioned the show in one or two sentences in one article this Fall, but I think it still counts as the best thing I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet. (Don’t hate me on a technicality.)

Especially as the exhibition is now on view at the Met Bruer in New York until January 29th, I wanted to share some year-end thoughts, and show off the book.

The exhibition featured an endless series of large scale, unframed canvases, done with acrylic paint. The bolt holes suggest unfinished work, but the dozens of masterpieces were nothing of the sort. The technique becomes a structural metaphor from the outset, bringing low materials to high places.

The coal-black faces speak to a history of centuries of racism, in piece after piece. (While referencing the caste system of shades of brown.) They’re defiantly dark, like Kara Walker’s silhouettes. The compositions are classical, and reference art history at every turn. (De Stijl, Rococo, Giorgione, Gericault.)

The color schemes are contrasty and exciting too, so the image structures hold up against the heavy history many of the pieces evoke.

And the subject matter feels like a hashtag of the African-American experience in contemporary America.

Watts. The barbershop. The death of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys.

There are lynchings.
And liquor stores.

Running slaves
and golden nets.

Glittering jails and subverted expectations. Like “Our House,” from 1995, which features black children inhabiting seemingly-white roles, in the suburbs, but slave shacks sit in the back of the painting as well.

Or “Past Times,” from 1997, in which a black family relaxes by the lake, Puff Daddy style, dressed in all white, waterskiing, and playing croquet.

We see pretty sunsets and plenty of paintings within paintings. He demystifies the art-making process, showing scrims, and painting by numbers, while mystifying us with how good he is at his job.

The show features private parts and private moments. Day-Glo abstractions and keen observations.

The work, taken together, distills decades if not centuries of pain and suffering, yet flips it. (Jujitsu style.) These are not dour, or in most cases, mournful works.

They’re too bright for that. They’re meticulous, too, in a way that screams joy.

Kerry James Marshall clearly loves what he does, even if what he does is critique an American society that likes to occupy the moral high ground, even though its wealth is built upon a history of slavery. (And the genocide of Native Americans.)

As for the rest of us, I’d say the lesson for 2017 is pretty clear.

Mine your experience. Share what you think. Push yourself to your limits, in a world that might not feel comfortable. Ever.

Put it into your art.

And I hope 2017 is a better and easier year for you and yours.

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Medium Festival of Photography – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

In the 90’s, Michael Jordan was a god. He could fly, like Superman, and his ubiquitous Gatorade commercials implored us to “Be Like Mike.”

Back then, we had a kid on our soccer team named Mike Belasco. We teased him by singing that Gatorade song, and at one point, I bought the cassette-single, (yes, they existed) so we could torture young Mike with regularity.

Sample lyrics: Sometimes I dream, that he is me. The shots I make nobody else would take.

But Michael Jordan refused to take shots at certain corporations, or become politically active, for fear of offending potential consumers. His famous reputed quote: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Unlike Mike, I have used this weekly platform to spout off my opinions for the last 5+ years. If you’ve been coming each week, you’re well aware of my thoughts on President-Elect Trump.

You might expect that I’d rail against injustice today, or lash out in anger, but you’d be wrong.

Not today. (I’m writing the morning after the election.)

Though I admit to being extremely disappointed, within the system we possess, Donald Trump won the election fair and square.

He got more votes in the Electoral College.

Hillary Clinton’s popular victory, while ultimately fruitless, proves we are indeed a divided country. Split in two, it would seem.

I read the think pieces today, and wasted time on Twitter and Facebook. It made me feel bad. And you know what I realized? Nobody knows what’s going to happen.

Whether it’s fears of a wall, a mass deportation police, or some new war in the Middle East, nobody knows what’s coming.

Nobody knows if President-Elect Trump will shed one character and adopt another, since he’s a modern day reality TV actor, just as Ronald Reagan was a B-movie star.

Nobody knows what the future will bring.
Nobody.

I promise you: it’s entirely unwritten. Maybe he’ll do some good things amid the many bad things to come? Or maybe the bad things won’t come?

Your fear of the future, of the unknown, of what he’ll do next, none of will do you any good. It’s just wasted energy. It burns calories, worrying, and better to save them for being creative, and expressing your freedom of speech during these next 4 years.

I admit, truthfully, that I did wonder last night if there was an archive of all the people who wrote nasty things about him? If I weren’t on some list?

But then I realized that was crazy. I’ve championed freedom of speech many times in this column, and intend to exercise the right going forward. There is no list.

Now, though, it’s time to “Be Like Mike.” If my repeated expression of my own political views has bothered you, when you were just looking to see some pictures of a photo-book, I apologize.

I’m going to continue to keep it real, but if you are among the many, many millions of people that voted for President-Elect Trump on Tuesday, I appreciate that you’ve been reading. I hope he’ll able to do some good things as President, and for all we know, his Art-of-the-Deal jujitsu skills might do the country some good.

As far as we artsy-liberal-types go, though, a few minutes ago I saw a tweet by comedian Eugene Mirman, who does a great voice on “Bob’s Burgers.” He said he looked forward to all the great art and music that would emerge from the first Trump term.

I couldn’t agree more. (#MakeStuff)

As artists, we’re blessed and burdened with the responsibility to report on our culture. It’s what we do, and I guarantee some kick-ass shit will come out of whatever it is that’s about to happen.

Speaking of making stuff, though it feels like another lifetime, it’s easy for me to recall the best work I saw at the the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego last month.

I’ve been there before, as you know, and the founder, scott b. davis, is an old friend. Medium works because it’s small and homey, with a positive vibe. It’s not a heavy drinking/partying festival, but it is set at the Hotel Lafayette, which has a cool pool surrounded by palm trees, in case you want to catch some sun.

You need to have a car, or use Uber, if you want to get around the city or head to the beach, but it’s just as easy to stay put. For whatever reason, even though North Park is not super-gentrified yet, there are a handful of excellent restaurants and cafes within 3 blocks of the hotel, so you can easily stay in the neighborhood.

Medium, like Filter, is not juried, so I expect to see a wide range of work. People continue to come asking for feedback, and I try to give it as honestly and kindly as I can. Luckily, this time I saw some interesting things, and am sure you’ll agree.

As usual, the photographers are featured in no particular order. Hope you enjoy their work, and we thank them for letting us share it with you.

We’ll get things going quickly with Adam Frazier’s work. Adam’s based in Las Vegas, and used to be a musician. He felt he wasn’t good enough an improviser to continue, so he gave it up and switched to photography. He worked with a dancer named Darius Hollins to try to capture motion in an authentic way, and I think he definitely succeeded. The photographs are dope.

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I met with Adriene Hughes at Medium a few years ago, and we published her performative pictures back then. What she showed me this time was very different: images she made during a residency in the Arctic. I liked both of two sets, but preferred this group, as the naked digitality grounds it in our scary times.

I’ve seen a lot of work from up there lately, (including one project that verged on plagiarism,) and at some point, people just tune out, rather than in. I love these colors, and think it might be a more interesting take on documenting icebergs and glaciers before they disappear.

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Deb Stoner had some pictures that are not the sort of thing I’m normally into. They are beautiful images of natural objects, and I often expect more than just pretty. (I like edge, as you know.) But there is something that works here, that helps me to appreciate the flowers and branches and bugs. I give her props, and certainly don’t mind seeing soothing things like this in such a crazy week.

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Jim Graves is another photographer I’d met at Medium before. I recall our encounter as being a little strained, as I challenged him to make pictures that had a more specific vision. He came back to the table this year with a set of medium format, black and white photographs that I really enjoyed.

We talked about how he pushed his process a bit, including taking a trip to Ireland, where he made some really killer photos. I like that they play with implied narrative, and occupy the weird-but-not-creepy zone, and think you’ll like them too.

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I’m starting to realize there’s a bit of a theme today, in that much of the work is uplifting or pleasurable to look at. Sally Ann Field carries that line through with her irresistible series, “Punch Bug.” Between the immediate memory of playing the Punch Buggy game, smacking my brother Andrew in the arm, and the other memory-trigger of “Herbie the Love Bug,” this project gives me a perma-smile. I think it’s got coffee-table-book written all over it.

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Finally, we’ve got Tami Bahat. This is the first group so far that plumbs some depths, but still, it doesn’t make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Tami said she’s always felt like she belonged to another time, and here, she’s used her friends and family, in a jimmy-rigged studio, to evoke a sense of the Renaissance.

It’s hard to make work like this, because it’s easy to fall into kitschy tropes, but I love these. The symbol choices, which often required animal wranglers on her own dime, are pretty much perfect. Tami is doing well with the project, and I’m not surprised.

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More next week. Keep your head up, and see you then.

The Big 3

- - Art, From The Field

Make America Great Again.

It implies this country of ours used be great, but it’s not anymore. We’ve gone to seed, like Ron Jeremy, and only a strong man with ridiculous hair can bring us back.

Restore our luster.

Polish the family silver to a gleaming sheen. A massive shiny cock, like the Trump Tower in Chicago. (Bad example. I actually like that building.)

It’s hard not to think about Donald J Trump when you consider America. A man this delusional is still within spitting distance of the power to conduct nuclear war. That scares me more than knowing we had a President who couldn’t even pronounce the word. (Nook-u-lur. #GodblessGeorgeWBush)

Donald Trump speaks for a segment of America that has not fared well in the new Millennium. You could argue our national economy recovered from 9/11 only by absorbing crooked money into a bubble system that crashed so badly, it took down the Entire.Global.Economy.

For all of Barack Obama’s excellence, his skills were spent just getting America about back to where we were before the Twin Towers came down.

Make no mistake. America is a flawed place with a history of causing misery elsewhere. Places like Guatemala or Nicaragua. Iraq and Libya.

But despite our black marks, I still think this country is the best in the world. I really do.

Our freedoms, of speech, thought and movement, are profoundly important. Our system of regulated Capitalism, while imperfect, creates wealth and allows for entrepreneurial opportunity.

Our people, in certain cities, represent a true mix of the all cultures and races on Earth. Everyone mashed together, living parallel lives. Striving toward parallel dreams.

A nice place to live. A safe place for your family. A new 2017 Ford mustang GT, all black, tinted down.

The American Dream.

I visited Chicago, New York and LA in the last month, the three biggest cities we have, and came away thinking the US of A was in pretty good shape.

I’ll admit from the outset I did not see the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago where so many people are being killed. Nor did I check in on homeless encampments near the train tracks in LA.

I visited each place for five days or less, and mostly stuck to the city centers and art destinations. So make of that what you will, whether I had a representative enough sample to make informed judgements.

But you know I’m never short on opinions, so here we go.

Chicago has the nicest skyline of the 3 cities. Which means it has the nicest skyline in America. Hands down, the best architecture.

It’s also much cleaner than New York. That perpetual layer of grime that covers the ex-New Amsterdam is a part of its character. A gritty charm, I suppose.

But at 42, I was attracted to a beautiful American urbanscape, filled with phallic buildings, that looked so very good without the dirt.

Nice people there, too. Good Midwestern values. And you know what I think of the Lake.

I walked along the Brooklyn waterfront with my friends and our children at night. It was safe and developed, in 2016. There is a magic in the air, in New York, that you just don’t get elsewhere. I’ve felt it before, and so have you.

That feeling like your life could be in a movie at any minute. New York is soooooooo cinematic.

We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, on foot, for the first time. My daughter was on my shoulders. It was late. We dodged bikers in the narrow walker’s lane.

And I think of all three cities, that experience was the one that sticks with me now. New York is iconic on a level that’s hard to match.

But LA can do iconic too. There, the mega-architecture is less about how tall, and more about how cool. I’ve seen Frank Gehry’s Disney Center before, and didn’t get to check out the new Broad Museum. But I spent hours at the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center, and that is something that you just can’t get in New York or Chicago.

Standing in the baking sunshine, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, the city at your feet. Light glinting off travertine tile. Curved building overhangs cutting up the blue sky. World class art, for free, at your disposal for as long as you’d like to be there. (I hung out for 4.5 hours. Parking costs $15, but the museum does not charge admission.)

Speaking of museums, the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at MCA Chicago was among the best I’ve ever seen. I thought I’d have to taunt you with tales of its awesomeness, but I just read on Twitter that it’s opening this week at The Met Breuer, so you need to go see it, if you can.

I didn’t get to The Met Bruer, unfortunately. Nor have I seen the new Whitney. Instead, I went to the Morgan Library, which is underrated, and the Brooklyn Museum to see the Sports photography show. I’d heard through the grapevine, (via Bill Hunt,) that it was excellent. It seemed an odd topic for an art show, but as I love sports, I had an open mind.

It’s a killer, killer exhibition, and I fell in love with a profound portrait of Lou Gehrig in the opening room. (They don’t have the jpeg available, I’m afraid.) I saw the show with my friends Richard Bram, who used to live in London and just moved back there from NYC, and Matjaz Tancic, a Slovenian who used to live in London but is based in Beijing. (Confused?)

Anyway, the two of them were arguing, playfully, in front of a London Olympics photograph with perfect light. They were discussing the intricacies of where the photographer might have stood to get the shot. They gesticulated like a couple of Brooklyn locals bickering about where to get the best pizza.

Nearby, we saw a photograph of Olympians at the first Olympic Games in Greece in 1896. Of course I know that photography existed back then, but somehow, things like that seem more like memories or myths than simple organized activities. I was surprised at myself that something like that would seem so surprising, if that makes sense.

New Jersey had the best pizza, if I’m being honest. (And I’ll ask you to trust me.) I don’t feel much like a Jersey boy lately, but Luigi’s in Lincroft was totally brilliant. Big ups, guys.

I covered thousands of miles in the last month, and came away totally inspired. Chicago, New York and LA were fun as hell. Great art, great weather, great food. So many super-cool, interesting people.

Now that I’m home, and the road is behind me, I’d like to thank everyone I met who showed me a good time, and reminded me that we need no Orange King to make us great again.

We’re pretty fucking great already.

Thomas Pelham Curtis (American, 1873–1944). American Olympic Team at the 1896 Athens Olympics, 1896. Vintage photograph, 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (12.1 x 11.4 cm). Collection of Thomas Pelham Curtis II

Thomas Pelham Curtis (American, 1873–1944). American Olympic Team at the 1896 Athens Olympics, 1896. Vintage photograph, 4 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (12.1 x 11.4 cm). Collection of Thomas Pelham Curtis II

 

Donald Miralle (American, born 1974). Men's Beach Volleyball match between Brazil and Canada, London Olympics, The Horse Guards Parade ground, London, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm). Leucadia Photoworks Gallery, courtesy of the artist

Donald Miralle (American, born 1974). Men’s Beach Volleyball match between Brazil and Canada, London Olympics, The Horse Guards Parade ground, London, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm). Leucadia Photoworks Gallery, courtesy of the artist

Filter Photo Festival 2016 – Part 3

by Jonathan Blaustein

Allow me to gather my thoughts.

In the last month, as your emissary, I’ve been in Albuquerque, Chicago, Denver, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Albuquerque again, Los Angeles, and now San Diego.

In my 6.5 years writing for this blog, I’ve never had a travel schedule like that. My brain is like a gelatinous bowl of rice pudding, and I’ve still got a portfolio review to attend
in a few hours.

As such, I’m sitting at a hotel desk, listening to the white noise of the window-box air conditioner. Even though it’s mid-October, it was 90+ degrees in LA yesterday, and it’s meant to be a scorcher here in SD today as well. (Hola, Climate Change. Como estas?)

I wrote a column earlier this week, but it didn’t feel authentic to reality. I was trying to synopsize part of my journey, but it’s all too fresh. How can you look back on something when you’re still in it?

Take my morning run, for example. I just returned, and the sweat is still dense on my dirty black T-shirt. I was jogging down the sidewalk, minding my own business, when I saw a massive black cat sitting stock still on a postage-stamp lawn. That the home’s front porch was decorated for Halloween made his sentinel-pose all the stranger.

Next door, two puppies railed at their fence, presumably so they could harass the neighboring feline. On the same block, in front of an apartment building, strips of grass were cut into the parking spaces so that cars could sit atop a swath of green each night.

Who does that?

It’s a question that kept popping up last night, as I watched the final Presidential debate in a public auditorium at the Hammer Museum in LA. Surrounded by strangers, who treated political theater like the Jerry Springer show, I catcalled a few times myself.

Who does that?

The truth is, this has been a crazy month for the entire country. We all just want it to be over, but now the conclusion teases us with visions of skinheads pulling out their assault rifles to fuck shit up when their orange King loses the election.

Like I said, my mind is in that stream-of-consciousness state you get when you’re perpetually on the road. So perhaps I ought to pivot, like Hillary did, when she called Trump a Putin Puppet.

I laughed, like the rest of the room. I screamed out in disbelief, all the while realizing it really isn’t funny.

But pivot I will, to the last group of portfolios I saw at the Filter Festival in Chicago last month. I’ll try to gather myself to write a piece next week about the Chicago/NYC/LA triumvirate, and then we’ll be on to articles from the Medium Festival in San Diego soon enough.

As always, these portfolios are in no particular order. It is dude heavy today, but only because the first story was mostly ladies. (You know I’m big on keeping the balance.)

Jeff Philips has the distinction of doing the funniest karaoke bit I’ve ever heard. In fairness, I’ve only sang twice, but his riff on the Rapture last year was a bit of genius. This year, Jeff had a review with me, and I liked his new series photographing from within death metal mosh pits. (Better him than me.)

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I didn’t actually meet Rachel Cox at Filter, though apparently we just missed each other several times. She followed up right after the festival to see if I’d take a look, and of course I loved her pictures about the end of her grandmother’s life. Sometimes, work needs a bit of context, (or actual text,) to make sense. Not so here. These photos are dynamite.

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Alan Thomas had some large-format work shot in Calcutta. As he publishes books at the University of Chicago, I assumed he’d be a craftsman, and so he is. I thought these pictures shared an aesthetic with much I’ve seen in Hong Kong, or elsewhere in Asia, but capturing India this way was new to me. (They’re so well-made.)

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Ben Altman showed me a project that I’d first seen on Critical Mass last year. I wrote to him afterwards, as I was so impressed with the insanely-ambitious/batshit-crazy idea he had to dig a ceremonial mass grave in his own backyard.

No lie!

To make it even more ridiculous, he also built a faux guard tower. In his own backyard? With his own hands? It takes some massive balls to do a thing like that. I think the stark, black and white photographs of his installation are super-powerful as well. (I know there are a lot, but I think there’s a poetry to the long edit.)

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Cruising through the portfolio walk at Filter, I came across Max Cozzi’s prints. In a room filled with work, they jumped off the table. Max photographs in the Upper Midwest, and I thought his combination of color and clarity was extremely engaging.

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Tom Wagner is a long-time photojournalist, and has photographed in North Korea many times before. I know it was a hot topic last year, photographically, but I like that these pictures have a bit of sparkle from a place I imagine to be rather grim.

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

photo copyright ©2016 tom wagner, all moral rights asserted

Finally, I met up with Andre Avenessian, as we’d done a review together at Filter 2015. Back then, I told him his work was not nearly as visceral and engaging as the stories he was telling me. I challenged him to up his game.

On the last day of Filter, he busted out this group of new pictures, which he makes to approximate his vision of Hell. As in, the actual place. He is Armenian, and grew up in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity, so it as always felt real to him.

As Halloween is coming up, I think these freaky-ass pictures will be just right to end this series. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I did hook him up with Rebecca Memoli. Scary-fetishes are best shared, I think.)

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Hasta la vista, and wish me luck, as I’ve got miles to go before I sleep.

Filter Photo Festival 2016 – Part 2

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

This semester, I’ve got a few students who are into horror. (The genre.) They don’t like actual horror, of course, but prefer to simulate the emotions through entertainment.

Personally, I don’t get it. Back in my early 20’s, I watched a few of the “Scream” films, but after “The Blair Witch Project,” I swore that shit off forever.

Lots of people love the experience of being scared to death, but I don’t understand the impulse.

Weird stuff, I appreciate. By now you know this, as I’ve shown any number of edgy portfolios over the last 5 years. Kooky, odd, discomfiting, strange, I can handle.

But the outright grotesque? Joel-Peter Witkin? There, I draw the line. In fact, I skipped his lecture at the Filter Photo Festival, when I was in Chicago, because I have enough of his images stuck in my head, thank you very much.

So with that as background, as I stood in front of photographer Rebecca Memoli at the tail end of the portfolio walk at Filter, at 10pm on a Saturday, I had little patience for being scared.

Next to none.

I reviewed Rebecca’s work at Filter last year, and then exhibited a few of her prints at the college gallery I was running at UNM-Taos. She had delicate flowers in hand-made vases of meat. The juxtaposition was engaging, and the students loved it.

But after Rebecca showed me a scary-monster picture the other week, when I was moments away from retiring to bed, I was a little put-off. It wasn’t that nasty, the picture, but my over-tired brain needed to shut down, not absorb DARK FORCES OF EVIL.

I politely told Rebecca I was done for the night, but she demurred, holding a red shoe box. (The following quotes are a paraphrase. It’s pretty damn close to what she said, but I’m writing it this way for narrative effect.)

“Don’t you want to see what’s in this box,” she asked?

“No. No, I don’t.”

“Sure you do,” she replied, and then she shook the box. Shake, shake, shake.

“No, I really don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” Shake, shake, shake.

“Listen, I really need to go to bed. I’m exhausted. I’ve seen 30 portfolios today. I’m done. And after that last monster picture, I really don’t need anything else like that in my head. No thank you.”

“I think you do.” Shake, shake, shake.

“I’m going to get rude here in a minute. I’m trying to be polite, but you’re making me a bit angry.”

Shake, shake, shake.

“I don’t want to see anything scary. Disturbing I can probably handle.”

Shake, shake, shake.

“Fine, give it over then. I’ll look, and then I’m leaving,” I said.

She handed over the box. Apparently, the “art” story is that they’re found materials, but since I know her, she admitted that it was all staged, and that the rabbit-woman was done up in professional makeup.

The rabbit-woman?

Now, my kids’ favorite movie is Wallace and Gromit’s “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” so I’m not offended by the idea of a human-bunny hybrid. But the set of 5 Polaroids I saw were like nothing I’ve seen before. (That will always get you written about.)

The rabbit-woman was on all fours, on a bed, with her ass popped up like she had just had rabbit coitus. In at least one version, the makeup smeared in her butt-crack to simulate blood was Just. Too. Much.

Those pictures burned into my retinas, as I was afraid they would. But Rebecca was right. It’s not a scary picture. Just depraved and wrong. (The so-wrong-it’s-right kind of wrong.)

Rob and I agreed that it was too NSFW to publish, but we’re OK with linking to it on her website. Right here. But be warned. If you are disgusted by the idea of a sexed-up rabbit-woman, then just keep on reading the article.

There were plenty of other artists to write about at Filter, and it was exciting to see so many different styles of photography.

John Steck, Jr was a Chicago photographer friendly with the Filter crew, and like Victor Yañez-Lascano last year, multiple people told me I had to see John’s work. He exposes photo paper in the sun, never drops it in chemistry, and then lets the resulting images fade away into nothing.

Unlike the Phil Chang project I wrote about earlier this summer, you’re not looking at straight black paper. Rather, we see colors and haunting imagery shimmer as they fade. Gorgeous stuff, without a doubt.

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Lois Bielefeld showed me 3 projects that all had a conceptual hook. The first was actually portraits of families eating weeknight dinner in their homes. (M-Thurs only.) I thought the work was good, but not perfectly resolved in execution or concept. The last project I saw, in which she accompanies people on evening walks, was the best. They’re very cool images.

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Stephanie Brunia had a couple of projects that had a nice blend of absurdity and pathos. In one, she mashes her body up against an ex-beau. The other, which focuses on her aging father, seemed to push in two directions at once. (Funny and earnest) I’m curious to see where she’ll take it.

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Eva Kelety had the distinction of showing me pictures that I was not kind about in person, but like rabbit-woman, they stuck in my head after the fact. Eva, who is from Vienna, was shooting urban-scapes. I felt the style was a bit derivative, though I did complement her exceptional grayscale—rendered-in-color palette.

Right before I saw the rabbit-woman, Eva showed me a little booklet that had a different edit than the portfolio she showed me at the review table. It made more sense, and then the images stayed with me, so hopefully you’ll like them as well.

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Finally, Daniel McInnis brought a set of tack-sharp portraits made of creative-types. I thought the work was good, and certainly the technique was strong. (Though I recommended he push the drama with some of his lighting.) He’s currently beginning a project looking at Syrian refugees re-settled in Ohio, and I think he might have something great on his hands.

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That’s it for today. We’ll have one more set of Filter portfolios, and then I’ll have some thoughts from my trip to NYC. LA and San Diego are up next week, so lots of juicy content ahead throughout the Fall.