This Week in Photography: Guille and Belinda

 

 

I’ve been trapped on a farm for 13 months.

(Strange times.)

 

Given the state of the world, it’s not a bad place to ride out a plague year.

Most people would consider it paradise.

While so many others have to dodge people in cities, wondering whether the asshole jogger up ahead just spewed deadly virus-air in their jet stream, I’ve had no such issues.

While so many others chafe at the masks they must wear all day, I’ve spent each day with my face uncovered; not out of political belief, (you all know where I stand on that,) but rather because there are no other people around.

Living on a horse farm, at the edge of a box canyon, near the base of the Rocky Mountains, I never see people at all.

At least, no one beyond my family.

 

It’s been something of a fairy tale, as we’ve lived each day, our little clan, with the horses, dogs, cats, magpies, ravens, red-tailed hawks, rainbow trout, coyotes, gophers, deer, bear, and mountain lions. (I saw both mega-predators within a few days of each other, back in the fall.)

Yesterday, we had our first proper guest since September, as a photographer I met during the Denver reviews stopped by on his way home, and we went for a socially distanced walk.

It’s hard to believe I went half a year without seeing anyone but my family here, but this pandemic reality is anything but normal.

Living like this, while preferable to getting Covid in a Brooklyn bakery, (which happened to a dear friend of mine,) has been a bit of a mind-fuck, for sure.

It’s made things that might normally be ordinary seem symbolic, and the oddity of the local culture, which was built by Spanish colonists centuries ago, seem all the more evident.

Such is life.

But today, I looked at a photo book that reflected my experience back to me, as if through a window into Bizarro reality, where things seemed the same but terribly different. (While I’m a total Marvel movie-head, I was a sucker for the Superfriends cartoons on TV back in the early 80’s.)

 

Bizarro Superman

 

I opened up “The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Illusion of an Everlasting Summer,” by Alessandra Sanguinetti, sent to me in September by the fine folks at MACK in London, and am glad I did, as it put my life in the context of so many other rural-dwellers, populating backwater outposts of the former Spanish Empire, here in the 21C.

I requested this book a while back, in #2020, and then forgot I did, as my brain has turned to mush, and fortunately, so many books have come in since then.

But when I saw the date-stamp on the box, I had a feeling what might be inside, and got excited, as I saw the first part of this project ages ago, when I began exploring the photo blogosphere in early 2009.

Not to skip too far ahead, but that thought went though my mind, as I was looking at the book.

I thought, “I remember loving some of this work in 2009.”

Then, I turned the page, and the photo had a calendar on the wall that said 2009.

These days, it’s easy to find kismet in the tiniest of details. (And I had the same experience, feeling like the editors read my mind, while looking at Mark Ruwedel’s excellent MACK book a couple of months ago.)

 

To get back to the beginning, this book features a lengthy series the artist made about her two cousins, who lived on what is now an abandoned farm in the back country of Argentina.

They managed to grow up in one of the few enclaves of the former Spanish Empire that might be more remote than the one on which my wife was raised, and we’re rearing our kids.

But the horses, chickens, big skies, broken fences, I recognized it all.

(Though I should admit our home and family farm are decidedly more First World. I don’t want to exaggerate.)

Irrigation ditches, kids playing pretend, roaming the country side, staying busy through their imaginations, it’s all there.

And in the opening essay, Ms. Sanguinetti writes of her cousin’s desire to be singer, and or work with animals, and my daughter went though both of those phases as well. (Instead of a Youtube star, now she wants to be a dog trainer.)

This book undercuts much of the advice I often write, about having a book vary images sizes, or styles. It doesn’t break up the narrative, intersperse text, or really offer any bells and whistles at all.

Rather, because the narrative time-jumps, and the young girls become mothers, and all the images are great, and the printing quality is so high, the book holds your attention anyway.

(Rules are meant to be broken, and some books can keep you turning the pages without using new-style design tricks, so I guess it’s important to keep that in mind.)

 

The world, as I’ve written recently, is in the process of re-opening.

Our little bubble has been popped, as my children returned to school this week, and getting to play with other kids, to socialize in packs, to dunk on 8 foot basketball hoops, and re-engage muscles on the monkey bars, has made them happier than they’ve been in a long time.

Conversely, my daughter made a toast at dinner on Sunday night, (our last in official lockdown,) and thanked the three of us for giving her the best year of her life.

Our little fantasy-land might have been stultifying, but it also felt like there was magical fairy-dust in the air, giving us our own marooned life, in a sea of Trumpian chaos.

And her speech was a moment I hope to remember forever.

This book has that feeling, like we’re getting a window into a fantasy world that was existing right there, hidden in plain sight, in a quiet, remote corner of Planet Earth.

I’m sure you’ll love it.

I know I did.

To purchase “The Adventures of Guille and Belinda…” click here 

 

This Week in Photography: Love in Wartime

 

“I am fighting this bureaucracy like a lion! I check every resource, I try every door, I talk to everybody I know. You will see, my darling, that I will succeed! It is only a matter of time, and time works to our advantage and it wants to unite us. Only us. Together.” Julek, January 12, 1946

“It seems sometimes that humanity is doomed. This is just a nightmare. And even a nightmare has its end.” Julek, June 30, 1947

“Americans are just big children and they are cruel; they don’t understand anything. Sometimes if feels that they are worse than the Gestapo and the SS. It pains me to write to you like this but don’t think, my love, that you are in paradise. This is not a land of democracy and freedom. No other country in this world has such cruel regulations. People have some empathy, heart, and feelings, but America is blind and just follows the rules.” Julek, July 15, 1948

“I feel more and more hatred toward this apparently ‘good’ America- everybody praises this country but it’s so far behind Europe in so many aspects of life.” Franusia, July 26, 1948

“I am full of suspicion against the Americans. They talk about this great freedom and they don’t let people in. They talk about all people being equal and they hang black men and kick out the Jews from colleges and elegant hotels. What is that?… I just heard that some white people just shot and killed a black man in your area and they were declared not guilty and released without any sentence. Such are examples of America’s democracy…Sometime soon it may be an embarrassment to be a US citizen, you will see!” Julek, January 28, 1949

“Today is Pesach and I am very sad- I miss you so much…When we will be together we will have real holidays. Here they just make a nice dinner. My uncle doesn’t believe in all this and my aunt has no idea what to do and how to behave. She just sits in front of the mirror and goes to the hairdresser and for massages to keep her waist line slim. I don’t understand how anyone can live like that. It’s an empty, vain life.” Franusia, April 21, 1949

“I am finally free. After all these years of suffering and obstacles, I am allowed to be with you and stay with you for the rest of our lives. I just want to take you in my arms now and press you to my heart, with no words- just us together in that embrace.” Julek, June 1, 1949

 

Some of my ancestors come from Poland, but I’m not sure where.

As an American Jew, I’m something of a rarity, as all my grandparents and one of my great-grandparents were born here. So I have no direct relatives who were killed in the Holocaust.

Rather, all my people, Blausteins from Poland, and Karstadts from Germany, were here in the early 20th Century.

These days, survivors are more and more rare, yet their stories are as important as ever.

 

I went to Poland once, on my first trip to Europe in 1997, but only to change planes in the Warsaw airport. I had plans for a longer stopover, but they fell through, and that was that.

The next year I went back to Europe, planning to stay for 6 weeks, but was so lovesick for my new girlfriend, (now wife,) that I lasted only 10 days in Italy.

My parents helped me change my ticket, so I could get back to America ASAP and visit Jessie, who was studying for the summer at Smith College, getting her Masters Degree in Social Work.

I remember seeing her come up the escalator, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, because reuniting with her was literally the only thing I could think about, even while I was roaming through gorgeous Italy, taking pictures with a Minolta SLR that I left on the train heading to the airport.

Love can cloud the mind, but also create a power that is difficult to defeat.

 

I’m writing this column during Passover, the Jewish holiday that honors my ancestors’ escape from Egypt, when ancient Jews were kept as slaves by the Pharaoh.

My kids are growing up in a part of New Mexico that actually looks a bit like Israel, the land of my people, even though New Jersey is my homeland, and one of their grandmothers is actually descended from French-Canadians, with an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.

We Americans are the world’s mutts, and many of us are proud of this fact.

Others, however, despise immigrants, or people who look or sound different.

Some of my fellow countrymen burn crosses, paint Swastikas, and or kneel on Black men’s necks until they’re dead.

As a society, we have at times embraced immigration, as we did during our Ellis Island phase, or restricted it, as when Chinese people were excluded for decades.

Like every society, our history is complex and bloody, but few others are as dualistic in their character, I’d suggest.

And these days, some of my countrymen are beating up old Asian ladies, kicking them in the street, as if such behavior is anything but the worst evil.

Welcome to #2021.

 

I’m going to keep it short today, as I opened with a series of quotes, which is something I’ve never done before. (Not to this extent, anyway.)

The come from a terrific, and very moving book that arrived in my mailbox more than six months ago: “Sweet Noise: Love in Wartime,” by Max Hirshfeld, published by Damiani in 2019.

It kept me reading for hours, and is riveting, though not a photo book in the traditional sense. Normally, such a publication would be built around the photography, but here, a series of letters between the artist’s deceased parents, Julek and Franusia, dominates, and rightly so.

There are also essays, and a set of images made on a trip the photographer took with his mother, back to Poland, in 1993.

But really, the letters steal the show.

During Passover, (which I don’t observe in the way I did when I was young,) we celebrate what is essentially an immigration tale.

All the Jews ran out of Egypt so quickly their bread didn’t rise, and then spent 40 years in the desert, before they found Israel, which Moses was forbidden from entering.

Heavy stuff.

In predominantly Christian America, that the Last Supper was a Seder, and Jesus lived and died as a Jew, is not widely discussed.

Yet every day, we hear stories of desperate Mexican and Central American children, alone, scared, running for their lives, who are met with nothing but scorn, and jail cells, at the Southern Border.

But there are also tales of brave people who hide bottles of water in the desert, or secretly offer housing and succor to those who risk baking to death in the sun, for a better life in America.

The letters in this book, written by two people who survived the Nazi Death Camps, reek of misery and desperation, as the lovers suffered further from a cruel, inhumane immigration system that might well have been tilted by anti-Semitism.

As with every good Hollywood story, this book has a happy ending, as Julek and Franusia were eventually reunited, had Max, and raised him in Alabama. (Too late for this advice, but if it were me, I’d have moved to New York. Dealing with Southern racists, after fleeing the Nazis, seems a bit too masochistic.)

You’ll read, in the quotes I published, a scathing take on America, back in the 1940’s, that feels like it could have been written today.

The Trump years, and the pandemic, have killed hope for so many.

But perhaps brighter days are ahead?

I’m no sooth-sayer, but I do think each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves, if Max’s parents could persevere, and ultimately reunite to love each other, and raise a family, perhaps we can re-open our hearts again too?

Just a thought.

See you next week.

 

This Week in Photography: Hernie & Plume

 

It’s my birthday today.

(Meaning, Thursday.)

 

The last few years, I planned to have the day off, but that wasn’t possible in #2021.

(C’est la vie.)

Thankfully, I love writing this column, and appreciate you all so much.

 

If you’re reading this, whether it’s your first time at the blog, or you’ve been here for years, thanks for giving us your attention!

It’s an attention-based-economy, these days, which is why you-know-who was so capable of taking over America.

He is a black hole for our collective attention, and current and future Trumpers are lining up to copy his moves, which he learned from Roy Cohn. (Loved this fact-bomb in “City on a Hill,” an Affleck/Damon-produced, Boston-based, Showtime show that I just saw on Prime.)

 

In an attention-economy, the more we’re aware of how media’s structure and content change our brains, the better we’re able to regulate our own use.

To modulate our consumption, when possible.

How much of our own attention can we give to things, voluntarily, instead of subconsciously? Unlike that phase we just left, in which one human sucked up all the air for 5 years.

Now that the news cycle has finally, blissfully moved on, we can focus more brain space back to our own art projects, or family and friends. We can look at more art, rather than hate-watching our Twitter feeds.

In a pre-pandemic world, some of the best parts of life included getting into other people’s spaces, and faces.

Meeting strangers in odd circumstances.

Hell, we just passed the one year anniversary of my trip to Amsterdam.

I remember sharing a small table with a guy from Munster, Germany, and another from India, in tight quarters, smoking weed in the Jolly Joker.

A year on, that seems unimaginable.
Chatting with strangers, three feet apart, unmasked.

Right?

I was there to print “Extinction Party” at Wilco Art Books, in Amersfoort, which was a short train ride away from Amsterdam, where I was staying.

Here’s a photo of me and Marco Nap, at Wilco.
Don’t we seem naively unaware of what was coming, in just a few weeks?

Marco and Me

 

The world was about to flip upside down, like “Stranger Things,” and we were just grinning like a couple of groomsmen.

On my trip, I made friends while I was there, but didn’t stay in touch.

Meeting strangers, but the keeping them in your lives.
That’s more difficult, right?

I’m asking, because I just finished looking at “Hernie & Plume,” the superb photo book by Katherine Longly, an artist in Belgium, published by the Eriskay Connection.

And it was printed, you guessed it, at Wilco Art Books in Amersfoort, Netherlands.

(So there’s the double shout out.)

Apparently, the artist was trying too photograph Christmas images at what we in the US would call a trailer park, and there is called a trailer camp.

She met Blieke and Nicole, (who were a long-term-couple,) when they popped out of a trailer and asked what she was doing.

Then they invited her in for a beer.

They had matching twist-tie-engagement-rings, may or may not have been married, and seemed to have become romantic partners later in life.

There is a strong narrative here, and it’s why I’m always preaching that people give their books a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Tell a story, like it’s a movie, but with slightly different tools.

Grab the reader’s attention, reel in their curiosity, and then unspool the story in a way that doesn’t leave room to get bored, or check out.

Remember the other week, when I wrote a review about a book that was all-one-format, all the way through, with nothing to break it up?

This book is the opposite of that.

It’s so thoughtfully crafted.

From the colorful-canvas-cover, to the different photo styles and paper choices. (Shiny silver for some interview text.)

I reviewed Katherine’s previous book in the column, and then again for .tiff Magazine, from FOMU in Antwerp.

So I’m a fan; already on record as being impressed by her multi-technique-style, and subject-participation structure.

(Furthermore, I’ve also recommended to several students that they put the camera in their subjects’ hands.)

Seeing it done here, in which Blieke, who was a super-cop, at one point, and Nicole, who drove a tram, get to make photos of their crazy parties, and then the orientation changes to horizontal, and those photos are printed on burgundy-brown paper?

So cool.

The book keeps you engaged, and the sharp, artful images of house backgrounds, cooking ingredients, or the dildo on the kitchen table, it all holds you.

Their love story.
The friendship with Katherine.

The text messages.

In the end, (spoiler alert,) we learn that Blieke is sick; we see the scar on his chest, and learn of heart issues. Then there is a text about being in intensive care at the hospital, and the book implies he’s died.

The end.
It’s sad.

There is a lot of information on the back cover, about this being the product of a workshop by Jan Rosseel and Yumi Goto, at the International Summer School of Photography in Latvia, in 2018.

“Hernie & Plume” came from a time when people could congregate and collaborate, IRL.

The book is intimate and emotional, but also technical and creative, like an attacking midfielder in the Belgian national football team. (Eden Hazard?)

It’s well-thought-out, (and before I forget, Hernie & Plume, spoiler alert, are the parrot and the dog.)

I hope soon enough, we can live like this again, and people can hang out together, free from a scary pandemic.

 

See you next week.

 

To purchase “Hernie & Plume,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: A Family Roadtrip

 

I’m turning 47 next week.

In lockdown.

 

Last year, I went to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, as they let NM residents in for free on your birthday.

But the resort partially burned down in #2020, and even if it hadn’t, sharing collective pools with strangers is about the last thing I’d want to do right now.

image courtesy of Taos Ski Valley

This year, I’m guessing I’ll spend the day with my wife and children, as I have the last 350.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Over the years, I’ve taken amazing birthday trips to the beach in SoCal, or on a bender in Amsterdam. Celebrating via travel was fun, when possible.

Not in #2021, though.

While my freedom of movement has been restricted during the pandemic, (like all of us,) I’ve had the opportunity to grow as a person, in properly deep ways, and my love and connection to my wife and kids is far beyond what it was when we were hopping around the country in 2019.

(Quick update: after bottoming out on the day of the Capitol insurrection, my marriage, and my wife’s health, are both better than they’ve been in years. Thanks again to all the people who expressed concern in early January.)

Where was I?

Some time during my mid-40’s, I realized my relationship with my parents and brother, which had dominated my thoughts since I was young, was far less important than the one with my wife and children.

Perhaps it’s commonplace, but I understood being a husband and father, and how I handled those roles, would matter more to the rest of my life than how I lived as a son and a brother. (Probably 4 years of therapy had something to do with it.)

Still, I meet so many people my age, or older, who think constantly about how they get along with their parents and siblings. Their self-worth is all wrapped up in their family of origin.

Rather than the one they’ve created as adults.

To be clear, I’m not throwing my folks and brother under the bus. They certainly mean well.

I’m more interested in explaining that as I grow older, (and hopefully wiser,) I realize how I raise my kids and support my wife will determine my karma, and how I’m judged by whatever large forces are out there, making the planets move and the tides rise and fall.

(Is that the most mid-life-sentiment I’ve ever written?)

I’m not waxing philosophical today because I’m that much closer to 50.

Not at all.

Rather, I just finished looking at, and reading, “Everything Else in the Universe: A Father-Son Road Trip,” a self-published book sent in late-last-summer by Har-Prakash and Gurudayal Khalsa.

The book is both very-well-titled, and also a tad misleading, because it’s actually a chronicle of two road trips, which included other members of the Khalsa family. (As Canadian Sikhs exploring America during the early part of the Trump era, you’ve got to give them props for having cojones, that’s for sure.)

This is one of those books I love to see come in the mail, because it is so different from the high-end art books I often review.

It’s a testament to the variety of our audience, and the breadth of what photography means, that something this personal, and open-hearted, will show up in the mail, wrapped to the teeth, with a typed letter in lieu of a press release.

I try to treat each submission in context, and rarely open a package I can’t review, but with this book, I’m not going to be critical on the same level as I might with something from MACK or Damiani.

It’s not really meant as a commercial production.

So I could quibble, and say that there are maybe too many photos, but really, what’s the point?

We get to see this merry band of wanderers, clearly in love with each other, as they bounce around in their camper van, or sleep in tents in the Utah desert.

There are text interludes, to break up the monotony, including an anecdote about a fellow camper who slit her wrists, which reminds Har-Prakash of the time he was summoned to India to pick up Gurudayal, who was having a mental health episode.

I’ve been to so many of the places in the book, like Arches, the California Central Coast, San Francisco, and Point Reyes National Sea Shore. (My parents came out to SF for my birthday, around 2000, and we booked a B&B in Point Reyes, only for it to rain the entire weekend, which raised the stress level to 10.)

This is a sweet, lovely book, and while some of the landscape photos are little touristy for my taste, they’re also countered by well-framed images of photos of dead soldiers inside a Walmart, or a relaxed museum patron lounging in a window box at SFMOMA.

It goes without saying that trips like this, and all the random human encounters described within, (including an emphasis on the kindness of strangers,) can’t happen in our current pandemic lifestyle.

So for one of my birthday wishes, (if I get more than one,) I’m hoping that we all have a safer, healthier, more normal world, before I turn 48.

I hope I can take my kids on the road some time this year, and hug them tightly when they crawl into their hotel beds at night. (No camping for me, thanks.)

To purchase “Everything Else in the Universe” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: The SoCal Trilogy

 

I’ve watched a lot of TV, over the years.

Like, a lot.

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, there was a time when options were limited, and everyone watched more-or-less the same stuff.

I can’t tell you how many re-runs of “The Brady Bunch,” “The Addams Family,” or “The Munsters” I saw back in the day, even though I didn’t particularly love any of those shows.

 

 

There were 3 channels, and you watched what was on.

That was that.

Then came cable, and I still remember the box we had back in Jersey, with these oblong buttons you depressed, to switch among 35 options, which made me feel like a King choosing which outfit to wear, from a closet filled with thousands of fine suits.

“Oh Manfred, please hand me the gray Armani with the super-thin pinstripes. No, you idiot, not THAT gray Armani with the super-thin pinstripes! The other one!”

Later in life, when we were poaching limited cable in Brooklyn, or dealing with 4 channels from a rooftop antenna when we first moved back to New Mexico, Jessie and I occasionally watched awful stuff, as there were so few choices.

At one point, I’m embarassed to admit, we even watched “The Biggest Loser,” NBC’s fat-shaming reality show that I would certainly unsee, if only I could.

 

 

A few years ago, in a life including Dish satellite TV, but before we had any streaming services, I remember checking out the Fox sitcom “The Last Man on Earth,” starring the always brilliant Will Forte. (Dude can be funny without even talking, which is tough.)

I was intrigued from the jump, as the idea of only one person left on the planet, who could then raid all the grocery stores, drink all the vodka, and blow shit up in the middle of the street, was watchable, at first.

Then, Kristin Schaal came along, because apparently, he wasn’t REALLY the only person left alive, after a pandemic virus wiped out nearly all of humanity. (Too soon?)

She is funny as hell, and brilliant, but was definitely playing an annoying character on the show. Then more people popped up, proving the title was a lie, and once January Jones joined the cast, who is easy-on-the-eyes, but not-so-good-at-acting, (outside of her robotic Betty Draper days,) I was done.

It had become an ensemble cast, with all the regular-people-talking-to-other-people problems, and Will Forte was not enough to hold my attention.

I switched the channel, and never looked back.

“Tension creates attention,” is one of my new catch-phrases, and surprises are good, but you also have to want to engage with something, because hate-watching only works for so long.

(I mention this, while currently on a family binge of “Survivor” reruns, because my kids like it, and some days I want to poke my eyes out because the show is so terrible.)

Why am I on about all of this? When did this become a TV criticism column?

Funny you should ask.

I just finished looking at “Riviera: Photographs of Palm Springs,” by John Brian King, which was published by Spurl Editions in #2020.

I’ve told you it takes me forever to get through the book stack these days, and this one arrived last June, so it came in at a time when streets were empty, anger and fear were high, and it felt like Voldemort might really kill us all in the end.

I think John wrote to me, and I almost remember saying the book looked intriguing, and from the jump, I can see why it would have caught my eye.

We’re now in a trilogy of SoCal photo book reviews, and the last is the most flawed, though also the most compelling from a small sample.

The photographs are moody, and soft focus, with a subdued, pastel color palette, and a smattering of images that make me think of UFO’s and aliens, which will always get my attention.

However.

There are so many photos of an empty landscape, with no people, and it really does feel like humanity has been wiped away.

Post-apocalyptic for sure.

But the design features two photographs opposite each other, in the same size, page after page.

And there are a lot of pages.

(In fairness, on second viewing, I noticed that very rarely, they incorporated only one photo per spread, instead of two.)

I work with people on producing photo books these days, and am always discussing the idea that monotony will cause a viewer to lose focus.

Attention will drift, and boredom will creep in, when you come to expect, and then KNOW, what is coming next.

Good design will play with scale, and location on the page. Or mix in tension breakers, and unexpected motifs.

Maybe slip text into the mix, instead of only photos.

It’s important, IMO, to consider a viewer’s attention span, if you want to make a great book, because otherwise people will begin to flip through the pages, and you’ve lost them.

So today, I wanted to write about this book as a teachable moment.

The art is good, and the aesthetic is consistent, but I barely forced myself to make it until the end. (Which is more than I can say for that Will Forte show.)

Some of you might like this book, and that’s cool. I don’t want to be a hater.

But if you’re considering making a book yourself, (or a catalog, or a ‘zine,) please don’t be afraid to mix it up.

Play with your design, or hire someone who knows what they’re doing.

Because being creative doesn’t end when you click the shutter, make your photo edit, or finalize your color correction.

Design is a creative enterprise as well, and is so crucial to the book-making process, even if you think you can do it yourself.

To purchase “Riviera: Photographs of Palm Springs” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: A Very Different LA

 

Everyone loves a good road trip.

(It’s as American as our now-faded dream.)

Over the years, I’ve driven across the West so many times, and remember them all.

These days, which resemble Bill Murray’s tortured existence in Punxsutawney, it’s hard to make memories. Days blend into days, and I find myself saying things in the afternoon like, “Honey, did I give you your gummy vitamins this morning, or was that yesterday?”

 

At first, when I went into lockdown 11 months ago, there was a sense of open-ended uncertainty, but also faith in the system.

I remember telling a friend in April that we’d likely be able to have our retreats in August, because by then, Americans would have access to instant-at-home-tests, so we’d know in a technological moment whether we were infected or not.

(It was obviously mis-placed optimism, which is a trait with which we Americans are often associated.)

It’s much harder to make memories in this new plague-year-lifestyle, and road trips are hard to come by, as where on Earth will one find a “safe” bathroom, if one needs to poop?

But I clearly remember the time my wife and I moved out of California, in 2002, and drove through the LA basin on our way East. (I foolishly diverted down from San Francisco to drop off some art I’d sold on the way out.)

We were stuck in traffic forever, but that’s not what I remember most.

No.

Rather, when we finally made it to the outskirts, in San Bernadino, I was shocked to my core when the mountains appeared out of nowhere.

The smog was so thick, the pollution denser than the QAnon theory, that I almost gasped for breath to realize there had been mountains there all along.

How could they be so hidden from view like that?

The grind of that drive across the megalopolis stayed with me, and the last time I drove across the LA basin, heading home with the family on a road trip in 2016, we woke up at 4:30am, and hit the road by 5, so we could cruise through the place without impediment.

It was so quick the second time around that we got cocky, and stopped for a leisurely breakfast in Victorville, at a 50’s themed diner, and I ate steak in the morning for the first time.

We gave back the hour we’d saved, and ended up in a traffic jam at the Arizona state line that traumatized me deeply.

Road trips!

So when I think of LA, I think of driving, as don’t we all?

Thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time there since the turn of the century, and have a feel for what the place is really like.

Despite the fact that I know the Westside beach communities best, I’ve seen enough to know that the glamour for which the city is known is an illusion.

Or perhaps a pocket.

There is so much endless asphalt.

So many places that don’t get our attention until things blow up, and buildings burn down.

It’s the LA of the immigrant narrative, or stories we know best from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

But it’s not the LA that has been packaged and sold around the world so many times.

It’s not the fame-driven economy that ultimately gave us a reality show President, even if he was from Queens. (Sorry. Now he’s a “Florida man,” as he was always meant to be.)

Last week, I featured a book that was made of and from the LA of the creators. The hipsters. Those that have a method of expression, and an audience ready to look.

And as often happens over the course of a nearly-decade-long book review column, the weeks flow together perfectly, because this morning I opened a box from Mack, in London, and something unexpected popped out.

It was “Seventy Two and One Half Miles Across Los Angeles,” by Mark Ruwedel, published in #2020.

This, my dear readers, is a book that taps into the monotonous LA reality that is there to be seen, if only one would choose to look.

If only one would step off I-10, hit the surface streets South of the big time, and pay attention to the endlessness of it all.

But apparently it’s not endless.
It’s 72 and one half miles wide.

The book doesn’t have much introductory information, beyond the title, but that alone, plus the manner in which it’s broken into sections, 12 miles a time, is enough to suggest the Eastward migration of the photographer’s camera.

And what do we see?

Shotgun shacks and highway underpasses.
Imperfectly cropped cars and sorry strip malls.

El Dorado, but not the famed village of Gold.
(Nor the fabled town from the Howard Hawks/John Wayne/James Caan western.)

There are few people, because nobody walks.

A divorce abogado charging only $499.
Drive-though burger joints.
And lots of taquerias.

(What I wouldn’t give for some proper California Mexican food right now.)

I’ve always felt that ideas tend to shift from West to East in the United States, and wrote here, with some alarm, as I watched the homelessness and environmental instability grow in California; bellwethers of Climate Change and economic inequality.

No fun.

But it’s an artist’s job to look at and process the culture, landscape, and time in which we’re living.

These pictures are often banal, because the place they were documenting is not that visually appealing.

(It’s anti-aesthetic, not Malibu.)

Then, you turn the page, and a visual masterpiece would pop out; perfect tonality and composition.

All mood; no boring.

That was a pretty cool trick in the editing.

Later on, halfway through, I remembered that I loved Mark Ruwedel’s older work of vanishing 19th century train tracks in the desert.

Sure enough, I turned the page, and there were vanishing train tracks.

I swear, it was as if they’d read my mind, which is also the sign of some great sequencing. (And attention to detail.)

Finally, we make it to smoggy San Bernadino, after some LA river aqueduct scenes that made me think of “Grease,” and we get to the final essays, which provide some context.

Apparently, the book was the brainchild of the writer Nigel Raab, who in fact walked the entire 72 and a half mile route from his home on the Southwest side of the basin, recorded it with a pedometer, and then invited Mark Ruwedel to make photos of his route. (The photographer used a car, wisely.)

The connection to Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is strong, but why not, as that’s one of the seminal pieces in the History of Photography?

And Raab’s essay confirmed my read on the book in general, and the “Grease” reference in my mind, but corrected me, as it’s not the LA river, but the San Gabriel. (My bad.)

Personally, I’m looking forward to the days when I can drive around places like LA, bitching about the traffic. I learned to use the surface streets years ago, mostly to good effect, but I’ve certainly never walked very far there.

Much less 72 and one half miles.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to, because this book does it for us.

A healthy dose of distraction this morning, on another day in quarantine. (But at least the sun is out!)

To purchase “Seventy Two and One Half Miles” click here 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

 

This Week in Photography: A Creative Community

 

I bought a new camera recently.

At the end of #2020.

 

This might not sound like a big deal, but it was my first new system in 15 years.

Like many of you, I’d been sticking to one company, as I had a lot of lenses, but my Panasonic/Olympus equipment was locked in at the 4/3 chip size.

Over the years, (since 2005,) I’d watch as new things came to market, and then full-frame chips became the norm. Some of you love Canon, others prefer Nikon, but I was stuck with the same things I always had, and eventually I got bored.

But I could never afford to switch to a new back, much less buy a great, razor-sharp lens to replace the one I purchased in 2007, and used for all four series I included in my “Extinction Party” book.

At the end of last year, though, I saw some amazing deals on Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras, and even with a top shelf lens, the price was now less than half of what it cost to change systems a few years ago.

(I could swing it, for once.)

Still, it seemed so extravagant, so selfish, to spend money on a new camera system, instead of paying down some credit card debt.

My old system was gathering dust, and my iPhone seemed sufficient, for now.

Plus, I kind-of had an idea for a new project, (sort-of,) but nothing concrete.

Then, I spoke to one of my best friends, Caleb, who’s also a creative partner, and he encouraged me to go for it. Invest in myself. Take the plunge. (As did my wife Jessie, who also pushed me to treat myself.)

It was a tough decision, but Caleb assured me I didn’t need to know what I would do with the Sony. Going for it, doing something risky and scary, and then the natural desire to play with a new “toy” would inevitably result in a fresh creative project.

He promised me that within six months, I’d be going again on something “real,” a new project to move past the studio, conceptual, still life stuff I’d grown tired of.

And it probably wouldn’t even be the idea I was kicking around in my head.

Thankfully, he was right.

I’m not divulging details, but I’m already excited and working again, and it took less than a month with the new machine, before I had my groove.

Why am I mentioning this today?

Because I just finished reading and looking at “Exposure,” a new photo book that Carmen Chan sent me in the autumn of #2020.

It features photographs of and interviews with nine, diverse, young-ish female artists living in Los Angeles, all of whom are working in various ways, but none seem to be using a camera at present.

I mentioned it last week, and didn’t have the brain focus to dig in, but as soon as I did today, I gave it a read in one sitting.

And while each artist had things to say that differed from the others, there were so many common themes, many of which I’ve experienced in my own life. (And some of which recur here in the column as well.)

While a third of the artists had moved from hella Northern locales, likely entranced by the perfect weather, (Canada, Wisconsin and Minnesota,) and a handful were born in CA, all of them made some mention of the value of their creative community.

How their friends and fellow artists helped inspire and support them.

John Donne may have said “No man is an island,” many years ago, but no artist- male, female, or non-binary- is either.

We need each other.

Additionally, many of the women discussed the fact that they had left one medium for another, at some point, or that they openly experimented with multiple media, as different ideas need to be birthed in different forms. (In my own #2020 story, my iPhone resuscitated my interest in photography, but was not enough to help me push on in my practice.)

Finally, there was a lot of discussion of the needs of the spirit, and how art practice allowed the artists to express things inside themselves that were non-verbal, or too difficult to process by using words and direct thoughts.

As Enna Ikuta said in her interview, “Growth doesn’t come from passive stagnancy. Sometimes you have to lift up that rug and acknowledge all the crap that you swept underneath it. Everyone has a different way of doing this, feeling this, and accepting this, but I do believe it is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. I think having personal baggage is a universal experience, yet it’s not something another person can ever force you to think about.”

Beautifully stated.

Some of you have been reading this column for a long time, and know that I often encourage you to make things.

The art process offers each of us a pressure-release valve, so our emotions, and the artifacts of our Shadow, can come out in a controlled, positive way.

(When repressed emotions bubble up in people without expressive options, it leads to violence, addiction and misery.)

Making art is a win-win, because when we let our fears out, and our pain, we become healthier.

Furthermore, our artwork, the end product and the result of the process, allows us to feel pride in ourselves, or a sense of accomplishment, even if no one else sees your piece on a wall, or a pedestal.

Certainly, most-if-not-all of the female artists in this book shared some version of this theory, in their own words.

And my 13 year old, who’s been having such a hard time lately in lockdown life, wrote an amazing story this week, and his entire personality changed thereafter. (His second story followed two days later.)

Ironically, despite how often I teach these ideas, I had tried to push and cajole him to make art, to help himself.

I attempted to “force” him to do it, but of course that effort was doomed to failure.

Because as Ms. Ikuta reminded me, it doesn’t work that way. Not only is change hard, but a person has do decide to do it for him-her-or-theyself.

Hopefully, though, you’ve got friends you trust who’ll give you a nudge every now and again.

(Thanks, Caleb!)

I think you’ll dig this book, and I’ll be back again next week, as usual.

To learn more about “Exposure” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: New Beginnings

 

 

These are difficult times.

The hardest I’ve ever seen.

(It is what it is.)

 

I’m writing on Thursday, as usual, which means yesterday was President Biden’s inauguration, marking the end of one of the darkest periods in American history.

Honestly, I’m so sick of thinking about you-know-who that I’ll try to keep his name out of this column as much as possible, going forward.

It’s like Voldemort, when almost all the wizards in the Wizarding world preferred uttering “he who shall not be named.”

We’ll try that here for now.

Because this week, this moment, should be about new beginnings.

Looking forward.
Rebuilding hope.
Finding solace.

But I’ve seen mentioned with regularity on social media in the last few days, (and I’ve been telling people for weeks now,) much of America is suffering from PTSD.

All the hate, the constantly-aroused feelings, the unexpressed sadness, the repressed rage.

The frustration at our inability to do anything, on an individual level, to stop the Covid death count from going higher.

And higher still.

We’re now past 400,000 dead here in the US, and President Biden is predicting we’ll hit half a million corpses before too long.

How do we even process numbers like that?

Mostly, I feel numb.

The fight has left me for the moment, and I know many people who feel the same.

So this afternoon, after doing seven portfolio reviews in the morning for LACP, (which means I get to share more photo portfolios with you in the future,) I found myself empty.

Bereft.

I tried to look at a book submission to write this review, a book I’ll definitely feature soon, but my brain couldn’t focus on the words. (It required a lot of reading.)

Instead, I utilized my trusty trick of staring at my bookshelf, asking the heavens above for some help.

Would anything jump out at me?

Anything that might make me feel better, or give me the opportunity to share some peace with you?

Because if I’ve realized anything in the last couple of weeks, it’s that a lot of people read this column, and over the years have come to care about me, and what I write here.

Two weeks ago, I admitted I hit an inflection point in my marriage, and my wife and I would figure things out, or we wouldn’t.

No more dicking around.

In the 14 days since, (including 10 seconds ago, when a text just came in from a friend in Rhode Island,) the amount of people who have called or written to offer support, and check on me, has been one of the best things that’s ever happened.

Thank you so much!

Jessie and I decided we would not let all these external stresses from a crazy world break us up, so we’re forging ahead.

Still, the drama comes at us from other places, and just today, one of the people I reviewed went ape-shit, yelling and screaming, as if it were my job to eat the shit.

Please remember, the energy we put into the world affects so many other people. If you feel bad, and dump it on others, that creates a chain reaction.

After 5 years of incessant negativity from you-know-who, amplified 1000 times via Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, and every other form of mass communication, it only makes sense that we’d all be wounded.

Beaten down.

Ready for President Biden, his diverse team of professionals, and that amazing young poet, Amanda Gorman, to give us some positivity juice.

That, however, is only the electric shock needed to restart our hearts.

The real healing will take a while.

So, as luck would have it, I looked at my book shelf and spotted one of my all-time favorite books; “Cultivated Landscapes,” an exhibition catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Shout out to the Met!)

It features work from a show I once saw, of a collection of Chinese landscape paintings, which is a historical genre that has always inspired me.

These ancient paintings and scrolls are some of the most peaceful, meditative, quiet, lovely, magnificent pieces of art you will see.

The calming, Buddhist juju literally jumps off the page.

As bad as I felt when I opened the book, within minutes, I felt a bit better.

Because making art helps us manage our stress, and process our emotions.

It also takes our mind off things, for a little while.

And looking at art can serve the same purpose.

So no, it’s not a photo book today. But it is a gift from me to you. (Sharing something I care about, and love.)

See you next week.

To download a .pdf of “Cultivated Landscapes” click here 

This Week in Photography: The Cycle of History

 

Do you remember 9/11?

 

I sure do.

After the shock, and the inability to look away from the television screen all day, (Thank you Peter Jennings, RIP,) I vividly recall walking around for a couple of weeks in a haze.

 

Image courtesy of the Television Academy

 

What happened was so far outside my frame of reference, it felt like life was a movie, and I just wanted the credits to roll.

“Please,” I thought, “let things go back to normal.”

But they never did.

Sure, after a few years things chilled out a bit, at least until the Great Recession, yet life never returned to the way it was before the Twin Towers came down.

(No more Pax Americana.)

In the aftermath, we heard a lot about how so many young, angry, under-or-unemployed Muslim men around the world had nothing better to do than fume about America, and plot our downfall.

How they couldn’t afford to have girlfriends or wives, and they sat around all day, waiting in coffee shops.

How they had been “radicalized” by information that was essentially brain-washing. How certain clerics spoke directly to them, to their fears and anxieties, and convinced them violence was the only answer.

Though there had been major attacks in the lead-up to September 11th, like the first Twin Towers bombing, or the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, afterwards, there were no similar-level terror events on American soil.

It became much more about changes in airport routines, and the repetitive drone of “If you see something, say something” announcements on the NYC subways. (I lived there from 2002-05, when the city was still shell-shocked.)

Nearly 20 years have passed since that last epoch-shaking event in the US, and now we have ourselves another.

That’s how big a deal the attack on the US Capitol was: whether you call it a riot, a coup attempt, an insurrection, or the opening salvo of a 21st Century revolution.

Needless to say, I can’t think very straight 8 days later, and am surprised to even be writing this column. (Never missed a deadline; not about to start now.)

Thankfully, the photo-book-dieties are friendly to long-time columnists, so as I reached into my thick book stack today, looking for the oldest book there, I found something that came in just about this time last year.

It arrived before the pandemic hit, at a time when Donald Trump, for all his pure-awfulness, did not have the blood of nearly 400,000 Americans on his hands.

(Nor had he tried to destroy Democracy to protect his man-baby, hyper-fragile ego.)

When a year goes by, from submission to perusal, you can be sure I know absolutely nothing about the book in question, and take it on its merits.

Today, we’ll look at “Late Harvest,” by Forest McMullin, published by RIT press in 2019.

Given my limited brain capacity, I’ll tell you from the jump that this is a good book, perfect for the moment, but the photographs are not something at which I’d hurl superlatives.

Despite the fact that the artist’s opening statement makes mention of the brilliant Southern light, which illuminates colors with intensity, and the essay by Nancy McCrary that suggests these are not cliché, Southern-poverty-porn pictures, I disagree on both counts.

The light is often flat, and the portraits really could have used some fill flash. As to the subject matter, I have seen decrepit and abandoned Southern spaces many, many times before.

However…

The artist was a life-long Northerner who moved to the South on the cusp of the Great Recession, to shake up his life. (Along with his wife.)

They ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, (which has been in the news a lot lately,) and subsequently, Forest began a long-term project cruising only the smallest roads of the Deep South, with paper maps. (No GPS.)

I reviewed a book with a similar premise a few years ago, “True Places,” by Jack Carnell, published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta, and found those photos to be superior, technically speaking.

But this book feels like it dug into a vein of truth in the contemporary South, as there are interviews that both give a strong sense of the artist as a down-to-Earth, likable guy, and also one who displayed curiosity, kindness and empathy to the people he met along the way.

There are white people inside, including a small shopkeeper who longs for Trump to make gun silencers legal, and a bar owner who once brained her man with a baseball bat, and claims it’s the only “white bar” in her town.

Racism!

But there are also African-Americans who run makeshift bars, hair salon/sandwich shops, or are Mayors and Preachers simultaneously.

Taken together, the Deep South comes off as the kind of place that opportunity forgot.

A place that is still very rooted in the impact of the Civil War.

A place where you have to leave for the city if you want to have any chance at a decent living, or if you want to meet a partner in mid-life, because you’re tired of being alone. (Actual details from within.)

I guess what I’m saying is I don’t LOVE these photographs, but I find this to be a powerful, anthropological book that gives us a window into the vanquished Confederacy.

I know not all the insurrectionists last week were poor and white, (only most of them,) but they certainly felt like today’s America had let them down.

In fact, just this morning, (Friday, as I’m editing,) I found this quote in WaPo, about the QAnon-Shaman-asshole, from his lawyer:

“He took seriously the countless messages of President Trump. He believed in President Trump,” Watkins said. “Like tens of millions of other Americans, Chansley felt — for the first time in his life — as though his voice was being heard.”

Sure, the Trumpists have had the Presidency for 4 years, the Senate for longer, and just packed the Supreme Court for a generation.

But if your life sucks, you see no hope of improvement, and the President of the United States, your hero, keeps telling you whose fault it is, and then begging you to start breaking shit, can we really be surprised when the statues topple?

Are not Arizona and Florida Southern states, after all? (With AZ’s history as a slave-friendly territory.)

The answer is yes.
Yes they are.

So, how does any of this get better?

If I knew, I’d tell you.

For now, we can only hope.

To purchase “Late Harvest” click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: The End is Nigh?

 

 

I’ve always been an optimist.

 

And if you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you’ll know it’s true.

(Until this year, that is.)

Fucking #2020.
What a bitch.

If I’m being honest, I probably started questioning my faith in positivity a bit earlier in the thankfully-soon-to-be-over Trump presidency.

Because back in my young 30’s, with Barack Obama’s ascent, I was enamored of his theory that the long arch of history bends towards justice.

Hasn’t Hollywood been pumping us full of that happy-ending juice for a Century now? (Until Tom Holland’s Spiderman dies at the end of that Avengers film, that is.)

Haven’t we been primed to believe things will work themselves out eventually?

Because there is ample evidence in human history that corruption, and the lust for power and wealth, can also create super-long periods where “regular” people consistently get the shit end of the stick.

For every Pax Americana, or Athenian Democracy, there has been a counter-balancing Aztec Empire, Nazi Regime, or Enrique Peña Nieto nightmare. (Sorry, Mexico. Didn’t mean to pick on you twice.)

Which makes a week like this one feel so very, perfectly, unbelievably #2020.

The US surpasses 300,000 dead, but we also get the vaccine. The Electoral College does its job and votes for Biden, but certain right-wing figures continue to imply a Civil War is coming.

People are dying, constantly.
But maybe better days are ahead?

It’s hard to make sense of things, in the week before Xmas, and after I confidently slammed the door on #2019, begging for #2020, I’m now cautiously peeking around the corner, hoping 2021 doesn’t kick us in the balls.

I’m not even sure the calendar will turn as it’s supposed to, because this year has felt like 10 years and 10 days simultaneously.

In previous columns, we’ve discussed that time functioned differently during this plague year, but still, my optimism is buried deep enough that even New Year’s Eve seems illusory.

The year has been so long, in fact, that I received a book in late February, just before lockdown, and it’s sat in my submission pile ever since. (That part is understandable, as it often takes me a year to comb though the stack.)

But this book, a small catalogue really, was one I didn’t request, nor did the artist reach out before sending, so when I finally opened it up, I was clueless as to what I’d be seeing.

It’s called “a.non.y.mous,” by Robert George, published by Archer Gallery Press, and the return address was from Saint Louis, so I was really flying blind.

There is a well-written, short statement in the beginning, that veers towards art-speak, but never crosses the line. It intrigued me, in particular this line: “individualism has defined America in the past, but as the world grows larger, we become more and more anonymous.”

Late last year, I wrote a huge article comparing China and America, and questioned whether our over-reliance on individuality, at the expense of any sense of collective responsibility, might soon bite us in the ass?

(And #2020 answered that question, did it not?)

I’m no fan of autocracy, as everyone knows, but I suggested we could do with a slightly stronger sense of social fabric, as Trump was shredding so much of our decency and moral standing.

(And here we are, in a world where people would rather allow others to die than wear a stupid fucking mask.)

Though the book’s introduction suggests it will have a bit of an intellectual, or scholarly bent, we end up with a lovely, short jaunt through a set of cohesive street photos. (Or documentary images, depening on your preference of terms.)

Mostly, we see solitary figures, often children, out in a varied world. (Not exclusively Saint Louis, I’m guessing.) That there are so many subtle symbols of American culture and history, in such a short book, is commendable. (Like Spiderman.)

But here’s the kicker: the book implies it was shot and published in #2020. (Based on the end notes.)

All of it?

But it arrived in my mailbox at the end of February.

So the entire narrative must span the beginning of this year; all of it before lockdown?

The masks.
The loneliness.
The broken heroes.

All of it?

Somehow, a story that feels like it was made for our 9 month ordeal, was created just before it began?

Including the protests?

We also see two carnivals, which are pretty much the perfect examples of what we have lost.

(The fun, freedom, and whimsy.)

I’m properly impressed by this little volume, and do wonder if it would have had the same power if they’d tried to cram in 60 pictures, and built the thing with more a more imposing physical structure?

Instead, it feels more poem than novel. (More Robert Frost than Jonathan Franzen.)

I hope you enjoy it, and as I’ll be off next week for the holiday, I’ll see you again in 2021.

(If Armageddon doesn’t get here first…)

To contact the artist about the book, click here

 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Feeling Lucky

 

Here’s a little secret: Donald J. Trump is a fake tough guy.

A fugazi.

 

 

I understand he’s tall, and tall guys have a different path in life, so that must have gone to his head.

But given his obesity and age, many of us could beat the shit out of him, if he didn’t have all that Secret Service protection.

He talks like a tough guy, and squints like a tough guy, but like many a bully before him, it’s all bark, no bite. (Assuming he doesn’t launch a Civil War between now and January 20th.)

 

Now that he’s lost, few things will give me more pleasure than not having to write about him all the time.

Or think about him.
Or talk about him.

With any luck, he’ll fade from the media firmament, allowing the rest of us to focus on more important things, like saving the planet, or discovering the perfect show on Netflix. (The Queen’s Gambit?)

Frankly, I think just like Trump was playing a successful business executive on TV, he’s spent his presidency pretending to be Clint Eastwood, circa the 70’s.

I love Clint Eastwood, sure, and his Spaghetti Westerns are some of the best art of the 20th Century. (Though he owes a lot of that to Sergio Leone, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, and Ennio Morricone.)

As to the “Dirty Harry” films, the ones that obviously inspired Trump, (as did those of Charles Bronson,) they are far more problematic, when seen from a 21st Century vantage.

I like them, (though I saw them ages ago,) but the overt racism, and denigration of the counter culture, make Old Clint look like a white-guy-marauder, swinging his big gun around liberal San Francisco, cleaning up the mess on behalf of respectable society.

Take his most famous clip, for instance.

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”

Everyone over 40 knows that quote, but how many of you have seen the scene?

Big Clint stands over an African-American criminal, (with a nefarious mustache,) and threatens to shoot him, if the prone man reaches for his shotgun.

Clint has his 44 Magnum, of course.

But the big question is whether he has any bullets left, after the broad daylight, while-eating-a-hot-dog, shootout in downtown SF.

Does he?

Did he shoot five, or six shots?

So the African-American criminal is laying there, being threatened with having his head blown clean off, and he has to wonder?

It is worth the risk?

5 or 6?
6 or 5?

One number is lucky, the other means death.

So he decides NOT to take his chances, surrenders, and only then does he get Clint to admit it was a bluff.

The gun was empty.

All talk.

(Sound like anyone we know?)

Was he actually lucky then? By rolling the dice on staying alive, he wins, right?

Or was he unlucky to get shot in the first place?

How do we define luck, given that we all supposedly know what it means?

Just last night, on Twitter, I described #2020 as a kick in the balls, which it certainly has been.

But the early stages of the pandemic, with its attendant lockdown, allowed me to figure out my wife had clinical depression, and now, 9 months later, she’s healthier and happier than she’s been in years?

Was it good “luck” that the world fell apart, so I could save my family?

I really don’t know how to answer that question.

Is luck just chance by another name?

Was I lucky today, when I decided rather than opening a new book box, to stare at my book shelf and see if anything jumped out?

Because I plucked the very yellow “El Libro Supremo De La Suerte,” by Rose Marie Cromwell, published by TIS books in 2018, and it was just right for today.

Why is that luck?

Well, I’ve tried to review this book no less than 4 times before, as I met Rose at a festival in Virginia in 2010, and respect her artistic practice, but each time, I couldn’t sort it out.

The project was shot in Cuba, between 2009-16, and even though Rose is bilingual, and did lots of good work with youth in Panama over the years, it still read like a “Cuba” book to me.

Maybe a bit weirder than the norm, but there is so much “Cuba” out there, and we all know it.

So why today?

What changed, other than my luck?

I guess I figured the book out this time, which I wasn’t able to before.

And as you might have surmised from the book’s title, and my generous-length lede, it’s a book about luck, as the subject is a form of lottery that is played in Havana, called La Charada.

The book explains that in the hand-written-font-opening-statement, but previously, I blew past that and just saw Cuba.

Not this time.

The book is broken into sections, each matching up with a lottery number, and the subject to which it is attached. (Like old whore, or dark sun.)

The book, which is creatively constructed, (in addition to its noticeable cover,) with plenty of half-pages, feels non-linear.

Poetic.

Maybe even just the slightest bit occult, with the chicken feet, dark corners, and sense of ritual. (Like the two men buried in the sand, intertwined.)

Obviously, I got lucky today, as I needed a book to write about, and this presented itself. In the past, I wasn’t up for the challenge of understanding it, so I chose to pass, trusting that only 5 bullets had been discharged.

Thankfully, I got over myself, stood tall, and was able to appreciate this cool project for what it has to offer.

To purchase “El Libro Supremo De La Suerte,” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: Black Friday

 

 

It’s 2pm on Tuesday, so that’s something different.

(I haven’t written a non-Thursday column in ages.)

 

I’ve worked on Thanksgiving for years, never planning ahead enough to write earlier in the week.

This year, though, I got my shit together, having promised my wife I’d take the holiday offline, to get a bit of rest.

#2020 has left me feeling like my Gi used to smell after Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, back when things like martial arts classes existed in the world.

And it seems like most people I speak with feel the same way.

Worn out. Unproductive.
Ready for a break

It’s gotten so bad, my lack of focus, that I spent most of today searching for jackets and coats on the internet.

 

(Normally, I’d be ashamed to admit that, but I don’t remember what the word shame means these days.)

Since I don’t have a proper Winter jacket for our climate, I’ve spent days sifting through killer Black Friday deals, looking for just the right jacket.

Or coat.

Should it be gore-tex, or down?

Maybe wool, and if so, what cut?

Jacket after jacket.
Coat after coat.

Click link.
Absorb details.
Read reviews.
Consider price.

Move on.

Jacket or coat?
Coat or jacket?
Jacket. Jacket.
Coat. Coat.
Coat.

On and on, for hours.

 

I’m not proud; I’ve seen hundreds of jackets over the last week. (And coats.)

 

Onward I shop.

My brain is mush. Clicking links like a trained monkey is all I’m good for. And when I find my perfect, Goldilocks coat, I’ll wear it with pride!

 

Jackets and coats.

I have plenty of them, but not the kind I need, as my previous Winter coat was ruined when I accidentally bumped into a parked bicycle on a narrow street in Amsterdam. (Right before I was almost hit by a bus.)

 

Jackets and coats.

They serve an important purpose.

Keeping us warm.
Occasionally, as fashion, they might even be art.

 

But no matter how much we gussy them up, it’s just sewn fabric to keep our bodies warm, protected from the elements.

So basic.

 

What’s more utilitarian than a coat?

Maybe a cooking fire?
A drinking vessel?

Or a broom?

Some little reeds or twigs tied together, lashed to another stick?

 

You can’t have a clean space, even if it’s a tiny hut 1000 years ago, without a broom, right?

 

Brooms are everywhere, and we need them desperately, but we never pay them any mind.

No one ever says, “Why thank you, Old Broom, as I wish to convey my general appreciation for the service you provide on a regular basis. Cheers and Bully to you, Sir!”

I don’t say that to my broom.

Do you?

 

Brooms are the Rodney Dangerfield of household items: they don’t get any respect.

Until now.

(You knew I was getting there, right?)

My friend and colleague Jason Dibley, an artist and museum professional based in Houston, offered to send me a ‘zine this Fall, so I said thanks, and that was that.

In the small envelope, tucked inside a hilarious plastic bag from Texas institution, H.E.B., I found the Minimalist white Digest sitting atop four annuals, from 2017-2020, of the Broom Zine.

These impeccable, odd, fun little volumes are so perfect for today.

One thing. Over and over again.

Brooms.
Brooms.
Brooms.
(Dustpans are a co-star in the 2018 volume.)

It forces one to think about what we ignore each day, paying no mind as we live in our heads, imagining the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

(RIP David Cassidy.)

 

As cool as the annual ‘zines are, I must say, I love the Digest best.

 

It could not be more pared down.

A graphic, stripped of context, printed and folded, on clean, white paper.

 

Yet the four brooms are more noble, and sculptural for it.

Regal brooms!

 

Happy Black Friday.

For more info on Broom Zine, follow on IG here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

 

This Week in Photography: Skinning Monkeys

 

 

I looked at my daughter.

“You shouldn’t see the monkey face,” I said.

“No?” she replied, questioning the finality of it all?

“No, you shouldn’t see the monkey face,” I repeated, more determined, and that was the end of it.

 

It began, as many meta-stories likely do, with a desire to clear one’s head.

To go for a walk.

It was Thursday morning, getting late, and I had to write this column.

I was dragging, though, so I figured a walk might be just the thing to shake up my thoughts.

Get the blood pumping.

I’d just taken a look at a bonkers book, (one I mentioned picking up last week,) and knew I’d have to write, but sometimes the exercise jars loose a good idea.

I told my daughter I was headed out, (briefly interrupting her Zoom school) and before I knew it, she was joining me, as her class had just ended.

As I may have written before, she likes to talk, my daughter, so there went the chance to quietly develop some ideas in solitude.

I offered her a compromise, where half the time I had quiet to think, and half the time, we chatted about her subject of choice, but she said “No, thanks.”

So I switched tactics. I’d make use of the conversation.

Especially when she gave me an opening.

“You know, normally I’d be in recess, probably, in our old life,” she said.

“Yeah, I replied, “humans are pretty adaptable, even a shift in lifestyle this radical, where we’ve mostly been home for the past 8 months. We just kind of got used to it.

Humans can lead very different lives, sometimes almost unimaginably so. Did you realize?” I asked.

“I guess,” she replied. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said, “what I want to talk about will be the subject of my column, and the things we say, I could include it. This, what we’re saying now, could be the opening of the article. Does that work for you?”

“Sure,” she said.

I told her that people did things differently across the planet, because of habit, wealth, laws, history, environment or opportunity.

And I thought I’d just seen a book that was about as different from our life here in Northern New Mexico as possible.

“I think it would blow your mind,” I said.

She gave me the side eye, clearly underwhelmed. Then she paused a moment, and said, “Go on.”

I told her about “Doomed Paradise,” a photo book by Tomas Wüthrich, published by Scheidegger & Spiess, that arrived in March, not long after lockdown began.

I told her about the Penan people, in the jungles of Borneo, on the other side of the world, and how the photographer spent time with the families in this culture, to observe and photograph their traditions.

Kind of like an anthropologist.

Or a spy.

“I’m listening,” she said.

Apparently, this group of indigenous people still lives in a partial hunter-gatherer society, and they catch and kill a lot of creatures in the wild.

Like, a lot of creatures.

Many of which were included in this book, including the one picture that I am pretty sure I won’t be able to unsee, even if I wanted to.

“We’re nicer to animals than they are,” she said. “We don’t do that.”

“No, maybe not,” I said, “but we buy meat, so we support an industry that kills lots of animals. It’s kind of the same.”

I got the side-eye again.

“And this book I was just looking at was filled with images of dead creatures. I saw the one photo that I know will stick with me. That I don’t think you want in your head. Because it was… a dead monkey… with its face skin torn off!

A skinned monkey face!”

“Dad!” She screamed. “Too intense!”

“Really,” I asked? “Too intense? But now you believe I can surprise you?”

“Yes,” she said.

We laughed. And I thanked her for helping me come up with the opening of this column.

I’ll show you the photo of the monkey face.

Or the other one, with the monkey being disemboweled.

Or the snake wrapped up with its own guts.

In fairness, there is plenty more that’s interesting here, beyond the animal parts.

Road blocks, to keep out logging companies, and creation and other religious mythologies that are shared in text form.

It’s all fascinating, for so many reasons.

Not to mention my oldest rule in book reviewing: can you show us something we haven’t seen before?

That definitely happens here.

Poor little monkey.

To purchase “Doomed Paradise” click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: An Alternate Reality

 

It takes a lot to motivate these days.
To get anything done at all.

 

Because everything is just so wrong.

 

It’s hard to be creative or active, beyond writing this column, and shooting some photos on my iPhone as I walk in circles around my neighborhood.

Life has become nothing more than a repetitive routine, for 8 months now.

You know this, and I know this.
(A plague year indeed.)

 

I’d ask “How did we get here,” in a sweeping philosophical interrogative, but I think we already have the answer, and lord knows we’ve covered the symptoms enough in this column.

All the things I predicted about Trump, all the warning signs that were out there, and still, here we are.

With an American president questioning the validity of a free and fair election that he lost.

Or rather, he’s only questioning part of the ballots, because he is fine with accepting those results with respect to the House and Senate races they represent.

It is a new reality, this #2020, one in which some things look as they always have, they appear to be normal, but then all of sudden a trap door opens and you find yourself plunging into the underground cavern from “The Goonies,” and then Sloth starts screaming about candy bars.

(Can I get a WTF?)

#2020 is the year that keeps on giving, and I wish I were more surprised to see Mitch McConnell knowingly smirk at Trump’s audacity, while doing nothing to counter it.

I almost feel like I brought this on the world, by begging #2019 to end so at least we’d have something new in #2020.

(Be careful what you wish for.)

 

I was so ready for #2009 to end, begged for it, really, only to find that #2010 was so much harder on me and my family, in the heart of The Great Recession.

To think that things are so much crazier now, so much less comprehensible than they were then; those times seem almost naive, in their simplicity.

Like I said, it’s all just so wrong, and it seems like each day we all wake up, hoping things will make sense again.

But they don’t.

Even for me, with a near-decade routine of writing this column each Thursday, peeking at a book someone sent, generating smart and/or entertaining thoughts to share with you.

I picked up two new submissions today, and though they are worth writing about, (and I will,) my heart wasn’t in it.

I couldn’t motivate to process new information.

So I wandered around the house, wondering.

And then it caught my eye, on the bottom of one of the book shelves. Hidden away, perhaps so that no unsuspecting child would pick it up, and get scared by the oddity.

What is it, you ask?

“Wrong,” by Asger Carlsen, published by Mörel Books, back in (you guessed it) 2010.

I did a brief nugget-review of it, for another publication back then, and subsequently, we had an in-depth interview with Asger here too, but even that was 2012.

So long ago.

Today, the book deserves a second look, as it needs so little explication, and will allow me to land a short column, because I know how distracted we all are by the Daily-Bad-News.

As Tim Barber wrote in his intro to “Wrong”: “I cannot unsee the alternate reality that Asger has created in these images.”

Alternate reality.

How #2020 is that?

Basically, this book contains a little, cohesive, black and white world in which really good Photoshop work allowed Asger Carlsen to make people with monstrous double-heads, or wooden crutch-legs.

In which non-specific blobs exist in the world, like some CRISPR experiment gone horribly wrong, but then, somehow, people just accept it as real.

There’s a crocodile with an Australopithecus face, a dog with a person’s face, an ostrich with a human ear, and a wolf-man belting a song into a microphone.

Ironically, this being #2020, (and digital stylings having grown so much in the intervening years,) I can see the seams on some of his Photoshop work, just a bit, but now it reads as funny.

I loved this book ten years ago, and somehow, I think I love it even more now.

Because back then, it was “wrong,” but my rebellious spirit appreciated that.

Now, when I flip through the pages, it feels very “right.”

(What a mess, this #2020.)

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: Aliens Among Us

 

Do you know the Spanish word for fun?

 

It’s divertido.

 

In English, we use the word diverting, but that’s a far cry from fun.

To divert is to shift one’s attention.
Diversion is distraction.

To me, that’s a totally different concept from pleasure, or joy, both of which I associate with “fun.”

Right now, however, much of the human population of Earth is looking for distraction.

We want to be diverted from the raging pandemic, or the still-unresolved US Presidential election. (As I write this, on Thursday morning.)

{Ed note: Biden has pulled ahead as I post this.}

People want something, anything else to think about, because there is just so much depressing, bad news out there, and in most of the Northern Hemisphere, the leaves have now fallen, and winter will be here before you know it.

(Last Monday, for example, I awoke to 2 feet of snow, which put a serious crimp in my 5 mile a day walking habit.)

Just yesterday, I wrote my monthly Arsenal column for the English blog Le Grove, and my editor published it within two hours of the time I first began to write.

If the shit is readable, slap it up there, so people have something, anything, to focus on, beyond the uncertainty of this unique moment in time.

So please allow me to divert you today, with a really cool photo-book that arrived in the mail in March, just as the initial wave of lockdowns set in. (Always, I go for the hook. You should know that by now, as I’ve been doing this for almost a decade.)

I got a box from Surrey, England, but as usual, I put it in my review pile without knowing what it was.

Today, as it felt like the right package, I opened it up, and found “Some Kind of Heavenly Fire,” by Maria Lax, published by Setanta Books.

I had no idea what it would contain, but was not surprised to find the perfect book for the moment, because that synchronicity has happened literally more times than I can count.

The book has a hunter green, fabric cover, with the ochre word “heavenly” embossed, but not a hint of what lies within.

On the inside cover, a glued-down text page shows photo-copied newspaper articles, with the term “Ufo” present, and the language appears to be Finnish. (I’m guessing, having learned such things from reviewing hundreds of books over the years.)

Staying here, on the interior cover, you can really see the way the book was bound, both the pages to each other, and the interior to the cover, and I liked the touch of handmade.

The opening text, printed in a hand-written-type font, says, “In this town, we have always waited for someone, or something- God, a millionaire or aliens- to come and lift us from this misery.”

Between the cover, and those words, we can now guess that aliens/Ufo’s are the book’s subject in some way.

Next, we discover a set of vintage images mixed with contemporary photographs, and the idea of spectral lights becomes evident.

(The reindeer with glowing white eyes is a big tipoff to locale as well, in addition to being a badass photograph.)

This is the kind of object that reminds me that a photo-book, being experiential, does not need to be a collection of genius, mind-numbingly good pictures.

The art in here is cool, for sure, and some of the photos do stand out on their own.

But mostly, I loved it for the production values, including taped in pictures, and a copy of a newspaper article, which then had hidden images beneath.

The narrative structure and storytelling were standout as well.

In the end, from the final text, we learn it is indeed Finland, and that the artist grew up in a small town with a history of alien activity, even though she only learned of it recently, from the stories told by her grandfather, who has dementia.

Did the lights really follow people around in the 60’s?

Does it matter?

Maria Lax writes that Finland at the time was in crisis, and people needed distractions.

Sound familiar?

For more information from the publisher about “Some Kind of Heavenly Fire” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: Creepy in Context

 

The high clouds came in this week.

For the first time in Autumn.

 

It means the November rains and snows are nearly upon us.

As we’re in a drought here in Northern New Mexico, and there is a fire on the other side of the mountains, it’s good that the moisture is finally coming.

It makes much more sense, seasonally, to have the cold and the wet and the brown.

Gray skies, so rare during the year, make sense in November, and as I write this on the back-side of October, (on a Thursday as usual,) bad weather “seems” more right than the extended-Summer we’ve been having all month.

It’s been very climate-changey, all this warm weather and blue skies.

Certain things make sense in our bones, in the deep reptilian part of our brains, because it has always been thus.

I think humans have always been creeped out by the end of October, Halloween, the leaves just dropped, the trees scraggly all of a sudden, and it seems like the ghosts are around the corner.

Boo!

Right?

The Day of the Dead in Mexican culture is at the same time, when the spirit world and the world of the living can almost touch.

So I won’t be surprised if it’s misty and cold on Halloween this year.

The harvest palette, all warm colors, disappearing: the yellows and oranges and ochres.

Because today’s zine makes me think of Halloween, in the best possible way, making it the perfect thing to review.

Stella Kramer wrote not too long ago, offering to send along her zine, “Stellazine,” and I had a gut feeling it was the one to pull off the stack.

Open it up, and in a hand written note, Stella says she wants to “put more eyes on work that I think is singular and worth being seen.”

The cover says “Still Life” by Giovanni Savino, with white on orange, and then a round sticker added to the upper left hand corner reads “STELLAZINE.”

Open it up, and the first page says 001, which reads as page one, but also maybe the first of its kind in a new series of STELLAZINES?

Stella writes, “No coronavirus. No quarantine or isolation. This is timeless; photography that isn’t tied to anything but itself, the photographer and the viewer.”

And the short statement goes on to say we’ll be seeing a mix of two projects that she brought together for this volume.

“I love how everyone’s eyes are closed,” she writes, “as if they are dreaming about what they just read.”

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

Another is that these people look like maybe they’re dead?

And the colors!

(Orange and black, like the permanent marker on the pumpkin near my front door.)

So Halloween that my autumn-craving bones started shaking from within my flesh.

Charlie Brown may have gotten booted off the networks, (only saw the headline, didn’t click the link,) but this can come back off my bookshelf any year at this time.

The second image spread is the weakest, for some reason, so I felt a tiny let-down after the very strong opening, but then the wooden arm, and the next page features a boy with his eyes closed, and a very sharp knife cutting into a book, on the page beside.

And then nails and snakes! And tooth picks and clamps!

The sense of menace becomes overt, and why are everyone’s eyes closed?

Then two young African American girls with big pigtails, on consecutive pages, and I think of photos of victims of church bombings in the 60’s.

Or girls who died of typhoid or something curable, but nobody had the money to buy the medicine.

I’m sure these girls are alive and well, (IRL,) and were likely photographed in contemporary times, but in context with these old books, and torture devices, (and the wooden arm!) the creepy vibe envelops any and all things inside.

(As a thought experiment, I just opened the zine again, and looked at those two images in particular. If you skip the entire narrative, I can see the young women as strong, determined, and alive. But even then, the sense of the images not being contemporary is so strong.)

You turn the pages and there are no horizons.

No places to breathe.

And with no people looking back at you, no respite in friendly eyes, you keep turning the pages until the end, hoping for a break, but it never comes.

The ladies on the last pages look like they were killed many many decades ago, and then we’re only being introduced to their murder file pics now, after they’ve been unearthed by some hungry new cop looking to make a name for himself on cold cases.

Or maybe I just need to look past the orange and black color scheme, and the old-film aesthetic, and the old time styling.

Maybe these are two African-American women, shot in 2020, dreaming of a more equitable society?

Or a safer tomorrow?

Maybe it has nothing to do with darkness or demons?

Context is a funny thing, because as important as it is, it’s also highly subjective.

Happy Halloween.

To learn more about Stellazine click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: Enduring Humanity

 

Have you ever heard of Neal Stephenson?

The writer?

Dude is super-famous in geek culture, for having written a very predictive sci-fi screed called “Snow Crash,” in the early 90’s, which laid out much of what has come since.

Virtual reality, Google Earth, viral information, Evangelical cult religions, actual viruses, the rise of corporations more powerful than governments.

It’s all in there, along with a rip-roaring story, and a bunch of meta-criticism that would make Charlie Kaufman beg for mercy. (Like naming his hero/protagonist Hiro Protagonist.)

I bring this up, because five years ago, he wrote another book that feels like it could end up being predictive one day: “Seveneves.”

The majority of the time I was reading it, I thought the title all-one-word, pronounced seven-eh-vehs, with no long e’s.

But I was wrong.

It was really Seven Eves, with the second word being the name of Earth’s first woman, taken from the rib bones of Earth’s first man, if the Jewish Torah is to be believed. (And then Christianity was built upon that tale as well.)

Spoiler Alert, I bring this up because the book’s premise was that an asteroid broke the Moon, and once some fancy math was done, scientists realized the Moon would soon disintegrate into an endless supply of mini-rocks, which would rain down on Earth, destroying all life as we know it.

(That’s not the spoiler part, because it happens in the beginning of the book.)

No, I’m going to ruin the ending for you.

The entire plot revolves around some humans attempting to re-build life in space, so the world can be repopulated up there, (by seven eves and some artificial insemination,) and then the descendants can come back to Earth many generations later, once it’s safe again.

Against all odds, they succeed, and after a big time-jump in the book’s last section, when human-like creatures do come back to Earth, having evolved in strange ways due to some CRISPR-like genetic manipulation, they find a massive surprise.

Two other groups of humans lasted through the Apocalypse, one by living underwater for millennia, the other by tunneling deep into the Earth.

(Where they created a culture in which some people could breed, and others not, because of the limited air supply in their closed-loop-underground society.)

The book ends with the three strands of now-mutated humans meeting up in some frozen tundra, far from everything.

People standing on ground not fit for human society, but then again, they were no longer human society, as we know it.

My point today, if you haven’t sussed it out yet, is that the survival instinct is deep within us.

We make fun of cockroaches, rats and bats, but we are a similar type of creature, even if we smell better, look prettier, and have the capacity to create and appreciate beauty.

(Seriously, if a rat ever paints the Sistine Chapel, I’ll be the first to give props. Or if Remy from “Ratatouille” ever comes to life, all Patton Oswalt humor and amazing cooking skills, I will eat my hat. Highly Suspect!!!)

 

 

I’m not a self-hating human, but today I’m on my rant for a reason.

I just looked at “Chukotka,” a sleek, slim, excellent new book by Kiliii Yuyan, published by Kris Graves Projects in NYC, and I’m down to discuss.

Kiliii’s work has been featured in the blog before, as I published some of his Arctic documentary photography after a photo festival a few years ago, and then we hung out at a very-fun, late-night party in Portland last year.

(You know, back when people went places, crammed into small hotel suites, and passed vape pens back and forth with impunity. Shout out to Kris for hosting the party.)

As usual, when I share a book from an artist I know personally, it never makes the cut if it’s not good enough.

This one is filled with creepy-uncomfortable-cool photographs, but also succeeds in doing the one thing I love to share with you in a photo book: it shows us something we have never seen before.

Kiliii is an indigenous person, and I swear I had no plan to show his work this week, during a holiday to celebrate his people, now that we no longer genuflect at the genocidal remains of Cristoforo Colombo. (That was his real name: look it up.)

He’s spent a ton of time up in the Arctic before, and knows his way around. And I’ve certainly seen work from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland.

But this book is built upon photographs taken in the Russian region that gives the book its name, as it’s only 3 miles across the Bering Sea. (I guess Sarah Palin wasn’t wrong about everything. Almost everything, but not everything.)

The place is populated by a half Siberian indigenous population, (the ancestors of our Native Americans,) and half ethnic Russians, because like the Han sending citizens to Xinjiang, the Soviets also liked their own to live across their Empire.

There’s not much I can say about the pictures that they won’t say for themselves.

Polar bears, walruses, wolves, puffins, poor people, and lots of bones.

I might not want to go there in person, even in a world in which travel was possible, but the book lets us go there virtually.

(Who needs Oculus when you have a photo books?)

But there is one part of the well-written opening essay that I’d like to share, as it makes my opening even more relevant.

Kiliii tells us the mantra of the Arctic: “The resilient will endure.”

I somehow managed to avoid writing about ACB and the Orange one this week, even with the election getting so close, and the Republicans on the verge of sealing judicial power for a generation.

You know all that is happening, and I’ll be lucky if you stop scrolling through the NYT, WaPo, Reuters, the WSJ, Facebook, and Twitter long enough to read this column.

You’re well aware of the stakes of the 2020 US Election, even if you’re reading this in Moscow.

(Я плохо говорю по русски.)

So instead of focusing on that, think about the mantra of the people who live tougher lives than we’ll ever really understand.

The resilient will endure.

Think on that.

To purchase “Chukotka,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

This Week in Photography: The Power of Tradition

 

“Like nightmares appearing one after the other, these new realities bruised my body and soul, leaving me feeling as if I had taken a severe beating.”

Yukari Chikura, 2020

 

 

I used to work for Bobby Flay.

A long time ago.

I waited tables at his now-shuttered restaurant, Bolo, and was hired the day after it received a 3-star review from the NYT. (Even though it had been open for years by that point.)

The positive press turned the joint into a mad-house, with long-time New Yorkers battling each other for reservations, and tourists lining up as well. (Since Chef was already a significant television personality.)

Photo: Getty Images, Carmen Lopez and AJ Wilhelm

 

The restaurant was extremely well-run, and it turned out to be the most important job I ever had, as I learned some valuable life lessons, like humility, and the value of grueling work.

Ironically, during my time there, another television chef, Rocco DiSpirito, opened up a restaurant across the street, as the premise of a reality show called “The Restaurant,” and it went about as well as you might imagine. (Lots of drama, little success, ending with lawsuits and injunctions.)

Even now, I have vivid memories of Rocco leaning suggestively against his Vespa, out on the street, almost begging for Instagram to be invented, (in 2003,) so that people could take his picture and immediately share the images with the world. (#Rocco2003)

I was reminded of that this morning, having watched the opening of a funny episode of “Beat Bobby Flay” on TV last night, right before bed. (It’s become our pre-sleep Quarantine ritual. Thanks, Boss!)

The premise of the show is simple, as two chefs battle each other, cooking with the ingredient of Bobby’s choice, (in 20 minutes,) and the the winner gets to go up against Bobby, with the dish of his or her choice, for 45 minutes.

(No shock: Bobby almost always wins. Dude has skills.)

In this particular episode, a Neapolitan pizza chef, FROM NAPLES, was battling a generic-white-American-accented American, who was also trained in making pizza in the Naples style.

It was a classic set-up, as how on Earth could a milquetoast-sounding American beat a fucking guy from Naples, who was a third generation pizza chef?

Big surprise, the proper Neapolitan won, and the ersatz-version had to go home early.

I’m not bagging on my country, (which I’ve done many times lately,) what with our current President deciding he’d rather be a dictator than allow our democratic tradition to continue, if he can’t win. (And the psychotic, anti-democratic tweets this week by Republican Senator Mike Lee suggest Trump is not alone in this belief.)

No, I’m not hating on the USA.

Rather, I’m suggesting that even though we are a young country, made up of immigrants (and former slaves) from other parts of the world, we can still see the value of history.

Of tradition.

Of passing stories and rituals along, across the generations, so that people dance, sing, fast, or meditate, all because their ancestors did so.

Hell, one of the main reasons I live in Taos is because I was so enraptured by the Taos Pueblo Christmas Eve celebration as a youth, in which bonfires reach to the sky, the Pueblo residents chant and sing, and the entire community comes together for one night.

And the only time I ever visited Israel, as a young person, I felt the lives of my ancient ancestors calling to me from the building stones in the Old City of Jerusalem. (That’s a memory I haven’t conjured in forever.)

Why am I on about tradition today?

What brings about this bout of nostalgia? (Other than it’s fun to mock Rocco DiSpirito?)

I’m glad you asked.

Today, I just put down the exquisite, perfectly built “Zaido,” by Yukari Chikura, recently published by Steidl, and I feel as if I’m in a trance.

(Though that could be because I slept poorly last night, and am hopped-up on three forms of strong caffeine.)

I once met Yukari at a photo festival years ago, and she was very gracious, so you could say I’m a fan.

I’ve also studied Japanese martial arts before, and admitted to a group of students just the other day that two of my seminal images were inspired by Hokusai, so I’ll share them here today.

 

“one dollar’s worth of Shurfine flour”

Perhaps I’m not so different from that American chef, desperate to be an amazing Pizzaiolo?

(I also love elements of Italian, Chinese, Dutch, French, Spanish, Mexican, African-American and English cultures, so I’m an equal opportunity appropriator.)

That said, I think anyone would love this book, and as it’s already generated a lot of press, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

Steidl has proven to me many times that their print quality and craftsmanship are second to none, and that’s certainly the case here. (Even when you open the box, there is a note giving props to the book packer. In this case, a man named Timo.)

Next, you’re met with an insert that features what appears to be a map, and a booklet that tells the folk tale of a young couple who find wealth and fortune when a god smiles upon them, directing they make a home near a spring filled with sake. (Thanks to a helpful dragonfly as well.)

The story ends by telling us a shrine was eventually built there, and a ceremony derived, called Zaido, so we now understand our title.

(Context delivered.)

We move on to these glowing silver end pages, within the book, and then the slow build-up of a snowy, mountain scene on velum paper.

Did I mention that Haruki Murakami is my favorite writer, and I’ve dreamt of visiting Hokkaido, standing stock still in a frozen field, surrounded by a quiet so rich it feels like something from another dimension?

All those emotions pop up quickly, looking at this book, so steeped in tradition and generations of reverence.

The photographic portion of the book progresses as you might imagine, with landscapes interspersed with some portraits, and documents of the rituals.

If I were to give any critical feedback at all, (not to be a hater,) I think I might have trimmed the edit just a touch, so that all the photos packed an equal punch.

At one point, looking at the empty space, I was reminded of the Fukushima exclusionary zone, where no one lives, due to the radiation from the 2011 earthquake, Tsunami and nuclear meltdown. (One of my aforementioned images was also inspired by that event, and I’ll include it here, to honor the dead.)

“The Great Wave”

At one point, a blank, white piece of board is included, and I stopped flipping, during which time I discovered that an image of paper ribbons included a real one, which had been attached to the book-page.

Adding the divider, which forced the pause, was such a thoughtful gesture.

Like I said, this is a book that is impossible not to like.

It makes one appreciate the “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” pursuit of perfection for which Japanese culture is rightly known.

(Even if my Aikido Sensei was an American, as was his.)

As the book faded in with white, so it fades out with black images on a rougher paper, that suggest snow flakes falling from the sky, illuminated by the faintest hint of light.

Then, the artist’s essay, in which we learn she suffered the loss of her father, and then he came to her in a dream, telling her to seek out this festival, which has gone on for more than a millennium.

Finally, some historical art images, again on silver paper, and the thank you page.

Books like this make me want to be a better artist.

A better man.

Because it reminds me that hard work, diligence, and attention to detail never, ever go out of style.

To purchase “Zaido” click here 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program.