This Week in Photography: The Boys

 

 

It’s been a long week.

(A long year, really.)

Fuck. Maybe we should just say a long decade?

But it’s Thursday, and you know what that means.

(As I said in San Diego last Friday, everyone dicks around until the deadline.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was in California on Saturday.

 

Poolside, on a break at the Medium Festival of Photography

 

Sunday was a blur.

And I’ve been tending to sick kids all week, while beating back the self-destructive tendencies of a normally-great teenager.

(Like I said, I’m beat.)

Then again, my teenager reads the column, and we were discussing photo books as we waited at the fire-house-bus-stop this morning.

 

The fire-house-bus-stop

 

(He really liked both books we featured the past two weeks.)

For the first time, I brought my camera along on the morning ritual, as yesterday, I noticed the light was gorgeous at 7am.

Unfortunately, the light wasn’t spot on today, as there were high clouds, which burned off shortly thereafter, returning our hyper-dry, uber-blue-sky days.

I’d had a shot in mind since yesterday, and as I lined it up, the light, which glimmered a second before, flattened out.

I stood there, camera to my eye, and decided to pass on clicking the shutter.

Just then, literally a second after I lowered the camera, I saw a flash of brown to my left.

(Thankfully, not the kind of brown flash that killed a soldier in Alaska recently.)

Rather, it was a deer, bounding across the field, less than 50 feet away.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been shooting here in Taos since late December 2020, and have images of all sorts of animals: dogs, snakes, cows, spiders, horses.

 

Odessa, who died in March of this year

 

But no deer.

I’ve wanted the deer, but really, how often are you standing there, with your camera all dialed in, and a deer wanders into the frame?

Turns out, it was a whole family of deer, hopping along, one at a time, so I got a few shots.

The light wasn’t perfect, but the whole thing was so random.

Right place.
Right time.

 

 

 

 

 

Some artists have an idea in mind, and make the art to fit the vision.

Others shoot whatever they see, over months or years, then build a jigsaw puzzle out of the resulting edit.

Neither way is “better,” but in my copious experience, I’ve come to believe groups of images that are pre-conceived, or made to cohere to a concept or structure, often have a slightly enhanced sense of intent.

(That’s my two cents, anyway.)

And the last two weeks, it seemed like we featured books where the images were shot, and then the story was built after-the-fact.

(Can’t be sure with Stacy’s amazing “The Moon Belongs to Everyone,” but that was the vibe, anyway.)

 

 

Today, we’re going in a completely different direction.

Let’s look at a book that represents a very personal story.

A book that’s about life, death, and friendship.

A book that melds archival imagery, poignant vignettes, intricate design, and well-crafted, large-format, contemporary portraiture.

Let’s look at “The Boys,” by Rick Schatzberg, published in 2020, by powerHouse in Brooklyn.

 

 

 

 

 

Full disclosure, before I say anything else, I worked with Rick during the book’s production process.

I’ve written before that I consult with artists on photo books, and have a policy not to review books I’ve created with my clients.

(I am included in the final credits for “The Boys.”)

However, this time, the maquette was made, most of the text was written, the photos were shot, and in retrospect, my role was quite minimal.

As such, since it’s an excellent book, and he sent it to me with no expectation of review, I decided it was fair game.

Let’s get to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like me, Rick grew up Jewish, in the suburbs of NYC.

Unlike me, Rick is from Long Island, and as he’s 20 years older, he and his friends are really the test-case for suburban living in the United States.

(Total coincidence, but I saw this hilarious tweet this morning, as a Slovakian tried to make sense of America’s suburbs in 2022.)

 

 

“The Boys” is not about me, in any way, but I think all suburban kids can relate to what these guys used to do.

Find some woods behind the neighborhood, before everything was developed, and wander.

Hang out.

Go somewhere, even if it was an empty field, as there really was nowhere else.

But I was a total goody-goody, and Rick and his crew were proto-Jewish hipsters.

Stoners.

Disaffected kids, listening to music, drinking, and scattering when the cops showed up at their favorite hangout: The Pits.

 

 

 

 

 

A few months ago, I reviewed a book by Karen Marshall, in which she followed a group of New York kids, and then reconnected with them when they were grown.

This flips that methodology on its head, as in “The Boys,” Rick gives us photos of his bros, (as we call them today,) with their Jewfros, jean jackets, bandanas, and beers.

We see these guys in various stages of life, including the 80’s power suits, and the vacation photos, from when they went on Boys Trips.

As a pure Pisces, always moving forward, always changing, I don’t hang out with my middle/high school buddies anymore.

I don’t have a frame of reference for the love these men feel for each other.

Nor for what it’s like as they pass away, one by one.

(A group of 14 is now down to 10.)

Tragically, for Rick and The Boys, two men chronicled in the book actually died before final publication.

What a bummer.

 

 

 

 

 

I like almost everything about this book, though I don’t think the insert essay at the back, by Rick Moody, was particularly necessary.

Often, publishers like to see big name writers attached to a project, to make it easier to market.

It’s the done-thing, and I don’t blame Rick for going that route.

Hell, he and I spent time brainstorming which writer would be a good fit, before he networked his way to the other Rick.

But it’s a compliment, what I’m saying. For an untrained writer, Rick S.’s stories pop.

They engage, and present the kind of first-person narrative that reels viewers in, and allows our imaginations to fill in the details.

Strong stuff, for sure.

 

 

 

 

Beyond the personal, though, a case can be made that “The Boys” also explores the reality of the aging, White Baby Boomer.

Those dudes take a lot of shit these days for destroying the world. Maybe rightly so.

(OK Boomer?)

But Rick made the interesting choice to photograph his remaining friends shirtless.

We see the aging flesh, mottled with spots.

We see the scars.

The sagging muscles.

You might disagree, but I think there’s bravery in being vulnerable for the camera like this.

There is a vignette in which Rick describes why he chose to include himself, with the high-end selfies.

And how hard it was to overcome vanity, and not create more flattering portraits for himself than he did for Joelie, Brad, and the crew.

 

 

 

 

 

Just the other week, I wrote about the passing of my friend, Dave.

This week, his sister Monica gifted me Dave’s Aikido gi.

(He switched to Kung Fu about 15 years ago, which we trained together, but he kept his Japanese fighting robe.)

And now it’s mine.

My Sensei suggested I wear it to train, to honor my friend.

I’ve been under the weather since I got it, (the whole family has,) and haven’t had the chance to put it on yet.

But I’m excited to feel that connection to my departed compadre.

Lately, I find myself talking to Dave. Almost daily.

I haven’t lost many people before, so I don’t know if that’s normal. Thinking they’re up there, somewhere.

Listening.

So I’d like to offer Rick my condolences, and also my compliments, for a job well done.

See you next week!

 

To purchase a copy of “The Boys” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: The Moon Belongs to Everyone

 

 

It’s Monday, and the skies are clear.

(Thank goodness.)

 

 

 

Yesterday, the smoke from New Mexico wildfires was unpleasant enough that we stayed inside all day. (Until it filtered out in the evening.)

To have fires here in April and early May is something I simply cannot recall.

Sure, it’s a drought, and La Niña is a bitch.

 

 

 

But early-spring fires?

Never.

(Climate Change is NOT joking around.)

 

 

 

 

 

In art school, we learned that Kant considered the Sublime to contain a degree of the awful, or the terrifying.

(Maybe awe-inspiring is the better term? I graduated in 2004, so it’s a little rusty.)

But as I remember, it’s more than just beauty, the Sublime.

Three quarters of a day with my reality constrained by smoke pollution, and as soon as I got outside again, the world shimmered.

 

Sunday evening, after the smoke blew out
This morning, before the smoke blew in

 

 

Yet billions of people live with pollution every day.

(I consider myself fortunate.)

Frankly, people around the planet live in all sorts of places, and all manner of ways.

It’s a big world out there.

 

 

 

 

 

I bring this up right now, having just put down “The Moon Belongs To Everyone,” a phenomenal photo-book that arrived in the mail last June, by Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, published by GOST.

(Like I said to Shawn Records last week, thanks for your patience, Stacy!)

Really, this book is terrific.

I love it.

Last week, I wrote that because of the clear, Joseph-Campbell-inspired-structure, Shawn’s book didn’t make us think too hard.

This one is the opposite, as its lack of text, and great variety of imagery types and styles, make you guess what the heck is going on, as you turn each page.

No lie, we see frozen waterfalls, jungles, desert, oceans, and rock formations, just off the top of my head.

The paper changes, through the book, which I also loved, including these eerie portraits that seem almost like silver ink on black paper.

(Though I can’t say for sure.)

We see nature, and food, in various forms, including a killer photo of a super-intense-looking pomegranate.

The pomegranate was also featured in a design-trick I thought was clever, in which some images have a color sampled from within, and it’s turned into an entire color-block-page.

This happened a few times.

(Orange, magenta and red, if I recall.)

 

 

 

 

 

Books like this, which use only photos to tell non-linear, abstracted stories, are often called “poetic.”

And sure enough, the only text in the entire book, (beyond the credits,) was a poem by the artist that I read twice, much as I did with the photos.

If I’m being honest, at first I was a bit skeptical, but kept an open mind, (all those slashes,) but by the time I was done with the second pass, I was convinced.

Cool rhythms, repeating motifs, and if you pay attention, the message is there.

Like the imagery, it’s non-linear and abstracted, so it makes for a fitting close.

The poem speaks to immigrants, and emigrants.

To where we begin, where we end up, and who are we anyway?

How does it always come down to the patch of Earth on which you were born, or the spot you choose to put down your roots?

This book definitely qualifies as a work of art, in my opinion.

Sleek and pretty, but with just a hint of menace.

Job well done.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “The Moon Belongs to Everyone” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

 

 

 

This Week in Photography: A Real Life Hero

 

 

 

My friend, Dave, died last week.

On Friday.

Of Covid.

(Not long after I posted the column.)

 

 

 

 

It’s been rough.

I’m 48, yet lack significant experience with grief.

(Knock on wood.)

I hadn’t known anyone who suffered horribly from Covid, much less perished.

Man, what a shitty situation.

A million dead, here in the US, and so many friends and loved ones left with holes in their hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was particularly cruel, though, as I’d begged Dave to get a booster shot.

(He’d only had the J&J vaccine, last summer, due to an employer mandate.)

But he said no, despite knowing his lifestyle, weight-lifting at the gym, working security at the local bar, meant he was almost certain to contract the virus at some point.

 

Dave in Kit Carson Park, Taos, September 2021

 

Dave, who was conservative politically, and came from a religious background, wasn’t willing to engage in further vaccination.

We even spoke about what would happen if he got Covid.

That he would end up with unpayable medical bills.

That he might die, due to pre-existing conditions.

And now he’s gone.

(Such a bummer.)

 

 

 

 

 

In my mind, Dave was a hero.

He was kind, selfless, curious, and wise.

He went out of his way to help people, and took his job in security seriously.

(This week, I saw an FB comment that Dave used to walk a woman into work each day, at 4am, during his rounds.)

When we’d train in the public park, (for hours at a time,) unhoused, or very drunk people would stop to talk to us, or watch what we were doing.

Every time, Dave treated the person with so much respect and compassion.

It was amazing to see how polite he was, under the circumstances.

(An inspiration, really.)

When that neighbor pulled a gun on me last year, Dave was the first person I texted for advice.

When I had a beef with my Sifu, Dave pushed me to grow, repeatedly advising me to be humble, apologize, and move forward.

 

 

 

 

 

Dave was an action-movie hero, but in real life.

An experienced Aikidoka, and Wing Chun Kung Fu expert, (in addition to his knowledge of firearms,) Dave should have been the next Danny Trejo.

 

Danny Trejo, Courtesy of Estevan Oriol/Getty and The Daily Beast

 

Dave lived through things, and it showed.

Plus, his deep, gravely voice, (from years of smoking cigarettes,) was a perfect complement to his massive biceps, and calm demeanor.

While training in the park last year, I pitched Dave on the idea of being an action-movie hero, for real.

I suggested we write a film, in which he could star, so we could get him the type of recognition he deserved.

He was dubious, but I developed plot points, and as we punched and kicked at each other, he began to see the possibilities.

But a fucking virus put a stop to that.

 

 

 

 

 

Hero is such a powerful word.

It gets tossed around, willy-nilly, but what does it mean?

Maybe it’s someone who does the right thing, even in difficult circumstances?

A person who rises to the challenge, lives by a code of honor, and tries to improve every day?

Maybe, like Spiderman, a hero believes she/he/they has a responsibility to help, and if blessed with being strong and powerful, uses that to the benefit of others?

(That can serve as a working definition, anyway.)

But as long as there have been humans who could walk and talk, there have been heroes.

The protagonists of our stories.

The leaders we admire.

The guideposts for how to live.

How do I know?

Just ask Joseph Campbell.

 

 

 

 

If you’re reading this, you likely work in a creative field, or are at least creative-adjacent.

So you’ve probably heard of Joseph Campbell.

He was a genius academic, writer, lecturer and researcher who, like Jung, delved deep into the human consciousness.

Predominantly, he did this by researching origin stories, myths, and cultural bedrock tales, from around the world, to look for commonalities.

Like pyramids being built in Egypt and Peru simultaneously, thousands of years ago, with no possibly of crossover, certain creation mythologies popped up again and again, across the world.

One of Campbell’s seminal books, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” breaks down traditional narratives structures, from different cultures through time, in the ancient world.

 

 

It’s fascinating, if you’ve never read it. (I have, in bits and pieces, but never cover-to-cover.)

And trust me, it’s relevant to today’s discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

Because I’m finally reviewing photo-book today!

Feels like it’s been a month, (or more,) since we last did a book review, but today, it’s back to the bread and butter.

And what book did I grab, randomly, from the book pile?

Glad you asked!

It’s “Hero,” by Shawn Records, published by aint bad, which turned up in the mail nearly a year ago.

(Thanks for your patience, Shawn!)

It’s a cool little book, for sure, but not one that needs deep analysis.

(No pun intended.)

Because it presents its structure in an obvious way, then tells the story abstractly, but in a manner that will make many a photo-book lover happy.

In this one, it’s all about the pictures, and many are very good.

(Not brilliant, but they don’t need be.)

 

 

 

 

There is almost no text in the book.

We have the end credits, and a crucial title page, which apes the structure of “The Hero’s Journey.”

Literally.

Each supposed chapter has a page number, and that’s it. (And only those pages are numbered.)

So I looked at it twice.

First, I flipped slowly, taking it in.

There were strong photos, for sure.

Like the dog peeking its head out of a hole in a garage door, and the great monkey shot, (as we saw in Rich-Joseph Facun’s excellent “Black Diamonds,”) makes me wonder if that’s not the new “put a bird on it.”

But surely, I liked the images, because they are very photographic.

Implied narratives, cool compositions, impending drama, dynamic colors, well-captured light.

It’s all there.

As I said about John Hesketh’s work last week, what’s not to like?

 

 

 

 

 

On second viewing, I tracked the chapter titles to specific images, and sure, they are suggested in the photos.

Not screamed, or shouted.

(Perhaps murmured would be a better verb.)

The credits page tells us the images were made between 2006-19, so this strikes me as the product of a photographer who shot for years, and then found the through-line after-the-fact.

Nothing wrong with that methodology, and it likely adds to the ambiguity.

So, to wrap it up, as my brain is tired from grief, (and a long trip to the pediatric dentist in Los Alamos yesterday,) I think this is the kind of book that collectors, and photo lovers, will like a lot.

It’s smart in its allusions, but doesn’t make you think too hard.

You can just look, admire the quality, then move on with your day.

Speaking of which… see you next week.

 

To purchase “Hero” click here 

 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

 

 

This Week in Photography: The End of the Line

 

 

My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s disease.

(I’ve mentioned this before.)

Watching her deteriorate day-by-day, over the course of 2020 and 2021, was one of the most miserable experiences of my life.

Without question.

But the worst is over now.

 

October 3, 2020
October 28, 2020
November 21, 2020
December 4, 2020
March 7, 2021

 

 

 

 

Now that Bonnie has settled into a status quo, in which she can’t really communicate, or move around much, one would imagine that would be rock bottom.

But it’s not, actually.

She’s relatively happy, under the circumstances, and clearly wants to live.

(Her body just outlasted her mind.)

It’s fucked up, though, as prior to her decline, she asked her daughters to kill her, before she completely lost her faculties.

While Bonnie was still mentally competent, she did not want to live like this, but lacking an assisted suicide law in New Mexico, my wife and her sister were unwilling to comply.

Now, here we are, yet she eats up a storm, and chimes into conversations with meaningless babble from time to time.

Every medical practitioner I’ve heard speak on the subject, (as well as Bonnie’s experienced care-givers,) all say the same thing: when a person is ready to die, they stop eating.

They give up, hasten the process, and pass on.

And that’s not happening here.

Bonnie wants to live, so she lives.

She assumed she’d rather die than live like this, (when she could still think clearly,) but her body and spirit have different plans.

How strange.

 

May 14, 2021. (The last photo I took of Bonnie, b/c after this, I no longer felt she could give consent.)

 

 

 

 

 

The phase where every day, Bonnie would be less and less capable, was horrifying.

At first she’d simply forget words, or lose her wallet, but it quickly spiraled into personality changes, (like physically attacking my father-in-law, insisting he was an imposter,) and then truly tragic moments, where she knew what was happening, but was powerless to stop it.

I remember the time she looked at me, smacked her head hard, twice, and said, “my bran is broken.”

Not brain.
Bran.

That was awful.

Here in March 2022, though, she keeps on trucking.

I think about that, as I watch the horror of what’s happening in Ukraine, and keep landing on humankind’s survival instinct.

Staying alive is so deeply ingrained in our psyche.

In our souls.

Because no one knows what comes next.

It’s the great mystery, and almost everyone alive is terrified to find the answer.

(Better to not know, and keep living as long as possible.)

 

 

 

 

 

Truth be told, I wouldn’t be me if the above rant were not inspired by a photo-book.

I had no plans to write any of it.

Rather, I spent a few minutes with the short, sleek, supremely-well-designed “Terminus,” by John Divola, published by Mack in 2021, and came out with a new set of ideas.

Full disclosure, (as they say,) I know John personally, having interviewed him twice for Vice and the NYT, and then we had brunch and lunch together IRL.

 

 

We caught up on Zoom a few months ago, and I’ve written about him here before.

I’ve reviewed many books by people I know, but as John is something of an art-star, with a recent history of controversy, I thought it appropriate to come clean.

Because I wouldn’t want you to read this without context.

Frankly, for a while there, as I was turning the pages, I was more worried about how he’d respond to a negative review.

(Which is where we were trending, until near the book’s end.)

 

 

 

 

 

I know from speaking with John, and from his Instagram and FB feeds, that he’s been working for years at an abandoned Air Force base in Victorville, California.

I also know he’s insanely bright, and has his own ideas about what his work means.

When I interviewed him years ago, convinced he was just being a graffiti punk, back in the 70s, wreaking havoc in abandoned buildings, in the spirit of “The Warriors” era time period, he shot all my theories down.

No, not at all, he said.

He was making marks.
Painting abstraction.

The spaces were there, empty, so he made his paintings in the quiet.

The broken glass, piss on the floors, and general mayhem evidenced in his seminal “Zuma” series, shot in Malibu of all places, was incidental to the process.

Not the point.

These days, I feel more comfortable disagreeing, because of course he knows what his motivations were, but he can’t claim supreme knowledge of what the art is actually “about.”

 

All “Zuma” images courtesy of Divola.com

 

 

 

 

I’ve loved most of what I saw from his new project.

It’s anarchic and cool.

Like a late-career revisiting of “Zuma,” but now he’s transgressing on American Military property.

And there is a nice range of imagery within the larger work.

But not in “Terminus.”

No.

The title, (which means the end of the line,) is foreboding, but still the book reveals itself slowly.

Like the gorgeous black orb on the cover, page after page, we see orb-like black paint, graffiti style, as the end of a hallway.

(Rather, I assume it’s several hallways.)

As I turned the pages, I literally thought to myself, “Damn, the audience is going to hate this one, and hate me for reviewing it.”

They’ll think, “How myopic can you get? One meta-image, over and over again? Why make a book?”

I wondered, in a project with a range of images, why just this one repeating motif?

Over and over again.

The orb in the distance.

But then, something changed.

The orb was no longer looming ahead.

It was getting closer.

And closer.

Until finally, it was close enough to make me feel compressed.
Claustrophobic.

WTF?

Then it was there, so close you could touch it, and after literally breaking through, to see to the other side, what did we get?

More black void.

Right in your face.

I reminded myself to take a few breaths, because my understanding of the book changed so quickly.

So drastically.

This is about death.

The end.

And just when you think you can peek behind, to see what’s there, it’s even bleaker.

More void.

(That’s heavy, dude.)

 

 

 

 

As with many Mack books, this one is lean and spare in its textual offerings.

There is almost no text at all.

But on the last page, the artist writes, “Terminus is a singular work, not a collection of related images.”

(Tell me something I don’t know.)

John Divola can, and might, disagree with my reading.

Perhaps he’ll find it too literal.
Or metaphorical?

If so, I would say he’s wrong.

This book is about as good a symbolic representation of the the human condition as I’ve seen.

We all know we’re going to die, eventually.

But no one wants it to happen, and we all hope to get the longest possible lives.

Because Death is so permanent.

My mother-in-law, Bonnie, is/was one of the fiercest people I’ve ever met.

Strong of body and mind.

Capable of intense love, and a massive maternal instinct.

She thought she’d never want to live in such a compromised state.

But she was wrong.

Because, as I’ve seen with my own eyes, she isn’t ready to die.

And neither, (I suspect,) is John Divola.

Hopefully he’ll keep making provocative art for us, to nourish our minds and our spirits.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Terminus” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

 

 

This Week in Photography: Festivals Are Back

 

 

It’s my birthday today.

And thankfully, my wish was granted.

Photo festivals are back!

 

Birthday week selfie, mad-dogging the camera

 

From my perspective, they’re the life-blood of the photo world, here in the US.

Few things have the potential to change your career, (and your life,) more than spending time among a group of your talented peers, where you can make new connections, create friendships, receive feedback on your work, see new art for inspiration, listen to lectures that light up your ideas, discover new opportunities, eat different food, and walk around a fresh environment.

It literally builds new neural pathways in your brain.

Photo festivals rock!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our regular readers know I reviewed portfolios at most of the major American photography festivals, in the years leading up to the pandemic.

At one point or another, I attended Medium in San Diego, Filter in Chicago, PhotoNOLA in New Orleans , the NYT review, LACP’s Exposure, the Academy of Art University review in San Francisco, a festival in Santa Fe, and Photolucida in Portland.

Additionally, I was meant to go to the MOP Denver reviews last year, but they were held online, and I’ll be visiting the PhotoAlliance review in San Francisco in two weeks.

 

Courtesy of PhotoAlliance.com

 

For some reason, there has always been push-back against the idea of “pay-to-play,” and I was resistant to attending festivals myself, before a few colleagues talked sense to me in 2009.

I’ve reaped tremendous rewards, both as an artist and writer, and I’m telling you: it’s worth the financial and time investment.

(Plus, your tuition goes to support a non-profit organization, which is putting its energy directly into the community.)

The phrase “it takes money to make money” is correct, but that doesn’t mean it has to take A LOT of money.

Rather, it’s about finding value.

 

 

 

 

 

Good output requires good input.

Just as you wouldn’t expect to be healthy if you ate like Morgan Spurlock, when he filmed “Super Size Me,” it’s hard to make your best work if you’re not learning and growing.

 

Courtesy of MorganSpurlock.com

 

If you can’t see great art IRL, and share energy with people who are like-minded, but also very different from you, you’ll get stuck.

Which is where the festival circuit comes in.

If you attend a local event, you can likely save a lot of money on travel and accommodations.

So that’s a route to take, if your budget is tight.

(Many festivals also offer online components now, which is another value play, though you’ll miss out on most of what I’m hyping.)

 

 

 

 

 

Just off the top of my head, we’re talking about San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Houston, Chicago, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Boston, New York and Atlanta.

Which means most American photographers have a proper festival within a day’s drive.

(I guess the Hawaiians and Alaskans are shit out of luck.)

And the great thing about going to an event, with an open mind, an open heart, and the intention to press the flesh, is you simply don’t know what will come of it.

The combination of learning, wandering, listening, looking, laughing, eating, talking, drinking, thinking, and meeting new people is always worth the cost, because you’re guaranteed to emerge from the weekend a different person.

(Again, if you put yourself out there. Sitting quietly by yourself, and refusing to engage with others, or get out of your comfort zone if you’re an introvert, will undermine the effort, and exceeds the limits of my guarantee.)

 

 

 

 

 

One of the last festivals I attended before the world shut down was Photolucida, in Portland, April 2019.

The memories are so vivid.

I walked for miles, saw scores of photo projects, and ate amazing Thai food.

 

Walking around Portland.

 

I attended my first Hardcore Metal show, and was introduced to an entire subculture I didn’t even know existed.

I interviewed the bouncers there, at Dante’s, and then reported to you about the organized street fights, between different left and right-wing “gangs,” (for lack of a better word,) which was pretty cutting edge info, given what happened in PDX the following year.

(And is still happening, unfortunately.)

 

At Dante’s, where earplugs were a necessity

 

I’d never been to Portland before, and trying to understand an entirely new local culture, walking around the oddly-compressed downtown, (where I struggled to find the perfect vantage point to get my bearings,) smoking weed on the famed river bridges while talking to a great friend, it all made me richer, emotionally.

Smarter.
Happier.
Better.

If I close my eyes now, I can see events play out in my mind’s eye.

These are the types of experiences we all need, to rebuild our psyches, our creativity, and our sense of self, after one of the most brutal two-year stretches in American history.

(As the President himself said, in his State of the Union address the other night.)

And that’s without even mentioning the PTSD people feel this week, watching an unjust war play out in Ukraine, on their device screens, helpless to stop the onslaught of death and misery.

You feel me?

 

 

 

 

 

While I was in Portland, I also met some of the members of the local arts group, the Small Talk Collective.

 

Courtesy of Smalltalkcollective.com

 

Like many artists before them, these women joined forces, to support each other as people, as creators, and to make new opportunities for themselves, and members of the “female-identifying, nonbinary, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+” community.

When positive, supportive people stick together, and pull in the same direction towards a common goal, really good things happen.

And wouldn’t you know it, but today, I pulled a little envelope sleeve from my book stack, (which arrived in June 2021,) and it had a postmark from the Small Talk Collective, featuring a slim publication to publicize a new venture.

According to the letter affixed to the outside of the attached ‘zine, the group started their own gallery, Strange Paradise, in the Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center, which is pretty phenomenal.

(And their text mentioned how important such gestures are, coming out of a period of intense isolation.)

The very simple ‘zine, called “Reverberations: Vol.1,” featured work from the first two solo shows the gallery presented, in May/June/July 2021, by Kelda Van Patten and Marilyn Montufar.

It’s a sleek, cool little offering, for sure.

 

 

 

 

The ‘zine reads more like a promotional piece, than a proper art object in its own right, but so what?

(Not everything can nail the gestalt effect, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.)

Partly, it’s because the writing skews towards artist statement, rather than audience engagement, and because the two included projects are not an obvious fit.

They compliment each other with color palette, and overall image quality, but Kelda Van Patten makes IRL/digital collage work, from still lives, and Marilyn Montufar documented local culture in the hinterlands of Northern Mexico.

(In Chihuahua, where most tourists never, ever go.)

Now, before you assume this is one of those reviews that skews negative, I like this ‘zine a lot.

It’s well-produced and engaging, featuring strong photography within, and all the information you need to figure out its intent.

Furthermore, given most people focused on the high-end production fees I shared, in my recent “Making a Book” column, few seemed to grasp the embedded advice, that a professional-looking publication can impress, on next-to-no money.

This is a great example.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m assuming it was printed with a fine-art inkjet printer, double-sided, on a simple, low-weight rag paper, (or newsprint,) but it’s possible these pages come from a high-quality color copier.

You can imagine the Small Talk Collective members, (Audra Osborne, Jennifer Timmer Trail, Kristy Hruska, and Marico Fayre) patiently folding the 4-printed-pages together, with a straight edge, then carefully jamming two staples into the middle, thereby taking separate papers, and making them into a holistic object.

How much could each copy possibly cost to produce? (Not including postage.)

$1?
$2?
$3?

There’s no way it cost more than that, yet here I am, impressed, writing about it.

I now know who these artists are, (again, a benefit, if you’re promoting their exhibitions,) I know the Small Talk Collective has a gallery, and that they’re making publications.

I like this ‘zine, which means I also now have a positive impression of the Small Talk Collective, whereas yesterday, they were not in my consciousness.

If you think back to the mega-column on publishing, I wrote about combining your budget and your vision, with a sense of value and purpose.

Today’s publication is a perfect example of that.

Don’t spend more than you can afford.

And don’t overcomplicate things, if you don’t have to.

Hope that advice is helpful.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Reverberations: Vol. 1” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

 

This Week in Photography: Make America Great Again?

 

 

 

I’m keeping it short today.

(For real this time.)

 

 

 

I’m currently on my 4th coffee, at 11am, because I didn’t sleep well.

My daughter climbed into our bed, in the middle of the night, as she’d had a bad dream.

Right now, she’s sprawled on the rug, just outside my bedroom door, lounging in her pink, Hello Kitty pajamas.

(It’s a snow day. Again.)

It’s disorienting, as if I’ve traveled back to March 2020, when all of us were on top of each other, 24/7.

Remember that time when you didn’t go anywhere for a year?

(I sure do.)

 

 

 

 

If it weren’t for the pandemic, having the kids home today, happy, while snow glimmers on the ground outside, would be the best thing ever.

Who doesn’t feel nostalgia for snow days?

Staying home from school.

Sledding.

Drinking hot chocolate.

Watching bad re-runs on TV.

(The Brady Bunch, The Munsters, ChiPs, Leave it to Beaver, The Addams family, The Andy Griffith show… man, did they some have cheesy programs, back in the day.)

 

Image courtesy of TV Guide

 

But just as 9/11 was the seminal event for Generation X, cleaving reality into the before and after times, the last two years have been exactly that, for much of the world.

A turning point, where everything seems to have changed, and both new and old rules apply.

Look no further than today’s news to know it’s true: Russia just invaded Ukraine, with a goal of occupying and then assimilating a separate country, the first step in re-building the Soviet Empire, under Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

Everyone keeps writing it’s the biggest European invasion since WWII, so the expectation of national sovereignty, which was taken for granted for decades, is no longer realistic.

 

 

Yet conservative Americans, the ones who drove the Red Scare under Joe McCarthy, are now actively siding with Russia, against their own country, because Vlad represents the AlphaChristianWhiteMale, and they all want to be like him.

He’s physically tough, personally ruthless, fabulously rich, answers to no one, hates everyone who’s different, and takes what he wants, when he wants to.

That’s as old school as it gets, and when half of America prefers the dictator model to a democratic republic, we are in deep shit.

(Sorry, guess a lack of sleep has damaged my optimism today.)

 

 

 

 

Or, more likely, it’s that I just looked at a depressing, almost nihilistic photo book. (Though I doubt the artist sees his own work that way.)

“Past Time,” by Paul Shambroom, was published in 2020, by Fall Line Press in Atlanta, and showed up in the mail a year ago.

While it would have made for good viewing then, (with Trump barely out of office,) the fact it marinated on my book pile for a year is beneficial to us all.

Because boy, does it feel relevant today.

 

 

 

 

To be honest, I didn’t “like” the book very much.

It’s well-made, with a strong concept, but wasn’t created to engender happy feelings.

(No sir.)

The book is built around a project in which Paul Shambroom photographed in small towns across America, as metaphors for nostalgia towards our country’s white-bread, MAGA past.

While everyone was talking about what the Trumpers wanted to return to, (a world where they could say and do as they pleased, without worrying about anyone’s feelings; where people of color were a permanent underclass,) Paul went out and documented what those places were actually like.

Make America Great Again?

What was so great, according to the Putin-loving-hordes?

Well, we see a lot of hometowns.

Ronald Reagan.
Andy Griffith.
Walt Disney.
Mark Twain.
Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Norman Rockwell.
Thomas Kinkade.

(It reads like a list of idealized Americans, if your version of ideal is White, Christian and Dead.)

Interspersed with the photographs are historical images, jigsaw puzzles, and even a racist coloring book.

Surprisingly, though Paul Shambroom is a very talented artist, whose work is in the biggest collections, (like MoMA,) and showed in the Whitney Biennial, the image quality here is intentionally scattershot.

Bad light throughout, a lack of high-resolution-sharpness, and a heap of lazy crops.

But with an artist of this caliber, we can’t assume the crops are lazy, but rather the images are designed to be off-putting.

Gursky proved you can take bleak light and make a masterpiece, but I think the anti-aesthetic here is being used on purpose, as a way of showing how low America has sunk.

 

Andreas Gursky, “Schiphol,” courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

How sad are its quaint little towns, the places people wish were still like Mayberry, or Pleasantville?

 

“Pleasantville,” 1998, courtesy of RogerEbert.com

 

There is a well-written essay at the end, by Tim Davis, and an in-depth interview between Paul Shambroom and publisher Bill Boling, and both texts suggest this book is more positive than I gathered.

There is talk of all Americans having the desire for safety, and housing for their children in common, and they mention the book by that dude everyone always references, which states people are safer and better off now than at any point in human history.

I get it.

But looking at this book, I came away feeling like the nostalgia bubble was being popped, because things were crap back then, and they’re still crap.

Not hard to feel that way, after the last two pandemic years, but these images predate that.

They’re more a reaction to pure MAGA, and given how much Trump is cheering on this new wave of territorial aggression, I guess maybe the book has a point.

(I mean, it opens with an image from “Leave it to Beaver,” so it’s not subtle.)

I wanted to review “Past Time” today because not only is it well-built; it has a strong point of view.

It’s an excellent book, even if I don’t “like” it.

It’s bleak, sure, but certainly fits with the 2020’s vibe.

Anyway, sending all the good energy to the folks of Ukraine!

See you next week.

 

To purchase “Past Time” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Keeping It Real

 

 

Dave Chappelle had a crazy skit.

(On the seminal, brilliant, early-aughts “Chappelle’s Show.”)

 

 

 

It was called, “When ‘Keeping It Real’ Goes Wrong.”

Man, was it twisted.

The gist is, sometimes you dig yourself in so deep, worrying about how you’re perceived, protecting your rep, that you can go down with the ship, rather than saving your skin.

(Or so I recall. I’m posting a Youtube clip here.)

 

 

The skit pops into my mind, because Dave has been in the news again recently, this time threatening to remove $65 million in proposed investments, from the Ohio town in which he lives, because he was opposed to the low-income portion of an impending housing project.

I tried to get the details.

Was it really that it was going to be near his backyard?

Overall, just a bad look, and another picked battle against groups he could just as easily support, if he were still cool.

(Like the trans community. Give it a rest trolling them, please, Dave.)

 

 

 

 

 

Still, a buddy recommended I watch Dave’s most recent Netflix comedy special, so I could see what all the fuss was about.

(I haven’t done it yet, because I just remembered the suggestion now, as I was typing.)

The same friend told me to watch the Italian mafia show “Gomorrah,” since I was re-watching “The Sopranos,” and he thought the former show to be superior.

 

Courtesy of IMDB

 

Speaking of superior, that was the attitude I took with him, in our conversation.

“How could ‘The Sopranos’ not be better? It’s art! One of the best shows ever!”

Mea culpa.

I already sent the apology text, as “Gomorrah,” set in Napoli, (where I once got robbed,) is flat-out-dynamite.

Gripping stuff.

My buddy had implied characters on “The Sopranos” were really caricatures, over-acted or under-acted parts that conform to our stereotypical beliefs.

The killers in “Gomorrah” are more clearly anti-social, but also victims of larger cultural circumstances.

The life is both more brutal, and less glamorized, if that makes sense.

This friend was always telling me the guys he grew up with, in a Mafia neighborhood, were proper hard men.

And that’s how these dudes roll in the Camorra, if this show is to be believed.

They “Keep it Real” for sure.

 

 

 

 

 

The subject’s been coming up a lot for me lately.

Just a few weeks ago, my son began making Hip Hop music on the app Rap Chat, and his younger sister followed.

At this point, the stuff he’s recording is pretty amazing, and I say that as an honest critic.

He wanted feedback, and I gave it, because a couple of his early efforts, (after a charming breakthrough song,) were seemingly written by another person.

Theo rapped about things that were simply untrue, and touched on inappropriate subjects, which did not come from his own life.

(Misogyny, drugs, sex, violence, guns, threatening boasts.)

He wanted my honest advice, so I told him to “Keep It Real.”

Write about your life.

Who you are.

What you know.

While plenty of artists did live “that” life, slinging, from NWA through Biggie, Jay Z and Migos, that was not Theo, and never would be.

 

 

He took the advice to heart, and ran with it.

So here’s a shout out to his new song.

He earned it, by being self-reflective, taking criticism, and then working hard on his craft, 7 days a week, since he discovered the passion.

When you find your voice, in art, it can come in an instant, or in a slower gurgle.

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of “Keeping It Real,” this morning, as I was groaning about being super-brain-fried, Jessie joked I should “Keep It Real.”

Just review a good book; one that didn’t need me to say anything at all.

For something new, just go with:

“Here’s a good book.

Enjoy!”

(I mean, there’s a first time for everything.)

Imagine me, doing a simple, short article and leaving the book to speak for itself?

 

 

 

 

 

I grabbed a book from March 2021, assuming it was about as old as I’ve got in the stack, and sure enough, it connected directly to last week’s column.

(I had no idea what it was about, so it’s just good luck.)

Thankfully, I unboxed “Party Pictures,” a terrific 2020 production, featuring a lesser-known series by long-time Philadelphia artist, and college professor William Earle Williams, published in honor of a solo exhibition he had at The Print Center back in 2011.

I was unfamiliar with the work, but the book offered context right away, both with a compact, well-written, info-dense opening statement by Print Center ED Elizabeth Spungen, and then a longer, academic-style-essay by John Caperton, who’d curated the 2011 exhibition.

The reading set the scene, and also gave historical info about William Earle Williams, as he was a history major in college, who then went on to get an MFA at Yale, upon the advice of his one-time friend Walker Evans.

 

 

 

 

 

If ever there were a book to present, without all the bells and whistles of my review style, this would be the one.

The pictures are great.

The cover is gorgeous, and the writings set up the awesome plates.

Who wouldn’t be fascinated, in 2022, by a stark, contrasty set of images of Philadelphia, Main Line, Blue Blood, old-money-high-society-types, at the apex of their power, in the 70’s and 80’s?

(All made by a young, Black photographer wearing a tuxedo.)

The artist set up a long-term project by sending out introduction letters, getting offers to photograph the parties, and then tracking the scene through the society page in the newspapers, so he’d know where to turn up.

Some affairs crossed cultural lines, but most did not.

Is that Frank Sinatra?
Brooke Shields?
Andy Warhol?

Yes, yes, and yes.

As to the connection to last week’s review, the opening text tells us Philly had, and has, a long history of private clubs, and The Print Center, in fact, used to be The Print Club.

Some were anti-Semitic, so Philly news magnate Walter Annenberg, and his buddies, needed to open up their own clubs, having been rejected from others.

(My jaw dropped when I read it, as I was totally happy to let last week’s issues drop. And then the NYT came out with its own Jewish-cultural-critic-takes-on-anti-Semitism article! )

That said, after the writing, and the well-constructed images, there is also the design to note, as the photos change size, and some layouts create a sense of movement by using repetition.

The end brings us an informative Q&A between the artist and Edith Newhall, a famed Philly art critic, which gives a sense of his personality, history, and connection to his forebears.

(William Earle Williams definitely comes across as a humble, cool guy.)

The caption pages at the back give additional context, (for those who care to keep reading,) and are organized by cute, little thumbnail photos.

What else is there to say?

I loved this book, and recommend it highly.

 

To purchase “Party Pictures” click here

 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Personal History

 

 

Jews have been in the news lately.

(A lot.)

It’s not surprising, as Trumpism, and the right-wing in general, have been ascendant the last five years, and those cats are big on hating “the other.”

So while we’ve all become familiar with the term BIPOC, and saw the anti-racism protest movement thrive, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there has been no concomitant popular movement to combat anti-Semitism.

I wonder why?

 

 

 

 

The Jews are a small ethnic/religious group, relative to most other cultures in the world.

Though Christianity and Islam were both born from our religion, those two groups actively sought converts, over the last two thousand + years, and grew their numbers with purpose.

Judaism, on the other hand, makes it difficult to convert, as we consider ourselves the “Chosen People,” and there has never been an active movement to grow the religion’s population.

So while Christians and Muslims range in the billions, there are only 15 + million Jews in the world, and we’re a minority in every country on Earth, save Israel.

(All because my ancestors, ever the rebels, were dumb enough to stand up to the Roman Empire, and were kicked out of their homeland as punishment.)

 

Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” image courtesy of FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

 

Like Cain, doomed to wander the world with an obvious mark, Jews tried to make homes in other places, ever the outsiders.

And though contemporary culture deems us “white,” and is therefore skeptical of the roots of anti-Semitism, it’s only recently that most Jews have assimilated, dressing and acting as others do.

The Orthodox members of the religion, however, many of whom dress in heavy black suits, with odd haircuts, big hats, and women who cover all their skin beyond the face, (a slight variation on Islam’s burqa,) stick out like sore thumbs wherever they go.

They’re easy targets, as “the other,” and of course before the 2nd half of the 20th Century, (and into the 21st,) most Jews dressed like that wherever they were.

Which made them targets of pogroms, (murderous riots,) ghettoization, and discrimination, much as so many are mistreated today because of the color of their skin, their gender identity, or sexual preference.

 

A Jewish Pogrom in Frankfurt in 1819, courtesy of Wikipedia

 

One would imagine all historically marginalized cultures would band together, but when it comes to the Jews, somehow, we don’t typically make the cut.

(I mean, in the last few weeks, we had the terrorism hostage situation in Texas, the Whoopi Goldberg saga, a Washington Commanders football player telling everyone he’d love to have dinner with Hitler, and a WaPo columnist writing a PC op-ed that seemed to minimize the Holocaust’s effort to extinguish the Jews.)

Not to mention when I went my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah in New Jersey in April 2019, there was an armed guard at the door.

Honestly, before the last 5 months, I don’t think I’ve ever written about anti-Semitism in the column, and this is now the third time it’s come up since.

(Even three years ago, I was joking I’d rather be know as a Jewish-American than a “white guy,” and I’d have to think hard about that these days.)

 

 

 

 

 

From where I stand, all people are worthy of kindness and respect, as long as that’s how they treat others.

It’s easy to demonize certain Red-State cultural traits, (and I have,) but over my decade + writing here, I’ve also attempted to empathize with people who were vanquished in War, and then had to make nice with the victors, as the South did.)

Empathy, kindness and respect are the opposite of hatred, blame, and vilification.

So while I’m under no illusion my column will change hearts and minds, I take this platform seriously, and wanted to challenge the increasingly popular notion that it’s OK to dislike, or denigrate Jews, because we “run the world.”

Growing up, I heard plenty of big-nose jokes, or pick-up-the-penny insults, and everyone knew which Country Clubs were No Jews Allowed. (Not that we belonged to a Country Club.)

They even had a nickname for it: NJA.

These days, my own brother is as assimilated into wealthy, conservative Christian culture as any Jew has ever been, including all the trappings: Catholic School, tennis, golf, Country Clubs, hobnobbing with Upper Class Republicans.

You name it.

But we both began as a couple of Suburban Jewish kids, raised by the same parents, all those years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

I admit, this wasn’t the opening I was planning.

But I went for a walk, (as I often do to get the blood flowing,) and this is where we landed.

Right before I left, heading out into the white snow, blue sky, and ice-covered dirt roads, I looked at a photo book.

 

Walking in the snow

 

Which one, you ask?

Good question.

 

 

 

 

 

This morning, I went to the book stack, and looked for the oldest submission I could find.

I’ve told you it often takes a year for me to review a book, these days, and sure enough, I found a submission from Carole Glauber, in Israel, sent in February 2021.

“Personal History” was published by Daylight in 2020, and features an opening essay by the Israeli photographer Elinor Carucci, (who’s based in the US,) to give immediate context.

Unlike Rich-Joseph Facun’s book last week, this one sets the scene straight away, and then lets the pictures do the rest of the work, until a series of afterwords at the end.

And what is the book about?

Carole Glauber, a photographer and photo historian, raised her two Jewish boys in America, and I believe she is American herself, though she currently lives in Israel. (I could be wrong, of course, as the book doesn’t specify.)

She used a 1950’s Kodak Brownie camera to document her sons as they grew, which lends a dreamy, soft-focus haze to most of the images.

It’s a look, for sure, and represents a structural metaphor for the way our brains represent memories, which are rarely, if ever, as sharp and clear as a top-shelf lens on a medium format digital camera.

That’s the gist of the book, anyway.

But how does it function?

 

 

 

 

 

Elinor Carucci’s essay mentions her kids are nearly 15, and she’s begun to fret about how soon they’d be leaving the nest, after her 18 years with them.

My son is four months away from High School, so of course I’ve been having similar feelings of anxiety, wondering how we got here so fast?

(Did we though? The first two years of the pandemic felt like 5 years, so perhaps I’ve gotten extra time with him, experientially.)

In Carole Glauber’s photographs, there are time jumps, of course, as her boys go from very young to young men, and I was able to recognize settings like Italy and Oregon, though I’m not quite sure where they were raised.

(The Grand Canyon makes an appearance too. Who hasn’t created extra-vivid memories with their children on vacation?)

At one point, we see a Bar Mitzvah image, and her son Sam wearing a yarmulke.

They do not hide their Jewishness, though when I was growing up, that was still common, as the scars of the Holocaust were still so evident.

One of my Dad’s relatives had a concentration camp tattoo on his arm, and I never, ever forgot that my people had nearly been annihilated.

(To be clear, the one culture in which Jews most assimilated before the US was Germany, and we all know how well that worked out.)

In general, I don’t care or think much about Whoopi Goldberg, and haven’t since I saw her in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

 

 

But I sure has hell got offended when I read her recent words.

One group’s suffering should make them more empathetic and supportive of others who’ve shared a fate, but it rarely seems to work out like that.

(Again, I’ve written several times I don’t support Israel’s apartheid policies towards Palestine, though I don’t think either side has ever looked good, stewing in their respective hatred.)

This book pulled at my heart strings a few times, but not as much as I anticipated, because I think the concept is stronger than the images.

Photographs made in the snapshot aesthetic can still lean heavily on elements of technique: great compositions, lighting, color palettes, dynamism, and such.

I found these to be OK, for the most part, but rarely more than good.

(With a few exceptions.)

In the end, after the artist’s afterword, each son, Ben and Sam, writes a piece about their reaction to the book.

I was amazed how their differing personalities came through.

One was circumspect and brief, the other hyper-specific, and perhaps a tad insecure, wanting the audience to know he could dissect art, and understand its intricacies.

It really is amazing how it works like that.

Siblings, growing up with the same parents, sharing so much genetically, can sometimes become so different, they can no longer relate to one another.

But I suppose the future has not yet been written.

Has it?

 

To purchase “Personal History” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Black Diamonds

 

 

Big news.

Last week’s column went viral.

(In the Photo World.)

 

 

That was unexpected.

As an artist, my project “The Value of a Dollar” went fully viral, globally, after it was published by the NYT in 2010.

It changed my life.

This feels different though. (And on a smaller scale, obviously.)

All week, I’ve been trying to figure out: Why this article?

Why now, after all these years of writing for you?

 

 

 

 

Last Thursday, on a whim, I decided to write a super-long-read, sharing much of what I’ve learned about the photo-book publishing industry.

I’ve been a critic here for 10.5 years, have produced photo-books for clients since 2017, and made my own book over the course of 2019-20.

I have a lot of experience, from a variety of perspectives, and providing that inside info, for free, seems to have struck a nerve.

The publishing industry is opaque, yet so many artists want books, so shining a light on true practices, while also inspiring creativity, (rather than just focusing on the business-side,) felt like the right gesture to make.

And I did it for you.

Therefore, I was thrilled to know I’d been of help, and my advice was beneficial to others.

That’s always been the backbone of this website.

Industry professionals share knowledge, and try to help the community that supports us.

(Big ups to our leader, Rob Haggart, for building the platform, and supporting his team so well.)

 

 

 

 

Because photo-books can cost so much money, and take a lot of effort to make, (in addition to resources,) it seemed silly so few photographers know the reality of the industry.

What used to be termed “vanity publishing,” or “pay-to-play,” is now just the way business is done.

If few publishers can make money selling books, artists should not see their projects as profit-generating ventures, in general.

I mentioned there were exceptions, and Iain Sarjeant, of Another Place Press in Scotland, tweeted me that he doesn’t charge photographers for book production, and offers royalties.

 

 

I also once heard my former collaborator, Alejandro Cartagena, tell an online audience he’s gamed the system, taking the proceeds from one book to make another, so he manages to come out ahead.

But these are primarily exceptions to the rule.

 

 

 

 

Many people got excited that I shared realistic $$$ numbers.

By including potential costs, and setting up a ladder, from the cheapest ‘zines to expensive, fabric-bound, European-printed, high-end productions, I wanted to give photographers a real idea of their potential options.

Based upon the feedback I’ve received, folks appreciated the way I laid it out.

(Again, I’m honored to have been of service.)

So today, to get the book-review-portion of the column up and running again, I’ll focus on a really well-made book, that took the now-typical route into existence, and made it worthwhile.

Let’s go.

 

 

 

 

Rich-Joseph Facun reached out last year, to see if I’d consider reviewing his new book with Fall Line Press.

He’s based in the Southern Ohio portion of Appalachia, and Fall Line is in Atlanta, so this is a Southern production through and through.

(I did receive one email from a reader claiming I’m biased against the South, which I believe is untrue. Yes, I criticize “Red State” politics, but Trumpism and the South are not the same thing.)

I told Rich-Joseph I was interested, after perusing his .pdf, but it would take a while to get around to the review.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to interview him for the PhotoNOLA Virtual Book Fair, and he shared a lot of information about his family, life, and book-making process.

If you’re interested, please check it out.

 

2021 PhotoBOOK Fair: Rich-Joseph Facun from New Orleans Photo Alliance on Vimeo.

 

 

 

 

 

As to the book, “Black Diamonds,” Rich-Joseph built up his photographic practice over many years, first as a photojournalist.

(Making imagery more typically associated with fine art photography was new for him.)

Therefore, he worked like crazy to get things right.

He did a Kickstarter campaign, raised the funds, and printed in Barcelona.

 

 

To reiterate, if a book like this is going to cost a lot of money to produce, (as I wrote last week,) you better have a damn good reason for doing it, and give your all to make it as great as it can possibly be.

RJF confirmed, in our interview, that was his approach.

As to the book’s theme, though he is a Southern guy, and has lived all over, Rich-Joseph moved to Athens, Ohio for a university job.

Then he used this series to get out and about in his community, to see what made it tick, to meet people, and have an art project to occupy his time and mind as he drove around his world each day.

From the embossed, fabric cover, replete with a cool graphic, to the catchy poem that opens the book, a viewer is given the expectation it’s a serious offering.

And so it is.

 

 

 

 

 

As I wrote last week, one can tell the story straight away in words, to set the context, or wait until the end, once the pictures have led the way.

This book opts for the latter strategy, and I can understand why.

Though I might have trimmed the edit just a bit, (were I in charge,) the square photographs inside are moody, well-crafted, dramatic, consistent, and truly give a sense of place.

They’re stunning, in a grim sort of way.

And yes, there is a lot of poverty, for which Appalachia is well known. (The culture is elegantly described in an ending essay by Alison Stine.)

We see oddities, such as the dancing monkey, and camo-clad boys who don’t seem like the sharpest knives in the rack.

Some subjects confront the camera; others look away.

But overall, the tone is not one of condescension, nor does it seem like the work of a total outsider.

The photographs are quite beautiful, and as there are no design bells and whistles within the edit, they’re good enough to hold one’s attention, which is a hard thing to do.

Then, in the Epilogue, after Alison Stine’s essay, we get a slightly art-speaky statement by RJF, and a heart-felt, loving thank-you page, paying respect to his family and community.

Three historical photos round out the book, and honestly, the whole thing is really well-thought-out.

It’s an example of how to do it right, if you’re going all in.

So to wrap it up today, (as last week’s 2700 words still weigh heavily on my consciousness,) not all photo projects need to end up as expensive books.

There are so many ways to make an artistic, publishing object out of your favorite (or current) series.

Please don’t go broke to make a book, nor do it just to do it.

But if you’re going for it, I’d suggest you make it worth your while.

Give maximum effort, and work with great people.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Black Diamonds” click here

 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Making a Book

 

 

I do a lot of consulting these days.

It’s become the primary way I make a living, (along with writing,) though I certainly never planned it that way.

In a perma-freelance, side-hustle, gig-economy world, creative types do what we must.

(If it works, it works.)

 

 

 

 

I walked away from my long-term, adjunct teaching job in 2017, as the salary UNM-Taos offered me, in my last contract, was so bad I couldn’t justify the time commitment.

I remember thinking, so clearly, if I couldn’t generate more money than that, working for myself, I should probably find another career.

My first move was to found our Antidote Photo Retreat program, and it certainly grew, and was on an upward trajectory the first three years of its existence.

Then Covid hit, and having people come stay on my property, eat in my kitchen, and shower in my bathroom, was neither safe, nor practical.

(Shout out to Cliff Claven.)

 

 

In those first years, I did a small amount of consulting, trying to help people one-on-one, but certainly didn’t promote myself that way, and was still figuring out how to be an effective advocate for my clients/students.

Private teaching was rewarding, and I helped Rohina Hoffman and Allen Wheatcroft produce photo-books with Damiani, but again, I was definitely figuring things out.

 

Rohina Hoffman’s “Hair Stories”

Allen Wheatcroft’s “Body Language”

 

After the pandemic began, I transitioned my Antidote program online, and offered free evening critique classes to my community, before ultimately charging them a nominal amount when it became clear there would be no retreats.

Zoom made in-depth, online teaching possible, and if I’m being honest, the amount of personal growth I endured, due to stress and trauma, has made me a better person, and a better teacher, so more work came my way, and I was able to raise my rates, bit by bit.

I can see how the process evolved, in retrospect, but I’m not surprised how much of the work has centered on one particular area:

Helping people conceive and produce photo-books.

Because everyone wants a book these days, and you likely know I made my first book, “Extinction Party” in 2020, which was released on the cusp of the global lockdown, and was very well-received by the press, and the people who bought it.

 

“Extinction Party,” photo courtesy of Luminosity Lab

 

(Of course, we weren’t able to market it at art and book fairs, as they all shut.)

So today, I thought it might be a good idea to give you a primer on how the process works, because if I can do it for my clients, I should be able to share some of that info with you, my loyal audience.

Here we go.

 

 

 

 

If I were to break it down, the process would look something like this:

Vision
Concept
Structure
Edit
Sequence
Design*
Text*
Refinement
.pdf
Publisher
Printing
Release
Marketing/Publicity

*Sometimes, the text comes before the design, it just depends.

 

Now, that’s how I work with my design partner, Caleb Cain Marcus, as he’s an acquisitions editor at Damiani, so we know they’ll look at the books we create.

In our case, we make the book, then find the publisher.

(I’ve got a network of contacts in the publishing world, so once the digital version of our books are done, we know we’ll get eyes on them within the industry.)

Back in the day, I think they called this process “book packaging,” but I just call myself a producer.

Not everyone needs outside help, of course, and some publishers do like to work on a book from start to finish, though those tend to be more indie, small-batch types, which is also a valid way to go.

Honestly, there is so much to unpack, I’ll do my best to keep it coherent.

 

 

 

 

At a photo festival in 2010, I met the great English publisher Dewi Lewis, whom I interviewed for the blog five years later, and he gave me some amazing advice, which I took to heart.

He said every artist seemed to want or expect a book for each project, compared to the “old days,” when one or two books in a career would have been an achievement.

Dewi recommended an artist wait until there was a compelling reason, and a clear vision, before making a book.

(Don’t do it just to do it.)

Things have only gotten crazier since then, as the amount of publishers has proliferated, as has the interest in photo-books, as the recent Clement Chéroux article in Aperture confirms.

However, in my experience, having spoken to publishers, (and listened to them on panel talks), the demand for photo-books, from the collector class, has not grown in concert with the supply, so very few photo-books actually sell well, and create profit for the publishers.

(Unless you’re already a famous art star.)

So how does one explain that supply/demand disconnect?

 

 

 

 

What I’ve learned, and am sharing here, is the industry no longer functions in a purely capitalistic sense, with respect to sales.

Rather, some publishers do it as passion projects, not expecting to really make money, or more likely, they build profit into the production system, marking up the printing costs, design costs, and things like that.

(They also make money when the artist “buys” additional copies of his/her book back from the publisher.)

One publisher, whom I won’t name, (out of respect,) is well-known for throwing book deals out there like crazy, sometimes without knowing or meeting the artist, because it’s their business model to make money on production, rather than sales, so the more books they take to market, the better they do.

Why does every artist want to participate in this process, if they’re not likely to “make money” off the sale of their book?

Good question.

Glad you asked.

 

 

 

 

Over the years, every photographer I interviewed considered his/her book to be a marketing object, and I never met one who said it wasn’t worth it.

Sending out books, giving them away as gifts, and asking your network to support you in the pre-sale or crowdfunding effort, means ultimately, a viewer will look at your work, and understand it, the way you want them to.

A book allows you to control the narrative surrounding your career.

And as I reported in an interview with MACK publisher Michael Mack, back in 2012, books have the potential to be art objects.

Meaning, if you create a great book, you can make a piece of art distinct from the photographs that live inside it.

(One benefit of doing this for so long is I’ve picked up great advice and knowledge, which I then pass along to you.)

As artists, if we view making a book as an “art project,” one that also functions as a high-end marketing tool, it will allow an audience to see what you’ve accomplished exactly as you’d like them to.

It’s a very valuable outcome.

The book can create new opportunities, and help you level up in your career.

You might not make money selling books, (at least nothing major,) but you CAN benefit from more jobs, opportunities, and relationships going forward.

Plus, crowdfunding and pre-sales, which are now so common, allow the artist to defray the costs, so even if books are increasingly expensive, you may not have to reach into your own pocket to pay for it.

(If you’re willing to put in the time and effort to raise the funding.)

With me so far?

 

 

 

 

There is a pretty wide range of costs, with respect to how you can produce your book.

(And all the numbers I’m going to share are approximate.)

On the low end, DIY ‘Zines can be made for next to nothing, but you have to really know what you’re doing to get the production values high enough to make a positive impression.

 

‘Zine courtesy of Laidric Stevenson

 

It can be done for a budget in the hundreds of dollars, which is a huge advantage.

(Here is a resource page my friend Jeff Phillips, a ‘Zine maker who teaches the process, has posted as public information.)

 

 

 

 

 

Next, we’d move on to self-produced, soft-cover, print-on-demand, (or digitally printed) exhibition-catalogue-type-offerings.

 

Andrew Molitor’s recent Blurb production

 

Those might cost in the high hundreds, or low-thousands, and can be helpful, but are normally seen as low-cost marketing objects by the people who look at them, I find.

If you hire a designer to help you, and go the high-quality digital printing, or offset printing route, you’re probably more in the $2000-5000 range, but getting professional help makes a difference.

(As a producer, I tell people the best books almost always have a designer’s fingerprints on them, somewhere along the line.)

 

David Obermeyer’s self-published “Treasure Beach,” printed by Conveyor Studio, produced with a design team

 

The smallest run of soft-cover, offset printing of 400 books or so, in Europe, will likely be $7000-9000, though prices are rising with inflation, and tack on a bit more if you go the hard-cover route.

(That’s if you’re self-publishing, but having it professionally printed.)

Finally, we have the costs associated with traditional, mainstream publishers, which typically run from $20,000-35,000, with some high-end, prestige publishers charging $50,000 or more.

That’s a lot of cash, under any set of circumstances.

Small batch indie publishers might well cost more in the $10-20,000 range, but again, these are general figures, so there is variance.

(A tiny handful of publishers still cover costs, but there are so few, I wouldn’t count on that as you plow ahead.)

 

 

 

 

 

So let me circle back to that advice Dewi Lewis gave me.

He said, to paraphrase, if you’re going to make a book, you better have a damn good reason, a clear vision of what you want to achieve, and strong need to do so.

I took that to heart as an artist, and waited 10 years to produce a book that wove together four, interrelated projects into one narrative, so I could show “the world” what I’d been working on out here in the boonies, playing mad scientist in my studio/laboratory.

Even so, I needed my publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, to help me with the initial edit/sequence, and to serve as cheerleader and occasional CEO, over the year it took me and Caleb to make the book.

(As Caleb is my friend and partner, he didn’t charge me for the design, which saved me a bunch of money on the overall process.)

 

 

Jennifer and I were also friends, so she didn’t mark up the production costs, and I “only” had to raise about $15,000, instead of twice that.

(That amount included going to the Netherlands to supervise production, which I highly recommend, but isn’t strictly required.)

 

Me and Marco Nap in the Wilco production facility, Amersfoort, The Netherlands, February 2020

 

But enough about money.

 

 

 

 

I wanted this article to give you a sense of how the industry works, but also how to make a book become a piece of art, representing the best you can achieve.

How do you do that?

It starts with the concept.

What will your book be about?

What will it say?

How will it present your project, (or projects,) in a compelling, interesting, creative, well-executed way?

What will the viewer take away from looking at, (and reading) your book?

I think every great book, as Dewi said, needs a compelling reason to exist, so if you don’t have a great idea, wait a bit longer, or ask yourself all sorts of hard questions until you get the answers.

From there, it’s time to whittle down all the images you have, which could conceivably be included, into a tighter group.

(When in doubt, start with more, but then edit ruthlessly.)

Cut, and cut some more.

Which are the best images?
How do they fit together?
What stories do they tell when they become a group?
What connections, and repeating motifs, begin to show themselves?

Many, if not most artists find it helpful to work with an editor on this, because outside perspective can be key to finding those through-lines, when we’re too close. (Or if we don’t have expertise in the process.)

I do have expertise, but still needed Jennifer’s eye, back in February of 2019.

 

 

 

 

After the edit, the sequence comes next, as building the visual narrative out of your best edit is a separate process.

I like to sequence in Apple’s Photos program, where I can see grids, and move things around easily, but most folks prefer making small prints, and moving them around on the floor.

(Whatever works.)

I’d recommend you keep the classic narrative structure in mind: Beginning, Middle, End.

And I always suggest you consider a viewer’s attention span.

(If they get bored, they’ll start to flip.)

50-60 images is a good target, for a non-coffee-table book, and keeping the viewer surprised, and interested, involves varying the emotional tenor, and offering up the unexpected.

That can mean inter-weaving text, changing image size, or breaking up runs of similar images with something totally different.

There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, but just doing the same thing over and over is a bad idea, unless your pictures are so good, and innovative, that a viewer will be enraptured without any bells and whistles.

(Possible, but unlikely.)

 

 

 

 

It’s totally cool to think about who will write for the book, and where that writing should be placed, from the jump.

No worries.

But in my experience, often it’s easier once the visual structure has taken shape, and you know more of what the book is, and looks like.

Do you want your voice included in the writing?

If so, what do you want to say?

Either way, at some point, you need to get the text right, because more often than not, text provides context.

Do you want to set up the context at the beginning, so the viewer knows what the book is about, or leave them guessing, and answer questions at the end?

(It’s a personal choice, but a vital one.)

Once it’s all put together, the designer has given you your layout, and it looks like a book, (digitally,) you’ll still need to let it sit.

Come back to it, make some changes, let it sit again, and refine it.

Consider everything.

Paper choice, where you captions will or won’t go, what color end paper, your cover design.

All of it.

Don’t rush.

Patience pays off in the book-making process.

 

 

 

 

As to finding a publisher, portfolio reviews are great for making relationships.

Festivals too.

And research what type of books the publishers are putting out, to see if your work will fit with their program.

(Fit really matters, as does the working relationship.)

Almost all publishers these days expect the artist to come to the table with the production funds, so have a plan to do that, based upon your budget, and willingness to ask the “crowd.”

Finally, when your book is done, few publishers invest a lot of time or money in marketing and PR, so many artists pay the extra cost to hire PR support on their own.

On the one hand, a publisher might send out bulk emails with a list of books.

(Maybe they’ll have a table at a fair, once those return in earnest.)

But if you’re willing to invest that little bit extra, (or not so little,) you get a PR professional sending out individual emails to press people, and following up.

They work hard to tap up their own networks, and in my experience, that really does matter, when it comes to getting great press placement.

If it all sounds like a well-oiled industry, where people throughout each part of the process are taking their cut, it’s because it is.

But that’s what tends to deliver high production values, wide distribution, and successful marketing campaigns.

This stuff doesn’t come cheap.

Remember, though, earlier in the article, I also discussed how to do this on a super-tight budget.

Books don’t have to be expensive.

For quality, very often though, you get what you pay for.

 

 

 

 

I swear, I didn’t wake up today planning to drop a 2700-word-treatise on you.

But I did spend an hour last night, pro-bono, explaining the process to a photographer friend I met at FotoFest in 2012.

I figured if he didn’t know how things really work, (and he’s a professional artist and long-time professor,) you might want some extra knowledge too.

Hope it helps!

See you next week!

 

 

 

{ED note, 02.02.22: It’s come to my attention this post is being used as a resource, so I wanted to add one final piece of intel that I tweeted in the viral response to the article. I’m told some artists have been able to create a workable edit/sequence/design book maquette, after taking a book design workshop. Yumi Goto, in Japan, has been recommended to me.}

This Week in Photography: Mask Up?

 

 

I didn’t sleep well last night.

(Really strange dreams.)

 

Me, grumpy and cold, after a shit night’s sleep

 

 

 

It began like any normal night.

We had dinner, watched a little family TV, got the kids off to bed, and then climbed in ourselves.

Normally, we catch something on the Food Network, or an episode “House Hunters International” before turning in, and last night was no exception.

(Today being Thursday, as usual.)

I did a work Zoom before dinner, which amps me up, so that might’ve had something to do with it, or it could have been the offensive grub we saw on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

We just added it to the pre-bed rotation, as that Guy Fieri has the kind of charm that creeps up on you, like a joint you think is milder than it actually is.

But what I saw last night shook me. (As a cultural critic, currently trapped in a cynical worldview of America.)

At an Alabama-style BBQ joint in Colorado Springs, (a notoriously conservative part of a now-purple State,) Guy watched the chef prepare a sandwich symbolic of so much that’s wrong here in the US.

 

 

The sloppy pig

 

First, slow-smoked-pulled-pork with BBQ sauce, and really, that’s typically a winning way to get going.

But then, he added some grilled kielbasa on top, (greasy, Polish pork sausage,) followed by a few slabs of bacon.

That’s right.

Three forms of artery-clogging pig, one on top of the other.

Then, they finished the monster with mayo-filled pimento cheese, creamy cole slaw, (gross!) and some fried-onion-strings.

These days, they say one hot dog takes 36 minutes off your life-span, so I joked to Jessie this aberration-of-a-sandwich must deprive each eater of a good 5 hours of existence.

It’s about as “Red State America” as it gets, and the world wonders why we have such high obesity rates?

 

 

 

 

 

Then again, the dreams might have been sparked by a confrontation I had with an anti-masker, in the bathroom of the mid-mountain lodge at Taos Ski Valley earlier in the day.

To be clear, New Mexico has had an indoor mask law for most of the pandemic, with only a slight gap after last Spring’s false hope.

(It was quickly re-instated when Delta showed up.)

It is literally the law.

TSV has “Mask Up” signs clearly posted, and I even saw a vaccine requirement to eat in the on-mountain restaurant where I stopped in to pee. (A first, in my experience here in NM.)

 

 

As I was washing my hands, post-pee, (TMI?) a short, early 60-something Baby Boomer strolled in, maskless, and got ready to do his business at the urinal. (Again, TMI?)

I pointed at my mask, gave him the stink eye, and said, “There’s a mask mandate here in New Mexico, and also at Taos Ski Valley.”

(I stopped trying to act like the mask police months ago, but it was just him and me, alone in a basement restroom, and he had that cocky, ant-vaxx look in his eye.)

“It’s a hoax,” he yelled at me.

“Don’t be an asshole,” I replied.

Then I thought about it for a minute, amped up my mad-dog-look, pivoted in my ski boots, and walked out.

But what I really wanted to say was:

“You don’t think the law applies to you, and you don’t mind giving me Omicron, should you have it.

You’re literally telling me you don’t care if I live or die, and you think laws are for suckers.

Fuck you!

But you assume I’ll obey the law, and not kick the living shit out of you. Which I can easily do.

Why is that?

Why is it OK for you to ignore the law, because you’re above it, but we both know if I elbowed you in the face, and broke your nose, you’d go crying to the cops like the little bitch that you are?”

(End imaginary quote.)

I wanted so badly to say that, and even more, I really wanted to beat his ass.

But I didn’t.

Because right now, this country is bifurcated, with one side feeling constrained by the bonds that hold society together, while the other taunts, trolls, baits, and bothers.

It’s a seriously messed up situation.

No lie.

 

 

 

 

So halfway through the night, I dreamed of my mother-in-law, who’s been non-communicative, due to her advanced Alzheimer’s, since last summer.

Hearing her voice, as she spoke to me, healthy again in my subconscious, was more than I could bear.

It was like being visited by a ghost.

(Does that make me Scrooge?)

 

Bill Murray in “Scrooged,” courtesy of Den of Geek

 

So I woke myself up, at 3:30am, then tossed and turned for an hour.

Honestly, it’s only some very strong coffee allowing me to write at the moment.

But here we are.

 

 

 

 

These are strange times for American democracy, and for the stability of the global geo-political order.

(As Russia prepares to invade Ukraine, with Tucker Carlson cheering them on.)

As a guy who named his book “Extinction Party,” I can’t say I’m surprised.

But I am horrified, and saddened.

With two young children, I want so badly for the world to right itself, so they can grow up and have long, healthy lives.

(I wonder, though.)

And yes, my musings today are partly inspired by a photo-book, as usual.

 

 

 

 

Just last week, I ended the review by stating I hadn’t seen much work yet, made during the pandemic, that was more than obvious.

Sure enough, as this column often takes on patterns I never anticipated, I reached into the stack today and grabbed a self-published, Blurb book that arrived in March 2021.

(It takes so long to get to the books these days, but does give us the benefit of hindsight.)

I opened up the cardboard, having no idea what was inside, and was treated to “Keep Going New York!!”, by Stefan Falke, a German-born photographer based in NYC.

And yes, it was made in the city, during the pandemic, over the course of #2020.

 

 

 

 

The text, by Claudia Steinberg, tells us Stefan roamed the outer boroughs, not just Manhattan, and shot at mid-day, as the bright sunshine helped run off his blues, and intensified the colors he sought to shoot.

So we see very bright murals, (in many cases,) often with lone figures in front.

(As the text also informs, he prefers to have at least one person in the frame, and stands waiting for them, rather than just shooting empty cultural landscapes.)

Hopefully, we’ll never again see the city this empty during the day.

It’s not right, though over the course of the book, there are other images that show at least some form of collective human congregation.

Do you remember when they drew circles in parks, so people stayed in their own pod?

I’d forgotten that already.

Some of these are properly dynamite, like the image of the Black gentleman wearing a cool hat, in the foreground, shot with shallow depth of field, set against the top of the Empire State Building.

Or the woman dragging an office chair through an empty Times Square.

But it’s the overall sense of having captured a place in time, (and a shocking time at that,) which forced me to write about this book.

 

 

 

So yes, that’s two #2020, pandemic photo books in two weeks.

(Not my intention, as I said.)

And in this one, there are several images that show people mis-wearing masks, or fully maskless, in the company of those who are masked up.

{ED note: Just this morning, now that it’s Friday, I saw a front page NYT photo of two Black Senators, on opposite sides of the mask divide, by Sarahbeth Maney.}

We can thank DJT for politicizing such a hyper-important public health issue, though you may have noticed I try not to mention him anymore.

But he’s looming out there.

(You know it, and I know it.)

Stay tuned, and see you next week.

 

To purchase “Keep Going New York!!” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Year of the Beast

 

 

 

My dog just got trolled by two coyotes.

 

 

Haley on the road, 2021

 

 

 

I was sitting in my writing chair, wondering where to take today’s column, as Haley was lazing in the sun, just outside the sliding glass door.

All of a sudden, she leapt up and started barking.

(The full-throated, “I mean business” kind of bark.)

And this is one of the quietest creatures you’ll ever meet.

She can go all day without making a sound, unless she drops a little whine outside the front door when she wants to come in.

Barking, for her, is serious.

So I got right up, to see what was going on.

 

 

 

 

 

Just yesterday, (when she was away on a walk with my wife,) a massive coyote came strolling through the yard, practically prancing through Haley’s territory.

I called out to the kids, (who are home Zoom-schooling, b/c of Omicron,) and we all watched the gorgeous coyote for a good two minutes.

My son even captured a video, and I’ll post it here, if he’s up for sharing.

 

 

So today, my first thought was not psychopathic burglar, when the dog went ape-shit, but that it was probably the coyote coming back.

I was close, as this time, it was two.

Now, I’ve seen Haley tear off at full speed, determined to chase off her wild relatives, and maybe catch them if she can.

She must be a bit older and wiser, because despite her ferocious jaws, (she’s half-pit-bull,) Haley would be no match for two full-grown coyotes.

This time, she ran about ten paces, and then stopped, content to scream at them in dog-language.

I imagine she was saying something like, “Hey, assholes, get the fuck out of here! This is my turf! What’s your fucking problem? You don’t belong here! I’m in charge, not you! Leave! Now!”

I stood at the window, watching her body quake, giggling at the subtext of her unhappy barking, and then I decided to watch the coyotes.

They looked at her, only for a second, and then just pretended she wasn’t there.

It was an epic troll job.

They stood their ground, and went back to sniffing around, without the tiniest hint of hurry, or bother.

Then, and I swear this is true, one at at time, each had a leisurely poop, and then kicked at the dirt around the excrement with their hind legs.

You can’t make this up!

 

 

 

 

 

Living in a horse pasture in the heart of the American West, I admit life can be lonely, and almost boring, if you can’t take pleasure in watching the birds, the deer, the aspen leaves shaking in the breeze.

(And sometimes, the isolation does drive me crazy, especially since Covid began.)

But just now, in the last few minutes, I felt like the natural world was putting on a play, just for me.

In the end, the coyotes loped off, slowly, in their own good time.

They mocked Haley with their indifference, daring her to charge them.

Thankfully, she understood simple math.

2 coyotes, 1 dog.

Not a fair fight.

 

 

 

 

 

I bring this up, partly because it just happened before my eyes, as I sat with my computer on my lap, wondering what to write.

But also, (you know me well,) because I had a book in mind to review for today, and the coincidence is just uncanny.

Tara Wray published a photo-book a few years ago, “Too Tired For Sunshine,” which I reviewed favorably, though in my experiential fashion, I had no idea it was really a treatise on using photography to combat depression.

Remembering what I wrote, I did wonder about the title?

Why would someone be too tired for sunshine?

And I was impressed by the search for rich, deep color, and powerful moments, as it seemed to have a hidden drive behind it.

The book became the basis for a movement, both on Instagram and IRL, with a series of group photo exhibitions around the world by other artists who also suffered from depression.

The phenomenon culminated in the formation of a non-profit organization, the Too Tired Project.

 

 

(Pretty badass, if you ask me.)

 

 

 

 

In early 2021, Tara kindly send me a copy of her new book, “Year of the Beast,” which was made during the first pandemic year.

(Hence the title.)

This one was published by her own imprint, Too Tired Press.

The artist lives in the mountains of Vermont, in an isolated, rural existence, much as I do. (Though I’d kill to be able to get to Boston or NYC in half a day, instead of Albuquerque.)

I found this set of images to be a bit looser, perhaps not as locked-in as the previous work, but still, it’s a compelling project.

We see her children, in various guises, and lots and lots of animals.

Frankly, it was that connection with the natural world which I couldn’t shake from my brain, after the coyotes walked away.

There are only a few clear, symbolic references to the pandemic, like the fully stocked pantry image, and I dig the subtlety.

Other than Bo Burnham’s genius Netflix special “Inside,” which I’ve shouted out before, I don’t think I’ve seen much art directly ABOUT the pandemic that had enough nuance not to feel “too soon.”

So I appreciate this book is not didactic.

I was fortunate to interview Tara for the PhotoNOLA Virtual Book Fair, about both books, the way she uses art to battle depression, and the movement that popped up in her wake.

You can check it out here, if you’d like.

 

 

 

The images in “Year of the Beast” are displayed in the order in which they were shot, so the narrative plays out in real time.

It’s a tactic many of us consider with our documentary style photo series, but so often we opt for sequencing with intentional rhythm, creating runs of images based upon color, symbolism, texture, or emotion.

As 2022 has just begun, now the third year of this public health crisis, I thought it appropriate to kick off the column with a book that shows us one artist’s vision of 2020.

The Year of the Beast indeed.

 

To learn more about “Year of the Beast” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Family Ties

 

 

 

Here we are.

The end of the year.

 

And 2021 has been one to remember.

(That’s a fucking understatement!)

 

Courtesy of The Times of India

 

 

 

Despite the cynicism I’ve developed the last few years, like a well-earned callus, I’m still hoping for the best.

Hoping we sort out the growing climate catastrophe.

Hoping we heal the political wounds tearing our nation asunder.

Hoping I’ll stay healthy enough to be there for my wife and children as they grow.

(It’s a lot to hope for, I know.)

 

 

 

 

 

To be honest, I’m totally cooked.

(Who doesn’t feel like burger meat in the week between Xmas and New Year’s?)

Plus, we’re leaving for a family vacation tomorrow; the first in several years.

And I still need to pack.

Beyond that, the book I just spent an hour reading, and perusing, hits close to home in ways I’d rather not excavate today.

But I promised the book’s author/artist I’d get it reviewed this week, and I’m a man of my word.

So it’s possible I’ll be less honest, or at least less open, about my own experience than I might if I were writing in a couple of months.

When my own wounds are more fully healed.

Compromise, though, is a highly undervalued concept, and I’m all for it.

We’ll review the book, then, to honor my commitment, and for once, I might keep some of my family business to myself.

(There’s a first time for everything, right?)

 

 

 

 

 

One of my publishing clients told me, a few months ago, that I should check out Gillian Laub’s new Aperture book, “Family Matters.”

With the East-Coast-Jewish-family-culture it mines, and the naked honesty on display, it was suggested I’d love this book.

And I’d likely want to review it.

(Sounds great, right?)

The problem, though, is that, Aperture, the publisher, has never sent me a book, nor seemed to take this column seriously.

All good, as far as I’m concerned, because we can’t be friends with everyone, but I feared I might have trouble getting a copy of “Family Matters.”

Predictably, the Aperture PR person ignored several requests, including when I responded to a press email that THEY sent ME.

(Stay classy, Aperture!)

Normally, I would have let it go, but a few weeks later, I randomly realized I was “friends” with Gillian Laub on Facebook, as I am with some other industry types I don’t actually know.

(I favorably reviewed some of her work in a gallery show in Santa Monica, back in 2013, so maybe we connected after that?)

I’ve never done this before, DM’ing an artist to see if they might send their book directly, after being stymied by the publisher, but I figured, “What do I have to lose?”

Full disclosure: I was flattered when Ms. Laub wrote back quickly, assured me she’d sort things out, and ask Aperture to send me a book straight away.

She made it happen, in a flash, so when she asked me to review the book while her solo show at the ICP Museum in NYC was still on display, I was happy to honor the request.

The exhibition is up through January 10th, and as I’ll be taking my customary Winter week off next Friday, today had to be the day.

(Brain fry be damned!)

 

 

 

 

It is a terrific book, for sure, and one I’m not likely to criticize.

I admit, at first, when I realized I’d have to read text with each picture, I almost backed out.

I thought about being a punk, for once, and not “doing the right thing,” but I came to my senses.

In fairness, the writing is engaging, and well-edited, so it wasn’t a struggle to make it through the book.

I was riveted, and made to feel uncomfortable by the similarities to my upbringing and family, and also the drastic differences.

That said, I don’t think you have to be a Jewish Gen-X’er to appreciate this one.

It offers what we ask of an excellent photo-book: vulnerability, empathy, wisdom, and character development.

 

 

 

 

“Family Matters” is written in the first person, and follows more than two decades of growth and change in Gillian Laub’s extended family, up to the present.

From the jump, we learn the family of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, (who arrived from Europe when my family did, at the turn of the 20th Century,) became extremely wealthy as real estate developers.

 

My paternal grandparents’ gravestones, 2021. Both were born here before WWI. Courtesy of Richard Blaustein

 

Now that I think about it, there’s solid foreshadowing for where we end up later, but I’ll build to that.

Gillian shares an anecdote of being an ICP student in 1999, chatting with colleagues outside the (then) Upper East Side institution, when some garish older ladies walk by, in full-fur coats, as her companion makes a joke at their expense.

Only for Gillian to realize it’s her family, out on the town, going to see art.

That vein of self-awareness, and airing the dirty laundry, stays with us throughout the book.

And I love it.

 

 

 

 

 

Pure coincidence, but I’ve been re-watching “The Sopranos” this week, having only seen it, bit by bit, when it was released in 1999.

 

Photo by Anthony Neste/ Getty Images, courtesy of GQ

 

I probably binged it on HBO a few episodes at time, whenever I’d come back to Taos to visit my parents, (and my wife’s parents,) as I was never able to afford HBO myself.

I grew up in a town filled with New Jersey, suburban mafiosi families, and have therefore always related to the show.

(Plus, Italian food feeds my soul, rather than Jewish deli. Honestly, I’d take pizza and chicken parm over pastrami and smoked fish every single time.)

This book reminds me of the seminal, David Chase saga, as the sense of legacy, privilege, and family values pervades the narrative.

Just as Tony Soprano’s life was determined by having a thug dad, and his kids never had the chance to be “normal,” Gillian Laub is pretty clear that her personal privilege dominates much of her life, despite her artistic tendencies and liberal politics.

(Though the New Yorkers in the book might blanch at the comparison to Jersey.)

 

 

 

 

That immigrant, nouveau-riche, American-dream narrative is cultivated throughout, as Gillian Laub’s clan “made it,” moving to the ritzy, Westchester town that seduced the social-climbing Clintons.

Chappaqua.

 

Hillary in Chappaqua in 1999. Photo by Steve Chernin/AP, courtesy of The Guardian

 

Beyond money, though, we continually read of close relationships.

Gillian feels truly loved by her parents.

She is seen, emotionally supported, and understood for who she is, from what I gather.

However, it’s just that sense of deep, rich love that leads to the conflict in “Family Matters.”

The big reveal, (spoiler alert,) is that Gillian’s parents, and some of her extended family, come out as serious Trumpers in 2016, and it nearly breaks their bonds forever.

That they are so connected makes the political betrayal deeper on both sides, as neither can relate to the other anymore.

Enmity replaces joy.

Anger trumps positivity.

All seems lost.

 

 

 

 

 

Still, proper rupture never happens, and I applaud the artist’s introspection, admitting while she maintained her progressive political leanings, she still accepted her parents’ money to pay for private school for her children.

(As one who’s spent 10 years sharing my personal life with you, my readers, I found the honesty refreshing.)

Of course, I should have mentioned the pictures by now, and they’re great.

Lots of humor, (sometimes at the subjects’ expense,) but also respect, solid compositions, and razor-sharp exposures.

When I saw the photo of the wedding planner, Harriette Rose Katz, I was teleported to that gallery in Santa Monica, 2013, back when Bergamot Station was still going strong, and I was reminded why I liked this work so much the first time I saw it.

 

 

 

 

In the end, Gillian’s family reconciles, after Joe Biden is inaugurated, but as I said before, it’s not like they ever formally broke.

They still showed up for the family functions.

Celebrated the birthdays.

Offered up the backyard for a Mary J Blige photo shoot.

(OK, probably none of us can relate to that last one, but I did wait on her and her then-husband, at Bobby Flay’s restaurant in 2003, and the way MJB’s man made us stay open late, and ordered off the menu, I knew he was a prick. If she had only asked me, I could have saved her a lot of heart-ache.)

This book is one for the collection, and if you live in the Tri-State area, I’d suggest you go see the show at ICP, Downtown, before it closes.

Their museum and school have moved many times, since Gillian was a student on the Upper East Side. (I saw my first-ever photo show there, and then engaged in naughty behavior with my wife in a new, mid-town location several years later.)

Like the photo world in general, ICP changes with the times.

But they stick around, because photography is as relevant now as it’s ever been.

To wrap this up, (so I can go back to packing for my trip,) thank you all for reading, and supporting this column in 2021.

May you and your loved ones have a safe, healthy, and invigorating 2022.

See you in two weeks!

 

To purchase “Family Matters” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Old Friends

 

 

Big day today.

 

 

 

It’s the anniversary of the first time I met my wife.

December 23rd, 1997.

(I’m writing on Thursday, as usual.)

 

 

 

Without exaggeration, that was the most important day of my life.

We were young, only 23, and have been together ever since.

(More than half our lives.)

We met as kids, really, and have grown up together all these years.

Through the easy times, the hardships, and the magic of raising a family, Jessie and I forged a steel bond, and I’m lucky to have a soulmate who’s helped me become a better, stronger person.

 

The two of us, circa 2002. Jessie looks amazing. Me, not so much… courtesy of Keith Karstadt.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday was a big day as well.

Our daughter packed up her desk, leaving her current elementary school for good.

(She’s switching from the Charter school to the public one in our part of town after break.)

Amelie had an awful experience with Zoom school the prior two years in 2nd and 3rd grade. The same teacher, who mailed it in, simultaneously undermined her confidence at every turn.

When a teacher repeatedly implies a child is dumb, (because of undiagnosed dyslexia,) it eats away at her self-esteem, day by day.

I’m glad Amelie is moving to a healthier environment, (she’s amazing,) but it wasn’t just the education.

She’d known most of her classmates since pre-school; navigating the same social environment since before she could speak. These girls knew how to push each others’ buttons; they knew all the weak spots.

(Is that a mixed metaphor?)

 

 

 

 

Sometimes, we need a fresh group of friends, because the bonds we make when we’re young aren’t really based on who we are.

Or at least, they’re not based on who we’ll become.

Every now and again, you do run across people who are still besties with their childhood mates.

Some of my female friends from school remain a tight-knit group, supporting each other through all of life’s twists and turns. (Shout out to Chrissy, Michelle, Brooke, Mandi and Caroline!)

Occasionally, our teen-aged, angst-ridden, poetry-writing phase lines up with our friends’ trajectories, and we walk life’s path together.

It does happen.

 

 

 

 

If you think my musings were random today, you’re wrong.

Sometimes, the rant takes off on at a frozen airstrip in Antarctica, and lands in the sunny, moist jungle outside Cancun.

But not today.

I just finished looking at “Between Girls,” by Karen Marshall, published this year by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, and as you’ll soon see, my intro was on-point.

The book is very well-produced, to give it props, as it interweaves black and white documentary imagery from NYC in the 80’s, with diaristic text, video stills, contemporary imagery, and QR codes, while also switching paper stock several times, when the text rolls around.

Cool cover too.

Design-wise, I’d give this book an A+.

As to the narrative, I found it flawed, or at least, more about style than substance.

 

 

 

 

The story, at first, follows some NYC hipster high school kids, and they bop around the Upper West and East sides.

They describe hanging out downtown.

They talk about boys.

We read bad poetry, (no offense,) but then again, if I ever shared my High School poems with you, you’d laugh longer than the Covid testing lines in NYC, late December 2021.

(Too soon?)

The documentary photos are good, for sure, and after a few images, we can tell Molly from Leslie, but I’m still not sure if there was one Jen, or two?

This is the part of a book where traditionally I’d like to feel a connection develop with the protagonists, as I build empathy and connection as a viewer, but that didn’t really happen.

Soon, (spoiler alert,) we learn that Molly has died, but we don’t find how how or why until the end. (Car crash on vacation in Cape Cod at 17.)

Given the age, and emotional fragility of that life phase, I’d assumed she committed suicide.

 

 

 

 

Later, cool-looking text blocks tell us several of the women have backyard chickens.

The girls have grown up to become mothers.

They go to work.

They live their lives.

 

 

 

I can’t fault the visual structure, nor the quality of the photographs.

They’re good.

But I found myself wanting to care more.

I wanted to be moved.

To have my soul touched.

(In the words of “Succession’s” Cousin Greg, “Boo Souls!”)

 

Courtesy of The Ringer

 

 

 

 

To me, a book like this screams out for vulnerable, honest, first-person text from the jump.

(Instead, the opening prose was intentionally inscrutable.)

I want to hear from the artist, right away, to tell me what I’ll be looking at.

If I know Molly soon dies, as I’m perusing those first few pictures, it’s so much more poignant.

And then I want my heartstrings pulled by the surviving friends, to push it even further.

Hell, I might have cried.

(It’s happened before, in books about loss.)

But it’s still a job well done for the artist and the production team.

I’m just a tough critic.

See you next week!

 

To purchase “Between Girls” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Looking Back

 

 

I just saw a massive hawk.

(Up in a tree.)

 

 

 

They’re around a lot, this time of year, the red-tailed hawks.

The brown, dead grass makes it easy to spot prey, so they sit and wait, before swooping with efficient ferocity.

I’ve noticed, over the years, whenever you get too close, the hawks fly away.

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a threat or not.

Either way, as soon as you reach their discomfort zone, off they go.

(That’s nature for you.)

 

 

 

 

The coyotes are no different.

I’ve seen two this week; their sand-gray coats blending perfectly with the ground color in winter.

(Until the snow comes.)

If you want to appreciate a coyote, and watch the way it moves, you have to stand perfectly still, and if you’re inside, never open the door to get a better look.

They always spook.

Always.

Again, it’s in their nature.

At the merest hint, the faintest whiff of trouble, off they go.

(It’s not for nothing coyotes are such great survivors.)

 

 

 

 

 

This week, in addition to watching hawks and coyotes, I’ve also been following The Beatles massive new documentary, “Get Back,” on Disney+, by the master of lengthy story-telling: Peter Jackson.

(Trying to explain to my kids why “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was such a big deal, in an era of digital-effects-ubiquity, was more difficult than I might have imagined.)

 

Courtesy of IMDb

 

We’re only halfway through Episode 2, but I needn’t bother with spoiler alerts.

We all know how the story ends.

The Beatles break up.

 

 

 

 

 

They go out on top, as their late-stage-music is some of the best ever recorded.

But they also dissolve the group, more-or-less hating each other.

A decade of unhealthy relationship patterns turned the band into a ticking time-bomb, and the only question was when it would go off.

Not if.

There is a phenomenal moment, early in Episode 2, that Sir Paul must have nightmares about, as he correctly predicts in 50 years time, people will shake their heads that The Beatles broke up because Yoko Ono sat on an amp.

(Sidebar: Peter Jackson’s opening disclaimer scrupulously states each person is rendered accurately. If that’s true, Yoko was an inscrutably odd bird.)

Immediately after his prediction, though, the film cuts to a scene in which Paul and John are secretly recorded at lunch. The dynamic duo basically admits they ganged up on poor George all these years, denying him power or agency.

The agree (again, not knowing they were being taped,) that he had a right to be pissed at them.

It gives context to the narrative that George is ready to ride off into the sunset, with his Hare Krishna buddies, who at least show him some GODDAMN RESPECT!

 

 

What The Beatles prove, not-quite-exactly 50 years ago, is that unresolved emotional issues in relationships can doom even the most productive, successful, lucrative “family” the world has ever seen.

If you can’t sort out your business, it’s going to blow.

That’s as much a law of nature as spooking hawks.

 

 

 

 

 

When a person has tried every way to make things better, and failed, eventually that person will tap out.

Or go down in flames.

And this week’s book, “Tulsa, OK,” sent in by Victor d’Allant, a French photographer based in San Francisco, makes that point visually explicit.

Page after page.

This one came in Summer 2021, but I bumped it up the pile, as it represents two anniversaries at once.

“Tulsa, OK” was published this year, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the 50th anniversary of Larry Clark’s seminal book “Tulsa.”

Speaking as an artist, a critic, and a human, the cold-open “Watchmen” recreation of the Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the most disturbing, riveting things I’ve ever seen filmed.

(Up there with the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan.”)

Larry Clark’s “Kids” would also make the short list, as watching poor, young Chloë Sevigny get HIV from her punk boyfriend almost made me vomit. (Should I have said spoiler alert? The movie is 26 years old.)

 

Courtesy of IMDb

 

And Clark’s “Tulsa” was one of the first photo books I was shown in class, at UNM in the late 90’s, and until that moment, I hadn’t realized anyone could make art that way.

 

 

 

 

As the well-written, extensive opening essay in “Tulsa, OK” explains, Larry Clark lived within the world he was documenting, in Oklahoma, and Victor d’Allant did not.

The former was a junkie, making photos of his own world, the latter is a “Visual Anthropologist” with a single-mother-drug-dealer as a fixer, introducing him around the sad, defeated city.

Said fixer, Julie Winter, actually wrote the intricate introduction, in which tells us she knew Victor before she ended up Tulsa, and invited him to come check it out.

Julie refers to this book, (as well as Clark’s,) as “grotesque, terrifyingly awful, full of despair.”

That about sums it up.

The text briefly mentions d’Allant photographs his subjects naked, but I don’t think it really landed in my consciousness when I read it. (At least, not enough to prepare me for what was coming.)

The quote is here:

“Many subjects in both Larry’s and Victor’s books are pretty much naked, as if they both felt their sitters were trying to display some human softness in this awful universe. But in truth, it’s a clever way for the artists to show what would be hidden beneath clothes: cuttings made in desperation, tattoos ordered on some drunken whim, flesh damaged by too many pregnancies…In Tulsa, Victor told me one night as I was trying to fall asleep, ‘nudity shows the fragility of life and the difficulty of survival.'”

 

 

 

 

 

I say this now, because it would be impossible not to discuss the elephant in the room, with respect to this book.

Given how much I’ve written about the male gaze in the last year, and the question of when, if ever, men photographing nude women is OK, (because of power dynamics,) I just couldn’t resolve the tension.

So many of the portraits of down-and-out, attractive young women, topless, or totally nude, struck me as exploitative to the point of obscenity.

Many viewers would likely dismiss this book immediately, and on the final page, even the text editor is credited as anonymous, because he doesn’t want his name associated with the book.

OK.

I said it.

But when a book is admittedly meant to be “terrifyingly awful,” you need to expect some fucked up shit within.

(And I will not be sharing any of the explicit photos below.)

 

 

 

 

 

The book is dynamic in its design, featuring messaging-app-style text bubbles, calendars, and really excellent image placement, with respect to the visual path.

There is a fire-engine red throughout, and as Victor is from Paris, I need to acknowledge in every episode of “House Hunters International” I’ve ever seen filmed there, that color has always been included in home interiors.

Always.

To the point that Jessie and I joke about it.

They’re filming in Paris?

We’re gonna see that red…

I guess it represents passion, or desire.

Maybe both.

But the quality of the production here, and the compelling, first-person stories of violence, addiction, depravity and love, within the context of a culture of poverty, kept me glued to my seat.

Page after page, my jaw would drop.

I never got comfortable with why the women were depicted topless, when confronting the camera directly, but there are some images, done in a documentary style, where the action is not directed by the photographer… and yes, the nudity makes sense there.

Trigger warning: one story describes a woman being fisted while she’s having her period, and I really hoped we wouldn’t see that illustrated, but we do, in full color.

Damn!

For a book trying to reflect on the vision of Larry Clark’s “Tulsa,” and the worst racially-motivated massacre in American history, I get that controversy serves a purpose.

(Which is why I’m reviewing this book, and why I don’t think it should be banned, panned, or denied its existence.)

It’s a seriously fucked up book about a seriously fucked up subject.

I’m guessing Victor d’Allant is an edgy dude, and though it might be cliché, the French supposedly consider Americans to be prudish.

The structure of book implies that all the subjects chose to be photographed, but if you’re high as a kite, can you actually offer consent?

(He even does a ride-along with the cops, which pisses off his new-underworld-buddies.)

So there we are for today.

Most of you will probably hate this book.

Some of you will love it.

As my old basketball coach used to say, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

 

To purchase “Tulsa OK” click here

 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Love and Wisdom

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

(You know I like to write on Thursdays.)

 

 

 

It was Thanksgiving, 2011, when I stumbled upon my signature style, so I’m always thankful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you each week.

Thank you for the motivation, the inspiration, and all the kind words you’ve sent my way, as an audience, over the last decade.

I appreciate it!

The truth is, I have much to be thankful for.

I’m healthy, and have an amazing family, when it comes to my wife, children, and the dog.

(Who knew pandemic pets would be such a thing?)

 

Haley in the yard after dusk

 

My kids are off-the-charts fantastic; beautiful inside and out.

Being their teacher, their life-guide, their friend, their pandemic companion… it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life.

And I’m thrilled to report that after 20 months, my wife’s recovery from clinical depression is going better than ever.

We still have the occasional setback, and have learned it’s a disease like cancer, where you hope for a permanent remission, rather than all-out-victory, but really, Jessie is happier and healthier than she’s been in years.

Surmounting this challenge together has made us stronger as individuals, and as a family unit.

 

Thanksgiving 2021 family selfie, by Amelie Blaustein

 

I love my job, get plenty of recognition for what I do, and have created a network of super-talented, kind, and loving friends around the world, while also getting to travel.

As I said, I have much gratitude, and try to share it on the regular.

With respect to my family of origin, things are rarely rosy, and we had yet another blow-up last night, as our respective value structures do not align.

But no one’s road through human existence is totally smooth, and truly, we grow through challenges.

(Of course, personal evolution requires self-awareness, and the discipline to admit one’s failings in order to self-improve, which many can not do.)

Thankfully, the sky is deep blue at the moment, the sun is pouring in through the window opposite my writing-chair, and my belly is full with leftovers from Tuesday’s dinner party.

Hope you’re having a good morning so far as well!

 

 

 

 

That said, working on a holiday is challenging.

This time of year, the wheels come off the bus, as we all function on an annual cycle, and our energy winds down with the calendar.

So let’s get the show on the road, shall we?

I reached into the book stack this morning, searching for the final 2020 submission. (Need to keep my promises.)

I swear, I assure you, I had no idea it was thus, but the ultimate book from last year is actually an exhibition catalogue sent along by my friend, Richard Bram, called “Richard Bram: Short Stories,” which was published by the Mannheimer Kunstverein, in Germany. (In conjunction with a retrospective he had in Mannheim.)

 

 

 

 

Richard Bram is the best friend I’ve made via social media.

After corresponding on Twitter, we met up at the Photo Plus Expo, in NYC in the Fall of 2010, on the very first assignment Rob gave me for this website.

 

JB in the Fall of 2010, courtesy of Susan Worsham

 

He’s a kind, thoughtful, considerate, smart, literate, intellectual, creative soul, and has turned up as a character in this column many times now.

Once, we shared beers and katsu in a tiny Japanese restaurant in the East Village, after listening to a lecture from a brilliant Belgian video artist. In 2019, we toured Photo London on the day I ran into my NYT nemeses, and on another occasion, we walked through a terrific exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, alongside a Slovenian photographer who’s based in Beijing.

 

 

 

 

In particular, because my family of origin believes in unconditional love, (code for not having to be nice to, or interested in someone, yet still they’re supposed to “love” you,) having friends who share my ethical and moral framework is a big part of how I’ve become a sane, happy person over the years.

So it was quite interesting to see this book, which chronicles my friend’s vision, as he has grown as a human, and a photographer, over time.

Full disclosure: when I opened it up, it contained a note stating the book was a gift, and not intended for review. (Though I told Richard when he sent it, every book that arrives is considered for review.)

I don’t love this one, and find it inferior to his Peanut Press book, “Richard Bram New York,” which I reviewed positively several years go.

 

 

But it is perfect to discuss today, for several reasons.

 

 

 

 

To begin with, Richard, in his many decades as a street photographer, has been fortunate to roam much of known Earth.

As a witness to humanity, he’s done a great job.

Off the top of my head, we see images from New York, Kentucky, (where he also once lived,) England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, China, Cuba, Cambodia, and Mexico.

(Likely I’m missing a few locales.)

The book is structured with a schism between the early black and white work, and his later shift to color. (Which is the work I know.)

In the B&W section, there is an homage to Elliott Erwitt, one to Cartier-Bresson, and a captured moment of Mohammed Ali that will make you stop and take notice.

The images feel more generic, or derivative, but are still inspirational, because you sense the humanism in the man. And the Occupy Wall Street photographs, depicting a moment lost to time, are also prescient, as the ideas motivating that movement are more relevant now than ever.

{Editors note: when photographing the book just now, I realized perhaps I was a tad harsh about the B&W images. Some really are charming.}

 

 

 

 

When the shift to color comes, I released a breath, because while the essay tells us it was a challenge for him, I’d argue his vision is stronger working this way.

The compositions are more dynamic and strange, (edge to edge,) and some of the colors really pop.

Hot pink on the streets?

Why not.

The color pictures also have a wit that feels particular to the man.

Watching Richard’s work get “better” as he ages also gives a viewer reason to hope.

In the ideal world, with age comes wisdom, and perspective.

With experience comes deeper knowledge.

As I wrote in my 2019 London series, Richard lives in Limehouse, which is a river-front neighborhood in East London.

He has a daily relationship with the Thames, in romantic ways most of us can only dream of.

Watching the light change on the water, and the tides rise and fall.

 

Richard by the Thames, 2019

 

The book ends with his moody photographs of the river, and having seen those views with my own eyes, it made me nostalgic for London, a city in which I feel so comfortable.

Sitting here, on American Thanksgiving, licking the wounds from some pointless family drama, the last few images put me in a positive frame of mind.

If you have proper love in your life, it doesn’t matter who delivers it.

Real love is based upon respect, kindness, compassion, empathy, joy, and genuine interest.

As I’ve grown over the last 11 years writing for you, I’ve tried to share the accrued wisdom.

I’ve tried to cultivate my curiosity, chat with as many people as possible, see new things, eat great food, and live in a way that would entertain and educate you, along for the ride.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that writing this column has made my life so much better.

Thank you!

And I hope you stay safe and healthy this week.

See you next Friday!

 

To purchase “Richard Bram: Short Stories” click here

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Growing Older

 

 

“Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything…”

 

“…it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive…”

 

From “Badlands,” by Bruce Springsteen, written in my hometown of Holmdel, NJ, 1978.

 

 

 

I’m re-watching “Marco Polo” on Netflix.

 

 

Such a brilliant show.

It was the first thing I binged, when we finally got high-speed internet in 2015, thanks to Barack Obama.

He’d given a massive chunk of money to the Kit Carson Electric Co-Operative, here in Taos, to bring fiber-optic cable to every rural home in the County.

The funds were allotted in 2009, as The Great Recession began crushing so many Americans, yet it took 6 years for them to wire up our home.

And we were lucky, as the money ran out soon after, and some people got screwed.

Now it’s 2021, and I wouldn’t have been able to work through the pandemic, without Obama’s largesse.

(Thanks, Barack! We miss you!)

How could I have Zoomed without the good WiFi?

I really don’t know, but hopefully the new Biden infrastructure package will help those left behind without sufficient bandwidth.

(Hopefully.)

 

 

 

 

That said, “Marco Polo” is fascinating.

I was just telling Jessie, it’s the kind of entertainment that helped launch Netflix, paving the way for all the streaming services to follow.

It’s also the kind of content no one is making anymore, as it was far-too-expensive.

(I read Netflix lost $200 million on the production.)

The amount of money spent, to recreate 13th Century China and Mongolia, must been seen to be believed.

The costumes, thousands of extras, the palaces, the horses, the piles of corpses; no expense was spared.

To achieve that degree of verisimilitude alone was a feat, but the acting is also terrific, the story-telling taut, (well, they do drag things out a bit,) and the kung-fu is stupendous. (Shout outs to Tom Wu and Michelle Yeoh.)

Doing a bit of research, I learned the show runner, John Fusco, also created “Young Guns,” “Thunderheart,” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” so the Dude is obviously a unique talent.

 

John Fusco, proud of being 62

 

But massive productions like this rest on the collective skills of hundreds of people, not just one, and that kind of lucre is now only dropped on Marvel movies. (That Benedict Wong, who was genius as the lead, Emperor Kublai Khan, is now a side-player in the MCU is definitely ironic.)

I could shout out so many of the actors, but Olivia Cheng deserves particular mention.

{Caveat: I’d be remiss not to state this was a Weinstein Company co-production, and the heavy nudity included would not be acceptable these days, if such shows were still being made. Which, again, they’re not.}

Olivia Cheng played a concubine/assassin, (a combo she reprised in the underrated “Warrior,”) and she is such a badass.

 

Olivia Cheng in “Warrior,” Courtesy of Elle

 

There is a scene, relatively early in the first season, where to show off her skills, (to the audience,) she fights, and kills, three soldiers intent on raping her.

She does this, it should be said, entirely naked.

It did take me out of the narrative, just a touch, because I empathized with the actress, wondering how vulnerable she must have felt, to be in front of the camera like that, without even the meagerest of fabric defenses?

The scene reminded me of the unbelievably cool fight in the steam room, in “Eastern Promises,” in which a nude Viggo Mortensen takes out a Russian Mafia thug.

 

Courtesy of Flickering Myth

 

But that scrap is brutal, lacking grace, while Olivia Cheng’s triple-murder is filmed as if she barely breaks a sweat.

Girl power, indeed.

 

 

 

 

I mention all of this for a reason, of course.

This morning, I looked at one of two remaining 2020 submissions, a slim, self-produced book of poems and images, by Roxanne Darling, called “I AM: For the Love of Nature.”

It arrived in December 2020, and features a series of self-portraits, in which the artist took her clothes off, in nature, in a feat of self-empowerment, declaring the aging female form should not be ignored.

(She was photographed from ages 63-66.)

As an honest critic, I’ll say these images are not the type I’d typically review, just as art.

There is an audience for every style of photography, for sure, and this is not exactly to my taste.

But I’ve written countless times, books are experiential, not just a collection of successive images.

Pictures do not need to be brilliant for a book to have power, and one like this, in particular, in which an artist is taking control of her own narrative, often gets extra-juice from that context.

 

 

 

 

The opening essay states Ms. Darling has a history of trauma and abuse, and we learn at the end that her first nude-in-nature photo came just after she buried her mother, who died at 92. (We’re also told her partner, Shane Robinson, took the photos, so it’s not a tripod-and-timer photographic system.)

A fit of instinct pushed Roxanne to disrobe, and then she continued to do so, in various landscapes around the American West.

When I watch something like “Marco Polo,” I occasionally feel the naked women are being exploited by the camera.

Yet as we saw recently with Jason Langer’s collaboration with his muse, Erika, that is not always the case.

Certainly, with Roxanne’s book, the message is super-clear: she feels strong, beautiful, at peace, and engaged with the natural world around her.

(And she believes the aging female form should be celebrated, and deemed attractive, not hidden away in shame.)

As the father of a young girl, I’m always aware of the manner in which the media, and her peers, can impact my daughter’s self-esteem.

My wife and I discuss, with some regularity, how to prevent Amelie from getting “body issues.”

So I’ll always have a soft spot for books like this.

For offerings that scream, “Fuck you if you try to marginalize me, or insist women of a certain age no longer matter.”

This one is cool, for sure, and I’m so glad Roxanne sent it my way.

See you next week!

 

To Purchase “I AM: For the Love of Nature” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a significant backlog of books for review. 

This Week in Photography: Considering Nudes

 

Sorry, I was wrong.

 

I don’t have one submission left from 2020, but three. (Well, two after today.)

 

 

 

As you know, I review exhibitions, write about photography festivals, and share travel stories throughout the year, so I’m not able to get through my book stack as quickly as I’d like.

We’re fortunate that artists keep sending books in, for my perusal, but it means occasionally a book will linger here, in the stack, and for that I apologize.

Therefore, while I mix in tales from Chicago, (the trip was awesome,) I’ve decided the next books I review will be the ones that came in last year.

(It’s time.)

Today, though, we’ll be looking at a submission I purposely sat on, as I wasn’t ready to write about it until now.

As I got home after Midnight Monday morning, and have been going non-stop ever since, I hope you’ll allow me a more direct, less metaphorical transition.

There’s an English expression I like, where they just say two words: “Needs must.”

So there we are.

 

 

 

I reviewed a book by Portland artist Jason Langer years ago, and we remained in touch. I was enamored of his “timeless” style, as he often makes black and white photographs that appear conjured from the 19th Century.

It’s a “look,” I suppose, and of course removing 21st Century temporal artifacts helps as well.

Sometimes, even when the details are current, (or end of the 20th Century,) they still feel ripped from the space-time continuum, as I vividly recall an image he took of a cowboy at a payphone in a bar in San Francisco, and it stuck in my memory banks.

 

 

Payphones?

Kids today don’t even know what the hell those are. (Just ask Eric Kunsman, he’ll tell you.)

But back in the summer of 2020, I wrote an article discussing male photographers, and the power dynamic imbalance when they photograph naked women, after stumbling upon an almost soft-core-porn Instagram account.

(I’m rarely naive, but really, I had no idea those things are out there.)

Whether it was via email or Facebook, I can’t recall, but Jason, who’s photographed nude men and women for years, reached out, saying he thought it was a far-more-nuanced conversation, and could he send me something that might open my mind a bit?

I said “Sure,” because that’s how I roll.

And here we are.

 

 

 

“Erika,” published by Reflecting Pool Editions, is not a traditional book, by any means, which Jason acknowledged in the letter that was taped to the brown-paper-wrapped offering.

Frankly, it looks like a portfolio of loose images, brought together in a fancy box, and if that’s how you see it, I won’t argue.

But experientially, it’s a book, as the narrative unspools over time, (15 years,) via multiple photo shoots the artist undertook with Erika, his muse.

To begin with, there are only a few “nude” images in the book, but I held off looking at it until today, as I was afraid it would be more graphic than that, and we’ve avoided publishing nudity for many years now. (Rob gave me permission to include a couple of the photos, but really, it’s a small percentage of what’s in the box.)

Erika, who is obviously beautiful, is an actor, writer, director, producer and photographer, who made a career working in experimental theater, both in the US and around the world.

Each photograph includes a piece of her writing, printed on the back, and we learn from Jason’s ending essay the text comes from a series of interviews they conducted in 2019.

These are current reminisces, looking back at New York in the 90’s, her past relationships, and what it meant to become a mother.

Certainly, some of the images fit with Jason’s style of stepping out of time, but to me, that’s not really what this book is about.

Rather, it makes me think of agency, and collaboration, as when I wrote about men exploiting women last year, Jason, and one photographer with whom I traded off-the-record IG DM’s, both said many models love the work, and feel empowered by doing so.

(Foreshadowing here, but I saw some nude art in Chicago that gave me the creeps, as it so clearly fit with my sense of men commodifying women.)

But this doesn’t.

Erika is a performer, and in some images, you can feel her embodying a character.

She knows how to present herself, and there was no part of my viewing experience in which I felt she was an object.

As you read her thoughts, and the stories of working in Europe, having love affairs, living the artist’s life in rapidly gentrifying New York, it’s clear Erika is a powerful, intelligent, talented, confident woman.

She and Jason grew together, over time, which he confirms in his ending statement.

Working with Erika opened up his feminine side, and helped him push his photographic career forward.

 

 

 

At some point, over the last five years or so, commenting on someone’s appearance became verboten.

It’s not PC to call a women beautiful, outside of a very strict set of parameters, but certainly not in any professional setting.

I get it, and have no beef with that at all.

But you can’t look at a book like this without understanding Erika is lovely, she knows it, and as a performer, her face, mind and body are her tools of expression.

I’m still not sure I understand why it’s necessary for her to take her clothes off, but perhaps the prevalence of pornographic imagery in the 21C has skewed our cultural sense that the human form can ever be anything but sexualized.

(Certainly here in America.)

After looking at this book, though, I accept that if two collaborating artists, exploring the world, choose to make art this way, it’s not right for me to dismiss it out-of-hand.

Especially when it results in something I found captivating, enriching, and thought-provoking.

If you choose to disagree, that’s totally cool.

It’s still a free country, after all.

(At least until 2024, when all hell breaks loose.)

 

 

To learn more about Erika, please click here

Please be advised, two of the images below feature nudity. 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by artists of color, and female photographers, so we may maintain a balanced program. And please be advised, we currently have a backlog of books for review.