Interview With Ariel Shanberg, Center for Photography at Woodstock

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

Ariel Shanberg: I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(click images for larger version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: You mean their parents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Blaustein Acquisitions

APE contributor Jonathan Blaustein told me about acquisitions of his work by the State of New Mexico and Library of Congress. I wanted him to write about it, because like me I’m sure many of you are curious how this whole process works. He was reluctant to write about it and be too self-congratulatory on the blog (he is paid to write for APE), so I asked him a few questions instead.

APE: Tell me what the acquisitions were?

JB: The State of New Mexico recently purchased a unique portfolio of the entire “Value of a Dollar” project for the State’s permanent Public Art collection, at market value. The Library of Congress purchased a portfolio of the project as well, from the 16×20 edition,  which will reside in its permanent archive, and be accessible to the public online and in person, I believe.  I’ll be delivering the work to them in the next month or so, so it’s not in their database yet.

APE: Can you give me a brief background on how you got into fine art photography? What was your path to get where you are now?

JB: I picked up a camera for no particular reason back in 1996. I was moving back to New Mexico from New York, and bought some black & white film before I took a solo cross country drive through the South. I was hooked immediately, and decided to go back to school to study photography at UNM, since I was a state resident, and it was cheap. The program was fine art based, and I studied with Tom Barrow and Patrick Nagatani, who were both steeped in conceptualism. So from the beginning, I used photography as a means of creative expression. After Albuquerque, I lived in San Francisco and started showing my work in local galleries and art spaces. From there, I moved back to New York to get an MFA at Pratt, which totally rocks, and then came back to New Mexico in 2005. I’ve been fortunate that we have a great collection of talent, resources and photographic institutions out here.

APE: I know nothing about acquisitions, so tell me how important they are to fine art photographers?

JB: I think most artists would like to have their work collected by museums and institutions.  It offers credibility, and the opportunity for the public to actually interact with your work.  Also, it’s tough to sell work nowadays, so public acquisitions can be a great source of income. In this case, the size of the two acquisitions was equivalent any of the biggest grants or fellowships around, so now I’ll be able to pay the bills, and catch my breath for the first time in a long while.

blausteindollar

APE: What is the process like, how do you get on someone’s radar for an acquisition? Walk me through what happened to you in these cases?

JB: Well, as I wrote last year, I attended the Review Santa Fe portfolio review in 2009 and 2010.  The first year, people really liked “The Value of a Dollar,” but nothing popped.  Last year, there seemed to be a bit more buzz around the project. I had a twenty minute review with Josh Haner, an editor for the New York Times Lens Blog, and he said he’d like to publish the work on the spot. I also had a review with Verna Curtis, a curator from the Library of Congress, who was really taken with the series.  She said she’d like to figure out a way to acquire it for the collection, but that it would take a while to sort out the logistics. So I followed her instructions as to how to stay in touch, and it played out over the course of six or seven months.

The State of New Mexico purchase came out of a great program that we have here that’s run by an organization called New Mexico Arts. Each year, they buy work from New Mexico artists through the Art in Public Places acquisition program. They put out an online call for entries, and I submitted some work. A friend who’d been funded before suggested that I email some of the staff directly to introduce myself and get some advice, so I did. As a result, the director of the program ended up on my email list.

Last fall, the New York Times followed through and published “The Value of a Dollar” on the Lens Blog. The story went viral immediately, and I had 500,000 hits to my website within a week. It was unexpected, and totally insane. I sent out an email blast about the Lens Blog publication and the viral mania, and the AIPP program manager responded to my email, saying he’d like to talk about acquiring a portfolio of the work.  It took 5 months of patient follow up, and then I got the meeting in February of this year.  We negotiated and shook hands on a deal that day, and it was all wrapped up within a couple of months.

APE: What’s next? Obviously, like with commercial and editorial photography, success begets success so how do you capitalize on this?

JB: It’s a good question. I’m hoping the momentum continues, but it’s tough out there. Like everyone else, I’d really like to get the photographs on the wall in New York.  It’s the center of the Art world, obviously, as well as the rest of the photo industry.  But lately, my primary focus has been on making new work. I’ve been busting it out in the studio since January on a follow up project so I can take advantage of the publicity, and the fact that people will probably pay attention to what comes next.  It seemed important to come up with a new idea that would be as good or better than the last, so that I don’t end being the Dollar guy like some early 80’s one hit wonder. I’d also like to establish a solid relationship with a dealer in one of the prime art markets, like New York, LA, London or Berlin.

Really, I think that many art photographers are trying to re-evaluate what success even means in 2011 (See Aline Smithson’s recent post on Lenscratch).  This photo series connected with countless people across the planet through the Internet, and the ideas have continued to resonate.  So I’m also asking myself if my goals should extend beyond the gallery and museum wall, into a more active role within the politics of food.

Cash Rules The Conceptual Art World

by Jonathan Blaustein

Conceptual Art gets a bad rap in the photo world. It’s easy to understand why. A colleague of mine in graduate
school once made an 8 ft white pedestal that she called “My ideas are above you,” and I think that about sums it up. Many photographers equate the art world with inane video installations backed by dense press releases packed with large words that bludgeon the average viewer.

I must say, I find the whole divide a bit tedious. I once had a respected photo professional comment that he liked my photographs, but had no use for them because he didn’t like conceptual photography. And look no further than the recent E-debate about the brilliant photographic-artist Thomas Demand. “Is he a photographer?” Does it even matter? For the record, I’ll call anyone who clicks the shutter a photographer. And that includes my mom, who can’t seem to figure out the auto-focus on her $100 Nikon.

The art world plays by a different set of rules, and I think that can boil photographers’ blood. Artists view everything as fair game. The rules are there are no rules. And this can often lead to sophomoric bullshit, like Vito Acconci jerking off beneath the floorboards. Or Richard Prince so blatantly ripping off some Jamaican portraits, slapping them on canvas, and marking the images up 10,000%. Then he had the gall to claim it was his right, as the source material wasn’t creative or original enough to merit copyright protection. Seriously? That’s like the school bully stealing your bologna sandwich and then taking a crap on it in front of the whole school.

Conversely, I think his thievery of Sam Abell’s Marlboro Man was pretty excellent. Those photographs, at least Prince’s, had the stones to criticize the Cigarette industry, and corporate America writ large. They critiqued America as nothing more than a facade of the Wild West propped in front of a bunch of fat cats drinking single malt scotch and lighting their cigars with dollar bills. And while I’m sure Mr. Abell was upset, and many people continue to bitch about said appropriation, let’s face it, even Don Draper figured out that dealing with Big Tobacco leads to bad karma.

Speaking of dollar bills, I’m very curious about the new show opening up at the Guggenheim Museum in New York later this month. (May 20 to November 2, to be exact). Hans-Peter Feldmann was awarded the Hugo Boss prize last year, which bestowed upon him this show, and a cash prize as well. A $100,000 cash prize to be exact. Mr. Feldmann is a German multi-media artist who sometimes uses photography. Is he a photographer? Well, he once did a photo project called “Pictures of car radios while good music was playing, ” and another called “All the clothes of a woman,” which was a series of photos about…take a guess. He also showed “100 Years,” at MOMA/PS1 a few years back,  a series of 101 photographic portraits of people, aged 8 months to 100 years.

For the Guggenheim exhibition, Mr. Feldmann is exhibiting his booty for all the world to see. 100,000 used $1 bills, pinned vertically to the wall. Boo-yah. I wish I had the time to photograph the line of ticket buyers who’ll plunk down $18 to go stare at 100 Grand. To be honest, I’d love to go  see it for myself. It’s an audacious, elegant idea, certain to offend. But it’s also so gosh-darn honest. The art world reeks of money and power. I think this sense of exclusivity is what pisses so many people off. So Mr. Feldmann is really just documenting his life, like when Nan Goldin started shooting photos of fancy, pretty people galavanting around Europe. No more, no less.

LUCEO Images And The Future Of Photojournalism

Jonathan Blaustein interviews Matt Slaby co-founder of LUCEO images:

JB: I’d like to have a conversation with you about LUCEO, the co-operative that you formed a few years ago. And I know, on behalf of Rob, he would like us to talk about what people consider to be the collective model, and the role that you think its going to play in the future of photojournalism, editorial photography, and commercial photography. The goal is to see if I can get some insight for the audience, and learn some things that will be helpful to them. Maybe you could start by giving us a cursory sense of what the impetus was for you guys to get together.

MS: We started –relatively informally –in December of 2007. David Banks wrote a note to several of us, suggesting an idea that was essentially a collective model in nature, and the idea was to get together to see what we could come up with as a group to move our interest in photography forward.

JB: How did you know him?

MS: Through following his work online. I guess I’ve known him since maybe 2005 or ’06, somewhere in there.

JB: So you were aware of his work, and then he got it in his head to reach out to some people, including you.

MS: Yeah. And then, for me, it was the fourth one of these that I’d been a part of, where somebody had put out an agenda of something that they wanted to do by pooling resources to accomplish a specific goal that they set forward. The first three of these all had similar problems.

JB: Had other members of LUCEO been through other startups, like you had? Were you the only one who had been through this process?

MS: I think in any kind of formal way, yes. I think that people had been involved with different kinds of groups in the past, but just in terms of trying to move stuff forward, or groups that were trying to get things organized. I’d been invited into different formations of these. And so you have problems. You have problems of power, where you have one person that ends up doing all the work, and a lot of people that are just sort of there. You have problems of finance. How do you fund this stuff? It’s a nice idea, but how do you get people to pay in when they’re not necessarily as invested as other people. Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. I’m with you so far. Obviously, power dynamics are a fascinating function of human social interaction. I think any time you create a group of people with a common goal, anticipating problems with power dynamics is something that I imagine you thought of early on. One would imagine rules and bylaws become important quickly. Is that a safe assumption?

MS: Yes. These are some of the failings of the first three groups I was a part of. So I suggested that we all fly to a central location, because the first thing you need from people is their personal investment in the project. Whatever it is. Just taking the initiative to purchase a plane ticket, to set aside the schedule, and to go somewhere, invests people in a way that is so much different than just sending an email back and forth saying “This is a great idea, I really like it.” Because we all have the power to say that. We do it all the time. But committing to something is important.

So we all flew to one central location, we locked ourselves in for a week, and we started to outline some of these problems. We started to identify components of our ideology. We wrote out a mission statement, which is more or less driven by what all of us in the room at that time could get on the same page about. Because there are certain things that we don’t agree on, but there are certain things that we do. So you focus all that energy on the places where you have common ground. In addition to the commitment that people had showed by flying somewhere and setting the time aside. It adds to how the team gets built.

JB: It was your idea to create a structure where there was almost a buy-in. Nobody was going to get a seat at the table if they weren’t willing to bring themselves to this location. So that created a test as to how serious people were about it.

MS: I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily my idea. It was my experience of problems in the past, so it was a way we, as a group, chose to address some of those problems. To all fly somewhere and lock ourselves into a place.

JB: That part is easy to understand. I’m sure one could surmise the failures from the previous incarnations you’re talking about came from power issues. Money and power. So you guys get together and focus on the things that are important to you. I would love to hear some specifics. What did you find that you agreed upon? What was important?

MS: The first thing we needed to do was outline an ideology. What do we think is important, and how are we going to go forward. On a basic, logistical level, we needed to figure out how to divide labor. If we have six people together in one place, how do we know that everyone is doing an equal amount of work? So that one person doesn’t take all of the burden, but then everyone else gets to receive all the benefit. That leads to long-term problems. So dividing labor was an important thing.

Figuring out a system of accountability was important. One of the problems in any informal, particularly collective structure, is it’s so loose in nature that nobody is necessarily accountable to anybody else. So we had to figure out a system of accountability. We had to figure out a system of goals. The way we look at goals is both short and long-term goals. What can we accomplish right now, and then six months from now, a year from now, and then ten years from now. We look at those as being important things to keep in mind.

And the last thing we do is figure out how we evaluate that progress. When you’re working on a task, and you’re slogging through it very slowly, it’s very difficult to measure those inches that you’ve gone. Because you’re always right in the middle of it. So every six months, we take a moment at the beginning of our business meetings to look back at the last six months and say, “What did we set out as our goals? How many of those did we accomplish? What were the successes as we were working towards those goals, and what were the failures? Because the successes we can take notes on as something we want to continue in the future. But the most important part of that system is the failures, right? Being able to correct errors as you go along…to me, that’s the most critical thing. To have enough intellectual honesty and mobility to be self-critical. To look at those errors and then correct for them or build to go forward.

JB: I couldn’t agree more. I find myself saying that often. It makes sense. One can sort of piece together the fact that a group of like-minded individuals came together, both for a sense of community, and to share the costs and burdens of doing business. A lot of people would say, “OK. I get it. I can do that.” Clearly, there are many, many, many photographers out there who are contemplating trying to do what you guys have done. I think that’s a given. So we could sit here and talk about what the by-laws were, and what the structure is, and some of that is going to be proprietary information and some of it isn’t. But I think what’s more interesting, for me, is trying to get a sense of what those goals and ideologies are.

You guys click the shutter. I click the shutter. Everybody clicks the shutter. Especially now. Everybody, everybody. So if we’re back in that house in Atlanta, with pizza boxes everywhere, and testosterone, and maybe some naivete, what were you talking about? How did you want to move forward with your vision.

MS: I don’t know about the testosterone part.

JB: (laughing) Fine. No testosterone.

MS: At a basic level, one of the things that came out early on was that this is a craft that we all love to do. In talking to you, my primary vocation is as a photographer, not as a businessman just dealing in this abstract idea. I’m not selling widgets. I’m really interested in selling something that I love, and that I love to do. That was the thing that I felt most drawn to in the other people in the room at the time, and as we’ve expanded and changed as an organization, the common thread is that it’s a feeling that everyone shares. Being a photographer is not a choice. It’s not like choosing to be a CPA. It’s not like it offers some financial freedom, and so you go off and make the professional choice to be a CPA.

Photography is an imperative. So for us, what we were looking at at the time was we were looking at a market that didn’t look promising to support our relatively young careers. I think, rewinding in my head a bit, just going through a lot of the banter on all of the different channels out there, this is right at the time when a lot of newspapers were folding. And if they’re not folding, they’re folding up their photo staff. So one of the traditional entry level avenues for photographers was not looking like a viable option (if you really want to do what you love). You remember that? Maybe you don’t because you weren’t doing editorial photography at the time, right?

JB: Remember what? That everyone was pulling their hair out and going out of business? Sure. It think everyone knows that. The digital revolution has impacted creative industries across the board. Maybe we’ll touch on it right now. Maybe now’s the time to talk about it. The first couple of interviews that I did focused on the theme of fearlessness, and being willing to take risks in a time of great change and uncertainty. I know I did. I wasn’t visualizing this interview as an extension of that series, but maybe it really is. If you were to speak for your colleagues, you guys, and I know Kendrick is a woman, so forgive me if I just say guys, but the LUCEO members looked at a situation of uncertainty, and fear, and careers evaporating, and you guys decided to look for elements of opportunity. I would imagine your founding was intrinsically linked to the economic collapse, and the collapse of the industry, no?

MS: Right. I say this a lot. I worked for a guy, years ago, and I thought he was just a redneck. Horrible, horrible piece of shit of a dude. But he said something all the time that I still think is relevant. So he would say it to us in the context of someone wanting to do something that wasn’t possible at the time. For example. “I want to have lunch.” And he would say to us, (deep voice) “You know what, Slaby. You want to have lunch? Well, you can shit into one hand and wish for lunch in the other and see which fills up quickest. You know?” (laughing)

JB: (laughing) That is so good.

MS: He was such a terrible human being on so many levels. But the thing about it was, he approached things on a hyper-realisitic level. So the little gem was the one thing that I can take away from working for that guy that is applicable, sometimes, in life. And a lot of times it is applicable when things are changing in a direction that you don’t necessarily want them to. At that point, you kind of have a couple of choices. You can sit, and shit in your hand, as he said, which doesn’t do anything, or you can figure out a way to really go after the problem. In which case, you still aren’t going to have lunch, but you can figure out what your options are. Which is to work until you get lunch.

In the case of the industry, what I felt, and what other folks felt at the time, was that the industry could sit and talk about all of these things that they wanted to have happen, that they wanted to see certain things come back, and certain ways of business come back, even certain formats, right? Film. We want to see film come back 100%. But it wasn’t the reality on the ground level. So you’re left with a certain set of tools, and that’s what’s right in front of you at the time. And how you choose to approach that –that’s a business question.

This is what I meant by error correction earlier on. When we look at what our goals were, when we evaluate them, when we look at what we made mistakes on, and what we did successfully. The error correction is the important part. Because it’s how you look at those tools that are right in front of you, and correct the errors that were being made before to make something go forward. To paint a picture, that’s the reality that we had in front of us at the time.

We only had a limited amount of tools. We had a limited budget, limited access to clients and to people, we had a changing market, a changing group of clients, a changing wave of information. A lot of factors in the agency world hadn’t changed in 30 or 40 years. Technology has totally outstripped how that model worked. The example that I give all the time is that, if you’re working for an agency –and I mean a very traditional agent –somebody who has a lot of photographers underneath them, and presents them to clients.

You go back to 1970, and you’re photographing in a foreign, developing world, and you’re photographing on analog film. There’s a certain set of ground level factors that drive how that market works. It’s analog film. You can’t digitally transmit anything to anybody at that time. You take the film out of the camera, you label it, you give it to a courier, the courier goes to an airport, gets on a plane, hands it off to another courier, that courier gets on another plane and flies it over to New York, and it just keeps going, the system does, until it gets back to the agent, who prints out proofs, prints out cards, stamps his name on the back of it, it has his telephone number on it, he has to be at the desk, at the phone right there, because that’s where all of the business comes in. There’s no such thing as cell phones or Internet, and mail moves too slow. He’s supporting this gigantic overhead of all these analog pieces, in order just to get a picture from a photographer straight to the client. And so this agent has figured out this very costly system to solve that problem. The client finally calls the phone number on the back of the card that was distributed, or the agent gets on the phone and actually starts actively selling people that he knows. That’s how business is done.

JB: Right. But that business is also information dissemination. You just described what sounds like the Silk Road compared to 2011, for information dissemination. What you’re saying, is in your experience creating your co-operative, you were looking very clearly at the fact that the existing agency model for an almost comically different system to disseminate information. And therefore could not possibly be as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

MS: It could be if it made certain changes, but there are certain things that didn’t happen. The percentage cut didn’t change. That percentage cut supports an enormous overhead. And that never changed. But certain things did, to make stuff cheaper and more efficient. And that’s best exemplified by the fact that the two of us are literally talking to each other from several hundred miles away over a video chat.

JB: No doubt.

MS: And this is free. This costs us nothing other than our Internet connection. These are tools. This is not the only tool available to people who are in business…

JB: Of course. We all love to say, “I’m a photographer. I love to photograph.” You said you guys got started as a group because you all love to photograph. But there was nothing standing in your way of taking pictures. You guys wanted to get paid for your time, and to get paid for your efforts.

MS: I actually want to interrupt you on that point. I know where you’re going with it, but I just want to correct the course a little bit. There’s nothing standing in your way of taking pictures, but for the fact that photography, unlike sketching with charcoal, is an expensive, expensive thing to do. And without that money coming in…surely there will be photographers reading this in this position, and we all know photographers who are in this position, they’re taking on enormous amounts of personal debt, enormous amounts of personal risk, just to be able to continue making those pictures. And that’s nice, and it puts the photographer in sort of the starving artist/victim role, but it doesn’t really answer the fundamental question: how does a photographer make enough money to fund significant works throughout a full, 30-year career?

Significant bodies of work happen because photographers have the opportunity to produce over long periods of time. They have a career where they refine and develop their craft, where they get to look at things critically and get to hone whatever their style and message. If you look at the cost over that period of time, you have to have some sort of revenue stream coming in. It can’t just be the credit card. It can’t just be the loan, or this idea that somewhere down the road, you’re going to be discovered and it’s going to make everything OK.

This is where several important things come together. The idea that photography is important, that we love to produce photographs, and that we want to continue working as photographers. Those are the goals. So how do you take good business practices to support that? And that’s where we take off from.

JB: OK. There are so many ways to talk about photography. I think visual communication is obviously the key element. But a lot of people love to focus on the story, and storytelling. So you’re a bunch of image maker/story tellers who want to be able to support that practice. And you decide that you want to come up with a, if not new, updated system of business practices to be able to get work and get paid for your endeavors. What were some of the decisions that you all made that are distinct from what other people are doing?

MS: One of the things that we did is we just backed off from the whole question, we just said, outside how this has been done in the past, let’s just look at business across the board. How do other people in business and other industries answer these questions. One of the things that I think was immediately apparent, and our primary focus is really marketing each others work…

JB: Through the Web. Through the Internet.

MS: Not just the Web. The Internet is just one means that we use. We have several mailers that go out each year. We have an email system of marketing that we maintain. We have our social media. Which is huge. Hugely important. Through Facebook and Twitter that reaches a particular audience. We look at our audience as broadly. For example: Who’s buying the product? Who’s a student that may move into the position where either they’re a photographer that we’re interested in, or end up in a position to hire us? Who falls into the fan category? You don’t have to just reach the person who’s purchasing from you to make an impression. So we have those avenues, which are traditional.

But then, for the last couple of years, we’ve done a gallery show, a group exhibition that’s been hugely successful. Both years, standing room only. The first year we did it with MJR collective, where we put together our photographers and their photographers in a space, and brought in different buyers and different photographers for the evening. Then we did it again this year, and we had a panel discussion ahead of time. On the panel we had Bess Greenberg, the gallerist from 25 CPW who hosted the event. We had Brian Clamp, of ClampArt, the curator for the show. James Estrin from the New York Times Lens Blog sat on the panel, and Paul Moakely of TIME Magazine sat on the panel.

In addition to getting to showcase our work, we also had this component where it was important for people who are into photography and interested in seeing where it’s headed be able to come into listen to people who were in a position to talk about it. That was in the dead of winter in New York City, and during the panel part of it, we literally had people standing out in the cold, because there was no room to come in to listen from inside. So that’s an important piece.

JB: You guys are in a position where you have, literally, not metaphorically, been anointed the future of photojournalism by, as you said, James Estrin from the New York Times. Your opinions are solicited everywhere. It seems to me that the primary reason for that is that the model that you guys are using has enabled you to work a lot. I know that most, if not all of you, are working consistently for major publications. So all of a sudden, everyone, including myself, wants to talk to you as if you have all the answers. So the idea that people would be literally pushing each other out of the way in their big, heavy coats, to me it connects right back to why we’re having this conversation. Which is: people want to figure out how to pay the bills and they think that you have the answers. I would imagine it’s a difficult position to be in…

MS: It’s not an answer though. We talk about it in our group a lot. A lot of times we run up against a problem where we want a quick solution. Where we want something to happen tomorrow. But the truth of the matter is that anything that’s important in life, whether it’s business or personal, there’s no such thing as a magic bullet that solves all of your problems. It takes work and it takes making mistakes. Again. The best answer that we have now is that we’re open to making those mistakes, and when we make them, we really work to correct them or to improve upon them. Error correction more so than a course of action.

JB: Do you think that that is common knowledge? I talked about self-awareness and self-criticality in each of the interviews that I’ve done. Yet I wonder whether other people place the same value you do on the opportunity of failure. What do you think about that?

MS: Again, I’m going to talk in big, general terms about where I think photographers have been. I think there’s been a cultural emphasis on the photographer as a lone wolf. That’s a real draw. That’s why people get into this profession is because there is this…

JB: Competitive people as well.

MS: Sure. But the photographer operates independent of everything else. They’re out there on the fringes, on the edge of whatever it is. We just deal with photography as a sub-culture, we value that.

JB: The distanced observer.

MS: Exactly. We value that. Part of the problem is that as we tip into 2012, which the UN is calling the year of the co-operative, as we tip into these more collaborative times, when we have all these tools to collaborate, it’s becoming more and more of a challenge to be that person, to really be that lone wolf, an isolated person, and still make forward steps. Because one of the things we’ve found is that by working together, by funding ourselves together, and by dividing up our tasks so that we can minimize labor, we can maximize specialization in terms of what we do. We can make bigger steps than if we’re just one person working. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go and shoot your pictures as an isolated person. It just means, in my opinion, that you have to draw the line between how you’re shooting and how you’re running your business. Keep those two things very separate. One supports the other.

JB: Historically, artists and/or creative types have a reputation for left brain thinking, and maybe not being quite as skilled or astute in business practices. It seems like, certainly in today’s market, one needs to be equally adept at both. I’m looking at you, and you’re not rolling your eyes or anything, but…

MS: I’m thinking.

JB: So where do you see people going wrong. What would you say are some of the most common misconceptions about how to handle the business aspects of having a successful photographic career?

MS: This is where it gets too judgmental, right? I don’t want to judge someone who’s been doing this for 20 or 30 years and doing it successfully, because obviously they’ve figured out something that works for them. It’s the same thing, but the place where it seems the most problematic is where the error correction stops. The assumption that doing the same thing will give you the same results in spite of the fact that the situation on the ground changed. The digital age is here. I don’t just mean digital photography. The tools that we have to reach clients and communicate with each other, how we find and close sales, it’s all here. The idea that doing the same thing we were doing in 1985 is somehow going to net the same results in 2011 is problematic. So it really is in the error correction. The ability to be self-critical.

JB: So you guys are a group of like-minded photographers, you get along, you set up a system that thusfar has been working for you. Let’s talk about everyone who is going to try to ape that model. When you and I first started talking about this interview, you were very specific about the fact that LUCEO was a co-operative and not a collective. I’m curious to see how you view the distinction, and then I’m curious to see what you think others can do to succeed without impinging upon your successful practice.

MS: This is our opinion. The idea of a collective is a loose-knit group of people that put their work in the same place. The clear objectives aren’t necessarily there. It’s a collection of material. Outside of photography, the idea of a collective seems to be hamstrung by certain things, like the idea that all voting has to be by consensus. There is no formal voting procedure.

A collective is inherently informal, and I’m sure that’s going to piss off somebody who’s reading this. Somebody else will say that they have a collective model and that what I’m saying is not the case. I’m sure that that exists. But, for us, not only do we want to put our material in the same place, but we have a central mission and a central purpose for doing that. We have a real clear procedure for how we vote and how we move forward. We have a real clear procedure for accountability. We have those internal workings that actually make us do the root of that word: co-operate. To work together to accomplish a common set of goals. That’s what a co-operative is about.

JB: And the long term goal for you guys is then clear. Each of you wants to be able to have a photographic career of multiple decades where you can learn and grow, and your vision can evolve over time. And you can be compensated as such.

MS: Specifically to support significant work of our members and significant photographic work outside of the organization. Part of what we’ve developed over the last year is a whole separate fund which addresses just that question. In addition to how we raise money for our regular budget, we also take a percentage from the commissions of all of our members, each month, and put it into a separate project fund that supports our photographers inside of the group, and also supports photographers outside of the group. Coming up, we’re going to do our second Student Project Award that will be announced at LOOK3 this year. We’ve also been dabbling in some of these crowdfunding ideas. We’re taking money out to offer a little each month, saying, “Hey, we like what you’re doing, here’s some support.”

JB: (Deep voice) Here you go, kid. Here’s $20. Don’t spend it all in one place.

MS: But there’s truth to that. You’ve got to support as you can. So we’ve figured out how to do that. We’ve got a budget for outside of the group, as well as inside. The fund is built, and then our members can apply for very specific purposes.

JB: Just to ask clearly, and maybe you were about to say this, but if we’re talking about this and you’re saying that you guys are open to funding outside projects, then you can bet that as a result of this conversation, you’re going to get emails.

MS: Go to the About tab on our website, and that’s the easiest way to find out about this program. The Student Project Award is prominently featured, but we also do a chunk of funding on a monthly basis through Flattr, and we’re discussing stepping into a third realm as well for project-based ideas. The easiest way for someone to receive direct funding for us would be to sign up for Flattr. Then send us your project through Facebook, or send us a tweet, and we can take a look at it. If it’s what we want to Flattr for that month, then we will.

JB: You’re putting your money where your mouth is.

MS: You have to. Because it truly is important to us.

JB: I’m not sure if people are aware, but you’re a lawyer. So LUCEO, as an organization, has an in-house lawyer. And I have to ask, given how expensive legal fees can be, so obviously that’s an inherent advantage for you. But if we’re talking about the people who are going to try to create similar organizations, do you think that it becomes prohibitively expensive for a group of photographers to be able to hire a lawyer on a regular basis.

MS: That’s obviously one way that we save money, but just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean that that’s where all the savings are taking place. They take place across all of the different tasks that we have. Social media, marketing, human resources, web development, these things are all costly, and they’re things that we’ve been able to divide up and keep largely in-house. We contract out for very specific things, but the project management tends to stay in house.

When it comes to what does a lawyer does, my role in the group is largely administrative –it’s the skills that I’ve picked up from law school –and the basic business sense that you get from being in law school. Doing the finances, working out how budgeting works, and administrative stuff regarding how our business gets set up. The nice thing about being in the United States right now is that we’re a society that values business and we tend to believe that business is something that shouldn’t be prohibitively costly to set up. And, generally speaking, it’s not. So it’s something that people have done for a lot longer than we’ve been alive

JB: So you’re division of labor is such, within the co-operative, that people are using their existing skill-sets and areas of expertise. Therefore, to those people who are considering trying to build something along those lines, that would be something that is important to pay attention to. Which is, how can I collect a group of people who have specific skill-sets on top of being talented photographers.

MS: Specific skill-sets are important. Also the openness and the ability to learn. One of the things that we do, if we don’t know how to do something, we’re really good at taking measures to learn how to do it ourselves. Or to learn what we need to do to minimize its cost. It lets us specialize. My workflow isn’t spread across 100 tasks a day –which, if you’re running your own solo business, that’s what it is. My tasks are really focused on a narrow set of things. The same way that Kendrick and David and Matt and Daryl and Kevin’s tasks are focused. Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. We’re talking about capitalism and business as much as we’re talking about photography, which I think is important. Specialization of skills, breaking tasks down, that’s straight out of Henry Ford. That built America. And what you guys are talking about is just that. We are a business, we are an organization, we are a corporation, essentially, of photographers that support our own work. There are costs associated with having every aspect of a business practice, and you guys splitting up the costs, splitting up the work, and creating a very strict set of rules that guide the organization.

So I appreciate that you’ve been generous with your time, and we’ve certainly covered a lot of ground in this interview. But is there something that you’d like to talk about, something that’s interesting to you, that we haven’t had the opportunity to discuss?

MS: You know, starting out with how we founded LUCEO, how we came about, is not that germane to where we are right now. Because there’s a point where we went from being an idea to something that was very real. And that happens not in December of 2007, but over the course of time.

JB: Well, I asked you a question at the start, and I’m willing to admit it was an obvious question. In a linear narrative, you start at the beginning. So let’s talk about what you want to talk about. If it’s not that interesting how you started, what’s more interesting?

MS: I think the most engaging things about what we do happen when we refine our strategy. When we understand ourselves as photographers, as people, but also as component pieces of a team. Once that’s up and running, that’s the most relevant thing we have.

JB: How you grow?

MS: Yeah.

JB: So give me an example.

MS: An example of?

JB: Of how you guys have grown and improved in the last year, or in the last six months. What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

MS: See, now I got myself in a hole, right? Because now I’ve got big, broad questions…

JB: You did it. (laughing.) I’m good, bro. You opened yourself right up. Come on, give me the goods.

MS: (laughing.) This gets back to the idea of the magic bullet that we were talking about earlier, that the biggest misconception starting out is that everything is going to be solved in short order. The thing that was important to us is that we took our growth in tiny steps towards progress that ultimately landed us a bigger goal.

For example, take our recent gallery show. A lot of money and a lot of different components went into that show. We need the space, we need the marketing to get to the people, we need a press campaign, we need a social media campaign. On top of all this, we have a budget that we have to stick to, because we don’t have flexible capital that goes forever. We have basic stuff like printing, hanging, curation. We have another component of an exhibition catalogue. And on the night of the show, everything has to get on the wall. We need to get the curator to help design the show while we’re hanging, we need to get someone to watch the space. We need to have alcohol for the people who are there. All of these little components are important things. When I think about people trying to start an organization like this, these organizational components are the absolute most critical things out of anything that we do.

And over the years, how we’ve refined what we do and how we work together to accomplish all of that stuff. Dividing up tasks between people, giving them responsibility for different components. Each one of these people is accountable. I think that’s the most important lesson outside of just correcting our errors, has been to figure out how to get people, as heads of all these different components, accountable to the entire group to get this thing done.

JB: It makes a lot of sense. I’m going to ask you a question, and maybe we’ll call it our last question. I admit that it’s somewhat difficult, but I think that the answer, if it’s what I think it’s going to be, is important. And that is, maybe you can’t speak for everybody in LUCEO, but you personally are working for the biggest publications in the United States, at present. Time, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek. Were you working for any of those folks before you formed LUCEO?

MS: Sure.

JB: You were?

MS: I interned at US News & World Report, which my intro into the magazine world.

JB: I thought you were going to say no. I was going to tie a bow on it right there for you.

MS: That’s OK, because there’s qualifications that go with this.

JB: Of course there are qualifications. I’m talking to a lawyer. I’m parsing my words carefully.

MS: So that’s my introduction the magazine world, but the problem was not finding all these contacts and figuring out how to get jobs from them. I think that’s something that Rob said on the blog a long time ago, was that if you have a solid core of editorial clients, you can make it. So the problem was not a matter of finding a client or two where I’d work for maybe a few months. But finding four loyal clients that would keep coming back that I could keep producing for in the future. Which is more than just making a phone call. It’s more than just knowing a person from a cocktail party and then they throw you a bone every now and again. You’re now dealing with this question of business, which is how you market to those people, how you make sales to those people, and most important, how do you retain them as a client.

JB: So, my leading question aside, we can say that where you’re at right now is a direct function of the fact that you and your colleagues formed this organization, and have had the ability to tweak the process as it’s evolved. You guys are working now more than before you formed LUCEO.

MS: Positively. So what LUCEO has done for me, in terms of just numbers…my first year in business was largely funded by me. On my own, I was doing a lot of the components that LUCEO now does as a group. So I have a control year to compare stuff to. Now, I spend roughly half of what I spent on marketing in that first year. So it’s cheaper for me to market with LUCEO. I reach 10 times as many potential clients –and that’s an honest number –through LUCEO than I did on my own. And my business has grown, at minimum, 30% each year since the formation of LUCEO.

JB: Which correlates directly to the Great Recession.

MS: Right.

JB: 30% growth while everyone else was tanking. Hopefully that won’t come off in an obnoxious way, but if we’re coming to the close of our conversation, collectives, collaboratives, business practices, these are dry terms. And I feel like maybe we’ve just gotten to the root of what’s going on here. It is something that you spoke about directly. It’s about people working together, with common goals, towards a common cause. You guys like each other, you understand each other, you work well together, and you’ve built a team concept in place of the lone wolf model you discussed earlier. As such, LUCEO is enjoying success. It’s not an accident.

MS: Right. So on top of the figures and the numbers, something else nice about this group is there’s a certain moral support and ability to talk through problems that you don’t have when you’re operating on your own. Nobody in LUCEO is on a little life raft out in the middle of the ocean.

JB: It’s built-in community.

MS: Right. If I have a bid that I’m having trouble working through, then I can call on Kendrick, and she may have done the bid before, and she can talk me through how that works. And from the perspective of a photographer, having community, and feedback, and encouragement and criticism is critical. That’s something that we participate in on a regular basis. Sharing and showing work.

JB: You know, Matt, we’ve talked about a lot of things, and in a somewhat natural way, we’ve managed to get at the heart of what I was hoping for. I feel like you’ve been generous in sharing some of your insights about not only how you started, but where you are and what you’ve learned. It’s not your place to go out and say, “Hey, photographers, you all should get together and do what we did.” Nor would that maybe be in your best interest. At the same time, the core idea is that this type of collaboration and community, when built upon fundamental business practices, might well lead other photographers to be able to rebuild their income or rebuild their practice, or adapt to the current climate. I think that’s very generous of you.

MS: But it’s about outlook, too. When you’re saying it might not be wise to make those suggestions, that people form collectives or co-operatives, I don’t actually have that feeling. If I look at my own regional market, Denver, and I look at who I’m in competition with and who I’m not in competition with, I know a few things about this market. One, there’s enough work coming into Denver every day to support everybody in this city who loves photography. Two, there’s a subset of photographers that don’t love photography, that don’t love what they’re doing, and are just kind of going through the motions. So when I look at who my real competition is, it’s not the people who love what they’re doing. There’s enough work here for more than just me.

JB: I was trying to be realistic about the competitive nature of this profession. At the same time, personally, I have reached a place now where I’ve decided not to be concerned with what other people are doing. And to do my own thing, and to believe that it’s going to work out the way it has been. Maybe the big idea here, maybe the really big idea is with the fundamental shift in communication technology, which is beyond core to the way humans function, right now, that maybe we don’t need to fall back on that inherent assumption that competition is in our blood. Are are we really talking about the fact that collaboration, working together in intelligent ways, makes more sense than viewing other people as your competition?

MS: Yes. There’s an internal contradiction that can happen, and I think it’s important to navigate around it. If I say that photography is important to me, and that I love photography, that doesn’t mean that I love my own photography and nothing else. I want people who love what they do to be successful. And I want people who are producing significant pieces of work to be successful. I don’t want them to go away. This isn’t Highlander, you know? It’s not that there can be only one.

The Magnum Photographers Magical Mystery Tour

by Jonathan Blaustein

Musicians make their money on the road, but can the same logic be applied to photographers? Sure, The Strobist and Joe McNally can give camera-company-sponsored lighting workshops out of a bus around America ($249.00 DVD set not included), but can a motley group of Magnum photographers make money out of an RV named Uncle Jackson en route from Austin, TX to Oakland, CA?

The “Postcards from America” bus tour kicks off next month with Photographers Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky, Susan Meiselas, Jim Goldberg, Christopher Anderson and writer Ginger Strand documenting their journey from May 12 to May 26, 2011. I hope they learn from Willie Nelson’s mistakes and leave the reefer behind.

Make no mistake, this is a branded, sponsored, multi-platform endeavor, meant to support the photographer’s careers and shine some 21st Century light on the Magnum brand. The story will play out in realtime via Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and an audience participation site on Flickr. Photography fans will have the opportunity to buy postcards, books, and prints online, all printed on HP printers. Ultimately, there will be a pop-up exhibition somewhere in Oaktown. The photographers aim to engage directly with their audience, and I imagine they’ll have plenty of opportunities to chat over weak coffee and sugary donuts.

It’s not unlike the Kickstarter and Emphas.is platforms that enable photography fans and lovers to directly support the work of photojournalism. Until very recently, publications would hire photographers to create content that their consumers would then buy. That still happens, but what we’re seeing now is that photographers are attempting to cut out the middle-man by “selling” the content directly to the audience (out of necessity, of course). We can call it a gift, a reward, or donation, but really it’s just commerce. All in all, it’s a good idea if the prints and books sell, and everyone has a good time. Content will be generated. Compelling images will be made.

In the Interview we recently published with Nina Berman, I discussed the fact that the boundaries between journalism and art were beginning to seem arbitrary. This venture seems to validate that idea, as the “Postcards” tour doesn’t seem that much different from Ryan McGinley cruising around the country with a bunch of clothing averse young hotties. If we saw this as a road trip by a group of artists who happened to be friends, and who planned on selling prints after the fact, it wouldn’t seem strange or newsworthy. But the fact that this tour is being done in the shadow of Magnum, an icon of American photojournalism, makes it a much bigger deal. It’s hard to imagine Henri Cartier-Bresson rambling around the American West like Clark W. Griswold, but then again, HCB isn’t trying to pay the bills in 2011.

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The Fall Chelsea Gallery Exhibits

Jonathan Blaustein reports on a visit to the Chelsea art galleries during his trip to NYC.

Raise your hand if you feel comfortable going to art galleries in New York? Ok, how many of you is that? I don’t know about you, but I love the experience of engaging with art. Photographs, films, paintings, sculptures, videos, music, these are the ultimate forms of encoded information. Art communicates meaning, and we are meaning craving creatures. So I love to look at art. It’s how our history is recorded.

But I don’t love the experience of looking at art in most commercial galleries, and I know many, many people who agree with me. Why is it that such primal human desire has been co-opted by such an alienating system? I mean, the crusty pretentious person at the front desk is a cliché for a reason. All the spaces are more or less the same, no real variation on the experience. Big white space, uncomfortable silence, gallery workers who ignore you, or scowl, or give you a condescending little smile. Could this happen in any other capitalist industry? (I suppose you’ll tell me in the comment section…maybe the Bentley dealership?)

Anyway, I do wonder why such a humanistic enterprise as art making got into bed with such an elitist, de-humanizing business partner. Oh wait, no I don’t. Galleries represent the allure of a connection to money. Dealers are the middlemen between starving artists and wealthy patrons. And they offer wall space as well, which so many artists need.

Regardless, I went to Chelsea when I was in New York earlier this month with the intention of checking the pulse of the Neighborhood. I was accompanied by my colleague and friend Elizabeth Fleming, whose many witty bon mots were predominantly off the record. Unfortunately, we chose a day when many spaces were turning over shows, so we didn’t get a chance to see quite as many exhibits as we would have liked. But given that it was my last afternoon in the city, I probably couldn’t have handled much more anyway.

We began on a construction-laden part of 28th Street, West of 10th. I’m sure many people outside the art world would be surprised to know that there is anything that far West. Elizabeth and I met up outside the joint space for Foley Gallery and Sasha Wolf Gallery. The two dealers joined forces to share a rent for their galleries, but also formed an interesting multi-use venture called Exhibition Lab. Ms. Wolf was kind enough to chat us up about the Lab, which combines an photo/art curiculum with critiquing classes and lectures. Sounds like a good resource for the NYC photo community.

BartMichielsFoley Gallery was showing the work of Bart Michiels, a Belgian artist working with the landscape. The large scale color photos were bleak, wintry scenes of an empty forest and a field type place. There were burnt things here and there, and the overall sensibility tended towards the nihilistic. The project, which referenced “the Valley of the Shadow of Death”, was very reminiscent of Elger Esser. Very. Given all the great work out in the world right now, I admit I was a bit curious as to why Mr. Foley chose to show this. Ms. Wolf was showing black and white, documentary images by Paul McDonough taken in New York in the 70’s. (Which were subsequently published on the NY Times LENS blog.) The photographs shared a lot of stylistic and humor conventions with Garry Winogrand, but they did a great job of evoking Time and Place. And as a child of Jersey from the 70’s, it was a fun temporal space to revisit.

From there, Elizabeth and I peeked into Aperture, as it was in the same building. Call me crazy, which many people probably will, but I didn’t connect to the Paul Strand images from Mexico. A little to banal for my liking. But I’m sure I’m in the minority on this one. We also saw some Jock Sturges photos of nude, sexualized tween girls, literally tucked into an alcove, partially hidden from sight. Elizabeth is the mother of two young girls, and I have a young son. We both agreed that even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo, and were little more than criminality masquerading as art.

We exited the building on 27th Street, and cruised through the Robert Mann gallery on 11th Avenue on our way to 26th. Again, it was vintage, beautiful, black and white photography, and not particularly original. I’m a fan of the gallery’s program, and believe they’ve put on many, many important shows over the years. But this wasn’t one of them.

michalChelbinSo on to 26th Street, where we stopped into the Andrea Meislin Gallery to see the work of Michal Chelbin. Both Elizabeth and I had seen her earlier work, and were impressed by here odd but not off-putting sensibility. Here, Ms. Chelbin was showing photographs of tween wrestlers from Russia and the Ukraine. The prints were fairly large, color, and square. They were c-prints, which we learned by spying the thin black negative border in each image. Frankly, it was distracting. As was the fact that Ms. Chelbin did not spot tone her prints properly. The dust specks drew Elizabeth’s on-the-record-ire, as she pointed out that any professional who wants to charge high prices ought to know better. Certainly, in a Photoshop world, it reminded me how easy it is to make it right in the computer.

The photographs were entirely of boys, save one. The subject matter brought Collier Schorr to mind, as she’s worked with similar ideas. Wrong as this will sound, I noticed that the boys “packages” were rather prominent in their singlets, and hard to ignore. Having seen Sturges’ work just minutes earlier, it wasn’t hard to make the comparison. Here, a female photographer was sexualizing male children, but of course keeping the clothes on. It made me uncomfortable, as I’m sure it was meant to. But I did wonder why she felt compelled to stare.

From there, we cruised to 25th Street, but had little luck. Yossi Milo and Clampart were both closed for installation, so we had to move on to 24th Street. Gagosian was closed, soon to show Anselm Kiefer’s work. (On view now…) He’s a favorite of mine, so I was a bit disappointed. I mean, any German who can make great, subtle, profound art, not propaganda, out of the Holocaust is a giant in my book.

But my disappointment proved fleeting. Right next door, Mary Boone Gallery gave me an immediate reminder of when and why galleries can be relevant. Unlike photography, which is reproducible and shows well on the web, painting, sculpture, film and their hybrid, installation, need room to breathe. And high production costs can necessitate both a well funded collector base, and big rent for a warehouse space. But I digress…

Ms. Boone was showing “Squeeze,” the work of an artist I didn’t know, Mika Rottenberg. As great and perplexing as this exhibit was, allow me to take you through our experiences step by step. You walk through the alcove into the main gallery. It’s huge. In front of you is a self contained room/sculpture in the middle of the space. It has an window-type air conditioner sticking out the back, with a plant on top. As you walk around towards the opening, you see one sheet of 8.5″x11″ paper taped to the wall on your left, but you pay it no mind. There’s a big photograph of a stewardess type lady on the wall, holding some garbagy-god-knows-what, but you keep going because the room has an opening, which is kind of like a tunnel. The ceiling is made of cheap, dirty, industrial ceiling tile that looks like it was taken from some generic, schlubby New York office in Murray Hill that’s been there since 1941.

Rottenberg-installationThe hallway led to a video installation room. And I rarely have the patience for video art in such circumstances. Almost never. So often it’s esoteric and obnoxious. But not this time. Immediately, Elizabeth and I were sucked into this strange, loud, colorful and surreal world. There were people, somewhere far away from New York, cutting into trees in a misty forest. They appeared to be South Asian. The trees released liquid into drip spouts, which we realized was rubber. The video had jumpcuts to spare, but slowly we pieced together that there was a production process going on, with the rubber being turned into some product. But it was an assembly line as imagined by Terry Gilliam, crazy and nonsensical, with mouths spitting liquid through open wooden holes, and 4naked moist butts showing up occasionally as well.

We took a breather from the video as people streamed into the room, and after agreeing that it was totally awesome, we went back in to watch some more. In all my years looking at art, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. On return viewing, we pieced together that there was some sort of a trash cube sculpture being fashioned out of the process. After we left the video house, we again saw the large photograph on the wall. It was clear that the woman in the photo was holding the aforementioned cube, which appeared to lock some refuse in rubber and maybe resin. She was smiling. I was even more curious.

From there, the obvious path was to go look at the piece of paper taped to the wall. So we did. It was a bill from a storage company. On the inventory list, we saw the components of the cube, deconstructed. The bill stated that the item would be kept in storage at this facility: in perpetuity. FOREVER. Strange.

So as we began to piece things together, the artist made a video about the production of an object that seemed to contain the waste of consumer culture, and required the extraction of natural resources from the Third World. Said object was then photographed, and locked away from society forever. WOW. Talk about embedding ideas in objects. Not only that, but the piece-it-together-yourself nature of the exhibit forced us to think, and engaged us in a participatory way, thereby referencing ubiquitous Cyberspace.

I had the gumption to approach the bespoke suited man behind the imposing desk, who handed me a price list. Edition of six. What? I asked him about it, and he said that the photo and dvd were editioned, but the cube was too. I mentioned that it seemed that the sculpture was locked away forever, and he concurred. The artist sold a proportional share of an object that people could never possess. Sound familiar? Complex financial instruments, anyone? Brilliant.

Finally, we left the gallery, after 15 minutes or so. What a trip. That’s what galleries can offer, the chance to open a door to a unique experience. To show art that enlightens, and bring the new to a jaded audience. So while the photography galleries left me flat all day, Mary Boone did not.

wolfbuildingWe finished our day on 24th Street, looking at the Michael Wolf show at Silverstein, and Abelardo Morrell at Wolkowitz. It was hard to get juiced up after my mind was blown, but I gave it a solid effort. Mr. Wolf was showing three interrelated bodies of work, all of which reference surveillance and the lack of privacy in public space. I’d seen his city-scape images on the Internet before, but here the large prints taken of office buildings from office buildings were more poignant than on a computer screen. Scale really helped. Bigger was better.

wolfsubwayBut in another room, Mr. Wolf’s images of Japanese subway goers crushed up against the train window, taken from the platform, had the opposite effect. They were candid, visceral, and yet slightly noble. They were small prints, and the size communicated an immediacy. They were, without a doubt, the best prints I saw all day. Across the room, there was one large print from the same project, and I felt the magic was lost. Bigger was not better. (I noticed the same phenomenon with Sugimoto’s “Architecture” series at Sonnabend several years ago.) Mr. Wolf’s final group of pictures were shot from Google Street View, and were not that interesting. Just because a phenomenon is important to culture, that doesn’t mean that art about said phenomenon is important. The photos were kind of boring.

wolkowitzSo on we went to finish the day with Abelardo Morrell’s large scale, color camera obscura photographs. They were very beautiful, taken in New York and Italy. Some appeared to be made on gravel streets, which were kind of strange. But mostly they showed Mr. Morrell’s now famous process of bringing images of light inside spaces. They were well crafted, lovely to look at. But they did not engage my mind in a serious way.

So Eastward we headed, out of the Gallery Ghetto. We went not three steps when I looked down and saw the most interesting broken sidewalk, strewn-refuse street scene. I looked around to see if there was any signage about, because it looked as much like an art installation as what it really was; some garbage on the street. I know that certain galleries in the past have transformed their spaces in such ways, for real. And I’d seen a Jeff Wall photograph at the Metropolitan Museum earlier in the day that was a döppelganger for what was right in front of me. But Elizabeth and I laughed, and I decided to coin the idea as a new game. Garbage, or art installation? Try it next time you’re in the Neighborhood.

The Heavyweights – NYC Fall Blockbuster Photo Exhibits

Jonathan Blaustein reports on a visit to several blockbuster photo exhibits during his trip to NYC.

crewdsonI went to see Gregory Crewdson’s show on a Friday, the day before it closed at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. It was an imposing, New York City-gray-type-building, with an express elevator to the 6th Floor gallery. The aura of money and power was intimidating, and I couldn’t help smacking myself with the front door in full view of the slinky gallerina sitting at the front desk. Suave, I was not.

For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Crewdson is one of the foremost art-star photographers on the planet, and a professor at Yale as well. He rose to acclaim a while back for innovating the cinematic, labor-intensive-faux-reality picture style, alongside Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. His most famous images are large scale, well lit moments observing people’s introspective silence, or overturned buses in the pavement, or women on the front lawn at night. The images were revolutionary, as he hired film crews, set up huge lights and directed the action to get photographs that appear “real,” but are not. The movement of which he was a part shattered the expectation of veracity in photography, and then buried the notion of “truth,” and then spit on the grave.

The new show, called “Sanctuary, ” was a departure. The photographs are more traditionally sized black and white inkjet prints. They are somewhat flat, and and lack the snap of a good gelatin silver print. But I suspect that’s intentional. The series functions as a narrative, shot on location at Cinecittá Studios in Rome, the famous Mussolini-built film lot where Fellini worked back in the day. (And Scorcese shot the flawed but greuesome “Gangs of New York” there as well. Yes, Bill the Butcher still gives me the heebiegeebies…)

Anyway, I thought it was a pretty smart move to go from cinematic photographs to photographs in a cinematic parallel universe. And that’s where this project really stands out: on the symbolic level. The show begins in a small room with two photographs in it. One on the outside of the fence, looking at the wall that delineates the studio from the outside world. The next faces the security gate, at night, a lone woman working in the guard booth. She’s the only human in the series, and a nod to Crewdson’s previous imagery.

The rest of the images navigate a tour around the abandoned studio lot. The photographs are bleak, with a beautiful decrepitude. Here a lone tree, there a Roman arch, here a puddle of water, there a solitary bedsheet on the cobblestones. There is an undeniable post-apocalyptic sensibility, and it builds as one moves from picture to picture. Occasionally, we can see a block of utilitarian apartment buildings outside the walls, but aside from one image with some Italian text, there is no specific sense of place outside the Roman ruins. And plenty of scaffolding has been left to rot. References to Lewis Baltz, Thomas Struth and the Bechers are pretty evident, but not heavy-handed. Everyone loves a good shout out.

The photographs are quiet, lonely, sad, graceful, and specifically composed. The craftsmanship is evident, which is why the subtle prints hint at aging, lending meaning to the work. (And I did learn a bit about his process, by good fortune. A Yale photography professor was lecturing in the gallery alongside one of her graduate students. Apparently, the digital images are a composite of photos shot at different focal distances to create maximum sharpness and image clarity.)

The show ends with a path to the exit gate. We approach this little world, we circumnavigate, then we leave. Mr. Crewdson has prepared a journey for his viewers, with symbols to spare. I was moved. To be fair, a few days later a smart photographer friend asked whether I’d have taken the time to delve into the work if it had been done by an “unfamous” artist. Would I have had the patience to parse the meaning? Good question. If I’d seen it in some random gallery in Chelsea, I probably would have done a glance and go. But that’s not how we engage with art. Context is important. So in the temple of Gagosian, with knowledge of Mr. Crewdson’s previous work, he had earned my patience.

FriedlanderFrom there, I walked South two blocks to the Whitney to see Lee Friedlander’s “America by Car.” At least three people went out of their way to say “Don’t miss it,” so my expectations were pretty high. I got there less than an hour before the pay-what-you-want program kicked off, but decided to pony up the cash so that I wouldn’t be crushed by the onslaught of bargain-hunting art patrons. I knew I had to report back to you, the APE audience, and thought that I owed it to you to get a clear look at the work, instead of having to bob and weave all night.

The show is great. Consider it reviewed. Now can someone get me a cup of coffee? Just kidding. But it is superb; the equivalent of getting a big bowl of wisdom soup from a master at the tail end of his artistic journey. I’m not saying Mr. Friedlander is going to kick it any day now, but he’s coming from a place of age and experience, and it shows. Cindy Sherman, he’s not.

The exhibition contains 192 square photographs; a succession of vertical diptychs. Each image in the pair was taken in a different part of the US, though there were a few from Canada thrown in for who-knows-why. My natural inclination was to compare and contrast each image, then move down the line. Two photos. Two Americas. (Sorry, John Edwards.) Red State or Blue. Republican or Democrat. Urban or Rural. This or that.

That’s how we process information when it’s presented as such. We compare and contrast. If we’re given a line, we follow it. But after 25 or so diptychs, my head began to hurt. And then I looked down the room and into the next, and thought: I’ll never make it. No one was meant to play this game 96 times. That’s not what he wants. It’s not what he’s trying to say.

So then, I stepped back. I began to look at the exhibition in it’s entirety. Each photo was shot from inside a car, some with flash, and the shapes of the windowpanes and the dash boards were interesting as visual structure, for sure. They create a uniformity of language that delivers the message well. But the message was enticing to me. America. By car. One country, not two. Mr. Friedlander did an admirable job of collecting symbols of the once-and-perhaps-again-great nation of ours. Churches and Bars, Horses and Semi-Trucks, Factories and Gas Stations, Snowmen and Skyscrapers…

I started to look at the entire vision, and it began to make sense. A few urban enclaves aside, America is a nation defined by the car. (Just ask Robert Frank.) It’s a big place, and beyond diverse. But Mr. Friedlander was presenting one vision, not two. He was profiling one country, with his requisite humor and penchant for chaotic compositions. I came away inspired. It’s easy to divide and deliniate, and of course easier to decontruct than construct. As a viewer, albiet one intent on finding something interesting to say, I felt like this was an art show wrapped around a philosophical statement. A photo exhibit that presaged Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” A group of new pictures that belied a well-worn attitude: Enough already. Get over it. We’re one country, whether we like it or not, so let’s find some common ground, in this case a perfect encapsulation of an American symbology, and move along. Lee Friedlander channeling Rodney King.

By Tuesday, six days into my couch surf, I was done and ready to go home. I rewarded myself by spending the day looking at art. Yes, I had to take notes to write this piece, but all that was required was to look and think. And while some might disagree, I think the best thing about New York is the vast array of brilliant, epic and historically important things to see. Especially art.

I headed to the Metropolitan Museum, which is my favorite building in the world. I had two and a half hours, which forces one to be targeted and tactical. After hitting up the Chinese wing, which always inspires, I went to see the John Baldessari retrospective. My good friend Scott B. Davis, a photographer from San Diego, saw the show at LACMA earlier this year and told me it was the best thing he’d seen in years. Scott is not given to hyperbole, unlike, say, me, so I took him seriously. And I made sure to allow a good 45 minutes, which was not enough. But one can’t have everything.

I’d seen a few original pieces by the artist in LA, and photos in books through the years. I came into the show more aware of his reputation than his brilliance. I left feeling that Mr. Baldessari was as good as Andy Warhol. There. I said it. Now Andy’s ghost will smite me where I sit.

The best I can tell you about this exhibition, beyond “Go See It,” is that Mr. Baldessari figured out how to incorporate his curiosity, humor, irreverance, and intelligence into a broad and surprisingly relevant mega-collection of great work, across a spectrum of media. Albert Brooks once said that they don’t have a special line at the bank for being ahead of your time. I doubt Mr. Baldessari is hurting, but he definitely got there before everybody else.

Encoding, interactive gaming, implied/manipulated narrative, identity, the myth of California, the culture of beauty and retouching, so many 21st Century ideas seemed embedded in work that was made in the 60’s and 70’s. The pictures were direct, but funny. Original. Profound and silly, which is an almost impossible concept to imagine, much less pull off. I’m reticent to describe some of the pieces, as they just have to be seen. (The artist singing a Sol LeWitt art manifesto? Yeah, it’s that funny.)

Art is meant to be seen. Though it’s a JPG world and we’re just living in it, sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes, you’ve got to get off the couch, or step away from the Crackberry, find half a day, and go feed your brain. I’m intentionally lacking specificity about the Baldessari show for this reason. It’s genius: the real deal. But I can’t narrate it for you. It’s not that kind of art experience. It’s not meant to be compressed by an algorithm. Just go see for yourself.

Impressions from the PDN Photo Plus Expo 2010

APE field reporter Jonathan Blaustein brings us his impressions from the PDN 2010 Photo Plus Expo.

Hola. This is the first of several stories I’ll be filing for A Photo Editor about the New York Photo Scene. Rob asked me to fly in to the City to cover the PDN Expo, so that’s where I’ll begin. For those of you who haven’t read my articles in the past, let me provide the barest of backstory. I’m a Taos, NM based artist/photographer/teacher, and write about photography as well. Though I’ve dabbled in some small-time, local, commercial work in the past, I would not consider myself a working professional.

I make conceptual images, most recently a series called “The Value of a Dollar,” that was featured in The New York Times last month, and I show the prints in galleries and museums. So please read this and subsequent pieces with that in mind. I’m no critic, and don’t profess to have a working knowledge of the inner facets of the industry. I’m just a dude from Jersey with opinions who used to live in New York, and now lives in a horse pasture at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Let’s call me a Reluctant Rancher.

So with dirt in my boots, I arrived at the Javits Center bright and early last Thursday for the opening of the PDN Expo. Though I must have been there at least once as a kid, I couldn’t believe how big the place was. Before I even made it in the door, I realized that this was going to be a much bigger deal than I had imagined. (And confusing as well. The building’s designers were not fans of intuitive planning. I got lost five times before I felt any sense of direction.)

PDN was kind enough to grant me a press pass so that I could sit in on the professional seminars and share my findings with you, the APE audience. So that’s where I began, at 9: 30 am, before the Expo floor had opened. My first visit was to a grant writing seminar, moderated by David Walker of PDN that featured Yukiko Yamagata from OSI, Justine Reyes, a friend and photographer, Ellen Liberatori from NYU, and photographer Brenda Anne Kenneally. I was pretty shocked to learn that 75% of grant applicants are summarily dismissed for failing to know what they are actually applying for. Apparently, simple professionalism is in short supply. The advice that I gleaned and will now pass on: do your homework. Know what an organization funds, read the paperwork, follow the rules, do what’s asked of you, be concise, sell yourself, and get a personal contact if possible. (92% of grant recipients have had prior contact.) Help them help you. And of course, the more organized you can be, the better.

After chatting briefly with Yukiko, who was gracious enough to meet with all the people who waited for her afterwards, I met up with Justine and we grabbed a quick bite before the next speaker. (They had a tasty pasta bar. Consider me impressed.) Fed and hydrated, we headed to the Keynote Address, which was delivered by a photographer named Chase Jarvis. It was Standing Room Only, and people seemed excited by his presentation. I tried to engage, as his ideas about interactive, interdisciplinary, collaborative process were certainly au courant… but I couldn’t do it. My Gen-X snark sensor was on Orange Alert, and I couldn’t help but see Mr. Jarvis as a Hipster Tony Robbins, bouncing around the stage in his shiny converse sneakers. My apoligies. But other people seemed to like it…

photo3From there, Justine and I headed up to the Expo floor for the first of many turns about the room. What can I say? Have you been there before? If so, you’ve probably got a sense of it. I felt quite the rube, though, and was temporarily awestruck by the bells, whistles, music, Sony BMX halfpipe, and gyrating models. (Yes, Nikon had a modeling stage where a super-hot Brazilian model danced for a throng of middle-aged photographers with big cameras. And she was apparently well-paid, because when I interviewed her, she refused to bite the hand that fed her. “Just a job,” she said.)

photo4The floor must have been two football fields long and one wide, and camera and accessory companies were everywhere. Canon and Nikon were the biggest, not surprisingly, and put on lectures throughout the day that were well attended. Olympus had the next biggest booth, I believe, and smaller companies of every sort were lined up in booths around the outside. I can’t even begin to name their services. Bags, printing companies, personalized USB flash drives, book makers, book sellers, paper trimmers, backdrop makers, popcorn shrimp, fried shrimp, I mean everything. And people were browsing, and people were buying.

It seemed to function pretty well as a marketplace. I interviewed a few photographers and enthusiasts, and they each said more or less the same thing. They love to come to the Expo to take a look at the new products, touch things and play, and then they always buy a few items they need. Photographer Richard Bram needed some paper, so he relished the opportunity to look firsthand, and then buy some. From the constant glint of credit card magnetic strips I saw flashing about, I’d say that many people do the same.

At one point on our circumnavigation, Justine got a tingle in her spider sense, and two minutes later we stood in front of Aperture’s booth. A very nice lady asked us if we had heard of Aperture, and wondered if we were aware of what they did. We let her know straight away that we were artists, and therefore fans. Shockingly, it turned out that the Aperture Representative, who was actively seeking new subscribers, was none other than Michelle Dunn Marsh, the Co-Publisher. And her fellow Co-Publisher, Dana Triwush, was standing beside her engaging with Expo-goers as well. That’s right. Aperture didn’t send interns. They brought out the big guns.

Luckily, in my capacity as APE correspondent, I was able to get an interview with Ms. Marsh, and she, Justine and I had a great conversation for 20 minutes. She was thoughtful and exceedingly smart, and shared the perspective that as artists, if we want to get a book published, which so many of us do, then we need to buy more books. Much as we want people to support our careers by buying prints or hiring us, she pointed out that publishers need support too. Especially non-profit publishers. Community was a buzzword for the day, and the week for that matter, but it was interesting to hear Ms. Marsh suggest that the community needs to support publishers to keep them healthy. I’m always open to a good idea, so I renewed my subscription on the spot. (I signed my name on an IPad with my index finger…it felt a little naughty, like eating cake for breakfast.)

She also made an interesting comparison between photography at the dawn of the super-DSLR, and the graphic design industry when the first Macintosh computers came to market. Technology shook that industry to the core as well, yet 20 years later, design is as important as ever, and professionals are doing just fine. So fear not, everything will sort itself out eventually.

Feeling like a good pretend-journalist for getting the scoop from Aperture, I headed back downstairs to the seminars to hear consultant Mary Virginia Swanson and publisher Darius Himes talk about their new book, Publish Your Photography Book. The presentation tracked the structure of the book, which is due out in February, and was as thorough as you can imagine. The two experts basically put their heads together and spent eight years amassing all the specific knowledge and information a photographer might need to get a book conceived, created, and marketed. (Most important: understand how your audience can be expanded beyond the photo world.) I’m not sure why we’re all so obsessed with having a book of our work. Posterity, I suppose. Something to outlast us, to collect dust when we’ve become dust. But everyone does seem to want one, myself included, and Ms. Swanson and Mr. Himes have created the ultimate resource to Get-R-Done. A Must Buy for 2011.

I bounced upstairs once again to meet photographer Chris Cappoziello, a friend from LOOKbetween, for a quick coffee, and to do one more lap around the insanity. I kept stepping in and out of the Expo to get a sense of the vibe. It was hopping, no doubt. Based upon the consumption I witnessed, we’re probably closer to the end of the economic drama than the beginning. And there were people at every booth, the sole exception I saw all day was a dude representing an upcoming photo festival in China. He had no one to talk to. Go figure.

The last lecture I attended was a fascinating panel talk about the future of magazine publishing moderated by the aforementioned Michelle Dunn Marsh of Aperture. She was joined by Sacha Lecca, photo editor at Rolling Stone, Whitney Johnson, picture editor at the New Yorker, Lisa Kereszi, an artist and editorial photographer who shoots for The New Yorker, and Gregg Hano, the VP Group Publisher of Bonnier Tech Group, which publishes American Photo and Popular Photography, among other magazines. Each presenter gave a 10 minute mini-lecture, and then they did a group discussion.

Tired as I was at the time, though properly caffeinated, I have to say they were a really interesting group. I learned a lot, and was engaged the entire two hours. Hard to believe. What can I share? Once again, I heard “Do your homework” again and again. Can there really be that many photographers out there who don’t get it? The editors stressed… know the content of the magazine you’re approaching, be polite, know people’s names, and get some human contact whenever possible. So there’s that. But I also learned, much as many people darkly suspect, no one gets a job from a bulk email. Pretty much never. So if you want to get your work seen, do the heavy lifting of networking and pavement pounding. And be honest with yourself about where your work will and won’t fit.

I also heard the word IPad at least 300 times in two hours. IPad IPad IPad… IPad. Steve Jobs appears to have come to the rescue of the publication industry, because the panel seemed to belive that the tablet device was perfect for delivering content, and more of it. (ie., 6 photos on the IPad to supplement 1 in paper, complete with a link to video.) It can generate income, and complement a paper edition as well. The also discussed the fact that websites are seen by a certain audience as valid an incarnation of the brand as the paper copy. (ie, younger readers.) There was definitely a sense that wraparound marketing is here to stay, and will help build up the viability of these companies so they can hire more photographers. Workshops, contests, Fashion Photo Fantasy Camps, events, higher subscription fees, IPad apps, and of course, paper copies, all converging into one businessmodel stew. As Mr. Hano said, “Right now I would consider any way to monetize anything.”

When the panel wrapped, after nine hours of listening, learning, talking and zigzagging around the Javits Center, I headed back out into the city proper. I stopped by a couple of exceedingly crowded openings in Chelsea, which was kind of like being packed into a subway car with a bunch of obnoxious rich people, so I couldn’t see the art. From there, I went to a Review Santa Fe Alumni party in the Meat Packing district, which was very cool, and then headed home with sore feet and a tired brain. (Subway drama ensued… I’ll spare you, but there were a lot of rats involved.)

photo2I hit the PDN bash the following night with my friend Cori Chandler-Pepelnjak, after stopping by the Blurb/Hey Hot Shot party at a Pop-up store in Soho. (Picture white leather sofas, white shag carpet, and red wine. Lots of books, 22 year old kids, free beer, and pretty much everyone seemed to agree that Blurb is doing a great job at the moment.) But back to the Bash, which was held on the Intrepid aircraft carrier on the Hudson River. When Cori and I arrived, we followed the crowd and ended up on the top deck, with airplanes in the foreground and the NYC skyline to the East. Insane Photo Op. But of course then we felt like idiots when we couldn’t find the actual party. (Downstairs, duh.)

Inside, I got to catch up with Andrew Owen and Jenna Pirog, who run the LOOK3 photo fesitval, and put on the LOOKbetween event in Virginia that I chronicled for APE back in June. They were fired up for LOOK3 this June, and I was grateful for the opportunity to thank them in person for their hospitality. Since Summer, I’ve really kept up the friendships that I made over the beer and bonfires, and I know that was their intent. The reality is that curating conversation is a skill, or perhaps an art, and Andrew and Jenna did a killer job bringing people together.

I sifted through the crowd of Industry types for a while, and then decided to call it a night. It was the kind of event where everybody seemed to know everybody, and I didn’t. So at that point, far too beat to really work the room, I headed off into the Megalopolis. Really, I can’t imagine a more dense experience, as far as information gathering goes. Between the Expo floor, the seminars, and even the portfolio reviews, PDN really offers photographers a chance to absorb a year’s worth of knowledge in a few days. I’m still sorting things out a week later, and feel rather fortunate that I had the chance to attend.

5 Questions For Fraction Magazine’s David Bram

Jonathan Blaustein, our man in the field, caught up with Photographer David Bram: editor, publisher and co-founder of fraction magazine ; recipient of the 2010 Griffin Museum Rising Star award; and a curator of exhibitions for several commercial galleries and non-profit photo spaces.

Jonathan: Do you think that more people look at photographs on a screen than on paper, and if so, does it change the way people think about photography?

David: I look at almost everything on a computer screen, so if that is an indication, then I would think that photographs are mostly viewed on a computer of some sort at this point. I’m not sure how many laptops are sold each year, but over 8 million iPads have been sold since April 2010 and nearly everyone has a cellphone that can make pictures as well. I think what has changed most about peoples’ perception of photography is that everyone has a camera, which then makes them think they’re a photographer. The computer age and the internet revolution, has taken the tangibleness out photography, we used to handle film, load cameras, handle negatives, handle paper, etc. I think this is the biggest change.

Jonathan: Fraction offers photographers a great deal of exposure in exchange for publishing their images for free. As online media begins to develop sustainable income streams, do you see a future where you are able to pay for publishing rights?

David: I am not paying the artists that are showcased because there isn’t any real money generated from it. Like most websites, money can be made with advertising and if you have the proper content there’s an audience for the advertisers, but for now, I do not see paying for content. And, I am not sure I will ever have to. As a photographer, I would love to be paid for having my work on someone’s website, but it’s not realistic at this point in time. Fraction is not an online gallery that aims to sell work and make money. Fraction merely introduces the artist’s work to the Fraction audience, free of charge.

Jonathan: Between portfolio reviews, internet research, and Fraction submissions, I would imagine you see thousands of photo projects a year. Are there any subjects that you feel have been done to death and you wish would just go away?

David: I’m not sure anything needs to go away because every artist, hopefully, has their own way of seeing the world. Also, I’m not sure it’s fair for me to say what needs to go away. I am finding that photography subjects are cyclical in nature, and who knows what everyone will love next week. There’s a difference between poorly executed work and tired subject matter.

Jonathan: Fraction is based in Albuquerque, and I’m based in Taos. You and I know that northern New Mexico has a lively and broad photographic community. Why do you think photographers are drawn here?

David: I think artists come to NM because of the weather and the light. Everything in New Mexico is dramatic, from the way the weather moves across the landscape to the politics. For me, the best time of year to photograph in NM is October and November. The air is cool and the light is amazing, especially in the hour before sunset. For photographers, there is a great sense of history as a number of great photographers have come through here at some point in time; Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, Paul Strand, Lee Friedlander and Laura Gilpin, as well as a long list of contemporary, well established photographers who call New Mexico home.

Jonathan: It seems like we’re entering an age where the traditional boundaries that existed between artists, curators, dealers, editors and publishers are coming down. I can think of dozens of people who are doing more than one thing. Do you think this has any serious implications for the photography industry?

David: It just means that some of us are more busy than others. I’ve been busy working with Fraction, doing portfolios reviews, the occasional talk, and yes, I am trying to make new work as well. I think this can only help the industry since some of us know how hard it is to make a living making photographs. I think technology has made things easier as well. Email gets us in the door a little faster and our own personal websites let the dealers and publishers see what we’re up to a whole lot easier then sending around books or portfolio boxes.