This Week in Photography: Nothing Makes Sense

 

“I’m just trying to understand it, Mother.”

“What is there to understand? Just read it. There it is in black and white. Who wants you to understand it? If the Lord God wanted you to understand it He’d have given you to understand or He’d have set it down different.”

John Steinbeck, “East of Eden,” 1952.

 

 

 

Have you ever heard of Andy Kaufman?

 

He was a comedian back in the 70’s, and got famous for pissing people off. (And for his weird-ass accent in the TV show “Taxi,” which would certainly be considered offensive in today’s cultural climate.)

I must have seen a few minutes of his stand-up act, back in the day, and then Jim Carrey played him in a movie, but I do have strong recollections of his place in the culture.

Andy Kaufman was such an absurdist, he’d get on stage and say strange, not-particularly-funny shit, just to get a rise out of his audience. Some of it was hilarious, but mostly because he was toying with expectations in a manner that feels very of-the-moment.

 

 

I’m pretty sure he got involved with professional wrestling, and got his ass kicked for real, because he made his living pushing the envelope.

Plus, he did a spot-on-perfect Elvis impersonation. (And got to hang out with Johnny Cash on “Hee Haw,” which melts my brain.)

 

 

These days, we know all about trolls, and gas-lighting, but it seems Andy Kaufman helped pioneer the practice, back when it would have seemed revolutionary.

To me, the point is to grind into the human consciousness that our desire for things to “make sense,” and for us to be able to “understand” the world, much less the Universe, is hubristic and fallacious.

Much like Loki needed to get the shit beat out of him by Hulk, in my kids’ favorite scene in the first “Avengers” film, Andy Kaufman was the canary in the coal-mine for our 21st Century misadventures. (He died young, and didn’t live to see our new-times.)

Poor guy.
At least he had some fun.

 

 

 

But today is not one of those days where I’ll weave together ten strands of American culture into a tapestry of awesomeness. (Sorry if that sounds cocky, but sometimes I get there.)

No.
Not today.

I’ve been immersed in trying to reason with a teenager, who’s been hell bent on self-sabatoge, as were millions of teenagers before him.

Trying to understand the teenaged mindset, from a 47 year old vantage, makes about as much sense as a chicken trying to force its way into a KFC. (A true story I heard on Sirius radio the other day. Dumb fucking chicken.)

 

 

 

Today, I’m going to cut to the chase more quickly than normal, and the connection between the introduction and the book review will be as obvious as a wet-dog-fart.

Today, I spent some time with “Providencia,” a book by Daniel Reuter, published by Skinnerboox, which arrived in the mail nearly a year ago. (Almost done with the 2020 submissions, thankfully.)

Today, as I sit here and write, I can honestly report that I was thinking of Andy Kaufman WHILE I was looking at the book, because I couldn’t make any sense of it at all.

 

 

 

Normally, when I spend time with a book, I look for clues, and figure things out, as slowly the narrative begins to focus. Eventually, I get there. (Almost always.)

But not today.

The title, which means Providence in Spanish, made me think maybe the series was made in Spain. (Such a Euro-centric vision of the world, it’s true.) And early on, there is a publication in Spanish, so that exacerbated my reaction. (As did the inclusion of a palm tree in one photo.)

But as to the theme, or point of the work?

I just couldn’t get there.

We see buildings, walls, hard-scrabble desert scenes, buildings, junk, trees, and occasionally, some people who don’t look at the camera.

Circles form a repeating motif, including a cool image with a hole cut in a wall, and another with a record player sitting before metal tubes that remind me of pipe bombs.

There are no words, until the end, and no context until then either.

Mostly, beyond thinking about Andy Kaufman, I realized the book was not really meant for me, as an American. (I know they sent it my way, but you likely catch my drift.)

It felt loaded with cultural references that I could not access, and the book also felt intentional about it.

As if creating a state of chaos and confusion was part of the book’s mission. Or perhaps it was commenting on a society that experienced those sensations, and the point of the art was to communicate that emotion through visceral means.

Furthermore, the production values are high, and the inclusion of images printed on vellum, as a way of breaking up the visual consistency, was great. (By not half-assing the production, it also lets a viewer know the project is serious, if inscrutable.)

In the end, we get a long essay in Spanish, (of course, as I said, this was not designed for Americans,) and then a translated version.

It’s by Alejandro Zamba, and quickly establishes the book is about Santiago, Chile, not long after the city erupted in protests, violence, and social disorder, not unlike what happened in the US in 2020.

It’s a beautiful short story, almost in the form of a parable, as a stranger lands at an airport, and takes a long taxi ride, during which the driver catches the author, (and we, the viewer,) up on what the book is actually about.

There’s a quote within, which summed up my feelings about our innate human desire for things to make sense: “The feeling of understanding all is useful, hopeful, cocky and false, while the feeling of understanding nothing returns our humility to us…”.

I must say, one of my very favorite things about this job is that I get to learn about faraway places, and share that knowledge and “intel” with you.

The end notes tell us this project was supported by a publisher in Italy, foundations in Luxembourg, in conjunction with Les Rencontres d’Arles in France, but what that has to do with a Dada book about Chile, I cannot say.

Only after I was done did I notice some press materials that likely tried to explain things, including an essay by Adam Bell, but it was pointedly not included in the book. Nor was it an insert.

So I didn’t read it.

I’m not being petty, though.

Rather, I was luxuriating in the not-knowing. In being reminded I’m just a puny human, living for a short time on a spinning rock, hurtling around a star in an ever-expanding Universe.

And so are you.

To purchase Providencia click here

 

 

This Week in Photography: Teaching Children

 

 

I photographed some chickens the other day.

(And some cows.)

 

 

The latter creatures had escaped their pasture up the valley, and were officially on the lam.

I watched the herd descend my father-in-law’s driveway, across the field, and quickly went to investigate with my camera in tow.

The kids were enraptured, far more than I expected, but then again, so much of our lives here the last 18 months have been repetitive.

(A bunch of cattle descending upon us was anything but routine.)

I figured it would be easy to get a great shot, under the circumstances, but that was simply not the case.

Whether due to the overly harsh light, once or twice, (or the family dog finally getting to experience the cattle-herding for which she was bred,) it took me two days and 200 shots to get exactly what I saw in my head.

Certainly, it was worth the trouble, and I had to learn how not to antagonize the massive bull, so he’d forget about me while I skulked around.

But in the end, after many attempts, I got the shot.

Soon, my daughter suggested we stop eating beef, as once we’d all hung out with the cows, and saw their intelligence first-hand, it was hard to imagine them getting slaughtered, methodically, to add protein to the collective food supply.

Rather, we saw the cattle as fugitives, running for their lives, and we secretly hoped they’d stay one step ahead of their owners, who didn’t come searching until Day 3.

 

 

 

 

As to the chickens, they were in the front yard of a neighbor’s house, and I asked for permission first.

The light was perfect, the chickens naturally photogenic, and I made the exact photo I wanted within a minute.

(Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s not.)

At the time, though, my neighbor, whom I’ve gotten to know better over the last few years, insisted that I never take his photo.

Ever.

I said, “Sure, no problem,” and reminded him I’d never so much as raised my camera in his direction.

Still, when I stopped back by, after we’s shot hoops at the basketball court across the street, (behind the firehouse,) I wanted to ask if he knew anything about missing cattle.

As a joke, while I approached, I pretended to take his picture with my finger. There was no camera in my hand, as it was safely zippered up in the bag slung over my back.

Anyone could see I was kidding, but he got offended, thinking I was making fun of him, and he said, angrily, that he hated being photographed, and didn’t like being teased.

I apologized, of course, said I was trying to funny, (and had obviously failed,) so I changed the subject quickly, and that was that.

But you can be sure I’ll never do anything like that again to Morris.

(No sir.)

Being an outsider in an insular, poverty-stricken, mountain community at the edge of the Universe, you learn it’s very hard to be accepted, (takes years really,) and you can blow all that good-will in an instant, if you make the wrong move.

 

 

 

We came back home to New Mexico in 2005, straight from Brooklyn, and I was hired to teach photography to school kids within a month.

In order to circumvent the University bureaucracy, UNM-Taos was able to get me working, straight away, if I’d be willing to teach “college classes” at a high school for at-risk youth.

I had no experience working with that population, and barely any teaching experience at all, aside from one semester as a professor of Beginning Digital Photography at Pratt.

This was a different kettle of fish, teaching black and white, chemical darkroom photography to disturbed teens, in the back room of a falling-apart, old school-house, where we had to worry about getting Hantavirus from all the stray mouse droppings.

 

 

I kept that job for ten years, and over time, the school’s head raised private funding for computers, digital cameras, and Epson printers.

I still remember harping on the need for secure storage, and being told, “Yeah, yeah,” until one of the students in my program “allegedly” broke in with a few buddies and stole it all.

We couldn’t prove it, but he walked around that week with a little twinkle in his eye, and that was enough for me.

After that, they took my opinions a bit more seriously on the subject, and built some massive, sturdy, fire-safe cabinets, where we locked everything up tight.

(Nothing was stolen again.)

But a few years later, a bureaucrat, (who soon washed out of the system, and was most recently seen teaching skiing,) shut the entire school, and it’s still sitting there, empty, rotting in the harsh-mountain-sun.

I shot some photos there a few months ago, and watched the tumbleweeds roll around the dirt parking lot.

Times change, but when you live in the 48th or 49th poorest state in the US, for this long, you begin to understand that cycles of poverty and violence are nearly impossible to break.

 

 

 

That said, I still recall one student, who studied with me for two years.

When we met, she was non-verbal, resting her head on the table the entire class. She made no eye contact, and wouldn’t respond to questioning.

Still, I did my work, starting each class with a check-in, asking about their days, and family lives, as they would only open up and relax, letting their creativity settle in, once they felt safe, and knew I cared about them as people.

By the end of the second year, that same young student was making the best work in class, taking the camera to shoot her family home on the Pueblo, and was regularly conversant.

One day, she told me secrets about what happened in the Kiva, the ancient underground educational system for boys, and it was, without exaggeration, one of proudest moments of my life.

I likely didn’t change many, or any, lives in that decade, but I’m sure I taught the students that art, and creativity, are powerful coping tools for life’s difficulties.

And yes, I miss the work.

 

 

 

As usual, there are reasons when I reminisce.

Something always sets off a thought train, and today, it’s that I just spent an hour and a half reading and looking at “Portraits and Dreams,” a re-issued and updated book by Wendy Ewald, published by MACK in 2020.

Though I admit I hadn’t heard of the project before, it was apparently first published in 1980, and later became a documentary film by Appalshop, a well-known media lab in Appalachia.

I first assumed it was set in West Virigia for some reason, (maybe it’s all the Joe Manchin talk in the mainstream media?) but the project happened in Kentucky, where Wendy Ewald taught photography to extremely poor children in a two-room-school-house, in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

If you’ve ever seen the excellent TV show “Justified,” you might have a sense of the mise-en-scene, and coal-country-issues people live with down there, but that was a fictionalized account, starring the dreamy Timothy Olyphant. (And the phenomenally charismatic Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.)

 

 

This book, though, is straight truth, no fiction.

I admit, I wondered once or twice where the money came from to get this all going, (though the children had to raise $10 to buy their cameras,) and the end notes confirm there was grant funding made available by the NEA, and a couple of other sources.

 

 

 

As to the book, it features images made by the students, and written statements as well, though I do wonder if those were transcribed from audio interviews? (Not that it matters.)

Dead cousins, shot uncles, slaughtered pigs, fathers with black lung, fun times walking in the mountains, it’s all in there.

We see the world through the children’s eyes, and hear their thoughts. I could relate to some of their ideas in ways that seemed impossible, across so much time and space.

One boy, Delbert Shepherd, shocked at watching a chicken killed, actually imagines what it would feel like to be chopped into pieces and served as food. Another, in a pre-Climate Change age, writes that if all the humans disappeared, the Earth would be able to regenerate, after the ravages of human greed.

Powerful stuff, for sure.

At the end, Wendy Ewald shares details about how she got to Kentucky, and then fast-forwards the book to the present day, as she reconnected with her former students in the last decade, and we see images of them, pictures they’ve shot, and read about their current lives.

One woman practices photography, semi-professionally, and others are engineers and educators.

From a two-room school house, up in hollers with no running water, some of these kids actually made it out into the world. (One ended up running factories in China, another went to jail.)

But to a person, all the students remembered their time in Wendy Ewald’s photo program fondly, and it seems their experience as young artists stayed with them always.

Maybe today’s not a bad day to ruminate on that, and cultivate some hope in our dark times?

 

To purchase “Portraits and Dreams” click here

 

This Week in Photography: Send in the Clowns

 

 

How are you feeling today?

 

Are you keeping your shit together?

Or is this another crazy-ass week in a year that just won’t quit?

 

 

If you live in America’s Gulf Coast region, or on its East Coast, things might be a little hairy for you right now.

The photographs of Ida’s devastation are horrifying, and it’s hard to believe we’re looking at a storm that seems a combination of Katrina and Sandy, rolled into one. (If slightly-less-destructive to both regions.)

I swear, when Trump finally left the White House in January, I felt like #2021 might chill the fuck out, and give us a chance to catch our collective breath.

But it didn’t happen.

I’m one of the most positive, optimistic people I know, yet the last few years have triple-bonus-points loaded my cynicism meter, while doing a number on my goodwill for humanity.

How about you?

 

 

There is so much to unpack in contemporary America, it sometimes seems like we have a year’s worth of news packed into any given week.

Just a few days ago, the end of the 20 year war in Afghanistan was the biggest thing out there.

When the US Department of Defense tweeted out the photo below, of the last soldier departing the country, (shot through, or with night-vision-goggles,) I did an immediate screen grab, thinking that might be a worthy subject for the column.

 

Courtesy of the US Department of Defense

 

Then it went viral, and other people had the same idea, so I decided to give it a rest.

But within TWO DAYS, that story was old news, as the Climate Change disaster unfolding before our eyes was the top headline.

(When I wrote a few weeks ago that Climate Change was the new Trump, I was sort-of-kidding, but now I think it’s true.)

 

 

It was nearly impossible for me to avoid the fat orange guy, for five years, because this is a weekly opinion column, based upon photography, and we mine politics and culture on the regular.

To do that job, and ignore Trump, was not possible.

And that’s where we’re at with Climate Change now. It creates terrifying weather spectacles every fucking week, so how do I do my job and not acknowledge what’s happening out the window?

Hell, dancing fire embers might ruin all of Lake Tahoe by the time next week rolls around.

Or maybe another Hurricane will take out Houston?

Who knows?

What started with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with these extreme-weather-events being compared to hundred-year or thousand-year storms, now seems quaint and irrelevant.

The Earth is changing, and it’s fighting back against human rapaciousness.

We need to deal with it.

 

Video screengrab courtesy of the NYT.

 

 

Part of my current cynicism comes from the evidence before me; human beings no longer seem capable of collective action in the face of cataclysm.

I’m not sure if we ever were, but certainly, we’re not right now.

Our country, our society, has essentially chosen to perpetuate a pandemic, based upon politics, and inability to agree upon a shared reality.

It does not matter how many doctors, public health experts, politicians or scientists tell us we need to get vaccinated, to save our lives and our culture.

It’s just empty air to millions of our fellow country-people.

I actually had to keep a straight face, a few weeks ago, when someone I know told me that if you can smell a fart though underwear, masks don’t work.

Then, that same person laughed, saying that vaccines were so bad they LITERALLY couldn’t pay people to take them.

I smiled, and kept my mouth shut, because I am fully aware that in today’s climate, (different use of the word,) it is impossible to get anyone to open, much less change their minds.

{Ed note: This morning, I started posting the column, went to drop my kids off at school, and when I got home, the phone rang to say my daughter had been exposed to Covid, as someone in the 4th grade tested positive. This is now intensely personal in a way it wasn’t an hour ago. Kids her age cannot get vaccinated, so parents who won’t get the shot are risking my daughter’s life.}

 

 

Sometimes, I feel like we just need to catch a break.

If there were even a few weeks with no bad news, and Americans felt they could breathe again, it would make a big difference.

With the briefest pause in the unceasing tide of bad news, and prognostications of a deadly future, people would be able to chill, and reconsider their actions.

If every single moment of time didn’t feel like a battle to the death, between red and blue, pro-vaxx and anti-vaxx, north and south, science and religion, we might be able to grasp for a smidgen of collective sanity.

But it never seems to go that way.

If people could party again, hug, play, sing, shout, dress up, laugh, dance, drink a bit too much, and have a big old ball of fun, I actually believe we’d see some improvement in America.

Do you remember how to have fun?

How to feel like there was even A DAY when the weight of the world wasn’t on your shoulders?

It’s doubtful, but I’m going to provide visual evidence that such things once happened, and might well again.

 

 

I love the way the right book seems to materialize at the right time.

Living in one of the New Age, spiritual capitals of Earth, I’m happy to chalk it up to the power of the Universe.

Or Taos Mountain looking down upon me with grace.

 

Taos Mountain

 

Maybe it’s just luck?

But when I reached to the bottom of the pile, grabbing a book that came in nearly a year ago, I had a good feeling.

And wouldn’t you know, but “Then And There: Mardi Gras 1979,” by Harvey Stein, published by Zatara Press, came out of the box, just begging to be reviewed.

It shares some similarities with last week’s book, as it sticks to a pretty traditional script, design-wise.

The cover sets up the context, and then we see a succession of polaroid portraits of Mardi Gras revelers, back in the day.

I’m going to skip to the end, just for a second, as the essay, by Joanna Madloch, says the pictures were made in 1981 and ’82.

It’s hard to think the writer got it wrong, which makes this book’s title one of the strangest I’ve ever encountered.

Oddly, while I was looking through it, I thought a few times it was weird there wasn’t really a 70’s vibe going on. Given the costumes and make-up, probably these images could be made in 2023, or whenever Mardi Gras comes back, but titling the book with the wrong year makes me think Harvey Stein is a true absurdist.

{Ed note: when I just went to the Zatara Press website for the link to purchase the book, it said the images were made in 1979, so really, it’s hard to know.}

 

 

Cutting to the chase, I’ll just say these photographs are awesome.

They’re great.

The photos truly make me miss fun, parties, carnivals, all of it.

It’s like for the last 18 months, we’ve been living with all the shitty parts of being human, without any of the good bits. (Though I have loved getting to spend all the extra quality time with my kids.)

Page after page, and we see versions of the same image, compositionally, but the people and the get-ups change.

Can you even imagine a street thronged with thousands of people, all in costume, having the time of their lives?

In NOLA, Rio, or Venice?

Do you think it will ever happen again?

Like Bruce Haley’s book last week, I admit I was looking for a bit more of a mash-up, design-wise, but whenever I’d start to get bored, I’d see an image that demanded my attention.

They say the Devil is in the details, and maybe that’s true, but it’s also a negative way to look at things.

Maybe God is in the details?

Maybe the Buddhists are right, and if you can’t find a way to live in the moment, and appreciate the gift of life, then you’re going about things the wrong way?

Maybe it’s time we stop waiting for the world to get better, and begin figuring out how to trust each other again, as members of a cohesive society, rather than going down with the ship?

I was hoping to get to New Orleans and party, later this year, and now I’m not sure it will happen.

That makes me sad.

Because I love having fun.

Don’t you?

To purchase “Then and There” click here

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Weather Patterns

 

“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. I’ve been for a walk, on a winter’s day.”

The Mamas & the Papas, 1966

 

 

 

The California hills turn green in winter.

Or they used to, anyway.

 

 

When I first moved there in ’99, I was thoroughly confused. Where I came from on the East Coast, everything was opposite.

It was hard to wrap my mind around, the way the same hills, emerald in winter, would sere to wheat-gold in summer.

Back then, it rained from November to March.

WTF, I thought?

It’s not like that in Jersey.

 

 

But I didn’t move to California from NJ, directly.

I spent two years at UNM in Albuquerque, after graduating college, and the weather pattern there was tricky too.

Each summer, it got so hot, at 5000 ft, you could see heat waves rising off the asphalt. The city is mostly made of concrete, (where it’s not dirt and trees,) creating a heat situation that made people mad.

I called it angry-hot, as road rage incidents rose, tempers were short, and lots of people got shot. (Though the murder rate in the Burque is higher these days.)

I remember hiking in the Sandia Mountains, in October, and the sun was cooking my skin so badly, I had to turn around after 15 minutes.

I shook my fist at the sky.

Literally.

It’s not a turn of phrase.

I actually screamed at the heavens.

“Enough already! It’s October! Give it a rest, will you? For fuck’s sake, it’s Autumn!”

Still, the weather went on as it cared to.

 

 

These days, I live at 7000 feet, in a horse pasture outside Taos.

It’s a riparian; a river valley ecosystem, with all sorts of wild nature.

The farm ends in a box canyon; the lands beyond privately owned, but impossible to develop. Thereafter are several miles of completely untouched nature, home to all the mountain creatures you can imagine.

Years ago, the (very) little river split off from the acequia system in a different place, according to my wife, and beyond, lay a waterfall that fed a crystal-clear-pond.

Her magic place.

A paradise.

In the late 80s, the local acequia commission built a small, concrete dam to control the water flow for irrigation, and it killed the pond forever.

We walk back there sometimes, (though part of it’s not on the property,) and I love it just as it is.

 

Along the acequia

 

There’s a small path between the two waterways, so you hear the gurgling flow. Ancient, volcanic cliffs rise on both sides, with petroglyphs visible in the distance, if you know where to look.

I see it as it is, but not Jessie.

She doesn’t bring it up often, but I’m sure whenever we’re there, in her mind, she misses the untouched perfection of the past.

 

 

Leafing through Time Magazine the other day, I noticed an article about the historic drought affecting the American West.

The headline writer, lazily in my opinion, promised a grim future.

Need it be so?

Is this future already written?

Are there no humans among us prepared to plant some fucking trees, and skip the meat once in a while?

Are we truly doomed, with only hyper-rich guys like Jeffrey Bezos and Elon Musk riding their own rockets and space ships to their private colonies on Mars, where they lord over a new society as Emperors, all Hail Emperor Bezos, king of all that is before us! (Or a least half of it, anyway, because the other half belongs to Emperor Musk.)

Wait.
Where was I?

Have we never survived tough times before?

What about the Joads?

Didn’t they flee the dustbowl of Oklahoma for the then-greener pastures of California?

Things looked bleak in the Great Depression, right?

How about that run?

World War 1, a pandemic, a Great Depression, and then another War War, which came with the Holocaust.

People kept going back then, and figured shit out, right?

Maybe, with Climate Change, we will to?

 

 

 

Many years ago, I got an email from a photographer named Bruce Haley.

We kept up a correspondence, and as he lived in Big Sur, where Jessie had family, maybe we’d have a beer one day?

It didn’t happen, and he moved away before I got back in 2016.

 

Big Sur area beach, 2016

 

Bruce sent me a note last year, about a new book, the first in a two volume series he was working on with Daylight, and the first was about the desolate stretch of the San Joaquin Valley, in California, where he was raised.

They were kind enough to send the book along along, and “Home Fires. Vol.I: The Past” was just right for today.

His excellent, opening essay describes a childhood much like my wife had, and my kids are having. Running around the woods, playing in the ditch, romping around, treating his neighbors’ land like his own.

(His ancestors had come from Oklahoma, like the Joads, with their own major migration.)

Bruce had a secret spot, like Jessie, but it’s not there anymore.

(He also used the word riparian, inspiring me to drop it in earlier in the column.)

But really, to say the book is bleak is an understatement.

Rarely have I seen one that leaned so heavily on a color palette of brown and gray.

Though it was published in 2020, the images were shot in 2014, just as the California mega-drought was building in earnest.

It doesn’t make for pretty viewing, but we need to see what we need to see.

 

 

 

I realized half-way through this was one of those books that chose not to employ fancy design. It was a photo on the right, followed by another, and then another, all in the same shape and size.

Normally, that’s a no-no, unless the pictures are riveting and varied.

These are very good, but not brilliant, so I began to get a bit bored, as I’m inclined to do when books don’t shake it up.

And then… boom.
Something different.

I laughed.

In an odd photo, there are some cement shapes rising up in a pattern, like tombstones, and they’re photographed from behind.

There’s graffiti.

One of little things says “Poop on it.”

Another has a poorly drawn emoji face.

LOL.
Poop on it.

Can you imagine, laughing at such a sad, weary book?

It’s what I call a tension-breaker, when you shake up a run of similar images by giving us something different, tonally.

After that, for a while things stayed consistent in tone, before we see an image of a very racist statue of a Native American. It’s funny because it’s crass, and inappropriate.

That snapped the rhythm.

We move along, and it’s more sadness. Then, a set of tire tracks that went straight, when the road curved, leaving the viewer to imagine the potential car wreck that ensued.

Finally, there’s a great photo of the end of a paved road, with a sign that says End, and yes, the photography ends right there, followed by an essay by Kirsten Rian.

Throughout this book, we see a lot of parched earth, and deep poverty.

It’s a dry California, as far from the glamour of Malibu as you’re gonna get.

Just oil wells on dirt against sad skies.

So to all my California friends and readers out there: I hope it rains like crazy for you this winter.

(But not so much it causes mudslides, and wipes out Highway 1 again.)

To Purchase “Home Fires. Vol.I: The Past” click here

 

This Week in Photography: Thoughts & Prayers

 

 

It’s been a crazy week.

 

Out here in Taos, we hosted a Bar Mitzvah for my son, (on the second attempt,) and people flew in from around the US.

I was apprehensive, as the Delta variant has brought America back to its knees, and we were terrified our daughter might get Covid. (She’s too young to qualify for the vaccine.)

But cancelling wasn’t an option this time around, so we soldiered on, kept things outside as much as possible, and hoped for the best.


 

I catered a dinner for 30 people, the first night of the event, and after years of running our Antidote photo retreats, I got it done without too much stress.

Sure, one of my pans caught fire while I was making teriyaki chicken, but luckily, I put it out, and no drama ensued.

It was a tremendous amount of work, but we wanted to honor Theo’s commitment.

Because that’s what we do for our kids, right?

We sacrifice, and give our all to the endeavor, as raising human beings in such a complex world is the biggest job a parent has.

Thankfully, it all worked out in the end, and everyone had a good time.

It was challenging, but pales in comparison to what others have dealt with this very same week.

(I think you know what I’m talking about.)

 

 

Back in college, when I studied Political Science as a freshman, it was conventional wisdom the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought down their Empire.

(That was the word on the street.)

Just like Wallace Shawn gave us the famous quote, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia,” everyone knew Afghanistan was an unconquerable country; a quagmire where great powers went to die.

 

 

And yet…

When Osama Bin Laden and his asshole buddies attacked the US on 9/11, we backed the proxy army of the Northern Alliance, and then basically took over Afghanistan.

That was twenty years ago.

It’s hard not to imagine how those trillions of $$$$ might have been spent here: universal health care, free college, homes for the unhoused, a Green New Deal.

Who’s to say what might have happened, if things had gone another way?

 

 

But they didn’t, and this week, America’s failure to build a stable government in Afghanistan was all over our screens, in every form imaginable.

Twitter, FB, TV, IG.

It was a cluster-fuck of epic proportions, and avoiding the news was impossible.

Such travails we have over here, as we worry about ingesting too much “traumatic imagery” for our mental health.

If only the Afghans had problems like ours.

(But they don’t.)

The Afghan people, or many of them anyway, are too busy running for their lives.

They don’t have the luxury of worrying about the negative ramifications of traumatic imagery, as the misery they see is in front of their ACTUAL eyes, without the mediation of an iPhone screen.

It’s nasty business, what they’re living through, and honestly, I hope to never endure something like that.

The people of Afghanistan have my empathy, and all the “thoughts and prayers.”

To face the realistic fear my family might be annihilated by bullets, bombs, swords or stones does not compare to worrying whether I’ll overcook the lasagne.

(I didn’t, though. It was delicious.)

 

 

The world we inhabit is insanely unfair, and the place you’re born ultimately has more to do with what your life will look like than any other indicator.

Here in the US, the difference in neighborhoods in the same city can have a massive impact on life expectancy, health outcomes, and income.

Still, almost everyone in America has a safer environment than those living in impoverished, war-torn societies.

People in places like Afghanistan, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, and Yemen face obstacles we simply can’t comprehend.

It’s not possible.

(And notice I wrote “almost” two sentences ago, as there are some US residents living in very dangerous situations.)

 

 

At times like these, Art is most helpful, as it allows experiential information to be transmitted from one life to another.

Artists can share their POV, and viewers benefit from receiving the stories we read, see and hear.

That’s how it works.

Hell, just two weeks ago, I wrote about the necessity of those photographers who “bear witness” in the chaos of the 21C, as there are now phones with video cameras to capture everything that happens.

Frankly, that’s my only hope for Afghanistan, small though it may be.

Short of shutting off the internet, the Taliban will face a wave of recording technology this time around that didn’t exist at the turn of the century.

 

Courtesy of AP News

 

It’s at least possible the Taliban will be somewhat restrained by images and videos of their atrocities reaching the global pubic.

(It’s not much of a hope, but more than nothing.)

 

 

Again, it’s easy to for me to sit on my chair, put my feet up, and write this column for you.

I have the privilege of safety.

And all the smartest people are telling us a global refugee crisis is just getting started, as Climate Change will render some places uninhabitable, (where people currently live,) and then a lack of vital resources, like water, should kick off more drama.

It seems the refugee phenomenon will overwhelm our current system of borders, paperwork, passports, and institutional infrastructure.

(Come for the photography review, stay for the futurism.)

 

 

That being said, you can’t have a book review column without a book, and you might guess where we’re going today.

It just so happens I had the PERFECT thing in my book stack for a week like this.

Earlier this year, I received an email from Thana Faroq, a Yemeni refugee living in the Netherlands, who asked if she could send me a book, “I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows,” published by Lecturis, with support from the Open Society Foundations.

I was flattered, and happily accepted her offer, so let’s dig in, shall we?

 

 

It took a minute to figure out how to open the book, and then how to make it work.

The cover wraps around, and you have to open it a few times to get a sense of the object, but then it functions like a traditional publication.

(Turn the page, see something new.)

Certainly, I hadn’t considered how much the interminable periods of not-knowing-what-comes-next would be so maddening.

As we flip through, we learn about the constant waiting on paperwork, on status updates, on hearing from some bureaucrat whether you can stay safe, or if they’re planning on sending you back to Hell.

Can you imagine?

That’s why books like this are so helpful, as empathy differs from sympathy in its requirement that we put ourselves in others’ shoes.

 

 

The book is experiential, as after the opening text, we see a set of color photos made in a refugee camp in Djibouti, but then it goes Black and White, until another set of color photos at the end.

We see page after page of people in apartment block windows, standing around.

At first, I was confused, and then realized, as they built upon each other, it was a metaphor for standing around, waiting, looking out the window because you have nothing else to do.

We see photos out bus windows, walking down institutional corridors, and little moments that give a sense of the banality of fear.

(These people are safe, temporarily, but until the permits come through, it’s purgatory.)

Then, in the book’s middle section, we have portraits of refugees, taken through blurry glass, perhaps to protect their identities.

And those are paired with their hand-written-type statements on pieces of paper that have been glued to the page.

As I wrote when I reviewed Katherine Longly’s “Hernie & Plume,” or Maja Daniels’ “Elf Dalia,”  it seems the European-based book artists have a great sense on how to break up structures to prevent boredom, these days.

When I turned the last page, I felt grateful as much as empathetic.

I appreciate the bravery it takes to stay present in such difficult circumstances, and offer evidence to the rest of us.

So, thank you, Thana!

I hope you stay safe over there.

And when you get a chance, make sure to check out the pan-fried noodles at Kam Yin in Amsterdam.

The best!

To purchase a copy of Thana Faroq’s book, click here

 

This Week in Photography: The Dude Abides

 

 

I saw our wedding album on the counter.

Just now.

 

 

I bumped into it, and flipped through the pages.

How could you not?

They’re visual representations of our memories.

 

 

In this case, I had dual motivations.

We’re hosting the second attempt at our son’s Bar Mitzvah here this weekend, (despite the Delta hazard,) so nostalgia dictates I spend a minute or two thinking about the old days.

We were married here on the farm in the Summer of 2004; the landscape and our family’s lives are so different.

My mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, in her late 70’s, and it’s deteriorated badly over the Covid era. In the past few months, the last vestiges of her personality have extinguished.

 

The last Instagram photo I posted of Bonnie, from 03.07.21.

 

I looked to the album for a picture of Bonnie, 17 years ago, when she was healthy and vital.

That’s what photo albums do.

They hold our memories, while we’re busy doing other things. Or they did, and now we have digital versions.

I’m cool with that, but many people prefer the old ways.

I suspect Jeff Bridges might be kind of guy.

 

 

 

I re-watched “The Big Lebowski” for the hundredth time, to mood for this column.

There’s so much pressure to write well, as it’s one of my biggest artistic influences.

The 1998 film, by the Coen Brothers, (coming off their equally perfect, well-received hit “Fargo,”) has become a favorite of Generation X; its hero, The Dude, aka Jeff Lebowski, may well be the slacker King.

The Dude is the stoner ideal. Weed’s Übermensch.

He’s a wise-ass with a smart-mouth, but also inept in so many ways. He’s a cool guy, cracking jokes and dropping f-bombs, all while becoming an accidental detective.

He fails his way through, until he ultimately succeeds. (So American.)

The character takes in new information constantly, processing it through a Dudeness lens, so George HW Bush speaking on TV at Ralph’s comes out sideways as “This aggression will not stand, man.”

 

 

Back in the 90’s, when reefer was still illegal in America, there was a counterculture authenticity and absurdity to The Dude. His constant, instinctive, ironic rebellion made him irresistible.

And the film itself, “The Big Lebowski,” is flawless.

I’m sure I can shout out ten more brilliant performances off the top of my head: Julianne Moore, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Tara Reid, Sam Elliot, John Turturro, Flea, Ben Gazarra, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is beyond, with the bowling-ball camera placement and great angles galore, while the costuming is insanely good, the music is just right, (Credence and Dylan!) and the amount of things that had to come together for a production like this to achieve perfection is mind-boggling.

 

 

Still, people remember The Dude, as much as the movie’s intricate plot. (Wait, who are the Knudsens again? Big shout out to Jon Polito, who steals the show in his brief scene, much as he did in the criminally underrated “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” I’d have included him earlier, but I needed to look up his name. {Ed note, in searching for the screengrab photo, I just learned Jon Polito passed away in 2016. RIP.})

 

Jon Polito 1950-2016

 

The Dude was the embodiment of the California Dream, with his Ralph’s and his In-N-Out burger and rug-Feng-Shui.

At the end of 20th Century, back when the good life in California meant getting there first, or getting there early, and hanging on for the ride.

These days, NYT columnists wonder whether that California Dream is dead and buried.

It’s no wonder “The Big Lebowski” has aged so well.

 

 

 

Jeff Bridges grew up in a Hollywood family, as his dad Lloyd was an actor, and Gen X’ers have much love for the paterfamilias, given his seminal role in “Airplane.”

 

 

As Jeff’s been on film sets his whole life, they must feel like home to him.

Like the most natural places in the world.

Each movie’s particular combination of cast and crew becomes a little family, and then his actual family works with him sometimes too.

 

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could see that film-making world as he sees it?

To get the inside view?

I’m glad you asked.

 

 

I recently interviewed Jeff Bridges online, in reference to his 2019 photo book “Jeff Bridges: Pictures Volume Two,” published by powerHouse.

It’s a part of my guest blog for the New Orleans Photo Alliances’s BookLENS program.

 

 

I don’t want to spoil the interview, so please give it a read, as it was an honor and privilege to have him answer my questions.

But the book, (which is a companion to Part 1,) gives us a peek behind the curtain of the filmmaking process.

Using a panning camera and black and white film, Jeff photographs crew members doing their jobs, actors on set, props in the back room… all of it.

We see images from each film he’s made since Part 1, in sequence, from 2003’s “Seabiscuit” up through 2018’s “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

The photos are interspersed with bits of printed and hand-written-cursive-style text, these little thoughts in a voice that vibes exactly as you think Jeff Bridges would sound: cool, positive and hip.

I mean, check out this little bit about the late, great Harry Dean Stanton:

“Harry Dean was cast to play a wise man who, we find out late in the movie, is blind. Turns out on the first day of the shooting, he refused to do that, be blind. For some reason, Harry refused to play the guy blind. He’s a wonderful actor, but shit, Harry… that was the part, man.”

 

 

“But shit, Harry, that was the part, man.”

How could you not love a book where you hear Jeff Bridges’ unvarnished thoughts, and see what he saw on so many great movies? (“Crazy Heart” and “Hell or High Water” are two of my favorites from this phase of his career.)

His opening statement tells us he’s always given out photo albums to cast and crew, over the years, and that personal project evolved into the two powerHouse books.

So in honor of photo albums, I promise to take more pictures this weekend.

See you next Friday!

 

To purchase “Jeff Bridges: Pictures Volume Two” click here. Proceeds go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Behind the Curtain

 

 

I wasn’t inspired to sift through submissions today.

 

 

So I dusted off my favorite trick, and stared at the bookshelf.

“What will jump out,” I wondered?

 

Would any random connections form, giving me a creative star around which to orbit?

First, I saw a book still in its bubble-wrap, but on the shelf, and it was “Glaciers,” by Ragnar Axelsson in Iceland, published by Qerndu in 2018.

“Well,” I thought, “at least I should take it out of the bubble,” so I set it aside, and returned to hunting.

The next book that popped out, kicking me in the subconscious groin, (metaphorically speaking,) was an all-time favorite, Taryn Simon’s “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” published by Steidl in 2007.

“Do they have anything in common,” I asked myself?

Then it hit me like a fist to the solar plexus, the buzzword from five or six years ago: Access.

Access is the key.

 

 

 

I wrote about RAX for the NYT Lens Blog, and he actually flies a plane to get his photographs of the famed glaciers of Iceland.

He’s a part of an airplane collective, a fractional ownership, I believe, so he has the rare ability to actually show us what “Icecaps” really look like, in a world in which they’re melting.

 

 

Climate Change is the new Trump, so people who can go into the eye teeth of dangerous, or out of the way places, who can do what photography often did in the 19th Century, and “bear witness,” will be doing all of us a solid.

(For example, this past week, the Washington Post featured Louie Palu’s photos of translators in the war in Afghanistan. It takes A LOT to tell those stories.)

 

 

But back to the books.

Taryn Simon goes behind the scenes in America in an absurd, clever, tragic, and addictive manner, showing us obscenely well-composed, and well-researched, formal photographs in places no regular person would/could ever go.

Most of us couldn’t/wouldn’t get in the door in ANY of these places, but ALL of them?

As a wise man once said, “Inconceivable!”

 

 

 

I could write a partial list, but really it would just seem like I’m making it up.

Among many other places, she visits: a nuclear waste facility, the CIA, the KKK, inside an inbred-white-tiger cage, with Jews who don’t believe in Israel, on military exercises, at the site of active explosions, on the Mexican border with detainees, or maybe you’d prefer to see the actual Death Star from “Star Wars?”

From what I know, Taryn Simon’s father was in the State Department, she went to Brown, and is well connected in the Art world, (meaning, Powerful International Rich People,) so throw in a research team, some photo assistants, and I can only imagine a lot of charm… and you get a book like this.

No small feat.

 

 

Like RAX’s book required he literally fly over glaciers repeatedly in a small plane, Taryn Simon’s work necessitates a host of very specific skills, abilities, and connections, to make her seminal series possible.

Using all of your talents and contacts, working it to the max in service of your art, is a gutsy, and occasionally risky strategy, but man, when it pays off, you do end up with some of the best stuff.

Just a thought.

See you next week!

 

To purchase the Icelandic version of “Glacier,” click here 

To purchase a used copy of Taryn Simon’s book on Amazon, click here

 

 

 

This Week in Photography Books: Holy

 

 

I want to tackle a tricky subject today.

(Buckle up.)

 

I’ve mostly stayed away from Politics these last few months, as the Biden era has been a tonic to the collective, societal PTSD wrought by the DJT years.

I needed a break from thinking about it all the time.

So did you.

 

For a while, the vaccine rollout in the US was such it seemed the horrid pandemic might be drawing to a close.

Certainly, in April, and then in May, when I traveled to New Jersey, that was my mentality.

Things were on the mend in America.

Then something strange happened.

The virus numbers started climbing fast, again, and the percentage of vaccinated people began inching up at a much slower rate.

 

 

Just like Climate Change is pretty much what Al Gore told us it would be, in “An Inconvenient Truth” fifteen years ago, the predicted virus variants have shown up, spreading more quickly, making lots of folks freak out again.

 

 

People are still dying in hospitals all over America.

Mostly, it’s those who refused to take a vaccine that would have saved their lives.

 

 

It’s a phenomenon I’ve been stuck on for weeks now.

Why would someone rather die, than take a shot?

Who would rather die than admit they might be wrong, as to the necessity of the vaccine to “not die?”

 

 

It’s the most illogical thing I can think of, but I’m happy to admit humans are not essentially rational creatures.

Still, though.

To choose to die, for an idea?

Who does that?

And then it hit me.

Warriors do that.
Soldiers.
In Wars.

 

 

If you fight and die for your country, or for any cause you believe in. If you’re a non-state actor, or a guerrilla, and you give up your life for your ideals.

That’s normal.

Right?

Isn’t that a version of what we’re seeing?

We’ve called it a Culture War for so long, red vs blue, liberal vs conservative, rural vs urban.

Then You-Know-Who stirred up the crazies for 5 years, and normalized awful behavior, unleashing hidden hatreds.

Are we really THAT surprised, in the aftermath of mass shootings, and people dying rather than wear a mask, that this is the next, natural evolution?

People die in Wars all the time.

Wars have victims, and collateral damage.

 

 

Sometimes, though, a group’s fight is so easy to believe in, it seems absurd the battle rages on.

In this case, I’m thinking of women’s rights, given women make up half of humanity: our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, partners, friends, teachers, colleagues.

 

My daughter, the other night.

 

How everyone doesn’t get behind equal pay, women’s right to control what happens to their bodies, safer streets, more political representation, anti-domestic violence laws, more humane systems for sex workers, or trans rights… the list goes on.

As I’ve trotted out before, my wife went to Vassar and Smith; she educated me directly on feminist issues back when we met in the late 90’s.

When we hear about the percentage of women who’ve been sexually abused, or physically assaulted, the reality of violence against women is unconscionable.

And for how important the issue is, it gets far-too-little play in the mainstream media, IMO.

 

 

What put me in this frame of mind, you ask?

Today, we’re going to look at “Holy,” by Donna Ferrato, published by powerHouse in 2021, and it will explain a lot of why I went postal up there.

(Maybe it’s time to retire that word, postal? I don’t remember the last time a postal employee was involved in a mass shooting, do you?)

 

 

As to the book, it’s in-your-face, unabashedly feminist, body positive, sex positive, honest and brash.

It’s confrontational, and positions Donna Ferrato as a warrior with a camera, fighting to tell vital stories about violence against women, as a photojournalist, for decades.

The book’s premise is that Christianity’s trinity is fundamentally flawed, because the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are all male figures.

So Donna Ferrato creates her own version: the Mother, the Daughter, and the Other.

Those three chapters become the structure of the book.

Throughout, there is hand-written-style text included with the image, to story-tell, fill in details, and set the context. (Captions at the end offer more details.)

I often recommend creating balance in a book’s emotional tenor, but sometimes, visions this intense will keep-it-real all the way though, with that energy ramped up.

(This one reminds me of Nina Berman’s “An autobiography of Miss Wish” in that regard.)

 

 

We see images of women who fought for their freedom; for the safety of their children.

Women who stood up to their abusers, or stood on street corners risking grim death to pay the bills.

There are women breaking into their houses to get their shit back from asshole ex-husbands, and women of all kinds, wearing full back-tattoos, or two black-eyes from the cover of a magazine.

 

There are girls, of course, and home births. Family photos.

We learn of her father’s bipolar disorder, and then his death is included too. As is her mother’s.

This book is Spinal Tap cranked up to 11.

It’s Pat Benatar on crystal meth.

Or Olivia Rodrigo smashing guitars like Pete Townshend.

(Wait, wasn’t there a female singer who just made the news for breaking her guitar? Give me a second. I’ll Google it…OK, I’m back. It was Phoebe Bridgers on SNL.)

As I was saying, I support the cause, and am all for the idea of this book, but also appreciate the book itself.

It’s so well-executed.

See you next week!

To purchase “Holy” click here

 

This Week in Photography: A Living Legend

 

 

I took some heat for last week’s column.

(About Grandpa Sam.)

 

 

There was no blowback from the haters. Those anonymous trolls that used do drive me and Rob crazy back in 2011.

No.

This time, the negative feedback came from members of my family, (via social media,) who objected to my depiction of Grandpa Sam.

 

 

They say time heals all wounds, and of course some people find it unseemly to speak ill of the dead, so I’ll be kind and assume that’s what was happening.

(Plus, I’m washing my family’s dirty laundry in public, which can be objectionable as well.)

But I shared only a fraction of Grandpa Sam’s indiscretions, and didn’t even mention that Grandma divorced him, in her 80’s, as there were plenty of stories about him laying hands on her. (And not in a Pentecostal-Christian kind of way.)

Grandpa was so disliked, at the end, I don’t think anyone in my family even knows when or where he died, as once Grandma left him, (and got a new boyfriend named Sy,) we all lost touch with Grandpa Sam.

Now it’s 2021, and even though he was an abusive drunk, ranked his grandchildren by favorites, and bought people off with money and gifts, apparently I’m the asshole, (to some,) for writing about it.

These days, you can’t win.

 

 

These days, everyone has an opinion about everything.

I know I shouted out Bo Burnham’s “Inside” last week, but really, it deserves a bit more exploration here.

The Netflix special has been rightly received as a masterpiece; the kind of work only someone who’s been building a distinctive style, and obsessively working on craft for years, could even hope to achieve.

(It’s that entertaining, smart, touching, and nuanced.)

 

 

One of our favorite parts, (we’ve watched it multiple times as a family,) is his bit about what it’s like living in a world in which every single person seems to think it’s appropriate to share their thoughts about every single subject, all the time.

Like a good, self-aware Zoomer, Bo Burnham makes sure to mock himself as one of the endless opinion-sharers out there, and I’d have to do the same too.

But he’s a professional comedian, so it’s his job to share his thoughts, and I’ve had a biographical opinion column for a decade, so it comes with the territory here as well.

 

 

While some, among the younger generation, are able to understand nuance and gray area, others, perhaps from older generations, are more familiar with the norms and mores of bygone eras.

You know: when the planet wasn’t on fire, there were seemingly “unlimited” resources to plunder, the patriarchy was unquestioned, and proper men never said they were sorry.

I guess my big mistake last week was comparing Grandpa Sam to Donald Trump, because that tied it to partisan politics, though the connection was really about their mutual love of gold, casinos, and acting like a Mafia Kingpin.

 

DJT’S gold apartment

Obviously, I’m being careful not to name the relatives whom I offended last week, but I’m sorry I hurt your feelings!

Grandpa might have been a wife-beating jerk and a nasty drunk, who treated me like shit, but hey, it’s bad form to speak ill of the departed.

Mea Culpa!

 

 

But it wouldn’t be one of my articles if the opening rant was completely divested from the review at the bottom, right?

We have to talk about a book, or photography in some way, and hopefully, it will all make sense.

Right?

 

 

Well, today, I was put in this frame of mind after looking at the amazing photo book “Signs,” by Lee Friedlander, published by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, in conjunction with a 2019 exhibition.

This is one of those books that needs little build-up, or explanation, because the one-word title tells you everything you need to know.

 

 

For the uninitiated, Lee Friedlander is as old school as it gets in American Photography; a living master who has such a distinctive style, it changed the way we all look at street photographs.

Forever.

This dude, with his busy, head-ache compositions, constant curiosity, and wandering, black and white vision, is like Madonna, or Chuck Berry.

 

 

He changed the game so significantly, future imitators who drafted on his vision still did well, such is the joy we all feel at looking at the drama of the street.

We can name drop Walker Evans as a forebear, especially with the signage in this one, and of course Robert Frank was out there in the 50’s too, (and Garry Winogrand,) making work with some crossover.

But Lee Friedlander pictures, in the end, look only like Lee Friedlander pictures, whether it’s the constant inclusion of vertical sign-posts breaking up his compositions, or reflections in the windows, making us see ourselves in his work.

This book is a compilation, in which the editors have included images from the 1950’s through the 2010’s, and that’s why it’s so great.

Because we get to see all these American eras smashed up against each other.

Of course people who came of age in the 1950’s would see America through a vastly different lens than the Zoomers.

And how could irony-loving, ambiguity-friendly, slacker Gen Xers always make sense to Boomers, who were reared in a binary, zero-sum-game world of hip/square, good/bad, and Commie/Patriot?

The book is a literal trip down memory lane, (not that I’ve ever used that cliché phrase before,) and occasionally makes strong points, like having a George Wallace image above one of Trump, while JFK and MLK sit in a vertical diptych on the opposite side.

Everyone will love this book… unless they dismiss it outright, because it was made by a white, cisgender male who was using a camera as a tool of the patriarchy to appropriate other peoples’ cultures without consent.

(See, I can make fun of both sides. And I mock myself here all the time, so you know I’m willing to be the butt of the joke.)

 

 

Anyway, that’s enough for today.

Will I have to eat a new bunch of shit from my relatives for this column?

Probably.

But it’s just, you know, uh, like, my opinion, man.

Take a chill pill.

And see you next week.

To purchase “Signs” click here

 

This Week in Photography: Portfolios from the LACP Review

 

 

My grandfather was a criminal.

(Step-grandfather, actually.)

 

 

Grandpa Sam, (as he liked to be called,) came into our lives when I was about ten, since my actual grandfather died of cancer when I was three.

He was a larger-than-life character, Grandpa Sam, like a mini-Trump, as the dude couldn’t have been taller than 5’3″.

But Grandpa was as stout as he was tall, so there was nothing little about him.

 

 

While I was on the phone with my cousin Jordan the other week, we got to sharing stories about Grandpa Sam, and it occurred to me he’d make an amazing character in a film.

(Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, as we all know.)

As I was on my break from the column, (and all email and social media distraction,) I did a bit of research, and turned up proof that he was actually a crook, and not the wannabe we had assumed.

Grandpa Sam was busted by the Feds, the freaking ATF, back in the early 80’s, for running a scheme to pass French table wine off as high-end Burgundy.

They shut him down and fined him, but he avoided jail time, and given how close this was to when he met Grandma, I’m pretty sure she knew what was up.

The two of them were all about the gold and the diamonds; jetting off to casinos, where he was treated as a whale, or taking cruise ships to far-flung locales.

 

 

We all have our tales, like the time he tried to pick up my wife at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, and actually made Grandma show off her diamond ring, so that Jessie knew for sure how much better he’d treat her than I could. (As a poor, hipster artist.)

But memories are just that, and internet research is an entirely different thing.

I now have proof that he wasn’t lying about being shot down by the Nazis, in World War II, and kept as a POW until the war ended.

I even have the photographs for you: images that show his plane, the ironically named “Lucky 13,” on the ground with Hungarian fighters swarming over the wreckage.

 

 

Then, I found out his partner in the wine-scheme, a Frenchman, was himself accused of being a Nazi collaborator, so Grandpa Sam appears to have gone into the criminal business with someone who stood on the opposite side of the Holocaust.

(Again, you can’t make this shit up.)

And I only discovered it because I let my mind untether from email and social media.

There’s a lesson in that.

 

 

I’ve promised myself not to return to my previously addicted ways, because really, how many times do we need to hear Facebook manipulates its platform to maximize the hours we use it?

Or how many articles do we need to read about the toxicity of email, and how much we all hate it?

I can now see that spending hours a day, cycling between email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, was actually rotting my brain and my soul, from the inside out.

(Addiction is nasty.)

 

 

Creativity, on the other hand, keeps us young and mentally agile. It was the theme of my last couple of columns, before the break, and wouldn’t you know that while I was away, the WaPo published this great article that confirmed almost everything I’ve been telling you over the last ten years.

Vindication!

But that only works if we have the discipline to find the time to stay creative.

To focus, and grow.

(No easy task.)

Will I ever write that screenplay about Grandpa Sam?

I’m not sure.

Even without email and social media, parenting, work, bill paying, caring for elderly relatives, driving back and forth to town, all these things split our day into little chunks, which makes it difficult to find 2-5 hours a day to get the good shit done. (1000 words at a time I can handle.)

Then again, when I visit portfolio review events, (IRL or on Zoom,) I constantly meet artists who are transitioning from another career.

People who’ve taken a leap of faith, later in life, because they learned that living without art, without having that creative spark on the regular, is more trouble than it’s worth.

It’s why I constantly preach inspiration here, because many of you have day jobs, and it’s a struggle to find the juice to make things, when you’re worn out and weary.

When we do, though, it almost always gives more energy than it takes.

(I’ve recently rejoined my martial arts classes, post-vaccination, and even getting beaten and bruised gives more juice than it consumes.)

Now that I’m back from my thirteen days without writing, I can gladly say it feels good to have this sensation again.

Writing in flow.

And while Grandpa Sam may have just been an excuse for a fun opening rant, where we landed was not an accident.

I mentioned portfolio reviews because today, we’re going to jet back in my memory files to January 2021, but not for the reasons you’d expect.

Rather, that’s when I attended the virtual portfolio reviews by the Los Angeles Center of Photography, and while it’s taken longer than I might have liked, today we’ll peek at the best work I saw that day.

As usual, the artists are in no particular order, and I’d like to thank all of them for allowing us to share their creations with you here today.

 

 

Let’s start with Kat Bawden, as she’s one of the photographers I’ve met over the years who returned to show me work again, and totally blew me away.

I first reviewed Kat’s pictures in 2017, and was unimpressed by a social documentary project that didn’t seem specific, or driven by a deep need. I shared my thoughts, and according to Kat, it lit a fire in her to push towards a more authentic style that channeled her inner reality.

I tend to give credit to the artist in such situations, (and not the advice-giver,) but man, did Kat take that motivation and grow at hyper-speed.

This time around, we looked at a set of edgy, disturbing, film-noir-esque, black and white images that were inspired by childhood trauma and repressed memory.

The photographs are phenomenal, and Kat just reported she’s matriculating to get an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so I expect we’ll be seeing much more from her in the future.

 

 

Galina Kurlat and I spent a few minutes trying to figure out where we might have met before, but I couldn’t place it. We were definitely at Pratt Institute at the same time, earlier this Millennium, so maybe that was it.

No matter, as when it came to checking out her new work, I was amazed from the jump.

Like Bo Burnham’s brilliant new Netflix special, “Inside,” this work could not have been made without the intense, miserable pandemic lockdown restrictions, which limited what artists could do, and where they could do it.

Living in New York during the worst of it, Galina had some photo paper, the sunlight coming in through her windows, and the fluids and hair that came out of her body. (It sounds gross when your write it like that, I know.)

The resulting images, in which she used her hair, blood, saliva and urine, along with old bathwater in the photographic process, are quite beautiful, despite the bleak reasons for their creation.

Major wow on this project, for sure.

 

Matthew Welch is based in SoCal, but showed me a series of “Flow” images he made around the world. The process is intricate and simple, in that he stands in one spot, and makes so many images that life’s natural drama is sure to unfold.

According to Matthew, in one instance he took 100,000 images near the waterfront, in Hermosa Beach, and I can’t really imagine what it’s like to do something like that.

It’s a pretty good expression of focus, determination, and drive, to which I alluded at the beginning of the column. Cool stuff.

 

 

Next, we’ve got Natalie Obermaier, who works as a lighting expert in the fashion and commercial photography community in LA. She mentioned how hard it is to do that work, and stay creative as a photographer, so her style evolved into something more tactile, and constructive.

Literally, as she makes collages out of strips of images, which critique the fashion industry, while still celebrating a bit of glamour.

 

 

At first, I must admit, I was dubious when I met Jamie Johnson, because I was aware she made photographs of Irish Travelers, the Gypsy/Roma community in Ireland, and that is a subject I’ve seen many times before.

Like Cuba, it’s on the photo-tour-circuit, so I told her I’d expect her more of a reason than just taking a trip with a guide, and she certainly had the right answers.

Jamie has photographed children for years, in various projects, and considers it her area of expertise, so she’s invested a lot of time visiting with the Traveler children, including a copious amount of interviews.

The series became a book, published by Kehrer Verlag, and it’s a compelling offering for sure.

 

 

Jacque Rupp is a photographer who made a later-in-life career change, in Northern California, and became interested in how little she knew about the community of people who grow the food that’s eaten in California, and across the country.

(The Central Valley grows much of the produce for the US.)

She did the deep dive, getting to know people in the farm-worker community, doing the research, creating relationships, and the resulting documentary photos are well worth looking at.

It’s another example of outside-the-community projects that have been frowned upon over the last few years, but I believe that if photographers are earnest, care for the right reasons, and put in the leg work, we should consider what they’ve made with kindness, and an open heart. (Not everyone agrees. I get it.)

 

 

Last, but certainly not least, we have Benjamin Dimmitt, whom I knew from social media, but not IRL. (I guess even these meetings were on Zoom, so Benjamin, hope we can connect in meat-space one of these days!)

Benjamin was a long-time New Yorker who relocated to the South, but he’s originally from Florida, where his project was shot.

Literally every day now, we’re reading stories about how bad Climate Change has become, and how reservoirs are drying up across the West, and sea levels are rising on the coasts.

It’s abstract, in a frog-getting-boiled-alive-in-a-pot-of-water kind of way.

Many of Benjamin’s photos, which were shot in Florida, about 70 miles North of Tampa, show the changes wrought, as they were made with large time gaps. (Between 10 and 34 years, depending on the diptych.)

But from a technical and asethetic perspective, I preferred the single, square images he showed me, which were made more recently.

They’re beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

 

 

That’s it for today, though, so see you next week, and stay cool out there!

This Week in Photography: #2020 Flashbacks

 

 

It’s July 1st, as I write this.

(Which means #2021 is half over.)

How did we get here?

 

 

We’ve lived six months of this year already, but somehow, the horrific events of January 6th still feel fresh.

And the moment when a nice, male nurse first stuck a needle in my arm, in Amarillo, Texas, in early March, seems like it just happened.

 

The Amarillo vaccination clinic parking lot

 

I can taste the tang of the barbecue sauce from Tyler’s, as we slathered it all over a huge tin of baby back ribs, and a pound of slowly-smoked brisket.

The jalapeño creamed corn was amazing, and the bread pudding was even better.

It might have been yesterday, according to my consciousness, but then again, it was four months ago.

 

 

The Pacific Northwest, which is typically rainy and cool, has been trapped under something called a heat dome, and if I read the news correctly, it just killed 500 people in British Columbia.

Here in mountains of Northern New Mexico, where it’s normally hot and dry this time of year, we’ve had ten days of cold rain, with dense, gray skies, and people are starting to talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder.

My daughter’s always said she loved gray days, (since it’s sunny all the time here,) and even she changed her mind, claiming she doesn’t want to live in Portland anymore.

She misses the sun, and that’s saying something.

It’s almost enough to remind me of the time, early last September, when a snowstorm hit just after Labor Day Weekend, and birds literally dropped dead, falling from the sky in droves.

End times stuff for sure.

 

 

But then again, isn’t #2021 better than #2020?

I mean, much better?

Aren’t you happier?

Don’t you feel safer?

Have you gotten Donald Trump out of your head yet?

Have you seen “Mare of Easttown?”

 

 

Do you care the Phoenix Suns are going to the NBA Finals? Or that England beat Germany at Euro 2020?

Did you know Euro 2020 was being played in #2021, but they didn’t bother to change the name, likely b/c it would have meant a whole new round of paying the graphic designers and branding experts?

Were you aware the Olympics are about to start in Tokyo, even though vaccination rates in Japan are low, and the whole thing might turn into the biggest super-spreader event of all time?

Do you remember when you’d never heard the term super-spreader before?

Or Covid?

Can you recall #2019, when Corona was just a Mexican beer brand, or the Spanish word for crown?

 

 

The thing about terror is you feel it.

It’s not an intellectual concept.

Terror is visceral.

It’s a physical sensation, (a triggered state, if you will,) when fear is so overwhelming that parts of the body, like the pre-frontal cortex, shut down a bit, and we’re left as half-people.

Shadows.

Terror makes people hunt witches, or choose to die rather than get a little needle in the arm to prevent disease.

That kind of emotional insanity, when we do counter-productive things, and spin brain circles until we’re ready to explode, it’s hard to remember what it feels like, once passed.

Which is the reason Nazis made a comeback last year, because there are so few humans still alive who survived their reign of evil in Germany back in the 1930’s and ’40’s.

These days, tens of millions of Americans have been convinced there are “some very fine people” among the Nazi contingent, and that wasn’t even a #2020 quote.

(Just the 2017 opening act.)

 

 

 

 

#2021 is half over, and while I was desperate for #2020 to arrive, given #2019 left me breathlessly exhausted, I most certainly regretted my foolishness.

So I’m happy we still have another six months in #2021, because I’ve finally begun to feel human again, and safe, and I’m not ready to give that up.

Are you?

 

 

I admit, this column is stream of consciousness, (even for me,) and it might be because it’s the last week before my staycation, and my brain is mostly cooked.

Perhaps.

Or it could be that I just finished looking at “Jesus Fucking 2020,” an absurd little ‘zine that showed up early last November, by the artist and critic Andrew Molitor, and it totally channels the energy from that space in time.

So let’s call that a trigger warning, shall we?

If you’d rather not be reminded how you felt back then, I’d recommend you skip the photos below.

It’s not that they’re disturbing, necessarily, though the deep-black-color-palette references horror films, and there are images of screaming.

Rather, I think it’s just weird and nonsensical enough to give you flashbacks to October #2020, right before the US presidential election, when it seemed the entire fate of the world hinged upon what happened in the subsequent months.

And didn’t it?

 

 

Knowing what we know now, do you understand why I obsessively wrote about DJT for five years?

Why I feared for my children’s future, from the moment I heard him exclaim, “Not a puppet. You’re the puppet.”

It all came to pass, the very worst of it, with millions dead around the world from the pandemic, and chaos in the streets of America.

And yet…

Here we are, in July of #2021.

And for much the US, things are so much better than they were back in the autumn of #2020.

When one might rightly have wondered whether we’d gotten stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, only every day was Halloween.

Which Andrew Molitor speculated, as he created his ‘zine back in October of last year.

 

 

He writes fake scenes in the ‘zine, which is a conceit I’ve played with in the column several times over the years, but not lately.

My favorite part is the repeating joke that Zoom is better than nothing, because how many times did we all say that?

I just decided to take a summer break from my Antidote online educational program, as the system we’d set up for a stay-at-home world, in which people were so very lonely, no longer seemed as relevant.

We’ve moved on, here in the US, (thanks to our abundance of vaccines,) but forgetting how we got here would be a huge mistake.

 

 

 

So please forgive Andrew’s blasphemous title, if you’re particularly religious, as I think he meant no offense.

It was the right combination of words, back in 10/20, to capture the flavor of the moment.

And as he lives in the Pac Northwest, I’m sure he’s currently baking his _______ off, trying to stay cool and not die.

That’s the thing with Climate Change, right?

It’s like that old expression: out of the frying pan, and into the fire.

 

So as Andrew wrote on the back of his ‘zine, “Be good to one another,” and I hope you have a lovely 4th of July weekend, if that’s a holiday you celebrate.

See you in a couple of weeks.

 

To learn more about Andrew Molitor, visit his blog here

 

This Week in Photography: Hunting Witches

 

 

I’d like to talk about creativity today.

 

It’s a big deal, summoning something out of nothing.

To birth an idea or object into the world, where it can exist outside of us, and live on its own.

 

 

This elusive nature of creativity, (and the fact it’s better understood through a metaphysical prism, rather than a practical one,) means most people believe art talent is a gift that some have been given, and others not.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t draw,” “I can’t cook,” or “I became a curator because my art wasn’t good enough?”

 

 

As a long-time educator, I assure you, I’ve heard all these exclamations before. (Many, many times.)

But in addition to being a teacher, I’ve also been writing every week for almost 10 years, which gives me a totally different perspective on creativity.

Weekly deadlines mean that being creative, for me, isn’t a choice.

I’ve got to bring the heat, every week, even when I don’t feel like it.

(When I’m tired, grumpy, or don’t find the world that interesting.)

That’s the aspect of creativity I wanted to focus on today.

The idea that we are not the master of our best impulses. That we do not get to dictate when, where and how the inexplicable elements of our psyches rise up from the depths of our consciousness.

It doesn’t work like that.

 

 

I often tell my students there is no such thing as an art boss.

If you’re an artist, making your own stuff for yourself, no one gets to tell you what to do.

You follow the whims of your instincts, and chase down stories you’re desperate to know more about.

For you.

In all my years doing this work, I’ve discovered that humans are interested in just about everything, so someone out there is going down a rabbit hole you didn’t even know existed.

And they’re likely doing it because they love it.

Because it gives them pleasure, understanding, information, or a fresh perspective on the world.

However, that well-spring, the ineffable part of us that drives our best efforts, also needs a break every now and again.

(Like the body, the mind occasionally needs rest.)

It’s why I’ve taken a couple of weeks off here, the last few years, because even I need those two chances to let my brain stop working. (A week in summer, and one at Xmas.)

 

 

I’m not quite there yet, at vacation time, so I’ve got to review a book eventually.

Before I do, though, I want to land one last point on this subject: stress, misery, unhappiness, and anxiety are really bad for creativity.

I remember how hard it was to make art, and generate any good ideas, when I was chair of the Fine Arts Department at my former college, 5 years ago.

I could feel my best self leaching out through cell walls, with each passing week, and the more I was pickled in cortisol and adrenaline, the less of an artist I became.

At the very worst moment, (and there were many,) an older, mentally unstable student came up to me, and screamed “Booooo,” in my face, like a witch, to unnerve and unsettle me.

(No surprise, it worked.)

It was a spontaneous act, which means she didn’t have any time to plan it, but invoking the vibe of ancient, black magic taps into a fear that has existed deep within humans for centuries. (If not longer.)

Here in America, we’ve all heard about the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th Century, and I even had a witch friend once. (Long story.)

If you haven’t seen the brilliant “The Witch,” which came out in 2015 and launched Anya Taylor-Joy, do yourself a favor and stream it, but I promise, you’ll never look at a goat the same way again.

 

 

Witchcraft holds an outsized role in the imagination of popular culture, mostly because of misogyny.

How hard is it to see that in a male-dominated world, the idea of super-powered women, conspiring by firelight at night, might scare the shit out of those in power, the men, who had no interest in relinquishing their control?

(Shout out to the Power and Control instinct.)

Even in the ubiquitous superhero stories of the 21st Century, witches are treated with suspicion, like Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch character in “The Avengers.”

And it’s a world-wide phenomenon, this belief in, fascination with, and fear of witches.

Which brings me to today’s book.

 

 

We’re taking a brief look at “Elf Dalia,” from Maja Daniels, published by MACK in 2019.

After this one turned up, it somehow ended up on my bookshelf, un-reviewed, rather than staying in the submission pile, so I magically discovered it today, when I was looking for some help from the creativity gods.

(I know I’m creatively limping, and promise to come back full of piss and vinegar after I take my summer break.)

Piss and vinegar don’t chase off witches, though, that I’m aware of, but as Monty Python taught us years ago, it is helpful to check whether they float or not.

 

 

All jokes aside, given the tens of thousands of years of shamanistic history, through the human record, I’m not surprised there are still stories of weird shit going down, far from big population centers.

What’s more human than creepy, little, out-of-the-way-places, in far corners of the globe, that give us things to wonder about?

Like Älvdalen, in northern Sweden, which actually has its own language, Elfdalian, spoken there, and nowhere else in the world.

And they executed 21 people under suspicion of witchcraft in 1668!

In 2012, Maja began exploring the place, because her family had a cabin there, I believe. (The book has very little text for context, but I think I have that detail right.)

Maja also discovered a trove of historical, black and white imagery, by Tenn Lars Persson, that also channels the occult, and those images are interspersed with the color photos, which she shot between 2012-17.

I admit, the portrait of the young woman with the “RETARD” tattoo on her neck made me blink a few times, and the ending images, with the creepy faces drawn on the black and white photos, are likely to give me nightmares tonight.

It’s a fun and creative book, this one, and it reminds me a lot of a “Some Kind of Heavenly Fire,” by Maria Lax, a Finnish offering I reviewed last year, so those Scandinavians must have some really weird shit in their collective mythology, for sure.

(If you doubt me, just watch “Midsommar.”)

So that’s what I’ve got for you today.

Some advice about not taking your creativity for granted, and a book that revels in the weird, strange, and unexplained, because really, there is so much out there we don’t know.

See you next week!

To purchase Elf Dalia, click here

 

This Week in Photography: American Made Machines

 

I almost tried this last week.

 

I mean, I did, but then I chickened out.

I went back to my old edit one more time, put in more labor, then MORE, and finally muscled my way to a column I liked.

But what am I doing?

What’s so new?

I’m writing on Friday morning, just before I post the column.

It’s so daring!

So chic.
So risky.

I feel dangerous.

Like John McClane running around the Nakatomi Tower, just knowing he has the grit to deal with whatever they throw at him, and he’ll be good for a witty one-liner while he’s doing it.

 

 

That’s me right now.

Writing on a Friday morning.

It’s like: have you seen those guys who walk the high-wire between two buildings? With no net?

That’s me right now.

Winging it.

 

 

You know why?

Because it’s summer-time, and IDGAF. (If you don’t know the acronym, look it up.)

The United States is finally emerging from the Trump era, which ended with the worst pandemic in 100 years.

The world has been so fucked up, for so long, that I’m finally starting to get all this Roaring 20’s talk.

If staying in your house for a year isn’t enough to make you want to build back better, and get out into the world and do things, now that you can, then please, let me be the one to light a fire under your ass.

To you Americans, (sorry, world,) our country is now safe to explore again. Your IRL hobbies and social interactions can resume.

Grab your chance like a half-pit-bull with a stuffed animal its jaws!

I teach art all the time, (as you know,) and I swear, this process makes us better. We learn about the planet, ourselves, our craft.

It’s a potentially cathartic outlet.

Most artists do it because of that great phrase Kandinsky uttered all those years ago: inner necessity.

That deeply rooted need to create.
To make things.

 

Right now, I’m thinking of someone in particular.

In early January of this year, as the country was on the verge of exploding, I felt the need to do something different.

Here, in the column.

So when Twitter’s algorithm pointed me in a direction, I followed, and discovered the work of Laidric Stevenson, a Black photographer based in Dallas, who uses a large format camera to document his city.

I reached out to him directly, and within days, we’d published his “My Virus Diary project.”

I’d never done a story in that way before, as I always show photographic portfolios from exhibitions or portfolio reviews.

As thanks, Laidric sent me a ‘zine of another project I admired, “American Made Machines,” and it went into the submission pile nearly six months ago.

We got to know each other after that, Laidric and I, and he joined my Antidote online program for a few months this spring, culminating in a pretty great final critique.

I know this guy works two jobs, and is raising a family in Texas.

Yet somehow, he finds the time, in the margins, to cart around his massive film cameras, fiddle with the tripod, and make his art.

The ‘zine, “American Made Machines,” which I finally opened, is a testament to that. (And I think this one was shot with medium format film.)

The opening statement says back in 2014, with the birth of his first child, he didn’t really have time to make work.

Finally, a few small cracks opened in the schedule in 2015, at night, and he found himself inexorably drawn to these big hulking American cars, vans and trucks.

Metal sculptures from a bygone Era.

Carter.
Reagan.
Bush Sr.

Pax Americana.

The easy times.

Before the internet.

Before the pandemic.

Back when Donald Trump was just a rich, entitled, skinny, good-looking, NYC-shyster-rich-guy.

This ‘zine celebrates that America, late 20th Century America, through its car design, and the people who continue to keep their machines going today. (Which the statement mentions can be a tricky thing to do, older cars being fussy.)

So with Juneteenth and July 4th nearly upon us, I wanted to write a positive, short, summer column, and then be on my way.

See you next week.

 

For more info about “American Made Machines” click here

 

This Week in Photography: Cruise Night

 

 

My cousin Jordan asked me to print a retraction.

From last week’s piece.

 

It was an omission, really, but he’s not wrong.

Jordan and my Uncle both mentioned the same thing: for the sake of brevity, I left out one important food experience in last week’s column.

They’re right, so let’s rectify it.

 

In my first actual travel article in more than a year, I chose not to write about the donuts.

Those special, special donuts.

Duck Donuts, to be exact.

At a Saturday pool party, Jordan’s daughter asked for some dessert, after we’d eaten the Luigi’s pizza, and through the wonder of Door Dash, (which I’d never seen in action,) they found a Donut joint in the app, and a variety pack was dropped on the driveway.

At first, I abstained.

I watched the crowd attack the donuts, like Roman crows to human hair, but stayed on my lounge chair, not wanting to give in to the munchies. (Like I said last week, it was a bender.)

Eventually, Jordan said I had to try them.

They were THAT good.

I relented, and within a minute had devoured small sections from three or four different donuts.

(Who am I kidding? It must have been five or six.)

Each donut was a bigger flavor explosion than the last, and the chocolatey browns and saturated colors made you NEED to eat them, even though you knew better.

Truth: they were the best donuts I’ve ever had.

 

 

Duck Donuts
4 stars out of 4

 

 

I mention my Jersey trip.

It reminded me of one thing: we all need to check in with our tribe, now and again.

Our personal clan, sure, but also the local culture where we’re from.

Most people, almost everywhere, prefer to stick close to their local culture, because it’s the operating system that makes us.

The symbols, rituals, in-jokes, music choice, beloved foods, weekend activities, they’re all specific to a place.

Some photographers love to enter cultural communities, spending so much time taking pictures, and asking questions, that eventually they become embraced by the people they’re observing.

In this case, I’m thinking of Kristin Bedford, a photographer I met at the Medium Festival of Photography, back in 2014.

She sat next to me in the lobby and started chatting me up, (not knowing I was a journalist,) and an hour later, I promised to pitch her work to the NYT Lens Blog, and they greenlit the story, which we published that December. 

We stayed in touch over the years, Kristin and I, and recently chatted on Zoom, for a new interview series I’m kicking off, in conjunction with PhotoNOLA and the New Orleans Photo Alliance.

Starting this month, I’ll be doing interviews every other month for their BookLENS program.

In our inaugural piece, I spoke to Kristin in a video interview about “Cruise Night,” her new Damiani book, which showed up in the mail here not to long ago.

You can see the interview in its entirety here.

 

June 2021 BookLENS: Kristin Bedford from New Orleans Photo Alliance on Vimeo.

 

 

But a chat isn’t a book review.

In a proper book review, the opening rant has nothing to do with the book.

Like those donuts, though, “Cruise Night” is so vibrant, saturated, and alive.

Colors this gorgeous, this bright, communicate a joy, a love, an infatuation with the lowrider culture so dear to the Mexican American community in SoCal.

The book is filled with sharply observed details, which suggest someone paying attention, looking carefully.

I think “Cruise Night” is an excellent book, and worth the praise it’s been getting in the media.

Thankfully, I don’t rank books by stars, (only Duck Donuts gets rated today,) but I have to admit, I might have inadvertently created a monster with this restaurant reviewing thing.

After last week’s column, my cousin Jordan seems to have discovered the thrill of rating things.

He’s texting me, giving stars to everything now.

3 stars for this.
0 stars for that.

I’m actually starting to wonder if he’s after my job?

See you next week.

To Purchase “Cruise Night,” click here

 







 

 

This Week in Photography: Leaving the Nest

 

 

Nobody’s perfect.

 

I’m certainly not.

I make a lot of predictions here, and claim to have the proper “hot take” on so many global issues.

But I don’t get everything right, and when I make a mistake, I own up to it.

 

 

I just got back from New Jersey, (on Monday,) and I’m writing on my customary Thursday.

It’s been less than 72 hours since I returned, and the trip itself took 12 hours, (via Denver,) so what I’m mystified about is that travel leaves a resonance.

Most of me is here in New Mexico, but a shade of my soul is lingering in Jersey, for sure.

Back in 2019, and early #2020, I was traveling so much, it was one big blur, and I wasn’t able to differentiate the biochemical, or metaphysical reactions from each individual visit.

But with this large a gap, I recognized the sensation, and it’s real.

It’s like you left a glimmer of yourself, back where you just were, before an airplane whooshed you up into the sky, and deposited you thousands of miles away.

But that’s not what I’m apologizing about.

 

 

Rather, when I was in New Jersey, (and I promise a full write up in the near future, with photos,) it was amazing to see how much life looked like the “Old Normal.”

There were still masks around, in certain indoor public settings, but the general vibe allowed getting in personal space with loved ones indoors, sharing food, full airplanes, and no social distancing.

Things looked A LOT like they did, before the 15 month pause.

I had it wrong.

(I’m speaking here in America, where vaccinations have been available to all who want them. It’s not a global phenomenon, I know.)

 

 

Trees and rocks have souls, (if I understand things correctly,) in the Shinto religion.

My buddy Kyohei explained it to me once, in an outdoor exhibition space at the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Art objects can have souls too, if you think about it.

Photo books embody the energy the artist puts into each picture, and then the momentum developed over the course of the narrative.

I just put down “Strawberry Parfait,” by Jimi Franklin, published by Denton Books in #2020, and it totally captures the way I feel right now. (A little haunted.)

It’s one of those books that seems like a flip-book-animation from a movie.

Like a continuous narrative, broken down into frozen memories.

Food shots.
Hipsters.
Dimly lit scenes.

If you cross the Wong Kar-wai vibe of “In the Mood for Love” with some of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” you might end up somewhere near the story this flip book would unspool.

The ending essay brings up Shinto, as a root element in Japanese culture, and also says the images were made over a decade.

I must say, I think this book is a gem.

With the rhythmic changes in the image rectangle shape, and the tactile paper that makes you WANT to turn the page, this one’s a winner.

Does it make me want to go to Japan?

Hell yes.

But it also makes me want to look at it again, to go on the ride through this vision, which is always the sign of a very cool book.

To learn more about Jimi Franklin, click here

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: As It Was Before

 

 

It’s been raining for two days straight.

That never happens.

It’s so rare, when I asked my wife and daughter if they remembered the last time it rained like this, they said September 2019.

 

Getting a lot of rain in the desert is great, especially as we’re coming out of a historically bad drought.

When the heavens opened yesterday, Jessie suggested the drought might be over, and of course it felt symbolic.

How could it not?

Hearing the incessant patter on our metal roof, watching the freshly green aspen trees bend under the weight of the water, looking at the gray sky, where normally there’s blue, it feels like we’re somewhere else.

 

 

More than anything, it reminds me of spring in New York, where I once lived, and New Jersey, where I’m from.

Forgive me for having home on the brain, but as I wrote last week, I’ll be there, taking a few days of R&R, when this column goes live on Friday. (I’m writing on a Tuesday, which also adds to the sense of dislocation. I never write on Tuesdays!)

 

But here we are.

 

The mountains are hidden in the storm, their snow-topped peaks enmeshed in clouds, so all I see is green grass, green trees, gray skies, and lots of rain.

Which after two days of this, really does remind me of the East Coast.

Of New York.

 

 

Why am I stuck on this subject today?

Well, there’s always an easy answer, when it comes to a photo book review column. Today, I reached into the bottom of the book stack, and found a submission from October 2020, which was 8 months ago, back when our “old” life just about began to feel normal. (But before the awful horribleness of the Covid Winter.)

What was in the box?

I found a nice note, from Paul Matzner, thanking me for some advice I gave him at the Filter Photo Festival a few years ago, and a copy of “Seeing You in New York,” a self-published book, (printed by Edition One,) that came out last year, with a foreword by Aline Smithson.

Full disclosure, Paul also thanked me in the liner notes, at the end of the book, so I guess our conversation made an impression. (I also published some of his arresting street portraits in the blog as well.)

Time for more honesty: I don’t think this is an amazing book. (Sorry, Paul.)

It’s not bad, by any means, and on the right day I’d call it very good.

I like it, but don’t find it super-distinctive, within the genre.

So why am I writing about it?

 

For as long as I’ve had this column, my main criterion for review is whether a book inspires me to write.

That’s it.

If, after looking at a book, a column germinates in my head, and my fingers slide across the keyboard in rhythm, allowing the flow, then that book is worthy of review.

And that happened today.

Why?

 

Because of context.

You simply can’t look at these images, which were shot between 2008-18, and view them as you would have before the pandemic.

It’s not possible.

Paul captured a wide range of New Yorkers, from diverse cultural backgrounds and age groups, going about their previously “normal” lives.

We see skateboarders, lots of dogs, stoop-sitters, side-walk walkers, stroller pushers, subway-riders, it’s all here.

What once would have been a warm-hearted group of street photos, back in 2008-18, now looks like a naive record of humans doing things we all took for granted.

It’s a life we may have again, but as I wrote last week, we’re all different now.

Will anything ever feel “normal” again?

 

I’m getting on a plane on Thursday.

What comes next?

I don’t know, of course, and Paul Matzner’s book wound me up on this rant.

When sweet pictures feel sinister, as if they represent the last people frolicking on the beach before the Tsunami hits, you know I’m going to be curious.

 

Hope you enjoy the book, and see you next week.

To purchase” Seeing you in New York,” click here 

 

This Week in Photography: Time to Party?

 

 

Cultures change.

 

Everything changes, as entropy is the natural state of the Universe.

 

Often, the major drivers of cultural change are technological, biological, or because of human migratory patterns.

The first is obvious, as inventions like the airplane, the automobile, and the internet radically altered the way people engage with society.

 

The second should be beyond-obvious, as the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 upended just about everything, with respect to the way life is experienced on Earth.

The last, though, is least understood, as far as when and why it happens, and is often reduced to terms like gentrification, when it’s on a small scale.

Big things like climate change, or war, can cause massive amounts of humans to move at once, as we saw in Europe a few years back, when people were fleeing places like Syria and Afghanistan, en masse.

On a micro-level, though, it’s often tied to economics, or what people perceive to be the hot, new thing.

I experienced gentrification first hand, back in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2005, yet mostly denied the reality that I had been on the first wave of artsy-hipsters moving into an almost-entirely-Polish neighborhood in 2002.

By the time is was properly trendy, in ’05, I wanted no part of it, because if I’d planned to live around a bunch of people like me, I would have chosen Williamsburg, or the Lower East Side.

 

 

Right now, I’ve noticed the first hints of cultural change here in Taos, as we’ve seen thousands of new people move here, during the pandemic, for the wide open spaces, clean air, and relatively rich culture, for a micro-city. (Though I still insist the restaurants suck.)

I’ve had lots of discussions about this in the last few months, as we could see people had come here, with California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado license plates, altering traffic patterns, but it was hard to know for sure, as almost everyone was locked down.

And the Instagram-nature of life these days, where beauty is seen as a backdrop, with locations appreciated as something to stand in front of for a photo, plus the reality of remote work, meant that many-if-not-all of the new-comers have not assimilated into society yet.

 

 

What will that look like when they do, I’ve mused to anyone would would listen to my ranting?

Won’t the waves of Californians look around, notice Taos lacks a lot of the base-level things they’ve come to appreciate about life, and then decide to leave, or change things?

I’m no Nostradamus, but just yesterday, I saw my first evidence, as my son was invited into a free, youth basketball program, as no such thing existed.

Everywhere else, they have youth sports, but outside of soccer season, Taos was a barren desert.

Sure enough, the coach is from NorCal, and took it upon himself to start something up for the community, because he had a boy in that age-group, and there was no basketball to be had.

Things change, and sometimes for the better.

 

New York City is poised to have a party summer, so says the media, as America’s biggest megalopolis gets sweaty in the hot season, and people have been cooped up for So Damn Long.

Throw in the high rates of vaccination in the blue states, (relative to the red ones,) and it’s shaping up to be a rockin’ good time, with dancing in the streets, block parties galore, beer and weed on the stoops, and diverse people getting to talk to one another again, face to face.

But I’m guessing this will mostly happen in the outer boroughs, as who can afford to live in Manhattan anymore? (Unless the Covid-rent-drops stick around.)

 

Manhattan used to a borough in which people lived, worked, and celebrated, but over the years, it morphed into a culture for the mega-rich to keep investment homes, the worker bees to head to office towers, and the tourists to come in droves to shop.

The changes, in the form of gentrification, came when certain downtown neighborhoods turned from dangerous to chic, (like SoHo and Tribeca,) and the internet began broadcasting the NYC way of life to the rest of Earth.

So obviously it affected the city, with diners giving way to cafes, and night clubs becoming WeWork offices. (OK, so I skipped a step on that last one. But you get the point.)

Back in the day, before the advent of social media, people who wanted to know what was up had to stay up late, drink lots of alcohol, (or do some blow or X,) and then wait behind a velvet rope to get into a club, unless they were rich and/or famous.

That scent of exclusivity was intoxicating for the masses, as they really wanted to get into that room, where they could drink, dance, observe, talk, kiss, grind, look at art, revel in fashion, or perhaps embrace a persona that would be verboten back in Bay Ridge.

So much of that is gone now.

Unless…

 

Unless there were a photo book that captured the purity of that 90’s vibe: the mashup of drag queens, models, actors, wannabes, pretty people, and stylish regular folks.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could see all that, in front of our eyes, hold it in our hands, as if it were still alive today?

(You know where I’m going with this.)

There is such a book, and it arrived in my mailbox back in October, shortly before the Covid surge that killed half a million people, and rocked New York, America, and the world. (Sending lots of love to everyone in India right now.)

It’s called “In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90’s,” by Steve Eichner, edited by Gabriel H. Sanchez, and published by Prestel in 2020.

Not sure why I never made the connection, when I glanced at the press release, but Steve is brothers with Billy Eichner, one of the funniest people alive, and a man whose entire existence would have been altered by the pandemic.

(I mean, have you seen “Billy on the Street,” in which he charges at strangers on the sidewalk, like a drunk bull, and screams absurdist, often genius, questions at them on camera?)

 

 

But we’re talking about Steve today, not Billy, and his book was a trip down memory lane for me, culturally, if not literally. (I did party once at Nell’s on 14th Street, in 1996, when I was working on “The Devil’s Advocate,” but it was a one-time thing.)

The photos show off the vibe, and are colorful and alive. The mise-en-scene is just right, because Steve Eichner was the house photographer for Peter Gatien’s club empire, including the Limelight, the Tunnel, Club USA and more.

Apparently, these slides sat in boxes in storage in Long Beach, Long Island, for decades, before being rescued, to give us a vision of what Party City NYC #2021 might look like, come July.

(But with different fashion, obv.)

So many bold faced names, including De Niro with Chazz Palminteri, Tupac, Madonna, RuPaul, Leo DiCaprio with Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, Kris Kross, the Supermodels, Jim Jarmusch with Joe Strummer!, TLC, Don Knotts???, the Olsen Twins??????, Mickey Rourke, and more.

We get a shot of Mark Wahlberg and his “entourage,” and I swear, if you can’t tell which guy was Turtle, and which was E, you’re really not trying.

 

 

Of course, this being New York, we get a photograph of Donald Trump, with appropriate red-eye and red tie, holding his belt like the gunslinger he’d become 20 years later.

(Seriously. Fuck that guy.)

The introductions tell us that Peter Gatien got busted for tax evasion, like his Studio 54 predecessors, and was deported to Canada, his home country.

The rents got too high, the clubs closed, and that was that.

End of an era.

Like I said, cultures change, for good and for bad.

 

These days, if you want to know what a celebrity is wearing, you hit up Instagram.

 

 

If you want people to be jealous, you photograph yourself in front of a pretty, exclusive, or expensive backdrop.

(If it isn’t photographed, it didn’t happen.)

But in the 90’s, you had to be there, or you had to hope a good nightlife-photographer took your picture, and that at some point down the line, other people would see how fly you looked.

Who’s ready to party!

 

To purchase “In the Limelight” click here

 

 

This Week in Photography Books: Everyone Loves Redwoods

 

“The scarred redwoods are emblems of both natural glory and entitled consumption. They represent the dual nature of the American dream.” (A quote from today’s book.)

 

I’m cooked.

Running on fumes.
Ready for week-long nap.

(Can you imagine, going to sleep for years, like Rip Van Winkle, and waking up to whatever comes next?)

 

Rip Van Winkle

 

President Biden is trying to marshal the nation’s resources to battle climate change, and I hope he’s successful.

Wouldn’t that be great?

But as a guy who titled his book “Extinction Party,” and began warning of the ravages of overconsumption back in 2008, I’m not exactly optimistic.

 

Why am I so tired?

Well, for the last three weeks, I’ve found myself enmeshed in a net, constantly working to re-establish ground rules and boundaries in relationships that were sapping my juice.

It’s easy to go with the status quo, even when things aren’t working, because inertia is a powerful force, and so many people fear change.

(Just so we’re clear, this is not a post about my marriage. Jessie and I are good.)

 

Re-writing rules, and re-setting expectations with others, is exhausting. But it’s the kind of work that pays dividends long into the future, if you’re willing to invest in your sanity.

Right now, we’re just 3 months removed from what was a 4-year-national-nightmare for 80 million people, and the pandemic, which capped off the Trump era, is still going strong.

But after last week’s mega-column, and the column before that, in which I spent a weekend getting updates from my secret-Argentinean source, this week, I wanted to give you a short one.

(Let’s keep it brief, shall we?)

 

Thankfully, I reached to the bottom of my book-stack, and pulled out something from May of 2020. (Thought I’d gotten to the oldest submissions already, but this one eluded my notice.)

Inside, I found one book by Kirk Crippens that I’d already reviewed, having requested it from the press agent, (Sorry, Kirk,) and another book, by Kirk and Gretchen LeMaistre, which was just what the doctor ordered today.

Quick heads up: it’s not a happy book.

Beautiful, yes. Important, sure. But nothing cheery, I’m afraid.

“Live Burls,” was published by Schilt in Amersterdam, back in 2017. Given how long it takes to make a book, this series was likely begun in 2015 or ’16, (I’m guessing,) at the onset of the Trump years.

And it is a masterclass in symbolizing the worst of humanity, in the cleanest of terms.

 

Redwood trees are beautiful, majestic, magical, historical… (insert positive adjective here.)

Like baby humans, or puppy dogs, Redwood trees are creatures that everyone loves.

And yet.

The artists learned of a situation in which poachers invaded a public park-space, and hacked off burls from the Redwoods, which just happen to be the part of the trees responsible for reproduction.

Acccording to the short, but informative text at the beginning of the book, Redwood burls enable the trees to regenerate over thousands of years, and might even allow for a genetic chain going back hundreds of millions of years.

So to think that some our fellow Americans would act like psychopathic Rhino poachers, and attack nature so blatantly, while stealing from the rest of us, (and from Planet Earth,) is mind-boggling to me.

These have to be some of THE WORST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, and I applaud the artists for recording the damage for posterity.

The photos are direct, and blunt, having been well-scanned from gelatin silver prints made from 8×10 negatives.

I applaud the choice of the green cover fabric, and cyan inside papers, as it gives a bit of life to a grayscale set of images, and a dour view of the world.

The book even tells us some of the poachers abandoned a 500 lb chunk of burl, because it was too big to fit in their poacher-mobile. (They’re too dumb to even rob properly.)

My only criticism, small though it may be, is that I would have elided the very short titles on the spread opposite each photo.

I found them distracting, because this book has the feeling of a visual obituary, (even though the trees survived,) and to me, the pure, quiet sadness needed no words.

Anyway, I promised a short column, and aim to deliver.

Glad this one was sent my way, sorry it took so long to review, and hope you all have a safe and happy week, wherever you are.

To purchase a copy of “Live Burls” click here